CHINA’S General Administration of Customs released its December trade data last week, and the numbers confirmed that the Chinese economy continues its post-pandemic rebound as the country’s manufacturing industry capitalises on coronavirus lockdowns in many western countries.
Exports grew for the seventh consecutive month in December, rising 18.1 per cent on the same month in 2019, but down slightly from the 21.1pc growth recorded in November. Imports grew by 6.5pc in December compared to a year earlier, and up from 4.5pc the previous month.
The surge in exports in December pushed China’s trade surplus to a record US$78.18 billion, eclipsing the previous high of $75.4 billion set in November. Overall, China’s exports rose 3.6pc in 2020 compared to the previous year, while imports declined 1.1pc over the same 12-month period. As a result, China’s trade surplus for the year was a staggering $535.03 billion, the highest since 2015.
Agricultural trade record
In the agricultural commodity space, imports soared to record highs in 2020. This was driven by healthy stockfeed demand from a pig sector recovering quickly from the decimation caused by African Swine Fever (ASF). There was also a domestic shortfall of corn, and there was the Phase 1 trade deal commitment with the United States that helped stimulate the record pace.
China maintained its mantle as the world’s biggest buyer of soybeans, importing a record 100.33 million tonnes (Mt) in the 2020 calendar year. Brazil was the biggest supplier, with exports to the Middle Kingdom climbing 11.5pc year on year from 57.67Mt to 64.28Mt. After a huge shipping program in the second and third quarters of 2020, December arrivals fell to just 1.18Mt, down from 4.83Mt a year earlier.
The US is the other major supplier of course, with shipments soaring 52.8pc to 25.86Mt compared to 16.94Mt last year. The annual US tally included 5.84Mt of imports in December, up 89pc, or 3.09Mt, compared to December 2019. The challenge here is there is no evidence of demand rationing as exporters continue to offer US soybeans, despite the latest USDA supply data suggesting ending stocks are already extremely tight.
And the pace of soybean purchases is expected to remain at record levels in the first half of 2021 as demand continues to grow and crush margins are solid. Some crushers in Shandong province are reportedly making around 237 yuan (A$47.37) on every tonne of beans crushed, roughly double the crush margin of this time last year.
On the corn front, tight domestic supplies have continued to push domestic prices higher and drive demand for cheaper imports. China imported a record 11.3Mt in 2020, an increase of 207pc on the 5.46MMt imported in 2019. This included 2.25Mt in December, more than double the quantity discharged in December last year.
Corn imports exceeded the annual tariff rate quoted of 7.2Mt for the first time last year, and it is widely touted that China’s corn imports in the 2020-21 marketing year could exceed a staggering 30Mt.
Wheat imports into China in 2020 were reported as a record at 8.38Mt, close to triple imports in the previous 12-month period. This represented 87pc of its annual tariff rate quota of 9.64Mt, a noticeable improvement from just 30pc in 2019.
Barley imports for 2020 totalled 8.08Mt, including 980,000t in December, and sorghum imports have been robust in recent months with the 550,000t imported in December bringing the 2020 total to 4.81Mt.
With current domestic corn prices so high, China has been substituting a fair bit of its corn needs with wheat from the state reserve auctions, and cheaper imported feedgrains such as corn, wheat and barley.
According to the country’s National Grain Trade Centre, China sold 3.94Mt of wheat at its auction on 13 January, representing a remarkable 99.74pc of the total offered. This was up from 52pc the previous week, and just 12pc at the 23 December auction.
The high clearance rate underscores the impact of soaring domestic corn prices, as stockfeed manufacturers actively seek corn alternatives, especially as rising coronavirus cases spark supply concerns. The average sales price per tonne was 2,504 yuan (A$501.05) compared to 2365 yuan (A$473.23) the previous week. Estimates put state-owned Chinese wheat stocks at around 69Mt, or around four months’ supply at the current pace.
ASF of concern
Nature threw a spanner in the works late last week with a new ASF outbreak reported in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. It was diagnosed in 1015 sows on a farm in Pingyuan county, killing 214 of them. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, this was the country’s first reported case of the deadly disease since 26 October. And similarly, illegal transportation was suspected as the cause of the latest outbreak.
However, later reports suggested that the outbreak was a new form of ASF, and may have been caused by illicit vaccines. Authorities have identified two new strains of the virus that are missing one or two key genes. The mortality rate of these strains appears to be lower than strain that ravaged the pig herd in 2018 and 2019, but it does cause a chronic ailment that reduces the number of healthy piglets born in each litter.
All known cases are believed to have been controlled through the immediate culling of infected animals, but an escalation of the situation, or further outbreaks elsewhere in China, could have a dramatic impact on domestic pork production and severely disrupt the escalating feed grain importation and consumption trend.