Palm oil prices revive, as Malaysian output revival slows
09:45 UK, 11th May 2017, by Mike Verdin

Palm oil prices rebounded from early losses to hit one-month highs after Malaysia unveiled lower-than-expected estimates for its stocks of the vegetable oil, underlining doubts about the strength of an output revival.

Palm oil futures for July recovered from an early low of 2,605 ringgit a tonne to touch 2,675 ringgit a tonne at one point, a gain of 1.8% on the day.

The headway, which put the contract ahead of its 50-day moving average for the first time in three months, followed the release by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board of data showing that domestic stocks of the vegetable oil rose by less than expected last month.

At 1.60m tonnes, they were up 3.0% month on month, but some 50,000 tonnes short of market forecasts.

"I suspect the market will be quite relieved short term by this news," Ivy Ng, head of Malaysia research at Kuala Lumpur-based CIMB.

"Some people were quite aggressive on stocks estimates going into this month."

Industry cautions

The weakness in Malaysian stocks reflected a disappointing production number, of 1.59m tonnes, some 45,000 tonnes below market expectations, for a month when output is in the early stages of a seasonal recovery towards highs around September.

Output - while 19.0% above last year's figure, which was undermined by drought stemming from El Nino remained 145,000 tonnes below the result for April 2015, before the dryness struck.

However, the figure chimed with reports from palm oil producers, said Ed Hugo at London-based VSA Capital, flagging comments, for instance, from REA Holdings late in April, which he said showed "some early evidence that the strong production increases in the January-to-March quarter will not be sustained through the April-to-June quarter".

Mr Hugo also noted comments from Sipef, which last month, flagging "smaller numbers" of palm fruit, said that "it is already obvious that the strong production increases of the first quarter will not persist during the second quarter".

Ramadan factor

He added: "It will be interesting to see which way it goes for the last two months of the April-to-June quarter.

"Perhaps the market has run away with itself on all the negativity."

Ms Ng flagged the prospect of the Muslim festival of Ramadan, which starts in two weeks' time, and will disrupt the availability of plantations labour.

"The fasting month is coming up. A majority of workers will be fasting - that will affect production," Ms Ng, with many of Malaysia's largely Muslim, and foreign, plantations workforce taking holidays at that time too.

Labour squeeze?

This issue comes on top of a structural threat to the plantations workforce from a Malaysian clampdown on foreign labour.

"Most [groups] have a labour issue," Ms Ng told Agrimoney.com, although adding that it was difficult to gain an understanding of how severe this squeeze was industry-wide

"Of the companies you speak too, some are feeling no impact, but some are feeling a labour shortage."

Malaysian palm oil data ahead would determine how significantly the shortfall was biting, Ms Ng said, although adding that expectations remained for a recovery in production and supplies in the second half of the year.

The extent of the revival will "determine how far palm oil prices need to come down to attract more demand", in competition with other edible vegetable oils.