* Russia to launch formula-based grain export tax on June 2
* Mechanism may put forward sales of wheat at risk
MOSCOW, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Russia's plan to control food inflation by curbing grain exports is following a potentially damaging path trod by rival producer Argentina, threatening valuable sales to major customers such as Egypt, traders and analysts said.
With global food prices at their highest in more than 6 years as economies battle fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, some governments have already taken action to tackle surging domestic prices.
Such moves reduce supplies for international markets, and the consequence is already evident with grain prices hitting multi-year highs.
Russia, the major wheat exporter, will begin taxing exports from Feb. 15, initially by applying a fixed tariff before switching to a formula-based system from June 2, which may make it difficult for traders to secure forward sales.
"The introduction of a new permanent grain export tax will mean that Russia has taken a sharp turn towards Argentina, a country which for many years has restricted agricultural exports under the slogan of protecting domestic consumers," Andrey Sizov at Sovecon agriculture consultancy said.
Argentina, the world's number three corn exporter and top supplier of soymeal, has repeatedly imposed export restrictions after booming shipments of soy and grains pushed up local prices.
The South American country has been in recession since 2018 and had inflation of 36.1% in 2020.
"The Russian government is serious about reducing wheat and other grain exports to reduce domestic prices," one trader said, noting the potential benefits of keeping retail prices low must be weighed against the economic damage to its exports.
"Argentina has taken this course many times but then suffered the economic damage of lost exports," he added.
The formula used to calculate the tax will also make it difficult to determine when traders are seeking to secure sales where shipment may not take place for several weeks.
This prevents traders from being able to calculate the price at which they can make a profitable sale, covering both the price they pay to the farmer and the export tax.
"It will stop forward sales," another trader said.
Egypt, the second largest buyer of Russian wheat after Turkey, purchases via state GASC tenders with supply happening at a later date.
"As of today this mechanism is set up in such a way that when you sign a forward contract or when you win at a GASC tender, you do not know how much tax you will have to pay when you physically ship the grain," Dmitry Rylko at IKAR consultancy said.
"And an exporter either discounts a farmer, or plays Russian roulette," he added.
He hopes that the authorities and market players will find "a reasonable compromise" by the time the system is launched. (Reporting by Polina Devitt, Michael Hogan and Gus Trompiz; editing by Kirsten Donovan)