Cotton dominated by Chinese imports

Focus on Futures: Cotton

Cotton field ready for harvest. Cotton field ready for harvest.

Cotton prices have been moving mostly sideways since February (Chart 1). The spread between old and new crop months has been typically volatile (Chart 2). The market is groping for direction.

On the one hand it is tempting to treat cotton like a bear market. With a looming recession in most of Europe and a waning recovery in the US, making a bullish case for an industrial commodity is a challenge. China, however, has been an active importer, shoring up its reserves. The April USDA crop report raised the estimate for 2011-12 Chinese imports by 2 million bales from the March estimate, to 20.5 million bales. That’s up from 12 million bales in the 2010-11 marketing year.

Chart 1

Chart 2

The estimate for US exports was raised in the crop report, by 400,000 bales, to 11.4 million bales. Old-crop sales have been dwindling, and we’ve even seen some light cancellations. The light volume, however, was mitigated by the most recent weekly export report, which showed 144,000 bales of commitments, most of which went to China. With three months remaining in the 2011-12 marketing year we need to average only about 25,000 bales of new sales per week to meet the USDA target. Over the past four weeks, shipments averaged 281,000 bales, which is inline with the 240,000 bales per week necessary to meet the target.

The decent showing of US exports is impressive, particularly in light of the fact that India has exported 20% to 25% more cotton than in a typical year. The Indian government has been weaving in and out of an export ban, but either way, the mere fact that there are customers eager to buy is an indication that demand is robust.

After accounting for the revisions contained in the April crop report, the balance sheet indeed presents a very bearish picture. The estimate for global ending stocks was increased by close to 4 million bales, to 66.07 million bales, or a staggering 61.32% of usage, up from the March estimate of 57.32%. That compares with an average carryover of 50.5% of consumption over the past decade.

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