The stock market is having a bad day Friday but the recent trend has been strength in equities while commodities have broadly slumped.
The Dow (DJI) had its best first quarter since 1998, rising over 11%, while the Dow Jones Commodities Index fell 1.1%, its worst first quarter since 2010. And while the Dow continued to flirt with all-time highs earlier this week, silver fell into bear market territory while gold’s spot price fell below the price of the S&P 500’s (GSPC) for the first time since 2010.
One explanation for the disconnect between commodities and stocks is that the global economy isn't nearly as strong as the stock market would otherwise indicate. Friday’s dismal U.S. jobs report certainly supports this view.
Sarat Sethi, portfolio manager at Douglas C. Lane & Associates, has another view and a different explanation for the recent weakness in commodities: A lot of “hot money” is getting out of what Raymond James strategist Jeff Saut likes to refer to as “stuff.”
In the early stages of quantitative easing, there was a lot of speculation in commodities, Sethi explains; with rates so low, it was easy for hedge funds and other institutions to use leverage to get more exposure. But what’s happened since is that as other central banks have followed the Fed’s QE lead -- and the EU has suffered a series of crises -- the dollar has strengthened relative to other major currencies. With most commodities priced in dollars, strength in the greenback means weakness in the price of a lot of “stuff.”
In addition, “supply is finally catching up with demand” in a lot of commodities, Sethi notes. “Once you get that you’ll see investors using commodities [to speculate] and will start selling. It kind of feeds on itself.”
Of course, not all commodities are created equal – natural gas and cotton both rose sharply in the first quarter – and it is possible weakness in “stuff” is a sign the global economy is hitting a wall.
But, for now at least, Sethi believes falling commodity prices is a positive and investors should be searching for growth opportunities vs. continuing to plow money into traditionally defensive sectors like utilities and consumer staples.
“Airlines have done well and could do extremely well over the next three-to-five years if their largest input price…comes back down,” Sethi says.