Commodities as an Asset Class
John Mauldin's Outside the Box

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Introduction

A couple weeks ago in my "Thoughts from the Frontline" Friday E-Letter, I wrote about Mr. Market and potential bubbles (you can view the letter here). Well one particular asset class, commodities, has had me thinking as of late. Despite sound fundamentals initiating the recent boom in the commodities markets, much speculation has also been exerted as evidenced by the resulting volatility in the sector. Stephen Roach has recently weighed in with his take on the situation which I believe will serve well for toady's "Outside the Box."

Stephen S. Roach is Managing Director and Chief Economist of Morgan Stanley, a leading global financial services firm. He has been widely recognized as one of Wall Street's most influential economists. His published research has covered a broad range of topics, with recent emphasis on globalization, the emergence of China, productivity, and the capital market implications of global imbalances. In his article "Commodities as an Asset Class," Mr. Roach questions the recent popularity of commodities as institutional investors around the globe have sharply adjusted their asset allocation strategies to reflect the sector. In so doing, he points out how much of the "bubble-like" qualities prevalent amongst the equities markets may now be exposed to the commodities markets as well.

I have been involved with commodity funds and managers for almost 20 years, and have seen a lot of fads come and go. I am a big fan of well researched traders and funds who have figured out how to find an edge. That edge is going to increasingly be important if you are going to thrive in the commodity world. Long only portfolios are going to be subject to increased volatility and quick movements, both up and down. You need to think carefully about your exposure in these markets.

This commentary should be read with an objective mind in the midst of vulnerable market conditions. I hope that you will find it to be "outside the box" thinking.

John Mauldin, Editor

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Commodities as an Asset Class

By Stephen S. Roach

In a low-return world, high-yielding commodities have become the siren song of the asset-liability mismatch. Well supported by seemingly powerful fundamentals on both the demand (i.e., globalization) and the supply sides (i.e., capacity shortages) of the macro equation, investors have stampeded into commodity-related assets in recent years. Once a pure play as a physical asset, commodities have now increasingly taken on the trappings of financial assets. That leaves them just as prone to excesses as stocks, bonds, and currencies. This is one of those times.

Previously, I argued that Chinese and US demand were both likely to surprise on the downside -- outcomes that would challenge the optimistic fundamentals still embedded in commodity markets (see my 15 September dispatch, "Whither Commodities?"). I also hinted that the asset play could well reinforce this development -- largely because commodities have now come of age as a legitimate asset class in world financial markets. This companion note develops the asset-driven adjustments that could well lie ahead in commodity markets. The sociological context is key to this dimension of the issue: Virtually every major institutional investor I visit around the world -- from pension funds and insurance companies to mutual fund complexes and hedge funds -- has a large and growing commodity department. The same is true of foreign exchange reserve managers and corporate treasury departments of multinational corporations. One major Wall Street firm is now run by a former commodity executive, and another has turned over management of its global bond division to the architect of its thriving commodity business.

Like all such trends, the expansion of the commodity culture is rooted in performance. It's not just the physical commodities themselves -- most commodity-related assets in cash and futures markets have also delivered outstanding relative returns. For several years, the so-called commodity currencies of Australia and Canada have been on a tear, and big commodity producers like Russia and Brazil have led the recent charge in high-flying emerging markets. Within the global equity universe, the materials sector has been the number-one ranked performer over the past year -- up 14%, or double the 7% returns of second-ranked financials. And, of course, there is the growing profusion of commodity-related ETFs. Meanwhile, Commodity Trading Advisors (CTAs) now collectively manage over $70 billion in assets -- more than three times the total three years ago -- and the IMF reports inflows of approximately $35 billion into commodity futures last year alone." (See the IMF's September 2006 Global Financial Stability Report).

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Significantly, the consultants are now urging institutional investors to implement a major increase in their asset allocation weightings to commodities. A recent Ibbotson Associates study recommends that commodity weightings in a multi-asset balanced portfolio could be increased, under conservative return and risk-appetite assumptions, to a high of nearly 30%. That would be more than three times current weightings and greater than seven times the estimated $2 trillion value of current annual commodity production (see T.M. Idzorek, "Strategic Asset Allocation and Commodities," March 2006, available on www.ibottson.com). The Ibbotson analysis praises commodities for their consistent outperformance and negative correlations with other major asset classes -- going so far as to praise commodities for actually providing the protection of "portfolio insurance." It concludes by stressing "&there is little risk that commodities will dramatically underperform the other asset classes on a risk-adjusted basis over any reasonably long time period." Laboring under the constant pressure of the asset-liability mismatch, yield-starved investors can hardly afford to ignore this enthusiastic advice. As a result, with multi-asset portfolios likely to have ever-greater representation from commodities, the financial-market dimensions of the commodity trade are likely to become increasingly important.

This transformation from a physical to a financial asset alters the character of commodity investments. Among other things, it subjects the asset to the same cycles of fear and greed that have long been a part of financial market history. From tulips to dot-com and now probably US residential property as well, the boom all too often begets the bust. Yale Professor Robert Shiller puts it best, arguing that asset bubbles arise when perfectly plausible fundamental stories are exaggerated by powerful "amplification mechanisms" (see Shiller's, Irrational Exuberance, second edition, 2005). That appears to have been the case in commodities. In this instance, the amplification is largely an outgrowth of the China mania that is now sweeping the world -- the belief that commodity-intensive Chinese hyper-growth is here to stay. That's why I blew the whistle on this one: Not only do I believe that the Chinese authorities will make good on their efforts to cool off an over-heated economy, but I also suspect they will succeed in engineering a well-publicized shift toward more efficient usage of energy and other commodities (see my 2 June essay, "A Commodity-Lite China"). The potential for post-housing bubble adjustments of the American consumer could well be the icing on this cake -- not only lowering US commodity demand through reductions in residential construction activity but also by reducing end-market demand in China's biggest export market. The recent data flow hints that such adjustments are now just getting under way -- underscored by reports of a meaningful slowing of Chinese investment and industrial output growth in August and a continuing stream of bad news from the US housing market.

Meanwhile, the performance of commodity-based financial assets is starting to fray around the edges. That's true of energy funds as well as those asset pools with more balanced portfolios of energy, metals, and other industrial materials. While most of these investment vehicles have outstanding 3- and 5-year performance records, the one-year return comparisons are now solidly in negative territory for many of the biggest commodity funds. And this is occurring at the same time that the MSCI All-Country World index has delivered a 14% return for global equities over the past year. Underperformance for a few months is hardly cause for concern, but for both relative- and absolute-return investors, negative comparisons over a 12-month period are raising more than the proverbial eyebrow. As usual, the "hot money" has been the first to head for the exits, but more patient investors may not be too far behind. Shiller-like amplification mechanisms could well compound the problem. Just as they led to near parabolic increases of many commodity prices in March and April, there could be cumulative selling pressure on the downside -- taking commodity prices down much more sharply than fundamentals might otherwise suggest.

For my money, there is far too much talk about the globalization-led commodity super-cycle. It gives the false impression of a one-way market, where every dip is buying opportunity. Yet commodities as a financial asset are as bubble-prone as any other investment. As is always the case in every bubble I have lived through, denial is deepest when asset values go to excess. That's very much the case today. After three years of extraordinary outperformance, denial over the possibility of a sustained downside adjustment in commodity prices is very much in evidence -- underscoring the time-honored sociology of an asset class that has gone to excess. Meanwhile, China and US-housing-related fundamentals are going the other way -- setting up increasingly tender commodity markets for unpleasant downside surprises on the demand side of the global economy. The herding instincts of institutional investors could well magnify the price declines -- when, and if, they emerge. All this suggests there is still plenty of life left in the time-honored commodity cycle.

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Barton Biggs always used to chide me that "Dr. Copper" was his favorite economist -- possessing an uncanny knack to provide a real-time assessment of the state of the global economy. I suspect that the good doctor has now taken his or her finger off the pulse of the real economy and spends far more time looking at Bloomberg screens. Pity the poor patient -- to say nothing of the doctor!


Conclusion

Your always worried about a bubble analyst,


John F. Mauldin
johnmauldin@investorsinsight.com

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Posted 09-18-2006 6:56 PM by John Mauldin