Palm oil expansion looks less promising in the long run as stricter regulations are slowing down growth of new oil palm cultivation thus, lowering yield of fresh fruit bunches (FFB) and pushing up costs.
Kenanga Research in a recent note cautioned that palm oil production could be put on hold for three to five years for the industry to replenish older palms with younger saplings.
“Longer term, the growth for palm oil looks less rosy. Expansion in the form of new oil palm planting is slowing due to tighter regulations,” the research house said.
It noted that Indonesia, which has 15 million ha area of oil palm trees has only three to four million ha left for the crop, while Malaysian oil palm area has been contracting even before reaching a voluntary cap of 6.5 million ha.
“This implies fewer young and prime palms over the coming years while palms planted in the 1990s and 2000s are growing older and taller, slowing down harvest, lowering FFB yield and pushing up costs…Replanting will eventually be necessary leading to a production pause for three to five years,” it said.
On another note, the research house believes that the recovery of edible oil supply in 2023 is underway but could be less robust than is expected.
“Fragile supply recovery for 2023 may now extend into 2024 on a subdued inventory outlook following smaller-than-expected soyabean surplus in South America,” it stated.
Kenanga Research said although a record outlook for a Brazilian soyabean harvest is likely but so is for a very poor Argentinean harvest.
It noted that while Brazil is the top producer of edible oil, Argentina is actually more important for international trade, often ranking as the third or fourth largest edible oil exporter in the world after Indonesia, Malaysia and at times, Russia.
Thankfully, it thinks that the supply of palm oil should also increase, which is good news for the market for edible oils.
“Fortunately, palm oil supply should recover in 2023 with crude palm oil (CPO) prices likely to stay relatively firm over 2023 and into 2024 unless palm, soy or rapeseed harvests prove exceptionally good later in 2023,” it said.
Kenanga Research said it is keeping its 2023 CPO price forecast at RM3,800 per metric ton (MT) intact but is revising up its 2024 CPO price forecast from RM3,500 to RM3,800 per MT. It believes that a higher palm oil production of 3%-5% in 2023 should ease oil supply, even if on a limited scale.
“Nevertheless, easing labor shortfall in Malaysia should help nudge FFB up by one to two million MT year-on-year,” it said.
However, it said even as supply recovers, demand is also expected to recover, potentially at a faster pace due several factors namely, palm oil being an essential food and fuel for markets in emerging economies such as China, India and Indonesia; palm oil being more affordable than many other alternatives and increasing demand for biofuel.
Kenanga Research said Asia Pacific is the world’s biggest market for edible oil with China, the world’s No 1 market, is already consuming almost as much as the European Union (EU) and the US combined while India should surpass the US soon with Indonesia close behind.
It added that demand from the region is also expected to get higher on demographic growth and rising affluence.
“Among the most widely used edible oil in the region is palm oil,” it said.
Kenanga Research pointed out that before palm oil overtook soybean oil to become the leading edible oil by volume around the turn of this century, it used to enjoy premium prices.
Currently, it said palm oil commands around 35% of the market share and half of all edible oil traded internationally since it is often more affordable than many other alternatives.
On biofuel, the research house said much like the EU, Indonesia’s biofuel policy aims to improve energy security and preserve the environment but also to support the rural economy.
Today, it noted that the US and Indonesia are near equal as the second and third biggest biofuel users after the EU.
Biofuels such as bioethanol are derived from sugar/starch-rich crops (sugarcane or corn) while biodiesel is from edible oils.
“The main palm-based biodiesel market is Indonesia which just raised its B30 blend to B35 in February this year. Brazil also recently raised its soy-based biodiesel B10 blend to B12 last week with B15 as the target by 2026,” it said.
Valuation-wise, Kenanaga Research said the plantation sector is currently trading close to book value which, it said, is often understated as many players hold estates which are worth more than their reported value.
“Gearing is not excessive either with some holding net cash. Although costs have risen resulting in tighter margins, they are still decent overall and palm oil is also an essential consumable (as food and fuel), popular with emerging economies,” said the research house.
However, it pointed out that there is no strong upside catalyst even though the sector is highly defensive and ratings are far from demanding.
“Sector consolidation is a possible upside but best evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” it said.
Kenanga Research maintains its ‘Neutral’ call on the plantation sector with Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd as its sector pick given its track record, efficient upstream operations and strong regional presence. It also has an ‘Outperform’ call on PPB Group Bhd, TSH Resources Bhd and Hap Seng Plantations Holdings Bhd.