Thailand to regain top rice exporter position

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Editor’s Note: What was expected to be necessary at some point is happening. Thailand’s government is dumping much of the rice that it has had in storage, which was accumulated under the rice subsidy program for rice farmers. The country ran out of storage warehouses and the quality of the rice in storage was due to start deteriorating badly. Additionally, the government needs money to pay off financing of the subsidies. The country remains politically unstable partly because of the rice scheme. With all this as the backdrop, India is expected to drop from first place in rice export to second place. Thailand is poised to reclaim its top rice exporter position once again, but income into the country will take a hit because of the fire sale on rice.

India's rice exports could slide by nearly a quarter this year and knock the country off its perch as top exporter of the grain due to stiff competition from Southeast Asian rivals that have recently slashed prices, Indian industry executives said.

A drop in Indian exports could help Thailand trim a record inventory chalked up under a controversial rice-buying scheme. Thailand may also be able to reclaim its status as the world's biggest rice exporter, which it lost to India two years ago.

It will also leave more rice in Indian hands at a time when the country's stocks are bulging and it faces the prospect of a record harvest, creating problems of storage.

"We are almost out of the market now. Thailand and Vietnam are selling aggressively and it is difficult for Indian exporters to match those prices," B.V. Krishna Rao, managing director at Pattabhi Agro Foods Pvt Ltd, India's biggest non-basmati rice exporter, told Reuters.

"Thailand will again become the world's biggest rice exporter. Our non-basmati rice exports could drop to 4 million tonnes," Rao said.

India toppled Thailand in 2012 to become the world's biggest rice exporter after the government lifted a four-year-old ban on non-basmati rice shipments in 2011 to trim a growing mountain of the grain following bountiful harvests.

In the 2013/14 financial year that ended on March 31, India's total rice exports stood at a record 10.5 million tonnes, comprising 4 million tonnes aromatic basmati rice and 6.5 million tonnes of the non-basmati variety.

While India's shipments of the basmati variety are likely to remain steady in 2014/15 at around 4 million tonnes, total rice exports could drop to 8 million tonnes due to the slide in exports of non-basmati rice, industry officials said.

Desperate for revenues, Thailand has this year been selling larger quantities of the grain from state warehouses at low prices to private traders. Thailand-origin rice was offered at the lowest price in an international tender from Iraq's state grains buyer to purchase at least 30,000 tonnes, European traders said on Tuesday.

The push could boost Thailand's rice exports to 9 million tonnes in the 2014 calendar year from 6.7 million a year ago, according to a March report issued by a U.S. Department of Agriculture attache in Thailand. India's exports in the 2014 calendar year are expected to be lower than that, industry executives said. 

Thailand is now offering 5 percent broken rice RI-THBKN5-P1 at $390 to $395 per tonne free-on-board basis, compared to India's offer price of $400.

The Southeast Asian nation usually charges a premium over Indian rice due to its longer grains.

"India and Thailand are quoting nearly the same price for 5 percent broken rice. Thailand's prices need to go up by $40 per tonne to make Indian exports viable," said M. Adishankar, executive director at Sri Lalitha, a leading rice exporter based in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

Problem of Plenty

Since the first week of February, Thailand has cut export prices of 5 percent broken rice by nearly 12 percent, compared with a 2 percent drop in export prices from Vietnam, the world's second-biggest exporter. Indian prices rose 2 percent during the same period as the rupee strengthened.

"For some grades Thailand has been offering discounts compared to Indian prices. Indian exporters can't lower prices substantially due to the appreciating rupee," said M.P. Jindal, president of the All India Rice Exporters Association.

A strong rupee cuts the returns of exporters. The Indian currency has risen nearly 3 percent since the start of February.

The imposition of a 110 percent import duty on rice last year by Nigeria, a major importer of the grain from India, could further hamper exports from the South Asian country.

India mainly exports non-basmati rice to African countries such as Nigeria, Senegal and Benin, while Iran, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are key buyers of its basmati rice.

"Shipments to Nigeria are hit due to the new duty structure," said Adishankar of Sri Lalitha.

Other African buyers are switching to Thailand as the government has been aggressively selling stocks from its warehouses, the exporters said.

Slowing exports will add to India's problem of plenty in foodgrains. Rice inventories with India's state-run agencies have already jumped above 30 million tonnes as on April 1, government data shows, against a target of 14.2 million tonnes. Moreover, the country is estimated to produce a record 106.19 million tonnes rice in the year to July 2014.

"Slowing exports mean more and more farmers will sell their crop to the government, but it doesn't have enough storage space," said a rice miller based in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh.

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