The U.S. and Russia are engaged in a rivalry for dominance once again, this time in the wheat market. After Russia recently pulled ahead, the U.S. has fought back, with the help of a weaker dollar.
One irony of the situation is that the U.S. is taking market share partly as the FBI investigation into ties between President Donald Trump’s aides and Russia. The probe has weakened the greenback and made American grain cheaper for overseas buyers. That’s helping the U.S. to regain its position as the world’s largest wheat exporter for the first time in three years, stealing back the title from Russia.
The fight to lead world wheat exports is always heated, with suppliers including the U.S., Russia and Canada jockeying for position. American shippers were at a disadvantage after several years of stronger dollar. Now, with the greenback in decline, U.S. supplies are cheap enough that Egypt, the top importer, bought two cargoes in a tender last week. That’s the first such purchase in two years and shows how U.S. grain has become more competitive even with higher freight costs.
"Last week’s tender was kind of a watershed event," Matt Connelly, a grains analyst at The Hightower Report in Chicago, said by phone. "I don’t know if Egypt’s going to be coming back consistently, but if they do and if the U.S. is included in the next tender, it should tell the market that we’re here to stay."
The U.S. will ship 28.2 million metric tons of wheat in the season that’s about to end, 34 percent more than a year earlier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates. That will propel the nation’s overseas sales to surpass Russia’s, forecast at 28 million tons. A stronger euro and poor crops are also making supplies from the European Union less competitive.
The U.S. sold 115,000 tons to the Egyptian government last week and has also shipped about 612,000 tons to Algeria this season, markets often dominated by Europe and the Black Sea. Demand has also been spurred by China. The main U.S. markets are Mexico and Japan.
American shippers may not enjoy the benefits for long. Nations in the Black Sea region will probably have good crops in the local season that starts in July, while the U.S. planted the smallest winter-wheat area in more than a century. Cold and wet weather is also raising concerns about the quality of the U.S. winter crop, which is just beginning to be harvested, according to Rabobank International Ltd.
The U.S. may retain still an edge over European wheat as the euro gains and dry weather hurts next season’s crop in Spain and France. Paris wheat for delivery in December was $21.50 a ton more expensive than the grain traded in Chicago, a record for that contract.
"I think the European exports will once again not reach full potential compared to previous years, when we had exports close to 30 million tons," said Stefan Vogel, Rabobank’s head of agricultural commodities research in London. "That seems right now highly unrealistic."
While U.S. shippers have finally captured the Egyptian market, their sales are only a fraction of the 3.94 million tons supplied by Russia and the 1 million tons sold by Romania this season, data compiled by Bloomberg showed. Still, it’s comparable to the 180,000 tons from France.
"We’re not going to be dominant like the Black Sea," Connelly said. "I don’t think we’ll be close to that, but if we’re able to participate, it’s a solid statement for the export market."
Wheat for July delivery rose 0.3 percent to $4.32 a bushel at 8:50 a.m. in Chicago.