Milken Institute
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Commodities: A tale of unstoppable demand?
By: Milken Institute
May 01, 2012
Commodities markets have been white hot in recent years. The trend is up and to the right, but the trend line is never straight. The big-picture question has to be, has the boom exhausted itself?

No one on the Global Conference 2012 commodities panel thought so. All adhered to the logic of unstoppable growth in demand, based mainly on the new needs of the less developed world. Since extracting oil, metals and many other raw materials depletes a finite planetary supply, you can make a compelling case for relentlessly rising prices ahead.

At the center of the story is China, whose appetite for stuff that's mined, drilled and harvested is driven by swift industrialization and a rapidly expanding middle class. A similar story is unfolding in many places around the globe, and population growth may bring an additional 2 billion potential consumers by 2050.

Eike Batista of Brazil's EBX Group boasted about the massive Acu Superport he built to send huge shipments of iron ore to China. His oil and gas subsidiary is developing new crude sources for the same customer.

There's little spare capacity among oil producers anywhere, from Saudi Arabia to Canada. With supplies stretched, any whiff of disruption pumps up the price, so investors keep a close eye on geopolitics. Both Batista and Joshua Harris of Apollo Global Management figure that the current jitters around Iran add about $10 to the price of a barrel. If that situation eases up, or heats up, so will the price.

Dambisa Moyo, an economist and author from Zambia, is keenly attuned to supply issues. The world depends on oil fields that were first tapped in the 1950s and '60s, she noted, wondering if those waning supplies are being replaced by sources equal to the challenge ahead. At the same time, she's not sure that all these new consumers in the emerging markets will be able to afford the future cost of a gallon.

In the U.S., energy is wrapped in another riddle - the impact of our burgeoning supplies of natural gas and the price slide that came with that gusher. Now it's in the neighborhood of $2 per 1,000 cubic feet, and if you've owned the commodity for a while as an investor, you're not happy.

Harris says the glut has an upside for the country aEUR" it could help wean us off of imported oil. Despite crude being a much richer energy source, natural gas is a bargain when you do the math. Harris said he expects the price to recover some of its lost value in the fullness of time. But in the next year or two, he added, natural gas may be an ugly place to be.

Moyo offered something of a dissenting view, saying there's a mood of euphoria around natural gas that investors should think about. Fracking, a controversial drilling technique that some have blamed for chemically fouling groundwater, is responsible for much of the boom. "We've yet to see that backlash," she warned, and the risk may not be priced in. But on the flip side, what else isn't priced in? Since natural gas subs for dirty coal in power plants, its environmental advantages could create some gains.