China inquires about US soybeans for the first time since April: Traders

Key Points
  • China's state grain stockpiler Sinograin has been enquiring about the prices of soybeans from the U.S. this week.
  • It was a sign Beijing may resume purchases as trade tensions ease.
Workers transport imported soybeans at a port in Nantong, China April 9, 2018.

China's state grain stockpiler has returned this week to the U.S. soybean market for the first time since early April, a sign Beijing is preparing to resume purchases as trade tensions between the world's top two economies ease, two sources said.

The renewed interest in the oilseed, used in animal feed, follows Beijing's pledge at the weekend to buy more U.S. goods from its top trading partner, including agricultural products. China made the pledge to avert a trade war that could damage the global economy.

As the two sides stepped back from a full-blown trade war, Washington also neared a deal on Tuesday to lift its ban on U.S. firms supplying Chinese telecoms gear maker ZTE Corp., and Beijing announced tariff cuts on car imports.

State grains buyer Sinograin asked about U.S.-origin soybean prices this week after being largely absent for the last six weeks, two sources with knowledge of the matter said.

"Sinograin is in the market today asking U.S. suppliers to make offers for shipment of old crop as well as new crop beans for shipment August onwards," said a source who works at a private soybean crushing company in China.

Sinograin's requests for prices were interpreted as a sign that government curbs on buying American goods had been lifted.

"It is a clear message to even private companies that it is okay now to import U.S. beans," the source said.

Soybeans are America's top agricultural export to China, worth $12 billion last year.

Two other sources briefed on the matter said state grain trader Cofco was also now permitted to buy U.S. soybeans, with the restrictions put in place during high trade tensions removed.

It's not clear how or when the government communicated this, and Sinograin, Cofco and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.

A Ministry of Commerce spokeswoman said the ministry has not told state companies to increases purchases of U.S. soybeans.

One of the sources said Cofco had not yet made any purchases after buying large volumes earlier in recent months.

The sources declined to be named as they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Broader pick-up

Traders also reported a pick-up this week in inquiries for other grains, including U.S. distillers dried grains (DDGS), a byproduct of making corn ethanol, as improving trade relations rekindled the broader U.S.-China grain trade.

A trader at an international trading firm said he received three enquiries for DDGS from China in recent days, the first in a while.

"We have got more enquiries on U.S. products, including DDGS this week from Chinese traders, following the developments last week and over the weekend," he said.

In November last year, Beijing removed a value-added tax on imports of U.S. DDGS, but it kept in place an 80 percent import duty, which prevented a big surge in Chinese buying.

U.S. Gulf export prices for the new soybean crop also rose on Tuesday by 4-5 cents a bushel, on a cost, insurance, and freight (CIF) basis, which a U.S. trader said may indicate a revival in demand from China, the top importer of the oilseed.

The trader said exporters were lining up supplies to load vessels in October to December, with the next U.S. crop hitting the market around September.

Relief to farmers

The news of China's return to the market will come as a big relief to U.S. farmers, who saw orders canceled and business dry up as Washington and Beijing lobbed trade-tariff threats at one another.

The global commodities market and trade flow of goods from sorghum and corn to pork have been roiled by the dispute.

Beijing had warned in April it would hit U.S. imports of soybeans and other agricultural products with an additional 25 percent duty, after the U.S. had threatened to apply a similar tariff to some 1,300 Chinese products.