Behind the commodities bust

By Bob Samuelson [The Washington Post]:

First was the dot-com bubble, then the housing bubble. Now comes the commodities bubble. We don’t fully understand the stock market’s current turmoil, but we know it’s driven at least in part by a bubble of raw material prices. Their collapse weighs on world stock markets through fears of slower economic growth and large financial losses.

All bubbles share similar characteristics. There’s a strong, enthusiastic demand for some object (whether stocks, homes, oil or tulips). High demand pushes up prices, which inspires more demand. Prices ultimately reach unsustainable levels so that when spending slows, the bubble implodes. Commodities have now traced this familiar path.

As the Economist reminds us, raw material prices respond to different influences. Weather affects crops; technology (a.k.a. “fracking”) affects oil recovery. Still, despite these variations, prices of many commodities — not just oil — have followed roughly similar trajectories in recent years. They have dropped steeply, according to figures from the International Monetary Fund.

Here are declines for five commodities from 2012 through July 2015: oil, down 48 percent; iron ore, 60 percent; copper, 31 percent; palm oil, 39 percent; and wheat, 37 percent. Many commodity prices have continued to fall.

The bubble formed on hopes that China’s rapid growth would feed an ever-expanding appetite for raw materials, says economist John Mothersole of the consulting firm IHS Global Insight. Demand and prices would remain high indefinitely. Although prices fell after the 2008-09 financial crisis, China’s huge “stimulus” package — intended to offset the crisis’s drag — sent them up again, says Mothersole. China’s demand seemed destined to stay strong, as economic growth would stabilize at a high level.

It didn’t. In 2010, China’s economy grew 10 percent; the IMF expects 6.8 percent in 2015 and 6.3 percent in 2016. Other economists think growth could be lower. As a result, much of the added production capacity — mines and the like — to supply China isn’t needed. “There’s a new commodities era,” says economist Rabah Arezki, head of the IMF’s commodities research. “Everyone was rushing to invest. Now they have to adjust to a new lower level of demand.”

Continue reading here.

Workers carry pipes to install an irrigation line in a coffee farm in Santo Antonio do Jardim, Brazil, last year. (Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)

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