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Volatility has been a central feature of cotton markets over the past several weeks. As New York futures began to approach values near 105 cents/lb, the rally which began in mid-July and added nearly 30 cents to prices was confronted with its first tests of resistance. After closing above 105 cents/lb, the New York December futures contract dropped below 100 cents/lb for several days before rebounding over 107 cents/lb in the most recent trading. Movement in the A Index has also been volatile, with values briefly slipping below 110 cents/lb before climbing to 118 cents/lb.
Supply concerns are a driving force behind recent price increases and volatility. In their October report, the USDA reduced their estimate for 2010/11 ending stocks by 772,000 bales. Contributing to the reduction in the ending stocks figure were both a slight decrease in the world production estimate (-273,000 bales, from 117.0 million bales to 116.7 million bales) and a slight increase in the world consumption projection (+239,000 bales, from 120.5 million bales to 120.8 million bales). With world consumption increasing and the world ending stocks estimate declining, the world stocks-to-use ratio fell from 37.7% to 37.0%, reaching its lowest level since 1993/94.
Behind tight supply conditions at the world level are even tighter conditions within China. The USDA estimates acreage in China in 2010/11 is 15.4% lower than its recent peak in 2007/08. Adverse weather conditions in 2010/11 are compounding the effects of lower acreage and led the Chinese production estimate to fall 1.0 million bales from 32.5 million to 31.5 million bales. With Chinese mill demand expected to reach pre-recession levels, China is facing a record 18.5 million bale production shortfall in 2010/11. As a result, the estimate for 2010/11 Chinese imports increased 250,000 bales from 12.8 million to 13.0 million. To counter domestic price pressures resulting from the difficult supply situation, China announced the release of another 1.8 million bales from their strategic reserves, bringing the total released this calendar year to 4.6 million bales.
Complicating tight supply conditions are trade restrictions. India recently announced it was going to further delay fiber exports, postponing the start date from October 1 to November 1. With India the world's second largest exporter, there is strong interest in securing Indian cotton while it is available. Fiber exports from India require registration. The registration process opened on October 1 and by October 10 India's Office of the Textile Commissioner reported that all of the 4.3 million bales (5.5 million 375 lb Indian bales) available for export have already begun the registration process. Given India's limits on exports, there has been strong interest in securing cotton from the U.S. Thus far into the crop year, U.S. export sales have averaged more than 500,000 bales a week, a pace exceeding that from 2005/06 when U.S. exports reached a record 17.7 million bales. The USDA forecasts 2010/11 U.S. exports to total 15.5.million bales. U.S. export commitments through the end of September totaled 9.9 million bales, representing 52.4% of a U.S. harvest forecast to be 54.8% larger than it was in 2009/10. Other exporting countries, notably those in the southern hemisphere, which have witnessed the current extremely high prices before their planting period, are also expected to benefit from import demand. The Australian export estimate increased 250,000 bales from 2.5 million to 2.8 million bales. The Argentinean export estimate increased 130,000 bales from 70,000 to 200,000 bales.
Supply concerns can be expected to be a dominant influence on prices throughout 2010/11. Consequently, any further revisions to Indian export policy could be expected to have a significant effect on prices. Last spring, when India suspended fiber exports, India demonstrated it was willing to make decisions resulting in dramatic effects in world cotton markets. With world supplies their tightest in fifteen years, it is likely that any further denial of cotton supplies from the international market, either in the form of damaging weather events or government trade policy, could provoke a reaction in cotton prices.