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US soybean farmers stare at inventory, price challenges amid US-China tensions, Brazil competition

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Growing US-China tensions fuel Phase 1 uncertainty

USDA's optimism on Phase 1 may be is unsustainable

Brazilian new crop expected to provide tough competition

New Delhi — Uncertain US-China relations is leaving American soybean farmers grappling with the potential buildup of stocks and falling prices in the new marketing year, starting in September, while facing increasing competition from Brazilian beans.

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If US-China tensions increase to the point of sanctions, US soybean farmers could face higher stocks in 2020-21, said Pete Meyer, head of Grain and Oilseed Analytics at S&P Global Platts Analytics.

Although the 2020-21 soybean inventory levels are not forecast to be as high as 2018-19 levels of 24.7 million mt, they are still above the analysts' expectations, amid the optimism of US-China Phase 1 deal, signed in January 15.

According to Platts Analytics, US soybean stocks are expected to be at 15.4 million mt in 2020-21, up 41% from the latest US Department of Agriculture's forecast report, released May 12.

The USDA seems to be very bullish on US-China Phase 1 trade deal, which may not be sustainable, sources said.

"We expect Chinese crushers to shift their beans demand to the US in the last quarter of 2020 and fulfill Phase 1 [trade agreement] commitments, when the US soybean harvest hits the market," said a top USDA official in May.

The USDA expects US soybeans exports to rise by 22% year on year to 55.79 million mt in 2020-21, on the back of assumptions that China will buy more US beans from September. Market participants have a bearish outlook towards the deal, which requires China to purchase $200 billion worth of US goods, including $80 billion of soybeans in two years, albeit under market conditions.

Given the ongoing diplomatic spat between Beijing and Washington, agriculture analysts expect China to turn to South American beans, despite more price-competitiveness of US soy in the fourth quarter.

The season average price of US soybean in the 2020-21 marketing year is forecast at $8.20/bu, down 3.5% year on year, as demand is expected to plummet from February 2021 when Brazilian harvest starts, the USDA report said.

BRAZIL COMPETITION

A weak Brazilian real, which has lost one-third of its value on bearish economy since January, boosted Brazilian soybean exports in the first five months of 2020. According to the Brazilian trade department, the country has exported 49 million mt of soybeans between January and May, up 36% on the year, with 74% of shipments destined for China. But with the real strengthening in June and soybean inventories expected to decline in the fourth quarter of 2020, China may have to turn back to US from September 2020 to January 2021.

However, according to the market sources, China has already covered its soybean demand until September and could ramp up further volumes in coming months from South America. China has already bought 27% more Brazilian soybeans in the first five months of 2020, compared with last year.Assuming front-loaded Brazilian exports for 2020 dwindle by September, the US is expected to pick up on this business from October through January 2021, said Terry Reilly, analyst at Futures International. But if US-China tensions escalate, trade flows may see a repeat from two years earlier, when China didn't purchase US soybeans for months, Terry added.

ROAD AHEAD

Amid the tensions with China, US soybeans could start looking for new markets, JCI China, a Shanghai-based agro-analytics company, told Platts earlier.

"If the US-China tensions continue, we see China buying soybeans exclusively from Brazil," JCI China said.

However, that may be enough to provide relief to the US farmers who face high levels of soybean stocks this season.

"Since China accounts for almost 65% of global soybeans demand, it is impossible for the US to find significant alternatives for such a big demand driver," Matheus Pereira, director of ARC Mercosul, an agro-consultancy firm told Platts.

Soybean buyers such as the EU, Mexico, Egypt, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan and Thailand, together, buy only around 25% of US soybeans in a marketing year, according to the latest US trade data.

"It is impossible for US soybean to replace the Chinese market," Terry said.

China – the world's largest soybeans buyer – is the demand driver in global oilseed market. So finding an alternative to China could be an uphill task for US soybeans farmers.

US-origin soy may not be excluded entirely by Chinese consumers, amid the tensions between the two countries, but there is a "huge risk" that American beans may become a secondary supplier to that market, Platts Analytics' Meyer said.

"And US soybean can't afford to be a stopgap supplier to China," he said.