China's affair with the global grains market continues

Agricultural imports by the Middle Kingdom soared to record highs in 2020, mainly driven by healthy stockfeed demand, the US Phase 1 trade deal and supply concerns.
Agricultural imports by the Middle Kingdom soared to record highs in 2020, mainly driven by healthy stockfeed demand, the US Phase 1 trade deal and supply concerns.

China's General Administration of Customs released its December trade data last week, and the numbers confirmed that the Chinese economy continues its post-pandemic rebound as its manufacturing industry capitalises on COVID-19 lockdowns in many western countries.

Exports grew for the seventh consecutive month in December, rising 18.1 per cent compared to the same month in 2019 - but were down slightly from the 21.1 per cent growth recorded in November.

China's imports increased by 6.5 per cent in December compared to a year earlier, and were up from 4.5 per cent the previous month.

Its surge in exports in December pushed China's trade surplus to a record US$78.18 billion, eclipsing the previous high of US$75.40 billion set in November.

Overall, China's exports rose 3.6 per cent in 2020 compared to the previous year, and imports fell 1.1 per cent during the same 12-month period.

As a result, China's trade surplus for the year was a staggering US$535.03 billion - its highest level since 2015.

In the agricultural commodity space, China's imports soared to record highs in 2020.

This was driven by healthy stockfeed demand from a pig sector recovering quickly from the decimation caused by African Swine Fever (ASF).

There was also a domestic shortfall of corn, and the Phase 1 trade deal commitment with the United States that helped stimulate the record pace.

China maintained its mantle as the world's biggest buyer of soybeans, importing a record 100.33 million tonnes in the 2020 calendar year.

Brazil was the biggest supplier, with exports to the Middle Kingdom climbing 11.5 per cent year-on-year from 57.67 million tonnes to 64.28 million tonnes.

After a huge shipping program in the second and third quarters of 2020, December soybean arrivals fell to just 1.18 million tonnes - which was down from 4.83 million tonnes a year earlier.

The US is the other major supplier to China and its shipments soared 52.8 per cent to 25.86 million tonnes, compared to 6.94 million tonnes last year.

The annual US tally included 5.84 million tonnes of imports in December, which was up 89 per cent - or 3.09 million tonnes - compared to December 2019.

The challenge here is that there is no evidence of demand rationing, as exporters continue to offer US soybeans despite the latest US Department of Agriculture (USDA) supply data suggesting ending stocks are already very tight.

And the pace of soybean purchases is expected to remain at record levels in the first half of 2021, as demand continues to grow and crush margins are solid.

Some crushers in Shandong province are reportedly making about 237 yuan ($47.37) on every tonne of beans crushed. This is about double the crush margin of this time last year.

On the corn front, tight domestic supplies have continued to push domestic prices higher and drive demand for cheaper imports.

China imported a record 11.3 million tonnes of corn in 2020, which was an increase of 207 per cent on the 5.46 million tonnes imported in 2019.

This included 2.25 million tonnes in December, which was more than double the quantity discharged in December last year.

Corn imports exceeded the annual tariff rate quoted of 7.2 million tonnes for the first time last year, and it is widely touted that China's corn imports in the 2020-21 marketing year could exceed a staggering 30 million tonnes.

Wheat imports into China in 2020 were reported at a record at 8.38 million tonnes, which was close to triple the level of imports in the previous 12-month period.

This represented 87 per cent of its annual tariff rate quota of 9.64 million tonnes, which was a noticeable improvement from just 30 per cent in 2019.

Barley imports for 2020 totaled 8.08 million tonnes - including 0.98 million tonnes in December - and sorghum imports have been robust in recent months, with the 0.55 million tonnes imported in December bringing the 2020 total to 4.81 million tonnes.

Current domestic corn prices are high, so China has been substituting a fair amount of its corn needs with wheat from the state reserve auctions - and from cheaper imported feed grains, such as corn, wheat and barley.

According to the country's National Grain Trade Centre, China sold 3.94 million tonnes of wheat at its auction on January 13 - representing a remarkable 99.74 per cent the total offered.

This was up from 52 per cent the previous week and just 12 per cent at the December 23 auction.

The high clearance rate underscores the impact of soaring domestic corn prices as stockfeed manufacturers actively seek corn alternatives, especially as rising coronavirus cases spark supply concerns.

The average sale price was 2504 yuan/t ($501.05/t) compared to 2365 yuan/t ($473.23/t) the previous week.

Estimates put state-owned Chinese wheat stocks at about 69 million tonnes - or about four months' supply at the current pace.

Nature threw a spanner in the works late last week, as there was a new ASF outbreak reported in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.

This was diagnosed in 1015 sows on a farm in Pingyuan county, killing 214 of these animals.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, this was the country's first reported case of the deadly disease since October 26.

And, similarly, illegal transportation was suspected as the cause of the latest outbreak.

However, later reports suggested that the outbreak was a new form of ASF and may have been caused by illicit vaccines.

Authorities have identified two new strains of the ASF that are missing one or two key genes.

The mortality rate of these strains appears to be lower than strain that ravaged the pig herd in China in 2018 and 2019, but it does cause a chronic ailment that reduces the number of healthy piglets born in each litter.

This story Record grain imports to China recorded in 2020 due to stockfeed demand and supply concerns first appeared on The Land.