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PM markets: October proves sweet for sugar, sour for grains, 03.10.17

So much for any hope of the opening of the fresh quarter bringing fund buying – in grains, at least.

If the concept of "new moth, new money" offered hope to grain bulls, there proved to be more than enough reasons to keep buying at bay.

The stronger dollar, as mentioned earlier, was one, with the greenback adding 0.5% against a basket of currencies to make dollar-denominated exports, such as many commodities, less affordable.

Then, for wheat, there was the hangover from the US Department of Agriculture's reports on Friday to factor in, and the unexpected upgrade to the drought-tested US spring wheat harvest, besides the separate data showing larger-than-expected all-wheat inventories as of September 1.

Harvest pressure

Of course, the stocks data were more supportive for corn and soybeans, in showing inventories as of the start of last month (and end of 2016-17) smaller than investors had expected – if still at multi-year highs.

However, for the row crops, there was the harvest factor to remember, and the idea of mounting supplies – albeit too against the idea that this dynamic has time limits.

"Harvest pressure in the soybeans, along with a continued absence of Chinese business through mid-week, has quickly caused a retreat from the high on Friday," said Darrell Holaday at Country Futures.

China, which is on holiday for the mid-Autumn festival, is particularly important for the soybean market as the biggest importer of the oilseed.

Export sales

In fact, the US Department of Agriculture did, through its daily alerts system, unveil the export sale of 132,000 tonnes of US soybeans to China, besides a huge 597,000-tonne corn sale to Mexico.

But any optimism in the export department was undermined by US export statistics for last week at 894,250 tonnes for soybeans, down some 140,000 tonnes week on week, and well below the 1.11m tonnes in the same period last year.

For corn, export sales were, at 782,346 tonnes, little changed week on week, but down a margin on the 1.49m tonnes for the same week last year.

Harvest pressure plus

That said, whether this shortfall is all down to demand factors…

What is also troubling the US export performance is a knock-on effect of dry Midwest weather, in terms of low river levels, making barge freight difficult – and this just as US farmers want to sell.

So the dynamic in essence magnifies harvest pressure on values.

"Basis weakness continues to be noted in the Midwest as cash supplies increase and the river levels remain too low and that is limiting the amount that barges can carry," said Country Futures' Darrell Holaday.

"That increases transportation costs and weakens the basis for corn and soybeans."

'Wreaking havoc'

Traders at ADM investor services added that "low river levels and back-ups at ageing locks are wreaking havoc on export-bound grain barge shipments on the Mississippi River system just as US farmers need to ramp up deliveries of their bumper harvest of corn and soybeans.

"Barge freight rates surged to a three-year high on Friday as a key stretch of the Mississippi River fell to near-record lows and as low water and emergency repair work on a 90-year-old lock and dam on the Ohio River delayed dozens of barge tows.

"Spot barges in the Memphis to Cairo, Illinois, market, an acutely low-water section of the river system, traded at 900% of basic tariff on Friday afternoon, up more than 525 points in the week."

In lower Ohio and mid-Mississippi rivers, spot rates were up 300 points.

Prices fall

Chicago corn futures for December closed down 1.1% at $3.51 ½ a bushel, closing back below their 20-day moving average.

Soybean futures for November settled down 1.1% at $9.57 ¼ a bushel, back below their 50-day and 200-day moving averages which they had regained in the last session.

Soyoil little helped by closing down 0.9% at 32.50 cents a pound for the December, the lot's weakest finish in three months, as fears continue to grow of the Environmental Protection Agency curtailing US biodiesel use.

Rival vegetable oil palm oil earlier closed down 1.1% at 2,666 ringgit a tonne in Kuala Lumpur.

Gap closed

Back in Chicago, winter wheat futures dropped by 0.8% to $4.44 ¾ a bushel for December delivery, offered some support by the downgrade to the US winter wheat crop in Friday's USDA reports, and by reports of a further rise in Russian export prices.

Russian values are being closely watched, thanks to the country's huge harvest, and so export prospects.

Ikar estimated prices of 12.5% protein Russian wheat for export at $191 a tonne on a free-on-board basis at the end of last week, up $2 week on week, with SovEcon estimating the rise at $4.50 a tonne to $194 a tonne.

But Minneapolis spring wheat for December dropped 2.0% to $6.11 ½ a bushel, weighed by Friday's surprise US crop upgrade.

Signally, the contract at one point touched $6.06 a bushel, so closing the chart gap, dating from June, which technical analysts had been warning ever since would ultimately act as a magnet for prices.

'Favourable harvest weather'

In New York, cotton dropped too, by 1.3% to 67.58 cents a pound, undermined by decent US harvesting weather.

"Mostly favourable harvest conditions are expected across much of the cotton belt this week," said Louis Rose at Rose Commodity Group, the exception being west Texas, which is "expected to receive some additional precipitation.

"Favourable harvest weather is expected to allow for strong harvest progress across the Mid-south and south eastern states this week.

"There is currently no tropical cyclone activity in the Atlantic Basin."

On the demand side, the Chinese holiday has also cooled talk of the country stepping back into markets to restock state supplies a bit, after the 2017 auction season ended last week with 3.2m tonnes (14.75m bales) sold, far more than had been initially expected.

Robusta export drop

But raw sugar for March added 1.5% to 14.31 cents a pound in New York, with investors taking an upbeat view of talk that Alvean, Raizen and Wilmar International took delivery of 1.1m tonnes of sugar from the expiring October contract.

An upbeat interpretation of the event is that it suggest that demand for the sweetener is larger than had been thought, and that a big overhang of physical sugar has been removed.

In London, robusta coffee for November settled up 2.0% at $2,007 per tonne, helped by data showing Sumatran exports for last month falling 28% year on year to 341,833 bags.

Sumatra is the leading coffee-growing island in Indonesia, a key robusta grower, with Brazil and top-producer Vietnam.

On Friday, Vietnam estimated September exports at 90,000 tonnes, down 5,000 tonnes month on month.

Vietnam's January-to-September exports, at 1.12m tonnes (18.7m bags) estimated by the country's General Statistics Office, are down 21% year on year.

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