Monday, May 22, 2006

Commodity Deflation? Not Likely.

If the dollar collapses (say it corrects on the USX index down to the 70s) who knows what that will do to commodities? Commodities are priced internationally in dollars. It will throw the markets into utter confusion if no one really knows what a dollar is worth (if anything). Could commodity markets be created in other currencies? Yes, but these markets will be regional markets, not global ones.

Several writers, including MorganStanley's august Stephen Roach, have been making the case that commodity prices are in an unsustainable bubble. A correspondant emailed me an (unlinkable) Wall Street Journal article about money manager and commodity trader Dwight Anderson now tentatively bearish on commodities.

Anderson simply says demand will drop (i.e. a global recessionary slowdown?) and supply will kick in. Roach says commodities will drop because (a) China can't continue to grow so fast and (b) it "looks like a bubble in commodities", and that speculators are pushing the market.

I totally agree with Roach's first point about China having to slow down, but I'm not convinced the result will be falling commodity prices. Commodities priced how? In dollars or in gold? The dollar looks very weak and is being attacked on all fronts now. China and Russia both want to increase state gold reserves. Multiple energy trading markets are proposed, several to tade in alternative currencies to the dollar. Norway intends to sell oil only for euros. Russia will sell their huge energy and mineral commodity surpluses only in rubles soon.

The euro doesn't look strong enough to float global trade, and the European Central Bank doesn't want the doomed role of managing the enormous monetary inflation required. In several years time we may have several regional currencies, all similar to the euro. China and Japan are now negotiating the creation of a pan-asian currency. This is very significant. The pan-asian, the euro, the ruble, the loonie could all survive, with none needing to be the One Big Global Reserve Currency. I predict a South American currency (the Che Guevara!?) will launch also. The US dollar will be simply irrelevant. Gold will be very important, functioning as the ultimate meta-commodity, that all currencies and commodities are judged against. Because it is expensive to move and store, especially over long distances, it will create a worldwide recession. With regional currecies dominating trade, most commodity markets will be regional in scope.

It is very hard to predict the cost of producing any particular commodity. One reason is that a large portion of the cost of mining or wellhead production is the energy needed for that production. Energy is extremely volatile in price, and generally surging upward. Look at the dirt cheap natural gas we have now. Look at the high oil. These conditions could so easily reverse, or both could easily rise. Some commodities need lots of natural gas for production, some need lots of diesel fuel. Some can use either, and can switch as needed. Everything that goes into pricing is a moving target, including the dollar itself. But mostly, the dollar is moving down and energy moving up. So these things will drive commodities strongly upward, even as demand for commodities softens.

The other problem with Roach and Anderson's analyses is that neither of them factor, or even acknowledge, the existence of depletion. The largest copper mines are slowly becoming less and less productive. Depletion! Replacing big mines with smaller ones, at huge capital investment, will not bring down copper prices. The world will shortly face peak oil, peak gold, you name it. We don't have to "run out" of any commodity for it to become far more expensive, just for some mines or wells to become too expensive to operate because of declining yields, higher energy costs, and higher capital costs.

And wars. And nationalization. These are the children of depletion. They will remove large sources of production off of open markets. Nationalization is an unstoppable trend. Protecting a strategically important resource will become even more important than getting the best price and highest production for that resource. I predict even the United States will nationalize mineral and energy resources someday, if only to keep them out of the hands of our creditors. Wars for resources and nationalization are both indicators and consequences of depletion. We are seeing these things every day, on every continent. War requires nations to try to acquire strategic commodites at virtually any cost, or risk defeat.

Economists need to start admitting that these things are not anomalies, and that depletion exists. It is the trend. It is formenting nationalization and war. So, even if China goes into recession, I think it is possible for some commodities to rise in price, even relative to gold. Commodities will trade regionally, not globally. Some commodites may rise astronomically, in places, if there is a shortage.

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