The USDA releases its planted acreage estimates on Tuesday, June 30th. This report typically sets the tone for the coming marketing year. David Hightower’s analysis has been posted to our site and we defer to him in terms of the fundamental supply and demand numbers. We’ll pick the individual markets apart through the actions of the commercial traders, the actual producers or end line users of these grain markets. Given the depressed levels many of the grain markets have been experiencing can this report actually do further damage?
The soybean market has been held just under $15 per bushel since 2012’s US harvest. In fact, it traded all the way down to $11.50 last august before rallying through the harvest. Soybeans are up around 15% so far this year and based on a few factors, it appears that this rally could sustain itself. Currently, the market is sitting about where it is supposed to be; in a period of consolidation near the highs waiting to fall once the spring planting becomes more certain. I’m just not sure how much of a buying opportunity we’re going to get come the late June – July seasonal sell-off.
The recent weeks of hot weather have begun to take their toll on the crops in the field. Primarily, we are witnessing soybean’s greater sensitivity to late summer heat relative to corn. Not surprisingly, soybeans have rallied about 14% since August 8th as compared to less than 3% for corn. The result of this divergent behavior among crops grown side-by-side is that the bean to corn ratio has been elevated to levels that we don’t view as sustainable. Therefore, we’ll look at some reference points for the bean to corn ratio as well as the relationship between these two crops before ending with some fundamental data that forces us to re-think the usefulness of historical data in the face of a fundamentally changing marketplace.
The bean to corn ratio is simply the price of soybeans divided by the price of corn. Currently, November soybean futures are trading around $13.55 per bushel and December corn futures are trading at $4.68 per bushel. The November and December futures contracts represent this year’s crop in the fields, respectively. Therefore, the current bean to corn ratio is approximately 2.9. Beans are 2.9 times more expensive than corn on a per bushel basis. The last time this spread was this high was August of 2009. There have only been four years since 1975 when ending prices for the current year’s crop have closed at a spread greater than 3. According to Carl Zulauf of Ohio State’s Department of Agriculture, the maximum traded price for the ratio is 4.1 in May of 1977. He’s also published the low figure of 1.72 in July of 1996. The average for the spread over the last 45 years is 2.52 while the spread’s normal trading range is 2.19 – 2.85.
Soybeans and corn obviously share many of the same concerns throughout the year and therefore their prices tend to move in the same general directions. Their seasonal characteristics are very highly correlated with the lone notable difference being soybeans’ tendency to remain at higher prices later into the spring due to their later planting dates and associated concerns. Once beans get past July 4th, they sell off just like corn until harvest time nears at which point they both get another boost. The correlation between beans and corn has been positive on a weekly basis all the way back to November of 2012. The daily chart, on the other hand is currently displaying the first negative correlation between these two markets since early May of this year which coincides with typical planting issues.
The United States is still the dominant market maker in both corn and soybeans. However, the rapid expansion of Argentina and Brazil’s commercial farming industry is changing the dynamic of the global corn and soybean markets. This year, the combined output of Argentina and Brazil is likely to be nearly 30% of global corn production and as much as 60% of global soybean production. The combined soybean output of Argentina and Brazil is expected to outpace the US by a third. This must change the way we view the data at hand. This is especially true when studies are produced using 45 years worth of data as the Ohio State piece referenced. The global supply of beans and corn hasn’t been split among our countries. The process has been and will continue to be, additive. Total global production will continue to increase overall with foreign production continuing to grow faster than domestic production.
The marketplace always reflects the participants’ best guess of fair value at the last traded price. Therefore, both domestic and global production rates are considered when trades are placed at the US commodity exchanges. However, more weight is always given to prices in the larger context. Daily highs and lows matter more than those of the last minute just as weekly highs and lows are accorded greater importance than their daily counterparts. Therefore, when markets make multi week, monthly or yearly highs or lows, we pay attention. The soybean rally brings us to levels not seen since last December and has pushed the relationship between corn and soybeans to multi-year highs.
We believe that the latest push in this spread has come from speculative buying in the soybean market. There are three primary drivers of mass speculative action in the commodity markets, all of which lead to whipsaw action at extreme price levels. Tension in the Middle East spurs speculative energy buying. Stock market collapses spur knee jerk selling. Finally, droughts spur speculative corn and bean buying. All three of these situations end up with small speculators left holding the hot potato. The current Commitment of Traders report clearly shows large amounts of small speculative buying heading into the USDA Supply/Demand and Crop Production reports. Considering commercial traders have pared their net position by 25% over the last three weeks, we believe it’s likely that this report could mark the high for the bean corn spread as it returns to its normal trading range.
The month of May has not been kind to the soybean market. In fact, I’d say it’s bearing the brunt of a perfect storm of bad news. Old crop, July soybeans are down more than 10% for the month while this year’s crop is fairing only slightly better. This beat down has come from all angles, including weather, speculative traders and the global economy. However, once the dust settles, this may prove to be the best buy of the summer.
The U.S. agricultural markets are all well ahead of schedule thanks to the exceptionally warm spring. The most recent crop reports show that soybeans are 76% planted. This record high is 34% above the five-year average for this time of year and 31% ahead of last year’s pace. These figures account for the 95% of U.S. acreage. This amazing crop progress has taken the starch out of the spring planting fear premium we normally see.
The crop progress reports signaled a cautionary note to the upward trend that began in earnest this past February. The early rally was fueled by the tightening global supply and exports to China far ahead of schedule. Small speculators and managed funds jumped on this rally in record numbers. I posted the overbought nature of the bean market when they set their first long position record in the March 20th Commitment of Traders report at 385,619 contracts. This compares to a net position of just 18,082 at the end of January. I think it’s safe to assume that last week’s record position of 480,586 will set the high water mark as many of these traders have been forced out of the market during the course of its 10% decline.
The final straw that’s broken the soybean bull market’s back has been the increasing concerns of a fractious European Union and its effect on the U.S. Dollar as a safe haven currency. The month of May has seen currency fly out of the European Union pushing the Euro to its lowest levels since September of 2010. Considering that the European Union is now China’s largest trading partner, it’s no wonder that China’s economy has also shown unexpected weakness. The last link is that China is our number one soybean export market. Therefore, it is expected that China’s purchases may slow, as U.S. beans become more expensive on the global market.
Now that we’ve identified the causes of the decline, let’s focus on where the bean market is headed. The early plantings were no free lunch. The early spring and the continuation of the same weather patterns are now raising concerns. The lack of rain is causing a crust to form in the fields and hinder the germination process. Furthermore, farmers who intended on growing early wheat and late soybeans (double cropping), need more moisture in the soil to get their late beans in the ground. Estimates vary as to how much double crop beans will add to total U.S. output but there is certainty that the weather is the key for next couple of weeks.
Finally, now that the froth is off the top we can return our focus to the supply and demand factors that called so many speculative dollars to the market in the first place. Soybeans and more specifically, high protein soybean meal are near record low supply levels. The decline in South American production has amplified the emphasis on this summer’s U.S. crop. Bellies must be filled regardless of the economic uncertainties. Global demand for food will be the last of the cutbacks made. Therefore, this decline is fortuitous for patient traders. There is strong technical support for this year’s crop near current prices of $12.50 per bushel. There is the possibility that a complete, “risk off” event could push the market to $12.25 or lower. Either way, the supply and demand numbers certainly suggest a test of the all time highs above $16 per bushel is well within the realm of reality.
This blog is published by Andy Waldock. Andy Waldock is a trader, analyst, broker and asset manager. Therefore, Andy Waldock may have positions for himself, his family, or, his clients in any market discussed. The blog is meant for educational purposes and to develop a dialogue among those with an interest in the commodity markets. The commodity markets employ a high degree of leverage and may not be suitable for all investors. There is substantial risk of loss in investing in futures.