Uncertainty clouds global corn picture

A new USDA report has pegged global wheat production at 770.5 million tonnes but corn supply estimates are more uncertain. PHOTO: Bloomberg
A new USDA report has pegged global wheat production at 770.5 million tonnes but corn supply estimates are more uncertain. PHOTO: Bloomberg

Those involved in global grain markets spent last week preempting the thoughts of the 'number crunchers' at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and, when its latest World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report was released on Friday, the contents were largely as the trade had anticipated.

The wheat news was bearish, with Sonny Perdue's team at the department increasing global production estimates by 4.5 million tonnes to 770.5 million tonnes.

Big movers were Australia - up 2.5 million tonnes to 28.5 million tonnes; Canada - up 2 million tonnes to 36 million tonnes; the European Union - up 0.7 million tonnes to 136.2 million tonnes; India - up 0.4 million tonnes to 107.6 million tonnes; and Argentina - down 1 million tonnes to 19.5 million tonnes.

The big surprise was forgetting to change Russian wheat production. At 78 million tonnes, it is well below most industry estimates.

Russian agriculture consultancy, SovEcon, last week raised its forecast by another 0.7 million tonnes to 83.3 million tonnes on the back of better than expected spring wheat yields in Siberia.

The larger crops in Australia and Canada led to increases in export projections of 1.5 million tonnes and 0.5 million tonnes to 19 million tonnes and 25 million tonnes, respectively.

Argentina's export expectations were lowered by 0.5 million tonnes to 13.5 million tonnes.

The bulk of this net increase was absorbed by China. Its import projections were increased by 1 million tonnes.

A minor increase in global wheat demand has pushed projected ending stocks 2.6 million tonnes higher, primarily in major export origins.

World barley production estimates were also increased, with the USDA pegging global output at 157 million tonnes - up 4.2 million tonnes compared to the previous month's report.

Russia caught most of the change following a big jump in yield, adding 3 million tonnes to production - which is now forecast at 20.3 million tonnes.

The other changes were a 0.3 million tonnes increase down under to 10.5 million tonnes and a rise of 0.8 million tonnes in the EU harvest to 63.3 million tonnes.

The global sorghum picture was very similar to that of July, with production forecast to be unchanged at 60.3 million tonnes.

The US crop was dropped by 0.3 million tonnes to 9.1 million tonnes. But this was entirely offset by an identical increase in Australian output to 1.7 million tonnes.

World export forecasts are unchanged at 8.1 million tonnes - 6.7 million tonnes of which is out of the US - and 0.5 million tonnes is expected to be shipped from each of Argentina and Australia.

China is the biggest importer at 6.1 million tonnes expected.

There were no real surprises in the soybean numbers, with the world crop down 0.7 million tonnes to 369.7 million tonnes.

US production estimates were reduced by 3 million tonnes to 117.4 million tonnes on the back of lower yields.

Forecasts for the Brazil crop, which is yet to be planted, were increased by 2 million tonnes to a record 133 million tonnes.

The decrease in US soybean yields from 3.58 tonnes per hectare to 3.49t/ha was in line with industry expectations.

But with several global production issues and demand uncertainty, particularly from China, most eyes went straight to the USDA's prognostications on corn when the WASDE report hit the screens last week.

Global corn output was posted at a record 1162 million tonnes, which was down 8.6 million tonnes from the USDA's July estimate.

As the US harvest rapidly approaches, the WASDE report's corn yield estimate was 11.2t/ha - against the July estimate of 11.4t/ha.

This may seem a small decrease, but when coupled with a 0.5 million hectare reduction in the harvested area due to the storm that lashed Iowa last month, it lops 9.6 million tonnes from US production to 378.5 million tonnes.

Elsewhere, the Brazilian corn crop is forecast at a record 110 million tonnes - up 3 million tonnes compared to August; the Russian crop was cut by 0.3 million tonnes to 15MMT; and EU output was 1.5 million tonnes lower at 66.3 million tonnes.

The forecast harvest of major Black Sea exporter Ukraine was trimmed by 1 million tonnes to 38.5 million tonnes on the back of persistent dry weather. But that looks high compared to local analyst ProAgro, which called the crop 4.5 million tonnes lower again - at just 34 million tonnes.

On the demand side of the equation, the global picture came in unchanged in the WASDE report.

But, drilling down into the supply and demand matrix, there were some fundamental changes.

US consumption was cut by 5.1 million tonnes, as lower ethanol demand projections due to COVID-19 are realised. On the other hand, Brazilian demand was increased by 2 million tonnes.

But the trade was left baffled by the China corn number estimates.

Many think that Sonny's merry men are asleep at the wheel when it comes to the Middle Kingdom.

They did increase Chinese corn consumption estimates by 2 million tonnes to 279 million tonnes, but left production and imports unchanged at 260 million tonnes and 7 million tonnes respectively.

This is despite concerns mounting over new crop Chinese corn production this month after three typhoons hit the country's primary corn-growing region in quick succession over a 20-day period. This leveled crops, flooded low-lying warehouses and pushed domestic corn prices to their highest level in five years.

The full extent of the storm damage is not yet known, but analysts are expecting corn output in the key producing provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin to be severely affected.

Shenzhen-based futures broker and private analyst, Chaos Ternary, put the losses in the aforementioned provinces at 5.88 million tonnes and 1.68 million tonnes respectively.

And the massive corn auction program over the past four months has almost exhausted China's corn reserves, forcing consumers to substitute corn with up to 20 million tonnes of feed wheat and rice ahead of the nation's harvest.

When it comes to China's corn imports in the 2020-21 marketing year, it seems that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing along the hallowed corridors of the USDA at present.

Leaving import projections at 7 million tonnes - when Beijing already has 8.8 million tonnes of confirmed new crop US corn purchases on their books - was very strange. And sales of new crop Ukraine corn to China already exceed 3 million tonnes.

Global marketers are expecting corn shipments to China to be at least double the USDA projection. The majority are tipping it will probably be closer to triple, and some are even suggesting more than four times the WASDE number at 30 million tonnes.

The global corn balance sheet is littered with questions and uncertainty at the moment.

This will be a crucial driver of international grain markets as we move into the northern hemisphere fall and the row crop harvest season.

This story Global grain supply, demand estimates debated on the back of new report first appeared on Farm Online.