If China Killed Commodity Super Cycle, Fed Is About to Bury It

Has the Commodities Supercycle Run Its Course?
  • Raw-material losses worst since 1999, before China buying boom
  • Higher U.S. rates mean stronger dollar, further eroding demand

For commodities, it’s like the 21st century never happened.

The last time the Bloomberg Commodity Index of investor returns was this low, Apple Inc.’s best-selling product was a desktop computer, and you could pay for it with francs and deutsche marks.

The gauge tracking the performance of 22 natural resources has plunged two-thirds from its peak, to the lowest level since 1999. That shows it’s back to square one for the so-called commodity super cycle, a hunger for coal, oil and metals from Chinese manufacturers that powered a bull market for about a decade until 2011.

“In China, you had 1.3 billion people industrializing -- something on that scale has never been seen before,” said Andrew Lapping, deputy chief investment officer at Allan Gray Ltd., a manager of $33 billion of assets in Cape Town. “But there’s just no way that can continue indefinitely. You can only consume so much.”

If slowing Chinese growth, now headed for its weakest pace in 25 years, put the first nail in the coffin of the super cycle, the Federal Reserve is about to hammer in the last.

The first U.S. interest rate increase since 2006 is expected next month by a majority of investors, helping push the dollar up by about 9 percent against a basket of 10 major currencies this year. That only adds to the woes of commodities, mostly priced in dollars, by cutting the spending power of global raw-materials buyers and making other assets that generate yields such as bonds and equities more attractive for investors.

The Bloomberg Commodity Index takes into account roll costs and gains in investing in futures markets to reflect actual returns. By comparison, a spot index that tracks raw materials prices fell to a more than six-year low Friday, and a gauge of industry shares to the weakest since 2008 on Sept. 29. The biggest decliners in the mining index, which is down 31 percent this year, are copper producers First Quantum Minerals Ltd., Glencore Plc and Freeport-McMoran Inc.

With record demand through the 2000s, commodity producers such as Total SA, Rio Tinto Group and Anglo American Plc invested billions in long-term capital projects that have left the world awash with oil, natural gas, iron ore and copper just as Chinese growth wanes.

"Without fail, every single industrial commodity company allocated capital horrendously over the last 10 years,” Lapping said.

Drowning in Oil

Oil is among the most oversupplied. Even as prices sank 60 percent from June 2014, stockpiles have swollen to an all-time high of almost 3 billion barrels, according to the International Energy Agency. That’s due to record output in the U.S. and a decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to keep pumping above its target of 30 million barrels a day to maintain market share and squeeze out higher-cost producers.

A Fed move on rates and accompanying gains in the dollar will make it harder to mop up excesses in raw-materials supply. Mining and drilling costs often paid in other currencies will shrink relative to the dollars earned from selling oil and metals in global markets as the U.S. exchange rate appreciates. Russia’s ruble is down more than 30 percent against the dollar in the past year, helping to maintain the profitability of the country’s steel and nickel producers and allowing them to maintain output levels.

"The problem with lower currencies is operations that were under water a year ago are all of a sudden profitable on a cash basis," said Charl Malan, who helps manage $31 billion at Van Eck Global in New York. "Why would you shut them?"

While some world-class operators such as Glencore plan to cut copper and zinc output, others like iron-ore producers BHP Billiton Ltd., Vale SA and Rio Tinto are locked in a "rush to the bottom" as they seek to drive out competitors by maintaining supply even as prices slump, according to David Wilson, director of metals research at Citigroup Inc.

“With the momentum on the downside, it’s very difficult to say that we’re reaching a bottom,” Wilson said.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the day of the low for the spot index in the seventh paragraph.)

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