Tension from coffee prices in Vietnam could worsen

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Ironically, Nguyen Tan Dinh was enjoying a coffee with friends early one Monday in March when he heard the unwelcome news that Phan Thi Kim Hoa was claiming to be bankrupt.

Hoa had played a crucial role for more than 20 years in tiny Ea Kenh commune in Vietnam's Central Highlands coffee belt, linking farmers like Dinh with the global coffee market.

One of hundreds of buying agents in the world's second-biggest coffee exporting country, Hoa took bean deposits from farmers and brokered deals with bigger middlemen or exporters.

For years, when coffee prices were rising, the calculus was straightforward: buy low, sell high later. But over the past two years, the price of coffee has fallen by nearly half.

During the fourth quarter of 2009 and the first quarter of this year, coffee prices in London fell so sharply that local prices, usually quoted at a discount, dropped slower than the benchmark, catching the industry in Vietnam flat-footed.

Traders say exporter delays or defaults have been widespread. Some put the volume of affected beans at 200,000 tons.

Reports are emerging that middlemen like Hoa are increasingly being caught out, too, having to pay farmers at higher prices than anticipated, or than where they sold up the supply chain.

Prices are now rising, which is causing farmers who track London's market closely via SMS and the Internet to seek payments for bean deposits, piling more pressure on the buying agents.

And banks that were already under pressure from the state to cut credit growth this year to help check inflation are making fewer loans in this precarious environment, traders say.

Industry experts say more defaults or delays may be in store, and some fear that a government stockpiling scheme to try to boost prices may be ineffectual or even cause problems.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," said one industry insider who has watched Vietnam's coffee business expand over more than two decades.

Crowded industry

Seventy-five families in Ea Kenh commune, which has a population of 13,327 people and a per capita annual income of VND10.2 million (US$536.80), did business with Hoa, according to the local government chairman.

With an expression that was half smile, half grimace, Dinh said his life savings were on Hoa's books.

"We deposited 15 tons of robusta beans and VND50 million in cash," he said. In the end: "She didn't give specifics. She only said that she had lost the ability to pay."

That Monday morning in early March, around the time world prices were scraping the bottom at $1,212 per ton, Dinh left his friends at the coffee shop and hurried home to tell his wife the bad news. Then he headed for Hoa's house.

Bankruptcies are not new, industry experts say. But this year there appear to be many more than usual.

"The whole problem in Vietnam for many years has been there are too many companies involved in this business and it has never left the Vietnamese companies with much of a chance to make money," said one coffee trader for a foreign firm based in Vietnam who declined to be identified.

Coffee has been cultivated in Vietnam for nearly 150 years, and the industry boomed in the 1980s and 1990s. There are now some 150 exporters near the top of the food chain.

Margins have narrowed, and some firms have exacerbated the problem by piggybacking on the government's support for the coffee industry to trade beans at zero gain just to have access to the dollars exports bring in. They then use the dollars to import more lucrative products, one trader said.

Vietnam's capital account is not open and dollars are not readily available at banks.

The government is launching a scheme this month for the country's biggest exporters to stockpile 200,000 tons of coffee, or about a fifth of the crop, to boost prices.

But with Indonesia's crop due to hit the market soon, it remains to be seen if there will be a measurable effect. A second trader with a major foreign commodities company in Vietnam said the scheme could even lead to more defaults because it will get priority treatment.

"Maybe they might start delaying coffee that they sold to others at a cheaper price," he said.

Some analysts say that as much as 80 percent of the 2009/2010 crop, estimated at about 18 million 60-kg bags, has already shipped.

Taking everything

The global coffee market is expected to have a surplus of robusta this year, and Vietnam's troubles may have little impact.

"The industry as a whole is not that badly off," said Kona Haque, commodities strategist at Macquarie Bank in London.

"From an historical point of view prices are not that low. They are not close to the costs of production, so they are still making money. It's not a situation where prices are so low that they won't plant next year."

Some smaller, riskier businesses could fold this year in Vietnam, but given the seasonal cycle of the industry some may hold on until the next cycle begins in the autumn.

"I think this situation will reset at latest when the next crop comes to market," said Stefan Uhlenbrock with F.O.Licht in Germany.

But places like Ea Kenh in Daklak Province underscore how the risks in the industry can go beyond wavy lines on a price chart.

When Dinh reached Hoa's house that first day, hundreds of people had gathered to demand payment, but she had managed to slip away and police convinced the angry crowd to leave.

Two days later, though, the authorities were powerless to stop the mob from ransacking her single storey, tin roofed home.

"They took everything they could," said Dinh, who suspects Hoa moved the beans and invested the money secretly in property.

A few weeks later, police showed visitors what was left.

The door, the front gate, the lights and switches, the windows, even the kitchen sink: gone. Stray coffee beans and burlap sacks lay on the floor of the warehouse.

Hoa eventually surfaced, and in a one-page handwritten letter with a six-page annex she listed who, and how much, she owed. She also paid up more than VND300 million, but it was a fraction of what she owed, locals said.

"For us farmers, when something is spilled, anything that can be retrieved will do," Dinh said as he stood up to show visitors out of his home. "We'd be happy to get half of what she owes."

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