China ethanol imports seen increasing in months ahead

Source: BY DOMINIQUE PATTON, Reuters • Posted: Thursday, September 17, 2015

Chinese ethanol buyers are seeking more imports in coming months, trade sources said, but purchases could slow by the year-end as the industry awaits a cut to state corn prices.

Chinese imports of ethanol have surged this year, as buyers sought to take advantage of significantly lower ethanol prices in top producers Brazil and the United States.

Through July, China has imported 126,000 tonnes of ethanol for 2015, nearly five times as much ethanol as it did for all of last year, according to official customs figures.

And at least 50,000 more tonnes of the fuel arrived in August and early September, said a trader who declined to be identified.

Buyers include state-owned food and fuels company COFCO , which produces ethanol in Brazil as part of its majority stake in Noble Agri, and trading companies including Zhejiang Materials, said other industry sources.

More imports are likely in coming months, thanks to attractive discounts over domestically produced ethanol.

High-purity ethanol costs about 5,800 yuan ($910.49) per tonne while imports from the United States are being priced around $625 per cubic metre ($790 per tonne), including freight.

“I think purchases from the U.S. will really increase between June and November,” said a China-based agent with a global trading company.

Import demand is also supported by low output in China. China’s ethanol price is fixed at a percentage of the gasoline price, which has declined along with global crude prices.

Domestic prices for corn, however – the most commonly used ethanol feedstock – are about 50 percent higher than global markets, pushed up by a government stockpiling policy aimed at boosting rural incomes.

With local ethanol plants struggling to make a profit, only 50 percent of the country’s production capacity is being used, leaving a shortfall in some of the 11 provinces required to blend ethanol with gasoline.

Production costs could fall if Beijing overhauls its corn support policy, and futures prices have already dropped on talk that the government will cut its price for corn purchases.

“Most buyers want to buy before December arrivals. They’re a little bit worried about policy changes or a price down-trend,” said the agent.

Ethanol producers, meanwhile, are lobbying for more support from the government. China has cut subsidies to ethanol producers in recent years and is set to eliminate them completely from next year. ($1 = 6.3702 Chinese yuan) (1 cubic metre of ethanol is equivalent to 0.79 tonnes) (Editing by Tom Hogue)