US soybean exports under scrutiny amid worst sales run in years

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Last week’s U.S. soybean export sales exceeded all trade expectations for the first time since November, but that is not at all representative of how little interest international buyers have expressed of late.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture already predicts domestic exporters in 2023-24 will ship their second-smallest soybean volume in a decade, though some of the recent numbers suggest the agency’s outlook may still be too optimistic.

As of Feb. 29, some 39.4 million metric tons of U.S. soybeans had been sold for shipment in 2023-24, which began Sept. 1. That represents 84% of USDA’s full-year target of 46.8 million tons (1.72 billion bushels).

That compares with 90% a year earlier and a three-year average of 94%. Outside the two trade war years, it is the second-lightest end-February sales coverage in well over a decade, after 83% in 2017-18.

Final soybean exports do not usually end up lower than USDA’s February forecast, as the trade war years of 2018-19 and 2019-20 were the only two such instances in the last decade. Exports ended up higher even in 2017-18, but the start of the trade war and crop problems in Argentina were outlying factors that season.

Although the coverage level does not definitively warrant a lower export forecast, dreadful recent sales could be justification. In the 10 weeks ended Feb. 29, only around 3.3 million tons of soybeans were sold for export in 2024, by far the lowest volume for the period in at least 16 years.

The 16-plus-year-low stat remains true when accounting for the light forecast, as that volume represents 7% of USDA’s full-year export target. The five-year average for that period is 13%, and the prior lowest was 9% in 2016-17.

The trade was unprepared for such poor sales. In those 10 weeks, all the lowest trade estimates summed to 3.7 million tons and the high ones to 9.2 million. The originally printed sales sum to 3.5 million tons, and weekly volumes were below the lowest trade guess in seven of the last 10 weeks.

Thursday’s data showed soybean sales in the week ended Feb. 29 at a seven-week high of 614,000 tons, just topping the trade high of 600,000. That volume is slightly above average for the week.

Not only have sufficient supplies in Brazil hampered U.S. exports, but demand from top buyer China is unimpressive given very poor crush margins. China’s customs on Thursday reported January and February soybean imports totaled just 13 million tons, down 9% on the year and the lowest for the period since 2019.

USDA’s next chance to adjust U.S. and global supply and demand outlooks is on Friday.

Corn

U.S. corn export bookings have performed better relative to soybeans. Some 39.2 million tons of corn had been sold for export in 2023-24 as of Feb. 29, representing 74% of USDA’s full-year forecast of 53.3 million tons (2.1 billion bushels).

That compares with a five-year average of 72%, spanning from 62% in both 2019-20 and 2022-23 to 90% in 2020-21.

Similar to soybeans, final U.S. corn exports in recent years are usually equal to or higher than what USDA said in February. In the last decade, there are only two instances where final exports were lower, 2018-19 and 2022-23, and sales coverage by this point was 65% and 62%, respectively.

Corn export sales in the latest 10 weeks total 9.8 million tons, a three-year high for the period, and that represents 18% of the full-year target, a bit below the recent average around 19%.

Mexico remains by far the biggest U.S. corn buyer for 2023-24, accounting for a record 44% of total U.S. corn sales by the end of February, midway through the marketing year.

By Feb. 29, corn sales to Mexico totaled 17.3 million tons, a larger volume than the United States has ever shipped to Mexico in a full season. The previous record sales to Mexico for the date were around 14 million tons two years ago.

Source: Reuters