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IGC’s 2011 wrap-up – Eurozone crisis has affected crops, barring rice

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The International Grains Council has released its grain market report for November 2011. As this will be the IGC’s last report for the year, grain traders in the major exporting countries and buying countries will use this as their end-2011 reference. Here are the main forecasts by the IGC for major crops:

Market commentary – After showing some strength in early November, global grain export prices were again in retreat, though with rice once more the exception. Overall, IGC’s GOI index fell by 16 points, or 6%, to a 13-month low. The recent market downturn can be partly ascribed to bearishly perceived market fundamentals, as harvests neared completion in the northern hemisphere and work started south of the equator. But it was also in reaction to deepening financial uncertainties, notably in Europe, affecting nearly all commodities. Heavy supplies of wheat amid strong export competition, including from new crop grain out of Argentina and Australia, mostly reduced fob values by between $20 and $30 over the past month, narrowing the gap with Black Sea quotations.

Despite initial support from US cash markets and a smaller official crop estimate, CME maize futures in Chicago saw major speculative selling, partly due to increased competition from other exporters but with sentiment considerably dented by worries about the global financial crisis and the collapse of a major brokerage firm. Similar pressures were evident in oilseed markets, led by a decline in US soyabeans, values of which dipped to their lowest since October 2010. As measured by IGC’s sub-index for rice, export prices of this cereal remained firm in the past month: within this measure, quotations in Thailand saw further gains, attributed to the country’s severe floods, while those in Vietnam and South Asia weakened.

Grains – Reduced grain crop estimates for some major producers, including for maize in the US, are only partly offset by increases in the CIS and elsewhere, trimming the global production total for 2011-12 by 3m. tons from October, to 1,816m. This would still represent an increase of 64m. tons over last year, largely due to sizeable recoveries in output in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Production of all crops except sorghum will rise this year, with the biggest increases in wheat and maize. Southern hemisphere prospects remain favourable, with rains in South America and Australia mostly boosting yield expectations for wheat and helpful for plantings of maize and sorghum. Consumption of grains will also increase in 2011-12, especially in the feed sector, including a marked rebound in Russia after the previous year’s drought.

At 1,826m. tons, world use is expected to show a rise of 2.2% from the previous year. However, a feature this year will be the marked slowdown in the expansion of industrial use, set to rise by only 1.7%, to 303m. tons. Within this figure, the use of grains in fuel ethanol, which has displayed huge growth in the past decade, is expected to stay close to last year’s 147m. tons, assuming the use of maize for this purpose in the US declines slightly. With the reduction in the global grain crop estimate largely balanced by an upward adjustment in the opening stocks figure and a slight cut in the use forecast, the projection of world carryover stocks is unchanged from last month, at 360m. tons.

[ Data – here are the IGC’s data files (all Excel): Total grains supply and demand ; Total grains trade ; Rice supply and demand ; Rice trade ; Soyabean trade ; IGC’s grains and oilseeds index ]

However, the total for the eight major exporters is trimmed by 3m. tons, largely because of a reduced stocks projection in the EU. World trade in grains in 2011-12 (July-June) is expected to climb by 11m. tons to a record 254m., 4m. more than forecast previously, reflecting larger than anticipated wheat purchases after this season’s marked upturn in medium and lower grade supplies, especially from the Black Sea region, whose total grain shipments are set to total 55m. tons, up from only 22m. last year.

Wheat – The second largest world wheat crop ever and ample carry-in stocks from last year, have sharply boosted global availabilities in 2011-12. While use is rising at a faster than normal pace, world stocks at the end of the season are still expected to climb to their highest level in a decade. Compared with last month, the estimate of world production is 1m. tons lower, at 683m., including a slight downward revision in the US, where the spring wheat crop was even smaller than expected.

Stronger than previously projected feed use adds another 2m. tons to the global consumption forecast, at 679m., boosting the annual percentage increase to about three times the longer-term trend. Because of the increased demand figure, the forecast of global carryover stocks is 2m. tons lower than last month, at 200m., but these would still be the largest since 2001-02. The world trade forecast is lifted by 3m. tons from before to nearly 135m., only slightly below the 2008-09 record. Rather than reflecting a supply shortfall in any one country or region (as it did in 2008-09, when Iran’s imports were higher than usual), import demand appears strong in a wide range of countries, aided by competitive pricing in the major exporters, especially for lower and medium grades.

Maize (corn) – While the US crop was slightly smaller than last year’s, larger outturns elsewhere are expected to lift world maize production to a new record of 853m. tons (826m.). With harvests in North America and Europe entering their final stages, attention is switching to the southern hemisphere, where farmers in Argentina, Brazil and South Africa are set to plant more maize than in 2010-11. Due to strong competition from feed-grade wheat and projected sluggish growth in industrial demand, world use is forecast to increase at a slower than average pace. However, with the total still expected to exceed output, 2011-12 ending stocks are forecast to fall to a five-year low. Trade in the year to June 2012 is forecast to increase by 1% due to strong demand from buyers in parts of Latin America, Asia and North Africa.

Rice – Flooding in parts of Asia has negatively affected crop prospects in some key exporters. Nevertheless, bigger outturns in China and India are expected to lift global production by 2% in 2011-12, to a record 459m. tons. Total rice use is also forecast to expand by 2%, with a further small increase projected in the global carryover, to 100m. tons (98m.). Within the total, inventories in the five major exporters are forecast to increase by 8%, to an all-time peak of 32m. tons. World trade in calendar 2012 is forecast to contract by 0.8m.tons, to 32.5m., on reduced imports by Far East Asia, especially by Bangladesh and Indonesia.

In an extraordinary meeting, FAO sizes up the turmoil in world cereal markets

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The FAO’s Committee on Commodity Problems has just concluded its Extraordinary Joint Intersessional Meeting of the Intergovernmental Group on Grains and the Intergovernmental Group on Rice (held in Rome, 24 September 2010). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN does not, it appears, want to cause any alarm bells to be rung in countries already worried by food inflation, and that is why its overall advise is at odds with the details highlighted during the day-long consultations.

Here are the main points of an advisory titled ‘Turmoil in Global Cereal Markets: Outlook for 2010-11, Short-Term Risks & Uncertainties’:

La Nina (colder-than-normal sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean) often results in drier periods in Argentina and southern Brazil but wetter weather in Asia. It may strengthen through January
Any downgrading of wheat crops in southern hemisphere countries before harvest this year- Western Australia not so good
The final maize harvest in the USA (and China) – production may end up lower
Adverse growing conditions affecting secondary rice crops in Asia and main crops in southern hemisphere
Drought in Russia and delayed winter grain sowing (down 20%) – but some rains have arrived
Crop damage in Pakistan: implications for next season
Faster/slower economic recovery influencing demand prospects for feed and fuel: tightening maize supplies in the US if demand for ethanol rise faster than predicted
Larger than currently expected import purchases, maize by China for example
Trade measures, in particular further exports restrictions
Developments in outside markets such as currency (US Dollar), equity, energy and other commodity markets

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

The rhetorical question is asked – “Are we ready?” – and the points supplied are: (1) We are not in a food crisis and grain prices may even come down a bit, (2) But all indications point to still high prices and volatile markets with many uncertainties lying ahead, (3) Food security under growing market instability and price volatility: Are we ready?

The extraordinary joint meeting briefly explained what it meant by “Increased volatility & speculation” with the following points: Markets liberalisation, decline of price supports; Deregulation of the financial service sectorl Declining margins in securities tradingl Rising demand for food in emerging marketsl Under-investment in agriculture; Lack of price transmission to producers; Sudden governmental interventions in export marketl Ease of access to electronic market place; Exchanges restructured today as for-profit corporations.

The dangers, current and expected, are set out in the briefing paper on ‘Agricultural Futures: Strengthening market signals for global price discovery’. This said:

Volatility in commodity foodstuffs is a result of both fundamental factors and speculative inflows of managed money. Sharply differing opinions exist on how institutional money flows have changed the nature of the markets, particularly since the expansion of limits. While financial firms argue that they add volume and liquidity to the market, others maintain that large order size creates volatility and jagged price swings. In the August 2010 price hike of wheat, the CME wheat price moved up limit and down limit within two consecutive days. High frequency trading is also a controversial issue – one that a CFTC editorial recently stated needed “reining in,” commenting that “parasitical trading does not truly contribute to fundamental market functions.”

Global undernourishment (image: Nature)Much debated also is the effect of passive fund money (index funds and swaps dealers), with experts on both sides arguing whether they have caused chronic price elevation and steep contango in some futures contracts. In its 2009 Trade and Development Report, UNCTAD contends that the massive inflow of fund money has caused commodity futures markets to fail the “efficient market” hypothesis, since the purchase and sale of commodity futures by swap dealers and index funds is entirely unrelated to market supply and demand fundamentals, but depends rather on the funds’ ability to attract subscribers. Despite the risk transfer nature of futures trading, in which gains and losses are equally offset, passive funds have successfully packaged and sold futures contracts as an alternative investment class to institutional investors. However, most would agree that these passive funds do not affect volatility levels since their only trading activity is a forward “roll” of their positions and the timings of these rolls are announced in their prospectus.

This is worrying because the FAO is now being a great deal clearer about the same problem it tried to describe in 2007-08,

Finally, Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right To Food, has released a briefing paper entitled ‘Food Commodities Speculation and Food Price Crises: Regulation to reduce the risks of price volatility’. His recommendations:

1. Given the numerous linkages between agriculture, oil, and other financial markets demonstrated above, comprehensive reform of all derivatives trading is necessary. The very first step would be to require registration, as well as clearing to the maximum extent possible of OTC derivatives, so that there is real time reporting of all transactions made, without information privileges for OTC traders, and in order to allow for effective supervision. The small minority of derivatives that cannot be cleared must nevertheless be reported without a time lag.

Islamabad Water Carrier

Islamabad Water Carrier: World Water Day was just another Monday for Nasir Ali, who was photographed on March 22 hauling water to his home in an Islamabad slum. Water shortages have become common for many people in the capital who must gather their daily water from government tankers or private trucks—when the precious resource is available at all. The nation’s acute rainfall shortage has also cut water supplies at hydroelectric dams, exacerbating disruptive power shortages and forcing officials to implement some rather dramatic solutions. Photograph by Aamir Qureshi, AFP/Getty Images

2. Regulatory bodies should carefully study and acquire expertise in commodity markets, instead of regulating commodity derivatives and financial derivatives as if they were the same class of assets. It may be appropriate to assign the task of regulating commodity derivatives to a specific institution staffed with experts in commodity regulation, rather than have a single body regulating both financial and commodity derivatives.

3. Access to commodities futures markets should be restricted as far as possible to qualified and knowledgeable investors and traders who are genuinely concerned about the underlying agricultural commodities. A significant contributory cause of the price spike was speculation by institutional investors who did not have any expertise or interest in agricultural commodities, and who invested in commodities index funds because other financial markets had dried up, or in order to hedge speculative bets made on those markets.

4. Spot markets should be strengthened in order to reduce the uncertainty about future prices that creates the need for speculation. However, these markets must also be regulated in order to prevent hoarding. Spot markets must be transparent, and holdings should be subject to strict limits in order to prevent market manipulation.

5. Physical grain reserves should be established for the purpose of countering extreme fluctuations in food price, managing risk in agricultural derivatives contracts, and discouraging excess speculation, as well as meeting emergency needs. Such measures and the abovementioned reform of commodity derivatives markets should be seen as complementary.