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2 Mar 18 2010 @ 6:33am by Matt Smith in Capital Markets, Crude Oil, Economy, Global Energy, Natural Gas, risk management, Risk Strategy

A recipe for disaster, or ingredients for success?

I really like the quote that says ‘an optimist invented the plane, whereas a pessimist invented the parachute’. I am not declaring myself in either of these camps (I am obviously a well-balanced realist), but believe it would be misguided not to consider the upside and downside risks to current commodity pricing. Admittedly, some of these issues apply more to some commodities than others, but essentially, the sentiment is an ever present theme. So, let’s kick off with looking at some of the ingredients that could derail markets:     

  1. Economic data turning for the worse, led by housing, manufacturing and employment
  2. A deflationary economic environment
  3. A falling equity market
  4. Excess supply
  5. Emerging markets successfully cooling their economies 

ECRI Weekly Leading Index

Let’s tackle each one of these individually (yet briefly too). First up, economic data turning for the worse. The chart (left) illustrates the ECRI weekly leading index, which takes the temperature of the US economy on a regular and timely basis (ie, erm, weekly). This index bottomed out at the start of the recession (which makes sense as it it is a leading index = forward-looking), and has moved higher at a fair clip ever since. That is, until the last 12 weeks, when it has turned decisively lower. This index is an aggregation of a number of data points, hence its weakness raises a rather large red flag. Next up, a deflationary environment. We are already seeing signs of deflation creeping into markets, be it through wages or rent, or through pricing pressure on everyday goods due to new-found frugality in consumers. And a falling equity market would likely occur through the simple equation of the above bullets: 1 + 2 = 3. As for commodity-specific data, serious risks of surplus supply exist across commodity markets; for US natural gas it is from shale plays and increasing rig counts, for crude oil it is from quota non-compliance by Opec, for UK natural gas it is from LNG; and the beat goes on. Then the final bullet: emerging market risk. This one is a toughie. Too much growth could power commodities to such a high price that they crimp potential growth in lagging developed markets. On the other hand, if governments in these emerging markets (especially India and China) go overboard in efforts to quell excessive liquidity and credit in their economies, they risk putting the brakes on growth, which would surely upset global markets. 

That was all a bit hectic. Let’s have a brief interlude of humor before we truck on with the flipside of the coin:

Alrightee. Now to the path that could lead prices higher. In all fairness, it is pretty much the polar opposite of the pessimistic points:      

  1. Improving economic data  – especially industrial production / manufacturing
  2. An inflationary environment
  3. Continuing strength in equities
  4. Continuing demand growth for goods / commodities
  5. Continuing emerging market strength
Bloomberg Financial Conditions Index (Mar 07 – Mar 10)

For the prosecution of falling prices, I would like to present exhibit number one – a chart which illustrates an improving environment in financial markets – aptly named the Bloomberg Index of Financial Conditions. This shows that financial conditions have continued to improve at a trampolining rate since the financial meltdown-panic heydays of late 2008, an indication that the market is continuing to normalize after the shocks of recent years. Essentially, we have clambered over the wall of worry and beyond the territory of financial woes.    

As you well know from my rants, markets are all interlinked, hence bullets 1,3, 4 and 5 go essentially hand-in-hand here. Improving economic data (1) will undoubtedly be driven by higher demand for goods (4), boosting equities (3), while continuing emerging market strength (5) from domestic growth will too spur on global investor sentiment (back to 3, then 4, then 1). It is as inevitable as wrinkles and gray hair that inflation will once again rise up, although when this will arrive it is impossible to say. But one thing is for sure, a commodity rally will be a natural by-product of both an inflationary environment or an improving economic environment. It is on the horizon. 

I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can make a guess, but that is all it would be – a guess. It is much more important to to keep an open mind, but also be aware of all eventualities. So I sign off as I began; with a good quote – ‘the pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails’. I believe we are poised between the devil and the deep blue sea, and all we can do is hang in there, and sail broad reach. Ahoy.

2 Comments on this post:

  1. CrisisMaven says:

    This “fear of deflation” is largely nonsensical. Deflation does not keep people from spending – they always spend what’s necessary. And money NOT “spent” is then saved which means it is credit to someone who invests it for capital goods etc. thus it is again being spent, only not for consumption. Money never lies completely idle to any extent whether there’s inflation, deflation, stability or a solar eclipse. For deflation to seriously happen, not only the current extreme credit expansion by the central banks and states (through “quantitative easing”, stimulus packages, monetising and then spending national debt etc.) but also the money that was released into the economy PRIOR to the collapse would have to be “mopped up” again. This is nowhere to be seen nor would it be technically possible (confiscation aside) so we will rather see inflation than deflation.

  2. Matt Smith says:

    Firstly, thanks for the comment, CrisisMaven. Apologies for the delay – rude, I know – but it’s fair for me to admit I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading your blog this week – is great stuff. I do agree with you to a certain extent; I think that inflation is inevitable at some point down the line. However, given employment data, housing numbers, and the new ‘frugal consumer’ (deflation may not keep people from spending, but a lack of spending may spur on deflationary fears), I am not sure there is enough oomph to encourage such inflationary conditions. I hope I am wrong, but I believe before we see the ‘mopping up’ of excess liquidity, we are going to experience a rather twitchy period where deflationary fears hover over us like vultures.

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