Commodities: Has Their Time Come Again?

By Aaron Levitt | August 11, 2014 AAA

Ever since the Great Recession, it’s been a mixed bag for investors in natural resources. Though driven by the expanding emerging world, prices for commodities — with the exception of energy — haven’t really approached their pre-recession highs. From lower growth in key markets like China to oversupplies of several metals and minerals, commodities as a whole have been a terrible place to park your money over the last three or four years.

That could make them an ideal bargain play.

Aside from their diversification benefits, the overall stronger global economy has some of the supply-demand dynamics finally working in investors favor. And after the recent slide in risk assets, the time to buy could be now. (For related reading, see: Investing In Commodities Without The Hassle: Try Commodity ETFs.)

Big-Time Bargains

Before and immediately after the Great Recession, commodities were one of the best assets classes. Driven by expanding economies across the globe, demand for iron ore, copper and other materials surged. The broad S&P GSCI – which tracks a basket of various hard asset futures — returned  25% during the two years following the recession. That run didn’t last, though. The S&P GSCI is down by just over 6% since then.

And commodities returns have gotten worse lately. (For more, see: It's Time To Invest In These Three Commodities.)

As investors have dumped “risk” assets in recent weeks, the majority of commodities have fallen. In fact, for July natural resources managed to put up their worst monthly loss since May 2012. The S&P GSCI lost 5.3% in July and basically gave back almost all of its gains for the year. With such losses at their backs, commodities seem like the last possible place investors would want to place their money.

Rising Demand, Slack Production

But as the saying goes, be greedy when others are fearful — especially if you consider that many of the same bullish tailwinds for commodities that propelled them in the years leading up to 2008 are gaining velocity or have never left.

Long term demographic trends are still in place. The world's population will grow to nearly 8 billion by the end of century. That growth will require mounds of of natural resources. Meanwhile, supply is relatively low; as the recession and price collapses took hold, miners and other hard asset firms cut production and idled mines in a big way. For the vast bulk of commodities, supplies are now below expected demand rates. In the short run, our growing global economy should light a fire under various commodities as GDP expands.

All in all, the medium- to long-term picture for natural resources looks rosy, even when viewed through the lens of years of losses. (For more, see: Is Now The Time To Buy Commodities.)

Betting On Commodities ETFs

Given the potential for long term gains — without even including commodities' other portfolio benefits — investors should consider the natural resources space. A prime stop is the iShares S&P GSCI Commodity-Indexed Trust (GSG). The ETF tracks the previously mentioned index of natural resources via futures contracts

Currently, GSG is weighted around 73% in energy, 17% in agriculture and 10% in metals and minerals. That provides investors with a broad mix of commodities within one ticker and is much easier and cheaper than playing the individual futures market. Expenses for GSG run just 0.75% a year and investors will receive a K-1 statement during tax-time. The major drawback of the index and the ETF is that heavy weighting in energy futures. To that end, both the PowerShares DB Commodity Index Tracking Fund (DBC) and the iPath Dow Jones-UBS Commodity Index Total Return ETN (DJP) offer more balance to their respective underlying holdings. Although, energy still plays a major part of the funds. (For more, see: The Most Affordable Commodity ETFs.)

Betting On Underlying Commodities

Another option for investors: playing the firms that extract the underlying commodities. Earnings for the hard asset players have floundered over the last few years. However, any incremental rise in commodity prices will trickle down to these firm’s bottom lines. The FlexShares Morningstar Global Upstream Natural Resources ETF (GUNR) tracks 123 different global companies in the energy, metals and agriculture sectors. Top holdings for the fund include giants like mega-miner BHP Billiton (BHP) and ExxonMobil Corp. (XOM). Expenses for GUNR run just 0.48%. More importantly, the ETF has managed to outpace rival funds — like the Market Vectors Natural Resources ETF (HAP) — in the returns department.

Finally, investors shouldn’t just focus on traditional commodities. The same bullish tailwinds that are propelling oil, copper and corn are present in esoteric natural resources like water and timber. Both the Guggenheim Timber ETF (CUT) and First Trust ISE Water Index (FIW) allow investors to tackle these “weirder” commodities with ease.

The Bottom Line

Commodities have spent much of the previous four years in the basement. That makes them an interesting bargain in today’s shaky market, especially when you consider that many of the underlying factors that could propel the asset class have either never left or are gaining steam. (For related reading, see: Should You Invest In Stocks Or Commodities In 2014?)

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