April 11 (Reuters) - China’s largest purchase of U.S. soft red winter (SRW) wheat in at least nine years on Thursday should be followed by more big purchases this year as Beijing rebuilds depleted reserves and takes advantage of cheap imports to meet its growing need for livestock feed, analysts and trade sources said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday said private dealers sold 360,000 tonnes of U.S. SRW wheat to China for shipment in the 2013/14 (June/May) marketing year. That is part of a larger deal that was announced in China last week.
The 360,000 tonnes is the largest single-day SRW sale to the world’s top wheat producer since January 2004, USDA data shows.
In all, China’s Sinograin bought 14- to 16-cargoes of U.S. SRW last week, the China National Grain and Oils Information Center said on Monday.. Once USDA announces the rest of that deal, either via daily reporting or in its weekly reports, additional sales are expected.
The rest of the Sinograin purchases may not be confirmed by USDA’s daily reporting system if the deals were routed through sellers’ foreign trading desks, which are not bound by daily reporting guidelines, traders said. Each cargo holds about 60,000 tonnes of grain so roughly 480,000 to 600,000 tonnes remain unconfirmed by USDA.
SRW wheat futures on the Chicago Board of Trade fell last week to the lowest in 9-1/2 months while domestic prices in China hovered near historic highs.
The attractive pricing was an opportunity for Beijing to rebuild government reserves.
“As their wheat prices have rallied over the last three months, they have been taking wheat out of reserves and selling it to hold their domestic prices down. They’re replacing that reserve. They want that wheat in hand to fight inflationary food values if they happen,” said Roy Huckabay, analyst with The Linn Group.
“There’s talk that they’ve got more to buy, but the wheat market’s kind of walked away from their prices. It may take a break in flat prices of 10 or 20 cents to get back to an area where they are a willing buyer again,” he said.
Spot CBOT wheat futures settled at $6.97-3/4 per bushel on Tuesday, up a penny on the day but more than 30 cents above last week’s multimonth spot-contract low of $6.64 per bushel.
The cost of SRW wheat at U.S. Gulf export terminals fell earlier this year to a discount of nearly $140 per tonne to Chinese domestic wheat prices, the largest ever price difference according to Reuters records that go back to 2004. That price difference more than offset U.S. Gulf to China shipping costs of around $40 per tonne.
Concerns that adverse weather in China could trim its wheat and corn crops suggest that trade forecasts for modest increases in imports of both grains in the coming season were understated, analysts said.
The size of China’s grain stockpile is a closely guarded state secret, but traders say supplies have been reduced enough that Beijing would make big import purchases if prices fall to desired levels.
“Some believe that this is the first of a number of purchases that are going to occur over a number of months to start to replenish their drawn-down stocks situation,” said Kent Beadle, grain market analyst with CHS Hedging.
“They’re going to look buy corn later on when prices are discounted as a lot of folks believe that there’s more downside to corn prices in the new-crop slots,” he added.
China typically imports mostly higher grade wheat such as U.S. hard red spring or Canadian spring wheat to “blend up” lower grade domestic wheat. But increased feed needs and high corn prices have boosted demand for lower-grade and less-expensive wheat such as SRW.
Wheat imports by China in the 2012/13 season were forecast at 3.2 million tonnes, up from 2.933 million tonnes the previous year and the highest since 2004/05 when imports hit 6.747 million tonnes, according to USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service.
Many analysts believe China may import 3.5 million tonnes in the upcoming 2013/14 season, possibly more. But few believe its wheat import program could challenge levels seen in the late-1980s to early-1990s when Beijing regularly imported 10 million tonnes or more. (Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)