Views on commodities and energy
The weakest U.S. dollar in 15 months along with ample American wheat supplies should be spurring strong U.S. wheat exports this season. But the United States, typically the world’s largest wheat exporter every year, is seeing exports of that grain down 30 percent from a year ago as many big overseas buyers source wheat from cheaper suppliers, namely Russia, France and Germany.
What’s more, nearby Chicago Board of Trade wheat futures prices have jumped nearly 25 percent since October 1, ignoring the weak exports, weak domestic cash basis and ample stocks of wheat on hand.
The economics of wheat supply and demand don’t seem to be adding up. What gives?
Some grain traders and analysts who study the CBOT wheat market think the latest price action in wheat may just be another symptom of the malaise grain traders have complained about with “convergence.” A chorus of protests by grain users like the National Grain and Feed Association for two years have blamed “Wall Street Index Funds” for buying grains — particularly, CBOT wheat — en masse and far beyond what is merited by basic grain market fundamentals.
The price inflation has caused a persistent disconnect, they say, between CBOT wheat and real-world prices and essentially ruined CBOT as a reliable hedging market for grain firms because the inflated CBOT wheat futures prices no longer “converge” with cash markets in delivery periods. Now, some traders wonder if the same fund-driven demand for CBOT wheat contracts is pricing U.S. wheat out of the world export market at a time fundamentals should be letting it compete.
Egypt’s main government wheat buyer, for example, has passed on U.S. wheat in its last six snap tenders. The most recent snub occurred this past week when it bought cheaper French, Russian and German supplies. Egypt has long been the single biggest buyer of U.S. soft red winter wheat, the CBOT par delivery grade. U.S. wheat shipped from the Gulf of Mexico this marketing season has been running roughly $25 to $35 per tonne higher than the wheat from the Black Sea region or France, exporters say. Freight is also more expensive.
“What worsened the situation in just in the last week or two is we’ve seen U.S. wheat futures escalate 60, 70, 80 cents despite a weak fundamental outlook, basically on fund buying,” said Mike Krueger, senior analyst for World Perspectives, who also runs a grain advisory service in Fargo, North Dakota. “Funds of all types, index and hedge funds whatever you want to call them, have simply been buying wheat and that drove markets sharply higher.”
Weekly trader commitments data issued on Friday afternoon from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission confirmed the trend.
Index funds — funds which by their nature only hold a long position — were shown to be holding almost half (47 percent) of all the total long open interest in CBOT wheat as of Tuesday, Nov. 17.
Managed funds — speculators which hold both long and short positions based on daily market trends — were also buyers, reducing their net short position in CBOT wheat by 10,300 contracts in the same period. But these big players remained net sellers in the wheat market as a group.
So it all adds up to what? For starters, probably a more critical eye once again from the CFTC, which has been holding public hearings since the summer under its reform-minded chairman Gary Gensler seeking a solution to the convergence issue as a way to restore the CBOT’s role as a hedging market.
Few are happy with the “convergence” solutions proposed so far by the CME, including the most recent one — still under consideration — of tinkering further with wheat storage fees at elevators. CME — dependent on volume to remain the dominant market for world wheat speculators — continues to try to please all players, from Wall Street to Main Street.
But it may be only a matter of time before U.S. wheat exporters as a group — all of whom are members of the influential NGFA — come to CFTC and blame Wall Street’s financial engineers for sabotaging the world’s top wheat exporter.