Weekly Outlook: Prices High and Stocks in Short Supply

URBANA - When corn and soybean prices rally as strongly as they are now, it is useful to keep a watchful eye for developments that might suggest a waning of the fundamental support for prices, says Darrel Good, University of Illinois Extension marketing specialist.
calendar icon 16 January 2008
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"The flurry of USDA reports released on Jan. 11 certainly contained no indications of bearish developments. For corn, the USDA's final estimate of the size of the 2007 US crop came in at 13.074 billion bushels, 94 million less than the November forecast," he says.

Harvested acreage was slightly higher than the November forecast, but the average yield estimate, at 151.1 bushels, was 1.9 bushels below the November forecast.

Good says that if there is a threat to high crop prices, it may eventually come in the form of some weakness in the US and world economies. For now, market fundamentals remain strong.

Reaching highs

His comments came in response to a review of corn and soybean prices - which have moved steadily and sharply up since harvest of the 2007 crops. The average spot cash price of corn in central Illinois reached a high of $4.61 and soybean prices reached a high of $12.33 on Jan. 11. December 2008 corn futures traded to $5.13 and November 2008 soybean futures reached a high of $12.45 on the same day.

"High prices have resulted from a combination of demand and supply factors," says Good. "A continuation of high crude oil prices along with a larger biofuels mandate in the new energy bill support prospects for increased ethanol production. Expanding hog numbers in the United States has kept feed demand strong."

A short world wheat crop, a weak US dollar, and concerns about food price inflation have kept export demand for US corn and soybeans very strong. On /off concerns about the wheat crop in the United States, India, and Pakistan, together with fluctuating weather conditions in South America, have also been generally supportive for prices. There is also general agreement that the United States needs to expand soybean acreage and at least maintain corn acreage in 2008.

On 1 December 2007 stocks of corn were estimated at 10.3 billion bushels, 1.33 billion larger than inventories of a year ago, but smaller than expected. The smaller than expected inventories suggest that feed and residual use of corn was record large in the first quarter of the 2007-08 marketing year and about 9 percent larger than use of a year earlier.

For the year, USDA increased the forecast of feed and residual use of corn by 300 million bushels, to 5.95 billion. Year-ending stocks are projected at only 1.438 billion bushels, 359 million less than projected last month.

"Corn exports continue at a record pace, with the Census Bureau estimate of exports during the first quarter of the marketing year coming in at 695 million bushels, 100 million larger than shipments of the previous year and 45 million larger than reported by USDA during the quarter," said Good. "With large unshipped sales on the books, exports may exceed the USDA's projection of 2.45 billion bushels for the year, further reducing year-ending stocks."


For soybeans, the final 2007 US production estimate of 2.585 billion bushels, reflecting an average yield of 41.2 bushels per acre, was essentially unchanged from the November forecast-down nine million bushels. The projection of use for the year was unchanged, with year-ending stocks now forecast at a meager 175 million bushels.

On 1 December 2007 stocks of 2.329 billion bushels were larger than expected and imply seed, feed, and residual use of soybeans during the first quarter of the year of only 38 million bushels, compared to 60 to 105 million in recent years.

"On the surface, this small disappearance suggests the 2007 crop may have been underestimated, but quarterly disappearance varies enough so that conclusion is likely premature," says Good.

Estimates from the Census Bureau indicate that the use of soybean oil for biodiesel production has slowed dramatically since August, raising a bit of a caution flag. However, the USDA kept its forecast of soybean oil use for biodiesel for the marketing year unchanged at 3.8 billion pounds, about one billion more than used last year.

The USDA also lowered the forecast of the 2008 Brazilian soybean crop by about 55 million bushels, reflecting a slight reduction in the forecast of harvested acreage. The 2008 South American crop is forecast at 4.3 billion bushels, only 95 million larger than the 2007 harvest.

"The new projections of 2007-08 marketing year use and year-ending stocks of both corn and soybeans imply that very large crops are needed in 2008. Many have projected a sharp decline in corn acreage in 2008, but clearly the market cannot allow that to happen," added Good.

He says that an increase in soybean acreage may be needed and USDA has indicated that winter wheat seedings are up 1.6 million acres from seedings of a year ago. That is a smaller increase than expected and opens the door for more acres of spring crops.

However, Good says the difference is a small fraction of the increase in combined corn and soybean acreage needed in 2008.

"It is hard to overemphasize the importance of 2008 growing season weather. A legitimate threat to average yields could send prices much higher. In any event, strong demand, low stocks, and high prices will fuel the debate about releasing Conservation Reserve Acreage into crop production," he added.

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