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Worldwide boost in corn production has come home to roost in lower prices

<p>GETTY IMAGES, J.D. Pooley</p>
There&rsquo;s a bumper crop of corn headed our way. In 2010, the corn market outlook was a lot more fun, but now the bears have killed the bull.

The party’s over — and we knew it was going to happen. That’s how University of Kentucky Extension Economist Todd Davis sums up the current corn price doldrums.

“We have an interesting phenomenon where we’re building stocks in the U.S. and in the world of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton,” be says. “It’s really unfortunate.

“They say the cure high prices is high prices, and we’ve seen that. We’ve stimulated a lot of production worldwide, and it has come home to roost.”

There’s a bumper crop of corn headed our way, Davis says. “In 2010, the corn market outlook was a lot more fun, but now the bears have killed the bull.”

On Jan. 10 of this year, when the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimate (WASDE) was released, December 2014 world contracts were at $4.58, and that was a little surprising, he says.

“It was a little bit of a bull market. We were tight on soybeans and had to bid for acres, so there was a little run-up to $4.72. Then at the end of March, contracts closed at almost $5, and on April 10, it started working its way lower.

Lot of fear in the market

“May 15 is significant in Iowa because that’s usually the cut-off date for planting corn, and it closed at $4.81. Since then, it has been in a decline. It was $4.25 with the June acreage report, $3.69 with the August WASDE report, and $3.41 with the September WASDE.”

There’s a lot of fear in the market, says Davis, and any risk premium that has been built up over time is getting worked out.

“If you want to think cynically about it, we’ve benefited from some production problems. The 2012 crop was mature very early, but this year is about like last year —about 12 percent behind average.”

The highlight of planted corn acres would have been in 2012 with 97 million acres, says Davis.

“We actually reduced plantings this year to 91.6 million. Harvested acres are at 83.8 million, and there’s some debate over how many of those acres actually got planted.

“It’s like reading tea leaves because NASS does a survey and FSA is more like a census, for those people in farm programs.

“But not everyone is in a farm program, so the numbers aren’t always as close as we’d like. It’s conceivable that the planted acres could be closer to 89 million than  91.6, and we’ll see how much of that was harvested.”

Record projected yield

As of September, yield projections were at a record 171.7 bushels per acre.

“If you look at the rolling 25-year trend, we hit a rough spot where we were at or below trend,” Davis says.

“We had a good year in 2009, and then three consecutive years of below-trend yields. So, this yield is welcomed from a market standpoint of having a good yield to rebuild the ending stocks.”

But now, he says, there’s a record-large supply of corn. “What was keeping the risk premium in the market was having record-tight beginning stocks for a couple of years.

“We bought ourselves a little breathing room last year, and now we’re projected to add almost 14.4 billion bushels of corn, so it’ll be a record-large supply.”

The demand side should be stimulated by current lower prices, he says, but there are some headwinds making growth in this area more difficult.

“One headwind is feed. There are a lot of opportunities for cattle feeding, but it takes a lot of time and money to make that adjustment. It takes some really good weather in Texas and Oklahoma to get some pastures to growing grass. But feed use should expand with smaller animals like chickens and pigs.

“Feed use will increase. Most of FSI (food, seed and industrial uses) is ethanol. It had a good run, but we’re pretty much at production capacity, so we’re not projecting a substantial increase in ethanol FSI over the previous year.”

Exports a big unknown

The great unknown, says Davis, is going to be exports, which are projected to decrease by about 200 million bushels over the previous year. But a lot of that is due to more competition in the market.

“The U.S. market share of exports ebbs and flows due to crop size and geopolitics. But even before ethanol, we had more than 50 percent of the world’s exports.

“When you use more domestically, then you have less to ship abroad, and then you add some production problems. We’re at below 40 percent as far as corn’s share of world exports. But our friends in South America are helping to supply the world with corn, including Argentina and Brazil.”

Argentina, however, has serious problems, including an inflation rate that is officially around 15 percent, but closer to 30 percent unofficially. Farmers there will plant soybeans because their credit is constrained, and they’re holding onto inventory, Davis says.

Brazil probably will also plant a lot of soybeans, for similar reasons — they have a bad economy, along with credit constraints.

“We’ll have plenty of corn for the export market,” he says. “It just depends on whether buyers will come to us.

“If you want to think of a country in chauvinistic terms, China is the fair-haired girl that everyone wants to court, and it’s seen as a potential market. Japan is the No. 1 destination for corn, followed by Mexico, and China could be another Japan-type market for U.S. corn if things work out.”

The big stumbling block, he says, is China’s policy regarding GMOs.

“In November 2013, China decided it didn’t want to import any more corn because of the presence of MIR162 trait.

“A cynic might say they don’t want a lot of imports because that would depress their domestic price and start triggering government payments. This past June, China decided not to import distiller dried grains that have this trait.”

Lawsuits have followed, he says, and another GMO trait was introduced this past spring that also is not being accepted by China.

A boost for ethanol

Eight-dollar corn isn’t good for ethanol processors, but cheap corn brings back returns to the ethanol industry, says Davis.

“Cheap corn is making it very profitable to process ethanol. But we’re pretty much at production capacity, and we’re at the limit for blending. We have an upbeat processing industry, and we don’t have to worry about plants going out of business.”

Looking at stocks-to-use ratio and its relation to price, Davis says U.S. corn producers had three years of very tight stocks, along with corresponding record-high prices. “We’re projected to have stocks-to-use of over 13 percent, with the corresponding nose-dive in price.”

The WASDE in September gave a price range of $3.20 to $3.80 per bushel, with a midpoint of $3.50, down considerably from the farm price of $4.45 from last year.

“Taking the USDA models, plugging in futures prices, and their marketing average price, and running it for next marketing year, the models aimed at the 2014-15 price should be $3.27, and the 2015-16 at $3.69.

“So for the PLC, that would suggest a payment of 43 cents and then 1 cent. This is what the market is pricing corn at, so we’re at the lower range of USDA’s estimate right now for the 2014-15 crop.”

Heed market signals

When farmers make decisions under the new farm bill, they need to pay attention to what the market is signaling, says Davis.

“When the farm bill was drafted, $3.70 corn seemed like something we’d never trigger. But it’s here, and it’s reality.”

Profitability for U.S. corn production doesn’t look so great for next year, says Davis. “I think the U.S. will lose corn acres next year, based on budgeted returns — probably somewhere between 1.3 million and 3.2 million acres.

“I see a modest increase in use from this current marketing year, so I can see stocks-to-use falling to around 12 percent. I don’t think we’ll give up 3 million acres from this year.

“Profitability is going to be a struggle next year, and if there are folks who didn’t do any risk management this year, they could have an uphill climb.”

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