Robert Curtotti and David Mobsby
Global recovery slow and uneven
Measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 continue to affect demand for Australia's agricultural commodities. A contraction of the global economy is expected for 2020. Projected growth in 2021 is expected to be strong, but despite this, the level of global GDP will only be slightly above that in 2019, implying the emergence of output gaps and higher unemployment. The loss of almost a year of output growth for the global economy implies a drawn out recovery for employment, with the output gap lingering beyond early 2021. Recovery will be uneven, reflecting patchiness and delays in economic re-opening due to subsequent and ongoing waves, and uncertain timing for the deployment of effective vaccines.
Agricultural trade has been resilient, but the rising cases of COVID-19 in Europe and the United States pose some risk to the demand for Australia's agricultural exports because of the size of these economies and their impact on the global economy. Uncertainty also surrounds fiscal and monetary policy that could support household incomes and food demand in these regions into 2021. The latest wave of infections is likely to slow recovery in the prices for higher-value agricultural commodities. For example, recovery in demand for woollen apparel will likely be delayed, negatively affecting wool prices.
In China, containment of COVID-19 has been broadly successful, allowing the economy to rapidly recover. However, trade tensions have created uncertainties for some Australian agricultural exports. Disruptions to trade are occurring, with Australian exporters expected to divert trade to the next highest value markets.
Oil prices to remain low
Ongoing reduced people movement from COVID-19 induced lockdowns is likely to reduce demand for transport fuels. This will maintain low global crude oil prices for the remainder of 2020 and early 2021 delaying economic recovery for oil-exporting nations. International oil prices are projected to rise slightly by the middle of 2021 but remain well below the levels of late 2019.
A mix of factors will influence crude oil prices into 2021. Prospects of an effective vaccine against COVID-19 have provided some recent support to oil prices, partly countering the demand-reducing impacts of high rates of infections in Europe and the United States. It is unclear how OPEC+ members will respond to an emerging scenario of extended lockdowns, but initial signs suggest the group will continue to restrict supply in a bid to support prices into early 2021.
Demand for food has been resilient, but consumption patterns changing
In general, expenditure on food has been less affected by measures designed to contain the spread of COVID-19 than expenditure on other goods and services. This is despite higher levels of unemployment in key markets such as the eurozone, the United Kingdom, the United States, Indonesia and Japan. Demand for food is relatively unresponsive to changes in income because food is a staple (see Agricultural commodities: June quarter 2020). Additionally, restrictions on eating out have resulted in substitution to home-based consumption rather than decreased food demand. This has changed the type of processing that food products undergo.
Consumers have adapted to restrictions on eating out by increasing online food purchases – intensifying and continuing an existing trend. Online food retailing has risen sharply in many economies. In the Republic of Korea, online food retailing increased by 54% over the first 9 months of 2020 to 14.1 trillion won. An increase in online food retailing has also been observed in Australia during 2020 and accounted for 5.7% of all food retailing in September 2020 compared with 2.8% in January 2020.
Some changes in consumer behaviour are likely to extend beyond the current pandemic. For example, the current trend towards working from home and conducting virtual meetings will have implications for the pattern of demand for agricultural commodities over the longer term. This will especially affect inputs for away-from-home meals in office precincts and for the catering sector that services business travel. The increased use of online ordering platforms will affect how food products are delivered along the supply chain to consumers.
In China, growth in consumer expenditure on most categories was down in 2020 despite positive growth in GDP in the second and third quarters of 2020. Food retail expenditure was 11% higher in the first 3 quarters of 2020 compared with the first 3 quarters in the previous year – most of this growth occurred in urban areas. In comparison, food expenditure at catering services was 24% lower, which will continue to be detrimental to the demand for higher-value foods products.
In Japan, expenditure on food and beverages was steady, but expenditure on machinery and equipment, such as electronic goods, and medicine and toiletries rose. Retail sales in the third quarter of 2020 were at a similar level to the third quarter of 2019. However, the pattern of consumption expenditure was quite different – expenditure on fabrics, apparel and accessories, motor vehicles, general merchandise and fuel was significantly reduced.
Economic stimulus supporting agricultural goods trade
The inherent stability of demand for food has been assisted by a range of fiscal and monetary support measures designed to support household incomes. By the middle of 2020, more than US$10 trillion was provided to support the global economy. The level of support has varied across countries, ranging from 5% to 45% of GDP. High unemployment in major economies is likely to induce continuing fiscal and monetary policy responses, which will reduce as economies recover.
Agricultural commodity trade has benefited from this support. Assistance to industry to deploy COVID-safe operational work processes has meant that supply chains have mostly continued to operate throughout the pandemic. This has been important in keeping meat-processing facilities operating during 2020. These facilities proved vulnerable to COVID-19 due to the difficulty of social distancing on production lines. Support for airfreight services has been important in sustaining the supply of seafood and high-value horticultural products to export markets. On the demand side, fiscal and monetary expansionary policy has sustained incomes, which has supported demand for agricultural commodities.
Trade in goods recovering, commercial services lagging
Global goods trade is slowly recovering from the COVID-19–induced disruptions in early 2020. The recovery in trade has been faster than the recovery following the global financial crisis, despite the current decline in global economic activity being more significant. This reflects the different nature of the current crisis. Recovery in goods trade has been observed across several major economies, most notably during the third quarter of 2020 when global goods trade approached pre-COVID-19 levels.
Recovery in global services trade has been slow. Trade in commercial services is significant, with international passenger transport and freight making a large contribution to overall services trade. Other components include telecommunications and business services. The short-term outlook for the recovery in domestic travel remains uncertain due to rising COVID-19 cases and consequent lockdowns. International travel remains subdued when compared to pre-COVID-19 levels. Despite encouraging signs of recovery in flight travel, recovery in services trade remains subdued and the level of exports is well below pre-COVID levels.
Services trade indirectly requires significant inputs from the agricultural sector – for example, catering for travel and accommodation and out-of-home meals. Delay in recovery of this sector is likely to alter the pattern of production in the agricultural sector, with product being directed to alternative markets at lower prices.
Agricultural trade has been resilient
Agricultural trade has been far less disrupted by efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 than trade in other goods. This is consistent with experience during the global financial crisis, because food demand is relatively unresponsive to changes in income. Agricultural trade has also been less affected than other goods because bulk shipping – the main mode of transport for agricultural trade – has been less disrupted than other forms of transport, such as airfreight.
Australia's economy showing signs of recovery
An easing of the State border restrictions that impeded people movement in 2020 is expected to cement the improvements in consumer confidence observed in the final quarters of 2020. This is expected to result in GDP recovering in the first half of 2021. However, the economy is still assumed to contract by around 3% in the 2020–21 financial year (see November 2020 RBA Monetary Statement) but grow in the 2021 calendar year.
Around 30% of Australian agricultural production is consumed domestically. Despite the anticipated contraction in economic activity in 2020–21, domestic demand for Australia's agricultural products is expected to remain relatively strong. This is because food is an essential good and because the pandemic has been well managed. Increased people movement will help sustain a recovery in the domestic travel, accommodation and food services sectors, which will support demand for higher unit value agricultural products. A low incidence of COVID-19 in Australia is also allowing business precincts to re-open, which will increase demand for away-from-home meals.
Value of dollar forecast to rise
The value of the Australian dollar affects the relative cost of Australia's agricultural exports to consumers in foreign markets. The exchange rate averaged US67 cents in 2019–20 but was volatile throughout the year, varying between US56 cents and US71 cents. The exchange rate is expected to average US73 cents in the 2020–21 year. This will make Australia's agricultural exports less competitive in global markets and increase pressure on producers to reduce costs.
Rising iron ore prices and a depreciation of the US dollar contributed to the appreciation of the Australian dollar between March 2020 and early November 2020. Rising iron ore prices resulted from supply constraints in Brazil, which is the world's second largest iron ore exporter after Australia. Rising steel demand from China due to increased economic activity and government stimulus also contributed to rising iron ore prices, particularly in the latter half of 2020.
In late 2020 the US dollar depreciated against a range of currencies, further strengthening the Australian dollar. This has been driven by an anticipation of monetary and fiscal stimulus to address a shortfall in consumer demand, and anticipation of opportunities for investment in emerging economies with the expected rapid deployment of a COVID-19 vaccine in 2021. These factors are expected to keep the Australian dollar in the low to mid 70 cents range in early 2021.
|Agricultural commodities – December 2020 PDF||80||7.59 MB|
|Agricultural commodities: December quarter 2020 - Commodities - data tables XLS||12||149 KB|
|Agricultural commodities: December quarter 2020 - Statistics - data tables XLS||32||576 KB|
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