Cotton Tests 1995 Peak as Supply Drops, Levi's Raises Prices

Cotton may climb to the highest price since 1995 as rising demand in emerging markets for everything from shirts to bed sheets forces textile makers to restock inventories that are the tightest in 13 years.

Export sales by the U.S., the largest shipper, are off to their fastest start since 1993 as apparel demand in China, the biggest consumer, increased 24 percent, government data show. Cotton may advance 13 percent to a 15-year high of 94.9 cents a pound before new supplies are harvested in October, according to 17 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg on Aug. 12 and Aug. 13.

The commodity is projected to extend its gains because demand is growing in Asia’s developing nations, even as signs emerge that the U.S. economic recovery may slow. While the rally is enriching some cotton investors, it’s also boosting costs for Levi Strauss & Co. and Hanesbrands Inc., the maker of Hanes underwear and the Wonderbra. The last time cotton traded above 90 cents a pound, in 2008, some merchants including Paul Reinhart Inc. were forced into bankruptcy.

“Global consumption is exploding,” said Ron Lawson, a managing director at Logic Advisors, a commodity consultant in Sonoma, California. “We just can’t get enough cotton in place to meet the growing demand.”

Cotton for December delivery on ICE Futures U.S. in New York reached 85.71 cents on Aug. 13, the highest level since April 28. The 31 percent gain in the 12 months through Aug. 13 was the third-biggest in the Reuters/Jefferies CRB Index of 19 commodities, trailing the 64 percent jump in hogs and the 44 percent surge for wheat. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index of U.S. equities rose 6.6 percent during the same period.

Production Deficit

Production by the world’s cotton farmers will fail to keep up with demand for a fifth straight year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s eroded inventories that merchants were reluctant to expand during the past two years.

U.S. stockpiles totaled 3.1 million bales at the end of the marketing year on July 31, the lowest level since 1996, USDA data show. Supplies in warehouses monitored by ICE have plummeted 98 percent since the end of May to 25,504 bales as of Aug. 12. A bale weighs about 480 pounds (218 kilograms).

Global demand probably will grow 2.7 percent this year to 120.87 million bales as China boosts imports by 14 percent to 12.5 million bales and Pakistan’s surge 53 percent, the USDA said Aug. 12.

U.S. export sales of upland cotton, the most common variety it grows, totaled 5.41 million running bales for the marketing year that began Aug. 1, more than twice as much as a year earlier and the most since 1993, according to USDA data as of Aug. 5. A running bale weighs 500 pounds, or 227 kilograms.

Shrinking Supply

Worldwide stockpiles will drop 4.1 percent to 45.61 million bales, or about 38 percent of demand, the lowest ratio since 1994, data from the USDA show.

“During the recession, everyone got rid of inventories,” Logic Advisors’ Lawson said. “Yarns, woven goods, textiles, clothing, you name it. There was tremendous purging, and now everyone is trying to rebuild inventories.”

Stockpiles are slipping as emerging-market economies expand at more than twice the pace of the U.S. and six times the rate of the euro zone. India will grow 9.4 percent this year and China’s gross domestic product will increase 10.5 percent, the Washington-based International Monetary Fund forecast on July 7.

Indian Clothing Demand

India’s Arvind Ltd., the world’s biggest maker of denim and a supplier to U.S. clothing companies including VF Corp. and Levi Strauss, says its sales will rise about 23 percent to 40 billion rupees ($855 million) in the year to March.

“I see good times for textiles in India,” Sanjay Lalbhai, a managing director at Ahmedabad-based Arvind, said on Aug. 12. “The middle class is growing. They have started spending more money on grooming better and on wardrobe. Things are changing and this trend will continue for another 20 years.”

Mill use in India, the world’s second-largest cotton consumer, will increase about 8.9 percent in the year ending Sept. 30 to 20.7 million bales, the Cotton Advisory Board said on July 30 in Mumbai. An Indian bale weighs 170 kilograms. Total demand will rise 26 percent to 33.3 million, it said.

Retail sales of garments, footwear, hats and knitwear in China jumped to 38.8 billion yuan ($5.7 billion) in July, bringing the total to 314.1 billion yuan for the first seven months of the year, the Beijing-based National Bureau of Statistics said Aug. 11. Both the monthly and the annual figure represented a 24 percent climb from a year earlier.

‘Strong’ Harvest Expected

A “strong” cotton crop in this month and September may curb the rally in cotton, according to Eric C. Wiseman, the chief executive officer at Greensboro, North Carolina-based VF Corp., the maker of Lee and Wrangler brand jeans.

The global harvest is expected to jump 14 percent to 116.85 million bales in the year that began Aug. 1, the most in three years and the biggest increase since 2005-2006, the USDA estimates. U.S. output will surge 52 percent to 18.53 million bales, with the bulk of the harvest starting in October, the department said.

“The August and September cotton crop is expected to be strong,” Wiseman said on a July 22 conference call. “That could provide some relief next year.”

The new crop will be reaching the market amid growing signs that the U.S.’s recovery from the longest recession since the Great Depression is deteriorating.

Economic Outlook

U.S. unemployment claims unexpectedly rose in the first week of August and sales at U.S. retailers increased less than forecast last month, reports showed last week. The Federal Reserve said on Aug. 10 that the pace of recovery will probably be “more modest” than forecast.

“When you look at the world economy and you look at all of what’s happening, you wonder if you’re going to see the demand for cotton as strong as some people say,” said Sid Love, the president of Joe Kropf & Sid Love Consulting Services LLC, a commodity adviser in Overland Park, Kansas. “You need food, but you don’t necessarily need new clothes. You can use 1-year-old, 2-year-old clothes and make do.”

Cotton prices may remain “historically high” until at least the U.S. harvest, said Cliff White, a senior vice president at Singapore-based Olam International Ltd., the world’s third-biggest cotton trader, behind Cordova, Tennessee- based Allenberg Cotton Co. and Minnetonka, Minnesota-based Cargill Inc.

Crop Damage

Floods and landslides during the past two months have destroyed crops in China, which grows almost a third of the world’s cotton. Output may drop 5 percent to 10 percent, said Li Qiang, the managing director at Shanghai JC Intelligence Co.

In Pakistan, the fourth-largest grower and importer, the deadliest floods in decades destroyed 30 percent of its cotton crop, according to Khursheed Ahmed Khan Kanjo, president of the Kissan Board of Pakistan.

Higher cotton costs are squeezing clothing makers, who have passed along some of the expense to consumers.

Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Hanesbrands will spend $33 million more on the fiber this year than in 2009, as the per-pound costs rises to 79 cents in the fourth quarter from 61 cents in the second quarter, Chief Financial Officer E. Lee Wyatt Jr. said on a July 21 conference call.

“It’s a pressure on the business,” John Anderson, the chief executive officer of San Francisco-based jeans maker Levi Strauss, said July 13 on a conference call with analysts. “We have already taken some price increases for the second half of this year.”

Bankrupt Merchant

The last time prices topped 90 cents was more than two years ago. Paul Reinhart Inc., one of the biggest U.S. cotton merchants, filed for bankruptcy in October 2008 after losses tied to volatility in the futures market. In March 2008, cotton touched a 12-year high of 92.86 cents before plunging to 39.23 cents by November.

“Supplies of cotton are at all-time lows,” Hanesbrands Chief Executive Officer Richard A. Noll said on the company’s July 21 conference call. “While I can’t predict the price of cotton on any given day, I do think over time, long term, you’re going to see the price of cotton continue to rise.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Jennifer A. Johnson in Chicago at Jjohnson133@bloomberg.net; Elizabeth Campbell in Chicago at ecampbell14@bloomberg.net.

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.