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Russia's biggest grain shocks may be yet to come

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Farmers and investors need to keep their eye on Russia.

It could be argued that the wheat market's reaction to the return of the fierce price competitor to grain shipments, after an 11-month ban, was relatively modest.

Chicago wheat prices fell 5%, but stayed well above lows hit two weeks ago. Paris wheat only in late deals lost ground additional to that shed on Monday when it lost 5% while US markets took a holiday.

But that shouldn't persuade market to think that Russia - until last year's drought, the rising star of world wheat output – has lost its ability to shift prices.

Factored in

There are good reasons for a fairly limited reaction for now.

One is that investors have already factored in a return to Russian grain exports. The US Department of Agriculture earlier this month, in its much-watched Wasde report on world crop supply and demand, pegged them at 10m tonnes for wheat and 2.8m tonnes for coarse grains such as barley and corn.

That's not far short of the 15m tonnes that Russia's deputy prime minister, Viktor Zubkov, was talking about on Tuesday as a likely figure for shipments in 2011-12.

And that 2.2m-tonne difference could easily be offset by a multiple if weather worries in Canada, China, Europe and the US, as well as the former Soviet Union, come home to roost.

Remember, it was not until late June last year that the extent of Russia's drought became apparent – and forecasters are predicting at least another warm week for the former Soviet Union, on top of already dry conditions, raising the potential of another unduly dry summer.

Data discrepancies

But that does not make Russia a spent force for lower prices.

Russian wheat sowings (by harvest year)

2011: 25.9m-26.4m hectares

2010: 26.61m hectares

2009: 28.70m hectares

2008: 26.63m hectares

2007: 24.38m hectares

Source: SovEcon

Furthermore, there is the chance that Russia's inventories left over from previous harvests may be bigger than the market believes.

Russia's grain inventories are, to a degree like China's, a matter of debate. US Department of Agriculture attaches last summer estimated them at 15.5m tonnes, at the same time as Russian official statisticians had them at 21.7m tonnes, and Moscow farm ministry officials at 25.8m tonnes.

Hidden stores?

Have farmers and merchants been squirreling away grain in preparation for flooding onto export markets when trade resumes?

There is room for doubt. While the USDA has pegged in a more than halving in Russian grain stocks over 2011-12, they were running a modest 22% behind a year ago as of March 1, according to official statisticians.

And layered on top of this is the uncertainty caused by elections both this year, for Russia's parliament, and next, for the presidency. That could see the rural lobby wooed with further concessions – within the bounds of keeping food prices in check.

Whatever the outcome, now Russia has switched itself back into grain exports, and has the ability to surprise, investors need to plug back into Russia.

By Mike Verdin

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