An era of higher commodities prices

An era of higher commodities prices

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Commodities have had a massive outperformance this year given the economic restart from pandemic shutdowns.

We see three other key reasons behind their price spike.

1: Weaning off Russian energy

First, the flow of Russian gas into Europe has fallen by two-thirds in just a few months. A rush by the West to replace Russian energy has tightened supply, raising prices, and we see this as a structural change linked to a speeding up of geopolitical fragmentation.

2: Years of underinvestment

Before that, years of declining investment in [by] traditional energy companies constrained supply.

Investors pushed for capital discipline, and fears over the future of fossil fuels in the green transition linger.

3: Strong demand for commodities in the net-zero transition

Lastly, the transition to net-zero carbon emissions is also supercharging demand for commodities – especially metals essential to power the clean energy of the future.

Despite any cyclical dips on growth concerns, we think commodity prices have moved to structurally higher levels.

There are two ways to play this in stocks. In the long run, lower-carbon equity sectors like tech and healthcare make sense. Short term, we’re neutral, but today’s carbon-intensive firms with credible energy transition plans and those tied to rising demand from net-zero goals could outperform.


Investment dearth

The chart shows that global capex expenditure in the oil and gas sector from 2010-2015 reached nearly $3.2 trillion but declined to just under $2.3 trillion in 2015-2020. A yellow bar shows projected capex expenditure for 2020-2025 is about $1.6 trillion.

Global Capex Expenditure In Oil And Gas, 2010-2025 (Source: BlackRock Investment Institute, Wood Mackenzie, June 2022)

Forward-looking estimates may not come to pass. Note: The chart shows global capex expenditure in the oil and gas sector from 2010-2015 and from 2015-2020, as well as projected capex expenditure for the period 2020-2025.

Commodities prices and renewables have surged over the past two years, even with recent declines. Rate hikes choking off the restart could cause more dips. But we think prices are at structurally higher levels now. Why? The West is trying to wean itself off Russian supplies. The flow of Russian gas into Europe has fallen by two-thirds already in just a few months. This is a structural change, and we see it as part of accelerating geopolitical fragmentation. The supply crunch is rooted in years of declining investment from traditional energy companies (see the red bars in chart) and forecasters expect even less in years to come (the yellow bar). This hasn’t been balanced by equally strong investment in clean energy supply. Lower capital expenditures are a result of both investors pushing for more capital discipline and concerns about long-term demand for traditional energy.

Energy commodities prices are likely to be supported by growing energy demands amid tight supply in coming decades. Even with improving energy efficiency in developed markets, global energy demand could rise significantly, especially if energy consumption in emerging markets jumps markedly as living standards improve.

And even with rapid growth of clean energy infrastructure, it would be nearly impossible to meet energy demand in coming years without fossil fuels, as we say in a recent net-zero report. Some investment will likely still be needed in new fossil fuel production capacity to meet energy demand. Without capex, production generally falls as wells deplete. Current investment is below what is needed to meet demand in the short run, in our view, as capex has dropped by nearly half since 2014.

Transition to boost demand

The buildout of clean energy infrastructure will boost demand for other commodities, too. Transition essentials like wind turbine farms and electric vehicles require staggering amounts of iron ore, copper, lithium and other metals to match fossil fuel-generated power sources’ outputs. Mineral demand for clean energy technology would have to rise by at least four times by 2040 to meet climate goals, according to the International Energy Agency.

The transition path remains uncertain. Last week’s Supreme Court decision means the Environmental Protection Agency now has more limited regulatory authority in requiring utilities to reduce reliance on higher-carbon sources of energy, unless Congress approves legislation. This reinforces our view that the invasion of Ukraine has created a more divergent transition globally as Europe doubles down on net-zero efforts. The same impetus isn’t felt elsewhere.

What this means for investments

Time horizon is key. In the near term, we expect sharp rate rises from the Federal Reserve to choke off the restart of economic activity. That typically implies bad news for commodities or commodities producers – but not if we are in a new era of higher commodities prices. We see tactical opportunities in selected energy stocks after the recent selloff. They now appear priced for some retrenchment of energy prices, and we could see rising revenues and earnings amid the race to replace Russian supply.

On a longer-term strategic horizon, we believe lower-carbon sectors like tech and healthcare will benefit more than traditional energy stocks. At the same time, we think some of the greatest opportunities may be in carbon-intensive companies with credible decarbonization plans or companies supporting the transition with the supply of critical minerals.

Market backdrop

Stocks slid after U.S. and euro area data last week showed persistent inflation and signs of slowing economic activity. U.S. two-year Treasury yields posted their largest weekly drop since 2020. Short-term rate markets are signaling doubts central banks, including the Fed, will hike rates as high as their projections. Central bankers’ talk on fighting inflation also gave little indication they face a policy trade-off: either crush growth or live with inflation. So we don’t see this as a time to buy the dip.

The key focus in next week’s U.S. jobs report will be signs the labor market is gradually healing – especially a recovery in labor participation. Labor shortages have added to U.S. inflation’s march up to 40-year highs. We think wage growth may help the labor market normalize by enticing people back to the workforce and incentivizing them to stop hopping jobs for higher pay.

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