Wall Street rarely agrees on anything, so it's notable that virtually all of the major market strategists are in agreement on one theme: Get ready for a bear market in bonds. Seeking safety in a troubled global economy, investors have poured tens of billions of dollars into bond funds during the past five years, pushing bond yields down to all-time lows. But as the global economy starts to build a head of steam in 2013 and beyond, bond yields are likely to rebound while bond prices are likely to fall, leading to a major investor exodus.
While many market watchers say the flow out of bond funds will lead to a major inflow for stock funds, you shouldn't forget about commodities, which always benefit when major economies start to strengthen. Yet simply buying a broad basket of commodities is unwise. Some commodities will see rising prices as demand outstrips supply, while other commodities -- most notably natural gas -- must continue to wrestle with a supply glut. (Natural gas still has ample opportunities -- if you know where to look for them).
Before we take a closer look at the most promising commodities for 2013, here are a few caveats. Commodity price moves are often inversely related to the U.S. dollar, so if the dollar strengthens in 2013, then commodity price gains would be blunted. Of course, the converse is true as well. Why would the dollar strengthen? That would be the likely result of a U.S. economy that starts growing at an accelerating pace -- at least in relation to the still-weak European economies.
A second caveat: China has been, and will continue to be, the single greatest driver of commodity prices. As we exit 2012, the Chinese economy appears to have dodged an expected slowdown, and the new government is expected to take steps to keep that economy humming in 2013. Indeed, it's the prospect of another year of solid economic growth in China that would lead to a rally in commodities.
So without further ado, here are next year's best commodities to own...
Copper: the perfect backdrop
A quick glance at a two-year price chart for copper implies a troubled supply/demand backdrop.
Indeed, the moribund U.S. construction market has crimped demand for copper-intensive plumbing, as is surely the case in Europe as well. Yet the demand picture should improve in 2013, as commercial and residential construction is expected to move higher in the United States. Equally important, global copper production isn't keeping up, so a range of metals analysts say demand will exceed supply in 2013, 2014 and beyond. In the next part of this series of articles, I'll take a closer look at the copper fundamentals, and the best ways to invest in this multi-purpose metal.
Silver shines anew
The spot price for silver is also well below recent highs: It surged to $48 an ounce in the spring of 2011 when the global economy flashed signs of an upturn, though it has fallen more than 30% since then. Often pursued along with gold as a safe haven in potentially inflationary times, silver has the added charm of rising industrial use. An improving global economy, coupled with a fairly tight supply backdrop, should help silver -- and the companies and ETFs involved in silver-mining -- to post fresh gains in 2013.
The farm belt rebound
The epic drought of 2012 led to reduced U.S. farm incomes, and a resulting pullback in spending on a range of agricultural chemicals and equipment. Will the drought persist in 2013? It's hard to know, but we can pinpoint the supply/demand picture for various farming inputs, and few have such a positive backdrop as fertilizer. In a subsequent article in this series, I'll pinpoint the fertilizer stocks with the greatest potential upside in 2013.
The broad-based play
Even as I dig deeper into copper, silver and fertilizer stocks, there's a particular stock that shouldn't be ignored when talking about commodities. It mines a wide range of metals, has a strong set of assets and deep financial flexibility, and remains quite undervalued even after a recent sell-off.
I'm talking about Teck Resources (NYSE: TCK), which sports a $20 billion market value and $10 billion in annual sales. The company is a low-cost producer of copper, zinc and coal. This means the company can generate profits even as rivals must shutter higher-priced mines.
The real reason to focus on this stock: The value of all its mines, if acquired piecemeal by another mining firm, then it would cost the equivalent of $65 a share, according to analysis conducted by Merrill Lynch. In effect, you can own this company's asset base for roughly half of the private market value. In a consolidating industry, that's a clear positive.
How about oil?
Wondering where oil fits into the 2013 commodities outlook? Signals about oil's direction are mixed right now. Some industry analysts say the world is over-supplied with oil, so oil prices will sharply recede once tensions in the Middle East recede. But others say a stronger U.S. economy in 2013 could boost demand, pushing oil toward the $125 a barrel mark. We'll likely need to wait until next spring to get a clearer read on the direction of oil prices.
Risks to Consider: As noted earlier, China drives commodity prices, and any major slowdown in that economy would force commodity prices lower.
Action to Take --> Commodities have been out of favor for much of 2012, thanks to global macro-economic concerns. Yet as the United States, China, Brazil and other economies expand in 2013, and as funds flow out of bonds, commodities could be a major beneficiary.
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