By Michael Hirtzer and Ashley Robinson
The trade war, wild weather and angry farmers all generated major headlines in 2019 on corn and soybeans. But thinly traded niche commodities posted the most impressive gains for the year.
Rice, vegetable oils and lumber all posted price increases of at least 25%. The reason: Crazy climate conditions were magnified in smaller markets where there’s often less certainty over the supply cushion. Lower trading volumes can also make for exaggerated price moves.
Here are some of the little markets that saw large gains:
Rice and Oats
Excessively wet field conditions hampered U.S. planting and harvesting of rice, soybeans, corn and spring wheat. While crop concerns helped spark annual gains for all those markets, rice’s 28% surge was outsized.
As concerns mounted over U.S. supplies, Brazil’s rice output was also hampered. That means there are fewer options for countries that typically source supplies in the western hemisphere.
“We have one of the smallest rice crops on record in the western hemisphere,” said Milo Hamilton, president of Austin, Texas-based Firstgrain, a rice-trading advisory company. “The domestic price in Brazil is shooting through the roof.”
Oats are on pace to post a fourth straight yearly gain, the longest streak since 2007. The climb was propelled in part by rising demand for oat milk, according to Scott Shiels, grain procurement manager at Grain Millers Canada in Yorkton, Saskatchewan.
It’s hard to tell if the gains will last, since relatively better prices may entice farmers to plant more in 2020.
“Rice has outperformed soybeans and corn, so that will create some acreage next year and probably some lower prices,” said Jack Scoville, vice president at Chicago brokerage Price Futures Group.
Prices for cooking oils saw a big boost. The move comes amid the spread of African swine fever in Asia, which is killing off tens of millions of hogs. With a shrinking hog herd, Chinese soybean processors are crushing less to make livestock feed, thereby also reducing supplies of soy oil. The palm-oil market has also been helped by supply concerns and expectations for robust biofuel demand.
Soybean oil traded in Chicago is up 27% in 2019, heading for the largest increase since 2010. Palm oil traded in Malaysia jumped about 47%.
Lumber prices had a bit of a roller-coaster ride in 2019. First, Chicago futures fell as much as 15% to this year’s low of $286.10 per 1,000 board feet in late May. The wet spring caused U.S. housing starts to tumble, while producers in Canada’s British Columbia were struggling to manage supplies.
Tides turned when lumber companies finally curbed production, while U.S. housing starts rebounded. Prices are now on pace for an annual gain of 27%.
The rally is expected to continue in 2020. The Canadian curtailments will keep supplies tight in North America, said Kevin Mason, managing director of ERA Forest Products Research.
“It’s going to be definitely a much stronger market,” Mason said.