thinking about 2016: commodities


In the broadest sense, commodities are undifferentiated products or services.  Producers are price takers–that is, they are forced to accept whatever price the market offers.

Commodity products are often marked by boom and bust cycles, that is, periods where supply exceeds demand, in which case prices can plummet, followed by ones where supplies fall short and prices soar.


For agricultural commodities, the cycle can be very short.  For crops, the move from boom to bust and back may be as little at one planting season, or three-six months.  For farm animals, like pigs, chickens or cows, it may be two years.


For minerals, which right now is probably the most important commodity category for stock market investors, cycles can be much longer.  Base and precious metals have recently entered a period of overcapacity.  The previous one lasted around 15 years.  One might argue that prices for many metals have already bottomed.  I’m not sure.  But I think it’s highly unlikely that they will rise significantly for an extended period of time.


Oil is a special case among mined commodities.  Lots of reasons

–the market is huge, dwarfing all the metals other than iron/steel.

–there’s a significant mismatch between countries where oil is produced and where it’s consumed.

–there’s one gigantic user, the US.

–for many years, there was an effective cartel, OPEC, that regulated prices.

To my mind, the most important characteristic of oil for investors at present is the wide disparity in out-of-pocket production costs between Saudi crude ($2 a barrel) on the one hand, and Canadian tar sands ($70? a barrel) on the other.  US fracked oil ($40? a barrel) is somewhere in the middle.  The lower-cost producers have gigantic capacity, and the potential to ramp output up if they choose.  This wide variation in costs makes it very difficult to figure out at what price enough capacity is forced off the market that the price will stabilize.  For example, Goldman, which has an extensive commodities expertise, has argued that under certain conditions crude might have to fall to $20 a barrel before it bottoms.


The oil and metals situation is important for any assessment of 2016, because:

–about 25% of the earnings of the S&P come from commerce with emerging markets, many of which depend heavily on exports of metals and/or oil for their GDP growth

–the earnings for about 10% of the S&P 500–the Energy, Materials and Industrials sectors–are positively correlated withe the price of metals and oil.

–a low oil price is a significant economic stimulus for most developed countries, meaning margins expand for companies that use oil as an input  and consumers spending less on oil will have more money left to spend elsewhere.

As a result, one of the biggest variables in figuring out earnings fo the S&P next year will be one’s assumptions about mining commodities prices, especially oil.


More tomorrow.



reading the paper yesterday morning…

I’m postponing writing about my early days as an oil analyst until tomorrow.

An article in the Wall Street Journal,  “Investor Bind:  How Low Can Oil Go?,” struck my eye as I was waiting a doctor’s office yesterday morning.  Two aspects:

The article quotes a Swiss oil trader as saying the current market for petroleum is “irrational.”  He explained that the craziness consisted in the market concentrating solely on bad news and ignoring any possible ray of sunshine.

Yes, this is irrational.  But, more to the point, this is the essence of a bear market, that good news gets ignored and only bad news gets factored into prices.  (A bull market is just the opposite.  In a bull market, all the bad news goes in one ear and out the other; only the good news has an influence on prices.)  I wonder why he didn’t just say that.  Maybe he did, but the reporter didn’t understand.  On the other hand, maybe he didn’t realize.

Second, the article leads off with hedge fund Tusker Capital, LLC of Manhattan Beach, California.  The fund had been betting heavily on a decline in crude oil prices since at least the middle of last year and has just cashed in its chips after cleaning up oin a major way on the subsequent 60% fall in the oil price.

According to the article, Tusker gained 17% overall in 2014 and is up by 10% for 2015 through mid-January.  Implied, but not explicitly stated, is that the largest part of the +10% this year comes from the bet against the price of crude., with is down by 8.6%.  Why else would it be the lead in a sotry about a crashing oil quote.

The occupational disease of analysts is that they analyze.  As I sat in the waiting room–and waited–it became increasingly clear that I couldn’t make the Tusker numbers make sense.

Tusker has “roughly” $100 million under management now (I take that statement to mean the assets under management are just shy of $100 million, but let’s say $100 million is the right figure).  This means it had $91 million under management on December 31st and $78 million at the end of 2013–assuming no inflows or outflows.

Let’s say all of the $11 million gain in assets under management in early 2015 comes from the negative bet on oil.  If the same bet were maintained through the second half of 2014, it should have produced a gain of about $55 million.  But Tusker’s assets were only up by $13 million in 2014.  Either a lot of customer money left, or something really horrible happened in the rest of the portfolio, or “all” is too high a number.  My hunch is that at least the last is correct.

Let’s say half the 2015 gain comes from the negative bet on oil (regular readers will know that 1/2 is my default guess on most things).  If so, then the bet should have produced a profit of around $27 million in 2014.  Same story, although with somewhat less draconian figures–something else happened that caused $14 million in assets to disappear–disaster or withdrawals, or both–or maybe Tusker initially had a much smaller bet gainst oil that it expanded as crude began to sink.

I later Googled Tusker and found an article, from the New York Post, of all places, that said Tusker had assets of $105 million at the end of June 2013 and that the firm strongly believed that the end of quantitative easing in the US would cause a collapse in commodities prices.

To sum up: Tusker made a hugely successful bet against oil that likely made it $40 million – $70 million.  Yet it now has less money under management than it did 18 months ago (a period during which the S&P 500 went up by about 30%).  There’s certainly a story here.  It may not be about oil, though.




why commodities companies overinvest, turning boom to bust

This is a continuation of my post from yesterday.

It may be that, as Chris Hackett suggests in a comment to yesterday’s post, that everyone has his head in the sand, not only commodities company CEOs and boards.  Maybe it’s some deep-seated psychological need to have the good times continue, or maybe a denial of the finitude of man, or…  Yes, commodities companies aren’t the only ones who extrapolate chiefly from the recent past in forecasting the future.  Nevertheless, I can think of three reasons why commodities companies feel most comfortable reinvesting cyclical cash windfalls back into new capacity in their primary business–even though that action itself inevitably triggers a cyclical downturn.

1.. It may be the best they can do.

Looking back at yesterday’s post, I think I was a little unfair in saying that there firms never think of diversifying.  During the first oil crisis in the early 1970s, all the big oils did diversify.  Gulf Oil bought the Barnum and Bailey circus (great job, Gulf; no wonder you got taken over); Mobil bought Montgomery Ward and Container Corp of America (both disasters); Exxon started a venture capital arm, which produced nothing of note.

Peter Lynch, of Fidelity fame, called this kind of move “diworsification.”  Ugly word, but an accurate observation.  Look at HPQ or Microsoft as other serial diworsifiers.

Of course, this is not really the best a company can do, either.  The firm could pay a special dividend to shareholders, but this sensible action rarely occurs to CEOs.  Reinvesting in a business they has some expertise in always seems to be the safest bet.

2.  Holding on to cash may be personally risky to a CEO, for two reasons:

–a cash hoard may make the company a takeover target.  Great for shareholders, not so much for the ego of a person who’s a demi-god to employees, but just a broken down old guy (albeit a rich one) if he loses his position.

–a sensible strategy would be to amass cash with the intention of buying assets on the cheap from semi-bankrupt competitors a couple of years after the cycle turns.  Suppose the cycle lasts longer than the CEO expects, however.  His profits are less than competitors; his company’s stock underperforms.  Maybe he’s ousted before he can act and his successor reaps the glory of making canny acquisitions.

Arguably you have more job security by staying with the herd.

3.  I can believe that adding capacity at or near the top of the cycle can make a perverse kind of sense under three (or maybe four) conditions.  They are the assumptions that:

–all attempts to diversify into other businesses will end in disaster,

–the company’s industry is in secular expansion, so that new capacity will be very valuable in the next upcycle,

–the company will be the first to add significant capacity, and will therefore have a year or two of supernormal profits from the new plant.   That will ease the pain of the downturn and put the firm in a stronger market position in the next upturn.

–(the, maybe, fourth)  even if a firm can’t be alone as the first to add new capacity, it should expand anyway.  This extra industry capacity will at least foil rivals’ plans to cash in big with their expansions.  Yes, the downturn will come earlier than otherwise, but the present market structure will be preserved.  A bit Machiavellian, and maybe giving undue credit to guys who think buying the circus is a great idea.  But it’s possible.

My bottom line:  long-cycle commodities, epitomized by base metals mining, are a true boom and bust industry.  As such, they’re a value investor’s dream come true.  For the rest of us, if we want to play we have to be in the uncomfortable position of buying when the stocks are very beaten down and it seems all hope is lost.  If you’re not accustomed to thinking this way, picking the right point to buy will be very difficult.  In any event, that point is not today.

commodities trading and margin: why volatility now?

commodities vs. stocks

Early in my career internationally, my boss gave me the assignment of studying the palm oil and soybean markets as a step in taking over responsibility for investing in the publicly traded plantation companies in Malaysia.  One of my first stops was a visit to the head of commodities trading for Merrill Lynch in Chicago.

It was like stepping into a parallel universe.

As an equity investor, I talked about remaining calm, not acting hastily and doing thorough research.  He talked about being in tune with the rhythm of the markets, reading the charts, developing good instincts, making decisions on gut feel and having lightning reflexes.  I spoke about hiring professional researchers; he said he looked for good high school or college athletes, regardless of academic accomplishment.

margin differences

Why the difference in outlook?  It may have something to do with the difference between dealing with global demand for natural raw materials vs. the actions of managers in highly complex, but focused, corporations.  But I think it has mostly to do with the, by equity standards, extraordinarily high levels of margin leverage that commodities market participants routinely employ in their investing/speculating.  It’s cold comfort to have the long-term trend absolutely correct but to be wiped out by a 10% price fluctuation in the wrong direction later on this week.

other quirks (from an equity investor point of view)

Two other characteristics of commodities trading to note:

–exchanges typically set the margin rules

–exchanges also typically set maximum daily price movements, both up and down, for a given commodity.  One consequence of this is that there are days when the price moves to the upper/lower limit without any sellers/buyers appearing.  In this case, the market can close for the day at limit up/down, but no trade.  So you can be “trapped” in a position you want to liquidate but can’t.  Another reason to act fast on new short-term developments.

greater interest in commodities

In recent years, there’s been a lot more interest in commodities than previously.  I see several reasons for this:

–the rapid economic advancement of countries like China and India, with large populations and at a stage of development where they use increasingly large amounts of farming and mining commodities.

–the rise of hedge funds, many of which are run by traders who are familiar with commodities and who are more comfortable “reading” charts than researching companies.

–the development of exchange-traded funds based on commodities, which give individuals easy access to commodity investing they didn’t have before

–the end to almost two decades of gigantic, price-depressing overcapacity in most mineral commodities created by overdevelopment in the late 1970s- early 1980s

–the increasing complexity of finance and the concomitant development of financial derivatives.

what’s going on now?

Why the sharp recent decline in mining and food commodities?

As I mentioned in my post yesterday on margin in general, a margin call can happen in two ways:

–either the value of your account can fall below the minimum margin level, or

–the market regulators can raise margin requirements.

margin requirements rising

The second hit the commodities markets late last month.  As the New York Times reported recently, that’s when officials at the CME (Chicago Mercantile Exchange) became concerned about the near doubling in the price of silver over the prior half-year.  The CME  immediately increased in the margin requirement for silver contracts.   When that had no immediate effect on the silver price, the exchange announced a series of increases that would rapidly bring the first-day margin needed to support each contract to $21,000+.

Each silver contract is for 5,000 ounces, or about $235,000 at a $47/oz. price.  Prior to these actions, the required first-day margin was $12,000-, meaning a market participant could leverage himself by 20x in buying silver.  (Actually, the allowed leverage was higher, since maintenance margin is lower than first-day, and because exchange members are permitted to use more leverage than speculators.)

Silver now trades for $34/oz., a decline of almost 30%, mos of the fall occurring in the first week after margin requirements were changed.

Other commodities have followed suit, though not to the extent of the decline in silver, as regulators have lifted margin requirements for them as well.

why act now?

Maybe the CME is just doing its regulatory duty.  A cynical person might speculate–à la the Hunt brothers–that pressure came from exchange members on the losing side of the trade.  Another (better, I think) guess is that there was pressure from Washington, where a new regulatory framework for commodity trading is now being developed.