Coffee Peaking on Rising Surplus as Funds Pare Bets

A coffee shop employee pours coffee beans into a grinder
A file photograph shows a coffee shop employee as he pours coffee beans into a grinder at a Cafe Coffee Day outlet in New Delhi. Photographer: Amit Bhargava/Bloomberg

The biggest rally in coffee in five years may be ending as the prospect of larger harvests spurs hedge funds to pare bets on higher prices, potentially cutting costs for J.M. Smucker Co., Kraft Foods Inc. and Starbucks Corp.

Supplies of arabica, the world’s most-grown coffee, will exceed demand by 6.67 million 60-kilogram (132-pound) bags in the year ending in September 2011, according to ABN Amro Bank NV and VM Group. That’s the most in nine years and more than six times this season’s expected surplus. Speculators including hedge funds cut their net-long position, or bets on higher prices, by 8.4 percent since Aug. 17, regulatory data show.

The rise in coffee coincided with surging food prices as flooding in Canada and drought across Russia and Europe ruined crops. Wheat as much as doubled since June, contributing to riots over bread costs in Mozambique, and a United Nations price-index of 55 foods advanced to its highest since September 2008 last month. No such shortages in arabica are forecast, with ABN Amro and VM Group anticipating a 7.4 percent increase in output to almost 86 million bags, the most since at least the season ended in 2001.

“You cannot justify the spike on the upside if you look at the supply situation,” said Christoph Eibl, co-founder of Zug, Switzerland-based Tiberius Group, which manages more than $2 billion in assets. “People who have been betting on coffee may lose. In the long run, fundamentals always overrule.”

Arabica Gains

Arabica rose as much as 50 percent since June 7 in New York trading, reaching a 13-year high of $1.9865 a pound on Sept. 8, partly on speculation that rainfall in Colombia, the second-biggest producer after Brazil, would damage crops. Colombian coffee output gained 55 percent to 615,000 bags in August, the Bogota-based National Federation of Coffee Growers said this month.

Coffee will average $1.52 a pound in the fourth quarter, or 20 percent less than now, according to the median in a Bloomberg survey of seven analysts. Arabica for December delivery declined 0.65 cent, or 0.3 percent, to settle at $1.8915 at 2 p.m. in New York, declining for the third straight session.

Speculators accumulated a net-long position of 44,505 contracts by Aug. 17, Commodity Futures Trading Commission data show. That’s almost three times the five-year average and equal to 1.67 billion pounds of coffee. They cut that in two of the last three weeks, to 40,757 contracts by Sept. 7.

The last time prices rose this fast, in a rally ending in March 2005, arabica slumped 38 percent in the next six months. Futures traded on the ICE Futures U.S. exchange are anticipating a decline next year. Contracts from March 2011 are in backwardation, meaning that nearby contracts are trading at a premium to longer-dated ones, a sign investors may be more concerned about near-term supply.

Cutting Costs

Cheaper beans could help cut costs for companies including Northfield, Illinois-based Kraft, which raised U.S. prices twice since May on some types of Maxwell House and Yuban coffee. Starbucks, the world’s largest coffee-shop chain, said Aug. 17 that more spending on commodities, mostly coffee, would add about 4 cents a share to expenses in the year ending in September 2011.

Smucker, based in Orrville, Ohio, said Aug. 3 that it raised prices by an average of 9 percent for most of its Folgers and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee products. In a conference call with investors on June 17, Vince Byrd, president of Smucker’s coffee business, said the rally was being driven more by funds than supply issues. Arabica had already climbed about 20 percent by then. The company declined to comment further.

Shares of Seattle-based Starbucks are 12 percent higher this year in New York trading, while Kraft gained 14 percent and Smucker dropped 1.7 percent.

Commodity Demand

Higher prices for commodities including coffee, oil and natural gas helped strengthen the Colombian peso and Brazilian real against the dollar in the last 12 months. The peso rallied 11 percent against the U.S. currency, and the real is up 5 percent, trimming returns from dollar-denominated exports.

“The stronger peso takes a little of the shine off,” said Rupert Stebbings, head of the Medellin-based unit of Chilean brokerage Celfin Capital SA. “It’s eroding some of the gains, but this is a coffee price level they couldn’t have imagined.”

While harvests may expand, supply now is still tight, said Nestor Osorio, the outgoing executive director of the London-based International Coffee Organization. Declining inventory “makes the markets much more nervous and much more vulnerable,” he said.

Stockpiles in warehouses monitored by ICE Futures U.S. fell 35 percent this year to 2.01 million bags, the lowest level in more than a decade. This season’s arabica surplus will be 1.01 million bags, the smallest amount since the 2007-2008 season, according to ABN Amro and London-based VM Group.

Coffee Fungus

Problems with crops may also spill over into next season. Colombia’s harvest could decline next year after wet weather caused the worst outbreak of a plant-damaging fungus in a quarter century, Jose Sierra, who represents Antioquia, the nation’s largest coffee-growing province, said Sept. 1.

Speculators added 3,058 contracts to their net-long position in the week ended Sept. 7, the day before futures reached a 13-year high. Prices fell for two consecutive days after that, retreating 2.4 percent.

Prices may keep rising as supplies increase because demand will also climb, said Judith-Ganes Chase, a former Merrill Lynch & Co. analyst who runs a consulting firm in Katonah, New York. Global demand for arabica will expand 0.4 percent to 79.32 million bags in the 2010-11 season, the highest since at least the 2000-2001 season, ABN Amro and VM Group estimate.

Staple Foods

Unlike staple foods such as grains, coffee drinkers may not be willing to pay higher prices, said Raymond Keane, a coffee trader for Balzac Bros. & Co. in Charleston, South Carolina, which supplies the commodity to Kraft and Starbucks.

“There will be a point when consumers say: ‘This is it,’” Keane said. “Coffee is not an important ingredient of our diet. It is not wheat or rice. It’s dispensable.”

Speculation about Colombia’s crop is probably too bearish, said Abah Ofon, a Dubai-based commodity analyst at Standard Chartered Plc, the most accurate arabica forecaster tracked by Bloomberg in the first quarter. Ofon is forecasting a 1.5 million-bag increase in the country’s harvest, for a gain of 19 percent, and fourth-quarter prices of $1.45.

Brazilian production will rise to a bigger-than-expected 47.2 million bags this year, from 39.5 million last year, the Agriculture Ministry’s crop-forecasting agency said Sept. 9.

Arabica Prices

Roasters may also seek to substitute some arabica with robusta, used in instant coffee and espresso blends, said Keane of Balzac Bros. Arabica is trading at 2.6 times the price of robusta, compared with a two-year average of twice as expensive, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

“We’ve seen some international companies ask for more robusta than they used to,” said Bui Hung Manh, head of the business department at Tay Nguyen Coffee Investment, Import and Export Co. in Buon Ma Thuot, Vietnam. “If arabica prices stay as high as they are now, more people will switch to robusta.”

The company is the biggest exporter in Vietnam, the world’s largest producer of robusta. The country will produce 20 million bags of robusta next season, a gain of about 8 percent, ABN Amro and VM Group estimate.

Robusta traded on the NYSE Liffe exchange in London rose to a 21-month peak of $1,838 a metric ton on Aug. 23, before slumping 15 percent.

“When the price trend reaches a crescendo, there are clear signs that an imbalance has built up,” said Peter Sorrentino, who helps oversee $13.3 billion at Huntington Asset Advisors in Cincinnati and correctly predicted the collapse in commodity prices in 2008. “Financial buyers are finally becoming wiser.”

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