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Morning markets: grains get month-end blues. But not coffee

The date has erected a sell sign looming over many agricultural commodities.

Month-ends often see some position closing, as funds tidy up portfolios, and withdraw money to pay off clients.

And, given that agricultural commodity futures have performed well this month, closing positions today and Friday would likely mean selling.

'End of the bull market'

But oats have a second large sell signal too, in that the grain's rise to a record high for a spot contract, of $5.33 a bushel in the last session, has attracted attention from the national press.

"The Wall Street Coverage today on the oat market rally may signal the end of the bull market," said Richard Feltes at RJ O'Brien, the Chicago-based broker, noting one of those Chicago traders' adages.

"People who buy headlines end up selling newspapers."

It looked spot on as of 09:40 UK time (03:40 Chicago time) too, when the March contract stood down 2.4% at $4.94 a bushel, with the better-traded May contract down 2.3% at $4.50 a bushel.

Still, there could be hope for bulls if North American weather takes a turn for the even worse, further snarling up the transport of Canadian oats to the US, a strategic importer, where demand is being whetted by the grains' recommendation in diets for pig herds infected with porcine epidemic diahorrea virus (PEDv).

Egypt returns

Oats themselves are viewed as a leading indicator for other grains, of course, and certainly wheat was struggling too, despite the unveiling by Egypt's Gasc grain authority of its first wheat tender of the month.

With Egypt the top wheat importing country, that announcement came at a timely moment for bulls, given that investors have begun to focus on the lack of high profile purchases during the grain's rally this month.

Still, it is by no means certain that the US will win Gasc business, even at a time of year when the US, which has a history of underwriting world grain supplies, should be picking up orders, with former Soviet Union supplies drained.

And especially now of course, when major exporter Argentina has produced such as miserly crop and has poor trade prospects, although the cash-strapped government did on Wednesday clear another 500,000 tonnes of the grain for shipment.

Russian vs French vs US

In fact, on pricing dynamics, it looks like Russia, which keeps finding unexpected wheat supplies, will win at least some of the business stemming from the Gasc tender.

"Current FOB [free on board] offers for Russian 12.5% protein are indicated around $278 a tonne for March positions, with French around $277 a tonne for 11% protein," said Jaime Nolan Miralles at FCStone's Dublin office.

"Add in the $6-a-tonne freight premium of France to Egypt, versus Russia to Egypt, at $23 a tonne compared with $17a tonne, and price alone would suggest Russia will capture much of this business."

This besides the fact that Gasc moisture specifications, of 13% maximum, look like sidelining French trade.

As for the US soft red winter wheat, as traded in Chicago, "probably finds itself somewhere around the $266.50-a-tonne level FOB Gulf with freight somewhere around $35.00 a tonne, again leaving it out of the game on paper at least following the recent rally in [futures]," Mr Nolan said.

'Protective layer'

Further news on export trade will come with weekly US Department of Agriculture data on US export sales, expected at 300,000-500,000 tonnes for wheat, old and new crop combined.

On the bearish side, concerns over the latest US freeze appear to be waning.

"Cold temperatures across the US are a concern to some, but not many, on worries about winterkill," CHS Hedging said.

Fresh snow "might be able to provide a protective layer for the US wheat crop ahead of a forecasted cold snap," said Vanessa Tan at Phillip Futures.

Chicago wheat for May dropped 0.6% to $6.02 a bushel, dropping further below its 10-day moving average.

'Not a tight supply situation'

Corn dropped by 0.5% to $4.58 a bushel for May, after seeing smaller losses than wheat in the last session too.

Still, as one broker said, "corn is not in a tight supply situation by any means and this recent strength could run out of steam soon.

"We are still looking at a 1.5bn-bushel carryout this year which means a lot less competition for corn once grain starts moving this spring/summer," as growers  empty silos for their next harvest.

Demand signals

That said some of the demand signs are good too, with the USDA on Wednesday unveiling sales of 101,600 tonnes of corn to "unknown" for 2013-14, and weekly US ethanol data seen as decent too.

Although ethanol output rose by only 2,000 barrels a day to 905,000 barrels a day, stocks fell by 179,000 barrels to 17.02m barrels, at a time of year when inventories are usually more in the rebuilding phase.

And the production figure looks enough to meet the USDA's estimate of 5.0bn bushels of corn being used to make ethanol this year.

"If this pace is maintained over the balance of the marketing year, ethanol grind would equate to 5.013bn bushels," CHS Hedging said.

Or would it? "Using a 2.8 gallon-per-bushel conversion rate weekly grind needs to average approximately 928,000 barrels per day to catch the USDA estimate," Benson Quinn Commodities said.

More on corn demand will be known later with weekly export sales data expected to come in at 475,000-775,000 tonnes.

Data later

For soybeans, weekly US export sales are expected at 400,000-800,000 tonnes.

Still, that would exclude the 568,000-tonne order released on Tuesday which continues to puzzle investors, given that South American supplies are cheaper, and if that order is actually fulfilled, well, the US would have to import itself to fulfil it, without substantial cancellations of other orders.

Of course, these are not unlikely, as buyers switch to Brazilian supplies.

"The market tentatively awaits reports of cancellations or switching of existing sales as the current sales are well above USDA annual projections," CHS Hedging said.

'Whole lot more demand rationing'

Ideas over the order seem to be reaching a consensus that is was made by Indonesia, although more will be known in next week's export sales report.

"Rumours on the street say that Indonesia was the buyer, for April through August," CHS said.

Another broker said that "it sounds like this sale will likely go to Indonesia".

"If the majority of the current sales do end up actualising we will need to see a whole lot more demand rationing of our own domestic crush and/or more imports from Brazil."

'Doesn't strike me as a disaster'

And this when expectations for Brazil's crop are on the wane too.

RJ O' Brien's Richard Feltes said that he was hearing "more chatter" over the "trimming of 2014 Brazil soy production, the likelihood of lower end-2013-14 US soy stocks, and a renewed fund interest in owning ag commodities given the tepid outlook across other asset classes".

That said Abiove, the Brazilian oilseeds industry group, stuck by its forecast for an 88.6m-tonne soybean harvest.

"Production estimates range from 85m-90m tonnes, which doesn't strike me as a disaster in the making," said Brian Henry at Benson Quinn Commodities.

Soybeans for May, which hit a five-month high in the last session, eased 0.1% to $13.95 a bushel, getting little help from futures on the Dalian exchange in China, the top soybean importing country, where the September contract settled down 0.3% at 4,527 yuan a tonne.

Elsewhere in the oilseeds complex, palm oil fell too, in Kuala Lumpur, eroded by profit-taking, falling 1.0% to 2,782 ringgit a tonne, after hitting a 17-month high in the last session

'More organised rain'

But investors appeared more reluctant to book gains in this month's soaring soft commodities, coffee and sugar, despite ideas of rains ahead for some of the Brazilian areas whose dryness has been behind price gains.

Somar talked of "more organised rain in coffee areas, due to the advancement of a new cold front by producing region"

"This system is about to hit the South and Southeast between Friday and weekend, when the rains hit central Parana and south of Minas Gerais."

Phillip Futures said: "It remains to be seen if the rainfall will be able to salvage the crops damaged from previous hot and dry conditions."

Still, Terra Forte has estimated the Brazilian coffee harvest at 46m-48m bags, well below figures around 60m bags the trade initially expected.

Arabica coffee for May was 0.5% higher at 178.05 cents a pound, with raw sugar for May stable at 17.67 cents a pound.

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