Commodities: Stick To The Fundamentals, Beware Of Speculation

August 18, 2016

Commodities: Stick To The Fundamentals, Beware Of Speculation

  • Oil prices are increasing the number of rigs, putting pressure on prices.
  • Soros sold his gold, should you?
  • Iron ore is hot, but waiting until winter might provide better purchasing opportunities.

Introduction

Yesterday we discussed how Treasury Inflation-Protection Securities (or TIPS) are a great protection during times of inflation. Today we are going to take a deeper look into another great inflationary protection, commodities.

The general feeling is that commodities have surged since January, but there is a high level of divergence. This divergence in commodity price movements is due to speculation in some commodities and fundamental reasons in others.

Situation – Oil

Oil is currently trading at $46 per barrel which is 75% higher than it was at its low six months ago.

figure 1 oil prices
Figure 1: Oil prices. Source: Bloomberg.

The 75% price jump in oil is a clear indication of price speculation in oil markets because the demand is stable and well known. Speculators include the whole chain, from producers to retailers and future traders who can trade high quantities on margin. In such an environment, the only option is to make an educated guess about the long-term fundamental oil price and trade around it. As Russia and Saudi Arabia are in talks to stabilize the oil market, we could see the market push through year highs, but higher prices call for more global production. As oil prices stabilized above $40, the number of U.S. rigs increased for seven consecutive weeks and the global rig count also increased in July. More rigs mean more supply and further pressure on oil prices.

Investors should be careful with oil, production is very flexible and much of it is low cost which disables a higher level price stabilization. Therefore, oil is a pure trading play with fundamentals easily influenced by speculation.

Situation – Metals

As we discussed gold yesterday while discussing traditional safe haven assets, today we are going to focus on iron ore, copper, zinc and aluminum.

An additional warning for those long gold, George Soros, the legendary hedge fund manager that opened a $263 million position in Barrick Gold in Q1 has cashed out in Q2. Be careful not to get burned on gold as smart money is slowly leaving the playing field.

Iron Ore

Iron ore has had a wild ride this year, but its supply is much less flexible than oil and divergence from fundamentals can be easier to grasp.

figure 2 iron ore
Figure 2: Iron ore prices. Source: Bloomberg.

As iron ore is more predictable than oil, Morgan Stanley sees seasonal weakness ahead, increased supply due to the VALE S11D project, and suggests that prices might fall back to $40 again. Those dips are excellent opportunities to open a position in iron ore miners as when iron ore prices are low, their share prices also decline. By looking at the lowest cost producers, share price is the main risk factor as in the long run, big, low cost miners are unavoidable for global development. Companies to look at are Rio Tinto (RIO), BHP Billiton (BHP), Vale (VALE) and Glencore (GLNCY), but for lower risk it might be better to wait for winter.

Aluminum & Copper

Aluminum is only up 8% year-to-date, and copper is only up 3%. Both metals are a clear example of how commodities diverge. This divergence is what creates opportunity because lower prices tend to eliminate high cost production, limiting supply and pushing prices up again. The current price stability for aluminum and copper, and price increases for precious metals and iron, suggests that the 5-year commodity bear market has come to an end and things should slowly turn as we begin to run into supply deficits due to lower investments.

Aluminum and copper are closely related to global economic growth. An good aluminum play is Alcoa Inc. (AA), while with copper it’s good to look at the lowest cost producers.

figure 3 copper costs
Figure 3: Copper production costs. Source: Southern Copper Corporation (SCCO).

The production cost for the stock pick detailed in The Copper Goldmine—a report I wrote earlier this year, along with an update, that was sent to subscribers last Friday—was $0.92 per copper pound in Q2 2016, and is expected to be $0.52 for the company’s future copper project putting it among the lowest quintile in terms of production costs. To download this report, click here.

Zinc

Zinc is the superstar metal of the year. It has increased by more than 50% year-to-date and is expected to increase more due to the inevitable supply gap forming. More about the zinc supply gap here.

In addition to our above mentioned stock pick—which is transitioning from a mostly copper producer to a mostly zinc producer in 2017,—another good option to be exposed to zinc, copper and aluminum is the PowerShares DB Base Metals Fund (DBB) with equal weights for zinc, copper and aluminum.

Conclusion

Commodities seem to have reached a bottom, but global economic turmoil or China slowing down might ignite speculators to short metals on margin and put severe downward pressure on prices. Therefore, any commodity related investment has to be done with the notion in mind that 50% of it can quickly be lost.

On the other hand, the world cannot live without commodities and therefore it’s a good idea to be exposed to such an investment, especially to miners as their prices increase exponentially if commodity prices increase due to their fixed costs. Production costs are always the main factor in assessing how much can be lost when investing in commodities.

A good strategy with commodities at this point in the commodity cycle is to average down if commodities experience further declines and then ride in full the eventual upside. The upside is certain as global demand for commodities is expected to grow as a result of increasing demand from developing countries.

To sum things up, commodities are at or near their bottom. The upside impetuses to be aware of are growing global demand, limited supply and potential inflation, while downside risks come from an eventual slowdown in China or a global recession.