Ag Lending in 2017

By: Bob Viering, Senior Consultant

In our loan review practice, we have an opportunity to work with ag banks throughout the Midwest. In general, our findings are similar to what you may have read from many ag economists. Working capital is dwindling quickly, and the debt to asset ratio is increasing as is short-term debt. Many banks have been refinancing intermediate- and long-term assets to fix working capital declines and carryover debt. Some borrowers have sold land to reduce debt. We have seen many instances where borrowers have been able to reduce input costs and, most importantly, cash rents to bring them back to the point where they are either producing positive debt service coverage or are coming much closer to positive debt service coverage than they were in 2014. But overall, balance sheets are weakening and repayment is a continuing challenge. Credits that were barely a pass credit in better times have, in many cases, dropped to Special Mention or Substandard. Solid pass credits from a couple of years ago are now one weak year from a criticized level.

For many bankers, having struggling ag borrowers is a relatively new experience. I have more recently been through the experience in working with struggling ag borrowers while working at a western bank that had many cattle ranches that were severely impacted by low cattle prices and drought conditions. Many of the lessons learned there are just as applicable to the situation many of us face here in the Midwest.

As you head into renewal season, here are a few items to consider:

1. Complete information is critical. There is an old Russian proverb, “Trust but verify.” This is good to keep in mind when analyzing your borrower. As things get tougher, there is a temptation by some borrowers to not include every liability or to see some liabilities as something not worth mentioning. When short-term borrowing gets tougher, some borrowers will turn to using the local co-op for some inputs, borrowing from family and friends, or using online lenders (FinTech has hit agriculture too) or credit cards. At renewal time at our bank, we would send out a renewal package that had not only financial statement requests but a complete debt schedule form and inquiry about other loans or bills from any source, including family. We ran a new credit bureau report and compared it to prior ones to see if any new credit card or other type of debt was taken out since the last renewal and looked for any significant increases in balances, especially on credit cards. We completed a new UCC search for the same reason. In the end, we wanted to be sure that all debts were accounted for and had a source of repayment.

2. Restructure only if it helps. Often we see banks terming out any carryover debt or being quick to term out short-term debt to improve working capital. Before you restructure debt, make sure the underlying problem is fixed. Carryover debt usually occurs because the farmer didn’t make enough from crop/livestock sales to pay all term debt, operating lines, and living expenses. Given that revenue isn’t likely to grow in the next few years, improving cash flow is about expense control. Has the operation cut input costs, cash rents (this is the big one), and living costs to a level they can produce enough profits to cover their debt payments and family living? If so, then they are a perfect candidate for a restructure. If those tough choices have not been made and the operation won’t operate profitably, then you are likely to find yourself with even more carryover, more debt, and far fewer options not far down the road.

3. Income taxes may become an issue. Section 179 deductions were very helpful to reduce/eliminate income taxes in the past. But with far fewer pieces of equipment being purchased, those deductions have decreased significantly. Prepaying expenses and holding over grain sales can put off taxes for a while but, at some point, the timing can get tougher and some operations will now show taxable income when their accrual earnings may be negative. Those tax payments are often not planned for and can create a significant cash outflow at exactly the wrong time. It’s important that you encourage your borrowers to work with their tax professionals to plan as far ahead as possible to minimize any tax consequences.

4. Be empathetic and be realistic. Many of your borrowers were on top of the world a few short years ago. Everything they did went well and equipment dealers (and friendly bankers) made expansion with few tax consequences a reality. With today’s reality of weak (if any) earnings and less ability to add debt, it has become a very stressful time for many farmers and their families. It’s a lot tougher to be a banker too. Good bankers help their customers succeed. It’s not always easy and it’s often stressful, but letting customers operate unprofitably and not trying to help them make tough decisions usually only makes the problem get worse. It’s so important to be empathetic with your borrowers and to have a thick skin when they get mad. They may seem like they’re mad at you when they are really frustrated about their current situation. However difficult the conversation may seem today, it’s a far easier conversation than to have to tell someone that they have to quit farming and start over.

Ag lending is a key part of many banks’ loan portfolios and is important to their local market. Even in these tough times, it’s critical to work with your customers and do all you can to help them succeed. At Young & Associates, Inc., we work with many banks with ag portfolios. If we can help you with your loan review, policy reviews, process/underwriting reviews, and improvement plans, give us a call at 1.800.525.9775 or send an email to bviering@younginc.com.