NEW YORK, Feb 15 (Reuters) - U.S. importers are buying up Colombian coffee from warehouses as shipments run late and inventories fall, lifting prices after poor crop weather hurt output in the world's biggest grower of high-quality arabica beans.
Colombian coffee supplies have tightened after a surge of exports in December reached a one-year high, followed by a smaller-than-expected harvest due to too much rain and not enough sunlight, importers said.
"They're holding back as much as they can and they are harvesting less than expected," said Christian Wolthers, president and chief executive of Wolthers Douqué USA, a green coffee importer.
Though Wolthers described the situation as "just a breeze of worry," another importer said they are still waiting for multiple Colombian coffee shipments that were due as far back as November.
One multinational importer and exporter based in the United States said that because so much Colombian coffee was sold early in the 2017/18 crop year, U.S. demand for immediately available stocks has shifted to the ICE Futures U.S. certified coffees. Several importers said much of this coffee is from the previous harvest.
Inventories of ICE Futures U.S. certified coffee from Colombia as of Feb. 14 have dropped to around 143,000 60-kg bags, down 74,000 bags from a month prior and less than half the amount held in mid-February in 2016 and 2017, exchange data shows.
However, more than half of this coffee is stored in Antwerp, ICE data shows.
U.S. coffee importers routinely sell beans to roasters before they have it in their possession for a specified delivery date, so when shipments are late, they are still obligated to deliver.
The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation said in December that wet weather would cut output by 20 percent in the first half of 2018 versus the year-ago period.
U.S. importers said that a brief surge in exports in December, followed by lower output and combined with a strengthening Colombian peso, is causing producers to hold out for higher prices. This means importers must seek immediately available stocks on their own turf.
This has pushed up the premium for Colombian usual-good-quality beans in U.S. warehouses to around 24.5 cents per lb above the spot benchmark contract, the highest since July.
One Colombian coffee mill operator said he was concerned they could run out of supplies in June through September.
Importers said that subdued demand was preventing prices from rising further with total green coffee inventories in the United States still relatively high at 6.6 million bags by the end of January. This is a one-year low but still higher than previous years, according to Green Coffee Association data. (Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota Editing by Matthew Lewis)