Trade barriers shape agricultural commodities landscape

11 December 2018

Agricultural commodities are experiencing conditions that could hasten the rise of new agricultural powers such as Brazil and Argentina.

Changing weather patterns and a growing trend towards protectionism are driving a new period of price volatility, says Macquarie's Filipe Moscoso, Associate Director - Agriculture Sales and Trading.

Over the past 12 months, the price of wheat futures has risen to $US613 from a low of almost $US468, while the price of soybean futures has ranged from $US826 to $US1,1063 - a variance of almost 29 per cent.

“In the short term, agricultural commodities tend to be demand inelastic," Moscoso says. "Meaning the amount of food the world consumes each year grows in step with population growth."

"Trends, when they occur, happen over the long term, due to changes in diet affecting changes in demand. However, that hasn't been the case over the past year."

While a drought in Australia and a heatwave in Europe are impacting the global supply of wheat, Moscoso believes government tariffs could have a more significant effect on prices.

“In trade discussions, it's always agricultural goods that are the first to be taxed, tariffed and protected," he says.

He notes how US government protectionist policies have been directed at the three most important markets for its agricultural goods: Canada, Mexico and China.

Canada accepts up to 75 per cent of all US fresh fruit and vegetable exports while Mexico buys 29 per cent of all US corn exports, 24 per cent of dairy exports and more than 22 per cent of US pork and poultry exports.

Mexico has also started sourcing more of its corn supply from Brazil and could hasten this transition if buying from the US becomes more expensive.

However, neither country has the ability to affect agricultural trade patterns and prices as much as China.

"Brazil is expected to overtake the US this year as the world's largest soybean exporter as it steps up to meet Chinese demand. "

China bought $US19.6 billion worth of US agricultural commodities in 2017, up 136 per cent from a decade ago. This included 61.2 per cent of the US's soybean crop, the US's most significant agricultural export, worth $US21.6 billion a year.

China's recent imposition of a 25 per cent tariff on US soybeans has potential wide-ranging effects in both economies.

Soybean sales from the US to China fell 96 per cent between November 2017 and November 2018, according to US Department of Agriculture figures.

“Suddenly US soybean farmers have had to make their product 25 per cent cheaper to sell it at the same price to China as farmers in Brazil or Argentina," Moscoso says. “The US already has an extremely efficient infrastructure for exporting soybeans. There isn't much more they can do to bring down the price of production."

Brazil is expected to overtake the US this year as the world's largest soybean exporter as it steps up to meet Chinese demand.

But Moscoso expects China's government will need to act if Brazil is unable to meet China's demand or if other factors cause the price of soybeans to climb.

“Governments intervene in agricultural markets more than others because people need to eat," Moscoso says. “When prices rise - usually as the result of a prolonged drought but also potentially through trade barriers - this can have a real impact on the population. So governments start buying to keep prices stable."

Moscoso believes the US and China will reach a mutually beneficial agreement in their trade dispute.

“There are rarely any winners out of trade wars but on this occasion, other producing countries may end up in a better position and the flow of agricultural trade around the world could end up looking very different," he says.

“There could also be an upside for China and US in not being too reliant on each other for agricultural trade. This comes in the form of new trade relationships and new investment in agricultural production in other parts of the world. This will help to protect global food production from acute weather events in small regions of the world in future. One thing is for certain, next year will be a volatile year across many assets, and especially commodities.”