there has been a lot of discussion as to whether the run-up in commodity prices
is a bubble or not, or whether there is a fundamental factor at work, primarily
a sustainable supply-demand imbalance.
A recent WSJ survey of 53 noted economists found
that 51% of those surveyed said that demand from China and India was the prime
factor for high energy prices, with 41% blaming demand for rising food costs.
Supply constraints were listed by 20% as causing higher food prices, while 15%
felt that supply was resulting in higher energy prices. Only 11% felt that a
speculative bubble was in the works.
So what should we make of this? Those surveyed felt that the supply-demand imbalances were the major cause of higher commodity prices, and not speculation. Furthermore, demand is driving the growth and higher prices, and not simply lower supply. This is something often debated, but those surveyed felt differently on average - we have enough for now to go around, people are just demanding more of it.
This makes sense to me, given that
China and India are continuing to increase their energy needs to grow their
economies and increase the standard of living for their citizens. This higher
standard of living is putting further pressure on food commodities, no only to
consume directly, but also to feed livestock as the demands for protein-based
foods increases in these areas of the world. Supply may eventually become more
of an issue, but demand appears to be driving prices.
As with any survey of economist and analysts,
there were "two-handed" inconsistencies. The same survey group felt
on average that the price of crude oil would fall to about $105 by the end of
next month, and to about $93 by the end of 2008. Demand is high, supply in
check, but prices will fall? Possibly, and this course is the argument
surrounding the falling dollar. But this is not what the responses feel. Only
15% believed that currency (i.e., dollar woes) were causing higher energy
prices, and only 7% felt they were contributing to higher food prices. This is
somewhat surprising given the amount of talk recently about how weakness in the
dollar is contributing to the high cost of crude oil, with some estimates
showing nearly 50% of recent price increases resulting from the falling dollar.
In the end, even with the discussions of crude oil prices being too high, and pronouncements of $150-$200 a barrel prices in the next 6-24 months (bringing back images of Internet valuation calls in the late 1990s - where a yearly price target was raised one day, only to see the stock move to that new level a few days later), it is still difficult to foresee a complete collapse of commodity prices, at least a sustained collapse over the long-run.
Will there be sell-offs and short-term corrections? Yes. Will there be volatility? Absolutely. Will there be adjustments as the dollar strengthens? Most likely. But will there be a total collapse in demand? It is doubtful.
Demand destruction is always a worry, but people will always want to eat, and
emerging countries will need energy to continue their growth, just as the
United States has in the past, and will continue to in the future.
So as commodity investors, in particular energy
investors, what shall we do? The safer investments may still be in the
"consequence" plays, i.e. the seed and fertilizer companies for the
food commodities, and natural gas for the energy plays. The Potashes (POT) of the
world still have tremendous demand and pricing power. Natural gas, while also
having a nice run-up recently, is still trading at a lower BTU multiple than
crude oil. Using historical comparisons, natural gas still has room to move to
the upside, even if crude oil prices level off. If crude reverses its upward
trend, this lower than historical multiple may also cushion the fall of natural
gas if crude oil was to begin selling off.
The moves in energy have no doubt been sharp, and the prices do seem high, but this may in fact be the issue that we struggle with when considering investments in commodities and commodity-based stocks. We have not seen $125 crude oil before, and the recent spike does seem over-extended, so it certainly seems scary.
Of course, if crude oil was a stock, and the company had the same level of demand, pricing power, growth forecast, future supply issues, and strong technicals, many of the same investors might be jumping into the stock, while at the same time shying away from crude oil. Of course, commodities and stocks are very different animals, and stocks also top and end badly, or at least have large corrections, even for good companies (i.e., Google), but the analogy is not totally lost.
The key is to eliminate the emotion as much as possible and examine the fundamentals and technicals for what they are. When they change, they change - and this could happen today, tomorrow, or next year. But when they are in place, they are hard to ignore. Right now they look pretty good.
Disclosure: Author is long UNG, CHK.