Archive

Archive for the ‘Commodities’ Category

Corn Prices – Has the Correction Run its Course?

September 21, 2022 1 comment

Recently there has understandably been a lot of focus on the extremely high prices of agricultural products. The front Corn futures contract hit an all-time month-end high back in April, at over $8/bu (see chart, source Bloomberg). Over the last decade-plus, in fact, grain prices have been generally higher and more-volatile than in the 40 or so years prior to the GFC.

It is always good to remember, though, that because the overall value of the currency is in more or less perpetual decline, it is expected that the price of any good or service should be expected to rise over time. The more important question is, what has the real price of grains done over the decades? And here, the picture is starkly different and looks like the chart of many, many goods. It’s the way that the real price of consumer goods should look over time, given that the arrow of productivity points mostly in one direction. This one chart shows the price of corn, in 2022 dollars. Back in the 1970s, corn only cost $3/bu, but the dollar was worth more then. It would have taken more than $20 of today’s dollars to buy a bushel of corn in mid-1974.

The chart also has an orange line on it, which shows the US Cereal Crop Yield each year according to the World Bank.[1] I’ve inverted that series, so that when we are able to get more crops from each hectare, the line declines. It’s also on a logarithmic axis.

The point of this chart is merely to illustrate that real corn prices have declined over a long period of time because contrary to Mathus’s fears the production of cereal grains has been able to keep up and in fact exceed the increase in the demand for them over time. The chart is necessarily imprecise, since we’re not considering how the number of hectares producing corn changes each year, and we’re not looking at specific corn yields. Nevertheless, you will notice that many of the spikes in prices are associated with spikes (that is, dips, since it’s inverted) in crop yields. Which makes sense, of course.

What causes changes in crop yields? Different planting and harvesting techniques are obvious improvements that are pretty much one-way. Also, improved fertilizers and pest control, and better use of the proper mix of fertilizers. But then why do crop yields sometimes decrease, if all of these things tend to get better over time?

One obvious answer to that is the weather. Less obvious is that the use of fertilizers isn’t constant. When fertilizer prices are high, farmers try to use less and that reduces crop yields. Also – and this is directly relevant to today – when there is a shortage of fertilizer then less of it is used and the price of fertilizer goes up. With the conflict in Ukraine and the cutting off of natural gas supplies to Europe (natty is an important input into the manufacture of some fertilizers), we are in that sort of situation. If we overlay real corn prices with real fertilizer prices[2] you can tell that these are closely related series.

So in the long run, the general level of corn prices is driven by the purchasing power of the dollar (aka the overall price level) and the steady improvement in agricultural productivity. In the short run, corn prices are driven by fertilizer prices.

Fertilizer prices have come down somewhat. The continued embargo of natural gas into Europe has only a small effect on fertilizer supply, and Russia only directly provides about 10% of the global supply of fertilizers.[3] But the overall level of commodity inputs into the manufacture of various sorts of fertilizer obviously impacts the output price. I suspect it will be a while before fertilizer prices even in real terms get back to their pre-COVID levels. And the overall CPI is not about to decline any time soon. Does that mean that corn (and wheat, etc etc) prices can’t decline from here? Of course not – but my guess is that we’ve seen most of the good news on the agricultural commodity front for a while.


[1] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.YLD.CREL.KG?locations=US Annual data through 2020.

[2] US Cornbelt Urea Granular Spot Price, source Bloomberg. The 1:1 congruence of scales and amplitudes is mostly coincidental – one is cents per bushel and one is dollars per short ton.

[3] https://www.fas.usda.gov/data/impacts-and-repercussions-price-increases-global-fertilizer-market

Financial Buyers Aren’t to Blame For High Commodities Prices

February 23, 2022 Leave a comment

Today’s does of non-Ukraine content concerns a misunderstanding about commodities that seems to require regular correction. I’ve seen it resurface recently, most recently in a daily digest from Bloomberg this morning:

“There seems to be something of a vicious circle developing in the commodities space, where investors are increasing their exposure as an inflation hedge, thereby possibly driving up prices further. “

This is not something you should worry about.

I suspect this sort of thinking derives from observations about financial futures, in particular cash-settled sorts. But in contracts for physical delivery, it doesn’t work this way. A purely financial investor cannot drive up prices in the spot market, because such an investor never gets to the spot market. No one, outside of a few sophisticated hedge funds, holds physical commodities as an inflation hedge (with the possible exception of precious metals, which isn’t what they’re discussing here). No one keeps a silo of corn or beans for investment, taking that supply off the market in the process. (Almost) no one keeps a tanker truck of gasoline as an inflation hedge or a pile of aluminum.[1] A financial investor must cover their (long) positions by finding an offset before delivery. Only buyers who actually want the commodity delivered, or sellers who actually have the commodity to deliver, go all the way to final settlement. Ergo, the spot price is determined by actual buyers and sellers of the spot commodity and not financial players.

So, if financial investors in commodities do anything at all, they might push up deferred contract prices relative to spot prices, putting the market further in contango. If anything, this actually would cause the opposite effect from the one noted above since a producer who owns future commodities (in other words, they make production decisions about how much to grow or mine) can lock in a higher selling price than the current spot price – which obviously would make them want to supply more to the market.

But if this was the dynamic, then commodities curves would be in contango (deferred contracts higher than spot contracts); instead we find that commodities curves are in backwardation at levels we haven’t seen in a long time.

[N.b.: if you have the Inflation Guy mobile app, you can look for the Daily Chart Pack under “tools” and on page 17 you will find this chart, updated every day.]

Commodities curves being in backwardation is actually one strong piece of evidence that financial buyers are not driving volatility or activity in commodities markets. Curves are in backwardation because there are shortages in the spot market but producers are still willing to sell future production lower than the current level.

In short – don’t blame the financial players for the rise in commodities prices. Blame years of underinvestment followed by massive money-stoked demand. It’s not hard to see why commodities have risen so much. It’s only hard to guess how much farther they will go. But they answer in any event will not depend on how heavily invested institutions or the general public are.


[1] That can occasionally include pure arbs doing cash-and-carry metals arb, but that’s not much fun when the curves are backwardated like they are now.

A More Optimistic Outlook for Gold? Or Not?

January 31, 2022 2 comments

Something interesting has been happening in gold over the last decade.

I know that sounds strange, but what has been happening is interesting in a very specific way: gold has been outperforming a priori expectations for returns, by a significant margin. So far, that’s still not very interesting since just about every asset class has been outperforming a priori expectations for returns for quite a while. That’s what excess liquidity provision will do (and is supposed to do), after all. But what’s interesting about gold is that for a very long time the relationship between the starting real price of gold and the subsequent real return has been very strong, and it still is – but the relationship seems to have shifted.

Naturally, the key to good long-term returns is buying at low prices and selling at high prices. But the question of what “high” and “low” prices are is the squishy part. In gold, though, it turns out that going back for quite a while the subsequent real return to gold has been strikingly regular. The chart below is snipped from Erb and Harvey’s “The Golden Dilemma,” an excellent paper published in 2013. It shows the subsequent 10-year annualized after-inflation return to gold, as a function of its starting real price (defined by E&H here as simply the gold price divided by the CPI Index).

The chart below shows this relationship as I’ve recreated it, but putting the prices relative to the current spot price (that is, adjusting past prices by the ratio of the current CPI price level index to the CPI Index at that time). This is for periods starting 1975-2000 and ending therefore 1985-2010. Unsurprisingly, it matches Erb & Harvey except for the different ending point, and the choice of how the x-axis is represented. I’ve also drawn a log regression line here. Obviously there should be a bit more curvature to the line but you get the idea. It’s a pretty decent fit: tell me the starting price in today’s dollars and I can give you a pretty accurate guess at the future real return. Lower prices lead to better subsequent real returns. The current price, though (where the vertical line is drawn), is not encouraging.

But here’s where the interesting part comes in. The next 10 years’ worth of starting points and ending points, after those plotted above, still fall on a very nice curve. But the curve is a lot higher.

This is much more encouraging! Whereas the original curve suggested that the expected real return to gold, starting from the current price, is presently about -8% per annum, the more recent curve suggests that the expectation should be roughly a 0% real return. That is, gold ought to approximately keep up with the price level. The curve in red is also more encouraging in that it suggests that while you can have great real returns by buying gold when it occasionally gets quite cheap, it shouldn’t drastically underperform inflation even when it gets kinda expensive. That’s great news for owners of gold, if we can believe it.

I have one mild concern, though – what caused this shift in curves? Clearly, gold has done wonderfully since 2001 partly because it started at a very low real price but also partly because the tremendous liquidity that has been a feature of the financial landscape for the last 13 years (at least) has raised all “real” boats. Because it turns out that gold – moreso than a lot of other commodities – also reacts fairly directly to real interest rates. In a study that we did as part of our work with Simplify Asset Management, we found that for one-year horizons gold has approximately 4 times as much duration with respect to real interest rates than it does to the price level, and the delta to the 10-year real interest rate is about 10x. That is, if real interest rates drop 1%, then that effect alone will influence gold to rise about 10%.

Thus, at least some of what is happening here is that the ‘new curve’ reflects the steady decline in 10-year real interest rates since the late 1990s, from a bit above 4% to the neighborhood of -1% now. Given the (current) starting real price of gold, our expectation for gold’s return over the next decade is that it should be roughly equal to the aggregate inflation over that time frame. The caveat, though, is significant. If real interest rates rise during that time, then gold will probably underperform inflation. Only if real interest rates fall appreciably further – which seems unlikely – can we concoct a scenario where we would think a priori that gold should beat inflation comfortably. And that means that even if you think the red dots in the plot above are a better basis for a forecast, the net message should still not be overly bullish for gold. The most optimistic guess would be that gold’s return equals the change in CPI, unless interest rates collapse further.

However, that circumstance is not damning to gold alone; just about every asset class is subject to the same law of liquidity/gravity. Take away liquidity, and real interest rates tend to rise. Take away liquidity, and prices of all sorts of assets decline – to some level where they’ll offer a better future return from a lower starting price.

Categories: Commodities, Gold

The Flip Side of Financialization of Commodities

Recently, a paper by Ilia Bouchouev (“From risk bearing to propheteering”) was published that had some very thought-provoking analysis. The paper traced the development of the use of futures and concluded that while futures markets in the past (specifically, he was considering energy markets but notes the idea started with agricultural commodities) tended towards backwardation – in which contracts for distant delivery dates trade at lower prices than those for nearer delivery dates – this is no longer as true. While others have noticed that futures markets do not seem to provide as much ‘roll return’ as in the past, Mr. Bouchouev suggested that this is not a random occurrence but rather a consequence of financialization. (My discussion of his fairly brief paper will not really do it justice – so go and read the original from the Journal of Quantitative Finance here).

Let me first take a step backward and explain why commodities markets tend towards backwardation, at least in theory. The idea is that a producer of a commodity, such as a farmer growing corn, has an affirmative need to hedge his future production to ensure that his realized product price adequately compensates him for producing the commodity in the first place. If it costs a farmer $3 per bushel to grow corn, and he expects to sell it for $5 per bushel, then he will plant a crop. But if prices subsequently fall to $2 per bushel, he has lost money. Accordingly, it behooves him when planting to hedge against a decline in corn prices by selling futures, locking in his margin. The farmer is willing to do this at a price that is lower than his true expectation, and possibly lower than the current spot price (although, technical note: Keynes’ ‘Theory of Normal Backwardation’ refers to the difference between his expected forward price and the price at which he is willing to sell futures, so that futures prices are expected to be downwardly biased forecasts of prices in the future, and not that they are expected to be actually lower than spot ‘normally’). He is willing to do this in order to induce speculators to take the other side of the trade; they will do so because they expect, on average, to realize a gain by buying futures and selling in the future spot market at a higher price.

Unfortunately, no one has ever been able to convincingly prove normal backwardation for individual commodities, because there is no way to get into the collective mind of market participants to know what they really expect the spot price to be in the future. Some evidence has been found (Till 2000) that a risk premium may exist for difficult-to-store commodities (agricultural commodities, for example), where we may expect producers to be the most interested in locking in an appropriate profit, but on the whole the evidence has been somewhat weak that futures are biased estimators of forward prices. In my view, that’s at least partly because the consumer of the product (say, Nabisco) also has a reason to hedge their future purchases of the good, so it isn’t a one-sided affair. That being said, owners of long futures positions have several other sources of return that are significant and persistent,[1] and so commodity futures indices over a long period of time have had returns and risks that are similar to those found in equity indices but deriving from very different sources. As a consequence, since the mid-2000s institutional investment into commodity indices has been significant compared to the prior level of interest, even as actual commodity returns have disappointed over the last 5-10 years. Which brings us back to Mr. Bouchouev’s story again.

He makes the provocative point that part of the reason commodity returns have been poorer in recent years is because markets have tended more toward contango (higher prices for distant contracts than for those nearer to expiry) than backwardation, and moreover that that is a consequence of the arrival of these institutional investors – the ‘financialization’ of commodities futures markets, in other words. After all, if Keynes was right and the tendency of anxious producers to be more aggressive than patient speculators caused futures to be downwardly biased, then it stands to reason that introducing more price-insensitive, institutional long-only buyers into the equation might tilt that scale in the other direction. His argument is appealing, and I think he may be right although as I said, commodities are still an important asset class – it’s just that the sources of returns has changed over time. (Right now, for what it’s worth, I think the potential return to spot commodities themselves, which are ordinarily a negative, are presently a strong positive given how badly beaten-down they have become over time).

All of that prelude, though, is to point out a wonderful corollary. If it is the case that futures prices are no longer biased lower by as much as they once were, then it means that hedgers are now getting the benefit of markets where they don’t have to surrender as much expectation to hedge. That is, where an oil producer might in the past have had to commit to selling next year’s oil $1 lower than where he expected to be able to sell it if he took the risk and waited, he may now be able to sell it $1 higher thanks to those institutions who are buying long-only indices.

And that, in turn, will likely lead to futures curves being extended further into the future (or, equivalently, the effective liquidity for existing markets will be extended further out). For example, over the last decade there have been several new commodities indices that systematically buy further out the curve to reduce the cost of contango. In doing so, they’re pushing the contango further out, and also providing bids for hedgers to be able to better sell against. So Mr. Bouchouev’s story is a good one, and for those of us who care about the financial markets liquidity ecosystem it’s a beautiful one. Because it isn’t the end of the story. Chapter 1 was producers, putting curves into backwardation to provide an inducement to draw out speculators to be the other side of the hedge. Chapter 2 is Bouchouev’s tale, in which financial buyers push futures markets towards contango, which in turn provides an inducement to draw out speculators on the other side, or for hedgers to hedge more of their production. In Chapter 3, also according to Bouchouev, the market balances with hedgers reacting to economic uncertainty, and speculators fill in the gaps. Of course, in Chapter 4 the Fed comes in and wrecks the market altogether… but let’s enjoy this while we can.


[1] …and beyond the scope of this article. Interested parties may refer to History of Commodities as the Original Real Return Asset Class, by Michael Ashton and Bob Greer, which is Chapter 4 in Inflation Risks and Products, 2008, by Incisive Media. You can contact me for a copy if you are unable to find it.

COVID-19 in China is a Supply Shock to the World

February 25, 2020 3 comments

The reaction of much of the financial media to the virtual shutdown of large swaths of Chinese production has been interesting. The initial reaction, not terribly surprising, was to shrug and say that the COVID-19 virus epidemic would probably not amount to much in the big scheme of things, and therefore no threat to economic growth (or, Heaven forbid, the markets. The mere suggestion that stocks might decline positively gives me the vapors!) Then this chart made the rounds on Friday…

…and suddenly, it seemed that maybe there was something worth being concerned about. Equity markets had a serious slump yesterday, but I’m not here to talk about whether this means it is time to buy TSLA (after all, isn’t it always time to buy Tesla? Or so they say), but to talk about the other common belief and that is that having China shuttered for the better part of a quarter is deflationary. My tweet on the subject was, surprisingly, one of my most-engaging posts in a very long time.

The reason this distinction between “supply shock” and “demand shock” is important is that the effects on prices are very different. The first stylistic depiction below shows a demand shock; the second shows a supply shock. In the first case, demand moves from D to D’ against a stable supply curve S; in the latter case, supply moves from S to S’ against a stable demand curve D.

Note that in both cases, the quantity demanded (Q axis) declines from c to d. Both (negative) demand and supply shocks are negative for growth. However, in the case of a negative demand shock, prices fall from a to b; in the case of a negative supply shock prices rise from a to b.

Of course, in this case there are both demand and supply shocks going on. China is, after all, a huge consumption engine (although a fraction of US consumption). So the growth picture is unambiguous: Chinese growth is going to be seriously impacted by the virtual shutdown of Wuhan and the surrounding province, as well as some ports and lots of other ancillary things that outsiders are not privy to. But what about the price picture? The demand shock is pushing prices down, and the supply shock is pushing them up. Which matters more?

The answer is not so neat and clean, but it is neater and cleaner than you think. Is China’s importance to the global economy more because of its consumption, as a destination for goods and services? Or is it more because of its production, as a source of goods and services? Well, in 2018 (source: Worldbank.org) China’s exports amounted to about $2.5trillion in USD, versus imports of $2.1trillion. So, as a first cut – if China completely vanished from global trade, it would amount to a net $400bln in lost supply. It is a supply shock.

When you look deeper, there is of course more complexity. Of China’s imports, about $239bln is petroleum. So if China vanished from global trade, it would be a demand shock in petroleum of $240bln (about 13mbpd, so huge), but a bigger supply shock on everything else, of $639bln. Again, it is a supply shock, at least ex-energy.

And even deeper, the picture is really interesting and really clear. From the same Worldbank source:

China is a huge net importer of raw goods (a large part of that is energy), roughly flat on intermediate goods, and a huge net exporter of consumer and capital goods. China Inc is an apt name – as a country, she takes in raw goods, processes them, and sells them. So, if China were to suddenly vanish, we would expect to see a major demand shock in raw materials and a major supply shock in finished goods.

The effects naturally vary with the specific product. Some places we might expect to see significant price pressures are in pharmaceuticals, for example, where China is a critical source of active pharmaceutical ingredients and many drugs including about 80% of the US consumption of antibiotics. On the other hand, energy prices are under downward price pressure as are many industrial materials. Since these prices are most immediately visible (they are commodities, after all), it is natural for the knee-jerk reaction of investors to be “this is a demand shock.” Plus, as I said in the tweet, it has been a long time since we have seen a serious supply shock. But after the demand shock in raw goods (and possibly showing in PPI?), do not be surprised to see an impact on the prices of consumer goods especially if China remains shuttered for a long time. Interestingly, the inflation markets are semi-efficiently pricing this. The chart below is the 1-year inflation swap rate, after stripping out the energy effect (source: Enduring Investments). Overall it is too low – core inflation is already well above this level and likely to remain so – but the recent move has been to higher implied core inflation, not lower.

Now, if COVID-19 blossoms into a true global contagion that collapses demand in developed countries – especially in the US – then the answer is different and much more along the lines of a demand shock. But I also think that, even if this global health threat retreats, real damage has been done to the status of China as the world’s supplier. Although it is less sexy, less scary, and slower, de-globalization of trade (for example, the US repatriating pharmaceuticals production to the US, or other manufacturers pulling back supply chains to produce more in the NAFTA bloc) is also a supply shock.

Inflation-Related Impressions from Recent Events

September 10, 2018 2 comments

It has been a long time since I’ve posted, and in the meantime the topics to cover have been stacking up. My lack of writing has certainly not been for lack of topics but rather for a lack of time. So: heartfelt apologies that this article will feel a lot like a brain dump.

A lot of what I want to write about today was provoked/involves last week. But one item I wanted to quickly point out is more stale than that and yet worth pointing out. It seems astounding, but in early August Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare reported the largest nominal wage increase in 1997. (See chart, source Bloomberg). This month there was a correction, but the trend does appear firmly upward. This is a good point for me to add the reminder that wages tend to follow inflation rather than lead it. But I believe Japanese JGBis are a tremendous long-tail opportunity, priced with almost no inflation implied in the price…but if there is any developed country with a potential long-tail inflation outcome that’s possible, it is Japan. I think, in fact, that if you asked me to pick one developed country that would be the first to have “uncomfortable” levels of inflation, it would be Japan. So dramatically out-of-consensus numbers like these wage figures ought to be filed away mentally.

While readers are still reeling from the fact that I just said that Japan is going to be the first country that has uncomfortable inflation, let me talk about last week. I had four inflation-related appearances on the holiday-shortened week (! is that an indicator? A contrary indicator?), but two that I want to take special note of. The first of these was a segment on Bloomberg in which we talked about how to hedge college tuition inflation and about the S&P Target Tuition Inflation Index (which my company Enduring Investments designed). I think the opportunity to hedge this specific risk, and to create products that help people hedge their exposure to higher tuition costs, is hugely important and my company continues to work to figure out the best way and the best partner with whom to deploy such an investment product. The Bloomberg piece is a very good segment.

I spent most of Wednesday at the Real Return XII conference organized by Euromoney Conferences (who also published one of my articles about real assets, in a nice glossy form). I think this is the longest continually-running inflation conference in the US and it’s always nice to see old friends from the inflation world. Here are a couple of quick impressions from the conference:

  • There were a couple of large hedge funds in attendance. But they seem to be looking at the inflation markets as a place they can make macro bets, not one where they can take advantage of the massive mispricings. That’s good news for the rest of us.
  • St. Louis Fed President James Bullard gave a speech about the outlook for inflation. What really stood out for me is that he, and the Fed in general, put enormous faith in market signals. The fact that inflation breakevens haven’t broken to new highs recently carried a lot of weight with Dr. Bullard, for example. I find it incredible that the Fed is actually looking to fixed-income markets for information – the same fixed-income markets that have been completely polluted by the Fed’s dominating of the float. In what way are breakevens being established in a free market when the Treasury owns trillions of the bonds??
  • Bullard is much more concerned about recession than inflation. The fact that they can both occur simultaneously is not something that carries any weight at the Fed – their models simply can’t produce such an outcome. Oddly, on the same day Neel Kashkari said in an interview “We say that we have a symmetric view of inflation. We don’t mind if it’s 2.1 or 1.9, but in our practice, in what we actually do, we are much more worried about high inflation than we are low inflation. And I think that that is the scar from the 1970s.” That’s ludicrous, by the way – there is no way in the world that the Fed would have done the second and third QEs, with the recession far in the rear view mirror, if the Fed was more concerned with high inflation. Certainly, Bullard showed no signs of even the slightest concern that inflation would poke much above 2%, much less 3%.
  • In general, the economists at the conference – remember, this is a conference for people involved in inflation markets – were uniform in their expectation that inflation is going nowhere fast. I heard demographics blamed (although current demographics, indicating a leftward shift of the supply curve, are actually inflationary it is a point of faith among some economists that inflation drops when the number of workers declines. It’s actually a Marxist view of the economic cycle but I don’t think they see it that way). I heard technology blamed, even though there’s nothing particularly modern about technological advance. Economists speaking at the conference were of the opinion that the current trade war would cause a one-time increase in inflation of between 0.2%-0.4% (depending on who was speaking), which would then pass out of the data, and thought the bigger effect was recessionary and would push inflation lower. Where did these people learn economics? “Comparative advantage” and the gain from trade is, I suppose, somewhat new…some guy named David Ricardo more than two centuries ago developed the idea, if I recall correctly…so perhaps they don’t understand that the loss from trade is a real thing, and not just a growth thing. Finally, a phrase I heard several times was “the Fed will not let inflation get out of hand.” This platitude was uttered without any apparent irony deriving from the fact that the Fed has been trying to push inflation up for a decade and has been unable to do so, but the speakers are assuming the same Fed can make inflation stick at the target like an arrow quivering in the bullseye once it reaches the target as if fired by some dead-eye monetary Robin Hood. Um, maybe.
  • I marveled at the apparent unanimity of this conclusion despite the fact that these economists were surely employing different models. But then I think I hit on the reason why. If you built any economic model in the last two decades, a key characteristic of the model had to be that it predicted inflation would be very low and very stable no matter what other characteristics it had. If it had that prediction as an output, then it perfectly predicted the last quarter-century. It’s like designing a technical trading model: if you design one that had you ‘out’ of the 1987 stock market crash, even if it was because of the phase of the moon or the number of times the word “chocolate” appeared in the New York Times, then your trading model looks better than one that doesn’t include that “factor.” I think all mainstream economists today are using models that have essentially been trained on dimensionless inflation data. That doesn’t make them good – it means they have almost no predictive power when it comes to inflation.

This article is already getting long, so I am going to leave out for now the idea I mentioned to someone who works for the Fed’s Open Market Desk. But it’s really cool and I’ll write about it at some point soon. It’s an idea that would simultaneously be really helpful for investors and help the Fed reduce a balance sheet that they claim to be happy with but we all really know they wish they could reduce.

So I’ll move past last week and close with one final off-the-wall observation. I was poking around in Chinese commodity futures markets today because someone asked me to design a trading strategy for them (don’t ask). I didn’t even know there was such a thing as PVC futures! And Hot Rolled Coils! But one chart really struck me:

This is a chart of PTA, or Purified Terephthalic Acid. What the heck is that? PTA is an organic commodity chemical, mainly used to make polyester PET, which is in turn used to make clothing and plastic bottles. Yeah, I didn’t know that either. Here’s what else I don’t know: I don’t know why the price of PTA rose 50% in less than two months. And I don’t know whether it is used in large enough quantities to affect the end price of apparel or plastic bottles. But it’s a pretty interesting chart, and something to file away just in case we start to see something odd in apparel prices.

Let me conclude by apologizing again for the disjointed nature of this article. But I feel better for having burped some of these thoughts out there and I hope you enjoyed the burp as well.

Gold Has Barely Beaten Inflation, and That’s About Right

July 19, 2018 1 comment

Okay: I’ve checked my door locks, made sure my kids are safe, and braced myself for the inevitable incendiary incoming comments. So, I feel secure in pointing this out:

Gold’s real return for the last 10 years has been a blistering 1.07% per year. And worse, that’s higher than you ought to expect for the next 10 years.

Here’s the math. Gold on July 19, 2008 was at $955. Today it is at $1223, for a gain of 28.1%. But the overall price level (CPI) was at 218.815 in June 2008, and at 251.989 in June 2018 (we won’t get July figures for another month so this is the best we can do at the moment), for a 15.2% rise in the overall price level.

1.07% = [(1+28.1%) / (1 + 15.2%)] ^ 0.1 – 1

It might be even worse than that. Gold bugs are fond of telling me how the CPI is manipulated and there’s really so much more inflation than that; if that’s so, then the real return is obviously much worse than the calculation above implies.

Now, this shouldn’t be terribly surprising. You start with a pile of real stuff, which doesn’t grow or shrink for ten years…your real return is, at least in units of that real stuff, precisely 0%. And that’s what we should expect, in the very long run, from the holding of any non-productive real asset like a hard commodity. (If you hold gold via futures, then you also earn a collateral return of course. And if you hold warehouse receipts for physical gold, in principle you can earn lease income. But the metal itself has an a priori expected real return of zero). Indeed, some people argue that gold should be the measuring stick, in which case it isn’t gold which is changing price but rather the dollar. In that case, it’s really obvious that the real return is zero because the price of gold (in units of gold) is always 1.0.

So, while everyone has been obsessing recently about the surprisingly poor performance of gold, the reality is that over the longer time horizon, it has done about what it is supposed to do.

That’s actually a little bit of a coincidence, deriving from the fact that at $955 ten years ago, gold was reasonably near the fair price. Since then, gold prices soared and became very expensive, and now are sagging and getting cheaper. However, on my model gold prices are still too high to expect positive expected returns over the next decade (see chart, source Enduring Intellectual Properties).

The ‘expected return’ here is derived from a (nonlinear) regression of historical real prices against subsequent real returns. To be sure, because this is a market that is subject to immense speculative pressure both in the bull phases and in the bear phases, gold moves around with a lot more volatility than the price level does; consequently, it swings over time from being very undervalued (1998-2001) to wildly overvalued (2011-2013). I wouldn’t ever use this model to day-trade gold! However, it’s a useful model when deciding whether gold should have a small, middling, or large position in your portfolio. And currently, despite the selloff, the model suggests a small position: gold is much more likely to rise by less than the price level over the next decade, and possibly significantly less as in the 1980-1990 period (although I’d say probably not that bad).


DISCLOSURE: Quantitative/systematic funds managed by Enduring Investments have short positions in gold, silver, and platinum this month.

Categories: Commodities, Gold, Investing

Tariffs Do Not Cause Price Declines

July 5, 2018 7 comments

Adding to a good’s price does not make its price decline.

It’s worth repeating that a couple of times, because it seems to be getting lost in the discussion about tariffs – in particular, in the discussion about tariffs levied on US commodities. Grains prices have been plummeting, as the chart below showing front corn and soybean prices (source: Bloomberg) illustrates.

There are many reasons that grains prices may be declining, but if “tariffs have been levied on US production” is one of them then there is some really weird economics happening. Corn and soybeans are commodities. Specifically, this means that they are essentially fungible – corn from site “A” is essentially the same as corn from site “B.” So what does this mean for the results of a tariff?

If China stops buying soybeans from the US altogether, it means that unless they’re going to stop eating soybeans they will buy soybeans from Brazil. But if Brazil sells all of their soybeans to China, it means that Germany can no longer soybeans from Brazil. So where does Germany buy its soybeans from? Well, it seems that the US has beans that are not spoken for in this scenario…in other words, when we are talking about commodities a tariff mostly just reorganizes the list of who is buying from whom. If soybean prices are falling because China isn’t buying our soybeans, it means a great deal for Russia or Germany or whoever else is going to buy beans from us instead of from China’s new supplier. More than that, if global soybeans prices are falling because of tariffs then it means that everyone is getting cheaper soybeans because China is changing who they’re buying from. If that’s the case, then we really need to slap tariffs on everything and watch prices decline!

Let’s go back to elementary microeconomics. Adding a tariff is reflected in our product market supply and demand curves as a shift in the supply curve to the left: the quantity that producers are willing to supply at any price declines, because the price to the producer declines. Put a different way, the market price required to induce any particular quantity supplied rises by the amount of the tariff. Now, whether that causes market prices to rise a lot or a little, or quantity supplied to fall by a lot or a little, depends on the elasticities of supply and demand. If demand if fairly inelastic (which seems reasonable – you may be able to substitute for “beans” but it’s hard to substitute for “grains”), then you will see more of a price response than a quantity response, at least in the short run where the supply of beans is fairly inelastic. But that price response is up, not down.

By the way, this gets a little hard to illustrate with supply and demand curves, because with a tariff what you have are now two separate markets and separate prices for the same good. This is what confuses some people – if China is no longer buying from the US, doesn’t that mean that demand for US beans has declined, and therefore prices should decline? The crucial point is that we are talking here about commodity goods, and supplies are fairly interchangeable. If we are talking about Harley Davidson motorcycles, the answer is different because if Europe stops buying Harleys, they have to buy a different product altogether. In that case, the global price of “motorcycles” might be relatively unaffected, but the price of Harleys will rise (and the output decline) relative to other motorcycles. So, a tariff on Harley-Davidson motorcycles definitely hurts the US, but a tariff on soybeans – or even “US soybeans” since that is not a universal distinction – should have virtually no effect on US producers. And certainly, no effect on the global price of soybeans.

There are other reasons that grains prices may be declining. Since Brazil is a major producer of beans, the sharp decline in the Brazilian Real has pushed the US dollar price of beans lower (see chart, source Bloomberg). In the chart below, the currency is shown in Reals per dollar, and inverted. This is a much more important factor explaining the decline in grains prices, as well as one that could easily get worse before it gets better.

I think the discussion of the effects of tariffs has gotten a bit polluted since the decline in grains seems to coincide with the announcement of tariffs from China. I think the price decline here has fed that story, but it’s bad economics. Piecemeal tariffs on commodity products are not likely to appreciably change the supply and demand outcome, although it will result in rearranging the sources of product for different countries. Tariffs on non-commodity product, especially branded products with few close substitutes, can have much larger effects – although we ought to remember that from the consumer’s perspective (and in the measurement of consumer inflation), tariffs never lower prices faced by consumers although they can lower prices received by producers. This is why tariffs are bad – they cause higher prices and lower output, and the best case is no real change.


DISCLOSURE: Quantitative/systematic funds managed by Enduring Investments have both long and short positions in grains, and in particular long positions in Beans and Corn, this month.

Potpourri for $500, Alex

June 1, 2018 5 comments

When I don’t write as often, I have trouble re-starting. That’s because I’m not writing because I don’t have anything to say, but because I don’t have time to write. Ergo, when I do sit down to write, I have a bunch of ideas competing to be the first thing I write about. And that freezes me a bit.

So, I’m just going to shotgun out some unconnected thoughts in short bursts and we will see how it goes.


Wages! Today’s Employment Report included the nugget that private hourly earnings are up at a 2.8% rate over the last year (see chart, source Bloomberg). Some of this is probably due to the one-time bumps in pay that some corporates have given to their employees as a result of the tax cut, and so the people who believe there is no inflation and never will be any inflation will dismiss this.

On the other hand, I’ll tend to dismiss it as being less important because (a) wages follow prices, not the other way around, and (b) we already knew that wages were rising because the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker, which controls for composition effects, is +3.3% over the last year and will probably bump higher again this month. But the rise in private wages to a 9-year high is just one more dovish argument biting the dust.

As an aside, Torsten Slok of Deutsche Bank pointed out in a couple of charts today that one phenomenon of recent years has been that people staying in the same jobs increasingly see zero wage growth. Although this is partly because wage growth in general has been low, the spread between wage growth for “job switchers” and “job stayers” is now about 1.25% per year, the highest rate in about 17 years. His point is that as we see more switchers due to a tight labor market, that implies more wage growth (again, the Atlanta Fed Wage Growth Tracker does a better job, so this just means average hourly earnings should increasingly converge with the Atlanta Fed figure).


Today I was on the TD Ameritrade Network and they showed a chart that I’d included in our Quarterly Inflation Outlook (which we distribute to customers). I tweeted the chart back on May 22 but let me put it here, with some brief commentary lifted from our quarterly:

“As economic activity has started to absorb more and more unemployed into the workforce, a shortage has developed in the population of truck drivers. This shortage is not easy to overcome, since it takes time to train new truck drivers (and the robo-truck is still no more than science fiction). Moreover, recent advances in electronically monitoring the number of hours that drivers are on the road – there have been rules governing this for a long time, but they relied on honest reporting from the drivers – have artificially reduced the supply of trucker hours at just the time when more were needed because of economic growth…As a result of this phenomenon, total net-of-fuel-surcharge truckload rates are 15% higher than they were a year ago, which is the highest rate of increase since 2004. As the chart (source: FTR Associates and BLS) illustrates, there is a significant connection between truckload rates lagged 15 months and core inflation (0.74 correlation).”

According to FTR Transportation Intelligence, the US is short about 280,000 truck drivers compared to what it needs.


Remember when everyone said Europe was about to head back into deflation, thanks to that surprise dip in core inflation last month? Here is what I had to say about that on my private Twitter feed (sign up here if this stuff matters to you) at the time.

As Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story is that core European CPI printed this month at 1.1%, shocking (almost) everyone for a second month.


I had a conversation recently with a potential client who said they didn’t want to get into a long-commodity strategy because they were afraid of chasing what is hot. It’s a reasonable concern. No one wants to be the pigeon who bought the highs.

But some context is warranted. I didn’t want to be impolite, but I pointed out that what he was saying was that in the chart below, he was afraid it was too late to get on the orange line because it is too hot.

Incidentally, lest you think that I chose that period because it flatters the argument…for every period starting June 30, XXXX and ending June 1, 2018, the orange line is appreciably below the white line and has never been meaningfully above it, for XXXX going back to 2002. For 2002-2011, the two indices shown here were pretty well correlated. Since 2011, it has been a one-way underperformance ticket for commodities. They are many things, but “hot” is not one of them!

I haven’t heard back.

Being Closer to the ‘Oh Darn’ Inflation Strike

April 19, 2018 5 comments

The time period between spikes of inflation angst seems to be shortening. I am not sure yet about the amplitude of those spikes of angst, but the concern seems to be quickening.

This is not without reason as it seems that concerning headlines are occurring with more frequency. This week the Bloomberg Commodity Index again challenged the 2016 and 2017 highs before backing off today (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Somewhat more alarming than that, to people who watch commodities, is how the commodity indices are rallying. The culprits are energy as well as industrial metals, and each has an interesting story to tell. Energy has been rallying partly because of global tensions, but also partly because US shale oil production appears to be running into some bottlenecks on production (wages, shortages of frack sand) as well as delivery (capacity constraints on pipelines), and part of what has kept a lid on energy prices over the last couple of years was the understanding that shale oil production was improving rapidly and becoming lots more efficient due to improved technology. If shale is limited, the ‘lid’ on prices is not as binding as we had thought. On industrial metals, some of the upward pressure has been due to fallout from US sanctions on Rusal, a major supplier of aluminum and alumina. Since those sanctions were announced, aluminum prices have risen around 25%, and alumina (a raw input to aluminum production) about 50%, with knock-on effects in other industrial metals.

Both of these items bear on the market’s recent fears about new pressures on inflation – capacity constraints (especially rising wages for long-haul truckers) and potential fracturing of the global trade détente.

And 10-year breakevens are at new 4-year highs, although it is worth remembering that this is nowhere near the 10-year highs (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Shorter inflation swaps look less alarming, and not at new four-year highs. However, even here the news is not really soothing. The reason that shorter inflation swaps are lower than they have been in the past is because the energy curves are in backwardation – meaning that the market is pricing in lower energy process in the future. In turn, this means that implied core inflation – once we strip out these energy effects – are, in fact, at 4-year highs (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

So there is legitimate cause to be concerned about upside risks to inflation, and that’s one reason the market is a bit jumpier in this regard. But there is also additional premium, volatility, and angst associated with the level of inflation itself. While as I have pointed out before much of the rise in core inflation to date due to optics arising from base effects, that doesn’t change the fact that the ‘oh, rats’ strike is closer now. That is to say that when core inflation is running at 1.5%, stuff can go wrong without hurting you if your pain threshold is at 3%. But when core inflation is at 2.5% (as it will be this summer), not as much “bad stuff” needs to happen to cause financial pain. In other words, both the ‘delta’ and the ‘gamma’ of the exposure is higher now – just as if one were short a call option struck at (say) 3% inflation. Because, implicitly, many investors are.

If inflation is low, then even if it is volatile in a range it can be consistent with high market valuations for stocks and bonds. But when inflation starts to creep above 3%, those markets tend to suffer in non-linear fashion.

And this, I believe, is why the market’s nervousness about inflation (and market volatility resulting from that nervousness) is unlikely to soon abate.

%d bloggers like this: