It is early September and there’s a chill in the air but the sun is shining. It seems that summer has come late in the Netherlands.
Conversations turn to the weather in our manager meetings as well. Together with Geert, Wasserdicht’s investment strategist, I am listening to a presentation from a commodities fund based in New York. Mike and Rob are talking about US rainfall patterns, with a particular focus on the mid-west states.
‘North America is experiencing the worst drought since the 1950s,’ says Mike. ‘Fields have been decimated and farmers’ harvests are right down. Russian wheat production will also drop 27% year-on-year according to some analysts, and Australia’s could be down by a fifth,’ he says ominously. ‘The US estimates that corn and soybean yields will be down 26% and 18%.’
After a few slides with pictures of arid fields and parched soil, Rob takes over and shows us some more optimistic charts, for investors at least, with prices going up. ‘Grain prices jumped 45% over just two months to the end of August,’ he tells us. Naturally we are expected to pay a hedge fund fee for the benefit of all this insight.
Ulrike and Karl are from a fund management company in Frankfurt. They have a slightly different story. ‘Over the next 30 years, food production will need to grow 70% and the private sector will be needed to build the infrastructure.’
‘We are looking to institutions like you to invest the $20bn (€15.3bn) needed to feed the world sustainably.’ In a UCITS-compliant fund with an institutional share class, naturally. By investing in food infrastructure, Karl and Ulrike point out, their approach avoids commodity futures, which have attracted controversy, whether they push up food prices or not.
After the meeting we discuss the presentation in my office. Geert thinks we should make a strategic allocation to a number of related investment themes, which he calls ‘World 2050’.
Also on Geert’s list are emerging market infrastructure, timber, biotech and investments based on climate change, some of which we are co-operating with our friends Rolf and Katrine at PensionsKøbenhaven about.
Later that week, Ronald, the chairman of trustees comes in to see me. ‘What are we doing about this?’ he says, pointing to a news magazine with a picture of melting Arctic ice. We have a discussion about environmental responsibility, ethics and the role of institutional investors. It’s always good to talk to Ronald about the long-term picture. He has it firmly in his view and he likes Geert’s World 2050 theme.
‘It’s all very well reminding me that we Dutch invented windmills,’ I tell Ronald. ‘But the regulator is getting tougher and we may have to deal with all this European legislation soon.’
‘Remember our liabilities stretch on well into the latter part of this century,’ Ronald replies. ‘And long after the regulators have stopped drawing their own pension.’
Pieter Mullen is investment director at Wasserdicht Pension Funds