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Italy to launch durum wheat futures contract

Reuters / Borsa Italiana is set to launch Europe’s first futures market for durum wheat in November to cater to demand from the continent’s Italian-led pasta makers, but building sufficient trading volumes will be a challenge, traders say.

Grain futures generally take a long time to attract a large trading base, and the minimal volumes seen since the launch of durum futures in Canada at the start of the year have highlighted the difficulties in the niche grain market.

Milan’s exchange and pasta maker Barilla, which advised the exchange on the launch of the futures market, said the financial tool may be more effective in Italy, the world’s largest producer and per capita consumer of pasta made from durum.

“The Mediterranean is an area of consumption of durum wheat, and it makes more sense to have a market with physical delivery where the grain is consumed,” said Ennio Arlandi, who is responsible for commodities at Borsa Italiana.

The new AGREX futures are due to launch around Nov. 19 on the Italian Derivatives Exchange Market (IDEM) and will trade in 50-tonne contracts, with five maturities available at any one time. The delivery months will be March, May, September and December.

Trading hours will run from 14:30 to 17:40 local time (13:30 to 16:40 GMT).

Emilio Ferrari, a purchasing director at Barilla, said the market could take off if enough operators became involved.

“The more sophisticated operators, such as large French co-operatives, big Italian mills, pasta makers, are interested, but it’s maybe a too modern instrument for smaller, less evolved companies,” he said.

He said futures could be useful for Barilla and other big durum wheat buyers to cope with volatile grain prices.

“It helps to set a price far in advance. It helps us as buyers to explain our budget, and it’s also an advantage for the farmer, who can set the price and doesn’t face the risk of markets changing rapidly.”

For now, just one delivery point is set in the area around Foggia in southern Italy, but others may be added in future, Borsa Italiana’s Arlandi said.

He declined to give any details on possible volume targets over time, but traders were skeptical as to how successful the futures market would be.

Trading barriers

“It’s not going to be easy but we have to give it a try,” said one European grains trader whose firm is set to be one of the market-makers for the new durum futures.

“More than the quality specifications of the contract, what is going to be a barrier is the delivery point in Italy. Even though delivery is not an end in itself when using a futures market, psychologically it will be a barrier.”

A French grains trader said the design of the market could limit volumes.

“It is designed for the Italian semolina makers, in other words for a consumer market, with little scope for trading,” he said.

“The semolina makers buy their grain once to run their plants, they don’t buy twice, so this is going to limit volume.”

Semolina is the product derived from milling durum wheat that is used to make pasta as well as cereals and puddings.

Justin Daniels, director of commodity risk management at CWB (formerly the Canadian Wheat Board), said that if the Italian futures market survived for a couple of years, then it could become significant.

On Canada’s market, open interest was just 46 contracts as of Oct. 24 and has never been higher than 72. The futures contracts have not traded in a month.

The Winnipeg exchange launched its durum wheat futures market in January alongside new milling wheat and barley contracts to cash in on the liberalization of Western Canada’s grains market.

Operators said the Milan futures would not be in direct competition with Winnipeg, since they were tied to distinct production zones and applied very different specifications, with the Canadian futures based on higher-quality grain.

“The one in Winnipeg is definitely going to be focused on North American production, and the one in Milan will be focused on European demand. There will be some arbitrage opportunities between them, but it’s not going to be like one is cannibalizing the other,” Daniels said.

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