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May 30, 2009

"One Way Ride for Commidities: Down"

Morgan Stanley's Ruchir Sharma was recently given the cover of Newsweek to explain in detail why commodity prices can only head down in the long term.

Yet the fact is that the world has faced all these issues before, and for the past 200 years, commodity prices have been trending downwards, thanks to new technologies, greater efficiency in extraction and the substitution of one commodity for another (which explains the high correlation between commodities prices). Bank Credit Analyst, a research firm based in Montreal, has data showing major industrial commodity prices are 75 percent below where they were in the year 1800, after adjusting for inflation. Despite all the worries over "peak oil," the fact is that the major bear markets in oil have been demand, rather than supply led. And when demand eventually picks up, there's usually some new alternative (nuclear energy, natural gas, green technologies) waiting to pick up some of the slack. The real price of oil today is now at the same level as in 1976 and, before that, in the 1870s, when oil was first put to mass use in the United States. This long-term price decline is due mainly to the constant discovery of new fields and greater energy efficiency, making nonsense of the idea that the world is rapidly running out of oil. The experience of the 1980s is instructive in the current context as well.

Japan and Europe continued to grow strongly in the 1980s, and yet oil consumption remained essentially flat through that decade as both the regions strived to achieve better fuel efficiency and switched to alternative sources of energy, such as nuclear power. Similarly, 90 percent of the growth in new oil capacity since 2004 has come from biofuels, synthetic oil and natural-gas liquids. As countries get richer, their per capita consumption of commodities declines. It's a myth, then, that the boom in China and India will inexorably drive up oil and other commodity prices.

...The reason oil prices did not spike higher is simple: demand for any commodity is price-elastic, which means that once the price goes too high, consumers stop buying it or make heroic efforts to find a substitute. In the 1960s and '70s, the revival of manufacturing in Japan and Europe propelled prices for industrial metals like copper and nickel higher, until the buyers couldn't take it anymore. Total spending on copper peaked at 0.45 percent of the global economy in the mid-1960s, and on nickel at 0.2 percent in the 1970s. Once copper prices got too high, aluminum was used as a substitute in many functions. As commodities are inputs in themselves, they can justify only a certain share of the total costs before it becomes prohibitive to consume the end product.

...(History) shows that only one commodity rises in an inflationary environment: gold. Other commodity prices tend to bloom only during the mature stages of a boom when the global economy overheats and demand briefly exceeds supply. At the moment, supply for nearly all commodities far outweighs demand, and likely will decline for at least the next couple of years.

Arun Natarajan is the Founder & CEO of Venture Intelligence, the leading provider of data and analysis on private equity, venture capital and M&A deals in India. View free samples of Venture Intelligence newsletters and reports. Email the author at