SOFTS-Robusta coffee sets 2-1/2 month high, cocoa also up
* Vietnam Dec coffee shipments exceed expectations
* Raw sugar hovers just above last month's 2-year low
* Cocoa market awaits North America grind data
(Adds details, quotes, updates prices)
LONDON, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Robusta coffee futures on Liffe set a 2-1/2 month high on Thursday, boosted by strong roaster demand which has helped absorb higher-than-expected shipments from Vietnam.
Cocoa futures were higher as dealers awaited the North American cocoa grindings data due later in the day, while raw sugar also edged up.
Gains on robusta coffee futures are expected to be capped by origin selling as higher prices attract Vietnamese sellers ahead of the Tet holiday in February.
Vietnam's coffee exports rose a third in December from the previous month to 162,500 tonnes, or 2.7 million bags, the customs department said, beating market expectations.
"The shipment figures are very good, without a doubt," said a European analyst.
However, dealers said the crop may tail off earlier than expected after a strong start, sending a bullish signal to the market.
March robusta coffee futures rose $13 or 0.7 percent to $1,982 a tonne at 1556 GMT after earlier rising to $1,988, the highest level for the second-month since November 2.
Vietnam is in the midst of harvesting its second consecutive bumper crop, which traders expect to fall slightly short of the record output seen in 2011/12.
ICE March arabica coffee was up 2.05 cents or 1.3 percent to $1.5505 per lb.
Dealers monitored reports of coffee leaf rust in Central American countries but said it was too soon to mark down any production estimates.
"It's really hard to know at the moment because it's come on so suddenly, it's come out of nowhere," said the analyst, adding more information was needed on the areas affected.
ICE cocoa edged higher, supported by supportive fundamentals, as the market awaited the North American fourth quarter grinding data which dealers expected would be near unchanged, compared with the same period the previous year.
"Cocoa fundamentals are mildly constructive. From the current levels of $2,200 we would expect the market to move up to the $2,400 per tonne levels," Macquarie analyst Kona Haque said in a conference call.
"The market is carrying a small deficit of 80,000 tonnes on the back of lower production in Indonesia, Ghana and the Ivory Coast where weather has been less than ideal and at the same time we are also expecting a modest recovery in grindings."
Several regions reported fourth quarter grindings data, including Europe, where quarterly grindings fell by 6.2 percent partly due to poor processing margins.
"In view of weak margins, chocolate producers have been increasingly resorting to their own stocks in recent months - now these will have to be replenished," said Commerzbank in a daily commodities note.
"The corresponding data for North America will be published later today, and are likely to be better than the figures in Europe, where demand was additionally hit by the economic crisis."
The bank also said producer countries were playing an increasingly important role in terms of grinding and therefore misleading to focus solely on the traditional consumer countries.
ICE March cocoa futures rose $34 or 1.5 percent to $2,290 per tonne while London May cocoa futures traded up 14 pound or 1.0 percent at 1,471 pounds per tonne.
March raw sugar futures on ICE were up 0.11 cent or 0.6 percent at 18.56 cents per lb but remained within striking distance of a two-year low of 18.31 hit in December.
Dealers said the overall mood remained bearish due to a large global surplus but the market may have scope to rally in the short-term.
Constructive factors include lower than expected yields in Thailand and freezing weather in China and possibly a switch in Brazil from sugar to ethanol production from the cane crop.
"The market is very well supplied which is why prices are so low but at these levels you do risk mills in Brazil switching out and maybe moving into ethanol," Haque of Macquarie said.
March white sugar on Liffe eased $0.10 or 0.02 percent to $499.50 per tonne.
(Additional reporting by Nigel Hunt; editing by Alison Birrane and James Jukwey)