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COMMENTS

Sustainable Agriculture: Governments Need To Weigh In To Effect Lasting Change


Sustainable Agriculture: Governments Need To Weigh In To Effect Lasting Change

Agriculture has always occupied a special place in the field of environmental and social sustainability. However, the sector's multiple problems are too deeply rooted for long-term sustainability to be achieved soon. Agricultural yields have peaked in developed countries, and are still lagging in developing markets. That said, public policy is evolving, and bright spots are emerging as investment and training help change agricultural practices and the livelihood of farmers. S&P Global Ratings is observing how the chemical and consumer goods companies it rates are responding by working with customers and supply chain participants to offer more sustainable agricultural solutions.

The largest agricultural commodity traders and processors will likely shift their strategic focus toward ingredient-based solutions for health and environmentally conscious food products before tackling long-term sustainability goals in earnest. Moreover, it is unlikely that food and beverage producers can pass all the costs of sourcing greener, more socially responsible agricultural raw materials on to customers. In particular, smaller, regional companies may remain vulnerable to tariffs, government actions, and pricing pressure. We believe that multinational companies in the agricultural chemicals and consumer business industries need to have an integrated sustainability strategy to retain their current quality of earnings over the next five to 10 years. For any such strategy to work, governments worldwide need to take decisive action.

Agricultural Yields Appear To Be Stagnating In Developed Markets

Increasing populations mean there is an urgent need for agriculture to become more efficient and less harmful. However, agriculture accounts for just 5% of employment across OECD member states, and global agricultural labor productivity has declined to 28% from 44% since 1991 (source: International Labor Organization). According to U.N. agencies, approximately 25% of global greenhouse emissions come from land clearing, crop production, and fertilization, with animal-based food contributing 75% of that. Although in the fields of biological, chemical, and agricultural science there is an advanced understanding of factors affecting agricultural yields, agricultural productivity has stalled in many developed markets and yields are showing signs of decline.

Data for the U.K. show that land productivity growth has been static since the mid-1980s, with overall improvement almost entirely due to higher labor productivity. Moreover, U.N. FAO data show a consistent decline in wheat yields in Germany, France, and the U.K. over the past 10 years. Harvest yields across the world correlate strongly with weather events, such as average temperatures during key growing periods and precipitation, including snow cover. There is consistent evidence, however, that agricultural practices need to improve in a transformational way to reverse damage to soil and plant health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates yearly economic loss to the U.S. through soil erosion at $44 billion, which is significant compared with about $400 billion of annual U.S. gross income for the farming industry.

Agricultural yields are also being hit by increasingly frequent climate-related events, such as hurricanes, coastline erosion, and flooding, and more so in developing markets. Recent large-scale weather events include the ongoing drought and fires in Australia and last year's floods in key agricultural regions of the U.S. Midwest, which caused significant damage to certain crops like sugar beets. American Crystal Sugar, the U.S.' largest sugar beet refiner is facing a substantial production shortfall because of an estimated 22% decline in its 2019/2020 crop following the second highest recorded rainfall totals for its growing region in 2019. The last time such a large harvest shortfall occurred was over 20 years ago. Cooperative farmers can rely on crop insurance and possible disaster aid for short-term relief, but such swings in crop yields would not be sustainable if they happened regularly.

Governments Need To Do More To Support Biodiversity

There is an urgent need to improve the sustainability of agricultural practices and inputs through better practices and technology. We believe this requires targeted government policy, supported by private-sector investment across the entire agricultural supply chain. On an intergovernment level, there is a sufficient body of work and understanding of issues affecting primary food production and rural livelihoods. Policy bodies, such as the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), as well as the Convention on Biological Diversity, and multiple agreements (such as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources) provide sufficient insight into the scope and speed at which environmental measures need to be implemented.

In practical terms, however, the focus has been more on setting up protected areas (15% of the terrestrial and freshwater environments and 7% of the marine realm so far), than on working out wide-ranging ecological solutions. Some goals seem to contradict others, which complicates the sustainable agriculture agenda. For example, heavy reliance on bioenergy to achieve emission targets would accelerate species loss and threaten food and water security, according to a report commissioned by the U.N. in 2019. According to IPBES, land degradation has reduced productivity in 23% of the global terrestrial area, and between $235 billion and $577 billion of annual global crop output (9%-22% of the about $2.6 trillion total reported in 2016) is at risk as a result of pollinator loss. IPBES considers intensive agriculture to be a major stress factor on varied (including non-material) contributions from nature, and advocates accelerating growth trends in environmentally beneficial agricultural practices. IPBES' recommended options for sustainable agricultural production include integrated pest and nutrient management, organic agriculture, agro-ecological practices, soil and water conservation practices, conservation agriculture, agroforestry, irrigation management, small or patch systems, and practices to improve animal welfare.

A number of strategies could--together--deliver a more sustainable food future. A comprehensive study published in the science journal, Nature, in 2017 shows several scenarios under which an increase in organic agriculture might be possible without a corresponding increase in land use. The main benefit of organic agriculture lies in reducing pesticide use and nitrogen surplus in the soil. The study promotes the reduction of food wastage and food-competing production on arable land (with a corresponding decrease in production and consumption of animal products) as important factors facilitating wider use of organic farming. According to USDA data in 2007-2014, each U.S. consumer wasted close to 3 kilograms of food per week, mostly fruit and vegetables. The problem of food waste is also pertinent in emerging and developing markets, mostly due to inefficiencies in collecting, transporting, and selling commercial crops.

Crop Chemicals Makers Must Balance Risks And Costs Against Rewards

The role of fertilizers and crop protection in closing the agricultural yield gaps between regions is undisputable. Yet the public perceives health risks from these products as very high, and concerns are still rising. The European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) cites a 2009 study showing that 70% of Europeans view plant protection products (PPPs) as the most risk-bearing chemicals in the home. An EPRS-quoted study from the 1990s showed European consumers rank food additives and PPP residues as posing the highest risk in food consumption, as opposed to microbial contamination and nutritional imbalance, ranked highest by food scientists. This perception still holds today.

Specific controversies have also emerged. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate (one of the most commonly used herbicides worldwide) as probably carcinogenic to humans, a classification comparable with that for red meat, which sparked consumer concerns and personal damage law suits in the U.S. The governments of the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan subsequently concluded that the herbicide was not carcinogenic, while EU agencies are conducting a further review. Weeds resistant to glyphosate and other herbicides pose a further problem, especially for the EU where severe restrictions on the use of genetically modified (GMO) crops limit non-chemical alternatives. In addition, the EU Court of Justice has ruled that seeds obtained by genome-editing tools such as CRISPR/Cas9 will not be exempt from the EU GMO legislation.

It's become clear that suboptimal use of agricultural chemicals poses profound long-term risks to nature and the environment. For example, excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers releases nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, ground water, and eventually into rivers, damaging aquatic life and contaminating drinking water. The increasing presence of nitrogen and phosphate in the water may lead to weaker oxygen levels and the growth of algal blooms, which produce poisonous toxins, while potash production releases saline water into rivers and streams. Moreover, indiscriminate fertilizer use can turn the soil acidic and salty, suppressing symbiotic relationships between fungi and plant roots, and damaging beneficial bacteria. The way to address these issues lies in the combination of better farm planning, seeds, and quality solutions, combining, for example, mechanical weed control, crop rotation, and biological control (such as pheromones and biological control organisms).

The crop protection industry has been working for years to produce new active substances that are sustainable and effective, but efforts slowed down considerably in the last decade amid escalating development and registration costs. The ERPS estimates that 61% of the industry's research and development (R&D) spending is dedicated to the development and launch of new plant protection products, with the cost of post-registration product monitoring amounting to about 8% of the R&D budget. Due to the increasing demand for studies, new product development time increased to 11 years in 2010-2015 from eight years in 1995, according to ERPS. Companies tend to focus on premium products, promising higher yields and better crop quality. Sensors, big data, cloud solutions, and satellite-supported tools are all employed and embedded in agronomic processes to effectively diagnose plant health and support decisions on where and how much fertilizers or crop protection chemicals should be used. The affordability of both existing and new products--the latter often priced at a premium--is a pressing issue, however. This is considering that the net farm income in the U.S., a broad measure of profits, started declining in 2013 due to high crop inventory levels and weak food commodity prices. The USDA forecasts that net farming income will increase by about 10% in 2019 to $92.5 billion, but this is still only just above the 2000-2018 average.

We believe fertilizer companies recognize the business opportunities associated with sustainable agriculture, and advanced fertilizer products attract a price premium. They generally view ongoing and increasing use of their products as an important means of improving farm yields to achieve the global goal of food security, particularly in developing countries. Companies such as Yara, CF Industries, and The Mosaic Co. have publicly aligned themselves with this goal. They also advocate more efficient use of nutrients and more sustainable farming practices. Yara and Mosaic, for instance, are educating crop growers to ensure that they use the right amount and type of fertilizer for their crops, thus limiting the impact on the environment caused by overuse of chemicals. Similarly, agrochemicals companies like Bayer, Syngenta, and BASF are helping growers understand how to correctly apply products through clear labeling and market communication. Bayer has publicly committed to supporting 100 million smallholder farmers in low- and mid-income countries by 2030.

Consumer staples markets are shifting toward more plant-based diets and greater use of naturally derived ingredients. This trend can drive positive developments in sustainability of agriculture, but only if momentum accelerates both in consumer demand and on the supply side. In particular, over the past five years, millennials have been strongly focused on self-care, and Generation Z on protecting the environment. For the first time, environmental choices are influencing dietary preferences in developed markets, alongside weight control and physical fitness. The 2019 article "Food in the Anthropocene," published by The Lancet, presented a case for the dramatic reduction of meat consumption and other animal products, based on the benefits for human health and the environment. It suggests that the transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts, including a greater than 50% reduction in global consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and a greater than 100% increase in consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. The product strategy statement of food and water producer Danone, for example, says that 89% of its product volumes are now specifically classified by health authorities as suitable for daily consumption, and new products will continue to develop alongside nutritional benefit lines. Danone's stance is unusual among large food producers, however.

There is still a large gap between the choices made by more environment-conscious consumers and the broader-based consumer markets. This is a byproduct of cultural preferences, as well as consumer inertia due to what is on the shelf today and at what price, compared with other options. Per capita consumption trends for the past 10 years show that regions spending the most on consumer goods are still far away from The Lancet targets (see charts 1-5). The biggest noticeable shift is that poultry consumption is up, while red meat consumption in absolute terms either fell or stagnated. In developed markets, lower red meat consumption might also correlate with ageing populations. Eastern Europe is the only region where consumption of red meat has increased, although still lagging Western Europe by 20%. Per capita red meat consumption in the U.S. is double that in Western Europe and 9x that in Latin America. China has shown growth in consumption across all food categories, reflecting higher personal incomes, but most notably an increase in dairy product intake from relatively low levels. All regions apart from China have shown flat or declining consumption of sugar, partly offset by higher consumption of fruit. Vegetable consumption remained static in all regions, with dairy declining materially in the U.S. (by 15% over 10 years, from absolute levels equal to Western Europe and double those of Eastern Europe and Latin America) and only slightly in Western Europe and Latin America.

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Producers Of Premium Food And Beverage Brands Lead The Pack In Sustainable Sourcing

We believe that, in the short term, private investment into sustainable agriculture will be led solely by manufacturers' strategic focus on purpose-led, mostly premium brands that have shown rapid growth. Plant-based foods, particularly in the premium-priced product range, are becoming increasingly popular. Typically, the buyers of these products are seeking additive-free "clean" labeled products, ingredient traceability, and responsible sourcing. This demographic, although not very large relative to the global population, is very meaningful to consumer product manufacturers we rate. The value of premium product sales within manufacturers' portfolios is rising quickly. With spending on food and beverage at just 7%-8% of total household expenditure in the U.S. and U.K., and at 12% on average in the EU, there seems to be room for passing the price of sustainable agriculture on to consumers in developed markets (see chart 6). That said, the ratio is much higher across the rest of the OECD (see chart 7), where there is a clear need for productivity gains before the cost of sustainable food production can be fully priced in.

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Consumers' preferences for healthier and more sustainable food solutions have also been the reason for many large food and beverage companies' recent acquisitions and R&D spending. Unilever, for example, acquired Brazilian natural and organic food business Mãe Terra in 2017, The Vegan Butcher in 2018, and a healthy snacking brand Graze in 2019. Nestlé has just announced a collaboration with Burcon and Merit for the development and production of plant proteins, and is very active in producing plant-based alternatives to meat in products under several well-established brands.

Branded food and beverage markets are mature and highly competitive, however, and short-term trends often run counter to long-term projections, causing volatility in sales and profits. In 2016, Danone paid $12.5 billion for WhiteWave, a U.S.-based producer of plant-based food and beverage brands, such as Alpro, aiming to capture growth in demand, which was much wider than from consumers with lactose intolerance. This acquisition has helped Danone align its product portfolio closer to Euromonitor's 10-year (to 2022) growth trend, which shows 7% annual growth of plant-based beverages and 8% for organic foods, ahead of a still significant 5% growth rate for yogurt. The yogurt category showed an unexpected contraction in 2018-2019 in the U.S., however, partly because consumers started avoiding products with added sugar. Danone's dairy and plant-based divisions posted an overall 2.7% volume decline in the third quarter of 2019, led by North American dairy, with plant-based products delivering consistent, strong growth, including a double-digit revenue increase for Alpro. Europe-based Fage, which derives half of its business from the U.S., has responded to market conditions by refocusing on its core premium Greek natural yogurt, adding GMO-free and organic commitments to better cater to key consumers. This change has stretched Fage's credit metrics, given that the price of milk for its U.S. operations went up 15% year on year in the first nine months of 2019, while U.S. sales volumes dropped 9.8%.

For Food Ingredient Companies, Adapting To Consumer Trends Supports Long-Term Growth

Food ingredient manufacturers are investing in R&D to shift their products toward natural or sustainably sourced raw materials. They are also actively searching for solutions to enhance the look and taste of plant-based food as consumers increasingly transition away from meat and dairy products. The biggest challenge lies in improving the palatability of plant-based proteins while ensuring an adequate intake of vitamins and mineral supplements. Globally, food ingredient company sales are rising annually by about 4% on average, outpacing the average yearly growth rate of closer to 2.5% for the broader packaged food industry.

Underlining the favorable growth rate are natural coloring, natural food protection, and health supplements like probiotics and specialty soy. Investments in disruptive technologies in primary food substitution appear to have reached critical mass, with several notable transactions in the market, including last year's IPO of Beyond Meat in the U.S., whose sales continue to increase more than twofold annually. A soon-to-close merger between International Flavors and Fragrances and Du Pont's Nutrition and Biosciences business will create the largest global player in the value-added food ingredients space. Du Pont's Nutrition and Biosciences divisions specialize in naturally derived ingredients for food and pharmaceutical use, for example, excipients, antimicrobials, anti-oxidants, and fermenting cultures for plant-based and dairy food.

Other large players, such as Givaudan have been focusing on increasing the sourcing of natural raw materials to satisfy increasing customer demand for natural, clean label, organic ingredients. Today, 60% of the raw materials that it purchases for flavors are natural (20% for fragrances and 60% for active beauty ingredients). Thanks to the acquisition of Brazil-based Naturex, Givaudan has expanded its product range of natural preservatives (rosemary), natural taste (acerola cherry), natural colors (spirulina), and phytoactives (cranberries). Givaudan's sustainability strategy also includes green chemistry and procedures, offering alternatives to animal testing.

Producers Realize That Helping Farmers Strengthens The Supply Chain

Large food and beverage manufacturers are accelerating their direct engagement in agricultural production to protect their supply chains and support the sustainability credentials of their purpose-led brands. Their increasing investment and public communication are intended to achieve a firm understanding of their brands' environmental and social standing with consumers. We believe, however, that ultimately, it would take decisive regulatory action, such as bans and levies, as well as severe interruptions of supply and price hikes for many agricultural ingredients, for a wider range of consumer goods manufacturers to increase direct investment into supply chain sustainability.

For companies that depend on one or two key crops, it is important to secure uninterrupted supply through the price cycles. Farmers might divert their raw materials to other clients and markets when prices are high, or stop growing the crop altogether if prices are low for a long period. Pertinent examples are offered by cocoa, coffee, and tea. Some premium spirits producers are tied by designation of origin to specific agricultural products, such as grapes produced in the French Cognac and Champagne regions. The beer industry relies heavily on barley and hops, but alternative raw materials are possible in specific cases. In the poorest regions of Brazil, ABI is promoting the sale of beers based on local crops, which can significantly lower production costs, boosting the company's returns while potentially reducing the production and sale of illicit beverages. Danone has supported some of its suppliers through its transition toward organic production, via purchasing commitments.

The production of corn-based sweeteners, fibers, and starch offers another example. Tate & Lyle has launched a partnership with U.S. agriculture cooperative Land O Lakes to increase the sustainability of corn grown on 1.5 million of acres in the American Midwest. The program involves more sustainable farming practices, supports customers' environmental initiatives and impact reporting, and should increase transparency on agricultural conditions and sustainability. The program's success is based on measurable improvements in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and water and wind erosion, as well as increasing nitrogen efficiency and soil quality.

More-Volatile Agricommodity Prices Can Hurt Small Food Producers

Without a supply chain sustainability strategy, any company heavily exposed to a single agricultural commodity will have to absorb the increasingly high volatility of agricultural input prices, which could stunt revenue growth. In many emerging markets, small local food producers are currently over-reliant on government subsidies or there's a lack of safeguards for sustainable agricultural practices to keep raw material prices low. The ongoing debate about sustainable palm oil sourcing in Malaysia is a well-known example. This makes these producers' competitive impact in the marketplace highly unpredictable over the medium term, not least because of the population's size and high crop production volumes involved. IPBES points out that, since most urban growth up to 2030 will likely take place in low- and middle-income countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, major sustainability challenges will persist, owing to the need for infrastructure development (water, sanitation, and mobility), inadequate spatial planning, and limited governance and financing mechanisms. Yield gaps between many emerging markets and developed markets are still wide, and need to be addressed to improve the agricultural industry's impact on the environment.

Cocoa offers an example of a critical agricultural input for which challenging growing conditions have led to rising price volatility. This is why Barry Callebaut, the world's largest supplier of cocoa and chocolate to the food industry has implemented a detailed plan to deliver on sustainability targets by 2025, shaping both its supply chain and the expectations of its customers. The plan includes the company's commitment to improving the incomes of more than 500,000 cocoa farmers in its supply chain that live in extreme poverty (defined by the World Bank as having income lower than $1.90 per day), eradicating child labor from the supply chain, becoming carbon and forest positive, and using only sustainable ingredients in all products. Barry Callebaut's sustainability efforts should allow it to stay abreast of government measures, such as the decision of Ivory Coast and Ghana to introduce a $400 per ton living income differential from 2020/2021, as well as meet quality and traceability requirements of customers.

Even in Europe, sugar beet producers in countries with significantly less favorable agronomical benefits than France or Germany will face continued pressure on profitability. This is because the frequently instable weather conditions have hurt agriculture yields and farmers' ability to cover their input costs. In addition, declining demand for sugar in Europe has weighed on companies' efficiency metrics. One way to deal with highly volatile prices has been to introduce a more flexible beet payment mechanism for farmers, from processors like Tereos or Suedzucker.

Near-Term Capacity Balancing Is A Key Priority

Although for most large agricultural businesses, long-term sustainability goals are concerned with meeting projected demand growth responsibly, several global agribusiness leaders are responding to more immediate supply-led priorities. Price inflation for major agricultural commodities like corn and soybeans has been fairly benign for several years following a long period of increasing crop production, which has outpaced population growth. This counterintuitive trend in large part is because of governments' environmental policies mandating a higher volume of crops to produce biofuels like ethanol, and to a lesser degree because of inflated emerging market demand (mainly from China) for oilseeds because of a rapid expansion of production capacity for animal feed. The excess crop supplies are pressuring profit margins in the agricultural industry.

In response, companies are currently pursuing a change in strategy to evolve their business models away from pure commodity trading and processing into providing higher value-added food ingredient solutions. This includes adopting better traceability practices as a differentiating factor vis-a-vis global industrial food customers. But, to improve long term sustainability, these companies will also have to set clearer sustainability goals, which they are only now beginning to tackle. The most pressing need will be to demonstrate measurable long-term targets to increase sourcing from lands while not contributing to deforestation or a meaningful depletion of key water sources, particularly in regions where irrigation is contribution to the shrinkage of aquafers or river valleys. Given the sector's near-term profitability objectives, the adoption of more stringent long-term sustainability goals may be far off.

Further Progress Hinges On Radical Global Government Policies

We believe the divide between global multinationals with integrated sustainability strategies, and companies focusing on more near-term issues, can only get wider. In our view, fundamental and lasting change requires governments to act decisively, and quickly. A lot of private investment is already being channeled into sustainable agriculture. This will be of immediate benefit to certain consumer goods segments in developed markets, and provide policymakers with a wider range of workable solutions.

However, smaller local and regional companies, and those dependent on a single commodity in the consumer products sector, will still face greater environment-related risks than in the past without sustainable supply chain strategies. The two options open to them would be to either invest more in the supply chain, or reduce debt leverage to absorb the cost of higher operating cash flow volatility. For the producers of agricultural chemicals, seeds, and crop protection products, the strategic challenge would be to offer more integrated solutions to farmers to gain a competitive advantage.

Related Research

  • ESG Industry Report Card: Retail, Feb. 11, 2020
  • ESG Industry Report Card: Chemicals, Feb. 11, 2020
  • ESG Industry Report Card: Consumer Products And Agribusiness, Feb. 11, 2020

This report does not constitute a rating action.

Primary Credit Analyst:Anna Overton, London (44) 20-7176-3642;
anna.overton@spglobal.com
Secondary Contacts:Maxime Puget, Paris (33) 1-4075-2577;
maxime.puget@spglobal.com
Barbara Castellano, Milan (39) 02-72111-253;
barbara.castellano@spglobal.com
Chris Johnson, CFA, New York (1) 212-438-1433;
chris.johnson@spglobal.com
Paulina Grabowiec, London (44) 20-7176-7051;
paulina.grabowiec@spglobal.com
Paul J Kurias, New York (1) 212-438-3486;
paul.kurias@spglobal.com

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