March 17, 2020 / 10:02 AM / 14 days ago

Column: U.S. soybean shipments to China dry up to historically low levels

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (Reuters) - The United States has only one cargo of soybeans left to ship to China for the current exporting season, practically unheard of for this time of year. It is even more shocking considering that China is allegedly still on the hook for massive U.S. farm purchases this year under the recent Phase 1 deal, and that soybean stocks in the country have plunged to lows not seen in at least a decade.

Soybeans are harvested from a field on Hodgen Farm in Roachdale, Indiana, U.S. November 8, 2019. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

U.S. export inspection data published on Monday by the Department of Agriculture suggests that no American soybeans were shipped to mainland China in the week ended March 12. That is the first week since Dec. 27, 2018, in which China was absent from the weekly inspection report.

For anyone tracking the weekly data, this was very predictable and could continue in future weeks. USDA’s weekly export sales published on Thursday showed that China’s unshipped U.S. soybean purchases for 2019-20 were just 63,000 tonnes as of March 5. That equates to one cargo.

The last time that China’s outstanding soybean balance was equally as low or lower was at the very end of the 2014-15 marketing year, which is not too noteworthy since sales can sometimes get pushed into the next year, and there were plenty of sales on deck for 2015-16. Before that, outstanding sales dipped below the recent mark in June 2014.

The United States has sold minimal soybeans to China recently, and in fact, the Asian country canceled some 90,281 tonnes in the week ended March 5. The halt in sales is especially frustrating for U.S. soybean exporters since the two-month-old Phase 1 trade deal suggests China must substantially boost soy purchases.

Once the United States ships that one remaining cargo, outstanding soybean sales to China will completely dry up for the first time since May 2006 if no additional sales are made first. It will be even more rare if that happens this month, as outstanding bean sales to China have not gone to zero in March since 2004.

CHINESE SUPPLY PLUNGES

This is always a difficult time of year for the United States to sell soybeans to China, since top exporter Brazil’s harvest is ongoing. The abundant Brazilian supply is often better priced at this time than its American competitor, and Brazil has already amassed an enormous shipping schedule of soybeans to China.

But intense rains last month at Brazilian ports caused loading delays, so cargoes have been arriving in China at a slower rate. According to industry portal Cofeed, soybean stocks at Chinese ports had dwindled to just 3.92 million tonnes by mid-March, the lowest weekly volume in records back to August 2010.

That is down 37% from mid-February. It is also down 21% from the same week a year ago and down 38% from the same week two years ago, the latter of which was a maximum for March.

Chinese markets reflected the supply concerns on Monday, even as global financial and commodity markets continued plummeting over the coronavirus pandemic. Soymeal futures on the Dalian Commodity Exchange rallied as much as 3% on Monday, their biggest intraday jump in 17 months, fueled by uncertainty over whether the virus would further delay Brazilian cargoes.

If soy stocks are of concern, it seems that China could secure some U.S. supply right now, especially since its progress toward fulfilling the Phase 1 deal is faltering. That deal, calling for China in 2020 to boost U.S. agricultural purchases by 52% over 2017 levels, has been met with skepticism from all sides of the market.

Beijing recently said the coronavirus outbreak will not alter the country’s plans to abide by the deal with the United States, though the pandemic is rapidly evolving around the globe and China has yet to re-address the issue.

Brazilian soybeans are still cheaper, but the delivery rate of U.S. beans to China are at the lowest levels in nearly 10 months, down 9% from the start of the year. Chicago-traded futures have fallen 14% since the 2020 high set on Jan. 2, and the contract tumbled 2.8% on Monday to their lowest levels in 10 months.

In the past, China has often been eager to snatch up U.S. soybeans when prices fall to such low levels, so it is natural to expect the cheap prices may lure some sales. But this is now somewhat paradoxical, as low prices do not help China achieve the Phase 1 import targets as easily, so one cannot help but wonder if the bargain is truly tempting.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a market analyst for Reuters. 

Editing by Matthew Lewis

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