China’s hog farmers struggle as pork prices swing and throw off debt-fueled

A breeder feeds piglets at a pig farm on May 13, 2020, in Bijie, Guizhou Province of China.

Visual China Group | Getty Images

BEIJING — Massive swings in pork prices in the last two years are roiling China’s hog farm industry.

To capitalize on a doubling in prices in 2019, the five largest pork producers sought to expand quickly and increased their gross debt by nearly threefold over 2.5 years, S&P Global Ratings said in a report Wednesday.

But pork prices have tumbled just as quickly as they rose, pressuring the now-indebted producers. The consumer price index released Thursday showed prices for the Chinese meat staple fell 44.9% in August from a year ago.

An outbreak of African swine fever beginning in 2018 swiftly decimated China’s hog production by about 40%, according to Flora Chang, associate director at S&P Global Ratings, and an author of the report.

“The high price lured large pork producers to produce more. … They borrowed aggressively to fund expansion,” she said, noting that due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, financing was easily available.

Entrepreneurs and companies also rushed to take advantage of government subsidies. Zhejiang province promised 1500 yuan or $231 for every breeding sow.

Three years later, that’s produced a glut of supply. Pork prices have plunged to around 20 yuan per kilogram ($1.40 per pound), near the same level of early 2019, according to wholesale price data from the agriculture ministry. At their peak in late 2019 and early 2020, pork prices were near 50 yuan per kilogram or higher, the data showed.

Planning challenges

The unprecedented price swings have complicated hog producers’ efforts to finance potential growth.

With limited “ability to plan according to price projections,” the S&P report noted how companies were suddenly bearing extremely high levels of debt. The analysts said that in the 12 months through June 30, hog producer Wens Foodstuff saw its debt-to-earnings (before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) ratio jump to more than ninefold, up from 1.9 times in 2020.

However, the report noted that Muyuan was less affected by African swine fever and its debt leverage rose only slightly, to 1.3 times from 1, in the 12 months through the end of June.

Government efforts to stabilize prices

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