Abacus Investment Research

Stocks /

Commodities Futures


Managed Futures Commodity Pools

Real Estates

Research and Analysis

Abacus Consulting


 Currencies Grains Energies Meats Metals Softs Online Futures Trading
China Investment Report - Quality Chinese Stock Picks
China Business Report - Weekly China Business News Summary
Shanghai Bank
Hong Kong
South Korea

United States

Czech Republic
South Africa
Managed Futures Performance
Forex Broker
Buy Foreign Currency

Also See
Commodity Funds

China Effect Convulses Commodity Markets

--Financial Times.  Published: November 15 2003 4:00 | Last Updated: November 15 2003 4:00

Buying crazes are endemic to investment markets. This year it is commodities, which have been hailed as a newly attractive asset class driven by the growing power of China.

The traditional arguments for buying commodities are that prices of raw materials don't move in line with equity markets. Some advisers tout the virtues of commodities as real assets during times of geopolitical and economic uncertainty.

Others latch onto signs of recovery in the US, the world's biggest economy, citing the attraction of raw materials during the early phases of an economic cycle when global growth, demand for goods and production pick up.

A few also cling to the argument that commodities are a hedge against inflation. The theory is that the prices of raw materials rise when price indices rise. But the correlation has broken down over the past 20 years.

However, in recent months all the theories have been overshadowed by what analysts are calling the China effect. "Chinese demand for commodities is revolutionising global commodity markets," says Merrill Lynch Investment Managers. "China has already overtaken the USA as the largest consumer of iron ore, steel and copper."

In the first half of this year, iron ore imports to China rose by 45 per cent and copper imports by 40 per cent. This voracious appetite has pushed the copper price to a six-year high and nickel to a 14-year high.

China - the world's sixth largest economy, according to Merrill Lynch - now accounts for between a fifth and a third of the world's consumption of alumina, iron ore, zinc, copper and stainless steel.

"We've rarely seen this combination of cyclical recovery in the US and structural change in China," says Tom Elliott, JP Morgan Fleming's strategist. "The largest user of commodities is very rarely the fastest growing user as well; it is quite remarkable. It is difficult to see an end to the run".

Some of the materials imported are turned into finished goods for export. China exports much of the iron ore it imports once it has processed it into steel, for example. Similarly, China's alumina imports are turned into aluminium and exported.

China's exports are exceeded only by those from three nations: the US, Germany and Japan. If current growth rates are sustained they will exceed those of the US in less than a decade.

But the case for continuing growth rests heavily on the Chinese authorities' ambitious plans to develop the country's infrastructure and on hopes that the country's 1.3bn people are becoming avid consumers, clamouring for sophisticated goods.

"Already Volkswagen sells more vehicles in China than it does in Germany, while China consumes the same amount of global commodities as the US," says JPMorganFleming. "By value, demand in 2003 for non-oil commodity imports will be up to approximately $7bn compared with less than $2m in 1996. Growth is phenomenal and the impact on the world should not be underestimated."

Eric Lonergan, a strategist at Cazenove, points out that China's share of world copper consumption has risen from less than 5 per cent in 1990 to 20 per cent in 2003. This demand is growing in a similar fashion to those of Japan in the 1960s and early 1970s, an era that ended with a surge in commodity prices.

Lonergan believes this surge will continue, coinciding as it does with the end of a 20-year bear market in commodity prices, during which producers have clamped down on production and severe supply constraints have emerged.

Capital spending by mining companies has barely grown, in real terms, over the past 20 years, explains Lonergan. China may be pouring money into expanding production and capacity, but globally the rising costs of bringing on new capacity in many metal markets, as a result of environmental pressure and the long lead times between discovery and production, will keep the lid on supply.

The bull case assumes that China's pace of growth will be unchecked. Yet there are signs of unease in China itself. There are mounting concerns about what some see as runaway imports and an overheating economy.

Beijing has already made clear, say old China hands, that it wants to see a moderation in the growth of China's property, iron and steel, cement, aluminium and vehicle sectors by tightening bank reserve requirements to limit credit.

Even the bulls acknowledge that the greatest danger to a continued boom in growth and prices would be if tougher measures to put the breaks on growth coincide with too much investment in production capacity in China. If, as some suggest, Chinese producers have built up large inventories of metal, prices could tumble.

Some also admit to concerns about China's creaking banking sector. Banks are already burdened with a legacy of non-performing loans. According to official estimates they make up 23 per cent of bank loans. Unofficial estimates put the figure at nearer 50 per cent of banking assets.

Cazenove argues that making too much of China's banking problems misses the point. "China is unique in development history by growing at a sustained rate of close to 8 per cent and simultaneously accumulating net external assets," says Lonergan.

Previous growth miracles in the developing world, and in Asia other than Japan in the 1980s and 1990s, have been financed by large external borrowing. "China, by contrast, has no balance of payments, inflation or - in our view - banking sector problems," adds Lonergan.

Lonergan is more concerned by the amount of money flowing into commodities. He points out that annual production of gold, platinum, copper and aluminium is worth just 1.15 per cent of US pension assets. Even a tiny shift in asset allocation would have a huge impact on the supply/demand equation for metals. "It makes the sector very volatile," he says.

Instability represents the greatest danger for private investors. There may be merits in putting a few per cent of big portfolios into commodities as a diversifier, but only if investors can withstand shocks.

This time the risks are two-fold because the reason for buying commodities is as much an emerging market story as a commodities story.

The bulls would say undoubtedly. China can only go from strength to strength.

Is that the whole story? The fact that commodity fund managers are patting themselves on the back for achieving 250 per cent returns, and commodity price indices have risen nearly 40 per cent since they bottomed at the end of 2001 might suggest that private investors have already missed the boat.

But it could be different this time Wags always say those are the most expensive words in the English language. But yes, it might be different this time. US recovery and the inexorable rise of China as a global economy may well continue to drive prices up.

But there will be setbacks. Commodities are volatile and cyclical. Prices rise when demand picks up and capacity is tight, but typically that encourages companies to increase production to match demand.

Bear in mind, too, that the base metals in such demand in China make up a small proportion of commodity indices, which include soft commodities (such as grain) as well as energy commodities. Many analysts believe oil prices - which dominate most indices - will weaken next year.

Can I invest in base metals alone? Yes. You can buy directly into companies that produce base metals. There are also funds that invest primarily in mines and mining stocks, including JPMF Natural Resources and Merrill Lynch World Mining. Other commodity fund managers, such as Barings and Foreign & Colonial, invest heavily in energy. Sophisticated investors can gain access to specific commodities by trading futures.

What would signal the peak of the market? Be wary if we get a spate of fund launches. Fund managers almost invariably rush to launch new funds investing in the current investment fashion just at the market's peak. The most recent example was the telecoms, media and technology boom.

As far back as 1873 10 investment trust companies set up to invest in the US. The prospectus of one - Scottish American Investment Trust, known as Saints - has a familiar ring. It waxed lyrical on the merits of the growth of the US, the size of its population and its "illimitable" resources.

The launch coincided with what is now called the Year of Panic in the US and a six-year depression. The trust survived by the skin of its teeth. Others didn't.

Almost a century later, in 1972, investment trust launches reached another record on the back of a strong equity market and tax changes. The market peaked that year and took six years to get back to the same level.

But the China effect seems unstoppable, particularly given the constraints on supply. Investment crazes are typically justified by what become catch phrases and supply/demand arguments. One of the worst examples was ahead of the turn of the century when investors were urged to buy champagne as a sure-fire investment because there would be a shortage of it during the millennium.

We've had commodity and emerging market crazes before, too. For a decade or more India has been hailed as the next big economic miracle on the premise that its middle-classes - equivalent in numbers to the entire US population - were turning into frenetic consumers. The miracle still hasn't quite happened.

In stock markets the wall-of-money argument was a favourite during the 1980s and 1990s. It was much used, for example, to justify the bull market in 1987. The theory was that the Japanese had built up a big current account surplus and a wave of money was coming from Japan to invest in overseas assets. Traditional notions of value - whether a stock was cheap or expensive - were thrown out.

The FTSE 100 hit a peak of 2443 in July 1987. Three months later the market suffered its worst crash for 60 years. Afterwards, critics said it is a mistake to rely too much on this wall-of-money argument. When conditions turn, money has a way of quickly finding alternative homes.

Please contact us for advertisement information and other matters.