China’s 2021 soybean, corn markets in review and 2022 outlook

Senior reporter Cai Chen deep dives into the forces at play for the corn and soybean markets in China for 2021 and 2022

Corn growing in a field

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China’s fundamental outlooks for soybeans and corn through 2022 will be key once again in determining the price outlooks for the twin agriculture staples as the new year approaches.

While traders and analysts expect the supply and demand outlook for corn to be relatively stable entering 2022, there remain major question marks over the size of soybean imports due to a gap in supply but deteriorating outlooks for crush margins in the domestic market.

Soybeans

China’s soybeans import demand over 2021 was heavily impacted by surging international oilseed prices, higher freight costs and the plunge in hog values as production ramped up after the African swine fever outbreaks.

However, the market still holds mixed expectations on the importing pace of the world’s largest soybean consumer in 2022.

China had brought in a total of 87.65 million tonnes of soybeans between January and November 2021, according to data from the country’s customs agency, down 5.5% from the corresponding period in the previous year.

With estimates of China’s National Grain and Oil Information Centre (CNGOIC), showing around 9.3 million tonnes of soybeans was expected to arrive in December, together the figures would lift total volumes throughout the year to 96.95 million tonnes.

That’s still 3.4% lower than the 100.33 million tonnes recorded for 2020.

The decline came as higher import costs were exacerbated by the twin effects of higher international prices and stronger freight rates that erased Chinese crushers’ importing profits.

Moreover, the domestic feed industry faced heavy losses in the wake of a plunge in hog prices earlier this year that helped curb the demand for soymeal, one of the leading products crushed from soybeans.

However, both the USDA and the Chinese government’s agriculture ministry predicted that China would increase its imports for the 2021-2022 marketing year due to strong demand from the swelling pig population and shrinking domestic soybean output.

China’s soybean production in 2021 was estimated at only 16.4 million tonnes, 16% lower than the 19.6 million tonnes harvested in 2020, according to the latest Chinese Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (Casde) released in December.

At the same time, Casde pegged its forecasts for China’s 2021-2022 soybean imports at 102 million tonnes, while the USDA also estimated the figure at 100 million tonnes, both up from earlier estimates set at 99.78 million tonnes.

According to customs data, official estimates, and Agricensus’s calculations, China still has to bring in around 70 million tonnes in the remaining eight months of the 2021-2022 marketing year, which means China has to import an average of 8.77 million tonnes per month.

However, traders and analysts hold mixed opinions on whether the demand will be there from China in the next few months to facilitate such a level of imports - particularly in the wake of domestic soyoil and soymeal futures plummeting over the past two weeks.

January soyoil futures on the Dalian Commodity Exchange plunged by nearly 8% in December, hitting a multi-month low on December 20 and tipping gross crush margins back into negative territory.

“It also depends on the margins. Recently margins have been set back again,” a China-based analyst told Fastmarkets Agricensus.

“I feel probably (China) will not buy fast, at least in the short term, because domestic crush margins have dropped too much and China has already booked many soybeans for January and February shipment,” a Chinese trader said, although supply options could compensate for slow margins.

“But Brazil’s soybeans for March loading are still relatively cheap,” the trader added, with Brazil’s new crop planted early and on course for a huge 144 million tonnes record-breaking harvest.

China has already booked over ten cargoes from Brazil for its new crop soybeans in the week to December 19, according to trade records tracked by Fastmarkets Agricensus.

Up to the week of December 19, China has almost completed its January purchase plan with 5.75 million tonnes of soybeans booked, and the country has already bought 6.4 million tonnes and 7.05 million tonnes for February and March demand, respectively.

Corn

After several years in which China’s corn demand has set new records, the outlook for the new year indicates clear and stable expectations for Chinese demand and supply over the first few months of 2022.

For imports, the total volume of corn bought by China in the current marketing year to date comes in at 5.62 million tonnes, slightly lower than 5.71 million tonnes recorded in the corresponding period a year ago, according to customs data.

But that year-on-year reduction in imports is expected to increase when entering the new calendar year, as some demand for international corn will switch to domestic crops after an excellent harvest.

According to China’s statistical bureau and the Casde estimates, the country has harvested 272.55 million tonnes of corn for the 2021-2022 marketing year, as high corn prices, better profits and supportive policies from the government encouraged farmers to expand their corn planted areas.

China’s domestic corn prices have also surged since early last year, with corn futures on the Dalian reaching their record high in May 2021 in a dynamic that largely drove farmers to shift their lands to plant corn rather than other crops.

Larger domestic production squeezed some margins and demand expectations for imported corn, with imports expected to reach only 20 million tonnes for 2021-2022, compared with 29.56 million tonnes recorded a year ago.

Similarly, the USDA has also pegged its estimate for China’s imports in 2021-2022 12% below the previous year at 26 million tonnes, according to the latest update of its influential World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimates (Wasde) report.

In 2022, “we expect that the demand for corn will be relatively stable, as most of the excessive production capacity of the pig industry can be only eliminated until the middle of next year,” a China-based analyst told Fastmarkets Agricensus.

At the same time, despite the larger domestic production, the balance in supply and demand in China’s corn market remains tight, underpinning prices for the grain.

“It is hard to see domestic prices having a strong surge in the next stage,” the analyst added.

This article was originally published to Fastmarkets Agricensus on Tuesday December 28, 2021.

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