September 17th, 2012
by Michael Pettis
For the past two years, as regular readers know, I have been bearish on hard commodities. Prices may have dropped substantially from their peaks during this time, but I don’t think the bear market is over. I think we still have a very long way to go.
- First, during the last decade commodity producers were caught by surprise by the surge in demand. Their belated response was to ramp up production dramatically, but since there is a long lead-time between intention and supply, for the next several years we will continue to experience rapid growth in supply. As an aside, in my many talks to different groups of investors and boards of directors it has been my impression that commodity producers have been the slowest at understanding the full implications of a Chinese rebalancing, and I would suggest that in many cases they still have not caught on.
- Second, almost all the increase in demand in the past twenty years, which in practice occurred mostly in the past decade, can be explained as the consequence of the incredibly unbalanced growth process in China. But as even the most exuberant of China bulls now recognize, China’s economic growth is slowing and I expect it to decline a lot more in the next few years.
- Third, and more importantly, as China’s economy rebalances towards a much more sustainable form of growth, this will automatically make Chinese growth much less commodity intensive. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with my expectations of further economic slowing. Even if China is miraculously able to regain growth rates of 10-11% annually, a rebalancing economy will demand much less in the way of hard commodities.
- And fourth, surging Chinese hard commodity purchases in the past few years supplied not just growing domestic needs but also rapidly growing inventory. The result is that inventory levels in China are much too high to support what growth in demand there will be over the next few years, and I expect Chinese in some cases to be net sellers, not net buyers, of a number of commodities.
This combination of factors – rising supply, dropping demand, and lots of inventory to work off – all but guarantee that the prices of hard commodities will collapse. I expect that certain commodities, like copper, will drop by 50% or more in the next two to three years.
Not All Agree
Not everyone agrees. In the July 17 blog entry I made a reference to a book by Dambisa Moyo, a former investment banker turned economic writer, called Winner Take All, in which the author argues that the world is facing a crisis in the form of a commodity shortage, and she expects prices to surge. Unlike her, however, I expect the price of hard commodities and certain industry-related soft commodities (like rubber) to drop sharply in the next three years, and to stay low for many years thereafter.
To address the first of the four reasons I expect hard commodity prices to drop, excess growth in supply, one month ago I spoke at a conference in Sydney, after which Gerard Minack, chief economist at Morgan Stanley Australia, gave a presentation on the world economy and, more specifically, on commodities. His presentation was an eye-opener for me.
Based on my many trips in recent years to places like Australia, Peru and Brazil, I had plenty of anecdotal reasons to believe that commodity producers had significantly overestimated the sustainability of the Chinese growth model (or, perhaps more accurately, had not really thought about whether or not it was sustainable). I was worried that they were expanding production very quickly. Everywhere I went I heard stories of large-scale investments to expand production.
Many producers have acknowledged recent price declines, but they seem to believe that these are likely to be short-lived and that prices will soon rebound when Chinese demand returns. For example the Financial Times’ Alphaville quotes Nev Power, chief executive of Fortescue Metals, discussing iron ore at a recent meeting:
Iron ore prices have slumped to $US104 a tonne in recent days, yet Mr Power said it could soon rebound as high as $US150. ”As soon as restocking and production returns to normal we expect to see prices back in the $US120 to $US150 per tonne range,” he said.
Production capacity has grown
He will almost certainly be wrong. But whereas my evidence for claiming continued high growth rates in production was conceptual and anecdotal, Minack has actually gone out and tried to measure the potential increase in supply. Minacks’ argument is that because of twenty years of stable or falling prices, until the early part of the last decade there had been a minimal amount of investment globally into commodity producing facilities. Commodities seemed to be in a permanent slump and no one was interested in expanding supply.
The surge in Chinese demand at the beginning of the last decade consequently caught everyone by surprise. Minack shows, for example, that in the past twenty years, global demand for steel grew by roughly 6% a year, with most of that coming in the past decade. If you exclude China, however, global demand for steel grew by only 2% a year in the past twenty years, implying that China accounted for almost all the increase in global demand in the last twenty years – and almost all of that occurred in the past decade. In the past ten years Chinese demand for iron ore has grown by 16% a year on average.
The initial surge in demand caught commodity producers off-guard. Because they were unable to ramp up production quickly enough, prices surged. After a few years of high prices, however, commodity producers responded to the huge new increase in demand by planning major expansions in production facilities.
Changing production requires years of exploration, investment, and upgrading, however, so the decision to increase production could only result in higher production many years later. This is shown by a set of cost curves, which are at the heart of Minack’s presentations, and these curves graph the short-term relationship between price and volume. For any given amount of demand, in other words, the graph showed the corresponding price.