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By Hugh Bronstein and Karl Plume
BUENOS AIRES/CHICAGO, Nov 30 (Reuters) - A ship named the Torrent is nearing the end of a 5,000-mile trip carrying soybeans from the U.S. Great Lakes to Argentina - a journey that only makes economic sense because of the U.S.-China trade war.
The ship is scheduled to dock in the Rosario grains hub on Dec. 4, days after the leaders of the world’s two largest economies, U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, hold high-stakes trade talks in Buenos Aires.
They will meet on the sidelines of a Group of 20 nations summit and are expected to discuss how to roll back tit-for-tat tariffs - covering goods worth hundreds of billions of dollars - that have skewed global trade flows.
The Torrent’s 20,000-tonne soybean cargo is one such distortion, and just one of 14 ships the Argentine soy crusher Vicentin has lined up to import U.S. soybeans, according to port data reviewed by Reuters. The previously unreported shipments are among the first significant Argentine purchases from the United States in two decades, according to Vicentin’s broker and port data, as the nation’s government and industry moves to capitalize on the tumult of the U.S.-China conflict.
Argentina - one of the world’s top soybean exporters, and the top exporter of processed meal and oil - usually has no reason to import beans. But this year, the South American nation has raced to the top of the list of U.S. soybean importers because the prices of U.S. beans have fallen by 15 percent since late May, when China first threatened tariffs on them.
“One of the consequences of the trade war is that U.S. beans have to find a new home,” said Thomas Hinrichsen, president of Buenos Aires-based brokerage J.J. Hinrichsen SA, which cut the deals for Vicentin. “You are in the money to ship cheaper U.S. beans into efficient crushing plants in Argentina.”
Beyond price, Argentina needs U.S. beans to feed its massive soy-crushing industry after a punishing drought. What is left of the nation’s own crops are going to feed pigs in China - where buyers are paying a premium for South American soybeans to fill the gap left by virtually halted imports from the United States.
“The combination of the drought in Argentina and the soy glut in the United States caused by the trade conflict has directed U.S. soybeans toward Argentina,” said Guillermo Wade, manager of Argentina’s Port and Maritime Activities Chamber. “They are being used to keep our crushers working while freeing Argentine soybeans to go to China.”
Argentina’s International Trade Secretary, Marisa Bircher, told Reuters Argentina was also seeking to export more soy and byproducts to India and Southeast Asia. Argentina’s current top soymeal buyers include the European Union, Vietnam and Indonesia.
“Clearly, this U.S.-China conflict is generating a change in the grain trade,” Bircher said.
The grains powerhouse is even negotiating a license to export soymeal directly to China - which has until now only imported Argentine beans for crushing in China.
“We have a very good relationship with China... we are negotiating to open the market to soybean meal before the end of the year,” said Bircher.
Argentina collects export taxes from companies on agricultural goods like soy, corn and wheat shipments, providing it with much needed revenue in the midst of an economic crisis.
The country, which is in the global spotlight as G20 host, has good relations with both the United States and China and has sought deals with both in recent weeks as it seeks to cash in on opportunities that have arisen due to the trade war.
Besides seeking the soymeal deal with China, it has negotiated a deal to export beef to the United States for the first time in 17 years.
The Torrent, which loaded a month ago at a Toledo, Ohio facility operated by Ohio-based The Andersons, is one of 43 U.S. soybean ships that have sailed for Argentina since July and the second to sail from the Great Lakes region, on the other side of the world from the South American country. Just nine have sailed for China.
A year ago, 282 soybean cargo vessels were loaded in the United States bound for China in that time and none to Argentina, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
China’s soybean tariffs, which have virtually halted purchases of U.S. soybeans that last year totaled $12 billion, came in retaliation for Trump’s duties on Chinese steel and aluminum. That has left U.S. farmers and grains merchants with huge inventories of soybeans because China typically buys 60 percent of U.S. soy exports.
Grains companies have had to adapt quickly to keep massive volumes of perishable goods moving at the lowest possible cost.
Bulk grain terminals in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, the most direct outlet for Asia-bound shipments, are handling a quarter of their normal autumn soybean volume. The beans that are hauled there by rail are instead heading east to Great Lakes terminals or south to Mexico or Gulf Coast ports bound for countries other than China.
“By shipping soybeans out of the U.S. to unnatural destinations - and moving Brazilian and Argentine soybeans in place of that into China when they should have come out of the U.S. West Coast - there’s an inherent logistics cost in this,” Soren Schroder, Chief Executive of global grain trader Bunge Ltd told Reuters in a recent interview.
The inefficiencies amount to “many, many millions” of dollars in new costs, borne by the whole industry, he said.
The changes have also presented opportunities for agricultural trading giants such as Bunge, Louis Dreyfus Company and Cargill Inc, who are making money money processing cheaper U.S. soybeans in Argentina and Canada. They’re also selling those countries’ unprocessed beans at a premium to Chinese buyers who are struggling to replace the huge volume of soybeans they typically buy from the United States.
Nimble traders are reaping big profits, but the opportunities may be fleeting.
“Everyone’s getting on the ‘Make America Great’ Trump gravy train for soybeans from Canada,” said Dwight Gerling, president of Toronto-based DG Global, a Canadian exporter of soybeans by container.
On a delivered basis to China, Canadian soybeans were fetching a premium of up to $3 per bushel this fall over the Chicago futures price, more than double the premium U.S. soybeans make in export markets, he said.
DG Global has increased soybean sales volumes by 80 percent year to date, due entirely to the U.S.-China trade fight, Gerling said. DG buys cheap U.S. soybeans to ship to its regular southeast Asian buyers - who would normally buy Canadian soy - and this autumn sent its Canadian soybeans to China, a new market for the company.
The sales to China have recently slowed, however, with winter shipping restrictions approaching on the Great Lakes, Gerling said. Chinese bids for Canadian soybeans are now only slightly higher than bids from other countries for American soybeans.
While companies are finding new ways to make money, U.S. farmers in the export-focused Dakotas are feeling the sting of the trade battle as prices at their local elevators for their newly harvested soybeans are the lowest in more than a decade.
The concern there and elsewhere among U.S. farmers is that the damage to their relationships with Chinese buyers - built up over three decades - will be difficult to repair even if Trump and Xi strike a deal in Buenos Aires.
“The Chinese can get soybeans from other places if we’re not a reliable supplier,” said Bob Metz, a fifth generation farmer in Peever, South Dakota. “They have 1.4 billion people to feed. They don’t want to be dependent on us.”
Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg and Michael Hirtzer in Chicago Editing by Caroline Stauffer, Simon Webb and Brian Thevenot