March 2024

Shifts in global competition

Over the past several months, the corn and soybean markets have been fixated on the potential production coming from South America. As our harvest was wrapping up last fall, the chatter about the upcoming South American crops began. And that speculation continues today, as the release of the March World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report was more anticipated for its adjustments to global supplies than its shifts in domestic supply and demand. The global markets have expanded dramatically over the couple of decades. Production and consumption have both increased at rates faster than population, and corn and soybean trade has more than doubled since 2000. Much of that growth has occurred in South America.

Global corn market

For corn, the 2023-2024 crop is the largest the world has ever seen. Table 1 outlines global corn production for the last two years. The 2023-2024 crop of 1.2 billion tons of corn produced translates to roughly 48.4 billion bushels. The US produces nearly one-third of that total. But it is the Brazilian crop most are watching currently. USDA’s current estimate of the Brazilian corn crop is 124 million tons or 4.88 billion bushels. USDA’s counterpart in Brazil, CONAB (National Supply Company), has an estimate of 113 million tons or 4.45 billion bushels. Traders are searching for indications to verify which of these estimates are closer to the harvested reality.

Table 1. Global corn production.

The 433 million bushel gap between the USDA and CONAB numbers has significant implications for US corn exports. While Brazil does not produce nearly as much as the US does, Brazil has recently become the largest corn exporter in the world. Figure 1 shows global corn exports since 2000. For most of that time, the US has been the dominant corn exporter. Only during the drought-riddled year of 2012 had the US lost that top slot. But with the continuing growth of corn production within Brazil, they moved into the top slot with last year’s crop and this year’s projections have them maintaining that position. The growth in corn exports is not limited to Brazil. As the figure shows, corn export levels have grown in Argentina, Ukraine, and Russia. The 10 countries shown in the figure are currently the top 10 corn exporters, ordered by projected 2023-2024 export levels. The graphic shows that the growth in global corn exports has basically been captured by other countries and not the US.

Figure 1. Global corn exports.

Any reduction in Brazilian supplies would create some potential openings for US corn, but we would face some stiff competition to capture those sales. Despite the war in Ukraine, corn supplies from the Black Sea region are entering the global market. Given the military need for funding on both sides of that war, both countries have been “motivated sellers” of crops. Recent corn export bids cataloged by the International Grains Council show Ukrainian corn priced roughly 10% below US or South American corn. The gains US corn has made thus far on the export front have been impressive, despite the challenges.

Global soybean market

The global soybean market has experienced very significant changes as well over the past couple of decades. Global production and consumption have grown dramatically. In fact, world production has set a record in each of the past two years. Table 2 outlines global soybean production for the last two years. The 2022-2023 crop of roughly 378 million tons of soybeans produced translated to roughly 13.89 billion bushels. The 2023-2024 crop of roughly 397 million tons of soybeans produced translates to roughly 14.58 billion bushels. The 690 million bushel increase in global supplies from one record year to the next is impressive. As with corn, the US produces nearly one-third of that total and it’s the Brazilian crop most are watching currently. USDA’s current estimate of the Brazilian soybean crop is 155 million tons or 5.695 billion bushels. USDA’s counterpart in Brazil, CONAB, has an estimate of 147 million tons or 5.4 billion bushels. USDA’s lower estimate this month reflects continuing concern for the South American crop, but as the CONAB estimate, USDA is still maintaining levels above Brazilian and private industry estimates.

Table 2. Global soybean production.

The gap between the USDA and CONAB soybean estimates is 294 million bushels. Those potential bushels definitely impact the export markets. US soybean exports have retreated over the past couple of years, but the long-run trend for global soybean exports is strongly positive. Figure 2 displays global soybean exports since 2000, tracking the current top 10 countries for soybean exports, along a rest-of-the-world (ROW) aggregate. Global soybean exports have doubled since 2009 and tripled since 2000. While the US has captured a small piece of this growth, it has been Brazil that has expanded to meet the world’s soybean needs. Brazilian soybean exports account for over half the world total. The US had been the largest exporter in the vast majority of years before 2012, but Brazil took the lead then and has widen the gap between sizably. Based on current estimates for the 2023-2024 crop, Brazil’s soybean exports will be more than double the US total. The possible reduction of Brazilian supplies could open up some additional US soybean sales, but USDA’s outlook doesn’t show a rebound in the total number of soybean bushels exported from the US until the 2024 crop.

Figure 2. Global soybean exports.

Throughout my talks this winter, I have highlighted the importance of exports to the US crop markets. It was the strong export pace during the 2020 and 2021 crop years that supported the price recovery after COVID and the return to $6 corn and beans in the teens. But that export pace cooled during the 2022 and 2023 crop years due to a combination of greater global supplies and high US prices relative to the rest of the world. And I feel export demand holds the key to pricing as we move through 2024. The limited corn export recovery is providing some support to stabilize corn prices this spring, with the potential to add upward pressure on prices, depending on the size of the Brazilian crop. Meanwhile, the soybean market is searching for signs the decline in US exports is over. The growth in soybean usage for biofuel is helpful, but exports still set the pricing picture.

Listen to the latest Market Outlook video for further insight on outlook for this month.

 

Chad E. Hart, extension economist, 515-294-9911, chart@iastate.edu

Author

Chad E. Hart

extension economist
Iowa State University
468E Heady Hall
515-294-9911
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