A wider Panama Canal in 2016 that will accept bigger ships hauling more grain should benefit Midwest farmers by increasing competition for their crops, but it is unlikely to produce a windfall of higher prices, according to grain experts.
Once the expanded canal is open for business, which some estimate will be in the spring of 2016, it is forecast the barge industry will draw grain from deeper in the Midwest. That should raise basis bids by a number of users as there will be more competition for the grain.
Price gains may be limited, however, since not many foreign grain buyers can handle the bigger ships or the larger cargoes.
"How many of our customers want an 85,000-ton cargo? Not that many," Jay O'Neil, agricultural economist at Kansas State University's international grains program, told Farm Futures on the sidelines of recent oilseed meeting.
"The Japanese are buying Handymaxes. They don't have the draft for the big, huge ships," he says.
Handymax ships carry 35,000 to 49,000 metric tons of cargo, while Panamax ships that currently pass through the canal carry 50,000 to 75,000 tons.
O'Neil said there are only about four ports in the world that can handle the bigger ships, three of them are in China and one is in Rotterdam.
While China, the largest buyer of U.S. soybeans, may benefit, other destinations may not.
"All the other little guys will not be able to take a ship that big, or that quantity of grain or soy because they don't have storage space," says O'Neil.
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Ships carrying up to 25% more cargo, including grain, will be able to transit the Canal when the expansion is finished. (Energy Information Administration graphic)
Benefits for farmers
It is still believed the expanded canal will produce benefits for U.S. farmers. The need by barge shippers to source grain deeper inland should increase basis bids by other users as well as the shippers in the Pacific Northwest in order to stay competitive.
Also, railroads may have to lower rates to draw grain away from the river.
"It won't require a modal shift from rail to barge for grain handlers and, by extension, farmers to benefit from the Panama Canal expansion. Some will continue to ship via rail as normal, but because there will be more competitive pressure in their region from barge transportation, rail rates will drop," Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, told Farm Futures.
Lower shipping costs
A wider canal will cut the cost of shipping grain from the United States Midwest to Asia by 12%, which will help it stay competitive with South America, a Rabobank report said in December.
But, South American soybeans going to Asia will still have a cost advantage, it said.
"The Canal expansion and resulting decreases in shipment cost and time will greatly improve the cost position of the U.S. versus Brazil, Argentina and other grain exporting countries in Eastern Europe," Rabobank analyst Will Sawyer said in the report.
The effect on overall U.S. export growth will be harder to quantify, due to variability in supply and demand factors.
"We see the US Department of Agriculture's baseline projections of under 1% export growth for soybeans and 5% for corn over the next decade as best case scenarios," the report said.