Commodities Are Sending a Distressing Signal

Professor Oil and Dr. Copper are suggesting all is not well with the global economy.

Commodities Are Sending a Distressing Signal
Oil workers pump oil into a tanker truck on the Russkoye heavy crude oil field, operated by Rosneft PJSC, in the Yamalo-Nenets region of East Siberia, near Novy Urengoy, in Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Oil markets are sending a powerful message. After reaching a four-year high in early October, the price of crude has collapsed by more than 25 percent. This move is about more than just the ups and down of global supplies and whether OPEC and other producers can adjust. More importantly, it seems to speak to waning demand, which is worrisome.

These developments suggest the synchronized growth that the global economy has enjoyed in recent years is likely to be replaced by a generalized slowdown. Just take a look at the data out of Japan and Germany this week, which showed the world’s third- and fourth-largest economies contracted in the third quarter.

Commodities Are Sending a Distressing Signal

The message of weakening demand on the oil front was reinforced by the falling price of copper. The base metal is often referred to as “Dr. Copper” on its presumed ability to forecast the peaks and troughs of business cycles since it is used in different areas of the economy such as homes, factories and electricity generation. Copper has served as a leading indicator of both recessions and economic booms.

Commodities Are Sending a Distressing Signal

While lower oil prices reflect concerns regarding a drop in demand, the behavior of copper prices portends trouble on the supply front. It suggests that the weakness in U.S. housing already evident in the sharp decline in homebuilding in September could be followed by an eventual slowdown in factory output.

Weaker commodity prices are a result of two related factors. Economies other than the U.S. have lost the vibrancy they exhibited in 2017. This, for example, is the case with slower growth in the euro zone this year, and a weaker German business sentiment index in October. There is little expectation that the pace of European economic growth will pick up significantly next year.

Lower commodity prices are also a response to the dollar’s relentless march upward as the Federal Reserve increased interest rates eight times since December 2015. By contrast, the European Central Bank has maintained crisis-level, low interest rates. The Bank of Japan not only has a short-term interest rate target of minus 0.1 percent, but is also continuing asset purchases, boosting its balance sheet assets to more than 100 percent of gross domestic product.

In pushing down prices, commodity traders realize that such a divergence of monetary policies across the industrialized countries is likely to continue. This has resulted in the Bloomberg Dollar Spot Index rising as much as 8.60 percent since mid-April. Further dollar strength during the coming year would add pressure on oil and copper prices.

Commodities Are Sending a Distressing Signal

Two recent developments may have accentuated pressure on oil and other commodity prices, and suggest worsened prospects for the economy. The switch to a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives could increase the U.S. conflict in trade with China. The party has generally been more protectionist than Republicans, and is expected to support President Donald Trump’s position that China ought to be punished for its alleged theft of intellectual property.

A heightened trade war, with many of the increased tariffs going into effect in January, would increase uncertainty for investors, slow capital spending, and reduce the pace of economic growth. The steep drop in oil prices appears to incorporate the rising probability of such a development.

Also last week, the Fed released a hawkish statement indicating that it would continue increasing interest rates even though inflation has remained at manageable levels. Higher borrowing costs resulting from Fed tightening would increase the cost of holding inventories of copper and oil, prompting supplies to shrink.

Investors should heed the message being provided by Dr. Copper and Professor Oil rather than go with the optimism expressed by the Trump administration and the Fed. While the U.S. officials appear to be reacting to the faster economic growth that has already occurred, the commodity prices are a better indicator of future market behavior.

The prudent move for investors would be to reallocate assets from equities — which are likely to be hit by a slowing economy — to high-grade fixed income securities that would provide safety during a market correction.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Komal Sri-Kumar is the president and founder of Sri-Kumar Global Strategies, and the former chief global strategist of Trust Company of the West.

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