By Abby Woodham
Commodities have had a rough start in 2013, remaining stagnant as equities experienced a strong rally. A weak growth outlook in Europe, the anticipation of slowing infrastructure-related spending in China, and excess supply were behind the lackluster performance. In the first two months of the year, investors pulled assets out of the large, broad commodity ETFs as prices remained stationary or declined, but PowerShares DB Commodity Index Tracking ETF (DBC) bucked the trend and took in more than $300 million in new assets. Unlike most sector ETFs, which are relatively similar to each other in construction, commodity fund methodology and strategies can vary widely. Investors continue to be drawn to DBC for its diversification and dynamic rolling, which have helped it produce the most consistent risk-adjusted return of its peer group. DBC is a solid choice for investors who think now may be a good time to add some commodities exposure.
DBC provides exposure to 14 commodities from four sectors: energy, agriculture, industrial metals, and precious metals. Many commodity funds weigh constituents by economic importance, resulting in a heavy energy overweighting, but DBC is well-diversified across commodity sectors by mimicking open interest, making it a true broad-basket commodity fund. In addition, energy prices are relatively more volatile than other commodity products, so DBC is slightly less volatile than commodity funds with a large energy exposure.
Broad-basket commodity products will likely interest two kinds of investors: those who believe global demand for commodities will grow in coming years, and those seeking diversification and an inflation hedge. Investors interested in growing worldwide demand for commodities should keep an eye on demand from China, India, and the rest of the emerging markets. As an inflation hedge, commodities usually underperform in periods of low inflation and outperform when inflation is high, allowing investors to maintain their purchasing power. Generally, commodities shine at the beginning of a recession and at the end of an economic expansion. As for risk, commodities are a high-volatility asset class. Over the past five years, DBC has exhibited almost 25% more volatility than the S&P 500.
Historically, commodities have been only slightly correlated to stocks, but that relationship has grown more correlated in recent years. Since the financial crisis, commodities have performed in tandem with the equity market: DBC's index was almost 80% correlated with the broad U.S. market over the past three years. When stocks start to decline, commodities are unlikely to keep a portfolio afloat. Because investing in commodities has been effectively democratized through products like DBC, it is unlikely that correlations will return to previous low levels.
How the Portfolio Works
Instead of purchasing physical commodities, DBC tracks an index of commodity futures. Commodity futures are obviously much more practical than storing physical commodities, but they come with their own peculiarities and potential downsides. Some divergence from the underlying commodities’ spot prices is inevitable, especially over the long term. Futures contracts are agreements that require the holder to purchase a certain quantity of a commodity, at a predetermined price, to be delivered on a specific date. The total return of this fund’s benchmark index includes the sum of the price movements of the contracts, the positive/negative roll yield, and the hypothetical return that would occur from investing the cash collateral of futures contracts in Treasury bills.
Physical delivery of a commodity occurs when its futures contract expires. To prevent taking these deliveries, DBC rolls its contracts, which means selling contracts close to expiration and buying a contract of the same commodity with a further-off expiration. If the longer-dated contract is priced higher than the expiring one, the fund will be negatively impacted by contango, or negative roll yield. If the opposite occurs and the longer-term contract is priced cheaper, this is called backwardation and the fund earns a positive roll yield. In a state of contango, the fund incurs a loss even if the price of the underlying commodity that day (spot price) doesn't change, as it replaces lower-priced contracts with higher-priced contracts. Energy commodities have been particularly susceptible to contango in recent years. In 2012, an investor tracking front-month natural gas futures would have taken a significant loss even as the spot prices rose, solely because of the contangoed market.
DBC employs a dynamic strategy to minimize contango. When a futures contract is up for expiration, the index is able to roll into any contract that expires within the next 13 months. The index picks the contract that minimizes negative roll yield. This methodology also reduces the number of rolls that occur every year, keeping brokerage costs down.
DBC is a limited partnership, so investors will receive a K-1 form instead of a 1099 during tax season. K-1s can be complicated and time-consuming. At year-end, DBC must mark to market its futures contract holdings, which in the eyes of the IRS is equivalent to selling them. Any gains made over the course of the year will be realized and passed through to investors. Each year, 60% of the gain will be taxed at the long-term capital gains rate, and 40% at the short-term rate, whether or not the investor has actually sold the fund. Gains made by the industrial metals-related contracts in the portfolio (12.5%) are exempt from this rule.
DBC tracks the DBIQ Optimum Yield Diversified Commodity Index Excess Return, which provides the return of the futures contracts of 14 commodities, plus the interest on Treasury bills serving as collateral. The index rebalances annually to its fixed weightings: energy commodities (55%), agriculture (22.5%), industrial metals (12.5%), and precious metals (10%). DBC’s sector weightings closely resemble open interest by sector. When one of DBC’s contracts is close to expiration, the fund rolls to the contract that expires within the next 13 months that minimizes contango.
DBC charges a 0.85% management fee, which is average for its peer group. The fund is expected to accrue about 0.08% in additional fees every year arising from the brokerage costs of trading commodity futures.
Another well-diversified option is GreenHaven Continuous Commodity Index (GCC). GCC has a much lower energy allocation than its competitors and more agriculture exposure. The fund's 17 commodities are equally weighted, and the portfolio rebalances daily. Instead of trading front-month futures, GCC buys a range of contracts across the six-month curve for each commodity it tracks to reduce contango. Like DBC, this product is an exchange-traded fund, so portfolio gains will be taxed similarly. This tax liability is distributed to shareholders at a prorated basis. This fund is costly with an expense ratio of 0.85% and an estimated futures brokerage fee of 0.20% per year.
A newer offering is United States Commodity Index (USCI). Each month, 14 commodities are chosen out of a pool of 27 options. Using a set of rules, seven are chosen that minimize contango in the coming month, and seven for their momentum. USCI is relatively new, but it has performed well since inception with low volatility. Because USCI is still young, we are cautiously optimistic about the fund. USCI is expensive at a total annual cost of 1.17%.
Those who want to avoid the 60%/40% tax and are comfortable with debt instruments can consider commodity exchange-traded notes. These products seek to provide the returns of a commodity index but do not actually hold futures contracts. ELEMENTS Rogers International Commodity Index ETN (RJI) tracks almost 40 commodities and has performed well in spite of contango because of its diversification and relatively low allocation to energy commodities (44%). This note is backed by the Swedish government-owned Swedish Export Credit Corporation, giving it the best credit quality of any ETN issuer. RJI costs 0.75%.
Disclosure: Morningstar, Inc. licenses its indexes to institutions for a variety of reasons, including the creation of investment products and the benchmarking of existing products. When licensing indexes for the creation or benchmarking of investment products, Morningstar receives fees that are mainly based on fund assets under management. As of Sept. 30, 2012, AlphaPro Management, BlackRock Asset Management, First Asset, First Trust, Invesco, Merrill Lynch, Northern Trust, Nuveen, and Van Eck license one or more Morningstar indexes for this purpose. These investment products are not sponsored, issued, marketed, or sold by Morningstar. Morningstar does not make any representation regarding the advisability of investing in any investment product based on or benchmarked against a Morningstar index.