Is the soybean market becoming more tolerant of thin inventories?
Certainly, US stocks are currently estimated to end 2013-14
at the tightest on record. Compared with consumption, they are expected to fall
below 4% for the first time on official US records going back to the 1960s.
Yet spot Chicago soybean futures, trading at $14.50 a bushel
on Thursday, are more than $3.40 a bushel below their all-time high, set in
But then the market, in the words of Joseph Glauber, chief
economist at the US Department of Agriculture – and thus one of the most
important people for world ag commodity markets – has been "transformed" by the
rise of South America as a rival to the US in exports.
The growth in the likes of Argentina and Brazil, and most
lately Paraguay, as world names in soybean market has had "big implications"
for the market, Mr Glauber said.
The growth of southern hemisphere producers has reduced the vulnerability
of supplies to US dynamics.
The cyclical low in supplies held in major exporting
countries has risen from late-1990s levels of roughly 25m tonnes to 40m tonnes
over the past five years.
For importers, this is has meant a constant flow of export
supplies, with US shipments taking off in October, as its harvest ramps up, before easing into April, when Argentine and
Brazilian exports spike, boosted by their own harvest periods.
South American shipments then hold sway for the next six
months or so, before giving the baton back to the US.
This smoother flow appears to be allowing consumers to run
with lower inventories.
"We have seen a very different pattern in terms of global
stocks," Mr Glauber told the International Grains Council meeting in London.
And that in turn is indeed being reflected in changed
pricing patterns on futures, which distant contracts no longer justifying the
premiums they did even a decade ago.
Indeed, markets are now having to offer a discount to
persuade soybean buyers to purchase ahead.
July futures, in 1980-84, used to trade at a premium of some
7% to those for delivery the previous November, in terms of average prices
measured in September.
Now July futures are tending to trade at a 5% discount.
'Transformed the market'
While external factors, such as low interest rates, may be
in part behind the changing trend, so has "growth in [soybean] production in
the southern hemisphere," Mr Glauber said.
"In recent year, we have seen backwardation, with high
prices" for nearby contracts, "but with the prospect of big crops coming on in South
America" depressing values further ahead.
"This has very much transformed the market."
The comments were made ahead of the USDA's monthly Wasde
report, which on Wednesday cut the forecast for US soybean stocks as of the close
of 2013-14 by 5m bushels to 125m bushels, the lowest, when compared with
demand, on records going back to the 1960s.