Is there any glimmer of light for market in the COVID-19 darkness?

Wool takes short-term hit but prices have stood test of time

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Despite the current COVID-19-induced slump in the global market in 2020, Merino wool prices have performed marginally better than those for most other textile fibres in the past three years.

Despite the current COVID-19-induced slump in the global market in 2020, Merino wool prices have performed marginally better than those for most other textile fibres in the past three years.

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Wool prices have under-performed against other fibres in recent months, but longer-term have stood the test of time.

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The disheartening, relentless decline in Australian wool prices continued in August - falling to their lowest level in a decade.

Textile fibre prices have been hardest hit of the various commodities by the COVID-19 pandemic, probably because of the severe impact of virus-related restrictions on clothing retail sales globally - and on consumer spending generally.

Wool prices have contracted sharply in the past few months and the drop has been bigger than for other fibres.

In Australian Dollar terms, the Australian Wool Exchange Eastern Market Indicator (EMI) is down 57 per cent since the start of 2020 and 16 per cent lower than at the start of the 2020-21 season.

In US Dollar terms, the EMI is 37 per cent below the start of 2020 and 13 per cent down on the start of the 2020-21 season.

Prices for other textile fibres have fallen since the start of 2020, but have performed better than wool.

Acrylic fibre prices are 17 per cent lower than at the start of 2020, but 4 per cent higher than the start of 2020-21.

Prices for polyester staple fibre are 21 per cent below the start of 2020 and 3 per cent lower than at the start of 2020-21.

Cotton prices are 9 per cent lower than at the start of 2020, but 3 per cent higher than at the end of June.

Cashmere prices are down 23 per cent since the start of 2020 and are flat compared with the start of the 2020-21 season.

From a longer-term perspective, Merino wool prices have performed marginally better than most other textile fibres in the past three years. Although - like synthetic fibre and cashmere prices - these are well below the levels of January 2015. The exception is cotton, with its prices higher than in January 2015.

New Zealand and British broad wool prices have been low throughout the past three years and have fallen even more this year.

Between January and August, the New Zealand broad wool price was down 29 per cent and the British Wool Marketing Board market indicator is down 40 per cent. The prices for this broad wool have improved a little since the start of the 2020-21 season.

Australian wool prices have declined in 2020. But there are some faint glimmers of positive news, including a rise in premiums for superfine wool over medium Merino wool.

The premium for 16.5-micron wool has risen particularly sharply.

After the big drops in the premiums for superfine wool seen since the start of 2018, this rebound has pushed the current price premium for 16.5-micron wool to 49 per cent - which is well above the long-term average and a major recovery from the low of 7 per cent a year ago.

The premium for 18-micron wool over 21-micron wool has risen at a slower pace and is now at 22 per cent, which is just above the long-term average.

As with 16.5-micron wool, this is an impressive recovery from the low of a premium of just 4 per cent in June 2019.

Another piece of data showing some slightly positive signs is the latest figures on Australian wool exports from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

These show the volume of wool exported from Australia in June increased compared with June 2019. The rise was only small - at 3 per cent - but any rise in the current environment is very welcome.

The reason that the volume of wool exports increased in June was due entirely to a 19 per cent increase in exports to China. As a result, China accounted for 91 per cent of Australia's export volumes in June.

Unfortunately, exports to all of the other major destinations recorded significant declines for the month.

There were some interesting exceptions to this general decline among the smaller destinations.

For example, the volume of wool exports to Uruguay was 45 per cent higher than in June 2019 and sales to New Zealand were up 292 per cent. But both were only small volumes.

While total volume of wool exports lifted marginally in June, the value fell by 34 per cent.

For the full 2019-20 season, export volumes were down by 20 per cent to 252.5 million kilograms. This was the lowest total for a season since at least the start of the 1980's - and probably the lowest for almost a century.

The value of exports was down by more than a third compared with 2018-19, at $2.525 billion.

This is no surprise, given the drop in volumes and 35 per cent fall in wool prices at auction.

There were big falls in exports to almost all destinations for the season to date. The one bright spot was higher exports to Bulgaria in volume and value.

For the full season, China accounted for 79 per cent of Australia's wool exports by volume and 77 per cent by value.

Are there any signs of a recovery in economic conditions as parts of the world resume some form of normality from the COVID-19 pandemic?

One gauge of economic conditions is the Composite Leading Indicators (CLI) from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

These indicators are designed to provide early signals of turning points in business cycles - and wool prices have, to some extent at least, followed the trends in the CLI.

The good news is that the latest data for the CLI suggests economic activity has rebounded strongly in China, and there has been a rebound in the major advanced economies - albeit more modest than for China.

Both sets of leading indicators plummeted earlier this year as COVID-19 hit.

The drop was particularly marked in China, which imposed a stringent lockdown, and milder across the advanced economies due to lesser forms of lockdown.

The CLI has bounced back, particularly for China, and this provides some encouragement that these better economic conditions will help support retail demand and - in time - raw wool prices.

The collapse in Australian wool prices during the past six months is a massive change in sentiment and conditions after the long 'supercycle' price rise from mid-2016 - with the peak at all-time highs in August 2018.

Even then, prices fell from the peak only slowly - and remained at historically high levels for another 12 months.

With all the negative news from around the world about the impact of COVID-19, particularly on economic growth and consumer sentiment, it is easy to think that the decline and low wool prices will be here forever.

This is the opposite of the feeling when prices were rising, and then at the peaks for such a prolonged period.

Both impressions are misplaced.

The decline will come to an end and wool prices will rise again, as the glimmers of positive news being seen now grow stronger and more sustained.

In other industry news, the National Council of Wool Selling Brokers has a new president in Rowan Woods, of Jemalong Wool. Its new vice president is Stephen Keys, of Nutrien.

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