Has slump in grain prices paved way for a rebound?

Have investors gone overboard in selling out of Chicago grains?

It is easy so see why many have headed for the hills as Friday's double-bill of key crop reports approached.

The US Department of Agriculture will later reveal not only the results of its annual farmer survey of domestic spring sowing intentions, one of the key reports of the year, but a quarterly grain inventory report which on its own would be a major event.

"Corn futures have fallen by the daily limit on the day of the past three quarterly stocks reports," Jonathan Lane, trading manager at UK grain merchant Gleadell, said.

At US-based broker Rice Dairy, Jerry Gidel warned that the "erratic nature of the quarterly stocks report, particularly for corn, has produced some very dramatic impacts on the markets".

And at Iowa-based PFGBest, Tim Hannagan said: "One thing is certain, there is high risk on a report day when two major reports collide. One could be bullish and one bearish, both bullish or bearish, or any combination.

"Certainly, low-margin accounts will stand aside."

Too gloomy?

Investors' rush to the exits is evident both in estimates that funds have closed 56,000 contracts so far this week in corn alone and in the price tumble this has encouraged, of more than 6% in Chicago's spot May lot, on top of losses last week too.

Market forecasts for USDA corn data, and (last season's)

Corn sowings: 94.72m acres, (91.921m acres)

Corn inventories, March 1: 6.150bn bushels, (6.523bn bushels)

Sources: USDA, ThomsonReuters poll 

"The expectation is that there will be a bearish report in corn, that's for sure," Dax Wedermeyer at broker US Commodities told, noting expectations for US sowings of the grain to hit a World War II high of 94.7m acres.

Furthermore, many fear inventories may come in higher than the 6.15bn bushels analysts have suggested, with many suggesting that a mild winter, coupled with replacement by relatively-cheap wheat and distiller's grains in rations, has sustained inventories.

"But a lot of bearishness has been factored in to prices in the last week," Mr Wedermeyer said.

"We look likely to see a technical rebound, unless the USDA comes out with a wild number."

Lessons from the past

Mr Hannagan noted the similarity with corn's behaviour last year, when prices fell $0.57 a bushel heading into the sowings data and "we closed limit-up the day of the report and were $1.06 a bushel higher over three days".

Market forecasts for USDA soybean data, and (last season's)

Soybean sowings: 75.39m acres, (74.976m acres)

Soybean inventories, March 1: 1.387bn bushels, (1.249bn bushels)

Sources: USDA, ThomsonReuters poll

And history holds another signal, in that analysts have a tendency to overestimate the USDA's corn acres number in March sowings reports.

"Only five times in the last 20 years has the USDA's farmer survey projected a higher level than the trade's average," Mr Gidel said.

In soybeans, "the trade has been more mixed", underestimating the USDA seven times over the period, and overestimating four times, if by larger margins of error.

'Risky but logical'

Such talk would appear to vindicate the slight gains in Chicago prices early on Friday.

Market forecasts for USDA wheat data, and (last season's)

Wheat sowings: 57.422m acres, (54.409m acres)

Includes - winter wheat sowings: 41.963m acres, (40.646m acres)

hard red spring wheat sowings: 13.313m acres, (12.394m acres)

durum wheat sowings: 2.223m acres, (1.369m acres)

Wheat inventories, March 1: 1.223bn bushels, (1.425bn bushels)

Sources: USDA ThomsonReuters poll

However, there are twists which mean that, moreso than usual, the sowings data represent only a temporary landmark.

Weather so far this spring has been unusually benign in the US, meaning farmers have set a fierce pace for early plantings, which given that corn tends to be sown slightly before soybeans, favours the grain over the oilseed.

(Wheat and cotton are, thanks to lower return prospects, being viewed as poorer alternatives, with Brian Henry, at Benson Quinn Commodities, noting that "there doesn't seeem a lot of will to plant spring wheat", and flagging recent estimates of sowings of only 12.1m-12.6m acres with the grain.)

Broker FCStone said: "The US is heading for record early corn-planting pace," while adding that many farmers sowing "are doing so with great risk, as crop insurance companies will not cover them for frost damage having planted this early".

"There is not even a yield benefit," but what growers are exploiting is the higher price of the September contract over December, "in the hope they can supply corn into the earlier market - risky but logical."

'Still left partially guessing'

And futures prices are also making a late bid to encourage soybeans over corn.

"Of key importance is the farmer survey that the planting intentions report is based on was conducted in the first half of March," Paul Deane at Australia & New Zealand Bank said.

"Relative pricing between corn and soybeans has changed considerably post the survey," with corn prices falling by 8-10%, and soybeans by 1-2%.

Indeed, the new crop corn: soybean ratio, which fell late last year below 2.0, recovered early on Friday to hit 2.5 for the first time in a year.

So regardless of Friday's data, "the market will still be left partially guessing as to what current price relativities mean for US planted acres", Mr Deane said.

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