What Cocoa Traders Need to Know as West African Harvests Begin

The world’s biggest cocoa producer is on course for a second straight record crop, but its plans for bigger control over prices for the following season will remain a major cause of uncertainty for traders.

Good crop conditions will help Ivory Coast to produce 2.23 million tons of cocoa in the new season that begins Tuesday, according to the mean estimate in a Bloomberg survey of nine traders, brokers, analysts and cocoa exporters. That compares to a 2.2 million-ton forecast by the International Cocoa Organization for the previous harvest.

The crop in neighboring Ghana, the second-biggest grower, will recover slightly to 872,000 tons, according to the survey. ICCO estimated the 2018-19 harvest at 830,000 tons after swollen-shoot disease decimated crops.

“The weather has been pretty good recently and the pod load looks good,” said Jonathan Parkman, co-head of agriculture at futures and options brokerage Marex Spectron Group in London. “I would expect the crop to be at least as good as last year, if not a little better.”

While demand continues to expand with grindings expected to advance for a fourth straight season, the pace of growth will slow to 2.8%, according to the survey. That’s down from an increase of 4.1% a year earlier, ICCO data showed.

There are already signs of a weaker market. Global chocolate sales were flat in the three months through April after growing for eight consecutive quarters, Barry Callebaut AG, the world’s largest cocoa processor, said in an earnings presentation in July, citing data from analytics firm Nielsen.

While both Ghana and Ivory Coast may harvest a bigger crop, traders are divided over whether there will be a supply surplus or shortfall. The survey’s mean estimate is for a small deficit of 25,000 tons, but individual forecasts vary from a shortage of 160,000 tons to a surplus of 100,000 tons.

The range can be explained by whether analysts are including the volume of cocoa that are currently being hoarded due to expectations that the minimum price for farmers will increase. A shortage would reverse the past season’s surplus of 18,000 tons, according to ICCO data.

While the minimum pay of Ivorian farmers is gradually recovering, it’s still a long way off the record 1,100 CFA francs ($1.83) per kilogram that was set for the six-month main harvest through March 2017.

A second year of gains in futures should enable the regulator, Le Conseil du Cafe-Cacao, to increase prices further. Ivory Coast will set the price for the next six months between 800 to 830 francs per kilogram, according to people familiar with the matter. Both Ivory Coast and Ghana are due to announce their so-called farmgate prices on Tuesday.

While a slight deficit could support prices further, a bigger factor will be the extent to which Ivory Coast and Ghana succeed with a new strategy to add a premium of $400 per ton to their cocoa for the 2020-21 harvest. The nations introduced the so-called living-income differential to pay farmers at least 70% of an average price target of $2,600 a ton.

The new pricing mechanism has so far gained little acceptance as the premium cannot be hedged. With sales for the new season coming to an end and very few purchases for next season, there’s little hedging taking place in futures, allowing prices to gain.

It’s “an absolute complete and utter nightmare to determine how it’s going to play out,” said Parkman. Chocolate makers “are by no means clear how the futures prices will interact with the prices at which Ghana and Ivory Coast wish to sell their cocoa.”