Low prices, strong demand boost first-quarter grain exports to record high

by Ron Sterk
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KANSAS CITY — Combined inspections of corn, wheat and soybeans in the first quarter of 2017 were the highest in records going back to 1995 as ample supplies and low prices boosted foreign demand. At the same time, that demand also has pushed up shipping costs with bulk ocean freight rates the highest since 2014.

First-quarter inspections of the three major grains (corn, wheat and soybeans) totaled 35.7 million tonnes, up 25% from the same period in 2016 and 28% above the five-year average, according to data from the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Corn exports at 15.9 million tonnes for the period were up 58% from a year earlier and were the second highest on record since 1995. Soybean inspections at 13.5 million tonnes were down 2% from a year earlier but were up 2% from the five-year average. Wheat shipments at 6.3 million tonnes were up 34% from a year ago and were the highest since 2013. First-quarter corn inspections exceeded soybean inspections for the first time since 2008.

For the respective 2016-17 marketing years, the U.S.D.A. forecasts U.S. corn exports up 18% from the prior year, wheat exports up 33% and soybeans up 5%.

Bulk ocean freight rates, which had been depressed for years because of overcapacity, in mid-April were the highest since December 2014, the department said in its April 20 Grain Transportation Report. Rates for shipping grain from the U.S. Gulf to Japan were $40.25 a tonne, up 64% from a year earlier, and from the Pacific Northwest to Japan were $22.25 per tonne, up 51%.

“The rate increases were driven by strong grain movement and increased demand for other bulk items such as coal, iron ore and steel,” the U.S.D.A. said, also noting that shipping analysts said the Baltic dry-bulk freight forward agreement market was inverted, suggesting traders were not as optimistic about rates remaining at the current high levels in the third and fourth quarters of 2017.

The world is awash in corn, wheat and soybeans. The U.S.D.A. in its April World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report forecast record high global ending stocks of all three commodities in 2016-17. Low prices for most of the commodities have contributed to strong export demand.

Nearby wheat futures fell to new contract lows for Chicago and Kansas City contracts in late April but have since rebounded on concerns that adverse weather has negatively affected the hard and soft winter wheat crops. Spring wheat prices also have been supported by concerns about planting delays. Whether the price increases will affect wheat exports remains to be seen, but it’s late enough in the marketing year that the impact should be minimal for 2016-17.

Interestingly, despite, or maybe because of, all the rhetoric about trade with Mexico, U.S. exports of corn, wheat and soybeans to that country have all increased for the respective marketing years to April 6, although shipments to most of the other major buyers also increased, according to U.S.D.A. data. Mexico, the major export market for U.S. corn, took 12,070,000 tonnes for the period, up 10% from a year ago. The largest increase was South Korea, up 279% at 4,845,000 tonnes. Japan, the second largest foreign buyer of U.S. corn, was up 45% at 9,384,000 tonnes.

Mexico passed Japan as the United States’ major wheat buyer for the marketing year to date (which ends May 31) at 3,081,000 tonnes, up 39% from the same period last year, compared to Japan at 2,607,000 tonnes, up 12%. Shipments of U.S. wheat to Brazil were up 177% at 1,184,000 tonnes, and to China were up 89% at 1,346,000 tonnes.

Of course no country can surpass China as the world’s largest soybean buyer, taking 35,376,000 tonnes so far, up 32% from the same period last year and accounting for 64% of all U.S. soybean exports. Mexico was a distant second, receiving 3,320,000 tonnes, up 12% from the same period last year.

Demand to ship ocean freight by container also remains strong, although like bulk freight, has come off a lengthy period of oversupply, low rates and high debts for shipping companies. Hanjin Shipping, once South Korea’s largest shipping company and the seventh largest in the world, was declared bankrupt in April after going into receivership and seeking court protection in August 2016, according to BBC News.

Hanjin’s bankruptcy and exit from the market is expected to reduce the industry’s overcapacity and help other shipping companies that also have struggled the past few years. The world’s largest container shipping group, Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk, in April reported a net loss of $1.9 billion in 2016, only its second annual loss since the mid-1940s, the BBC said. Most analysts agree that the ocean shipping market bottomed in 2016 but will take two to three years to reach a balanced level.

The dynamics of the ocean container carrier structure was reorganized as of April 1 from four alliances to three, resulting in larger vessels, fewer port calls and changing origin/destination port calls.

“The agricultural export community is concerned the newly formed alliances and their use of larger vessels will reduce voyage options as well as cause terminal and landside congestion,” the U.S.D.A. said.

At the same time, the United States and several other countries are investigating the container shipping industry for possible antitrust violations due to those alliances.

While most corn and wheat are shipped via bulk freight, a sizable amount of soybeans are shipped via container as are most non-food items shipped to and from the United States.

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