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Slump in ethanol demand not as dismal as it looks

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Has US ethanol consumption really fallen off a cliff?

At first sight, it might appear so.

Production of the biofuel fell by 13,000 barrels, or 1.6%, a day last week, while stocks soared by nearly 6% to 18.9m barrels - the biggest gain in nearly two years.

And this when imports from Brazil fell to 6,000 barrels, from levels approaching 60,000 barrels the three previous weeks.

On the face of it, more than 1m barrels of demand has disappeared, a loss which would bode ill indeed for prices of corn, the main raw material used by US bioethanol plants.

Hurricane hangover

But a hidden dynamic was at work in Hurricane Sandy, or more specifically its aftermath, Jerrod Kitt, at broker Linn Group said.

As the US sought to fill a void in fuel supplies left by the disaster, "company drew down heavily on ethanol inventories to blend into gasoline", meaning these stocks effectively left official data.

The jump in inventories last week was down to these unused stocks "being returned back into the system", Mr Kitt told

"The data are not nearly as bearish as they might seem."

'Not very good margins'

Not that all the weakness in the data can be put down to post-hurricane quirks.

Indeed, they were blamed nonetheless for a drop of 0.6% to $7.39 a bushel in Chicago corn for December in lunchtime deals.

"There is a surprise, and that is that ethanol production fell so steeply. We had not heard of any plant shutdowns," Mr Kitt said.

Nonetheless, ethanol production margins "are still not really good", especially for plants which have not covered their needs ahead, and are having to pay for supplies on the US cash market.

"Big companies such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland can probably absorb it. They have probably hedged their needs ahead."

But ethanol producers buying corn hand to mouth are looking at losses of 5-15 cents a gallon, including fixed costs.

The lower production rate implies US ethanol plants consuming corn at an annual rate of 4.4bn bushels – below the 4.5bn bushels that the US Department of Agriculture has factored in.


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