We hear this argument all the time, but it’s nice to see someone put some intelligent numbers behind it. Anatole Kaletsky, writing in the Times Online:
The present commodity and oil boom shows all the classic symptoms of a financial bubble, such as Japan in the 1980s, technology stocks in the 1990s and, most recently, housing and mortgages in the US. But surely, you will say, this commodity boom is different? Surely it is driven by profound and lasting changes in global supply and demand: China’s insatiable appetite for food and energy, geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East, the peaking of global oil reserves, droughts caused by global warming and so on. All these fundamental points are perfectly valid, but they tell us nothing about whether the oil price will soon jump to $200, stay at $130 or fall back to $60 next month.
To see that these “fundamentals” are all irrelevant, we have merely to ask which of them has changed in the past nine months. The answer is none. The oil markets didn’t suddenly discover China’s oil demand nine months ago so this cannot explain the doubling of prices since last August. In fact, China’s “insatiable” demand growth has decelerated. In 2004 it was consuming an extra 0.9 million barrels a day; in 2007 it was consuming just an extra 0.3 mbd. In the same period global demand growth has slowed from 3.6 mbd to 0.7 mbd. As a result, the increase in global demand growth is now well below last year’s increase of 0.8 mbd in non-Opec production, according to Mike Rothman, of ISI, a leading New York consulting group.
Why, then, are commodity prices still rising? The first point to note is that many no longer are. Rice, wheat and pork are 20 to 30 per cent cheaper than they were two months ago, when financial pundits identified Asian and African food riots as the first symptoms of a commodity “super-cycle” that would drive prices much higher. And the price of industrial commodities such as lead, zinc and nickel, supposedly in short supply a year ago, has now dropped by 40 to 60 per cent. In fact, most major commodity indices would already be in a downtrend were it not for the dominance of oil.
But oil is the commodity that really matters and surely the latest jump in prices proves that demand really does exceed supply? Not at all. In the late stages of financial bubbles, it is quite normal for prices to become completely detached from economic fundamentals. House prices in Florida and Spain kept rising even after property developers built far more homes than they could possibly sell. The same thing happened in credit markets: mortgage securities kept rising even while banks created “special purpose vehicles” to acquire vast “inventories” of bonds for which there were no genuine buyers – and dozens of similar examples can be cited from the bubbles in internet stocks and Japan. Similarly, the International Gold Council reported this week that gold demand for commercial uses and investment fell 17 per cent in January, just as the gold price surged through $1,000 for the first time.
Now consider the situation today in oil markets: the Gulf, according to Mr Rothman, is crammed with supertankers chartered by oil-producing governments to hold the inventories of oil they are pumping but cannot sell. That physical oil is in excess supply at today’s prices does not mean that producers are somehow cheating by storing their oil in tankers or keeping it in the ground. All it suggests is that there are few buyers for physical oil cargoes at today’s prices, but there are plenty of buyers for pieces of paper linked to the price of oil next month and next year. This situation is exactly analogous to the bubble in credit markets a year ago, where nobody wanted to buy sub-prime mortgage bonds, but there was plenty of demand for “financial derivatives” that allowed investors to bet on the future value of these bonds.
More at Times Online >