Supreme Court to hear RFS waiver case | Farm Bureau convention | Covid aid
In Today’s Updates
• U.S. political rancor continues amid growing investor concerns
• China’s consumer price index moved back into positive territory for December
• Soybean, corn bull market continues
• Analyst: ‘Wheat market cannot afford to allow wheat to become a feed grain’
• Bitcoin fell 11% overnight, while other top cryptocurrencies plunged
• Auto makers cutting output, idling workers as chip shortage limits semiconductors
• LNG prices surge
• Ag demand update
• Rains leading up to next week’s dry spell will be key for Argentina
• Russian wheat export prices rising quickly
• Another steep drop for Chinese live hog futures
• Record-setting slaughter and pork production
• Highlights of Farm Bureau virtual convention
• Biden tweets on need for more Covid aid
• Dems look to prior Moving Forward Act as starting point for transportation package
• Bob Lighthizer urges Biden to keep tariffs on China
• U.S. eases restrictions on officials’ dealings with Taiwan
• Demand for wheat at Chinese increases
• China to clear two domestically developed GMO crop varieties
• Pork prices climb in Taiwan after shoppers reject U.S. imports
• Mexico to decide if GMO corn ban will apply to animal feed
• Argentina replaces export suspension with daily limit
Energy & Climate Change:
• Supreme Court to review refinery waivers from RFS mandate
• 2020 tied with 2016 for the world's hottest year on record
• China allows WHO experts to investigate Covid-19 origins
• Pandemic has created a shortage at sperm banks
Politics & Elections:
• Biden announces William Burns as nominee for CIA director
• U.S. Capitol riot prompts some companies to suspend political
• Voting machine maker Dominion sues a Trump ally for $1.3 billion
Other Items of Note:
• U.S. hurricanes, wildfires, other disasters caused $95 billion in damages in 2020
• Investor interest in the Colorado River
• Rule finalized to replace H1-B lottery with wage-based process
• EPA’s Wheeler seen announcing approval of Mississippi River flood project
Equities today: U.S. equity futures fell, signaling lower openings. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the House may move to impeach President Trump as soon as this week, raising concern that linger rancor in Washington may diminish support for other measures. China’s Shanghai Composite declined 1.1% by the close of trading, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng edged 0.1% higher. Japan was closed for a holiday.
U.S. equities Friday: The Dow rose 56.84 points, 0.18%, at 31,097.97. The Nasdaq advanced 134.50 points, 1.03%, at 13,201.98. The S&P 500 was up 20.89 points, 0.55%, at 3,824.68.
For the week, the Nasdaq jumped 2.4%, the S&P 500 rose 1.8%, and the Dow Jones added 1.6%. Energy stocks were the week's top performer, gaining more than 9%, while the materials and financials sectors were closely behind. The 10-year Treasury yield broke above 1% for the first time since the pandemic began in late March, sparking a rally in the banking sector.
On tap today:
• European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde moderates a panel at One Planet Summit in Paris at 9:40 a.m. ET.
• USDA Export Inspections, 11 a.m. ET.
• Federal Reserve: Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic speaks on the economic outlook at 12 p.m. ET, and Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan speaks at a virtual town hall at 6 p.m. ET.
China’s consumer price index moved back into positive territory for December after a surprise decline a month earlier. CPI rose to 0.2% year on year, from -0.5% in November, the first negative reading since 2009. Weak consumer demand, along with a stronger than expected supply of pork after a swine-flu outbreak last year, are thought to have accounted for that decline. But with food prices recovering last month, the CPI beat expectations (analysts had expected only a slight improvement to between -0.3 and 0% in December). Low inflation and deflation have given the People’s Bank of China ample room to keep monetary conditions loose. The central bank has continued to inject liquidity into the financial system. But a steady rise in inflation could lead to some tightening later in the year.
• Outside markets: The dollar is higher. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note ticked up to 1.107%, from 1.105% Friday. Yields rise when bond prices fall. Nymex crude oil futures prices are weaker and are trading around $51.75 a barrel. Profit taking is featured after crude oil prices last Friday hit a 10-month high.
• Crude futures remain under mild pressure that emerged in overnight action following strong advances Friday. U.S. crude is trading just under $52 per barrel while Brent crude is under $55.40 per barrel. Prices were lower in Asian activity, with U.S. crude down 25 cents at $51.99 per barrel while Brent crude lost 45 cents at $55.54 per barrel.
• The soybean, corn bull market continues. Soybean futures on Friday surged to the highest price since June 2014 as the U.S. unveiled sales to China and concern persisted about dry weather in Argentina. Corn also closed at a six-year high.
• “The wheat market cannot afford to allow wheat to become a feed grain,” says industry analyst Richard Crow. He notes “the EUY is already feeding wheat and in time that will limit some wheat exports. The next round of North Africa business for wheat will be interesting.”
• Ag demand: South Korea’s Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corp. issued an international tender to buy around 113,555 MT of rice to be sourced from the U.S., Thailand and China.
• Bitcoin fell 11% overnight, while Ether and other top cryptocurrencies plunged as well. Some analysts speculated that investors were locking in profits after the price of Bitcoin doubled over the past month. Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that is an alternative to fiat currencies distributed by governments and central banks, has risen 38% in 2021 to $40,132, more than doubling the high it set three years ago.
• Major auto makers are cutting output and idling workers as a chip shortage limits supplies of semiconductors. The Wall Street Journal said auto executives, lawyers and analysts said they were startled at how quickly the shortages cut into U.S. production, with several companies moving to revise production forecasts downward in the first working week of the new year.
• LNG prices surge. A blast of cold weather in northeast Asia and a shortage of ships for transporting gas have sparked a scramble for cargoes of liquefied natural gas, igniting a steep rise in prices, the Wall Street Journal reports (link). Temperatures plumbed as low as minus 3 degrees Fahrenheit in Beijing last week, a half-century low, creating more demand for gas, which is burned to generate electricity and warm homes and offices. A lack of available ships means gas can’t move fast enough from the U.S. and Europe, where it is plentiful, to sate this demand, the WSJ articles concludes.
LNG is 10 times more expensive than it was when coronavirus hammered demand for oil and gas in the spring of 2020, the nadir of a yearslong slump in gas prices globally. In some cases, prices paid on the ground for cargoes have exceeded the levels indicated by Platts.
Items in Pro Farmer's First Thing Today include (Link to subscribe to FTT):
• Rains leading up to next week’s dry spell will be key for Argentina
• Russian wheat export prices rising quickly
• Another steep drop for Chinese live hog futures
• Record-setting slaughter and pork production
— Highlights of Farm Bureau virtual convention:
- Zippy Duvall, president of Farm Bureau, the group isn’t ruling out seeking additional federal relief this year. “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic. We still don’t know when the end of it is going to come. We still don’t know how this administration is going to be handling trade agreements. … Also, you never know what the weather is going to do,” Duvall said at a news conference Sunday.
- Climate change policy proposals developed by the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance are under discussion in Congress and Farm Bureau is part of the coalition. “We must make sure that we are at the table for the discussions around addressing climate change,” Duvall said. “Farmers already have a great story to tell. When it comes to protecting our environment, about 140 million acres of farmland are enrolled in conservation programs — that’s more than the land mass of California and New York combined. Renewable fuels are made from agricultural feedstocks and are helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 71 million metric tons per year — the equivalent of taking 17 million cars off the road. Now, I’m not saying that we rest on those laurels, but I believe agriculture’s great track record shows just how much we can achieve when farmers and ranchers are at the table when we develop solutions.”
- Relations with incoming Biden administration: While outgoing President Donald Trump was close to Farm Bureau, speaking several times at the group’s annual confab, Duvall said, “Let me assure you, it’s still our time. Farm Bureau has built strong, productive relationships with every administration, every Congress. And we’re already building those relationships again to continue to be the strong national voice of agriculture.”
- During the Trump administration, Duvall said, “perhaps the greatest win came in the regulatory arena. “We succeeded in replacing the Waters of the U.S. Rule (WOTUS) with a new Clean Water Rule that complies with the law. We’ve achieved new policy for our farmers to access crop protection tools that they needed. We’ve achieved updates in endangered species policy and management of our Western lands. Tax reform enacted in 2017 helped farmers keep more of what they worked hard for and earned so that they can reinvest it in our farms and ranches.” Duvall added, “We still have a lot of work to do on our taxes. The current agriculture exemption from the estate tax will expire in 2025. We need to make sure that exemption is permanent, and we must protect the tax cuts enacted in 2017.”
- On Phase 1 and trade with China: Duvall said the farm group wants to see the incoming Biden administration press China on their commitments under the “Phase 1 trade deal. “Of course, they didn’t make it all the way this year that they promised to do, but we did set a new record high of trade with China this year and hopefully that will continue this year and they’ll meet their $40 billion worth of purchases in 2021,” he said.
“New trade agreements promise brighter days ahead for us in our exports,” Duvall said. “Of course, there’s been a lot of attention over the last couple of years about the trade war with China and the impact that it’s had on our farm exports. Rightfully so. But the reality is, the past couple of years have been very productive in the area of new trade deals, with the U.S./Japan agreement, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and the China Phase 1 agreement that commits China to purchasing about $40 billion a year in U.S. commodities — almost twice the level of exports to China before the trade war started.”
- Other key Farm Bureau issues include addressing rural broadband issues. Duvall added “We must evaluate the impact of Covid-19 on our food system and recognize what worked and what needs to be changed.” Other issues, according to Duvall: ““We have to solve the problem of insufficient agricultural labor once and for all. We need to build more markets for our U.S. farm exports around the world. And ag innovation will be more important than ever as we move into the future. Innovation has been our edge for the past 100 years. We must maintain investment in agriculture research and continue to develop and improve new plant breeding technologies in order to meet the food demands that lie before us.”
- Duvall calls for end to partisanship. “Our elected leaders have got to turn the page on partisanship,” Duvall declared.
- Farm Bureau is determined to be “more inclusive” in terms of kinds of farms, races and genders.
- Incoming USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack was “a partner of ours during the Obama administration” and Duvall said that he looks forward to working with Vilsack again.
— Biden tweets on need for more Covid aid: “$600 is simply not enough when you have to choose between paying rent or putting food on the table. We need $2,000 stimulus checks.”
— Democrats look to prior Moving Forward Act as starting point for transportation package. The $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill passed the House in July but wasn’t considered in the last Senate. Alongside investments for schools, housing and broadband access, it would reauthorize funding for surface transportation and includes $100 billion for public transit, tripled funding for Amtrak and prioritizing funds for roads and bridges in need of repair. It would also spend $1.4 billion on alternative fuel charging infrastructure.
House Democrats have noted the return of earmarks, which could increase bipartisan support for a larger infrastructure bill. Transportation investment could also appear in other forms, such as inside an environmental protection bill or a budget reconciliation plan.
— Bob Lighthizer urges Biden to keep tariffs on China. The outgoing U.S. Trade Representative told the Wall Street Journal (link) that tariffs get results. His advice to the Biden administration: stay the course. “We changed the way people think about China,” Lighthizer told the WSJ. “We want a China policy that thinks about the geopolitical competition between the United States and an adversary — an economic adversary.” Lighthizer views the Biden trade policy plan with alarm, saying it could let other nations slow or veto U.S. actions and tie up the U.S. in endless, pointless discussions with China. The U.S. and China “started dialogues in the ’90s,” he said. “That did nothing. All of them were just a waste of time.” He still wants the Biden administration to keep tariffs on all $370 billion in Chinese goods — three-quarters of everything China sells to the U.S. The 25% tariffs he slapped on Chinese car imports stopped China from potentially selling millions of vehicles in the U.S., he said. Commenting on his replacement to head USTR, Katherine Tai, Lighthizer said she helped garner Democratic support for the USMCA. “She learned good skills on the Hill,” Lighthizer said. Those include “how to manage different people who have different objectives and still get things done.”
— U.S. eases restrictions on officials’ dealings with Taiwan. The U.S. on Saturday eased restrictions governing diplomats’ and other officials’ dealings with Taiwan officials, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. “Executive branch agencies should consider all ‘contact guidelines’ regarding relations with Taiwan previously issued by the Department of State under authorities delegated to the Secretary of State to be null and void,” Pompeo said in a statement. Pompeo described the limits as “an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing.” Taiwan welcomed the move. “The State Department’s actions to further Taiwan-U.S. engagements reflect the strength and depth of our relationship,” Taiwan’s mission to the U.S. said in a statement. “We look forward to broadening the Taiwan-U.S. partnership in the months and years ahead.” Pompeo’s move will likely sweep away restrictions on Taiwan officials’ entering the State Department and U.S. officials’ going to the official residence of Taiwan’s representative.
Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is set to visit Taiwan from Wednesday through Friday and will highlight the “importance of Taiwan’s meaningful and expanded participation in international organizations,” the State Department said Thursday.
China responds. Asked about Craft’s visit, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said China firmly opposes any form of official ties between the U.S. and Taiwan. China’s state-run media called for retaliation. The Communist Party-backed Global Times warned that Pompeo’s moves were pushing the world’s biggest countries toward conflict. Hu Xijin, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, said on Weibo China had a “precious window of opportunity for mainland China to teach a heavy lesson to the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces” and re-establish “strategic leverage” in the Taiwan Strait. China’s Foreign Ministry, which opposes official U.S./Taiwan interactions, has yet to comment on Pompeo’s moves.
— Demand for wheat at Chinese increases. China sold 2.099 MMT (52.2%) of the reserve wheat put up for auction Jan. 6, a dramatic improvement from recent percentages in the teens. The wheat sold at a higher average price of 2,365 yuan per metric ton, the highest price since the auctions began in late June. Soaring corn prices have likely turned some feed producers to wheat.
— China to clear two domestically developed GMO crop varieties. China is poised to give the green light on the safety of a domestically developed corn and soybean variety, both produced by Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group Company Ltd. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs said it would take comments on the safety plan approval through until Feb. 1. The ministry also said it approved two new GMO corn varieties for import — the glyphosate-resistant and insect-resistant MON87411 sold by Bayer's Crop Science unit and MZIR098 produced by Syngenta. The U.S. has continued to push China to speed its regulatory process for GMO crops to prevent the lack of approvals from creating trade issues for U.S. ag exports.
— U.S./China Phase 1 tracker: China’s purchases of U.S. goods. Link.
— Pork prices climb in Taiwan after shoppers reject U.S. imports. Taiwanese consumers are turning away from imported pork, driving up prices and frustrating meat producers’ hopes that the liberalization of the country’s pork market would offer new opportunities for U.S. suppliers, the Financial Times reports (link/paywall). On Jan. 1, Taiwan lifted a ban on U.S. pork containing ractopamine, the feed additive. Taipei hoped the decision would build support in Washington for a bilateral trade deal. Pork is the main source of protein for Taiwan’s population.
Pork imports from the U.S. cratered since Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen announced the liberalization, and demand for other imported pork is now also being hit. Tsai pleaded with the public that, because Taiwan was a country reliant on trade for survival, she had no choice but to allow imports of ractopamine pork. FT reports that “observers believe the Taiwanese opposition’s campaign against the market reform and the government’s pledges to protect food safety have triggered consumer fears that any pork other than local produce is harmful.” More than 150 Taiwanese pork importers signed a pledge last month not to import U.S. pork. Some retailers have cut back on all imported pork.
— Mexico to decide if GMO corn ban will apply to animal feed. Mexican officials will meet with producers late this week to decide on whether a new ban on genetically modified corn will apply to animal feed. The meeting will take place “toward the end” of the coming week, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said in an emailed statement. The ministry will discuss the issue with producers along the supply chain, it said.
Background: Mexico has banned genetically modified corn and will phase out imports over the next three years as part of the government’s efforts to achieve self-sufficiency in food production, according to a decree it issued on Dec. 31. Mexico uses its own white corn to make the country’s staple tortillas but relies on imports of mostly genetically modified yellow corn from the U.S. for livestock feed. It was unclear from the decree whether the rules would affect feed for livestock, or only apply to corn for human consumption. Under the new rules, Mexico will revoke permits and stop issuing new ones for the release of GMO corn seeds. By 2024, Mexico will phase out GMO corn imports and also the use of glyphosate, the most commonly used herbicide in the U.S., that’s found in products such as Bayer AG’s Roundup.
— Argentina replaces export suspension with daily limit. Argentina will end its suspension on corn export through Feb. 28 and replace it with a daily limit of 30,000 tonnes per day on export sales to foreign destinations, according to the country’s ag ministry. The agency indicated in a statement that it has reached agreement on guaranteeing domestic supplies and temper the impact of international prices moves on local prices.
Argentine farmers raised issue with the export suspension and launched a strike, a well-used tool in the country to force government change. They argued the ban put downward pressure on production and prompted them to curtail investments. The government had initially sought to make sure the domestic market was supplied and that prices for meat and other foods would not shoot higher.
It will be interesting to see how USDA analysts assess the situation in Tuesday’s WASDE report relative to not only the Argentine export outlook but also the expectations for U.S. corn exports for the remainder of the 2020-21 marketing year.
ENERGY & CLIMATE CHANGE
— Supreme Court to review refinery waivers from RFS mandate. The Supreme Court will review the ability of oil refineries to win exemptions from federal biofuel-blending quotas. The justices, without comment, agreed to hear an appeal by units of HollyFrontier Corp. and Wynnewood Refining Co., which said a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling wrongly deprived small refineries of economic relief specifically authorized by Congress.
At issue is the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) law that requires refineries and fuel importers to blend plant-based alternative fuels such as corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel into their products. The law also empowered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to give some small refineries exemptions from the biofuel-blending mandates if they faced an “economic hardship” in complying. However, after the exemptions soared under the Trump administration, biofuel advocates challenged the EPA’s handling of the issue in court, arguing the agency had too freely handed out the waivers.
The court will examine whether the EPA exceeded its authority when it exempted three small oil refineries from obligations under the statute. As the refineries explain in their petition for certiorari, “The Renewable Fuel Standard requires refiners, blenders, and importers of transportation fuel to blend increasing amounts of renewable fuels into their products each year.” In recognition of the reality that the requirements may have a disparate impact on small refineries, Congress granted those refineries an initial, blanket exemption. The case before the Supreme Court seeks to clarify the circumstances under which the EPA may exempt small refineries on a case-by-case basis now that the initial blanket exemption has expired. At the center of the dispute is a provision of the statute that reads, “A small refinery may at any time petition the [EPA] for an extension of the exemption…for the reason of disproportionate economic hardship.”
Background: Under the January 2020 ruling that the Supreme Court will now review, the EPA was found to have wrongly waived three refineries from the renewable fuel requirements. A three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit also said that refineries are only eligible for relief if they have received uninterrupted, continuous extensions of the exemptions -— an exclusion that means only a handful nationwide will qualify.
Biofuel reaction: “We are disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision to review the case but will continue to vigorously pursue a resolution to the damage that small refinery exemptions do to the biodiesel industry,” said National Biodiesel Board spokesman Paul Winters. “Refiners are challenging the 10th Circuit’s findings on a single issue. EPA must still explain how the RFS itself is a hardship to refiners and why it arbitrarily failed to consider its own evidence that refineries recoup” credit costs.
Next steps: The Trump administration had discouraged the Supreme Court from taking up the appeal, which now could be heard as soon as April. In a brief opposing the refineries’ petition, Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall wrote, “The government agrees with petitioners that the question presented has important implications for the renewable fuel standard program. This case, however, would be an unsuitable vehicle for addressing the question.”
— The Copernicus Climate Change Service said 2020 tied with 2016 for the world's hottest year on record and that the past decade was the warmest ever observed. On Jan. 14, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Berkeley Earth are set to release their data on last year's global temperatures and are expected to rank 2020 as the hottest or second-warmest year on record due to slight variations in how they measure worldwide temperatures compared to Copernicus.
— Summary: Global cases of Covid-19 have topped 90 million at 90,327,622 with 1,936,133 deaths, according to data compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. case count is at 22,409,129 with 374,329 deaths.
— China allows WHO experts to investigate Covid-19 origins. Just days after the United Nations agency’s top official criticized Beijing for holding up the mission, China said WHO experts will start their mission on Thursday and will be working with Chinese scientists in studying the contagion’s origins.
— The pandemic has created a shortage at sperm banks, giving rise to an underground fertility economy on Facebook. Link to details from the New York Times.
POLITICS & ELECTIONS
— Biden announces William Burns as nominee for CIA director. President-elect Joe Biden early today announced former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns as his nominee for director of the CIA. "Bill Burns is an exemplary diplomat with decades of experience on the world stage keeping our people and our country safe and secure," Biden said in a statement. "He shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect."
— U.S. Capitol riot prompts some companies to suspend political funding. JPMorgan and Citigroup are halting all political action committee donations, while Blue Cross and Marriott are pausing funding to Republicans who objected to Electoral College results. Meanwhile, Trump's N.J. golf course lost the PGA 2022 championship. The PGA of America stripped the tournament from the New Jersey course, an example of the economic consequences that may await Trump in the aftermath of the riot at the U.S. Capitol.
— Voting machine maker Dominion sues a Trump ally for $1.3 billion. Dominion accused Sidney Powell, a lawyer who pushed election conspiracy theories about the company, of defamation. The lawsuit, the company said, is meant to “set the record straight.”
OTHER ITEMS OF NOTE
— U.S. hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters caused $95 billion in damages in 2020, according to insurance provider Munich Re AG. This is nearly double the 2019 cost and the third-highest losses since 2010.
— Investor interest in the Colorado River “could redefine century-old rules for who controls one of the most valuable economic resources in the United States,” says a New York Times article titled Wall Street Eyes Billions in the Colorado’s Water (link).
— Rule finalized to replace H1-B lottery with wage-based process. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) promulgated a final rule Friday that would prioritize higher-wage workers in the H1-B visa program, a revision designed to make it more costly to hire immigrants. While the final rule is scheduled to take effect on March 9, President-elect Joe Biden is likely to reverse all regulatory changes that are rammed through in the final days of President Donald Trump’s administration, according to Jen Psaki, a Biden transition spokesperson. The H1-B program allows companies to temporarily hire foreign nationals for highly specialized positions. It is widely used in the technology, academic and health care sectors. An annual limitation on H1-B visas — capped at 65,000 individuals plus another 20,000 who hold master’s degrees — means demand often exceeds supply. Officials devised a lottery system to decide on approvals within the cap. In this rulemaking, however, USCIS would scrap that random allocation system and instead grant priority to higher-paid foreign workers while sending lower-paid peers to the back of the line. The move is aimed at creating incentives to make it more costly to hire immigrants. The rule has been opposed by business organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, universities and higher education groups.
— EPA’s Wheeler seen announcing approval of Mississippi River flood project. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler will be in Mississippi today to unveil the approval of what is known as the Yazoo Backwater Area pumps project, according to Politico. The George W. Bush administration vetoed the plan, but the Trump administration in November said it had reconfigured the plan to make it different enough than the Bush administration effort so that it can move forward. Like other actions late in the Trump administration, the project is likely to be reviewed by the incoming Biden administration and environmentalists are already warning they will take the matter to court, further delaying action.