Aristotle developed the idea that a vacuum couldn’t exist in nature because the denser matter around it would immediately fill the space. The first few months of 2016 have shown that the US DDGS export market also abhors a vacuum.
In late 2015, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce announced it would begin an investigation at the request of local ethanol producers into allegations that US producers were dumping cheap dried distillers grains onto the Chinese market.
What happens next will provide some insight into the future of the DDGS market and where the opportunities for expansion lay.
The top importer
For the last five years, the growth of Chinese DDGS imports from the US roughly has mirrored the overall growth of the US export market. In 2011, China accounted for 17.9% of the 7.68 million mt of DDGS exported from the US. By 2015, China accounted for 50.1% of US DDGS exports, which had grown to 12.55 million mt.
But the Chinese market has had some hiccups in its relationship with the US industry. In 2010, the Chinese government launched an anti-dumping investigation of US DDGS imports that ended 18 months later. In 2014, the Chinese government refused to allow imports of US DDGS due to restrictions of genetically modified corn.
The sheer size of China’s presence in the DDGS market has an impact on the overall export market. The next nine largest importers of US DDGS combined do not import as much of the product as China does. And the vast quantity of imports means that China can drive prices up substantially.
So when the Chinese government announced in late 2015 it would launch another anti-dumping investigation, the impacts were felt quickly. Chinese imports began to dwindle, and prices fell sharply.
In March 2016, Chinese DDGS imports fell to their lowest level since December 2014. And per-unit prices for DDGS fell for seven consecutive months, from $255/mt to $189/mt.
Now the US DDGS industry faces a significant challenge.
China could allow US imports to resume unimpeded, as it did in 2012 after the first investigation. If that happens, it could rightly be assumed that trade flows will resume at the same levels.
However, what if China imposes some duties on US imports? If that happens, will DDGS imports to China be affected? Will US DDGS producers be left with a lot of product and nowhere to go?
Early returns in 2016 are mixed. According to US Department of Agriculture data from the first three months of the year, overall exports are down only 1% in terms of volume. That comes despite a much larger decline in volume from China.
The per unit price rebounded slightly, although it still remains substantially lower than its peak in June. According to market sources, foreign customers have used the lack of Chinese interest to seek better prices for product.
Market sources expect the Chinese investigation will continue at least through the end of May, and with recent delays in the probe, it could stretch into summer. That provides the US DDGS industry with a chance to see what an export market without China would look like during the summer months, when exports historically tend to peak.
Of key interest will be the impact on prices during the summer months. If non-China foreign customers increase their purchases during the summer, the higher demand should be expected to increase prices. But just how much of increase can be expected?
Regardless of the outcome of the China probe, one thing is sure: the US DDGS industry is about to find just how much the market abhors a vacuum.
Wes Swift will be speaking at the 20th Annual Distillers Grain Symposium in St. Louis, Missouri, on May 18.