India: Cotton may see gloomy days ahead


The cotton controversy does not seem over yet, despite the decision at the beginning of this month to re-allow its export. Cotton prices in the domestic and global markets have fallen six to seven per cent. Exporters say they’re selling at a loss due to individual ceilings imposed in the notification. Prices have fallen globally as well, due to expectations of high (global) ending stocks.

The real problem for consumers would start three months down the line, by when stocks at home would have dried up and the new crop might be lower, going by the expectations of a 10 per cent fall in area sown. Which is likely to mean prices begin to move up. Even before the government allowed free export a fortnight earlier, the Cotton Advisory Board (CAB) had estimated a closing stock of 2.51 million bales (a bale is 170 kg) after considering 11.5 million bales already shipped out. The closing stock estimated was already the lowest in a decade. It was four million bales in each of the past two years.

Exports have since been freed but traders are not as enthusiastic, though they feel 1.5 million bales might still be exported in the next three months, before the season ends. Exports will be limited on two counts. Several restrictions have been imposed by the government and the US department of agriculture (USDA) has said the current year’s global closing stock is expected to be higher by 12 million bales, at 77 million bales. The reason: China, the largest importer of cotton, is expected to have huge cotton reserves and is not likely to purchase substantial quantities this year. Traders say China’s new import quota, to be announced in the near future, may be close to 1.2 million tonnes (seven million bales) this year.

Govt caps, stocks
Explaining procedural difficulties in exports under the new notification, Rakesh Rathi, president of the North India Cotton Association, said the guidelines issued by the directorate general of foreign trade say an existing exporter can send only up to 10,000 bales and a novice 1,500 bales under one Registration Certificate (RC). A second RC would be issued only on filing proof of executing at least half the quantity of export mentioned in the first RC. This, he said, has undermined the prospects. Exporters who had contracted would now have to seek a new letter of credit (LC) from importers, which they are finding difficult as they had not been able to meet past commitments due to a sudden export ban.

On the other hand, even if only 1-1.5 million bales are exported in the next three months, the closing stock will fall to a little over a million bales, going by CAB estimates. D K Nair, director-general, Confederation on Indian Textile Industry, says: “The cotton crop may be lower than even CAB had estimated, as arrivals of new cotton are not that high at present.” CAB had in its April meeting estimated 34.7 million bales.

This may lead to a crisis for cotton textile mills and spinning mills when the season comes to an end, as they will not get cotton till the new season crop arrives. “By then, prices should start rising and the benefit of higher prices will not accrue to farmers, as they would have sold all the cotton they have and traders will reap the benefits,” said Nair.

Jagdish Joshi, a veteran cotton industry analyst, however said, “The scene may not be that bad, as CAB’s estimates seem very conservative and India’s total crop for 2011-12 may turn out to be 36.5 to 37 million bales.”

Interestingly, several exporters who’d stored cotton expecting free export have started selling even at a loss in the domestic market, given the 10,000-bale cap on shipment abroad. This has lead to a slide in prices at home, as mentioned over the past week, of seven to eight per cent. In the Mumbai market, the Shankar-6 variety was selling at Rs 33,000 per candy (356 kg). After the latest USDA projections regarding high global ending stock, prices in the US market have also come down by eight per cent, to 76.71 cents per pound.

Cotton prices in China are 10 per cent higher but they are not eager to give more orders to Indian exporters, as the latter have not met past commitments due to the sudden ban imposed by the government. Noting the drop in global cotton prices, spinning mills in India are also buying less.

Summarised a Mumbai-based exporter: “Ever since government intervention started in cotton, the entire value chain has gone into a mess. Neither farmers nor traders have been rewarded with the recent decision on lifting of the ban on exports.”