IT APPEARS that 18 months of uncertainty for Australian barley growers regarding the outcome of China’s anti-dumping and countervailing duties investigations may be about to end in tears.
China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) is reported to be close to announcing exorbitant tariffs on all barley imports from Australia as a result of their prolonged inquiry.
The news comes as farmers across the country are busy planting this season’s winter crop, and arrives too late for any material change in planting intentions.
Barley is traditionally Australia’s second-biggest winter cereal, by area and volume, after wheat, and a large proportion of this season’s 4.5 million hectare (Mha) crop has already been planted.
Beijing announced the probe in November 2018 after the China International Chamber of Commerce complained that Australian barley was being subsidised by the government, allowing it to enter the Chinese market in large volumes and at discounted prices, hurting domestic producers.
According to a joint press release from Australian agricultural industry groups, Beijing is proposing two supposedly yet-to-be-finalised tariffs: an anti-dumping margin of 73.6 per cent, and a subsidy margin of 6.9pc. They add up 80.5pc, and would make it almost impossible for Australia to compete with alternate barley origins into the valuable Chinese market.
The information released by MOFCOM over the weekend raises a myriad of questions, the answers to which the Australian barley industry can only guess. When will the tariffs be imposed? Will they be immediate or commence at some future date? Will cargoes currently on the water be exempt?
Probably the most burning question is: Will it cover both malting and feed barley? Will the Chinese Government find a way to impose the tariffs but continue to buy Australian malting barley? Chinese brewers and maltsters, many of which are semi-government operations, rely on Australian malting barley as the quality of domestic production is not suitable, and freight from alternative origins such as France is much higher.
The domestic grains industry, in conjunction with the Australian Government, has been given 10 days to respond, with MOFCOM expected to release its final determination on 19 May. This will be exactly 18 months after the commencement of the investigation, the maximum allowable period under World Trade Organization rules.
The threat of sanctions by MOFCOM comes at a time when relations have frayed between Canberra and Beijing, aggravated by the Australian Government push for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak.
If China follows through with the imposition of the proposed tariffs it places a huge question mark over Australia’s barley exports for the balance of this season, and the current forecasts for exports to China in 2020-21.
In recent years, Australia has been China’s largest supplier of barley, with the grain going into both the brewing and stockfeed markets. In the 2017-18 (Oct-Sep) Australian marketing year, China imported almost 6.5 million tonnes (Mt) of Australian barley.
This was valued at more than AU$2.2 billion and accounted for around 75pc of China’s barley imports in that period. Though still significant, the volume dropped substantially in the 2018-19 season, to a tad over 2Mt, or around $700 million, as the anti-dumping investigation made it difficult for consumers to acquire import permits.
China is still Australia’s biggest export barley customer this season, with around 1Mt shipped to the end of April. Second on the list of destinations by volume is the Queensland domestic market, with transhipments, predominantly from South Australia and Western Australia, into the port of Brisbane totalling more than 900,000t. Next is Thailand at just over 400,000t and then Japan at 200,000t.
Big crop coming
With an excellent soil-moisture profile throughout News South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, and promising rainfall across many parts of Western Australia last week, most of the Australian barley crop is being planted on time and into favourable soil conditions.
That means Australia is looking at a barley crop of at least 10Mt. If farmers manage to plant all their intended area in those states, and we get an above-average winter and spring, then production of 12Mt is achievable. This would give Australia an exportable surplus in the 6-8Mt range, well up on this season’s number.
In the absence of China, one of the first destinations domestic exporters will look to is Saudi Arabia, in particular the Arabian Gulf, where Australia has a freight advantage compared with Black Sea exporters. The latest tender price into Dammam was US$207/t cost and freight (C&F). With freight of $19/t out of Western Australian ports and the Aussie dollar at US$0.65, that equates to AU$289/t free on board (fob) or around AU$262/t free-in-store (fis).
New-crop Black Sea barley was reportedly bid at US$170/t fob last week. With shipping to the Arabian Gulf around $29/t, that equates to a delivered price of $199 C&F. Using the freight and currency numbers above, that works back to AU$277/t ofb, or $250/t fis Western Australia. Ex South Australia that would be a grower bid of about $230/t.
The other alternative for volume barley exports will be to displace corn into feed rations throughout Asia. While that is possible at current prices, there is a huge corn harvest coming off in South America at the moment, the northern hemisphere corn crop will be big if all goes well, and COVID-19 has decimated global demand. On that basis, it is unlikely global corn values will hold current levels as we move closer to the Australian harvest.
It is hard to understand what has driven the Chinese decision, and we will have to wait until 19 May to find out the details. However, with the potential for a substantial Australian barley crop this season, any erosion of demand or closure of traditional markets will be detrimental for grower bids unless the Aussie dollar comes to the rescue.
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