World grain & feed markets outlook – March | April 2012

by John Buckley – for Grain & feed Milling Technology magazine

Plentiful wheat but questions over feedgrain outlook
CHOPPY markets have persisted across the grain and oilseed complex since our last review, as traders have tried to calculate the net bullish/bearish sum from a whole set of colliding fundamentals. On the negative side, these include shrinking South American maize and soyabean crops, dwindling US maize supplies, big winter wheat crop losses in the former Soviet Union – perhaps (though to a lesser extent) much of Western Europe too and incipient drought in the UK, France, Spain and Poland. Yet against these remains the main market anchor – massive world wheat stocks carried over from last year’s record harvests.

Market attention is also turning increasingly toward 2012 crop prospects in the Northern Hemisphere – probably lower wheat production, possibly significantly higher coarse grain output – especially maize and probably barley too – but a likely shortfall in raw material supplies for the oil-meal protein sector amid inadequate American soyabean and European rapeseed crops.

Market bulls have also been excited by resurfacing ideas that China could be about to raid the world market for extra grain and oilseed supplies to fill its growing feed deficit. Yet while China remains a voracious consumer of imported soyabeans, it has so far not lived up to forecasts that it will mop up remaining US maize supplies, astutely spreading purchases over origins for both maize and feedwheat. Another mitigating factor – other global demand for coarse grains and soya may be growing less quickly than in recent years amid ongoing economic turmoil and tight trade finance which appears to be forcing some developing countries to scale back or delay livestock expansion plans in case their meat demand suffers from lower consumer spending. The bio-fuel juggernaut is also slowing markedly in the USA as profitability declines with reduced government support, high raw material costs (maize) and a buildup in ethanol stocks, implying supply has been growing too fast for demand (even with the US exporting record amounts of ethanol to countries like Brazil!).

Meanwhile, sentiment on the ‘macro’ markets – energy, gold, currencies, equities and the grand economic factors driving them – continues to shift almost daily from bear to bull and back again as pundits continually change their minds (often almost daily!) on prospects for Euro-zone/US economic recovery, the extent to which slowing Chinese GDP might dampen Asian/global growth etc etc. This has created a situation in which the highly influential fund community don’t seem to know whether to carry on investing in agricultural commodities or dump them for more promising assets (whatever they might be in today’s strange economic climate). It all makes for uncertain markets ahead.

That said, there are many encouraging signs for feed grain consumers. The US has already started to sow a massive maize crop that will (weather permitting) start to restore tight US and global stocks of the grain.  The USA’s fastest up-and-coming maize export rival, Ukraine, also plans to plant a record maize area on failed winter wheat land, promising to intensify the fight for feed grain import customers next autumn. Europe will probably plant more maize too. There also seems to be no shortage of feedwheat including record supplies left over from two downgraded Australian milling wheat harvests, another record Indian wheat crop, still large supplies from last year’s reviving Russian and Kazakh crops.

The main worry is soya – if the Latin American crops are as low as some analysts think, things could get tighter than expected by the autumn when the US might not be counted on (based on early estimates of sown area) to begin making up for Latin American crop shortfalls. Europe – east and west – does not seem to be sowing enough rapeseed to keep up with demand. Although this is more of a problem for edible oil than for meal users, it does influence the relatively tighter protein supply. Still, Canada may go some way to making up this deficit in terms of global rapeseed supply. 

Main commodity highlights since our last review                    

Wheat poised to up or down?
The predominant theme for wheat has remained huge supplies.  Prices are still well above the levels seen last time stocks were anywhere near this large but support continues to come from several directions. These include tighter maize, consequent potential for more wheat feeding, higher wheat production costs over the last decade, ongoing concerns about the adequacy of forward quality breadwheat supplies and, not least, ideas that world production peaked in 2011 and will slip this year (the International Grains Council recently suggested by about 15m tonnes). With about 10m tonnes more stocks likely to be carried into 2012/13, that drop might not seem too important, but it does underline the fact that some Northern Hemisphere countries have less than ideal weather as we go to press.
Wheat has also been supported by speculative funds holding a record large short or sold position on Chicago futures markets, effectively betting on prices going down. This makes wheat sensitive to price rises in other grains, especially maize as short sellers have to cover their positions with margin deposits, or close them out. The net effect tends to be exaggerated price rises in wheat, often down to non-wheat factors.

Since our last review, when prices were nudging their lowest levels since the summer of 2010, the trend has been upward, Chicago rising by about 12%, EU wheat by as much as 13.5% at one stage. There have been plenty of backers for prices going higher still or into reverse. In the US, traders have been looking to stronger exports firming the market as competition from the Black Sea countries – usually the main factor driving wheat export prices down – remained on a smaller scale and more expensive than usual. That is partly down to logistics – Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan all had seasonal problems getting what grain they had to sell across frozen transport systems and out of ice-bound ports. It also reflected unease in the Ukraine where maybe half this year’s winter wheat crop was lost to autumn droughts and recent arctic weather. As this land is more likely to be replanted with maize than spring wheat, the authorities there are anxious to conserve wheat supplies and will likely carry in more old crop stocks than last year but that will help them continue sort of wheat export presence in 2012/13, once the final crop outcome is known. Kazakhstan and Russia still have a lot of old crop grain to move and are expected to step up efforts to clear more in second quarter 2012, rather than be forced into a buyers’ market to clear store space when their next crops arrive. So far Russia expects a bigger 2012 wheat crop, Kazakhstan somewhat less.

The ‘Black Sea’  (former Soviet country) supply hiccups of the past couple of years are not expected to dent their long term ambitions to expand grain production and exports with new ports and upgrades underway even now. It thus makes sense for them to start soon, improving their image as reliable suppliers – though their cheap costs will always be the key factor driving this expansion.   

Recent EU private estimates suggest EU 2012 soft wheat output prospects have been trimmed a bit more than expected by the cold weather in Jan/Feb. With dry weather in several countries bringing further threats to yields, some estimates of EU total production are as much as 2m tonne or more below last year’s 137.5m compared with earlier ideas of a crop increase of at least 2m tonnes. While last year’s was crop wasn’t stellar, (compared with 139m in 2009 and 151m in 2008), it was better than the previous year’s and nothing like as low as the doomsayers forecast back in the early summer droughts and heatwaves when some talked of 25-30% crop losses. That remarkable ‘recovery’ suggests it may be a bit too early for markets to get too excited about the weather but, nonetheless, this will need monitoring closely in the months ahead.

On the debit side of world wheat supply for the year ahead, we have early forecasts that Australian production might drop back by 3m or 4m tonnes while it clears last year’s surpluses – but that would still be a big crop, close to the peaks that preceded last year’s, upgraded this month to a record 29.5m tonnes. If Australia got better harvest weather, it could even end up with more milling wheat to export rather than the feed wheat surpluses of the last two rain-plagued years. Ukraine’s winter wheat crop could also be down 30-50% – maybe down 8/11m tonnes – while Kazakh sowings are also seen lower but Russia’s higher. Merging in a possible 6m to 8m tonne gain for the USA, 1-2m tonnes for Canada, flat to lower EU output etc, the early world production forecasts of a 15m tonne drop are certainly possible but there are many blanks to fill in yet. Whatever the outcome, huge stocks will mean adequate supplies.

Where are those large wheat stocks? While Europe clearly has lower than usual stocks to start 2012/13, the top exporter, the US remains awash with 23.5m tonnes. The world’s largest wheat consumer and producer, China, is meanwhile estimated to hold about 61.5m tonnes going into 2012/13  – 57% more than in 2008/09, although the true size and quality of these reserves is questioned by many. Kazakhstan may struggle to clear its large 2011/12 wheat surplus with just three months of the season to go. Although much of this is believed to be lower quality, it can compete in feedgrain marketx. India is loosening wheat export policy and while it may sow less next year, it could still end up with even bigger supplies as this season’s record 87m tonne crop leaves record carryover stocks of over 18m tonnes.

Markets have also been enlivened over the past few months by heavier demand for wheat from the Middle East and North Africa. Some of this reflects politics – Iran’s nuclear standoff and its accompanying threat of conflict and Gulf shipping disruption, the turmoil in Syria, reminding us that the Arab spring has opened a pandora’s box of regional  risk and a need for these countries to remain well-stocked on basic foodstuffs. Iran is also one of the world’s biggest wheat consumers and its own crop has fallen short this season.  A drought in Morocco which could be spreading to half the North African Maghreb region, could also lead to sustained higher demand for wheat from the EU and other suppliers.

Grain merchants/shippers have recently been switching export sourcing of wheat and maize away from the Black Sea region – mainly Ukraine and Russia – where a combination of recent Arctic weather and adverse 2012 crop outlooks has hampered grain movement and made farmers reluctant to sell, starving export ports of grain and pushing their prices up. Some of this business is going to EU & US exporters but they are having to fight for business still with Canada, Australia and Argentina and the Black Sea exporters are expected to make a comeback soon to clear remaining stocks as their transport systems thaw. This competition for import custom should keep could wheat prices under control.  

Overall, there is nothing on the supply side to justify driving wheat prices sharply higher at the moment and, if EU crops do better than expected again, maybe reason for further declines. Canada, the USA and Australia together might even improve the quality wheat supply, helping to keep the high grade breadwheat premiums under control. However, wheat prices will also be determined by those of maize, through the feed connection, making a successful US maize crop vital to forward price stability too.

USDA – offers mixed bag of March data
The current season has three months to run for wheat and is about halfway through for maize and soyabeans. Latest appraisals for global supply and demand from the USDA have contributed to the confused state of the markets. For wheat, for example, rather than raising world 2011/12 wheat ending stocks as the trade expected in March, the USDA trimmed these by 2.5m tonnes as cuts of 3.5m in China, 500,000 tonnes each in the US and Kazakhstan were only partly offset by 1.5m tonnes added to the EU.  

World wheat stocks fell despite an even higher (new record) figure for world 2011/12 wheat production of 694m tonnes (up 44m from the previous season) as USDA also raised consumption by 3.5m tonnes. China alone accounted for 2.5m tonnes of this extra demand, Iran 0.5m, smaller countries an aggregate 500,000 tonnes although wheat use estimates were cut by 1.2m tonnes for the EU and 200,000 for the USA.

The USDA also raised its estimate of world wheat trade by 3m tonnes, the lion’s share of the extra imports going to Iran (+1.8m) which has been a heavy buyer in the last few weeks. The additional exports were expected to go to the USA (1m), Brazil, Australia, Kazakhstan (500,000 each) and Turkey (300,000).

On balance, this USDA report was broadly supportive for US and European wheat prices but not excessively so, given the broader context of record world wheat stocks and a likely larger sown area for 2012 which, even with some trimming of yields from last year’s record highs, should keep wheat markets amply supplied going forward.
IGC outlook for 2012/13 – summary – World wheat area is expected to expand by 1.5% for the 2012/13 harvest, including gains in North America and the CIS. Bigger maize and barley crops may reduce use of feed wheat which will nonetheless stay relatively high. Growth in food demand should be sustained at the long-term trend while gains in fuel ethanol production will lift use in the industrial sector. Only a modest decline in world wheat carryovers is projected at the end of 2012/13. Because of reduced feed wheat demand, global trade is forecast to show a small decline.

KEY FACTORS IN THE MONTHS AHEAD

  • How much more wheat have Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan left for export?
  • How badly will EU winter wheat crops be affected by the Jan/Feb freeze & current droughts?
  • What will the summer weather bring for Northern Hemisphere crops – yields nearly always affect crop size more than shifts in sown acreage.
  • Better rains in recent months than in the same period last year should boost the US hard red winter bread wheat crop on larger sown area.  But will US spring wheat sowings be up or down – a big factor in world top quality wheat supply.
  • World wheat import trade is strengthening amid greater demand for feedwheat and crop shortfalls for bread wheat in some importing countries, including Iran and Morocco.
  • India  is likely to export more wheat, helping to keep world prices under control.
  • Will Australia cut wheat sowings back as much as some say and will that matter so much to breadwheat consumers if weather there improves after two years of rain-lowered quality?
  • Wheat remains likely to take much of its price-direction from maize – a big US maize crop could this summer could mean less demand for feed wheat – a US maize shortfall could be the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Maize – tight now but supplies could rise this year
Several surprises in USDA’s latest maize estimates left the bulls feeling fenced in during March.  The market consensus was expecting another cut in world production after droughts in Latin America. In the event, USDA raised the world crop by 800,000 tonnes and even increased the South American total (Brazil +1m). If this turns out accurate, one of the worst droughts in recent decades will not prevent the two big Lat-Am maize exporters having 2.75m tonnes more supply than last year! They may, as USDA predicts, export a bit less as both are using more domestically. But that isn’t expected to make much of a draw on supplies from the main exporter, the USA, whose foreign sales are still seen falling (to 43.5m tonnes from last season’s 45.3m tonnes). The more important factor, it seems, is the 14m tonnes of maize now expected to come out of the Ukraine this season compared with just 5m normally – plus the strong competition from abundant feedwheat, especially from Australia’s last, weather-affected crop.  

World maize consumption growth remains relatively robust. USDA raised its estimate by 2m tonnes to a new record of almost 870m tonnes – 25m or 3% more than last season. The lion’s share of this growth is in China (15m tonnes), the rest spread over Brazil, India, Europe and a number of smaller users.

Because production was higher than expected, world stocks fell less than markets anticipated – by just 800,000 tonnes. At 124.5m (by September this year) the end season world maize supply will still be historically low, especially in relation to even increasing demand. Yet this equation has probably been well factored into maize prices in the $6.50’s/bu (about $256/tonne) for many months now.

Just before its monthly supply/demand updates, the USDA also issued annual projections in its ‘baseline’ (budget calculations) and its Outlook Forum meetings which suggest a US maize crop this year in the region of 350/360m tonnes. This assumes the forecast 94m acres (38m ha) is all planted on time and gets normal weather. With current unusually warm conditions (and assuming no repeats of the rain delays of the past two years) some US crop pundits are talking of an unusually early start to planting that might boost the total to as much as 100m acres. To many others, that seems a bit fanciful. Yet with implied bumper yields from an early start, even 94m acres could produce a US crop this summer big enough to double the country’s ending stocks (by September 2013) to over 40m tonnes. That would take much of the steam out of maize prices (and via their feed link, dampen wheat prices too). Timely sowing might also mean an early harvest. That would take pressure off tight old crop stocks too.

What could still drive up maize prices, though, is China’s potential reappearance as a major maize importer. While the USDA figures imply China might just about meet its estimated 191m tonne maize consumption from domestic output, other sources (some Chinese officials as well as western trade experts) think the crop there will fall short by as much as 20/22m tonnes. Maize prices in China have reached record levels recently and reserve stocks bought from farmers are less than a tenth of last year’s levels, leaving it with limited tools to cool the market at a time when it wants to continue expanding livestock herds and meat consumption. Bigger imports are not only an obvious solution but economically feasible, even after shipping costs. China has already bought about 3.7m tonnes of maize from the USA compared with a few hundred tonnes this time last year. However, it is also discussing some big maize deals with Argentine suppliers as well as supplementing its feed needs with a lot of Australian wheat imports.  The USDA is not getting too excited about China yet, on paper at least, keeping its forecast for China’s total maize imports at 4m tonnes. If that rises sharply, though, it could squeeze US old-crop supplies and get prices rising sharply again. China, of course, knows it can have this impact so, rather than jack up the cost of its future imports, it may well try to delay buying until a (hopefully) larger US new crop arrives to cool thing down, or at least continue to spread its imports over other suppliers and other grains. It can also use more of its own larger 2011/12 wheat crop for another 2.5m tonnes of animal feed.  

US ethanol plants were recently reported to be moving heavily into the red amid the recent rise in corn costs and an end to government subsidies. Although weekly ethanol output still exceeds year-ago levels and the USDA target pace, it has begun to flag, stocks are building up and with talk of higher than expected ethanol yields from last year’s better quality crop, some think corn demand in this sector could actually drop 5%.

US maize exports could also be reduced if Ukraine sows as much maize as some recent forecasts (4.5/5m ha) and achieves anything like last year’s big yields – maybe supplying 5m to 10m tonnes more. Even at the low end of crop forecasts, Latin America will also have plenty to export in coming months.

With plantings soon to commence in the northern hemisphere, the IGC forecast global maize area for 2012/13 up 0.6% to a record 167m ha. World barley sowings are also seen rising by 8% from last year’s low level, especially spring barley after losses to winter crops.

KEY FACTORS IN THE MONTHS AHEAD

  • Markets still need to know the final impact of drought on Argentine and Brazilian maize crops
  • China’s maize ‘deficit’ – it could be millions of tonnes more – or less than analysts claim – a big swing factor in global import demand, ending stocks and prices.
  • The US crop is being planted record early in some states – that could mean more acres but just how many more – and what impact on yields?
  • Ukraine is sowing much more maize this year and will compete with the US and Argentina for export trade – bearish for prices
  • Global economic problems continue to erode consumer confidence but so far, it seems the potential impact on meat, feed and grain demand might have been exaggerated.
  • Speculative activity in commodities – are the funds pulling out of ‘agric’ futures? Or squaring their books for the next wave of investment?

Oilmeals – soyabean stocks will drop, maybe pushing prices up        
The less welcome news this month is for protein consumers as the latest Latin American soya crop figures from the USDA slide by another 6.4m tonnes. These are near the bottom end of the recent range of analyses from local South American experts, officials, visiting trade observers etc, reappraising the effects of drought in December and January (lingering on in even as we go to press in some parts of both Brazil and Argentina). The implied tighter Lat-Am supply has helped propel soya prices even higher during March when the US markets reached their highest levels for six month.

Although the USDA has cut its world soya crushing estimate by 2.6m tonnes (Brazil -1m, China and EU both -500,000 tonnes), global ending stocks of soyabeans for September 2012 are now seen 3m tonnes lower than before at 57.3m tonnes. This is not a historically tight figure like that of maize but it does point up the need for a bigger US soyabean crop than that now indicated by the USDA. Based on 75m sown acres, this suggests about 88/89m tonnes versus last year’s 83.2m. Until that crop is planted, up and running, the possibility of further soya price rises cannot be ruled out, especially if the Latin crops shrink further. As in  the maize market, soya is also supported by strong demand from China. This is expected to continue as China’s own oilseed crops are shrinking due to farmers planting more maize. China also likes to have plenty of forward cover and is probably concerned about the adequacy of both South American and US supplies going forward.  However the Latin Americans did start 2011/12 (last September) with much larger than usual stocks whose heavy autumn/winter export sale put the US export programme behind and created a little slack in this market. Also, with two thirds of Brazil’s crop now harvested and Argentine combining just starting, these exporters will be accelerating sales in coming months, helping to keep soyabean and meal prices under control for the time being.

Chinese officials meanwhile signal growing longer term protein import needs, rising demand for soyabean/rapeseed/product imports amid expected lower domestic crops for a second year running and growing livestock/feed demand. The USDA’s recent ‘baseline’ projections were also bullish for China, viewing a rise in its imports of almost 60% over 10 years as it switches more of its own soya crop land to maize production.

Even with the 2011/12 expansion above (the main factor in growth of global soya crush), world total soyabean processing is only expected to increase by 6m tonnes in 2011/12 compared with 11.5m last season and over 16m in 2009/10. That takes some of the pressure off smaller new crop soya supplies, as does the near 69m tonnes of soyabean stocks with which the season started (against 60m last year and 43m in 2010/11). How low these stocks might go in 2012 will not be clear until the Lat-Am crop situation clarifies. In the meantime, $13/14 beans may be buying some extra US soya acres beyond the USDA’s recent 75m acre (30.35m ha) forecast, so the crop there could turn out a bit bigger after all.

KEY FACTORS IN THE MONTHS AHEAD

  • How low will South America’s soyabean crops end up?
  • How much land will the US plant to soyabeans this spring – 75m, 76m acres or more?
  • Chinese consumption and timing of imports
  • EU/CIS rapeseed plantings – up or down for 2012?

 

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