U.S. corn futures soared Friday as stronger-than-expected export sales renewed supply concerns, sparking a turnaround from recent losses.
Corn for May delivery, the most-active contract, briefly climbed the daily 30-cent limit before settling up 25 1/2 cents, or 3.7%, at $7.22 a bushel at the Chicago Board of Trade. The contract closed up 1 3/4 cents on the week.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed demand for corn remains robust, as weekly export sales for the week ended Feb. 17 beat traders' expectations at 1.65 million tons. It was the fourth consecutive week sales topped 1 million.
Sales of 1.5 million tons for delivery in the current marketing year, which ends Aug. 31, were up 62% from the prior four-week average, according to government data. Mexico, which suffered crop losses earlier this month from a freak freeze, was a top buyer, snapping up 505,200 tons.
"Traders focused on demand," said Karl Setzer, analyst for MaxYield Cooperative in Iowa.
Corn futures had pulled back earlier this week after reaching a 31-month high Tuesday in an attempt to curb demand and entice farmers to expand plantings this spring to replenish tight supplies. Prices had fallen as global economic concerns linked to unrest in Libya encouraged traders to reduce risk in agricultural markets.
Users of corn are worried about supplies due to strong demand from overseas and from domestic livestock and ethanol producers. End-of-season inventories are projected to drop to a 15-year low at the end of the marketing year on Aug. 31.
"Traders went back to trading supply and demand today and ignored the geopolitical issues that have drove the markets mostly lower all week," Setzer said.
Export sales should stay strong next week because the upcoming sales report, due out Thursday, will cover the week ended Feb. 24, when prices weakened, traders said. Foreign buyers and domestic grain users seized the price break as an opportunity to extend coverage, traders said.
Domestic demand for corn used for livestock feed has not slowed, analysts said. Sanderson Farms Inc. (SAFM), the fourth-largest U.S. poultry producer by revenue, said Thursday it was not cutting back production, in part to protect its chicken growers. Analysts say Sanderson and competitors Tyson Foods Inc. (TSN) and Pilgrim's Pride Corp. (PPC) are likely to maintain current levels of output while waiting for small producers to cut back.