FATE OF WHEAT FUTURES HANGS IN THE BALANCE

FATE OF WHEAT FUTURES HANGS IN THE BALANCE

Government action on the export bonus program, technical trends and financial considerations of major fund managers could dictate the near-term fate of wheat futures.

Analysts did not desert the bullish wheat bandwagon after Tuesday's limit- down move, and declines of less proportion early Wednesday. But several said further losses were possible before the markets climb again.Of prime importance in the next few days will be how fund managers perceive their equity in wheat: at what price they established long positions and how deep their pockets are.

Analysts agreed that the wheat market had been suffering lately from the ''bellhop" syndrome - the theory that once everyone, including bellhops and taxi drivers, are talking about a market, it probably is nearing a peak.

The wheat outlook, or more general issues regarding U.S. help for the Commonwealth of Independent States, has been front-page news here this week. There was talk Tuesday a television station in Texas was touting the potential for $10.00-a-bushel wheat.

One commission house trader said, "I've had calls about buying wheat

from some of my customers in Brazil, who had never even thought about trading wheat." Another said his phones were "lit up like Christmas trees" by small investors looking to join the party.

New-crop July wheat futures at the Chicago Board of Trade staged a technical key reversal Tuesday, and that has many market observers unnerved.

The July contract made a high of $4.29 1/2 early Tuesday before heading south to close at $4.04 1/2 a bushel, down 20 cents.

"The most negative thing is this key reversal," said Sue Leighty, analyst with Prudential Securities Inc. in New York. "Obviously it's a very worrisome development." Tuesday's slump followed seven consecutive higher closes in July, during which time prices rallied to 39 1/4 cents. It was the first significant setback since the short-lived hard-line coup in the then U.S.S.R. in mid-August.

One commercial trader said a further 20-cent to 40-cent drop in wheat would be possible without a problem, but said the basic upward trend remained intact.

The next big support area for March wheat is $4.20, said Rich Feltes, research director at Refco Inc.

"I can't believe that the wheat (bull) market is over with," Ms. Leighty said. "There are some bullish things to rise out of the ton of bricks that fell on Tuesday."

Mr. Feltes agreed it was too early to conclude that the highs already were in for wheat, which has climbed to the highest levels in more than a decade.

"The jury is still out on the crop," he said. "We haven't even started to trade on the weather."

But he said unnerving developments Tuesday were rumblings from Washington that the U.S. Department of Agriculture export enhancement program for wheat could be under review.

Pressure is rising from the U.S. milling and baking industry and others to reign in export subsidies in a year when the United States is facing stocks at an 18-year low.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan said Tuesday he did not foresee changes to the bonus program after a meeting Monday with President Bush at which the criteria for export bonus targetings were discussed. Some analysts remain skeptical.

"I think something changed . . . in Washington," Mr. Feltes said, "and that they will take a more measured approach to the export market."