U.S. Markets closed

Palm Oil Industry Gathers in Shadow of India-Malaysia Trade Spat

Anuradha Raghu and Eko Listiyorini
1 / 4

Palm Oil Industry Gathers in Shadow of India-Malaysia Trade Spat

(Bloomberg) -- Follow Bloomberg on LINE messenger for all the business news and analysis you need.

Some of the world’s most influential palm oil traders, analysts and plantation executives will meet this week on the tropical island of Bali. In the limelight is the implementation of Indonesia’s ambitious biodiesel mandate as well as a brewing trade spat between No. 2 supplier Malaysia and the world’s top palm oil importer India.

The Indonesian palm oil conference, which will be held between Oct. 30 and Nov. 1, features price forecasts from veteran analysts Dorab Mistry of Godrej International Ltd., James Fry, chairman of LMC International Ltd. and Oil World Executive Director Thomas Mielke.

Here are the key things to watch:

1. India-Malaysia Trade Spat

Asia’s latest trade spat is dividing palm oil giants in the region and keeping investors on edge. It started when Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized India’s policy in Kashmir, triggering a backlash which led to an influential processors’ group in Mumbai calling on its members to avoid buying Malaysian palm oil. Indian buyers have started switching to Indonesia over worries the government may restrict or hike taxes on Malaysian imports.

Any action by India to curb palm oil from Malaysia could depress prices and hurt incomes of farmers and smaller plantation firms. Palm oil is Malaysia’s biggest agricultural export and India its top customer -- India’s purchases more than doubled between January and September from a year earlier.

There doesn’t seem to be a resolution in sight as New Delhi has not publicly commented and Mahathir says he won’t retract his comments about Kashmir. Primary Industries minister Teresa Kok has rebuked the Indian processors’ group for advising members to shun palm, while Darell Leiking, International Trade and Industry Minister, will seek to engage with India to resolve the spat.

2. Biodiesel Watch

Indonesia will roll out its B30 biodiesel mandate starting Jan. 1 and the industry is closely watching whether the top grower can fully implement the higher blend that’s anticipated to boost palm consumption and support prices.

Industry analysts and investors predicting that palm oil prices will rise in the first quarter are banking on Indonesia to soak up nearly 10 million tons of palm for biofuel. The country’s infrastructure capability however is still in question and the pace of the B30 program will be a “price mover” in coming months, according to Oscar Tjakra, senior analyst for grains and oilseeds at Rabobank. In Malaysia, the mandate will be doubled to B20 in the transport sector and is expected to lift consumption to 1.3 million tons a year.

3. U.S.-China Trade War

While palm oil isn’t directly involved in the trade war between the world’s two largest economies, it’s not completely isolated either. The protracted spat has roiled commodity markets and clouded the outlook of global economic growth, which could impact consumption of edible oils. Chinese tariffs on U.S. imports have constrained supplies of soybeans and soybean oil in the country, boosting demand for palm. That could reverse if the trade conflict is resolved.

“Demand from India and China will fluctuate due to several factors like the trade war between the U.S. and China, but demand from those two big buyers will keep increasing,” according to Derom Bangun, chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Board.

4. European Palm Curbs, Sustainability

The conference comes hot on the heels of controversy surrounding the palm oil industry after haze from burning Indonesian forests choked Southeast Asia only a few weeks ago. The Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries says oil palm plantations are generally not the source of burning, but that hasn’t allayed accusations that some farmers still use illegal slash-and-burn techniques to clear land for crops. Indonesian authorities have named more than 200 companies including oil palm, pulp producers and individual farmers as responsible for starting the fires.

That’s fueling momentum for anti-palm oil campaigns and for the EU to curb its palm oil purchases on environmental grounds. The most pressing is the Delegated Act that seeks to phase out palm-oil based biofuel by 2030 -- which both Malaysia and Indonesia are challenging through the WTO.

Now there’re fears the EU may limit palm oil in food. Malaysia said the EU’s cap on glycidyl esters and its proposed limits on 3-MCPD esters may impact palm oil consumption in food products, and that the industry must be ready to anticipate challenges to “trade impediments” from the bloc.

5. Productivity

A nagging worry on the minds of growers is production. Faced with scarce land and labor, yield growth has stagnated in recent years especially from Malaysia, and the industry wants to know how this will affect the long-term outlook. This year’s conference will highlight government policies on palm oil as the sector grapples with an increasingly complex business environment.

“Productivity is not increasing as fast as we want,” said Kanya Lakshmi Sidarta, secretary general of Indonesian Palm Oil Association, known as Gapki. “Production is showing signs of plateauing because there has not been land expansion and there is permit moratorium in place,” she said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Anuradha Raghu in Kuala Lumpur at araghu3@bloomberg.net;Eko Listiyorini in Jakarta at elistiyorini@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Kitanaka at akitanaka@bloomberg.net, James Poole, Atul Prakash

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.