With the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service announcing a purchase of 204,000 metric tons of U.S. soybeans by private Chinese importers, there are hopes that the trade war is beginning to dissipate.
Seeing that the last significant purchase of U.S. soybeans by China was in June, professional traders see the September acquisitions as a potential weakening of the U.S.-China trade war. With the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service announcing more than 600,000 tons of U.S. soybeans purchased by private Chinese operators on Sept. 13, 16 and 17, there are signs of positive movement between the two nations.
The shipments are expected to leave between October and December from ports in the Pacific Northwest. Looking at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, soybean futures hit monthly highs on Sept. 16. Coupled with November futures contracts well off their lows, this shows renewed promise. The purchase of soybeans is part of China's gesture of goodwill to buy other agricultural products, such as pork, during ongoing trade negotiations.
These recent developments are important because China increased tariffs on American soybeans by 25 percent in July 2018 in response to the Trump Administration's tariffs. On Sept. 1, 2019, U.S. soybeans were subject to another 5 percent in import tariffs by China.
The Context of Soybean Sales
Based on data from the United States International Trade Commission (USITC), there was a drop in soy exports from the U.S. to China to $3.1 billion, or 18 percent of U.S. soybean exports for 2018.
The 2018 U.S. soybean export figure to China represents a drop of 75 percent, compared to 2017’s U.S. sales exports of soybeans worth $12.2 billion to China. The large drop in 2018 is also noteworthy against U.S. exports of soybeans to China in 2016 of $10.5 billion. This drop was directly attributable to trade tensions.
It's important to note that soybeans are America's biggest agricultural export (16 percent of all agricultural exports) – $20.9 billion annually on average between 2014 and 2018. With China importing more than 50 percent of U.S. soy over the past 60 months, it illustrates why the trade war has been so impactful. In response to the sharp drop in exports to China, 2018 began the quest for U.S. growers of soybeans to counteract the $9.1 billion drop in soy exports to China by finding new buyers in Mexico, the European Union and Egypt.
Similarly, as the Congressional Research Service points out, trade talks are working toward building upon an existing $12.9 billion of U.S. agricultural exports to Japan, as of 2018. Current talks have expectations for an additional $7 billion in U.S. agricultural exports to Japan. Soybeans, along with dairy, wine, beef and pork, are examples of agricultural imports Japan is willing to buy, based on soon-to-be released details from finalized U.S.-Japanese trade talks.
However, despite maintaining a competitive or even subpar price against competitor nations such as Brazil, it didn't sway the Chinese to buy more American soy. Much like American farmers and with China’s state-influenced help, there may be long-term, structural changes for future Chinese soybean purchases even if trade tensions subside. However, China also has established new suppliers of soybeans from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia.
While many do expect a trade deal between the United States and China, there could very well be structural and long-lasting changes on how both countries conduct trade for years to come.