TUCSON, ARIZ. — Analysts speaking at the International Sweetener Colloquium held Feb. 28 in Tucson painted a mostly bullish picture for domestic and global sugar prices for the remainder of 2022 and for the 2022-23 marketing year that begins Oct. 1. Forecast refined sugar prices for 2022-23, which were being earnestly negotiated on the sidelines of the colloquium, were only moderately below current spot prices that are well above levels seen in most recent years.   

Craig Ruffolo, vice president – commodity specialist, McKeany-Flavell Company Inc., said he expected refined beet prices to be around 36.5¢ a lb for 2022-23 and refined cane sugar prices around 46¢ a lb. 

Craig RuffoloCraig Ruffolo

Frank Jenkins, president of JSG Commodities, said he expected both types of refined sugar to be “a couple cents above that.” 

Spot refined cane sugar currently is offered at 52¢ a lb f.o.b. in the Northeast and West Coast, up 24% from a year ago, while beet sugar is offered around 42¢ a lb f.o.b. Midwest, up 15%. Current cane sugar prices are near the level that allow, or even encourage, “high-tier” imports — imports of sugar from the world market that carry sizable duties that are meant to discourage imports above tariff-rate quota levels. 

Current prices are high relative to the US Department of Agriculture’s 2021-22 forecast ending stocks-to-use ratio of 14.7%. The ratio in part reflects record-high 2021 beet sugar and total sugar production. The USDA unofficially maintains a ratio between 13.5% and 15.5%, with the lower end stipulated as the minimum under agreements suspending anti-dumping and counterveiling duties on sugar from Mexico. To get the ratio back to 13.5%, the USDA is expected to reduce Mexico’s export limit in the March WASDE.

“Prices are completely unhinged from 13.5%,” Mr. Jenkins said. 

“Is it really relevant?” asked Mr. Ruffolo of the stocks-to-use ratio.

Despite the high stocks-to-use ratio, sugar supplies — especially of raw sugar used by some US refiners — have been tight, which in part has encouraged more imports of high-tier sugar. The USDA currently forecasts high-tier sugar imports in 2021-22 at 150,000 tons. Mr. Jenkins thinks they could be as high as 250,000 tons. As high-tier imports rise, imports from Mexico typically are reduced to keep the ratio closer to 13.5, thus also limiting raw imports for US refiners. 

Frank JenkinsFrank Jenkins

 Another oddity in the current market is the 10¢-a-lb premium of refined cane sugar to beet sugar. That spread is typically closer to 2¢ a lb. 

“The beet industry is doing its job,” Mr. Jenkins noted.

He sees part of the problem as demand for cane sugar when cane supplies are tight.

“If users don’t shift from refined cane to beet, we will not get out of the wide spread and high-tier imports,” he said.

While US sugar prices typically are minimally affected by the world sugar market because imports are limited under the sugar program of the farm bill and by the suspension agreements with Mexico, changes in world raw sugar prices currently have a greater impact because of high US sugar prices and the aforementioned high-tier imports. World raw sugar prices at 20¢ a lb would add 2½¢ to US refined sugar prices, Mr. Jenkins said.

The analysts forecast New York world raw sugar prices at the end of 2022 to range from 18.5¢ to 20¢-plus per lb. The current nearby raw sugar price was 17.7¢ a lb on Feb. 28.

Vincent O’RourkeVincent O’Rourke

 “The world has a continued appetite for sugar,” said Vincent O’Rourke, trader and market analyst, C. Czarnikow Sugar, Inc., who offered a generally bullish view of the world sugar market due to increasing global demand. “One or several origins need to step up to produce more sugar to meet demand going forward.”

At the same time, exports may decline in coming years, he said. World raw sugar prices need to be near 19¢ a lb to encourage exports from India, the world’s second largest sugar producer, he said. Further, India is increasing its use of sugar to make ethanol to reduce dependence on oil imports, which will further reduce sugar available for export. 

However, the analysts did not expect Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to have a direct impact on global sugar prices. There could be some indirect effect if demand for ethanol increases as due to high crude oil prices caused by the war, they said. That could affect sugar supply and prices in Brazil as well as corn-based ethanol in the United States. Although it was currently more profitable to export sugar than to make ethanol in Brazil, that could change quickly as oil prices continue to rise, Mr. O’Rourke said.