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Morning markets: oat futures soar, closing in on corn prices

Is an El Nino on the way?

Actually, markets are more preoccupied currently with cold temperatures, and whether they will cause any crop damage in the former Soviet Union and, in particular, the US.

Even if an El Nino, linked to warm Pacific ocean temperatures, is in the offing, it will be months off.

But the threat of the weather pattern - which typically causes dryness in Australia, some of the South East Asia palm oil belt and India, and potentially in parts of South America too (bringing other bits heavy rains) is blipping on investors' radar.

'May approach El Nino thresholds'

The catalyst has been a caution from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology that while current conditions are neutral as regards El Nino or La Nina (linked to cool Pacific temperatures, and also disruptive to agriculture), some models predict that water temperatures "may approach El Nino thresholds by early winter".

(That is early winter from a southern hemisphere perspective.)

"Model outlooks that span autumn have lower skill than forecasts made at other times of the year, hence long-range model outlooks should be used cautiously at this time," the bureau added.

Nonetheless, the forecast made waves with the likes of CHS Hedging, which noted that "this type of [El Nino] pattern hasn't been seen in the Pacific since 2009".

'Increasing chance'

OK, Luke Mathews at Commonwealth Bank of Australia noted that the bureau estimated that "the chance of El Nino is still very low and that most of their models suggest that 'neutral' conditions will persist this year".

But it also has to be noted that official US forecasters earlier this month have also cautioned over the increasing threat of El Nino.

"While current forecast probabilities are still greatest for ENSO-neutral during [northern hemisphere] summer, there is an increasing chance for the development of El Nino," they said, ENSO being a key indicator of the weather pattern.

At Texas A&M University, Mark Welch also flagged the "increasing chance" of an El Nino.

'Harsh temperatures' 

Still, for now, the US cold temperatures were more of a concern to investors, largely in terms of whether winter wheat seedlings are being damaged, or obliterated.

Commodity Weather Group has said that the cold snap may damage as much as 10% of the Plains crop and 2% of that in the southern Midwest.

At Phillip Futures, Vanessa Tan said: "According to agricultural meteorologists, current harsh temperatures would probably affect 5-10% of the US winter wheat crop."

CBA's Luke Mathews noted that while "extremely cold temperatures in the US are causing more damage to the winter wheat crop, this is yet to translate into significant price support".

'Sharp rally' ahead?

And this despite signs of strong demand too, as an extra bullish force.

"However, ample supplies means this demand has had little impact on prices," Mr Mathews said, if flagging the threat that "the combination of robust demand, freeze concerns and short covering could lead to a sharp rally in prices" at some point.

Wheat for March stood down 0.4% at $5.63 a bushel in Chicago as of 09:30 UK time (03:30 Chicago time).

Brian Henry at Benson Quinn Commodities said that US temperatures "will moderate into the weekend.

"The winterkill issue will likely become more of a back burner item, but will still draw mention until more is known."

Export market strength

The US cold is also an issue in terms of logistics, meaning that some buyers are having to pay up for short-term supplies a factor seen, for example, as having helped underpin corn prices.

Furthermore, "the Ukraine is currently facing similar logistics issues as cold weather there is reportedly causing export delays," Benson Quinn Commodities noted.

Phillip Futures' Ms Tan said that corn deliveries from Ukraine had "stalled upon harshly cold conditions", prompting importers "to buy from other countries such as the US".

Indeed, in the US, CHS Hedging noted that "CIF values for corn popped above $0.80 a bushel over the March futures contract for the first time in a while, as demand seems to be building in the Gulf for corn".

'Ethanol margins shrinking'

However, there is a limit to the potential for corn price rises, given the huge US harvest, and the impact of resilient values, coupled with falling ethanol prices, on margins for biofuels groups.

"Ethanol margins continue to shrink as logistics, light farmer selling, and weaker ethanol markets have ethanol producers feeling the results," CHS noted.

Chicago corn for March eased 0.2% to $4.31 a bushel, remaining trapped below its 75-day moving average, but above 10-day, 20-day and 50-day lines.

Oats in demand

One grain for which the North American cold is continuing to lift values is oats, for which the March contract soared a further 2.0% to $4.25 a bushel in Chicago, an eight-month high for a spot contract and up 20% so far in 2014.

As Canadian farm officials have noted, "US end users and market trading funds have consistently bid up the nearby futures month to encourage delivery," thanks to logistical problems squeezing oats availability.

At Iowa-based broker Market 1, Mike Mawdsley said that, "March oats just might catch or surpass corn before the contract expires," on March 14.

"Who knows, maybe oats will rally up to wheat prices."

Price strength might in fact encourage extra plantings come spring.

"If this trend continues, and if July (new crop) oats could get to $4.25-4.50 a bushel or higher, some producers may throw a few acres of oats in the mix," he said.

"Of course most haven't/can't remember how/or wouldn't want to bale the straw."

'Overshadowed by Brazil'

As for soybeans, these followed the main Chicago grains lower, easing 0.1% to $12.84 a bushel for March delivery, undermined by a generally benign outlook for South American weather and by the prospect of China's new year holidays beginning on Friday.

This is expected to sideline the world's biggest importer, depressing demand, if only temporarily.

Still, will they be buying Brazilian soybeans when they return?

"The bullish impact of surprisingly high US soybean exports tightening projected mid-season and ending US soybean stocks was been overshadowed to a great extent by the imminent movement of soybeans from Brazil, where early harvest has started, into usage channels," Anne Frick at Jefferies Bache said.

Export dynamics

In fact, Brazilian soybean exports "do not usually reach critical mass until March", Ms Frick said.

The record shipments for a February are 1.568m tonnes, set two years ago.

For a March, the record is 4.237m tonnes, also in 2012.

"Argentine's harvest is about two months later, delaying the first large export month for soybeans from Argentina until April or May," she added.

That is, of course, if producers are selling them rather than holding on, using crops as a hedge against a falling currency and soaring inflation.

Argentine farmers are estimated to be hoarding 8.4m tonnes of soybeans, compared with 1.6m tonnes a year ago.

* Further to the International Cocoa Organization statement late on Tuesday on its deficit estimates, cocoa futures indeed proved relatively resilient in early deals, as some investors had forecast, falling by 0.6% to $2,889 a tonne in New York, and to £1,823 a tonne in London, both for March delivery.

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