Peak Oil…or Peak Speculation?

May 1, 2008

The most surprising feature of the current housing crisis and economic slowdown is the recent rise in commodity prices (the notable exception being gold, which is down about 13% from its March highs). Oil just gushed to $120 a barrel, up $100 since 2002, and corn is pricing at about $6 a bushel (up from $2 in 2006).

Until recently, investors’ defined commodities as anything from "generic goods used to make more valuable items" to "a high-performing asset class that diversifies a portfolio and offers protection against a falling dollar, inflation, world calamity, and just about anything else."

Can you blame them? Since 2000, commodity indexes have outpaced nearly every other asset class. While the S&P 500 continues trying to claw its way back to where it was nearly a decade ago, commodities, especially oil – the Grand Poobah of commodities – just keeps climbing. 

As commodity indexes (indexes that measure the price changes of the most traded commodities like oil, heating oil, gold, aluminum, corn, and wheat) rise, so have investors’ appetites for commodity-related investments. Back in 1999, when new tech funds were being launched every week, it was nearly impossible for mutual fund investors to gain direct commodity exposure. But now that many commodities have tripled in price or more, fund companies are offering direct investment in any number of individual commodities or groups of commodities. Not so long ago, fund investors were forced to make do with mere natural resource funds that owned mining companies, energy stocks, and the like (we used to own some in our model portfolios). In fact, there was so little interest that one of our Powerfund portfolio holdings, American Century Global Natural Resources, liquidated with less than $100 million in assets.

Much of this commodity run-up is simply the result of the fall of the U.S. dollar, which raises the price in dollars of just about everything. But if investors were simply looking to make money from a falling dollar, they’d own foreign bond funds, just as we have for most of our portfolio history, even going back so far as early 2002. Something more exciting than mere up-the-down dollar bets is at work here, and causing billions of investment dollars to be placed into the absolute dullest of investments: raw commodities.

Recent memory aside, investors seemed to have lost their grasp on what commodities actually are. They're the exact opposite of the growth and tech stocks everyone clamored for back in the late 90’s. But what are growth and tech stocks? They're investments in companies whose value is based more on intellectual property than the tangible value offered by factories, stores, and the like. The ideas – patents, innovations, brands, audience, etc., were considered more valuable than mere old-fashioned notions of value.

Those optimistic estimations of what ideas were worth led to wild stock overvaluations, which eventually crumbled to such a point that even a decade later, valuations are still down 50% from their highs in many cases. And plenty of businesses flat-out failed. 

The opposite notion - what people do with mere commodities is not as important as the underlying inputs themselves – has taken hold. The world needs energy and food to grow. Who cares what those brilliant businesses do with the raw materials? As long as the demand is there, you’ll make money. Let the stockholders gamble on whether Ford can make saleable cars. We’ll just own the oil, steel, aluminum, and platinum.

But commodity prices can’t climb to the moon any more than the Nasdaq can. In fact, they're fairly self-limiting. Other than oil, the vast majority of commodities can only remain in short supply for the short run. 

If everyone tries to buy twice as much rice, rice prices will go through the roof, and shortages will abound. But over several years, eventually more rice will be planted and harvested. Corn production alone has jumped 24% since 2006. Even most metals can be had in greater amounts. It's just a question of keeping prices high enough to encourage more recycling and mining.

While peak oil theorists can speculate as to when the oil will run out, agriculture commodities – the current area of peak speculation – are not in long-term short supply. A lot of land around the world remains unfarmed. Many people left farming generations ago due to poor economics. In the U.S., we used to farm more acres for corn than we do today (albeit at lower levels of production – we’re at record production levels today). To put it another way, if tomatoes get much more expensive, some people may just consider leaving their day jobs to start growing tomatoes.

Of course, commodity bulls love to talk about a new multi-year boom cycle in commodities. To the optimists, rising energy prices will lead to ever-rising commodity prices since energy is used to produce just about all other commodities. Although in the short-term, this is certainly possible, will people continue to drive SUVs to work if gas costs $8.00 a gallon and alternative solutions like carpooling, more fuel-efficient cars, trains, and living closer to work, are all available?

Short run (compared to stocks) booms aside – and there have been several in commodities – over the very long term, commodities tend to deliver the returns of inflation. This trend makes sense, because commodities aren't simply included in the price indexes just as food and energy, but also as inputs to other prices, including transportation costs, which then influence even more prices. And this low return assumes investors don’t buy in after a commodity boom, because then your long-term returns would be lower than inflation, just as it's been for those who bought into commodity indexes during the last boom around 1980. 

And since when is matching inflation a great measure of success? Investors can achieve that not-so-lofty goal over time with a low-fee money market fund that carries virtually no risk – and eliminates the risk of 50%+ wipeouts caused by buying late in a boom. 

Is it really possible that the better value is investing in the old-fashioned commodities that are used by society to make great things, or by investing in the actual companies that make great things?

 We’ll avoid commodity-related investments in all of our portfolios and consider shorting commodities only in our highest-risk portfolios. Shorting anything during a bubble is dangerous, because prices can double from overvalued to extremely overvalued before the ultimate fall occurs.

We’re a bit disappointed that we got out of natural resource investments so soon and didn’t consider this direct commodity speculation boom (with no middlemen companies in the way…) We thought the pendulum swing from new economy stocks to old economy stocks would overvalue value stocks – not that people would go real, real old economy, namely investing in agriculture commodities!