Mexican trade rift looms over Sweetener Colloquium

by Ron Sterk
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Many buyers have taken a wait-and-see attitude regarding future bookings.

More than 450 participants gathered at the International Sweetener Colloquium in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 8-11 to hear speakers address the latest issues affecting the sugar and sweetener industry, and to conduct business on the sidelines that for some traditionally allows them to book for the rest of the year or beyond. The speakers were on target as usual, but the sideline business was lacking due to continued uncertainty related to the U.S.-Mexico sugar trade rift.

The colloquium, sponsored by the Sweetener Users Association and hosted by the International Dairy Foods Association, understandably focuses on issues most relevant to its constituents — food, beverage and dairy processors who buy sugar or corn sweeteners by the rail carload or by the truckload. This year’s topics included market outlooks, consumer trends, trade policy, G.M.O. and Front of Panel labeling and other topics pertinent to the sugar industry. The other side of the market — sugar producers — holds the International Sweetener Symposium, sponsored by the American Sugar Alliance, in the summer.

Sugar users have been less than happy with sugar producers, who on March 28, 2014, filed petitions with the U.S. government accusing Mexico of dumping subsidized sugar on the U.S. market at the cost of an estimated $1 billion to U.S. sugar producers in 2014. U.S. bulk refined beet sugar prices were reported in this publication at 26½c to 27c a lb and refined cane at 28½c to 32c a lb in March 2014, within 1c to 3c a lb of lows seen the previous summer that led some sugar processors to forfeit on about $259 million in government loans in 2013 when refined sugar prices fell to near five-year lows.

Mexican sugar exports to the United States were record high in 2013 and in 2014 slightly eclipsed the prior-year record. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico may ship unlimited amounts of sugar duty free to the United States, and U.S. corn refiners may ship unlimited amounts of corn sweeteners to Mexico duty free, which they did.

U.S. bulk refined beet and cane sugar prices climbed steadily from late March 2014 to peak at 37c to 40c a lb in early September, up 33% to 43% in five months. At the same time, sugar exports from Mexico began to drop as traders on both sides of the border awaited findings from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission. Imports of Mexican sugar in the October-December period of 2014 tumbled nearly 90% from a year earlier.

Also during the summer and into the fall, rulings from the D.O.C. and the I.T.C. consistently came out in favor of the petitioners — U.S. sugar producers — with antidumping and countervailing duties totaling about 55% imposed on Mexican sugar exports in late October 2014, followed by a draft agreement to suspend the duties. Trade was near a standstill.

On Dec. 19, 2014, the D.O.C. and Mexico signed revised agreements “suspending” the duties based on new guidelines for exports of sugar from Mexico that included price minimums, volume maximums, specific timing and licensing of Mexican exporters, among other requirements. But two U.S. cane refiners, including Louis Dreyfus Commodities’ Imperial Sugar Co., requested the I.T.C. review the suspension agreements on grounds they were harmful to U.S. cane refiners that depended on raw or estandar sugar from Mexico. The I.T.C. has until March 24, 2015, to complete its review, but some speakers at the colloquium were less than optimistic the rift would be settled even then, adding to buyers’ frustration about continued uncertainty in the market.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials speaking at the colloquium, including Undersecretary Michael Scuse and director of Dairy and Sweetener Analysis Group Barb Fecso, who administers the U.S. sugar program, made it clear the U.S.D.A. preferred the Dec. 19 suspension agreements, which they said would ensure a reliable flow of sugar from Mexico and allow the department to manage the sugar program at no cost, as required by law.

But sugar users, who prefer free trade of sugar with Mexico and other foreign sellers, made clear they were unhappy with sugar producers, the Dec. 19 suspension agreements or anything that restricts the flow of sugar to their factories. That atmosphere overhung this year’s colloquium, and the amount of sugar business done on the sidelines was limited by continued uncertainty.

As a result, not as much sugar business was completed at the colloquium as had been hoped. Trade estimates were that only about 25% of 2016 needs had been covered prior to the meeting (compared with over 80% for 2015), and while that percentage likely increased some, contracting fell short of expectations. While pricing was fairly certain, most sugar for 2016 was offered at 34c to 35c a lb f.o.b. compared with 35c to 36c a lb f.o.b. for 2015, it still was too high for many users who hope resolution to the trade rift will bring prices down. Many doubt prices have much downside potential beyond 32c a lb though, given the requirements of the suspension agreements, with the understanding there is no guarantee those agreements will be the rule going forward.

In addition, the day after the colloquium ended, three U.S. senators and 14 co-sponsors introduced the bipartisan Sugar Reform Act of 2015, seeking to make broad changes to the U.S. sugar program. The bill, similar to attempts in 2013 and 2014 that failed, is supported by sugar users and opposed by sugar producers. The tug-of-war between users and producers continues on many fronts.

Such was the atmosphere at this year’s colloquium. Ms. Fecso said it best during her presentation: “Somebody’s not going to be happy.”

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