On April 11, USDA released its latest World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report. With six weeks left in marketing year 2016/17, USDA expects wheat world ending stocks to reach a record high 252 million metric tons (MMT), up 4 percent year over year and 22 percent ahead of the 5-year average, if realized.
The current marketing year factors in this report are well defined and the record large ending stocks are neither surprising nor new to those who follow the wheat industry. However, the position of those stocks has been quietly changing.
Historically, global wheat exporters — Argentina, Australia, Canada, the European Union (EU), Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and the United States — have held roughly 30 percent of global ending stocks.
China has historically held one third of global endings stocks and the mostly net importers that remain have held about 37 percent. The 5-year average breaks out with exporter stocks at 61 MMT, China holding roughly 70 MMT and the world’s importers carrying out about 75 MMT.
However, USDA expects that ratio to shift at the end of 2016/17. Chinese ending stocks are expected to reach a record high 111 MMT, or 44 percent of global ending stocks. In global wheat exporting countries, ending stocks are also expected to grow slightly to 74.0 MMT, but the ratio will fall to about 29 percent of global ending stocks.
Carryout stocks in the world’s wheat importing countries are expected to fall 16 percent year over year to 67.1 MMT. If realized, that would be 11 percent below the 5-year average and 27 percent of global ending stocks, down 10 percentage points from the 5-year average.
This decrease is due in large part to a shift in purchasing behavior. Four consecutive record production years have enticed many buyers to adopt a “just-in-time” approach to take advantage of the lower prices and reduce storage costs where possible. That is why ending stocks in the top 20 markets for U.S. wheat (excluding China) are expected to cover just over two months of consumption, 6 percent below the 5-year average.
Additionally, 28 countries (including the EU, the world’s largest wheat consumer and normally a top wheat exporter) expect to have one month or less of domestic consumption in carryout stocks at the end of 2016/17, compared to the 5-year average of 20 countries with one month or less of domestic consumption.
There are also 23 countries for which USDA does not show ending stocks data. These countries import 6.09 MMT of wheat annually and, with limited storage capacity, tend to buy “just-in-time.”
With lower planted area and an expected return to trendline yields, world wheat production is poised to decrease in 2017/18. With importing country stocks drawn down to the lowest level since 2010/11, any supply shocks would increase price volatility in wheat futures markets. On paper, the world has ample wheat, but 44 percent of that supply resides in China, which rarely offers wheat or flour for export.
After four consecutive years of larger global production and lower global wheat prices, many customers have minimal stocks on hand to weather supply shocks, and as one wheat buyer noted, “wheat (export) prices take the stairs down and the elevator up.”
Fortunately for our customers, the United States holds 12 percent of world wheat ending stocks, ensuring the U.S. wheat store is always open. What is still uncertain is whether the price of U.S. high-quality wheat will remain at the current low levels.
As always, weather is the wildcard, both in its direct effects on world wheat production and the wheat price impacts of any production problems with other major grains, especially corn and soybeans.