The Next Commodity Super-Cycle

The Next Commodity Super-Cycle

Colin lloyd 05/09/2017 6

Does the rising price of industrial metals herald the beginning of the next commodity super-cycle? Industrial Metals have been increasing sharply during the last quarter. Global economic growth remains muted but is accelerating in emerging markets. In addition, capital expenditure in the mining sector has been weak leading to supply constraints. A short-term cyclical recovery seems more likely than the beginning of a new super-cycle.


Super-cycle theory



In a 2012 paper for the United Nations/ DESA – Super cycles of commodity prices since the mid–nineteenth century –Bilge Erten and José Antonio Ocampo review the literature on the theory of Commodity Super-Cycles and go on to suggest that the current cycle began in 1999.


What is clear from this research is that commodities are far from homogeneous. A strong trend in industrial metals may not coincide with a strong trend in tropical soft commodities or North American grains. Nonetheless, the idea of the super-cycle is beguiling, because it ties the demand for all commodities to economic growth.


The Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev (1892-1938) developed a theory of Long Waves in the early 1920’s. He discarded exogenous factors, such as wars and revolutions, in favour of endogenous drivers, like technological advances and capital accumulation. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter took these ideas further, developing his theory of ‘Creative Destruction’.



From Theory to Practice




Enough of the theory, where are we now? To answer this I will start with one of my favourite charts, one which regular readers have seen before. This chart shows commodity prices between 1850 and 2005, adjusted for inflation. Schumpeter’s theory of Creative Destruction looks compelling; periods of high commodity prices spur innovation which leads to a lowering of prices in response to productivity gains.


Since 2008 the Bloomberg Commodity Index has weakened:




The above chart – which is not inflation adjusted – shows the current commodity super-cycle since January 1999. The meteoric rise, the impact of the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the subsequent rebound, as QE kicked-in, and the continuation of the downward trend, marking a complete retracement of the upward move from 1999 to 2008, are all clearly evident.


Now a number of commodities have begun to rise simultaneously. Has the period of creative destruction run its course and permanently reduced supply? Or is the current rebound merely a shorter-term correction which, through higher prices, will encourage new capital investment in productivity enhancing techniques which will rapidly lower those prices once more – 17 years, after all, would make this the shortest super-cycle to date? To answer these questions we need to consider the state of the world economy, especially the growth potential of emerging and developing countries.



The Global Economy and Commodity Demand


Global economic growth has been muted during the past decade. The chart below shows World GDP growth from 1999 to 2015:



Recent data – and forecasts – from the IMF, suggest that drivers of global growth are changing. The IMF goes on to opine that, despite the stable outlook for 2017/2018, global growth remains below pre-crisis levels for the majority of advanced economies and, more importantly, for commodity-exporting emerging and developing countries. These tentative conditions seem unlikely to favour the beginning of a sustained upswing in commodity prices, nonetheless, prices, especially for industrial metals, have shown impulsive strength. 



The chart below compares the Bloomberg Commodity sub-indices over the past year, industrial metals appear to be the only game in town:



Even these sub-indices mask some individual trends. Palladium, a constituent of the precious metals index, made a 16 year high at $945/oz. on 29th August – up 122% from its January 2016 low. Lesser known PGMs, Ruthenium and Rhodium are both up more than 60% in the nine months to May 2017. Copper, the bellwether of industrial metals tested $3.08/lb, its highest since October 2014. LME 3 month Aluminium traded $2,121.75/ton, the highest since February 2013 and 3 month Zinc traded $3,179.50/ton, its highest level for a decade. Mining companies have rallied in the wake of these higher prices. Market commentators argue that a combination of tight supply and increased demand, especially from China – whose growth forecast was revised from 6.2% to 6.7% by the IMF last month – are the principal near-term factors behind the rally. Additional factors include the relative weakness of the US$ and a, widely anticipated, more hawkish, central bank stance on interest rates.


A fascinating analysis on the relationship between Chinese growth and commodity prices is contained in this article from Jodie Gunzberg of S&P Chinese Demand Growth Lifts Every Commodity. Ms Gunzberg goes on to look at the breakdown by sub-sector, finding that only Livestock and Agricultural commodities which fall in response to a decline in Chinese GDP growth.



The table below, which drills down to the behaviour of individual commodities, is particularly instructive:




Some industrial metals, such as Lithium – used in the manufacture of lightweight car batteries – have seen a dramatic increase in underlying demand. It has risen from a low of $62/ton in February 2016 to $122/ton this week. However, an entire range of other industrial metals has also witnessed rising prices over the past 12 months:




Conclusion and Investment Opportunities


It is too early to predict the beginning of a new up-trend in the next commodity super-cycle, however, mining companies, outside of China, have reduced capital expenditure over the last few years and, given the long lead times in the mining industry, the current uptrend in prices is probably a function of supply constraints, emanating from a lack of investment, combined with a marginal increase in global demand. I believe, however, that this trend can continue for some while. Inflation in the US and Europe remains subdued, deflation remains a near and present danger in Japan; therefore the major Central Banks are likely to maintain a low interest rate regime.


The current long economic expansion will continue for a while yet. During the last major uptrend in commodity prices, China was the main source of additional demand. Since announcing their 12th Five Year Plan in March 2011, China has adopted a policy of ‘Rebalancing’ towards domestic demand, away from mercantilist export oriented growth. Under this new regime, the services sector should expand faster than manufacturing and demand for raw materials, such as industrial commodities, should decline structurally. July saw the publication of a new paper from the IMF – Financial Development Resource Curse in Resource-Rich Countries: The Role of Commodity Price Shocks – it develops some of the ideas contained in the Prebisch-Singer hypothesis.


I suspect the Chinese authorities have known the advantage of diversifying their economy away from basic materials from many years. Barring a significant increase in demand from other emerging and developing economies, such as India, the current up-trend in industrial metals is likely to be relatively short-lived, another year to 18 months should see new capital expenditure deliver increased supply. Prices will diminish. Individual industrial commodities, such as Cobalt and Lithium, will see higher prices, even from their current elevated levels, due to structural demand increases. Other industrial commodities will be more likely to revert to mean as new supply meets global demand over the next couple of years.

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  • Frank Delon

    Excellent analayis !!

  • Elsa Gibbs

    Very well presented subject. The material was clearly explained and illustrated. Thank you sir for sharing your knowledge.

  • Wasantha Kumara

    Very clearly explained. Thank you !

  • Carla


  • Manuel Riesco

    Commodities' prices are determined exclusively by demand. It has not one but two components: production and speculation.

  • Nipon Sarkar

    Fascinating read !!!!!!



Colin lloyd

Global Economy Guru

Colin is an investment writer and television presenter specialising in macroeconomics and the financial markets.  He is the founder of "In the Long Run", an alternative investment consultancy in 2010 advising hedge funds on sales, marketing and business development. He is also a member of the advisory committee of Asia Alternative Investments Network. Colin holds prestigious qualifications from Columbia University in the City of New York, Yale University and the University of Michigan.


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