By Jack Barnes
Back in late September, I crowned cotton as the "new king" of the global commodities sector. At the time, cotton was trading at roughly a dollar a pound, after having traded in a range of 40 cents to 50 cents per pound for decades. I told readers that cotton prices could hit $1.25 a pound anytime within the subsequent six months.
As it turns out, I was correct in being bullish -- I just wasn't bullish enough. Just one year ago, cotton was trading at 70 cents a pound. Today it's trading at roughly $2 a pound.
Readers who acted on this call have more than doubled their money. In fact, the exchange-traded note that we recommended in that report has soared more than 120% since I recommended it, and is already up 46% year-to-date.
The real question, of course, is: What happens next? Here's my cotton price forecast, and how to play it.
The Case for Cotton
Let's cut to the chase, after which I'll fully articulate my case.
Cotton remains a long-term "Buy." But there is a near-term shakeout due (something that at this point is pretty much true of everything in this crazy commodity bull move). After that, however, there are four very good reasons to expect a long-lasting upward trend in cotton prices.
In making my cotton price forecast to readers, I have to say that the long-term outlook for cotton is bullish because:
- Cotton has the longest commodity lead time -- from the time that crops are planted to the time that the harvested-and-processed cotton is ready for use.
- We're seeing a 30%-plus "cost-push" inflation in basic cotton products.
- China is the world's largest grower of cotton, meaning it can "set" global prices.
- And China has announced that it will drastically increase the price of cotton products.
Let's look at this in deeper detail.
The very nature of cotton as a crop makes it an extremely long-lead-time commodity. In fact, it is said that cotton has the longest cost -- in total time -- of all commodities. From the time that a farmer plants the seeds until that cotton grows into a plant that's harvested, cleaned and prepped for actual usage, 18 to 21 months have expired.
In China -- the world's biggest cotton consumer -- demand for the fiber is soaring. China imported 390,720 metric tons of cotton in January, the country's customs agency reported late last month. That's 31% more than a year earlier. And it follows an 86% increase for all of 2010, which saw China import 2.84 million tons, the customs agency said.
Global investors are worried that worldwide cotton supplies are not keeping pace with China's growing -- and seemingly insatiable -- appetite for the fiber. Indeed, China's National Bureau of Statistics reported early this week that cotton output declined 6.3% to 5.97 million tons last year.
"China wants to import a whole lot of cotton," Louis Barbera, a broker at VIP Commodities in New York, told Bloomberg News this week. "The lack of cotton that we see will not change for the next few months."
This and several other factors -- including damage wrought by storms and flooding in Australia --- have fueled the huge run-up that we've seen in cotton. In fact, the 34% rally in cotton prices so far this year is the biggest of the 19 commodities tracked by the Thomson Reuters/ Jefferies CRB Index.
After hitting a record of $2.0893 on Feb. 18, cotton prices have declined about 6%. Most of that loss came last week, when prices for the fiber dropped 5.5% -- the biggest decline since November and the first weekly loss in seven weeks. Cotton was trading at $1.9621 during trading yesterday (Thursday).
Investors don't expect this retrenchment to continue. In fact, as Toshimitsu Kawanabe, an analyst at commodity broker Central Shoji Co., told Bloomberg: "After last week's drop, funds are returning to the market where supplies are very tight."
A Pullback ... Followed by Another Breakout
If you missed the last move in cotton but are intrigued by this long-term outlook, I would suggest being patient. You see, I'd be remiss in not pointing out that cotton has experienced a "blue-sky breakout,"meaning there should be a high probability of a real (but near-term) correction as profit-takers provide liquidity to the market.
But don't interpret my advice to "be patient" to mean "ignore cotton." At this point, I am still very bullish on the prospects for longer-term cotton prices.
The bull market in cotton kicked off when China -- desperate to keep its factories humming along -- had to turn to the United States and buy up its supply. Global weather patterns have damaged Australia's crop; in China, the weather patterns for this spring have not changed much from what they were last fall. If this continues, you will see a continuing boom in the price of physical cotton.
This trade has gone remarkably in only one direction; I would expect some choppiness before the next major up-leg breaks out. We need to see the volatility get squeezed out of the options on the futures before it's truly safe to enter again.
With any investment prediction or "call," there's always a qualifier -- an "if." And my near-term prediction for a market pullback is no exception. I see a pullback, unless China shows up in the pits and starts buying in size again. If that happens, cotton could hit $3 a pound before it sees $1 a pound again.
It really comes down to how China spends its Ben Bernankes ... er, Ben Franklins.