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Jun 05, 2020 PRINT EDITION

For China, US soybeans are small fry; crude, LNG, coal are the main game: Russell

LAUNCESTON: China's purchase of some US soybeans is being viewed as a tentative sign of a little détente in the dispute

July 30, 2019

LAUNCESTON: China's purchase of some US soybeans is being viewed as a tentative sign of a little détente in the dispute between the world's two largest economies, but real progress would be a resumption of what had been a burgeoning energy trade.

US and Chinese negotiators are meeting for two days of talks in Shanghai starting on Tuesday amid modest expectations for progress to resolve the trade imbroglio that has resulted in tit-for-tat tariffs being imposed on billions of dollars worth of imports and exports.

One of the areas where some positive movement has been seen is China's commitment to buy more US agricultural produce, soybeans in particular.

US government data released on Monday showed soybean exports picking up, with nine bulk US soybean shipments carrying about 600,000 tonnes inspected for export to China in the week ended July 25, the most for a single week since mid-February.

As positive as this may sound, China is still buying considerably less than it used to from the United States. Soybean purchases in the 2018/19 season are expected to fall to around 14.3 million tonnes, the least in 11 years and well below 27.7 million tonnes in 2017/18.

About 4 million tonnes of that still has to be shipped, and may be rolled over into the next marketing year, which runs from September to August.

What's clear is that US soybean exports to China are down sharply in volume terms, and also in value terms given the slump in soybean prices on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Soybean futures ended at 905 US cents a bushel on Monday, up from the year low of 803 cents in May, but also 16% below the three-year peak of 1,078 cents, reached in May last year just prior to the start of President Donald Trump's trade fight with China.

In dollars per tonnes terms, soybeans are around $333 a tonne, meaning the 600,000 tonnes approved for export has a value of about $200 million.

In contrast, US crude oil exports to China for July are estimated by Refinitiv to be 8.1 million barrels, worth around $494 million, assuming a price of $61.07 a barrel, which is the current level of physical West Texas Intermediate cargoes in Houston, as assessed by commodity price reporting agency Argus.

July is likely to be the strongest month for Chinese imports of US crude since August last year when 10.9 million barrels arrived.

However, at about 261,000 barrels per day (bpd), July's imports are still well below the 344,000 bpd rate of the first six months of last year.

If US crude exports to China could recover to the levels seen in the first half of last year, it would be worth around $20.1 million a day, or $7.34 billion a year.

Copyright Reuters, 2019