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Australian wheat exports 'could fall to six-year low' - Nidera

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Nidera raised the potential for a further drop in Australian wheat exports as the southern hemisphere's top shipping country approaches a key trading period - with record-low freight rates boosting competition from distant origins.

"Our expectation is Australia should export 16m-17m tonnes of wheat this year," the trader's Australian office said.

This figure would at best match the 17.0m-tonne shipments expected by Abares, the country's official commodities bureau.

A drop below the 16.6m tonnes recorded last season would see shipments hit a six-year low.

While the US Department of Agriculture this week pegged Australia's exports this season at 18.0m tonnes, that figure is widely regarded as optimistic, being based on an estimate of 26.0m tonnes for the newly-completed wheat harvest.

"Most industry participants are back at 23.5m-24.5m tonnes" for the crop, Nidera said.

'Reasonable start'

The comments come at a key time for shipments, after the harvest replenished Australia's supplies.

"Australia's export rate is expected to pick-up for December to April," Nidera said.

However, this period of pick-up comes at a time when low shipping rates - the Baltic Dry index fell below 400 points this week for the first time on records going back 30 years - are allowing distant origins access to the Asian import markets which are typically Australia's fiefdom.

This has extended a trend which CBH separately on Thursday said that landed its trading division with a Aus$16.7m ($11.7m) loss last season.

France, for instance, last week confirmed it had in November exported 63,577 tonnes of wheat to Indonesia - the first shipments on this route since 2008-09.

Nidera said that Australian shipping schedule data "would indicate South Australia and Western Australia are off to a reasonable start, and the key is for the market to maintain this export pace".

'We remain uncompetitive'

One factor in Australia's favour has been the fall in the Australian dollar, which on Thursday touched Aus$0.6907 to $1, within an ace of matching its lowest level since May 2009.

A weak Australian dollar makes the country's products more affordable to buyers in other currencies.

Nonetheless, east-cost grain trader AgVantage urged buyers to exploit a rise in local values to Aus$291 a tonne this week for the benchmark APW1 grade, and seeing prices in northern New South Wales up some Aus$14 a tonne over the past month to Aus$292 a tonne.

"Growers should look to market into these spikes," AgVantage said, flagging a "relatively strong" basis – the gap between values in cash and futures markets.

"Here in Australia, we still remain uncompetitive from a global export view as freight from former non-competing countries now find themselves working easily into the Asian market."

Higher production costs

The challenge that Australia faces to compete in world wheat markets was underlined separately on Thursday by CBH Group, the grain handler for most of the crop in Western Australia, Australia's top producing state.

"The fact is that we are up against some stiff competition from global competitors in Canada, US, Argentina and Ukraine," said Andrew Crane, the co-operative's chief executive.

"It costs growers in these countries up to Aus$10 per tonne less to grow grain, and they have better rainfall, soil and, in turn, yields compared to Australian growers."

'Trading losses'

The comments came as CBH unveiled a 45% drop to Aus$82.7m in earnings for the year to the end of September, on revenues down 5.5% at Aus$3.72m.

The volume of grain handled by the group fell by 2.3m tonnes to 13.6m tonnes, a reflection of a weaker Western Australian harvest, while CBH's marketing and trading arm fell Aus$16.7m into the red, after tax, hurt by weakening grain markets and tougher competition.

"The commodity markets in US dollar terms experienced some of the worst declines since the global financial crisis, contributing to losses across a number of marketing and trading's commodity books and origins," CBH said.

"Increased competition from origins in Europe and Russia to destinations in the Middle East and Asia compounded these difficult conditions.

"These origins had record crops and, combined with low ocean freight rates, extended their reach into Australia's traditional markets."

By Mike Verdin

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