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De-pooling and record large negative PPDs continue into July

John Newton
Despite milk prices in June and July recovering strongly from the early COVID-19 lows, many dairy farmers have yet to reap those higher prices and public and private risk management tools are ineffective in covering these losses as PPDs are generally considered acceptable basis risk.

On the back of COVID-19-related price shocks and a record-high cheese price, the July Class I milk price was nearly $2.60 per hundredweight, or 13%, below where it would have been prior to a 2018 farm bill change, spurring the withholding of 8-plus billion pounds of milk over two months, a 32% reduction from the prior year, from Federal Milk Marketing Order revenue sharing pools across the county.

As a result, FMMO revenue sharing pools were short $527 million in June and $667 million in July, for a combined $1.2 billion. This shortfall caused record-low FMMO minimum milk prices across the U.S. that showed up in dairy farmers’ milk checks as negative producer price differentials The PPD in California, for example, amounted to nearly -$10 per hundredweight for July. Put simply, most dairy farmers are not happy. To make matters worse, public and private risk management tools were unable to protect against these record-large milk check deductions.

De-Pooling and Negative PPDs

During June and July, the difference between the classified value of milk and the component value of milk across the seven component pricing orders was $1.2 billion. The difference was the largest for California at $327 million, followed by the Northeast at $228 million. 

During June and July, the difference between the classified value of milk and the component value of milk across the seven component pricing orders was $1.2 billion.

In all FMMOs the July PPD was lower than the June PPD. California had the lowest negative PPD at nearly -$10 per hundredweight, followed by the Southwest at -$8.84 per hundredweight. Due to the volume of Class III milk remaining in the Upper Midwest FMMO, their PPDs were the highest in June and July at -$3.81 and -$4.86 per hundredweight, respectively. Figure 2 highlights the June and July PPDs by FMMO.

Milk processors and dairy cooperatives were very well aware of the price volatility, the high likelihood of negative PPDs and the impact on June and July FMMO pool returns. As a result, 4.7 billion pounds of milk was de-pooled in June and 3.3 billion pounds of milk was de-pooled in July – a combined 8.1 billion pounds of de-pooled milk over two months. Most, if not all, of the de-pooled milk was Class III milk used to produce cheese.

The pooled milk volume rose from 8.2 billion pounds in June to 8.8 billion pounds of milk in July. This is important because the ability to re-pool milk after de-pooling is not immediate, so milk will likely come back into the pool in upcoming months as the PPD is expected to turn positive as early as August. 

What’s the Fix?

Despite milk prices in June and July recovering strongly from the early COVID-19 lows, many dairy farmers have yet to reap those higher prices and public and private risk management tools are ineffective in covering these losses as PPDs are generally considered acceptable basis risk. Dairy farmers and congressional leaders are now asking what can be done to fix the current situation.

There are several concepts being considered. Some have argued that the advanced nature of fluid milk pricing is no longer needed given the hedging abilities provided by the 2018 farm bill. Without advanced pricing, and without the higher-of, the base Class I mover in July would have been announced in early August (instead of late June) at $19.87 per hundredweight, more than $3.30 per hundredweight higher than the current price, reducing the magnitude of the negative PPD and partially eliminating the incentive to de-pool. What about reverting back to the higher-of and keeping the current advanced pricing rules? Well, that gets you to a base Class I milk price of $19.13 per hundredweight, $2.58 higher than the current pricing methodology.

How about eliminating the advanced pricing component and going back to the higher-of, i.e., announcing the July Class I price in early August based on the higher-of Class III and IV prices? That results in the highest price for farmers because the pricing is timelier and based on the highest-valued manufacturing class of milk. Had these rules been in place, the July base Class I mover would have been $24.54 per hundredweight, nearly $8 per hundredweight above the current pricing methodology. In Florida, where the Class I differential is as high as $6 per hundredweight, the Class I price would be $30.54 per hundredweight. The only downside to eliminating the advanced pricing component and going back to the higher-of is that it brings back the challenge of hedging Class I milk for farmers, beverage milk processors and end-users such as schools and restaurants. 

Alternative pricing proposals and the impact on the base July Class I mover.

What About De-Pooling?

FMMOs have long been a mechanism to redistribute dollars from the higher-valued Class I market to producers supplying the manufacturing plants such as cheese or butter facilities, i.e., cross-product subsidization. When the manufacturing milk value is greater than the Class I value, there is less to redistribute from the Class I market, and in some cases the pool is deficient, resulting in a negative PPD. When that is the case, manufacturing plants and cooperatives may elect to de-pool milk in the appropriate classes to reduce their pool liabilities.

There are several possible solutions to de-pooling. First, the ability to re-pool milk after de-pooling could be significantly constrained such that the financial incentive associated with de-pooling is reduced. This may not eliminate negative PPDs, however. Another proposal involves eliminating the advanced pricing component and bringing back higher-of pricing to ensure Class I prices are always above the manufacturing value. Nothing short of the latter would guarantee an elimination of negative PPDs and thus the incentive to de-pool. More forward-looking concepts could include less regulation in the form of a competitive-pay-pricing environment without minimum price enforcement or the pooling of Class I differentials only.

Before rushing to address the most recent conditions, dairy industry stakeholders should support giving more dairy farmers a voice and a vote during FMMO reform by amending the decades-old Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act to allow for modified bloc voting. Once achieved, the industry can gather as a whole and find a mutually agreeable path forward that rewards the entire dairy supply chain, as well as consumers.

John Newton

John Newton is the chief economist for American Farm Bureau Federation