Order Code RS21604
Updated December 15, 2004
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Marketing Loans, Loan Deficiency Payments,
and Commodity Certificates
Analyst in Agricultural Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Marketing assistance loans are one of the three primary subsidies in U.S. farm
commodity programs. Since the loan program is tied to current production, it is a source
of controversy in international trade negotiations. The 2002 farm bill continues the
marketing loan program and sets loan prices through 2007. Policy issues for the 109th
Congress regarding loans include payment limitations (especially the unlimited use by
farmers of commodity certificates to avoid the limits), and the U.S. response to
international pressure over the trade-distorting nature of marketing loans.
One purpose of the loan program is to provide short-term financing to allow
farmers to pay their bills soon after harvest and facilitate orderly marketing throughout
the rest of the year. The loan program also provides significant income support when
market prices are below statutory loan rates. Marketing loan benefits to farmers
averaged $6 billion from FY1999-FY2002, but have since declined to under $500
million as market prices have increased. This report will be updated as events warrant.
Commodity support provisions in the 2002 farm bill (P.L. 107-171) include three
primary types of payments: (1) annual direct payments unrelated to production or prices,
(2) counter-cyclical payments if prices are below statutorily-determined target prices, and
(3) marketing assistance loans that offer interim financing and, if prices fall below
statutorily-determined loan prices, additional income support.1 This report explains the
design of the marketing loan program and examines some recent data and policy issues.
See CRS Report RS21779, Farm Commodity Programs: Direct Payments, Counter-Cyclical
Payments, and Marketing Loans. All three payments apply to the “covered commodities” (corn,
sorghum, oats, barley, wheat, upland cotton, rice, soybeans, and the minor oilseeds) and peanuts.
Other “loan commodities” receive marketing loans but not direct or counter-cyclical payments;
these include extra long staple cotton, wool, mohair, honey, dry peas, lentils, and chickpeas.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
The primary purpose of the loan program is to give farmers short-term funds to meet
expenses until the commodities are marketed, hence the name marketing assistance loans.
Without such credit, more farmers might be compelled to sell their crop at harvest, thus
oversupplying the market and lowering prices. Marketing loans and loan deficiency
payments (LDPs) permit marketing based on price signals rather than creditor pressure.
Commodity loans have long been part of farm policy, but the current approach to
marketing loans and LDPs began with the 1985 farm bill. The intention was to prevent
the program’s former storage requirement from distorting supply. However, when market
prices were low from 1998 to 2001, the loan program became a major source of “countercyclical” income support since the 1996 farm bill had no other price-triggered supports.
How Marketing Loans Work
When the producer needs cash but wants to wait to market the commodity, taking
out a loan is feasible regardless of market prices. LDPs are available only if market prices
are less than the loan price (also known as the loan rate, which is different from the
interest rate charged on marketing loans). Loan prices generally are set below normal
downside market price fluctuations, but market prices occasionally drop even lower.
Marketing loans are available for the crop actually produced, unlike direct or
counter-cyclical payments that are tied to historical bases and decoupled from actual
production. Furthermore, while the 2002 farm bill sets loan prices at the national level
(Table 1), USDA adjusts these to local loan prices to reflect geographical differences.2
The marketing loan program has four mechanisms to provide benefits when market
prices are below loan rates:
loan deficiency payments (LDPs) — a direct payment instead of a loan,
marketing loan gains (MLGs) — repaying a loan at a lower market price
(the posted county price, or the average world price for cotton and rice),
“commodity certificates” — purchased at the posted county price to
repay the loan, with similar results to MLGs but without payment limits,
forfeiting the collateral (commodity) and keeping the principal (cash).
Obtaining a Loan. Producers taking out a loan pledge their harvested commodities
as collateral for interest-bearing nonrecourse loans from the USDA Commodity Credit
Corporation (CCC).3 The value of the loan is the loan price multiplied by the quantity
pledged as collateral. Loans mature in nine months, but can be repaid earlier.
Repaying a Loan. Loans can be retired in three ways: (1) repaying in cash, (2)
repaying using commodity certificates, or (3) forfeiting the commodity to the CCC.
Forfeit effectively results in selling to the government for the loan price. If market prices
exceed the loan price when the loan is repaid, the producer repays principal plus interest.
Local loan prices are on the USDA website, [http://www.fsa.usda.gov/dafp/psd/LoanRate.htm].
The interest rate charged on commodity loans was 2.125% during August 2003 (1% above the
CCC’s cost of borrowing from the U.S. Treasury, as mandated by the 1996 farm bill).
Table 1. National Average Marketing Loan Prices
2.75 ELS cotton, $/lb.
1.95 Wool, graded, $/lb.
1.95 Wool, nongraded, $/lb.
1.85 Mohair $/lb.
1.33 Honey, $/lb.
Upland Cotton, $/lb.
0.52 Peas, dry, $/cwt.
6.50 Lentils, $/cwt.
5.00 Chickpeas, $/cwt.
Minor Oilseeds, $/lb.
0.093 Peanuts, $/ton
Source: CRS, compiled from the 2002 farm bill (P.L. 107-171), Title I, Sections 1202 and 1307.
If market prices are lower than the loan price when the producer decides to repay the
loan (that is, the value of the collateral is less than the principal of the loan), the producer
repays the loan at the lower price (with cash or certificates), keeps the difference, and
retains ownership of the commodity for selling in the open market. The repayment price
is called the posted county price (or adjusted world price for rice and cotton).4 The
difference between the loan price and the lower repayment price is called a marketing loan
gain (MLG) and is taxable with farm income as a government payment.
Commodity Certificates. Certificates are a relatively new loan repayment option.
The outcome is the same as repaying with cash, but the benefit is not counted against the
payment limitation on MLGs. USDA sells generic commodity certificates only to
producers seeking to repay outstanding marketing loans for less than the loan price. The
producer buys a certificate at the posted county price (or adjusted world price) for the
quantity of commodity under loan, immediately exchanges it for the collateral, and thus
pays off the loan.
Taking the LDP Option. When market prices fall below loan prices, producers
can opt to forgo the loan can receive LDPs equal to the difference between the local loan
price and the lower posted county price (or adjusted world price). LDPs offer similar
income benefits to marketing loan gains and are also taxable. The availability of LDPs
reduces the amount of grain placed under loan when prices are low.
These various repayment and LDP provisions accomplish several objectives. The
government avoids the costs and complications of inventory storage and disposal.
Farmers retain possession of the commodities and make marketing decisions, rather than
the CCC taking possession and possibly accumulating market-distorting stocks. Farmers
generally appreciate the marketing flexibility and sometimes have been able to sell their
commodity for more than the loan repayment price. In such cases, however, the farmer
is exposed to market price volatility and is speculating once the loan is repaid.
Posted county prices are previous-day nearby terminal market prices adjusted by CCC’s County
Average Location Differentials (largely transportation costs) to reflect the local market; they are
available online at [http://www.fsa.usda.gov/dafp/psd/default.htm].
A History of Loans Supporting Farm Income
The marketing loan price guarantee is one element of the federal farm income safety
net. In addition to facilitating orderly marketing, nonrecourse commodity loans provide
counter-cyclical income support when cash market prices drop below the loan prices.
LDPs provide the income support benefits of the loan program without actually taking out
the loan. But the loan program was not always as market-oriented as it is today, and its
role in supporting income used to be greater.
Before changes in 1985 to increase market orientation, the loan program was an
important supply management and price support mechanism. Forfeiture was common
because loan prices were higher and the current loan repayment options did not exist
when market prices were below the loan price.5
The transition away from supply management and price support was gradual,
beginning in the 1970s. Loan prices were slowly reduced so as not to interfere with
market prices as often. Various production control mechanisms (such as acreage setasides or diversions, and conservation reserves) helped reduce supplies and support
prices. The 1985 farm bill completed the evolution to marketing loans with an explicit
policy not to use loans to control market supplies.
The 1996 farm bill went further to separate income support from market
intervention. Producers of wheat, feed grains, rice, and upland cotton received annual
direct payments from 1996-2002, along with nearly complete planting flexibility. They
could plant almost any crop (except fruits and vegetables) without government limits on
acreage and still receive income support. This policy shift was motivated in part by the
tendency of other countries to increase production when U.S. farmers were required to cut
back, and the desire to decouple payments from production.
The 2002 farm bill continues the marketing loan program and LDPs, emphasizing
that the loan program should minimize accumulation of commodity inventories. It
reinstated loans for several commodities that had been cut from the program in 1996
(wool, mohair, and honey), and added dry peas, lentils, and small chickpeas to the list of
eligible crops. Current loan prices are set by the 2002 farm bill (Table 1), rather than the
formula approach used in previous farm bills.
Table 2 shows the volume of loan activity from FY1998 to FY2003, and estimates
for FY2004-05. The volume of loans issued remains steady at nearly $10 billion, but the
design of the program has been successful in minimizing the amount of commodities
forfeited to about 1.5% in FY2002-03.
The use of commodity certificates has grown significantly since being introduced in
2000. In FY2000 only 9% of loan repayments were with certificates. By FY2003, 37%
were repaid with certificates.
Forfeiting commodities removes supplies from the market and can raise market prices if the
volume is large. But government stocks eventually come out of storage and can oversupply the
market. To reduce this impact, commodities may be donated or diverted to nontraditional uses.
Table 2 also shows the total income support benefits from the loan program. Loan
benefits peaked in FY2000 at $8.1 billion, and have declined since as market prices have
risen. In FY2005, USDA expects to provide under $200 million in loan benefits.
Table 2. Marketing Loans: Issued, Retired, and Benefits Paid
Benefits to farmers: ***
Fiscal Year, Millions of Dollars
9,692 8,267 10,131 10,718
Source: USDA Commodity Credit Corporation, Commodity Estimates Book, July 2004.
Estimate. ** Write-offs include marketing loan gains & certificate gains (repaying a loan when market
prices are below the loan rate). *** Excludes implied gain over market price if loan is forfeited.
Distribution of Commodity Certificates
In October 1999, Congress amended the 1996 farm bill to allow commodity
certificates to be issued to repay loans (P.L. 106-78, sec. 812).6 It also exempted the use
of certificates from payment limitations on marketing loan gains. In February 2000, the
Secretary of Agriculture implemented the certificate program. The use of certificates to
repay marketing loans continues under the 2002 farm bill.
The overall use of certificates grew dramatically from $635 million in FY2000 to
$3.9 billion in FY2003. Some of the increase is due to greater loan volume because of
low prices, but certificate use primarily has grown relative to cash repayments.
Cotton and, to a lesser degree, rice dominate the activity in certificates, and
accounted for 71% of certificates issued in FY2000, growing to more than 99% in
FY2003-04 (Table 3). Only in FY2000, the first year for such certificates, did feed grains,
soybeans, or wheat have a noticeable share of the certificate volume.
Cooperative marketing associations (CMAs) account for much of the marketing
activity for cotton and rice producers. Producers deliver commodity to the CMA and
authorize it to participate in the marketing loan program on the their behalf. CMAs are
more common for cotton and rice than for feed grains, wheat, and oilseeds.
Although bearing some similarities to the payment-in-kind (PIK) certificates used in the 1980s,
the current certificates are not issued to producers as a tool to reduce CCC inventories.
Table 3. Use of Commodity Certificates, by Crop
Fiscal Year, Millions of Dollars
Source: USDA Commodity Credit Corporation, Commodity Estimates Book, July 2004.
The only major legislative issue regarding the loan programs since the 2002 farm bill
has been the limit on payments that producers can receive.
Payment Limitations and Use of Certificates. Together, the combination of
all marketing loan gains (from cash repayment) and LDPs is called the marketing loan
benefit and is subject to an annual per-person payment limit of $75,000. In certain cases,
this limit can be doubled for spouses or multiple farming entities. The use of commodity
certificates, however, is not subject to any limit (see previous section).
On March 19, 2003, Senator Grassley introduced S. 667 in the 108th Congress to
reduce payment limits on direct, counter-cyclical, and marketing loan payments, and
count commodity certificates and loan forfeiture toward the limits. While the stated limit
on marketing loans would rise slightly from $75,000 to $87,500, the effective limit is
reduced by counting certificates and forfeiture toward the limit. This is a key feature
because, as a practical matter, the limit on MLGs and LDPs is the point at which
producers shift to commodity certificates without limit.
Certain critics of farm subsidies believe that high payment limits and unlimited
commodity certificates are inconsistent with targeting federal assistance to family farms,
and that such assistance for very large farms encourages their growth at the expense of
smaller farms. They are critical of farm subsidies without any test of financial need.
Proponents of certificates argue against any change in the use of certificates and
oppose any effort to tighten payment limitations. They assert that commodity payments
are tied to production and that every acre should be eligible for payments regardless of the
size of operation. To do otherwise, they contend, would be to punish efficiency and
For more information, see CRS Report RS21493, Payment Limits for Farm
Commodity Programs: Issues and Proposals.