While much of the market’s attention is focused on the sharp drop in 2007 U.S. cotton acreage and a widely expected decline in 2008, we must not forget there is another side of the equation that determines prices. Ultimately, one can argue that demand is the more important side of the equation. There must be a demand for cotton. Otherwise, there would be no need to plant and produce the fiber. Stronger or weaker demand will send price signals to producers and induce either more or less production. That’s simple marketplace economics at work.
Accurately gauging cotton demand, however, is easier said than done. There are a number of uncertainties that come into play at different levels of the market. Without fully examining all of the links of the chain, we can look at the textile mills which buy the raw fiber to process into yarn and the consumer who buys the finished product at local department stores. At the risk of getting too far into the weeds, it is important to look at recent demand trends and explore what the future may hold.
The encouraging news is that global demand for cotton is growing. For the three marketing years between August 1, 2004, and July 31, 2007, world mill demand grew at an average annual pace of 7.6% – the strongest growth for any 3-year period in the last 50 years. That translates into an additional 25 million bales of mill demand. However, the recent growth also has been accompanied by greater concentration. Bear in mind that mill demand for 131 countries is reported by USDA, but appreciable growth over the three-year period was limited to fewer than 20 countries. Significantly, the “Big Three” of China, India and Pakistan now account for two-thirds of total mill use. An unfortunate aspect of the relocation in mill demand is the continuing pressure on the U.S. textile industry. The United States now accounts for less than 5% of global mill demand.
However, textile mills’ demand is just one step towards supplying the type of products that consumers are willing to purchase. Cotton demand has a much different look at the consumer level with U.S. retail purchases leading the way. At 37 pounds-per-person, U.S. consumers are purchasing the equivalent of one of every five cotton textile and apparel products produced in the world. The U.S. accounts for less than 5% of world population but 20% of cotton retail demand. The challenge is to foster that type of demand in other countries, such as China and India, where the average consumer annually buys between 5 and 8 pounds of cotton products. Admittedly, their income levels prohibit them from approaching U.S. consumers’ level, but each additional pound of consumption across the combined population of the two countries results in another 5 million bales in demand. One question that is worth trying to find an answer to: Why the average consumer in Western Europe, who has income levels similar to the U.S. consumer, buys only half that of U.S. consumers?
One of the big questions facing the U.S. cotton industry is whether or not these trends will continue. There are some trends we would like continued and others changed. The recent growth in excess of 7% is a positive, but will it continue in the face of stronger cotton prices? As cotton prices increase relative to yarn values and polyester prices, one could expect these growth rates to slow. However, as long as global economies expand and incomes increase, demand should continue to move higher. The U.S. cotton industry’s challenge is to encourage that same level of demand growth in the 95% of the world’s population not in the U.S.
Gary Adams, National Cotton Council