Palm oil bulls will likely hold sway into early 2022 as a chronic worker shortage in No. 2 grower Malaysia and unusually heavy rains in key growing areas disrupt production of the world’s most-consumed edible oil.

That could keep prices elevated after a record year in 2021 when benchmark futures rocketed to an all-time closing high of 5,071 ringgit ($1,213) a ton.

Although Malaysia is trying to expedite the arrival of much-needed foreign workers for its plantations, the spread of omicron may scupper those plans, constrain harvesting and keep supplies tight.

In the first quarter, there may be attempts to reach new highs around 5,200 ringgit and beyond, as supply tightness persists at a time of low seasonal production and festive demand for Lunar New Year, said Gnanasekar Thiagarajan, head of trading and hedging strategies at Kaleesuwari Intercontinental in Mumbai. “But in subsequent quarters, prices will be pressured by good supplies and could decline to 3,975 ringgit or even lower.”

Here are key things to watch in 2022:

Labor squeeze

The production shortfall in Malaysia, which pushed palm to the forefront of the rally in global edible oils this year, could linger into early 2022, as planters may not receive new workers before mid-year. That would further restrain output and potentially drive up benchmark futures in January and February, according to Sathia Varqa, owner of Palm Oil Analytics in Singapore.

“If promises are kept, we should see boots on the ground in May-June,” Varqa said, which would push up production significantly. Output may climb 6% to 19.2 million tons next year if workers return, he said.

Still, that forecast hinges on omicron. A further spread of the new COVID-19 variant could see renewed lockdowns and travel restrictions, preventing new workers from reaching the plantations.

In top grower Indonesia, production patterns will likely return to normal next year, with first quarter yields the lowest, according to Togar Sitanggang, vice chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Association known as Gapki. He forecasts an increase of around 3% in full-year output to 48 million tons.

La Nina

The spotlight is currently on La Nina, a weather pattern that causes drier weather in the crop-growing areas of South America while bringing heavier rainfall to palm oil regions of Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as to Australia.

Agriculture investors are on their toes as La Nina threatens to roil global food markets in the coming months. It’s already scorching parts of Brazil and Argentina, major producers of palm’s rival oilseed, soybeans.

A worker loads palm oil fruit at an oil palm plantation in Slim River, Malaysia on August 12. | REUTERS
A worker loads palm oil fruit at an oil palm plantation in Slim River, Malaysia on August 12. | REUTERS

In Malaysia, continuous rain submerged several parts of Pahang and Selangor this month, disrupting harvesting and logistics on palm oil estates, and shutting operations at Port Klang, Southeast Asia’s second-biggest port for several days. The Malaysian meteorological department is forecasting a monsoon surge, which could trigger more rain through Jan. 2.

Fertilizer costs

It’s not just a lack of workers that’s holding back production. Surging prices of fertilizers will force planters, especially smallholders, to cut application of the nutrient to oil palms and potentially derail the anticipated recovery in yields.

“Palm oil’s cost of production based on current fertilizer prices is estimated to be 15% to 20% higher in 2022 from a year ago,” said UOB Kay Hian director of Asean Plantation Research Leow Huey Chuen. “High crude palm oil prices may compensate the high cost, but getting fertilizers delivered on time is another challenge.”

Demand uncertainty

Sky-high prices of palm oil could push up food inflation and erode demand from top buyers such as India and China. With palm getting more expensive, its discount to rival oils will be closely watched by price-sensitive buyers who may switch to other vegetable oils.

“With prices having ruled above $1,200 in physical markets for the large part of 2021, buyers seemed to have gotten used to high prices,” Thiagarajan said. “But anything higher than $1,300 could postpone buying in palm and compel them to look at alternatives like soy and sunflower oil.”

Another thing to watch is whether consuming nations, including China and India, will do more to curb excessive price swings or speculation, said Paramalingam Supramaniam, director at broker Pelindung Bestari in Selangor.

Biodiesel and sustainability

Indonesia’s biodiesel mandate will remain an important driver of palm oil prices. The top producer will meet its biodiesel consumption target of 9.4 million kiloliters this year, the Indonesia Oil Palm Plantations Fund Management Agency said Tuesday, as funds from export levies are channeled toward subsidizing biodiesel. The goal for 2022 is 10.15 million kiloliters.

But aggressive palm oil campaigns and a push for deforestation-free products in the European Union will likely curb any growth in demand from the bloc, according to UOB Kay Hian’s Leow. The EU is capping the amount of palm oil directly used as biofuel feedstock at 2019 levels — estimated at around 2 million tons — before phasing it out by 2030.

Meanwhile, increased scrutiny on sustainable finance and on environmental, social and governance criteria will keep palm oil companies and consumer-goods manufacturers vigilant.

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