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Chinese demand profile and incremental commodity demand

28 May

I wanted to point out a few things about China from Michael Pettis’ early May newsletter. Below are some really eye-popping statistics about China’s demand profile. (Many thanks to Jeremy Grantham, to whom Pettis credits as the original source for the below statistics.)

Share of global GDP

China’s GDP


China’s GDP (PPP basis)


“The next table lists China’s share of total global demand for a selected list of non-food commodities:

Non-food commodities

Share of global demand



Iron Ore      


















“Finally, the same table for food commodities:

Food commodities

Share of global demand















“What is most noteworthy about these tables, of course, is the disproportion between China’s share of global GDP and China’s commodity consumption.”

Pettis, whose commentary is always original and borderline brilliant, goes on to comment about Chinese investment growth and how re-balancing of the economy in that country (from investment-led demand to consumption-led demand), could have significant effects on non-food commodities (second chart):

“Take iron, for example. If Chinese demand declines by 10%, this would represent a reduction in global demand of nearly 5%. I am not an expert in the commodity markets, but I guess that supply and demand considerations are fairly finely balanced, and a 5% reduction in demand should have significant price repercussions – especially if a material part of Chinese demand represents stockpiling and this stockpiling is reversed.”

Some food (or non-food) for thought.


commodities and inflation protection

23 Mar

It’s clear from the commodity price increases experienced over the past couple years (see this post) and anecdotal evidence — but not official government numbers — that inflation has returned and that price increases will be making their way through the economy. Several consumer staples companies have already raised prices 5-7% (P&G, Kimberly-Clark, and Fruit of the Loom, for example). This is just the beginning.

Often, money moves into commodities as an inflation hedge, but do commodities actually protect one’s purchasing power after the onset of rising consumer prices? Based on the last time we saw this in the U.S., the answer is “mostly, no”. Commodity prices, not surprisingly, tend to lead increases in actual inflation. But once inflation emerges, their ability to purchasing power protection diminishes. Thus, commodity ‘investors’ (aka speculators) who get in near the end of the pricing uptrend do not tend to fare as well.

The above charts illustrate this phenomenon over the same period I discussed in the last two posts, 1964 through 1988. They show commodity prices (Commodity Research Bureau spot price index) rising prior to a major jump in CPI inflation, with the bulk of the price spike clustered into just a couple of years (up 22.1% in 1972 and 59.8% in 1973), while actual annual inflation was just around 4.0%. From 1964 through 1973, average annual inflation was just 2.5% while commodities rose 8.4% per annum. After 1973 and through year-end 1988, annual inflation averaged 7.1% while commodity prices rose just 1.9%. Today’s commodities investors might be disappointed in their future returns while consumers may similarly be displeased with future price increases.

I do not want to be fatalistic and state unequivocally that inflation is inevitable, but I am not optimistic that it can be avoided at this point. The longer commodity prices remain high, the more they lead to higher structural costs for the economy as a whole. Once companies raise prices, they do not tend to lower them. Likewise with wages.

The final chart illustrates commodity prices versus actual inflation since 2000. To me, this looks similar to the period from 1964 through 1974, when commodity prices rose ahead of actual inflation in the face of inflationary government policies (namely, deficit spending). We see similar policies in place today, coupled with unprecedented monetary intervention that isn’t likely to abate anytime soon, especially in the face of a still-stagnant economy. And our national balance sheet is in worse shape. Are the mistakes that led to stagflation in the 1970s being repeated? Unfortunately, it appears so.

commodities running a marathon or sprint?

13 Jan

Commodities have been on a spectacular run since August. The Wall Street Journal’s front page story this morning specifically addresses agricultural commodities, including wheat, soybeans and corn. Along with precious metals, agriculture has led commodities’ price rise and helped incite continued inflows into these markets over the past several years. Traders cite on the ground reasons that prices have gone up so far so fast – including increasing consumption from China, multi-decade low reserves and higher corn ethanol production. Also, backwardation (future prices less than spot prices) in one-third of the GSCI commodities boosts the case for tight supply/demand conditions. But these supply/demand theses are valid regardless of price. (As with all non-income generating “assets,” pricing is an elusive exercise.)

Regardless of the specifically-cited reasons today, what I question is whether this is a modern incarnation of Gresham’s law, bad money driving out good. A hundred years ago, on a bi-metallic standard in countries that accepted other countries’ currencies as legal tender, the most “fine” or pure currency would be hoarded and the less pure (“bad” money) would be spent. Thus, as the debased money was used to buy the stronger currency, its relative price decreased and became even less valuable. The market saw to it that the worse currency was worth the least and the “good” money fell from circulation. Of course, this generally occurred in a system of fixed exchange rates and (mostly) convertible currencies. Today’s free-floating currencies are a relatively new development in monetary history.

Today, it looks like (“good”) physical assets are driving out (“bad”) fiat currency. Stated in terms of the dollar (because that’s how we measure them), commodities are clearly on the rise. Gold, silver, and copper, which as recently as a hundred years ago were used as a medium of exchange, were up 29%, 82% and 30%, respectively. Cotton and coffee gained 92% and 77%. As Standard & Poor’s observes, “2010 year can be broken down into two distinct periods – one extending from January through August and another covering the remainder of the year. The announcement of quantitative easing from the U.S. Federal Reserve has helped provide a bid for most commodities.” On one hand, it looks to me like the market is saying that fiat currencies are less valuable and/or are being debased. Or, we could have a speculative almost-bubble on our hands.

Bolstering the case for the latter is that ten years ago about $6 billion was invested in commodities. Today, it’s nearly $300 billion. Money flows tend to drive prices higher, all things equal, and it appears to be the same today. And where the money is flowing isn’t necessarily in the right direction. This Businessweek article elucidates some good points about commodity exposure. As someone smarter than me said, there is no asset class that enough money can’t spoil.

Whether these price increases are well-founded or not is open to debate, but there is a clear correlation between the announcement of “QE2” and the snapback in financial markets, including equities (correlation of commodities with stocks is near all-time highs). But not all commodities are moving higher – one that has bucked the trend is natural gas, which is abundant and experiencing low demand. Its price fell 40% last year. If the behavior Gresham discussed was occurring, we shouldn’t expect its price to languish for long.

Still, we can’t ignore the “hot money” going into commodities. For these, Wal-Mart may have said it best: “Watch for falling prices.” What the wise man does in the beginning, the fool does in the end.

Ethanol Blend or Regular?

30 Apr

Is it better to fill up with regular gas or with discounted (and subsidized) ethanol blended fuel? In Iowa, for instance, it is ten cents cheaper to fill up with ethanol blend than to buy regular. It looks pretty tempting when filling up to spend less per gallon, but does the discount make it worthwhile?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data show that ethanol has 75,670 british thermal units (BTUs) per gallon instead of 115,400 for gasoline. What this means is that with ethanol, one has to burn more fuel to generate the same amount of energy – 1.53 gallons to be exact. So ethanol has 35% (34.43% to be more exact) less energy per gallon than does regular gasoline. One would expect, then, that filling up with E85, which has a combined 81,629.5 BTUs, would achieve 29% fewer miles per gallon than straight gas. This works about about right. In a recent test by Consumer Reports on a Tahoe, the fuel economy dropped 27% when running on E85 compared with gasoline (from 14 mpg overall to 10 mpg (rounded to the nearest mpg). So using BTUs for the calculations seems reasonable.

So now let’s look at it from the perspective of a person filling up in a state with subsidized ethanol blend available widely. The ten cent discount comes with 90% gasoline/10% ethanol blend. Given this blend, we can expect 3.5% fewer miles per gallon. So in order to justify the price, one would expect the discount on blended fuel from regular gasoline to be more than 3.5% (otherwise we’d pay more on an energy-equivalent basis to use ethanol). That doesn’t happen to be the case today.

With gas at about $3.60 and blend at $3.50, that’s only a 2.8% discount in price. (The higher gas prices go the smaller that ten cent price discount will be on a percentage basis.) If we assume the 3.5% less mileage is a good number, the breakeven price (where we should be indifferent between the two) is $2.86 for regular, $2.76 for blend. We’re definitely above that. For E85, prices should be 29% cheaper, or $2.56, for a fuel purchaser to be indifferent between the two alternatives. The last I saw, it was about $2.90.

Just some fuel for thought.

Full disclosure: I’m filling up with regular. I’ll take a look again when (if) prices fall to $2.86 or the price discount widens.

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