Positive signs: Crude palm oil continues to extend its rally trading above RM3,800 per tonne. — Reuters PLANTERS ushered in the new year in a euphoric mood as crude palm oil (CPO) continues to extend its rally trading above RM3,800 per tonne, which is almost a decade-high price. However, despite the higher CPO prices, most planters are expecting mixed performance in their earnings outlook for this year with the industry currently facing severe workers shortage in the estates. This situation has turned for the worst with the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic that restricts foreign workers recruitment which could lead to crop losses in the labour intensive oil palm sector. Other headwinds for planters in 2021 include the resumption of the palm oil export duties, the return of windfall tax due the higher CPO prices and the imposition of an additional cess payment by the government. On the supply and demand side, the potential impact of the La Nina weather phenomenon could also affect CPO production this year. The MPOB’s latest statistics showed that palm oil stocks in November 2020 slumped to 1.56 million tonnes, which is the lowest since June 2017. CPO production for the same period under review also dropped to 1.49 million tonnes, the lowest since March 2020. On the international front, sustainability issues saw the US Customs and Border Protection Agency placing a ban on imports of palm oil based products from FGV Holdings Bhd and Sime Darby Plantation Bhd. This is apart from the ongoing anti-palm oil campaigns by Western NGOs and green activists in Europe. According to United Malacca Bhd chief executive officer Peter Benjamin, (pic below) the price of CPO has performed well in 2020 and “this has somewhat managed to offset the workers’ shortage issue.” He tells StarBizWeek that “I expect 2021 to be a mixed year for the plantation industry. “We will still see workers’ shortage while the current good CPO price might hold for the first half of this year (2021). “Thus a quick solution towards resolving the labour shortages in the estates must be found, ” added Peter. Kim Loong Resources Bhd managing director Gooi Seong Heen concurs that 2020 has been a good year as “the group’s estates were not affected by the Covid-19 movement control order (MCO).” This is well supported by the strong recovery in CPO prices in the second half of 2020, once the news on the Covid-19 vaccine was out. “We achieved close to record results up to the third quarter of FY2021. “For our full financial year ending Jan 31,2021 we are hopeful that it will be another good result as CPO prices should still be trading high at least in the first half of this year. “Hopefully, the current labour shortage will not be too serious. “This will also depend on the government policy moving forward, ” Gooi points out. In 2020 alone, industry expert MR Chandran projects that the local palm oil sector could suffer some 3.3 million tonnes of CPO losses from the labour shortage issue. He warned that the shortage situation could likely double to 62,000 workers from 36,000 workers if left unchecked by the end of 2020. “This can translate into about RM8.25bil losses in revenue for the plantation sector assuming the CPO price is traded at RM2,500 per tonne. “However, this is going to be higher as the price of CPO is so much higher going into 2021, ” adds Chandran. Apart from the workers’ shortage issues, other factors to watch out for this year include the feasibility of the biodiesel programme in Malaysia and Indonesia as well as the strengthening of ringgit against the US dollar. A stronger ringgit tends to eliminate the pricing advantage of CPO, thus making the vegetable oil more expensive in the US dollar terms. This will undermine CPO export competitiveness especially in price-sensitive countries such as India and China, explains Chandran. Meanwhile, CGS-CIMB Equities Research in its latest strategy report describes the sector as “a tale of two halves in 2021.” It expects planters to report stronger earnings in fourth quarter 2020 (4Q20) and first half of 2021 (1H21), driven by better CPO prices and recovering fresh fruit bunches (FFB) yields. “Most upstream players are expected to report sequentially better earnings in 4Q20 and stronger year-on-year earnings in 1H21. “The stronger earnings will be predominantly driven by higher CPO prices for the estates in Malaysia, ” said the research unit. To put things in perspective, spot CPO prices have surged 26% to RM3,622 per tonne as at Dec 6 2020, from RM2,858 as at Sept 30 2020. For upstream planters with estates in Indonesia, CGS-CIMB expect the earnings growth to be driven by a combination of higher CPO prices and recovery in FFB yields, However, this will be partially offset by higher fertiliser costs, higher CPO export tax, as well as the return of windfall tax for local planters that could lead to improvement in supply going into 2H21. CGS-CIMB forecasted CPO prices to average at RM2,680 per tonne in 2020 and RM2,400 per tonne in 2021 respectively. The research unit also has a neutral rating on the sector as “we feel that the robust earnings outlook for 2020 has been partially priced in given that the share prices of large-cap planters did not correct during the low CPO price periods.” “We are selective in our top picks, preferring companies that have younger estate profiles, achieve lower CPO costs of production and offer good earnings leverage to the higher CPO prices and attractive valuations, ” adds CGS-CIMB. Its top key picks include Genting Plantations Bhd, Hap Seng Plantations Bhd and Ta Ann Holdings Bhd. MIDF Research in its 2021 outlook report highlights the current tight inventory situation to help support CPO prices in 2021. It foresees a low palm oil stockpile level this year given lower opening stocks, a tepid production growth, coupled with an anticipated gradual demand recovery in the domestic and export front. Furthermore, the extent of the production growth would be very much dependent on the intensity of the La Nina weather pattern, easing of the labour shortage, limited expansion of planted area, as well as the lagged effects of the dry weather and lower fertiliser inputs on the yield, adds the research unit. On the flip side, MIDF Research expects the demand growth to remain encouraging, underpinned by a resilient export demand from China, India, the European Union and the Middle East and North Africa regions as well as higher domestic consumption through higher biodiesel mandate. “We believe these developments would keep the local palm oil inventory level below two million tonnes, ” says the research unit. MIDF Research opine that the outlook of the sector will be encouraging in the upcoming year due to the expected higher selling price of CPO in CY21. “This is mainly predicated given the moderation in CPO production growth, resilient export demand to China and India, and higher domestic consumption from both Indonesia and Malaysia through higher biodiesel mandate, as well as higher prices of competing oils on lower oilseed output. As a result, this would potentially lead to a tight inventory level and create supply tightness in the export market. The potential prolonged and resurgence of Covid-19 pandemic remains a major risk to palm oil demand in both the food and energy sector. All factors considered, the research unit is maintaining a neutral recommendation on the sector with a CPO target price of RM2,700 per tonne this year.
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