China props up U.S. corn, soy exports as other buyers stay quieter than usual

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U.S. soybean exports flirted with record highs at the start of 2023 while corn shipments slacked, owing to last year’s huge Brazilian corn crop which was followed by a slow start to its current soy harvest.

China – a key customer for both top exporters – has perhaps been more instrumental in the U.S. market than meets the eye given how much soy and especially corn business to other destinations has sunk.

According to data published on Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. soybean exports in January, the fifth month of 2022-23, totaled 8.56 million tonnes. That is nearly 40% above the five-year average and is the month’s second-highest ever after January 2021.

Included were 5.7 million tonnes to China, record-high for January. Strong U.S. soy shipments to China continued in February, and exports to all destinations last month may have soared 30% above normal.

Corn was another story as January exports of 3.2 million tonnes were a three-year low for the month and 30% off average, and preliminary data suggests the lightest February corn shipments in 10 years.

Through the first five months of the 2022-23 marketing year that began on Sept. 1, combined U.S. corn and soybean exports to non-China destinations hit a 10-year low of 22.6 million tonnes. Separately, corn was a 10-year low and soy exports were a five-year low.

That is not true if China is included, as total September-January U.S. corn-plus-soy shipments were down only slightly from the recent average.

Japan is the most alarming absence for corn with September-January shipments down 56% on the year. Corn to Colombia was down 89%, and those two countries normally combine for about a quarter of annual U.S. corn exports. Trade with Colombia has recently begun recovering, but Japan remains an issue.

Through the same period and compared with last year, U.S. soy exports to Europe, North Africa and South Asia fell 14%, 54% and 56%, respectively, and those regions usually account for 20% of shipments.

Not only has South American competition grown even tougher, but global buyers may be put off by the uncertainty of higher prices. Grain has also continued to ship out of Ukraine despite unrest in the region.

It is interesting to note that January U.S. soybean meal exports of 1.4 million tonnes were the second-strongest on record for any month after January 2013. Brazil’s January corn exports were 39% above the month’s prior high and more than double the volumes of the previous three Januarys.

MIXED OUTLOOK

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday reduced 2022-23 domestic corn exports to 1.85 billion bushels (47 million tonnes) from last month’s 1.925 billion, a move the trade had somewhat anticipated.

USDA’s increase of U.S. soybean exports to 2.015 billion bushels (54.8 million tonnes) from 1.99 billion last month was perhaps less expected even with the recent strength in shipments.

For soybeans, that forecast suggests shipments in the second half of 2022-23 will fall 30% below the recent average. But sales could be a hurdle as more than 6 million tonnes still need to be sold versus 6.6 million in the same period a year ago and 1.4 million two years ago.

Soybean sales in the week ended March 2 were a marketing- year low with net cancellations of 23,000 tonnes. Soy export inspections have plummeted in the last couple of weeks, evidence that Brazil’s supply is finally in position to seal off the U.S. export window.

On corn, it might be too early to evaluate USDA’s export forecast as sales have just begun picking up in the last week or so. Thursday’s export sales report showed last week’s corn shipments were the highest of the marketing year so far.

Implied second-half corn exports would be 12% below the recent average, and sales covered 65% of the full export target by March 2, below the average of 74%. Soybean sales through the same date accounted for 89% of the forecast, a bit below what has been normal in non-trade-war years.

The 2022 U.S. corn and soybean harvests were a respective 9% and 4% smaller than a year earlier, but USDA’s soybean export peg is down 7% on the year while the corn target is down 25%.

Source: Reuters

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