The World Bank Goes Nuclear on Commodities

Sometimes you have to just stand back and admire the extremes a real bubble can produce. What you have now, as Bill explained a few nights ago at the Doomer’s Ball, is the last greatest bubble of them all, the bubble in U.S. bonds. It’s reaching staggering levels.

How do you measure these things? In yields. This, by the way, is how you’ll know the bubble is popping. When that happens (bond yields rise like a rocket ship) it’s going to unleash financial chaos. But for now, the bubble just keeps on getting bigger and yields on short-term U.S. bonds keep approaching–and even reaching–zero.

“The Treasury sold $27 billion of three-month bills yesterday at a discount rate of 0.005 percent,” reports Bloomberg. It’s, “the lowest since it starting auctioning the securities in 1929. The U.S. also sold $30 billion of four-week bills today at zero percent for the first time since it began selling the debt in 2001.”

How do you think that conversation goes?

“Thirty billion you say? For four weeks? And you’ll pay me how much interest?”


“I’ll take it!”

“If you invested $1 million in three-month bills at today’s negative discount rate of 0.01 percent, for a price of 100.002556, at maturity you would receive the par value for a loss of $25.56,” reports Daniel Kruger.

Yes. That’s how much investors currently prefer government-backed bonds to equities at the moment. It implies there will be hardly any inflation at all over the next ten years. But that notion should make you spew milk through your nose as you laugh, unless you’re unfamiliar with the growth in the global monetary base. If so, let us remedy that.

Adjusted Monetary Base

You can see that in the U.S. alone the adjusted monetary base is…growing. So why isn’t the increase in the monetary base showing up in the kind of inflation that would terrify bond investors and lead to a rebound in commodity prices and equities? That’s another question we got last night.

The answer is that so far, the huge liquidity injections have been quarantined in the financial sector, mostly on bank balance sheets, or on deposits by banks at the Federal Reserve and other central banks. In other words, all the new money is going into bonds and central bank accounts, not into new business or consumer lending.

Put another way, the quantity of money is increasing, but its velocity is not. That’s because the new money isn’t getting into the hands of people who are just itching to spend it. But it will soon enough. And when it does, look for bond yields to rise and the great inflation to begin. Also, televisions and hookers.

“I think this will be the greatest time in my life to buy stocks at these prices. I just wish I had more capital,” said one of the attendees at the Doomer’s Ball last night on Southbank. We heard this sentiment time and again over the course of the evening. And there is no doubt that the valuations are good.

There is doubt, however, about what the Australian resource sector will look like in a world where capital is scarcer. Will it lead to a contraction in the number of viable firms? Is the credit crunch like a meteor strike that kills all the giant reptiles that fail to adapt to the new conditions? If it does, there will be a huge survivor bias favouring the stocks that remain.

But there was also some anxiety about further falls in stocks, especially the longer the bar was open at the Ball. One reader is forecasting another 20% fall on the ASX before the lows are in. In fact, if the All Ords reaches the 2003 lows (2,673) it’s a decline of 24% from today’s levels. If it overshoots that low–as markets tend to do when they correct–you’re looking at a thirty percent fall from current levels.

If you treat it as a thought experiment and ask yourself what would have to happen for the ASX to fall that much, you get some alarming possibilities. The liquidation of Oz Minerals? The dismemberment of Rio Tinto? The fall of a major investment bank or leveraged institution?

Or perhaps it’s something simpler: more falling prices for commodities. That’s what the World Bank seems to think anyway. As reported in the FT, the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report says the commodities boom has, “come to an end.” It adds that, “Over the longer run, the price of extracted commodities should fall.” It reckons slower population and income growth will contribute to slower resource demand growth.

Naturally, this is diametrically opposed to the logic of the boom that began in 1999. Then, you had 200 years of falling real prices for tangible goods seemingly reverse itself, mostly because of growth in global population and per capita income. So which thesis is right?

Well you know what we think. We think the Money Migration is the long-term transfer of the world’s wealth from the debt-based consumption economies of the West to the world’s savers and producers, roughly in the “East.” This certainly favours Aussie resources for at least a generation.

But the migration has been massively disrupted by the credit crisis, which is really just an epic attempt by the U.S. and other English-speaking economies to avoid their Day of Reckoning. But don’t you worry. That day is coming. It’s just taking longer than we originally thought. Ben Bernanke is a creative man. And he’s desperate too.

But why don’t we ask China what it thinks? After all, it’s a pretty important party to this discussion. China? What do you think? Hello China. Are you there?

Hmm. China is not taking our calls. Maybe that’s because some Chinese firms are too busy looking for ways to take advantage of the current situation by securing long-term supplies to resources at lower market prices. And maybe actions speak a lot louder than words about Chinese desire for Aussie resources.

“Shenzhen Zhongjin Lingnan Nonfemet Co., China’s fourth-biggest zinc producer by output, said it agreed to acquire a 50.1 percent stake in Australian miner Perilya Ltd. through a private placement,” reports Bloomberg. And Forbes reports that Chinese steel-makers are set to push for a major reduction in iron ore prices to reflect the fall in global steel prices.

The average price in October for a metric ton of iron ore fines, according to Forbes, was $US90.60. But Chinese steel makers reckon that with steel prices back at 1994 levels, iron ore prices should roll back to. In 1994, a metric ton of fines was US$20.40.

A lot has changed since 1994. Supply of ore is up. Demand is up too. But costs for resource producers are way up too. It’s unlikely the steel-makers are going to get a price cut that large. And if they do, it will put some smaller ore producers under enormous pressure (even harder to with stand if you don’t have access to credit).

Where are we then? A year ago BHP held the whip hand and chased Rio in a dream of grand ambition. Now BHP is reconsidering its strategy. Rio is reeling. And pricing power has switched back to resource consumers in China, who are eager to use the whip as well, it appears. There’s been a lot of whipping going on, hasn’t there? More on what it means tomorrow.

Finally, yes. We too saw the reports circulating that the International Monetary Fund is getting ready to dump a bunch of gold on the market. So far, we haven’t found anything to substantiate them. We’re looking around, and will report back on what Diggers and Drillers editor Al Robinson digs up as well. Until then…

Dan Denning

December 15, 2008