We recently gave a recap of 2018 oats prices, but in this FarmLead Insights article, we’re digging into where the oats market is going in 2019.
Given the cross-border reliance that both Canada and the United States have on the oats trade, we will have to assess economic activity in the United States and Canada.
There is growing consensus among economists worldwide that we are seeing a slowdown global economic growth. Canada continues to exhibit characteristics of an economy in the mature phase of the growth cycle. The heavy collapse of Canadian oil prices are only starting to cause ripples throughout the economy. Concretely, it’s starting with lags in energy investment and energy exports. The direct impact to Canadian GDP is a 0.15 percentage point decline in 2019 .
The most significant economic development going into 2019 is the U.S-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) – essentially a rebranded NAFTA but with notable revisions to the auto sector.  Otherwise, the USMCA contains no major shocks to the cross-border trading landscape.
However, the new deal has a new controversial clause that could hinder efforts for Canada to deal with “non-market” economies – most notably China. The clause requires the USMCA member country to provide notice and information to the other two partners if it plans free trade talks with a “non-market” economy, and gives the other partners the ability to influence the text of such a deal.
The “non-market” clause could prove detrimental to the progress of any notable trade agreements between China and Canada, a significant blow to Canadian exporters looking to expand into the largest consumer market in Asia.
In terms of interest rates, further hikes are anticipated in 2019. The Bank of Canada has cited that the neutral range is between 2.50% to 3.50%. A stronger Canadian Dollar would, in turn, negatively affect the attractiveness of Canadian grain exports.
For the U.S., the Federal Reserve just raised interest rates for the fourth time in 2018, despite some signals that the American economy is softening. As such, the Fed indicated in their December minutes that a more “patient approach” to raising interest rates would be taken in 2019. GDP growth in the country could reach 2.3%, but the growth (if any) would not be sustainable beyond the calendar year. 
From a currency perspective, oil prices will continue to weigh on the Canadian Dollar in the first half of 2019. Thereafter, the uncertainty of the Canadian federal election will likely push the Loonie lower, possibly into the 71 or 70 cents level.
Historically-speaking, there’s almost always a depreciation of the a developed country’s currency when it’s not exactly clear who is going to be leading the nation. In taking stock of today’s current political environment, a Liberal majority government in Canada will not be repeated in the October 2019 federal election.
For the U.S. Dollar, there are some economic headwinds that the currency is facing. That being said, the U.S. Federal Reserve and Chinese-U.S. trade relations are likely going to be the biggest factors for the Greenback in 2019.
Looking globally, there are significant risks to markets going in to 2019. Top of mind is a potential re-escalation of US-China trade, followed by spillover effects that would hit East Asian economies. In Europe, risks from Brexit and populism continue to weight on the outlook.
North American Oats Demand
Looking at 2019, the direction of the oats market will largely come down to demand and buyer activity from the U.S. According to Statistics Canada, Canada exported 1.47 MMT of oats to the U.S in 2017/18. This is down 2.4% compared to the previous marketing year.
Looking at the first 3 months of the 2018/19 marketing year (August to October), Canadian oats exports totaled 574,526 MT, up nearly 16% compared to the same period last year. A significant portion of the gain on exports is due to new shipments to Mexico.
Based on AAFC’s latest principal crop outlook forecast released last week, 2018/19 oat exports is currently pegged at 2.5 MMT. If achieved, this would be a 6.4% increase year-over-year.
The United States is estimated to have harvested 815,000 MT of oats this past growing season, which would be up nearly 14% compared to the 2017/18 crop. With a significantly larger supply, we could see weakend demand for Canadian oats in the United States, which would definitely put a damper on 2019 oat prices.
USDA’s Oats Market Forecasts
In November, the USDA released their annual long-term agricultural projections up to 2028 for major U.S crops. Specific to the oats market, planted acres is expected to gradually decline over the next decade, down 7% to 2.5 million acres by 2028/29.
Despite the decline in acreage, oat yields are expected to increase 7% to 69.4 bushels per acre by 2028/29 compared to 2018/19 levels.
The net effect to total U.S oats production is an increase of 11% to 62 million bushels (or roughly 1 MMT) by 2028/29. U.S carryout is expected to observe record lows over the next decade, dropping nearly 57% to 23 million bushels (400,000 MT) in 2028/29.
In terms of farmgate values, oat prices in 2028/29 are estimated at $3.00 USD per bushel ($3.93 CAD per bushel), up 11% compared to the average price estimated for 2018/19 of $2.70 USD per bushel ($3.54 CAD per bushel).
According to the USDA, the profitability for an American farmer growing oats is expected to increase 22% to an average of $60 USD per acre by 2028/29. This is a healthy jump from today’s average profit of $49 USD per acre.
Global Oats Demand
The European Union remains the largest producer of oats in 2018/19, topping Russia and Canada. In terms of the international oats trade, the main players include the U.S, Canada, and Australia. Everybody else is quite irrelevant as their supplies are mainly used for domestic consumption.
In terms of oat exports, Australia is the largest competitor to Canada, with Australia shipping an average of 357,000 MT annually. However, due to drought affecting a significant portion of Australia’s oats growing region, oat exports for the 2018/19 crop year are expected to plummet to 250,000 MT, down 54% compared to the previous year.
Canada is expected to make up for the lost volume and export a total of 1.6 MMT in 2018/19, slightly less than the volume in 2017/18.
One important note to consider, is that most of Australia’s oat exports go to China, where a free-trade agreement exists between both countries. However, there is no such agreement in place between Canada and China. Thus, in order for Canada to replace Australia’s lost export volume, a deal must be in place.
Canada Needs China’s Oats Market
In the past 5 years, Chinese oats imports have grown at a rapid annual rate of more than 28%. In other words, in each of the past 5 years, imports have jumped by a third more than the previous year.
Demand for breakfast cereal in China is growing due to urbanization and the accelerated adoption of Western consumption habits. As a result, China has become the second-largest importer of oats, just behind the U.S.
In November, Canada sent high-level trade ministers to China in order to build up a stronger trade relationship. At the conclusion of their meetings, the Canadian government said that they’re aiming to double agricultural exports to China by 2025. This effort will require significant coordination between both countries.
Specific to oats, the crop has faced significant non-tariff trade barriers when shipping to China due to the absence of specific phytosanitary protocols. Currently, only Canadian seed oats and processed oat products are able to enter China.
According to POGA, a work plan between the CFIA and China plant health (AQSIQ) authorities regarding oats is in discussion as of this year. However, the time frame is still as of this day unknown, and this is the major problem.
However, as mentioned above, a souring of Canada-China relations occurred during the last quarter of 2018, namely, the inclusion of a ‘non-market’ clause in the USMCA, and the high-profile arrest of Huawei’s CFO on Canadian soil – as instructed by the United States. The arrest has caused tremendous tension in China-Canada relations.
Based on China’s December forecast, the country is expected to import a total of 150,000 MT in 2018/19, down 70% compared to the previous year. It’s also a massive 250,000 MT decline from the November forecast! If observed, this will be the least amount of oats imported by China since 2014/15.
Ultimately, the main cause for China’s low exports this year is due to the situation in Australia. Because Canada does not have an established trade agreement with China, Canada is yet to make entry into the Chinese market.
Thinking About 2019/20 Oats Acres
In 2018/19, the global harvested area of oats came in at 23.3 million acres. This is down slightly from 2017/18 levels of 23.5 million acres.
Breaking it down, here is how harvested acres looked in 2018/19 for the top 5 oats-producing countries and how much that was up or down compared to the previous year:
- Australia: -13.5% to 1.58 million acres
- Canada: -4.9% to 2.47 million acres
- European Union: -1% to 6.58 million acres
- Russia: -1% to 6.79 million acres
- United States: +8% to 864,500 acres
Global ending stocks of oats in 2018/19 is expected to decline 2.6% to 2.71 MMT compared to 2017/18 levels. What the oats market is really factoring in though is that ending stocks are at the lowest level since 2012/13.
So what should the oats market expect for 2019? Based on significant weather events driving global oats production downwards in the 2018 harvest season, you could easily argue that global 2019 acreage could be the same or slightly higher than 2018/19.
As usual, there will likely be much speculation heading into the 2019/20 planting season. The rise in oat prices in late 2018 should buy more acreage in the upcoming seeding campaign, especially when producers are looking for any sort of ROI in the depressed state of the pulse and durum markets. As a result, we are betting that planted oats acres will increase in 2019/20.  However (and as usual) the oats market will only start to slowly price this in.
Specific to Canada, we anticipate oats acreage could increase by about 10% from the 3.05 million seed in the spring of 2018, to something closer to 3.5 million. This would mirror the Canadian seeded area of oats seen in the 2015/16 crop year.
When Should You Sell Oats in 2019?
For 2019, there are a few bearish as well as a few bullish factors that could affect the oats market. So what does this mean for your selling strategy?
Despite the recent volatility observed on the Chicago futures board, cash oats prices are expected to look stable throughout the winter months and rise in spring/summer when supply becomes increasingly tight.
Average prices for oats in Western Canada is still hovering at around $3.00 CAD per bushel ($2.24 USD per bushel).
With latest forecasts suggesting that China will import 70% less oats this year compared to 2017/18, it will be interesting to see whether oats from other countries (namely Canada) find their way into the Chinese market. However, as of writing, latest economic forecasts do not anticipate new trade flows between China and Canada to initiate. As mentioned though, the Chinese market continues to present that largest amount of opportunity for the oats market.
Despite forecasts calling for dwindling oats supply as the 2018/19 crop year draws closer, bullish sentiment will likely not be as prominent as observed in the 4th quarter of 2018. As a result, we should be conservative on any significant upside potential for new crop oat prices.
A tighter North American balance sheet will create the best opportunity to see a price rally in the oats market. However, any price rally would likely be short lived – given the uncertain economic outlook for 2019, it could result in countries buying less goods – including oats.
Additionally, the U.S. Dollar – Canadian Dollar relationship will need to be closely monitored. With over 90% of Canadian oats exports going to the U.S, changes to the exchange relationship would certainly stall or accelerate trade.