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Commodities, Supply-Chains and Structural Changes in Demand

  • Talk of a new commodity super-cycle may be premature
  • Once GDP growth returns to trend, commodity demand will moderate
  • Fiscal and monetary relief are key to maintaining growth and demand
  • Structural changes in energy demand will prove more persistent

As the spectre of inflation begins to haunt economists, many market commentators have started to focus on commodity prices in an attempt to predict the likely direction of the general price level for goods and services. This indexing of the most heterogeneous asset class has always struck me as destined to disappoint. Commodity prices change in response to, often, small variation in supply or demand and the price of some commodities varies enormously from one geographic location to another. Occasionally the majority of commodities rise in tandem but more frequently they dance to their own peculiar tunes.

Commodity analysts tend to focus on Energy and Industrial Metals foremost; Agricultural Commodities, which are more diverse by nature are often left as a footnote. Occasionally, however, a demand-side event occurs which causes nearly all sectors to rise. The Covid-19 event was just such a shock, disrupting global supply-chains and consumer demand patterns simultaneously.

The chart below shows the CRB Index since 1995: –

Source: CRB, Yardeni

This chart looks very different to the energy heavy GSCI Index, which is weighted on the basis of liquidity and by the respective world production quantities of its underlying components: –

Source: S&P GSCI, Trading Economics

The small rebound on the chart above is not that insignificant, however, it equates to a 55% rise since the lows on 2020. The fact that prices collapsed, as the pandemic broke, and subsequently soared, as vaccines allowed economies to reopen, is hardly surprising. Economic cycles wield a powerful influence over commodity prices; short-term, inelastic, supply, confronted by an unexpected jump in demand, invariably precipitates sharp price increases.

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