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Soybeans and corn: Beyond the tariff headlines

Soybeans and corn: Beyond the tariff headlines

  • 12Sep 18
  • Anthony Merola Global Strategy Analyst, Aberdeen Standard Investments

Despite being oft overlooked, agricultural commodities have stormed back into the news amid the global trade tensions that have been stoked by President Donald Trump’s protectionist policies. After Trump announced plans to implement tariffs on Chinese imports, China announced retaliatory tariffs on U.S. imports that included almost all of the agricultural commodities.

This, together with a strong US dollar, has pressured prices and drove the Bloomberg Agricultural Index to record lows this summer on July 11. Historically, prices have been driven by weather conditions, the supply/demand balance, economic growth, and government policies. But tit-for-tat tariffs and dollar strength has created a unique situation – one where the current prices do not reflect the fundamentals for many commodities. Soybeans and corn have been particularly affected.

What’s happening with tariffs?

On June 15, China announced that it would impose a 25% tax on corn and soybean imports from the U.S. As one might expect, the market’s response was negative. Both commodities fell in price by a fifth in the U.S. on the news. Conversely, local prices in Brazil and Argentina surged on the expectation of increased demand from China. China is responsible for 65% of global soybean imports, and has been a huge driver of demand growth over the past 20 years.

China imported $14 billion worth of U.S. soybeans in 2017, which is 39% of the country’s soybean imports. Chinese customers reacted to the announcement by “panic buying” before the tariffs took effect, and as a result, soybean imports rocketed in volume in June by 27% year-on-year. China also removed corn and wheat subsidies for its farmers while increasing soybean subsidies, in a bid to encourage domestic production.

But this action won’t solve China’s problems in the short term. China currently imports 90% of the soybeans it consumes, and without U.S. production, there are not enough beans to go around.

China is projected to import 94 million metric tons (mt) of soybeans for the 2018-19 marketing year. The three largest exporters of soybeans are Brazil (67 million mt), the US (62 million mt), and Argentina (7.3 million mt). If China chooses to keep the tariffs in place, it will be unable to avoid U.S. soybeans altogether - there is insufficient alternative supply on the market to meet its needs.

We have already begun seeing signs of triangulation in the market. Brazil and Argentina are importing soybeans from the U.S. at discounted prices for onward sale to China.

Both U.S. and Chinese governments are stepping in to aid both suppliers and buyers, with the hopes of minimizing changes to the supply/demand outlook.

Both U.S. and Chinese governments are stepping in to aid both suppliers and buyers, with the hopes of minimizing changes to the supply/demand outlook. President Trump announced a $12 billion emergency aid stimulus for U.S. farmers to help ease the pain of lower market prices. China has also pledged that it will subsidize buyers to insulate them from higher post-tariff prices.

Given that both U.S. farmers and Chinese consumers are being shielded by their respective governments from bearing the brunt of the announced tariffs, it appears that they are being used more as a negotiating tactic, rather than something that disrupts the overall fundamental picture for these commodities.

One more key factor suggesting that the tariffs will have less of an impact than markets are pricing in is geography. The U.S. and Brazil/Argentina are in different hemispheres. When it is summer in the U.S., it is winter in South America. For this reason, China imports a vast amount of soybeans from the U.S. in the months between September and March, while primarily importing from South America between April and August. China may have no choice but to import from the U.S. over the coming months.

If trade tensions resolve and tariffs are removed, China’s demand for U.S. soybeans will likely return to previous levels. If the tariffs are not removed, there is likely to be a slight pullback in Chinese demand for U.S. agricultural products, but - crucially - not to the extent that the market is currently pricing in.

Either outcome appears to reflect that U.S. soybeans will see more robust demand than what current prices are reflecting.

Chinese government policies

The selloff in corn prices in the wake of the tariff announcement appears to be an overreaction, as China imports an insignificant amount of U.S. corn, making it America’s 23rd largest customer.

But the effect that China has on the agricultural market goes beyond the tariff headlines. In an attempt to curb air pollution as well as draw down corn inventories, China announced a nationwide mandate that requires gasoline to contain 10% ethanol. China is the largest vehicle market in the world, meaning the new policy could lead to an incremental 3.6 billion gallons in ethanol demand. Given that corn is the primary biomass in ethanol production, we think corn demand may increase by up to 45 million mt as a result of this policy.

As previously mentioned, China has cut corn subsidies to its farmers in order to limit future productions and draw down current inventories, and to encourage domestic production of soybeans. Both the increased demand and the constraints on supply should provide tailwinds for corn prices.

Global weather conditions

Weather is a major factor when analyzing agricultural commodities. For the current growing season there have been favorable growing conditions in the U.S. contributing to record crop yields.

However, there were unfavorable drought conditions that plagued Brazil and Argentina’s corn and soybean crops at the start of the growing season. Adverse global weather conditions are another positive for U.S. producers as international supply is likely to be adversely affected.

Where to next?

Corn possesses an attractive risk/reward profile at current prices after being grouped into the tariff-driven selloff. Chinese farmers are curbing production in favor of soybeans, while South American farmers are following suit due to tariffs leading to increased demand for their soybeans. The Chinese ethanol mandate is driving long-term demand, creating a favorable supply/demand environment for corn.

Although the future of soybeans is facing some uncertainty, foreign weather disruptions and government support should sustain demand for U.S. soybeans. An expectation of a thaw in trade tensions is not necessary to see opportunities in agricultural products, because the largest consumer may have to trade with the largest producer.

In short

The fundamental picture for agricultural commodities has improved vastly, while increased investor pessimism has led to a disconnect in prices that is unsustainable and could soon reconnect. We believe prices will go up from here, given the favorable prospects for the two commodities that the market has seemed to have pushed aside.

The tariff-driven selloff appears to be a market overreaction. The impact of the tariffs on corn should be muted and the overall supply/demand outlook is very favorable. China’s ethanol mandate will drive demand growth and supply growth should be restrained as China, Brazil, and Argentina farmers switch to a crop balance that favors soybean growth over corn.

We expect this to drive prices higher as current prices are not reflecting this fundamental shift.

Although soybeans will see a more significant effect from these tariffs, China may be unable to completely avoid trade with the U.S. as there is not enough supply in the world elsewhere. Even if China avoids direct trade with the U.S. as a political tactic, they could end up with U.S. soybeans through triangulation because the U.S. is the primary supplier for soybeans during the winter months. The market is anticipating a steep drop-off in demand. We think this is unlikely to occur. The futures market is showing a high amount of short positions for both commodities, so any positive fundamental developments would be likely to lead to a short squeeze that results in upside from the current prices.

Important Information

Trading in commodities entails a substantial risk of loss.

Foreign securities are more volatile, harder to price and less liquid than U.S. securities. They are subject to different accounting and regulatory standards, and political and economic risks. These risks are enhanced in emerging markets countries.

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