What to watch in commodities in 2019: winners and losers line up

Commodities took a kicking in 2018 – with deep losses in everything from oil and copper to coffee and sugar – so what’s in store for the 12 months to come?

The inaugural What to Watch of the year offers a selective run through of prospects and pitfalls for some of the top raw materials, and it’s a reasonably positive picture that emerges.

The roadmap for the year comes ahead of what’ll be a busy week.

The US-China trade fight will be in the news, with a U.S. delegation due in Beijing for talks. In addition, there’ll be more pointers on the macroeconomic outlook, with the World Bank updating its Global Economic Prospects report on Tuesday and a speech from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on Thursday.

Oil’s Well

The standout feature in commodity markets last quarter was crude’s swoon from four-year high into a bear market.

The drivers of the reversal were record US shale output, a clutch of sanctions waivers on Iranian flows, and a supply cut from OPEC+ deemed by some as too little.

Concern about a deteriorating global economic outlook gave bears further ammunition. After that drama, prices may recover, with supply risks underappreciated.

In 2019, watch for more losses in crisis-hit Venezuela as supply risks tumbling below 1 million barrels a day.

On top of that, waivers granted by the US on Iranian cargoes are temporary, and not all may be renewed in May.

Lastly, don’t underestimate the resolve in Saudi Arabia to make the cuts stick. OPEC’s next meeting is in April, and prices may have regained some ground by then. The median Brent forecast tracked by Bloomberg is $68, compared with about $56 at present.

Golden Opportunity

Gold bulls seized the initiative in the final months of 2018 and there’s plenty to suggest that the haven may hold up.

Look for support for prices that are already at a six-month high as the Federal Reserve goes slower on rate increases, and investors seek protection from equity market turmoil and slowing global growth.

There may be more supportive headlines in the near term. A golden cross – with the 50-day moving average topping its 200-day counterpart – is close, and a few more tons added to exchange-traded funds will lift holdings to the highest since 2013.

A December Bloomberg survey of 20 analysts and traders reflected a positive tone, with the median estimate of $1,325 an ounce. Spot bullion was last at $1,294.

Wired for Success

Copper dropped every quarter last year in the worst run since 2015.

The metal was hurt by concerns that global growth is slowing and the US-China trade fight. Still, investors may this year focus more on the supportive backdrop offered by industry indicators.

Among these are global stockpiles tracked by exchanges, with holdings in London Metal Exchange sheds at a decade-low.

That drop has come as demand tops supply by some margin: 595,000 tons in the nine months to September, according to the International Copper Study Group.

Miners also highlight lower grades. And just as trade-war blows hurt copper in 2018, the same could be true in 2019 – but on the upside. Should Washington and Beijing settle some issues, copper could get a boost.

The median of forecasts tracked by Bloomberg puts the metal, which was last at $5,736 a ton, back above $6,400.

Slowing Ships of Soy

Soybeans get a boost from any inkling of improving trade relations between the U.S. and China, and that narrative should continue to dominate trading in 2019.

The oilseed rallied in late 2018 after a meeting between US and Chinese leaders resulted in the Asian nation resuming some imports of American beans. Traders, though, were disappointed by the magnitude of the purchases.

Farmers in America are hopeful the two nations will reach an accord before the end of a 90-day truce.

The key question for trading desks remains whether China, the hitherto top US soybean buyer, will agree to reduce tariffs on US agricultural products.

Brazil’s coming harvest is also a major factor: farmers there are looking at yet another bumper year and that rush of supply would further suppress US prices, especially if China stays closed.

Porcine Potential

In other farm commodities, it’ll pay to weigh the outlook for hogs.

China has more than 400 million pigs, over half the world’s herd; the country also has a serious outbreak of African swine fever that’s been spreading since emerging in 2018.

While it doesn’t harm human beings, the disease can be 100% lethal for pigs. This week brought news of more infections, with an outbreak confirmed 1 January at a farm that had about 73,000 hogs.

There’s concern the outbreak will get a stronger grip within Asia’s top economy, and may jump to neighboring states, imperiling producers across the region.

Should that happen, China may go overseas to supplement supplies, benefiting the U.S. even as the trade war drags on. That may also benefit chicken demand and prices.

That Sinking Feeling

After averaging almost $70 a ton last year, iron ore is at risk of a drop.

The staple, dominated by flows from Brazil and Australia, will face headwinds from a slower pace of expansion in China, with steel output likely at best to plateau.

Policy decisions from Beijing – especially additional stimulus amid the trade war and conduct of the anti-pollution drive – remain wild cards.

Adding to downward pressure, more supply is on the way, with Brazil’s Vale SA adding tons from the ramp-up of its S11D mine and as Anglo American Plc restarts Minas Rio.

Keep a close watch on China mills’ profitability and industry data from the mainland. Profitability tanked in the final quarter of 2018 and the purchasing managers index is back at depressed levels.

Heading into the year, Morgan Stanley was among the bears, warning of a return to global oversupply and prices at $62 this year.

Read: 8 long-term stock picks for 2019 and beyond

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What to watch in commodities in 2019: winners and losers line up