Is it time to buy commodities?

Commodity prices are rising again, led by sugar, copper, corn, wheat, and silver. Demand from emerging countries is the typically-stated reason, with an assist given to the Federal Reserve recently announcing a second round of quantitative easing (a euphemism for printing money).

Whenever you read about soaring commodity prices, it’s usually too late to profit from the trend. Traders have already factored the latest news on supply, demand, weather, and trade policies into futures prices. This is the simple reason why we avoid a commodity allocation in our client portfolios.

There are actually a few more complicated and subtle reasons to exclude commodity funds. If you’re interested in those reasons, read this article: “Why We Still Don’t Favor Commodities.”

Since writing that article, commodity investors have only experienced gut-wrenching volatility and losses. Now the media is starting to notice and write about the fallacy of these funds – one of my favorite articles on the topic was published in Business Week. Read it here.

Why we still don’t favor commodities

Do commodities have a rightful place in a broadly diversified portfolio? The obvious answer seems to be yes, they do. However, after a lot of careful study and thought we have concluded that the right answer is still no, they don’t.

Commodity prices across the board are at all time highs. Experts say the world is running out of natural resources and that production will not keep up with the rising demand from fast growing emerging economies.

From a portfolio point of view, commodities also have attractive characteristics. While commodity prices are quite volatile, they tend to zig and zag independently of stock and bond prices. Due to the uncorrelated price movements, adding a small amount of commodity exposure can actually lower overall portfolio risk for a given expected return.

There is also a small measure of portfolio insurance gained from commodity exposure. During a rare commodity-related crisis, such as the Arab oil embargo in 1973, a dramatic rise in commodity prices will help buffer the decline in both stocks and bonds. Commodity exposure can also provide some insurance against political risk, since many of the nations currently rich in natural resources also tend to be somewhat politically unstable.

For all of the reasons briefly described, we were keenly interested in adding commodities to our model portfolios. This was a hard problem with many subtleties and conflicting expert opinions to work  through. Contrary to our expectations, after careful study, we recommend leaving commodities out of a diversified investment portfolio. (more…)