It was a photo finish for commodities in 2017.
The group, as measured by the Bloomberg Commodity Index, barely eked out a win for the second straight year, edging up 0.7 percent. Spurred by a weaker U.S. dollar and strengthening materials demand from factories, the index headed higher thanks to a breathtaking rally late in the year that lasted a record 14 consecutive days.
The annual return might not look too impressive, but I believe the economic conditions are ripe for a broad commodities rally in 2018. I’m not alone in predicting they’ll be among the best performing asset classes by year end, perhaps even beating domestic equities as quantitative tightening threatens to put a damper on the nine-year bull run.
Analysts at Goldman Sachs, for instance, are overly bullish on commodities, recommending an overweight position for the next 12 months. Bank of America Merrill Lynch is calling for a $7,700-a-tonne copper price target by mid-2018, up from $7,140 today. In last Friday’s technical market outlook, Bloomberg Intelligence commodity strategist Mike McGlone writes that the “technical setup for metals is similar to the early days of the 2002-08 bull market.” Hedge fund managers are currently building never-before-seen long positions in heating oil and Brent crude oil, which broke above $70 a barrel in intraday trading Thursday for the first time since December 2014. It’s now up close to 160 percent since its recent low of $27 a barrel at the beginning of 2016.
Few have taken such a bullish position, though, as billionaire founder of DoubleLine Capital Jeffrey Gundlach, whose thoughts are always worth considering.
Commodities Ready for Mean Reversion?
Last month I shared with you a chart, courtesy of DoubleLine, that makes the case we could be entering an attractive entry point for commodities, based on previous booms and busts. The S&P GSCI Total Return Index-to-S&P 500 Index ratio is now at its lowest point since the dotcom bubble, meaning commodities and mining companies are highly undervalued relative to large-cap stocks. We could see mean reversion begin to happen as soon as this year, triggering a commodities super-cycle the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 2000s.
Gundlach has more to say on this subject. During his annual “Just Markets” webcast, he told investors that “commodities will outperform in 2018” because they “always rally sharply—much more sharply than they have so far—late in the business cycle as we head into a recession.”
Speaking to CNBC, he added that the S&P 500 “may go up 15 percent in the first part of the year, but I believe, when it falls, it will wipe out the entire gain of the first part of the year with a negative sign in front of it.”
Gundlach might be in the minority here, but it’s hard to ignore the tell-tale signs that we’re approaching the end of the business cycle, as I’ve pointed out before. We’ve begun a new interest rate hike cycle, both here in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. The Federal Reserve has started to unwind its massive balance sheet. The Treasury yield curve continues to flatten. And the S&P 500 just had its least volatile year on record.
All of these indicators, among others, have historically preceded a substantial market correction.
In his 2018 outlook, David Rosenberg, chief economist and strategist at Canadian wealth management firm Gluskin Sheff, makes similar observations, writing that “it is safe to say that we are pretty late in the game.”
How late? After looking at a number of market and macro variables, Rosenberg and his team concluded that we’re about “90 percent through, which means we are somewhere past the seventh inning stretch in baseball parlance but not yet at the bottom of the ninth.”
Look for mean reversion this year, Rosenberg adds, “which would be a good thing in terms of opening up some buying opportunities.”
Resource stocks, I believe, could be an attractive place to look, as they’ve traditionally outperformed in the last phase of an economic cycle.
Manufacturing and Construction Booms Underway
You don’t have to bet on a recession to be bullish on commodities. The dollar appears to have peaked, making materials less expensive for overseas markets, and the Global Manufacturing Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) ended 2017 at 54.5, close to a seven-year high. The sector has been in expansion mode now for the past 22 months, with the eurozone signaling its fastest growth in the series’ two-decade history.
That’s not the only constructive news out of Europe. The European Commission’s headline economic sentiment indicator jumped more than economists had anticipated in December, ending the year at a 17-year high. Construction confidence in the eurozone also looks as if it’s fully recovered and is trending in positive territory for the first time since the financial crisis.
Strong manufacturing and construction expansion here in the U.S. is likewise supportive of commodity prices. December’s ISM Manufacturing PMI clocked in at a historically high 59.7. New orders grew 5.4 percent from the precious month to 59.4, its highest reading since January 2004. What’s more, U.S. construction spending in November rose to an all-time high of $1.257 trillion, according to this month’s report from the Census Bureau.
Which Commodities Are Set to Rally the Most?
Palladium was the best performing commodity of 2017, climbing more than 56 percent on a weaker dollar, concerns of a supply crunch and a robust global auto market. Along with its sister metal, platinum, palladium is used primarily in the production of catalytic converters, which curb emissions from gasoline-powered vehicles.
For the first time since 2001, palladium traded higher than platinum beginning in September, and the week before last it hit an all-time intraday high of $1,099 an ounce. A healthy correction at this point wouldn’t be surprising, as the metal’s looking overbought compared to platinum.
“Pressured by diesel-emission scandals, platinum appears too low vs. palladium,” writes Bloomberg’s Mike McGlone. We might be in for another price reversal this year.
As I wrote recently, gold’s Fear Trade growth drivers are firmly in place. If a “Fed rally” occurs similar to the past two rallies, we could see gold climb to as high as $1,500 an ounce by summer. We also have the Chinese New Year to look forward to, which falls on February 16.
I believe 2018 could also be silver’s year to shine. The white metal rose 6.42 percent in 2017, with Indian silver bullion imports jumping an amazing 90 percent compared to imports the previous year, according to Metals Focus. Goldman Sachs analysts point out that silver has historically fared better than gold near the end of the business cycle, “as it is more strongly leveraged to global growth, given its significant industry use.”
A recent online survey conducted by Kitco News found that nearly 40 percent of respondents believed silver would outperform in 2018, compared to four other metals. Twenty-seven percent of readers said gold would outperform, followed by a quarter for copper. About 10 percent were most bullish on either platinum or palladium.