COVID-19 and the food supply chain: Impacts on stock price returns and financial performance

This blog is  part of the Economic History Society’s blog series: ‘The Long View on Epidemics, Disease and Public Health: Research from Economic History’.

By Julia Höhler (Wageningen University)

As growing evidence about COVID-19 and its effects on the human body and transmission mechanisms emerges, economists are now making progress in understanding the impact of the global pandemic on the food supply chain. While it is apparent that many companies were affected, the nature and magnitude of the effects continue to require investigation.  A special issue of the Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics on ‘COVID-19 and the Canadian agriculture and food sectors’, was among the first publications to examine the  possible effects of COVID-19 on food-supply.  In our ongoing work we take the next step and ask the question: How can we quantify the effects of COVID-19 on companies in the food supply chain?

Figure 1. Stylized image of supermarket shopping Source: Oleg Magni, Pexels

Stock prices as a proxy for the impact of COVID-19

One way to quantify the initial effects of COVID-19 on companies in the food supply chain is to analyse stock prices and their reaction over time. The theory of efficient markets states that stock prices reflect investors’ expectations regarding future dividends. If stock prices fluctuate strongly, this is a sign of lower expected returns and higher risks. Volatile stock markets can increase businesses’ financing costs and, in the worst case, threaten their liquidity. At the macroeconomic level, stock prices can also be useful to indicate the likelihood of a future recession. For our analysis of stock price reactions, we have combined data from different countries and regions. In total, stock prices for 71 large stock-listed companies from the US, Japan and European were collected. The companies’ activities in our sample cover the entire supply chain from farm equipment and supplies, agriculture, trade, food-processing, distribution, and retailing.

Impact on stock price returns comparable to the 2008 financial crisis

 We began by  calculating the logarithmic daily returns for the companies’ stocks and their average. Second, we compared these average returns with the performance of the S&P 500.  Figure 2, below,  shows the development of average daily returns from 2005 to 2020. Companies in the S&P 500 (top) achieved higher returns on average, but also exhibited higher fluctuations than the average of the companies we examined (bottom). Stock price returns fluctuated particularly strongly during the 2008 financial crisis. The fluctuations since the first notification of COVID-19 to the WHO in early January to the end of April 2020 (red area) are comparable in their magnitude. The negative fluctuations in this period are somewhat larger than in 2008. Based on the comparison of both charts, it can be assumed that stock price returns of large companies in the food supply chain were on average less affected by the two crises. Nevertheless, a look at the long-term consequences of the 2008 financial crisis suggests that a wave of bankruptcies, lower financial performance and a loss of food security may still follow.

Figure 2. Average daily returns, for the S & P 500 (top panel) and 71 food-supply companies (FSC), lower panel, 2005-2020. Source: Data derived from multiple sources. For further information, please contact the author.

Winners and losers in the sub-sectors

In order to obtain a more granular picture of the impact of COVID-19, the companies in our sample  were divided into sub-sectors, and their stock price volatility was calculated between January and April, 2020. Whereas food retailers and breweries experienced relatively low volatility in stock prices, food distributors and manufacturers of fertilizers and chemicals experienced relatively higher volatilities. In order to cross-validate these results, we collected information on realized profits or losses from the companies’ financial reports. The trends observed in  stock prices are also reflected in company results for the first quarter of 2020. Food retailers were able to increase their profits in times of crisis, while food distributors recorded high losses compared to the previous period. The results are likely related to the lockdowns and social distancing measures which altered food distribution channels.

Longer-term effects

Just as the vaccine for COVID-19 is still in the pipeline, research into the effects of COVID-19 needs time to show what makes companies resilient to the effects of unpredictable shocks of this magnitude. Possible research topics relate to the question of whether local value chains are better suited to cushion the effects of a pandemic and maintain food security. Further work is also needed to understand fully the associated trade-offs between food security, profitability, and climate change objectives. Another research question relates to the effects of government protective measures and company support programmes.  Cross-country studies can provide important insights here. Our project lays the groundwork for future research into the effects of shocks on companies in the food value chain. By combining different data sources, we were able to compare stock returns in times of COVID-19 with those of the 2008 crisis, and  identify differences between sub-sectors. In the next step we will use company characteristics such as profitability to explain differences in returns.

To contact the author: julia.hoehler[at] wur.nl