Kuala Lumpur. A push by palm oil producers to cultivate new markets in Southeast Asia and the Middle East is unlikely to move the dial on exports this year, traders and analysts say, as customers favor cheaper rival oils while holding out for palm price cuts.
The impetus for Indonesia and Malaysia, the number 1 and 2 palm oil suppliers respectively, to seek out new buyers comes from the European Union's move to curb palm oil use in biofuels as part of broader climate change goals. The EU is the second largest buyer of the top two producers' palm oil.
But while buying in regions outside traditional markets could pick up ahead of the Ramadan Muslim fasting season, which begins mid-May, full-year demand for the product used in everything from soap to cooking oil is set to remain unchanged, market watchers told Reuters. The new market quest is set to be a theme at a key industry conference in Kuala Lumpur next week.
"Demand in the Middle East won't pick up unless the economy is really growing, or we see big names invest in refineries there. This region is not a major demand driver," said William Simadiputra, an analyst at DBS Vickers.
"Demand during Ramadan usually picks up but for a full-year basis we don't expect much change [from last year]," he said. Demand rises during Ramadan, known for its communal feasting, when the oil is used to prepare meals to break day-long fasts.
Policy Action Needed
Egypt, one of the key Middle East consumers, is seen importing 1.25 million tons of palm oil in 2017/18, down from 1.32 million tonnes the previous year, according to US Department of Agriculture data.
Data from the Iranian Vegetable Oil Industry Association showed the country's palm oil imports ranged between 300,000-400,000 tons from 2013 to 2015.
"Palm oil usage will stagnate at 400,000-420,000 tons a year," said Saeid Vaygani, an association representative. "Soyoil is widely used in Iran."
Traders say buyers are holding off purchases in hopes of prices falling to the 2,300-2,400 ringgit a tonne range. Palm oil production this year is widely expected to rise this year, recovering after being hit by the El Nino weather pattern and likely bringing lower prices.
Benchmark prices was trading around 2,489 ringgit ($636.08) on Friday (02/03) afternoon.
In Southeast Asia, industry players don't see significant uptakes of palm oil without government policy action to promote it, or a reduction in other edible oil supplies.
The Philippines, one of the region's most populated countries, relies on coconut oil, and while Myanmar is seeing some pick-up in palm oil demand the gains are not significant, said David Ng, a derivatives specialist at Phillip Futures.
"This is not a major market for palm. It needs promotional effort before we see contributions from these countries getting higher."