Timing is tough when marketing around a trade dispute

A farmer who gets the timing right on the end of the China-Canada canola dispute could make a lot of money.

After all, any resolution of the lingering and worsening crisis could see canola prices pop dozens of dollars per tonne, rising a couple of bucks a bushel. When China began shutting off its market to Canada, canola prices slumped. The analysts I talk to say much of that loss would be reversed if the Chinese market suddenly re-opened, especially if United States soybeans continue to face Chinese pressure.

But getting right market-timing with commodities is no easier than getting market-timing right with stocks. Very few non-professional traders ever succeed. In fact, very few professionals can get it right. At best, market-timing rewards the few with exceptional instincts. Generally, it has mixed results for most, offering luck-based results.

For amateurs, it’s usually a disaster, with non-pros rushing to sell when prices have already plunged, and to buy when they have already rallied. This has been realized forever in stock markets, yet new amateurs constantly appear, determined to beat the markets — until they run out of money.

It’s also what’s behind the phenomenon of most farmers selling their crops in the bottom third of the yearly price range. Farmers suffer the same sins of greed and fear that propel the counterproductive actions of amateur stock traders.

No doubt canola prices will rise if the China crisis is solved. How likely is that to happen in the next year? When is it likely to happen? Will canola recover all the ground it has lost? Will soybean prices retain their present strength and keep canola from falling further?

The answers to those questions will determine what happens to canola, and when, and nobody knows what the answers are.

Adam Pukalo of P.I. Financial in Winnipeg told me he tells farmers to forget the politics and the speculation until they have at least sold or priced some of their new crop this year.

“You always need to get something priced,” he said.

Even if it’s just 20 percent now for fall delivery, that at least provides fall cash flow and less concern about bin space.

After that, farmers can afford to think a little more speculatively or strategically (depending upon how you look at it), but even then, thinking you can outguess the rest of the world about when China is going to open its doors to Canada is a mug’s game.

I don’t think farmers should rush now to price their entire new crop. There’s no need to go that far the other way. It’s not unreasonable to believe that the Chinese market has a decent chance of opening in the next year, and non-Chinese demand might become stronger than most are now anticipating. There’s no point not having anything left to benefit from if the situation improves.

And it’s worth looking at a crop replacement strategy if a farmer chooses to be aggressive with new crop pricing. An out-of-the-money call option could become a beautiful thing if the China crisis ends and canola bounces back up to the $500 levels it held until late February.

So many things could happen with China. The dispute could be resolved. It could linger. It could worsen.

Canola prices could rebound. They could stagnate. They could collapse.

Somebody’s going to get it right on canola. Somebody’s going to market-time this thing perfectly and have a lot of bragging rights.

But if they do, it will probably be down to just luck, and counting on getting that kind of good luck is no marketing plan.

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