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Coffee is set to cost more as drought drives rally

Sep 26 2016 15:57
Marvin G. Perez

New York - The buzz of the morning alarm might start to sound even more painful thanks to topsy-turvy weather in Brazil that’s pushing up the cost of commodities that find their way into your breakfast drink.

Across the country’s coffee belt, dry weather is hurting production of arabica and robusta beans. At the same time, too much rain in citrus areas hampered production of orange juice, while frost in sugar-growing regions has cut yields.

Brazil is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of all three products, underscoring why supply problems have prompted investors to increase bets on price gains - a combined measure for holdings in the three products is at an all-time high.

Sugar and orange-juice futures in New York are already trading near four-year highs. Arabica coffee, the variety favoured by Starbucks Corporation, last week reached the costliest since February 2015.

Brazil’s weather problems are coming after El Nino spurred drought across Asia earlier this year, reducing sugar and coffee supplies. In Florida, the No. 2 orange-juice supplier, a disease-spreading bug has devastated crops.

"This isn’t a short-term phenomenon - you are seeing some real supply-side constraints," said Lara Magnusen, a La Jolla, California-based portfolio manager at Altegris Advisors, which oversees $2.47bn.

Investor bets

Money managers are positioning for higher prices. The net-long position in sugar climbed 6.4% to 284 448 futures and options in the week ended September 20, Commodity Futures Trading Commission data published three days later show.

It was the biggest gain in six weeks. Investors increased their bullish holdings of arabica coffee to the highest since October 2014, while wagers on an orange-juice rally rose for a fourth straight week. A combined measure for holdings in three commodities reached the highest since the data starts in 2006.

Raw- sugar futures have climbed in the past three weeks, the longest streak since June. Prices touched 23.88 cents a pound on September 22, the highest since July 2012.

The sweetener has soared 49% this year, the biggest gain among the 22 components of the Bloomberg Commodity Index.

Global deficit

Some of Brazil’s Center-South sugar cane probably was harvested and crushed prematurely in the first half of September after mid-year frosts, according to Sao Paulo-based industry group Unica.

In India, the No. 2 grower, output for the 2016 to 2017 harvest could drop as much as 8.4% after scant rains, an industry group said last week.

The world market this season is poised for a second straight annual supply shortfall, which will wipe out almost all the stockpiles accumulated during the prior four years of surpluses, according to trader Czarnikow Group.

"We are moving back to significant tightness," said Gillian Rutherford, who helps oversee about $12bn as a commodities portfolio manager at Pacific Investment Management Company in Newport Beach, California.

"There’s room for sugar to move explosively, if for example, Indian production comes in very, very light compared with expectations."

Coffee crops

For coffee, Brazil’s supply woes are also being compounded by problems in Asia. Drought hurt crops in Vietnam, the largest producer of the robusta variety.

Consumers were hopeful that the South American harvest of the beans could help ease supply tightness, but instead dry weather hampered output. As robusta supplies grow scarcer, more roasters are increasing their use of arabica beans and driving up those prices.

Arabica futures in New York are heading for a fifth straight monthly increase, which would be the longest streak since 2010. They’re up 18% this year.

While dryness has been hurting many crops, the problem for orange trees has been excessive rain. Too much humidity sparked concerns over crop disease for Brazil’s groves, Cepea, the University of Sao Paulo research arm, said this month. Meanwhile, a bug known as the Asian citrus psyllid continues to spread a bacterial disease that’s ravaging trees in South America and Florida.

Global production of the beverage is already set to slump to the lowest in decades, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Though the weather has been to blame for Brazil’s crop gloom, there’s still time for a turnaround that can help rescue plants, said Ben Ross, portfolio manager and co-head of commodities at New York-based Cohen & Steers Capital Management, which oversees $61bn in assets.

And even if the conditions linger, the higher prices could be their own undoing. US consumption has already slackened for orange juice.

"At some point, the prices are going to hurt demand," Ross said. "The upside is limited."

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