Investors have gone crazy for commodities, pouring money into everything from oil to copper. Just like the world's mania for tech stocks in the 1990s, this boom is headed for a bust.
Wheat is dumped into a grain truck for transfer. Reuters
As playwright Arthur Miller once observed, "An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted." Most of the illusions that defined the last decade -- the notion that global growth had moved to a permanently higher plane, the hope that the Fed (or any central bank) could iron out the highs and lows of the business cycle -- are indeed spent. Yet one idea still has the power to capture the imagination of the markets: that the inexorable rise of China and other big developing economies will continue to drive a "commodity supercycle," a prolonged upward rise in the prices of commodities ranging from oil to copper and silver, to textiles, to corn and soybeans. This conviction is the main reason for the optimism about the prospects of the many countries that live off commodity exports, from Brazil to Argentina, and Australia to Canada.
I call this illusion commodity.com, for it is strikingly similar in some ways to the mania for technology stocks that gripped the world in the late 1990s. At the height of the dotcom era, tech stocks comprised 30 percent of all the money invested in global markets. When the bubble finally burst, commodity stocks -- energy and materials -- rose to replace tech stocks as the investment of choice, and by early 2011 they accounted for 30 percent of the global stock markets. No bubble is a good bubble, and all leave some level of misery in their wakes. But the commodity.com era has had a larger and more negative impact on the global economy than the tech boom did.
The hype has created a new industry that turns commodities into financial products that can be traded like stocks. Oil, wheat, and platinum used to be sold primarily as raw materials, and now they are sold largely as speculative investments. Copper is piling up in bonded warehouses not because the owners plan to use it to make wire, but because speculators are sitting on it, like gold, figuring that they can sell it one day for a huge profit. Daily trading in oil now dwarfs daily consumption of oil, running up prices. While rising prices for stocks--tech ones included--generally boost the economy, high prices for staples like oil impose unavoidable costs on businesses and consumers and act as a profound drag on the economy.
That is how average citizens experience commodity.com, as an anchor weighing down their every move, not the exciting froth of the hot new thing. The dotcom sensation broke the bounds of the financial world and seized the popular imagination, attracting thrilled media hype around the world and enticing cubicle jockeys to become day traders. There was the dream of great riches, yes, but also a boundless optimism and faith in human progress, a sense that the innovations flowing out of Silicon Valley would soon reshape the world for the better.
Tech CEOs became rock stars because they promised a life of rising productivity, falling prices, and high salaries for generating ideas in the hip office pods of the knowledge economy, or for trading tech stocks from a laptop in the living room. It was impossible in those days to get investors interested in anything that did not involve technology and the United States, so some of us started talking up emerging markets as "e-merging markets," while analysts spent a lot of time searching for the new Silicon Valley, which they dutifully but often implausibly discovered hiding in loft offices everywhere from Prague to Kuala Lumpur.
A decade later the chatter was all about the big emerging markets and oil, but with a darker mood. Commodity.com is driven by fear and a total lack of faith in human progress: fear of a rising phalanx of emerging nations with an insatiable demand led by China, of predictions that the world is running out of oil and farmland, coupled with a lack of faith in the human capacity to devise answers, to find alternatives to oil or ways to make agricultural land more productive. It's a Malthusian vision of struggle and scarcity: of prices driven up by failing supplies and wages pushed down by foreign competition.
Excitement about rising commodity prices exists only among the investors, financiers, and speculators who can gain from it. Commodity.com has inspired many an Indian and Chinese entrepreneur to go trekking across Africa in search of coal mines, yet it has no positive manifestation in the public mind at all. At the height of the tech bubble millions of American high school students aspired to become Stanford MBAs bound for Silicon Valley; today the growing number of oil, gas, and energy-management programs represents a small niche inside the MBA world. The only popular manifestations of commodity.com are complaints about rising gasoline prices and outbreaks of unrest over rising food prices in emerging markets.
It is well-justified unrest. If anything, the negative impact of sky-high commodity prices on the larger economy is underestimated. The price of oil rose sharply before ten of the eleven postwar recessions in the United States, including a spike of nearly 60 percent in the twelve months before the Great Recession of 2008 and more than 60 percent before the economy lost momentum in mid-2011. When the price of oil trips up the United States, it takes emerging markets down with it. In 2008 and 2009 the average economic growth rate dropped by 8 percentage points in both the developed and the emerging world, from its peak pace to the recession trough.
The strongest common thread connecting the dotcom and commodity.com eras is the fundamental driver of all manias: the invention of "new paradigms" to justify irrationally high prices. We heard all sorts of exotic rationales at the height of the dotcom boom, when analysts offered gushy explanations for why a company with no profits, a sketchy business plan, and a cute name should trade at astronomical prices. It was all about the future, about understanding why prices in a digitally networked economy "want to be free," while the "monetization" problem (how to make money on the Internet) would solve itself down the line. The dotcom mania, while it lasted, was powerful enough to make Bill Clinton -- who campaigned as the first U.S. president to fully embrace the "new economy" -- a living emblem of American revival, just as the commodity price boom played a role in making Vladimir Putin a symbol of Russian resurgence and Inácio Lula da Silva the face of a Brazilian recovery. When the rapture is over, the nations and companies that have been living high off commodities will also share the sinking feeling that followed the dotcom boom.
Excerpted from Breakout Nations, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012
More From The Atlantic