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China is Importing This (Surprising) Commodity at Record Levels

Who said Chinese commodity demand was dead?

Through the first three months of 2016 China imported 75.2 million gallons of ethanol from the United States.  That is more ethanol than the 70.5 million gallons China imported from the US for all of 2015!  Ethanol is used around the world as a gasoline additive to increase octane levels cheaply.

Here’s the story–and  it could be a Big One–along with the trade to go with it.

Prior to 2015 China was basically importing no American ethanol–3.3 million gallons in 2014.

Total US ethanol exports were 95.3 million gallons for the month of March, up 42% from February and the highest monthly volume in more than four years.

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For the month the biggest importers of that US ethanol were:

  • China 37 million gallons
  • Brazil 20.7 million gallons
  • Canada 16.2 million gallons

It is hard to get clarity as to whether the increase in Chinese demand over the past two years is a short-term surge or part of a longer term trend.

China is the world’s third largest producer of ethanol after the United States and Brazil.  The trouble that local producers have is that they rely on expensive domestic corn as their primary feedstock.

That can make U.S. and Brazilian ethanol a cheaper alternative if the cost of corn in China gets too high.

The Chinese Government over the past few months has bought up most of the domestic corn crop at high prices to support farmers.  The Government then resells it locally at higher prices than are available globally.

That has made it hard for Chinese ethanol producers to turn a profit.

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Fuel ethanol accounts for roughly one-third of all ethanol produced in China and more than half of the country’s consumption of industrial-grade ethanol.

Given that Chinese per-capita vehicle ownership is just a fraction of what we have here in North America ethanol demand for fuel could eventually overwhelm domestic supply of ethanol.  The surge in popularity of SUVs amongst Chinese vehicle buyers is also a demand positive.

This is good long term news for American ethanol producers.

Another long term plus could be the environmental movement which is picking up momentum in China.  The Government has pledged to reduce carbon emissions and there are ethanol blend mandates in place in six Chinese provinces (Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, Anhui, Henan and Guangxi).

Those blend rates of 8-12% have room to increase given that Brazil has ethanol blend mandates of 27%.

So while China is doing good things for American ethanol producers in 2016, it could do even better things going forward.  There are no guarantees though, especially given how committed the Chinese Government is to the electric car as being the solution.

The large Chinese exports have caused a (very positive) domino effect in the US ethanol market.  Consider this:
1) As a result, inventories are dropping and profit margins are now good and seasonally get stronger through the end of Q3 from here
2) RIN prices are strong.

Here’s what ethanol inventories are doing–the orange line in the chart below shows ethanol inventories coming down from all time highs into the 5 year band…still not great but showing the right direction: down.

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Now with RINs….ethanol that gets exported does not get a RIN attached to it.  What’s a RIN you ask? Only one of the most arcane and befuddling economic inventions known to man.  The US government mandates that every single gallon of ethanol used in the US has a Renewable Identification Number attached to it, and the refiners have to keep track of them to prove they are using 10% ethanol–which they are required to do by law.  (I don’t make or judge the rules, I just try to profit from them…)

Monthly gross generation through Q1 2016 has averaged 1.224 billion RINs, suggesting total generation for the year will reach just over 14.7 billion RINs. This exceeds the 14.5 billion gallon portion of the overall RFS mandate (Renewa le Fuel Standard) which can be met using ethanol or ‘D6′ RINs.

However, ethanol exports through the first quarter have averaged nearly 50 million gallons per month, on pace to reach nearly 600 million gallons for the year.  Accounting for projected exports (and non-compliance RIN retirements) suggests net generation of 14.1 billion D6 RINs in 2016, or 400 million RINs shy of the 2016 mandate.  RIN prices are up about 10%, or 7 cents a gallon, in the last 6 weeks. (This is bearish for independent refiners, BTW.)

This is further positive news for an ethanol market that is looking increasingly healthy every day – the research I’ve seen suggests that $52 WTI is necessary to support $.25 ethanol production margins, but note that margins are currently $.32 per gallon across the Midwest – a very positive development for US listed pure play ethanol stocks like REX-NYSE, PEIX-NASD and GPRE-NASD! 

The way to invest in this trade is to (obviously) buy the pure play ethanol producers.

Now, I’m going to paint a somewhat positive picture here, but readers should remember–this trade will go where oil goes.  If oil drops $5/b from here, the trade I’m about to tell you will go lower.  AND…as I’ll explain the Street would have to give the stock a higher multiple than 5…on my optimistic economics…to go a lot higher.  Hence I’ve only bought 5000 shares for now.

Ethanol producers are refiners; oil refiners have a crack spread (the price difference between the crude oil and the gasoline it produces; expressed in dollars per gallon) and ethanol producers have a crush spread (the difference between corn costs and ethanol sales).  The crush spread is the profit per gallon.

The two charts immediately below show, respectively, the Midwest crush spread and the West Coast crush spread:

Midwest Crush spread below

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West Coast crush spread below:

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As  you can see, Midwest margins have improved considerably.  And between a juicy increase in gasoline consumption and an even better jump in ethanol exports, I think these margins are here to stay for a couple quarters.

Here’s a chart of the seasonality of ethanol profitability:

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(The impact on GPRE’s earnings will still be positive, but less certain due to their reliance on ethanol futures rather than spot prices.)

Of those three ethanol stocks, Pacific Ethanol is my favourite.  (Quick background for new readers–PEIX was The Biggest OGIB Win Ever, in 2014, as I bought it at $3 and nine months later sold the last of it at $23.  The original report on PEIX and competitor Green Plains (GPRE-NASD) are in the subscriber Members Centre and worth reading ;-).)

PEIX was originally a west coast producer, but after it bought Aventine last year it now has 45% of 515 million gallons of its production capacity in the Midwest.

PEIX is a highly levered company, in a couple senses of the word.  There is only 43.2 million shares out for 515 million gallons of annual production.  Low share count=leverage. A $0.20 increase in ethanol production margins from Q1 to Q2–which has now happened–on 120 million (likely) gallons of production would make for a Q2 EBITDA of ~$24 million – a meaningful amount for a company with a $410 million Enterprise Value (on the day I bought the stock two weeks ago at $4.95).

Consensus EBITDA estimates for the year is $58.29 million. If the oil price stays steady here, that will go up for sure–there is a chance they could do close to that in Q2 and Q3 combined.  Be aware that a 5x EBITDA on $80 million EBITDA puts the stock at $5.  The Street would have to give the stock a higher multiple for this trade to give me the 50% I like to see in all my trades.

Leverage can also be debt.  At the end of Q1, PEIX only had $19 million cash and had $210 million debt, after paying down $17 million in debt to make its western plants debt free.  They are trying to re-finance that debt, and analysts estimate they could shave 300 bps on their interest.  One analyst noted they could sell one of their Midwest plants and be debt free.  Just over $140 million of that $210 million is term debt due the end of September 2017, though it is due at the Aventine plant level, not the corporate level.

One of the issues for me is that management hasn’t given much clarity around the midwest Aventine acquisition assets; they remain a bit of a black box and are a small wild card in quarterly reports.  They had no money spent on them for 3-4 years before PEIX bought them.

Now, IF PEIX can generate $50-$60 million in EBITDA they can use to pay down debt in the next two quarters, I can see the Street re-rating the stock higher. Also, I would think the Aventine shareholders who wanted to leave PEIX have now had the chance to do so; the merger completed July 1 2015 and all the stock has been free trading for a long time.

Add an activist shareholder (Candlewood) with a 25.8% stake who has said they want asset sales or some kind of restructuring to unlock shareholder value–and maybe the Market gets excited.

I hope I have laid out the positives and negatives of this trade.  In my corner I’ve got strong gasoline demand domestically and big China export demand.  Seasonality should favour me as well.  In the other corner is lower oil prices, less discipline by ethanol producers and new licenses for more ethanol plants in the US.

One other positive is the stock chart–it has just broken out.

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I got very lucky with the timing of the trade–the stock jumped $1/share the next day.  But if China keeps up its strong imports of US ethanol–which could have a big impact on air quality in the cities that use it–ethanol could become a Big Trade again.

EDITORS NOTEThe oil price appears ready for take-off.  I just told subscribers what the #1 Alpha Trade is for oil right now.  Get that symbol, along with The Lowest Cost Producer in the West–The Company that BEAT OPEC–to be positioned to profit BIG.  CLICK HERE

Keith Schaefer



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