World markets for U.S. agricultural exports are far different than expected just six months ago. The slowdown in the world economy is the easy answer for lower exports, but markets are much more complicated. The latest USDA estimate of exports for the 2009 fiscal year (October 1, 2008 through September 30, 2009) is $95.5 billion, down 17.2 percent from FY 2008, with the volume of major bulk commodity exports down 19.0 percent. The value of imports is projected to be up 4.0 percent at $82.5 billion, down from the 10.8 percent average increase for the past four years.

The biggest supply change is sharply larger wheat production in 2008 in the EU, Ukraine and Russia resulting in increased competition in the wheat market and shifting exports from corn to feed wheat. U.S. wheat exports are expected to be down 19.7 percent in volume and 39.8 percent in value and U.S. corn exports are projected to be down 25.9 percent in volume and 38.6 percent in value.

Soybeans and product export volumes are expected to be down only 2.5 percent with a slight increase in soybean exports offset by declines in soybean meal and oil. The value of exports will be $15.2 billion, down 21.2 percent from last year. China continues to set an aggressive pace with import volumes expected to equal last year’s. The ongoing weather problems in South America have provided increased opportunities for U.S. soybeans and products.

U.S. rice exports will decline by 10 percent in value to $1.8 billion and volume to 3.6 million metric tons. Cotton exports are feeling the worldwide recession with volumes expected to be down 15.5 percent and value down 24.5 percent to $3.6 billion. USDA expects worldwide consumption of cotton to decline 5.6 percent for the year, with trade down 17.0 percent. U.S. export projections would be lower if not for stocks holding policies in India and slower marketing in Central Asia.

U.S. meat and dairy exports are expected to decline 14.4 percent to $19.0 billion due to lower demand and increased world supplies. Total meat export volumes will be down 9.4 percent, with beef volume unchanged. The value of dairy product exports is expected to decline by 33 percent as market prices have decline sharply and other supplies have increased such as subsidized exports of EU products.

Horticultural product exports are a bright spot with the value expected to be up $0.7 billion to $21.5 billion in FY 2009, the slowest growth in seven years. Fresh and processed fruits and vegetables and tree nuts are all expected to show modest increases. Those markets are value added markets with less volume and price volatility than bulk commodities like grains and oilseeds.

Continued growth in total imports reflects ongoing consumer interests in more varied diets, stable demand and less fluctuation in market prices because most of these products are intermediate and consumer-oriented products. Coffee imports will be up slightly to $4.5 billion, while cocoa and chocolate will be up $0.5 billion to $3.5 billion. Horticultural product imports will be up $0.5 billion to $35.3 billion. Oilseeds and product imports are projected to be up $1.2 billion to $7.8 billion as food processors continue to use more palm oil and canola oil. Livestock, dairy and poultry product imports will be down $0.9 billion to $11.3 billion. Overall import prices are expected to decline with an increase in volume of imports.

Canada and Mexico are expected to remain the two largest markets for U.S. agricultural products at $15.8 billion, down 2.8 percent, and $14.8 billion, down 5.1 percent, respectively, with Mexico showing a larger decline because more of their imports from the U.S. are bulk commodities. Japan is the next largest market at $10.5 billion, down 19.8 percent due to lower bulk commodity prices with only small changes in volumes. China is the next largest market at $9.5 billion, down 15.2 percent, while the EU is expected to be a $9.1 billion market, down 15.0 percent. The next tier of middle income developing country markets wing larger percentage declines with South Korea at $4.0 billion, down 28.6 percent, Southeast Asia at $4.9 billion, down 31.0 percent, the Middle East at $4.8 billion, down 30.4 percent, South America at $3.5 billion, down 35.2 percent ,and North Africa at $2.2 billion, down 42.1 percent.

USDA’s analysis of export prospects includes the warning that conditions could get worse. The current projections assume that the U.S. economy shrinks by 2.2 to 2.8 percent in 2009, with the EU declining by a similar amount. If they decline more, this could have a ripple effect on developing countries’ economies and in the demand for agricultural products as lower incomes for workers will result in less demand for U.S. agricultural products. Those impacts would be felt in the summer of 2009 with a slow end to FY 2009 exports and a weak beginning for FY 2010.

While the current declines in exports are a problem, they are the normal adjustments to super heated demand that evaporates after a monetary policy bubble. Raw commodities usually have the largest increases in prices and suffer the largest declines. As noted earlier with the good wheat crops in 2008 and poor growing weather in South America in recent months, world markets still respond to supply and demand conditions. While world carryover supplies for grains and oils seeds are up, they are not large in a historical context. Of course, favorable weather in the coming months for the northern hemisphere crops and continued sluggish demand could further add to carryover supplies.

From FY 2004 to FY 2008, U.S. agricultural exports increased from $62.4 billion to $115.4 billion, an 84.9 percent increase, imports increased from $52.7 billion to $79.3 billion, a 50.0 percent increase, and the agricultural trade balance increased from $9.8 billion to $36.1 billion, a 268.4 percent increase. A pullback in the value of exports and the trade balance was inevitable. A similar pullback occurred in 1997-99. The current shift was more sudden than expected, but after the previous pullback a new uptrend began. That should be repeated again this time.