Ukraine grain a ‘big-time next-year problem’
Though futures markets already have priced in uncertainty tied to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, grain markets the world over will truly begin to feel the impact of supply deficits on the global wheat and corn balance sheets beginning in August and September.
How a global wheat supply deficit of 3 million tonnes plays out is largely dependent on how the rest of the world treats Russia financially, but for corn, the principal uncertainties lie in Ukrainian farmers’ ability to procure enough diesel fuel, fertilizer and labor to seed the crop.
These global outlooks were the central focus of market research analyst Joe Lardy’s presentation earlier this month at the North American Millers’ Association 2022 Spring Conference. Lardy honed his expertise in the commodities over a 25-year career in grain, initially as a trader with Cargill, Minneapolis, Minnesota, US, and for the past eight years with CHS Hedging, Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, US.
“The way I look at markets, I’m up at the space station, looking at markets at a super-high level,” Lardy said. “Sometimes I feel like Tony Stark in ‘Iron Man’ with his giant movable touchscreen computer as I try to bring the perspective of what’s happening here and here and here and what’s interconnecting them.”
The spring session at Wild Dunes Resort in Isle of Palms, South Carolina, US, provided milling and non-milling members of NAMA background information and analysis on wheat, a commodity in which Russia and Ukraine provide 14% of global supply, and corn, production of which is important to Ukraine but negligible in Russia.
Ukraine, one of the biggest countries in Europe and the 45th largest in the world, features a land area roughly the size of the US Central states stretching from Chicago, Illinois, US, to New York City, from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to Raleigh, North Carolina, US. Half of that land is devoted to agricultural endeavors that employ about 15% of the population compared with 3% of the US population. Wheat is produced throughout Ukraine, but most production takes place in the eastern areas, currently a hot spot for fighting, Lardy said. That’s unfortunate for grain since the region is a key southerly logistical route for crops to ocean-going ports, which are closed indefinitely and will require extensive rebuilding.
“Even if a peace treaty was signed tomorrow, there’s infrastructure that has been damaged and going to need to be replaced,” Lardy said. “The longer the war goes on, certainly the more destruction takes place, but there’s still going to be this period after the fact that’s still going to take a lot of time to get resolved.”
The USDA has reduced production and export projections in Ukraine for the current marketing year but eliminated neither. That’s because Ukraine already shifted a significant portion of its wheat and corn crops before Russia invaded, Lardy said. Whatever remains in storage has the advantage of most easily feeding the populace compared with corn, which goes to feed animals that in turn provide food. As for new crop, Ukraine is a few months out from a winter wheat harvest and, under normal circumstances, their supplies would hit the market in July-September. This year, Ukraine likely won’t be able to sell or ship any wheat in that period.
“We can see this on paper now, but when are we really going to start to feel the impact of this?” Lardy asked. “When the boats aren’t there, when the product doesn’t arrive, when people reach for the panic button, that’s when we’re really going to start to feel the lack of those shipments really kicking in.”
On the other side of the territorial dispute sits Russia, which turned wheat into a front-and-center commodity over the past decade since the country was stung by depressed oil prices. Most Russian wheat is grown in its western region, adjacent to the conflict. As a major exporter of wheat, Russia now factors heavily into the “world grid” of supply, Lardy said, but the flow of wheat remains in a war-time haze for now. The USDA lowered Russian wheat export expectations by 3 million tonnes, to 32 million tonnes in February. To date, restrictions imposed on Russian exports by the United States and many other countries have yet to curtail their exports of food and fertilizer, he said.
“Is Russia going to be able to continue to export and have that system operate?” Lardy asked. “If they don’t, that changes the whole dynamic. And we’ve seen the futures market react, pricing in the uncertainty. But it has not priced in a calamity. The US futures market has suddenly become the international market for wheat prices. The Chicago Board of Trade represents 4% of the world’s wheat. But right now, it’s getting all the trade, it’s acting like it is the benchmark of world wheat prices. Rightfully, it probably should. There needs to be this risk premium in the market because if you take out one of the leading exporters in the world, where does that gap get filled?”
At least in part by Australia and India, Lardy said. In the case of the latter, India historically hasn’t exported much wheat. But its crop is considerable and the country is looking to significantly increase its presence in the world market, Lardy said. At the same time, China was expected to lift Russian import restrictions and provide a potential home for excess Russian capacity. If China takes in more Russian wheat, that leaves Australian wheat to go other places, he said.
But no matter how some wheat supplies find homes via atypical lanes and bring the market into relative equilibrium, the global wheat balance sheet is going to have some holes in it, he said. How the rest of the world treats Russia in terms of its financing is expected to dictate the path forward for the next crop year, Lardy said.
“The more severe the sanctions, the bigger the hole in the grid is going to be, and the bigger the hole, the firmer the price is going to be,” he said. “Every impact from this war is kicked down the road. The market has priced in the uncertainty. The 2022-23 crop is a calamity, and we don’t know how to price that yet. I don’t see markets going down until we see a signed peace treaty, and then I think we take a substantial chunk out of the wheat market the day that happens.”
Corn and sunflowers
So small is Russia’s corn production it doesn’t factor into the world grid, Lardy said. In Ukraine, unlike its wheat crop, corn grows largely in the northern and central regions that aren’t under Russian occupation and are outside the key fighting areas. Thus, the biggest unknowns as Lardy sees them are whether Ukrainian farmers can find enough supplies and labor to plant the crop in spring. Seventy per cent of Ukraine’s diesel fuel was supplied by Russia prior to the start of fighting, Lardy said. The availability of inputs such as fertilizer, also a major export from Russia, is in doubt, as is labor, though for far different reasons than in the United States.
“To me, the manpower aspect is a greater concern,” he said. “If you have able-bodied people, are they going to be planting crops or are they going to be fighting? What I think is going to happen, longer term, is that Ukraine is just going to be sitting on a stockpile of corn. So, whatever they can’t export, they’ll keep and as long as it doesn’t get destroyed, they’ll have it.
“Is their production going to be down this year? Absolutely. You can probably cut Ukrainian corn production in half this year. That’s a significant hit. However, they’re going to have a lot of stock left over. If this conflict doesn’t persist for years, when Ukraine comes back to the market, they should probably have a decent exportable surplus. The Ukraine problem isn’t a right-now problem, it’s a big-time next-year problem. Are they going to be able to harvest soon, and are they going to be able to get their corn crop in the ground?”
Another war-time impact to consider is sunflowers. Ukraine is the biggest global sunflower exporter in the world at 46% of the world market.
“They’re huge in sunflowers,” Lardy said. “Sometimes there are things we normally don’t hear about, see or talk a lot about, but that are going to see a pretty major impact if you’re impacted by sunflower oil and seeds, that could be a big loss for the world grid.”
Russia’s importance to crop inputs such as fertilizer — it provides 44% of the global supply of potash — and South America’s ability to source it for the upcoming crop will be an important factor to watch, Mr. Lardy told the NAMA millers. Soaring prices on potash and urea were noted as far back as July 2021, six months before the Ukraine conflict. Prices made a significant bump then and took off substantially when the conflict began.
“The Southern Hemisphere is going to start their growing season soon,” Lardy said. “July and August are the key import times for fertilizers into South America. In a couple months, we’re going to have a pretty good understanding of what South America’s going to be facing in terms of their fertilizer availabilities. What South America has to apply will be huge on what their yields are next year. The world grid needs South America to produce a good crop.”
And tight world corn supplies mean we can’t afford a corn crop failure here in the United States, either, Lardy said. US farmers balked at high fertilizer prices but purchased them anyway after weighing it against good margins and high futures prices on corn, he said.
“Our farmers and producers said prices are so high,” he said. “Well, we’ve got pretty expensive corn. It pencils. There was some griping, of course, but they’ve bought it and put it down. Our balance sheets are tight, but we’re setting up OK in terms of availability. We’ve got seed, we’ve got fuel, we just need Mother Nature to cooperate.”
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