Lately, the commodities market has been a graveyard for investors, with prices at multiyear lows and no sign of any positive catalysts to turn things around. The global economic slowdown has affected goods such as steel, aluminum, copper and other commodities, and the lower demand from China is only serving to keep materials prices low for an extended period of time.
The 15-year commodity super cycle culminated in a burst bubble around 2008, and has experienced a trend of depressed prices and falling demand since then. With China’s market implosion, commodities took another hit as demand fell off a cliff, with the expectation being that many commodities won’t recover for years as the world adjusts to a new paradigm without heavy Chinese demand.
If we look back at the commodities cycle from 2002 to 2012, we see a high correlation between the cycle and falling demand in the Chinese markets. During that decade, China experienced high average yearly GDP growth of 10.6% and became the world’s leader of commodity imports, which helped drive up prices and boost production.
If we look at the overall performance of commodities lately by tracking the S&P GSCI Commodity Index (GTX), we see how China’s decline largely is responsible for the collapse in the commodities market.
Of course, not all commodities behave similarly. Oil, steel, copper, gold and silver generally are the representatives of all commodities; the “soft” commodities such as grain, corn, coffee and soybeans often are overlooked. China’s slowdown might have a lingering impact on hard commodities used for industrial purposes, but agriculture isn’t as highly correlated with China.
What's Keeping “Soft” Commodities Down
Agricultural commodities also have fallen victim to the collapse of the commodity super cycle, plagued by the fall in oil prices and less demand for goods and services. Considering that the global population is constantly growing and there’s only a limited amount of arable land available for crop production, at first glance, it might not make sense that this industry is experiencing hard times.
Unlike oil, which fluctuates both on demand and supply, it is largely supply that affects agricultural commodities. Demand for food products is relatively steady as the amount of arable land is fixed and a steadily growing global population will demand food products, regardless of economic direction.
Right now, it’s a supply glut that’s primarily keeping soft commodities weak. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report indicated higher-than-expected harvests in the corn, wheat and soybean markets, sending prices plummeting lower.
Record-high soybean and corn harvests surprised analysts and created a supply glut that likely will impact agricultural futures for the next quarter or two. The World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates Report shows a drop in production for a wide variety of soft commodities such as corn and wheat, with less use as residual use and livestock feed. A higher dollar also means these goods face stiffer competition overseas, which is hurting U.S. exports.
The lowered expectations could be a contrarian signal for investors, though. At current prices, there isn’t much more downside risk in agricultural commodities, while there’s plenty of room for upside surprises. Crops largely are dependent upon weather conditions, which easily could alter the long-term outlook, although it’s a risk that can’t be relied on as a basis for investment.
Instead, the impact of a bumper crop, a crop which yields unusually high production, has already been priced into final yields. With high expectations of further oversupply issues, any type of downward figure revision would have a positive impact on soft commodity prices.
Link to Renewables
Agricultural commodities have had a relationship with renewable-energy companies for the past decade or so. Oil has been the primary influence in regard to food costs as a critical component in farming usage such as fertilizers and transportation of crop goods.
The demand for biofuels adds another element to the cost equation as well as contributes to supply and demand expectations of corn, wheat and other soft commodities. The heavy push toward sustainability both in increasing crop yields for food and energy consumption as well as increased investment in green energy could be the key to recovery in this sector.
While oil prices are likely to remain low for the foreseeable future, the green energy sector hasn’t slowed down at all. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, global investment from developed countries in green energy topped $278 billion in 2014 compared to $178 billion in 2009. The drop in oil also helped free up capital for green energy investments as well as attract a more skilled labor force to the industry. As competition increases, green energy will continue to influence overall global energy costs, helping to keep them stable and bring wholesale costs down.
The Bottom Line
Green energy might be the key to lifting prices in soft commodities. As oil becomes less influential on global energy demand and commodity values, alternative energy will take its place more and more over the coming years.
While agricultural commodities have been kept low by falling global demand and oversupply issues, a healthy green industry might be the catalyst that helps turn the commodity super cycle back around.
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