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El Niño has a reputation for triggering sharp run-ups for prices in markets as diverse as nickel, coffee and soybeans, and commodities investors, traders and analysts are bracing for impact at a time when global supplies of many raw materials already are stretched.
Global food prices - which at the start of 2014 were expected to be largely flat this year - could easily climb 15% to record highs in as a little as three months after an El Niño occurs, says World Bank economist James Baffes.
But Société Générale analysts say it is miners, not farmers, who have the most to worry about; since 1991, nickel prices rose the most (13.9%) during El Niño years among commodities the bank tracks.
US Steel (X -1.3%) is downgraded to Underperform from Neutral at Credit Suisse due to relative valuation and expected lower iron ore pricing in H2 2014.
Equity prices, and particularly US Steel, seem to be overlooking recent commodity price weakness as a short-term destock related phenomenon - perhaps not surprising given the 2012 collapse and rebound in iron ore prices - but Credit Suisse believes that, unlike 2012, structural changes to the global ferrous supply/demand balance through mid-year will see commodity prices settle at a lower level in H2 than they did after the 2012 destock shock.
Also, the firm thinks US Steel's relative outperformance vs. international peers including ArcelorMittal (AT) likely is due to EM/DM exposure trade, but the gap will close at some point.
After losing 10% in 2013 while the MSCI World Index of stocks gained 24%, the Dow Jones-UBS Commodity Index made up some ground in January, eking out a small advance while the MSCI index slid 3.7%.
But as rallies go, it was a pretty lame one. The DJ-UBS index's biggest weighting is for natural gas at nearly 14.5%, and gas futures surged 18% amid the coldest January in memory. Spring will come soon though, and then what?
Second in the index weighting is gold which gained 3% in January - not the greatest bounce considering a 29% dive in 2013.
Commodities tied more closely to global economic activity - oil and industrial metals - make up 42% of the sector's weighting and they were pretty much uniformly in the red.
Nearly 8 years after the launch of the PowerShares DB Commodity Tracking Fund (DBC), the firm filed paperwork for an actively managed version of the fund, offering exposure to a diversified set of commodities through futures contracts.
By investing in 14 heavily traded sectors of the commodity market, this fund hopes to hedge against individual sector falls, creating consistent return for investors.
DBC is down about 7.5% this year as equities stole the spotlight in 2013, but with $5.5 billion in assets under management it has considerable stability and did exceedingly well in years where equities fell.
The WSJ shines a light onto "shadow warehouses," a hidden system of facilities that store tens of millions of tons of aluminum, copper, nickel and zinc across the globe for banks, hedge funds and commodity merchants.
The warehouses operate outside the London Metal Exchange's system, are unregulated, and don't provide details of their holdings. As a result, it's unclear how much metal is held in the shadow system. This lack of visibility could cause major price swings.
The WSJ article follows allegations that warehousing companies have artificially boosted the price of metals, particularly aluminum.
Companies that operate metals warehouses include Goldman Sachs (GS), Glencore Xstrata (GLCNF) and JPMorgan (JPM), although the latter is looking to sell its commodities unit.
Launching today is the actively-managed First Trust Global Tactical Commodity Strategy Fund (FTGC). Twenty-five percent of the fund's assets will be invested in futures contacts and ETPs, with the rest invested in cash, money markets, and investment-grade fixed income securities.
"By attempting to pick the most attractive maturity futures contract for each commodity, FTGC may provide higher returns over a market cycle," says the fund's senior portfolio manager Rob Guttschow, referring to the well-known negative roll effects of buying into markets in contango.
Discretionary stocks (XLY), the U.K. (EWU), and the Eurozone (EZU, VGK) have the highest weighting relative to historical norms in global fund managers' portfolios, according to BAML's quant strategy group.
The lowest weighting: Commodities (DBC), Emerging Markets (EEM), Energy (XLE), and Materials (XLB).
"It's shocking how hated emerging market equities and commodities have become. Contrarians take note...," writes Josh Brown.
"Striking," to McKinsey, is how well commodity prices have held up despite the sluggish economy. The group notes despite recent falls, prices remain around the levels of early to mid-2008 - just prior to the global financial crisis hitting.
Pimco - on the other hand - isn't calling for a price crash, but says the double-digit annual growth from the late 1990s up to the financial crisis isn't returning. Returns though, may still be positive going forward.
The gathering pace of infrastructure projects and consumers' need to restock will fuel a rebound in China's commodity usage through the end of the year, says Goldman. "People are getting more positive, but they’re not super bullish, not yet,” said Goldman's Julian Zhu. “You’re going to see further upside. If you look at the early indicators in September; it seems like the overall economic activity is picking up."
Steel prices in particular are expected to be stronger, says Zhu. Re-bar futures in Shanghai closed at $3,713 per metric ton last night, continuing a 3-month run of higher prices, the longest streak since 2010/11.
Up and trading is the iShares DJ-UBS Roll Select Commodity Index Trust (CMDT), a commodity ETF aimed at negating the negative roll associated with owning futures contracts when markets are in contango.
A market in contango has later-dated contracts more expensive than near-term ones, making the rolling over of expiring contracts a costly process. Markets in "backwardation" have later-dated contracts less expensive than near-term ones, and the roll can add to a fund's performance. CMDT selects those contracts exhibiting the least contango or most backwardation.
One competing fund, USCI, has outperformed the DBC by 150 bps this year.
Rising rates, the decline in stocks, and escalating violence in Egypt provided no bid for the greenback which fell across the board today.
The dollar (UUP -0.7%) lost more than 1% against the Swiss franc (FXF +1%) and nearly 1% vs. the yen (FXY +0.8%) and cable (FXB +0.9%). The euro (FXE +0.7%) gained nearly three quarters of one percent.
Typically the first to sell off when markets get a bit panicky, even the loonie (FXC +0.2%) and the aussie (FXA) picked up ground against the U.S. unit.
A reason? Maybe the commodity sector (DBC +1%) - it was notably strong with metals, energy, and the grains all higher.
JPMorgan recommends getting overweight commodities (DBC) for the first time in 2 years, but warns the call isn't an "all-clear" signal, but instead a view on term structure in energy, which dominates most indices. Momentum is still negative in metals but prices - particularly for gold and copper - are at levels which should spur production cuts and fresh demand.
"The biggest contrarian play in the market today is assets linked to China (FXI, CAF)," says Michael Hartnett, summarizing BAML's latest Fund Manager Survey, which shows money flowing out of commodities (DBC) and emerging markets (EEM, DEM, VWO). Where's the money going? The eurozone and the U.S. Where it's not going is fixed-income (AGG, BND) - 50% of managers say they're now underweight bonds as opposed to 38% last month.
The recent selloff in commodities (DBC) is not a correction, says Stan Druckenmiller, now on stage at Ira Sohn, but instead the end of the supercycle. Avoid commodity markets - Brazil (EWZ, BRF, BRL), South Africa (EZA, SZR), Canada (EWC, FXC). "Frankly, I'd short the aussie (FXA)." His largest equity holding? "I can't imagine a better position than Google (GOOG)" - selling for 16x earnings and no exposure to China.
The commodity boom (DBC) is over, writes Morgan Stanley global macro chief Ruchir Sharma, as massive overinvestment - mostly to feed China's voracious demand - comes online just at the time said demand becomes considerably less voracious. Not only are China and emerging markets in general slowing, but the countries are striving to become more efficient (USO) as well. "If historical pattern holds, we are now entering a long period of falling commodity prices, which could last two decades."
Commodities are lit up bright red as weak economic data (here and in China) is a good excuse to end the bounce of the last few sessions. Gold (GLD -1.8%), Silver (SLV -3.6%), WTI Crude (USO -2.6%). Copper (JJC -3.3%) moves to its lowest level in about 18 months at $3.08/lb. The metal hasn't had a 2-handle since the start of 2011. Broad commodity gauge (DBC -1.8%).