What’s Up (or down) with Commodities?

While stocks have been front-and-center lately given sharp price swings, fewer media outlets are focusing on commodities despite the critical role they play in global markets. They too have experienced wild price swings, although mostly to the downside. Year-to-date, the widely held S&P GSCI (Goldman Sachs Commodity Index) has fallen 20% and declined 41% over the last twelve months. What’s driving these big declines and why do they matter to your portfolio?

Commodities are defined as a raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold. This includes everything from aluminum to zinc, but also oil, natural gas, coffee, beef, and corn, among others. A key differentiator between commodities and other assets are that commodities are valuable only as an input of the production process. They’re not a store of value or wealth, like a stock, bond, or work of art. Because of their utilitarian purpose (with a few exceptions like gold), commodity prices are closely linked to global supply and demand. Simply put, when demand is strong for a commodity and supply is tight, prices go up. Likewise, when demand is falling and/or supply is abundant, commodity prices tend to fall. This causes prices to be very cyclical and closely tied to the health of the overall economy. In an increasingly globalized world, that means all economies affect commodity prices to varying degrees.

While stocks have surged over the past six years, commodities have languished. The widely-held commodity index, the S&P GSCI, has fallen 35% from 2009 to 2014 while the S&P 500 Index rose 131%. As U.S. stocks benefited from improving economic growth at home, commodities never saw a similar bounce-back given their exposure to the broader global backdrop. Lackluster global demand and excess supply of many commodities weighed on commodity prices. The supply/demand imbalance has worsened recently as China, the world’s largest consumer of commodities, has seen economic conditions deteriorate and is curbing its appetite for input products. Likewise, it continues to produce too much supply and is dumping some commodities, like steel, onto global markets, further pressuring prices. It’s a vicious cycle, one that usually reverses when excess supply is finally worked-off and most investors have given up on the asset class.

As an investor, where does this leave you? Should you include commodities in your portfolio? Is now a good time to buy? According to Dr. Rouwenhorst, a leading expert on commodities, research suggests that commodities do outpace inflation over the long-term. And he’s looked at data going back to the 1800’s. At the same time, commodity prices tend to have low correlations with other asset classes like stocks and bonds; meaning that when stocks go down, commodities tend to go up. Thus, adding commodities to a portfolio can help improve your overall volatility and gives you a good chance of out-pacing inflation.   But…we’ve also learned that during massive global crises, like the one in 2008, commodities tend to move in lock-step with other asset classes. People panic and tend to sell everything. We’ve also seen substantial price declines in most commodities over the last six years, and if you’ve owned these assets you know your portfolio has suffered as a result. What to do?

During most periods, a small position in a diversified basket of commodities such as the S&P GSCI or the Dow Jones Commodity Index can help insulate investors from wild swings in traditional asset classes like stocks and bonds. And commodities can experience periods of strong price appreciation. However, it’s difficult to identify those periods and at the same time, avoid sharp declines like we’ve seen in recent years. If you have a long enough time horizon, of twenty years or more, a small allocation to commodities can make sense, but another option is to own high-quality stocks that derive their revenue from commodities. While these companies are also subject to the cyclical nature of commodities, they often have diversified revenue streams and strong balance sheets that can help provide some insulation during cyclical downturns.

Overall, commodities are important to understand in order to gauge the health of the global economy. Although they tend to be a volatile asset class, owning a small amount can provide diversification benefits in your portfolio. Another and perhaps less volatile option is to own high-quality blue chip companies that deal in commodities and have the resources to weather cyclical downturns. This approach also provides the diversification benefits associated with commodities but often with smaller price swings then owning a basket of commodities directly.

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