Hot Commodities

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Over the past five years the S&P 500 has had a total return of 59%. But over the same period, the diversified Dow Jones-AIG Commodity index has risen some 110%, and the S&P GSCI Commodity index, another broad measure, has jumped 141%. The price of gold has more than doubled, and crude oil and copper have soared more than fourfold.

Back in 2001, the executives running Australian mining giant BHP Billiton sensed that China's economic growth was gaining critical mass. So they commissioned a study on how the country's rapid industrialization might affect the global markets for copper, coal, iron ore, oil - all the stuff that the company pulls out of the earth and sells.

"The results were quite - well, 'outrageous' is probably the right word," CFO Alex Vanselow told me when I visited BHP's headquarters in Melbourne a few months back. "Because we didn't believe it. We thought something must be wrong. If our models were right, the pressure China would put on the world would be tremendous."

But the more they tinkered with their models, the more unbelievable the results became. The fast-growing per-capita income of China's billion-plus people pointed toward a massive thirst for raw materials. When the researchers added India's potential for growth - and its own billion-plus population - the numbers got even more extraordinary. And when they factored in the industry's inadequate investment in new production capacity, they concluded that over the next two decades there would be a historic demand-driven boom in the resources world.

Today, of course, the commodities boom that the BHP (BHP) study anticipated is in full swing - and impossible to ignore. You see it every day in the $100-plus it now costs to fill up your SUV. Or the 39% increase in the cost of electricity over the past eight years. Or the fact that you're paying 20% more for that box of pasta than you were a year ago.

As painful as all those rising prices can be for consumers, the bull market in raw materials has proved to be an awesome investment opportunity. Over the past five years the S&P 500 has had a total return of 59%. But over the same period, the diversified Dow Jones-AIG Commodity index has risen some 110%, and the S&P GSCI Commodity index, another broad measure, has jumped 141%. The price of gold has more than doubled, and crude oil and copper have soared more than fourfold. If you were prescient enough to go long on rice on New Year's Day, you've already seen a return of 33% this year.

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