After Painful Slide, Commodities Languish

Aggressive de-leveraging and hedge fund liquidation may have sunk the global commodity market the first time around. But it’s the stagnant global economy that is conspiring to keep it underwater.
When the Reuters/Jefferies CRB Commodity Price Index rebounded 2.3 per cent yesterday, it was a welcome respite in a relentless rout that had knocked the commodity market to its lowest levels in nearly seven years. The bounce ended seven consecutive days of declines for the CRB index, during which time the benchmark had lost 11 per cent, relinquishing whatever modest gains it had mustered from its previous lows of early December.
Analysts say that while they don’t see much more room for most commodities to fall, the latest selloff is a signal that a second wave of worries has overtaken the commodity market. While the credit market crisis and hedge fund redemptions triggered the rapid exodus from commodities over the fall, now the deepening slowdown in physical demand for these products is entrenching the low- price environment.
“[Hedge fund liquidation] is becoming less and less of a factor. But the macro [economic] situation is just killing us,” said Edward Meir, commodity analyst at MF Global in Darien, Conn.
With most economists now seeing the economic slowdown lasting considerably longer than had been anticipated a few months ago, experts generally expect prices for many key commodities to drift sideways for much of this year. They said that while the low prices for some products will discourage production, that will be outweighed by the severe and lingering dearth in demand.
“In the near term, I don’t see a big break in the recent trend,” said Derek Burleton, senior economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank. “Commodity markets are going to remain very focused on the demand side.”
“A more meaningful recovery in commodities may have to wait until 2011.”
Within that dim general view, there are varying degrees of pessimism and hope for the key commodities in the Canadian market:
OIL
The weak demand and high inventories for crude should keep prices in their recent range of roughly $35 (U.S.) to $50 a barrel for much of 2009. However, analysts say oil should get support from the fact that at current price levels, new supplies will slow to a trickle.
“When you’re down at these kinds of [price] levels, the only part of the world where you can bring on new projects is the Middle East,” said Patricia Mohr, commodity market specialist at Bank of Nova Scotia, who predicts that global oil production will actually fall this year.
As a result of this supply slowdown, she said, “once we see some glimmer of hope on the global economy, you’ll see prices come back quite quickly.”
Analysts are looking for prices to average $75 to $80 a barrel in 2010.
GOLD
Gold has bucked the downward trend in commodities, as investors have flocked to it as a safe haven from plunging financial markets and economic and political uncertainties.
While the continued high-risk environment could well keep upward pressure on prices in the short term, and soaring U.S. government debt levels could turn investors away from U.S.-dollar debt and toward gold in the longer term, analysts are concerned that gold’s recent rally may be getting overdone, with gold approaching last year’s record peaks above $1,000 an ounce.
“But the main point is that gold seems to be able to maintain its value,” Ms. Mohr said, which should continue to attract investors to bullion-based exchange-trade funds and to gold equities.
COPPER
Copper is stuck in no-man‘s land.
The price is depressed as a result of sluggish demand, but it’s still high enough to keep most producers profitable, meaning little pressure to slow production.
“The big declines are probably behind us,” Mr. Meir said. However, he said, prices in 2009 “are going to be in a sideways pattern.”
However, Ms. Mohr said copper should benefit from government stimulus efforts aimed at expanding electricity infrastructure, particularly in China.
ALUMINUM
Unlike copper, analysts said aluminum prices have fallen considerably below most producers’ cash costs, which is triggering production cuts and killing new mining projects in their tracks.
“In aluminum, everyone is in the red. Everyone is struggling,” Mr. Meir said.
That suggests that even a modest recovery in demand could put upward pressure on what could become a very tight market on the supply side. Analysts said the situation isn’t that different in other base metals, such as zinc and nickel.
“I think all of them are oversold,” said Bart Melek, global commodity strategist at BMO Nesbitt Burns.
CANOLA
Ms. Mohr believes canola is poised to be a strong performer this year.
It’s an attractive product for Canadian farmers because of its traditionally strong profit margins, and could benefit from the threat of drought in some of China’s key canola-growing regions. She said China has already been stockpiling canola in the past months.
TD’s Mr. Burleton thinks agricultural commodities in general look promising. He added that drought worries in several parts of the world could also bode well for grain prices.

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