Aron Pataki, one of the portfolio managers on Newton’s Real Return strategy, has written a piece for us about how commodities1
can offer challenges but also a rich seam of diversification2
possibilities in multi-asset3
The value of investments can fall. Investors may not get back the amount invested.
Commodities can be used for both diversification purposes and as a reduction in risk against certain outcomes and, when these two objectives align, there is a strong case for using them according to Pataki. A constant diversifier, gold can be used in risk management to protect against infrequent or unlikely but significant negative events. It has the virtue of not being significantly similar with changes in the price of other mainstream asset classes.
Unless commodity exposure is obtained through a listed equity4
, such as a mining company, commodities do not necessarily produce a cash flow so the bar to investing in them for a portfolio manager can be high, says Pataki. When investing in commodities, the use of derivatives5
is also often necessary and by their nature, derivatives do not fall into the category of simple and transparent instruments, he comments.
The past decade can be described as having witnessed a ‘super cycle’ for commodities, when China grew very rapidly and stimulated its economy through investment in infrastructure that required the extensive use of raw materials. The unprecedented stimulus encouraged a credit bubble6
after the global financial crisis that authorities are now trying to deflate in an orderly fashion. This process and changes in the structure of the economy have the potential to exert a continuing impact on demand for commodities. Understanding how Chinese demand for commodities will change – if and when its economy rebalances away from investment and exports towards consumption – is key in identifying the driving forces of future commodity price changes, says Pataki. Over the longer term, the relative availability and cost of supply is also very influential in driving commodity prices (not just the rate of demand growth).
Super cycle’ to ‘super downturn’
Commodity producers tended to overinvest as they assumed the trend of China investing in infrastructure would continue, believing it would go on forever. Faced with a new reality, the management of such companies is typically doing what it is supposed to do, says Pataki. That is, harvesting cash rather than investing in new production.
As the commodity ‘super cycle’ has evolved into a ‘super downturn’, many prices for commodities have halved from their 2011 peaks but some remain well above levels seen 15 years ago, says Pataki. This extreme range has contributed to long-term uncertainty, leaving investors unsure how best to forecast what commodity prices might do.
Past performance is not a guide to future performance.
Shale oil and gas
After the 2008 financial troubles, central banks (the national banks providing financial and banking services for its country’s government and commercial banking system) flooded the world with cheap US dollar liquidity7
, notes Pataki. Taking the example of the US shale oil and gas industry, this cheap US dollar liquidity was used to increase production at a time when the rate of demand growth was slowing, particularly in China. With a prevailing consensus that commodities provide a good method of reducing risk against inflation in the inflationary world, investors were encouraged to invest heavily in the asset class, which unsurprisingly collapsed, says Pataki.
However, when oil prices collapsed, the oil industry was not wiped out, he says. Just as it is possible to shut a valve quickly, it can equally be reopened quickly. If the price of oil rises above breakeven levels then a lot of new oil shale production will be switched on, capping prices. Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries or OPEC are finding it difficult to agree on production cuts that could stabilise the price of oil. Iran, in particular, is returning to the market and anxious to regain market share after having been long shut out as a consequence of sanctions.
Store of value
Gold (see "Good as gold?" section below) can be used to limit risk against a very wide range of outcomes, says Pataki, and against the lowering value of currency. In the event of future inflation, it can be a store of value.
Rather than owning physical gold, it is possible to gain exposure to the broad price of gold through holding gold mining companies, notes Pataki. Generally gold miners have a cash flow stream and should pay regularly to investors, whereas physical gold would not. There are advantages in investing through listed equities.
Within multi-asset portfolios, soft commodities8
can be used as a diversification tool as they tend to be less associated with financial risk than other commodities. Soft commodities are also supply constrained. Production is limited by the amount of arable land available and competition between crops, as well as continuing adverse weather conditions and water constraints affecting supplies. For instance, a heatwave in California could put pressure on the provision of wheat and grain and further have an impact on global supply, notes Pataki. A drawback is that soft commodities can only be accessed through derivatives or structured products (products built to meet the specific needs of investors that cannot be met with standardised financial instruments). Such commodities always have a storage cost and this can have an effect on the money made.
Good as gold?
Gold represents a ‘real’ asset and there is a finite supply as there is only so much gold that can be dug out of the ground. For that reason, gold cannot be replicated so it is not subject to debasement in the way currencies can be. The authorities would seem intent on reducing the value of fiat money so that their individual economies can get a competitive advantage (fiat money is currency a government has declared to be a legal tender but is not backed by a physical commodity). Owning gold is also a way of providing distance from the financial system as it sits outside that system, being seen as less prone to manipulation by central banks than fiat money. Gold can also act as a barometer for confidence in an economy and by extension in fiat money. 1
A raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold (such as gold, coffee beans etc).2
Investing in different regions, sectors and/or asset classes in order to spread out risks; investing in a variety so that poor performance from one thing can potentially be offset by positive performance in another.3
Asset: An item (which can include an individual investment instrument like shares) we own which has value. Multi-Asset: A combination of asset classes (such as cash, equity or bonds) used as an investment.4
Shares issued by a company.5
A financial instrument that derives its value from something else. They can be used to gain exposure to, or help protect against, expected changes in the value of the underlying investments. They can be traded on a regulated exchange or over the counter.6
When consumers build up so much consumer credit that they are unable to repay. On a large scale this can be very detrimental to the wider financial system.7
The degree to which an asset or investment can be bought or sold in the market without affecting its price. A company’s shares are considered highly liquid if they can be easily bought or sold. 8
Soft commodities are commodities such as coffee, cocoa, sugar, corn, wheat, soybean, fruit and livestock. The term generally refers to commodities that are grown, rather than mined; the latter (such as oil, copper and gold) are known as hard commodities.
This is a financial promotion and is not investment advice.
Any views and opinions are those of the investment manager, unless otherwise noted. BNY Mellon is the corporate brand of The Bank of New York Mellon Corporation and its subsidiaries.
Issued in UK by BNY Mellon Investment Management EMEA Limited, BNY Mellon Centre, 160 Queen Victoria Street, London EC4V 4LA. Registered in England No. 1118580. Authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. INV00539, expires 4 July 2017
The views and opinions contained herein are third party and may not necessarily represent views expressed or reflected by Willis Owen.