WPI Spotlight

Spotlight

Excess Capacity and Additional Plants Indicate Crushed Margins

Anyone who has paid any attention to the soybean crushing sector in China knows that the last year or so have been brutal in terms of margins. Except for relatively brief periods since May 2010, soybean crush margins have been negative for both South American and U.S. soybeans imported and crushed in China. There was a short period in September when margins were positive, but they turned negative again in October and have mostly remained that way since then. The most recent data we've seen shows that Chinese crushers currently are losing around 150 yuan/MT (about $23.60/MT) processing South American soybeans and about 115 yuan/MT (about $18.15) processing U.S. soybeans based on replacement values. The average loss since early October has been about 58 yuan/MT for South American soybeans and about 34 yuan/MT for U.S. soybeans.

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Has the VSR Fixed the Wheat Convergence Problem?

Like the proverbial bad penny, the subject of wheat market convergence never seems to go away. In grain futures market jargon, "convergence" refers to the coming together of prices for physical grain and prices for the futures contracts representing that grain as each contract month becomes current for delivery of the physical grain. In theory, futures prices and cash prices should converge during the delivery month, or at least close thereto. The assumption that futures prices and cash prices of the underlying commodity will meet, or at least come closely together, is what makes futures markets a viable tool for hedging the price risks of being long or short the physical commodity. If that connection between cash and futures values does not exist, hedging cash positions with offsetting futures positions no longer shrinks price risks. It simply adds more risk.

We are not sure how long the problem of lack of convergence has plagued CBOT/CME wheat futures for which SRW is the underlying commodity, but it was more than nine years ago when we wrote a paper on the subject. Since then, the degree by which convergence was lacking varied. However, the problem became extreme in 2008 when wheat futures prices soared but cash prices did not. Cash SRW prices were nearly $2.00 below futures prices at one point, and CME wheat futures became useless, indeed dangerous for anyone owning or needing physical SRW.

This total breakdown of convergence attracted unusual public attention. We say unusual because esoteric structural issues with grain futures contracts hardly ever attract outside attention. But the extreme lack of convergence of CME wheat futures contracts in 2008/09 became so widely discussed that even a congressional sub-committee held a hearing on the topic. In the usual political fashion, the sub-committee blamed the lack of convergence on "excessive speculation," especially by index funds that held large long positions in CME wheat futures. We met with the sub-committee staff shortly before the hearing, and it was clear that this conclusion was already locked in well in advance.

To point the blame for lack of convergence on speculators required that quite a large body of contrary analysis be ignored. Most of the prominent academics known for their structural analysis of futures markets concluded that the level of speculation had little or nothing to do with the convergence problem. Even CFTC's analytical staff could find nothing to connect speculation or index funds to the lack of convergence. Nevertheless, speculators were tagged with the political blame, and this just added another reason for the subsequent Dodd-Frank financial market reform legislation to target them.

Aside from the politics, the trade and the CME (prompted by the CFTC) made a serious effort to identify factors causing the lack of convergence and find ways to "fix" the CME wheat contract that would improve convergence. The consensus was that if more SRW were delivered against spot contracts, futures and cash prices would be forced to meet. As it was, longs could take deliveries and hang onto them indefinitely by paying the delivery carrying charge of about 5 cents per bu per month. There was no way of impelling them to load out the wheat or redeliver it.

The solution seemed to be to increase the cost of carrying delivery wheat, but how? The CME's answer was to create a complex plan to produce variable storage rates (VSR) for delivery SRW. If during a set period of time the spread between the spot month and the next contract month averages a minimum of 80 percent of the delivery storage rate, then that storage rate is increased the equivalent of 3 cents per bu per month. If the average is between 50 percent and 80 percent, the rate is not changed. If it is below 50 percent, the rate is lowered 3 cents per month to a minimum rate of 5 cents per month.



(This article was originally published in the 8 December 2011 issue of Ag Perspectives as part of a WPI analysis by Bob Kohlmeyer. Click here to find out more about subscribing to Ag Perspectives.)

Minority Groups Drive EU Sustainability Requirements for Feed Ingredient Imports

The Dutch are implementing a rigorous and not inexpensive system that requires only "sustainable" soymeal be used in animal feeds in the Netherlands. Environmental groups and other organizations have been pressuring the Dutch feed industry to stop using feed ingredients that are produced in countries where land is cleared to grow soybeans and other crops. They insist that being sustainable not only includes crops grown in an environmentally responsible manner, but also harvested from areas where labor and land tenure rights are protected, as well as a few other requirements.

It is interesting that that the Dutch are going to such lengths to satisfy a small, vocal sector of society that likely cannot agree on what "sustainable" actually means. The reality is that there is no truly sustainable soybeans grown anywhere in the world if one uses the classic definition of the word. All soybeans grown in the world need to be fertilized, most must be treated with pesticides and insecticides, and require the use of external energy to plant and harvest. Clearly some are grown in a more sustainable manner than others, but none are really sustainable.

The Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS) is the system developed to meet pressure from outside groups, and it includes among its members: European importers, soybean processors, feed compounders, environmental groups, and associations from the Netherlands, South America and elsewhere. The main objective of these efforts is to ensure Dutch feed compounders continue to have access to South American soymeal, particularly that originating from Brazil. When fully implemented, only soybean producers determined to be in compliance with RTRS requirements will be able to classify their production as sustainable will be able to supply the Dutch market in the future. It is worth noting that there is no guarantee the actual soymeal consumed in the Netherlands in the future will be grown according to RTRS requirements -- the country imports and produces far more soymeal than it consumes, and exports the majority to other European countries. As long as the volume of sustainable soymeal imported or produced in the Netherlands is equal to the volume consumed in the Netherlands, the requirements will be met.

As it stands today, the U.S. soybean industry is not a part of the effort and U.S. soybeans and soymeal will not be considered sustainable. That is the case, even though it is likely that 99 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. are grown in a more sustainable way than South American soybeans that will be RTRS-certified sustainable. U.S. farmers already must comply with U.S. conservation, labor, and other laws and regulations that are stricter than those established by RTRS. However, because the U.S. so industry has not participated in RTRS and does not have an in place a RTRS-approved compliance and inspection system, no U.S. soy will be classified as sustainable. U.S. farmers are far from ready to develop and implement a system designed to meet the RTRS requirements just to be able to supply the Dutch market, but that may be a mistake as the Dutch requirements are likely to spread to other countries.



(This article was originally published in the 15 September 2011 issue of Ag Perspectives as part of a WPI analysis by John Baize. Click here to find out more about subscribing to Ag Perspectives.)

How the EU's Debt Problems Affect the Bigger Picture

Yesterday we happened to catch a TV business channel on which commentators and financial market analysts were discussing Europe's sovereign debt problems. One pundit compared the euro zone's approach to the crisis with his efforts to kill noxious weeds in his yard: Applications of different herbicides seemed to knock the weeds out for a while, but they always come back.

This is not a bad analogy. For at least 18 months, the European Central Bank (ECB), governments of euro zone countries and the IMF have tried various approaches to help Ireland, Greece and Portugal deal with budget deficits and debt well in excess of their annual GDP, including ECB intervention and bailout packages. Such steps might alleviate market concerns for a while, but only for a while. So far, Europe's Band-Aid approach to sovereign debt issues has not resolved them. They always return to roil financial markets, as happened again this week.

The pundit went on in no uncertain terms to outline Europe's problems (in his opinion) and what must be done to deal with them. The problems are: Some countries spend more to support too generous social policies than they can possibly cover with revenues, so they simply borrow the difference. When the gap between spending and revenues widens, they borrow more. It can become a national Ponzi scheme. This can happen because the 17 countries that use the euro have a common monetary policy managed by the ECB, but they have 17 different fiscal policies managed -- if that is the right word -- by respective national governments. The euro zone's biggest economy is Germany, and it has managed its fiscal policy rather well. Some of the others, including the zone's third largest economy, Italy, have not.

Getting all 17 governments to agree on how to deal with the debt crisis in a timely fashion has proven to be very difficult. In particular, Germany has been reluctant to help bail out its less frugal partners. German courts have ruled that the government can put money into a bailout package for Greece, but that participation in any future bailout must be approved by a parliamentary panel. However, German public opinion strongly opposes bailout contributions, so it has become a tough political problem for the government.



(This article was originally published in the 8 September 2011 issue of Ag Perspectives as part of a WPI analysis by Bob Kohlmeyer. Click here to find out more about subscribing to Ag Perspectives.)

Indian Farmers Don't Want to Farm; Rural Youth Seek Education

Roughly half the farmers in India do not wish to continue farming and would quit if there were a better alternative, according to a survey by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO). Farmers believe that agriculture is a loss-making enterprise, and uncertain rainfall and drought in the last three years have made farming even riskier than before. In Jharkhand, farmers are only able to harvest one crop per year during the monsoon. Because there is no irrigation, they are unable to plant a second crop in the winter, unlike farmers in the irrigated regions of Punjab and U.P. who are able to do so. Farm losses become even higher if the single crop fails, creating a hunger crisis for farm families.

The coping mechanism for such a situation is to abandon farming and seek manual labor work under the National Rural Employment Scheme, which unlike farming, brings in an assured income. Per some farmers' calculations, agriculture is an expensive and risky industry, requiring backbreaking work that does not even yield enough to eat, let alone any surpluses. Thus, abandoning farming makes economic sense.

On top of this problem, there is debt as well as input costs for seeds, fertilizers, electricity and sometimes water. A below poverty line (BPL) card holder is entitled to receive 35 kg of rice at 1 rupee per kg and 3 liters of kerosene oil per month for cooking. This subsidized grain lasts 15 days in the month; for the other half, the farmer purchases food from the market with money the family has earned from manual labor – this is much easier than farming. With land rates soaring, it is more profitable to just sell land and look for greener pastures.

People in the age group of 15-24 seem to prefer pursuing studies rather than work on farms. In fact, the number of youth working on farms has declined by 14 million in the last decade (2001-11): There were 47 million youth engaged in farming according to the 2001 census, but this has dropped to 33 million, according to the 2011 census. Conversely, the total number of rural youth (in the age group 20-25) pursuing studies has doubled in the last 6 years. NSSO data from 2009-11 show there are 60 million in education, compared to 30 million during 2004-05.

With rural youth becoming educated, it is time for government to devise a strategy or plan as to how to create a system that not only uses the younger generation productively, but also utilizes their expertise, knowledge and education to strengthen the rural economic fabric. Dairy, poultry and other allied sectors offer opportunities, but these have problems of their own. For example, the dairy sector requires middlemen for milk procurement, which makes it difficult for farmers to make a decent profit unless they undertake their own marketing efforts.



(This article was originally published in the 30 August 2011 issue of Ag Perspectives as part of a WPI weekly feature called "Indian Subcontinent Regional Analysis." Click here to find out more  about subscribing to Ag Perspectives.)

GOP Candidate Rick Perry, the Modern Day William Jennings Bryan

As every schoolboy knows, one of the most famous political speeches in American history was given on 9 July 1896, in Chicago, at the Democratic National Convention, by 36-year-old, out-of-the-pack presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. It was known as the "Cross of Gold Speech" -- and it was a fiery rhetorical slap aimed at the banking interests of the nation at the time.

Texas Governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry has also let fly with some incendiary rhetoric of his own, targeting U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke:

If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don't know what y'all would do to him in Iowa, but we -- we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous -- or treasonous -- in my opinion.

The similarities end there.

Bryan was arguing for inflation, Perry against it. Bryan's comments, as mentioned above, were considered oratory gold (excuse the pun!) and Perry's were considered ad hominem, over the top and poorly conceived -- at least by the chattering classes and professional punditry -- but he may be on to something with the electorate and the economics. The last time candidates tried to interject monetary policy into the Republican primary was when Steve Forbes in 2000 blasted the Greenspan Fed for being too tight and pushing down agriculture commodity prices.

Supporters credit Bernanke with trying to re-flate the economy. To this point, in the past 18 months he has spoken of an "acceptable rate of inflation." The policy question is whether we are in for an inflationary period or a re-flationary period, and what is the difference in the Fed's thinking?



(This article was originally published in the 22 August 2011 issue of Ag Perspectives as part of a WPI analysis by Dave Juday. Click here to find out more about subscribing to Ag Perspectives.)

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