WCU: Commodity sell-off pauses despite continued focus on trade

Ole Hansen

Head of Commodity Strategy, Saxo Bank Group

Commodities have begun to find their footing with the Bloomberg Commodity index trading higher for a second week. This follows a 10% loss since June when the “trade war leading to lower growth and demand” narrative took hold.

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Some of the major drivers behind the broad-based rally this past week:

Grains (3%): Hot and dry weather across key growing regions lifted wheat while a $12bn US aid package towards US farmers hit by tariffs and an expected pickup in demand from Europe helped stabilise soybeans. 
Industrial metals (1.8%): China introduced new stimulus measures through tax cuts, infrastructure projects and easing capital requirements for some banks.
Energy (2.4%): Crude oil bounced but is likely to remain range-bound with growth concerns and Iran sanctions impact being offset by a pickup in supply from major suppliers.
US and Europe put new tariffs on hold after declaring a ceasefire to their trade war.
The months-long dollar rally showed signs of grinding to a halt.
Hedge funds selling likely to ease after having cut bullish bets across 24 major commodities by almost 2/3 since March to a 13-month low. 

Precious metals, led by gold, were one of the exceptions given the current strong correlation with the Chinese yuan which continued to weaken. Silver was lower for a seventh consecutive week, its worst run of weekly losses in almost 18 years. Soft commodities such as sugar and coffee felt the pain from renewed weakness of the Brazilian real.

HG copper rose for the first time in seven weeks following a 20% slump since early June which took it to a one-year low. The potential for new infrastructure projects in China, the trade war truce between the US and Europe, and troubled wage negotiations at the world’s largest mine in Chile all helped lend support. 

Having given back almost half the gains achieved between 2016 and January this year these developments have helped stabilise copper and industrial metals in general.  An improved fundamental and/or technical outlook could now potentially trigger renewed buying. Not least considering hedge funds have all but given up seeing higher prices and now hold the biggest net-short (purple line) in almost two years.

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Source: Bloomberg

In the grains sector a recovery now seems to be underway, led by wheat, with multiple important growing regions from Europe and the former Soviet Union to Australia all reporting challenging conditions due to drought. The lack of rain across Europe has turned normal green grazing fields into something that resembles sandy beaches. As a result of this, farmers have been forced to dig into their winter feed stocks in order to keep their livestock alive and this development is currently driving wheat prices higher with buyers looking to cover/hedge their winter requirements.

The European wheat market has rallied strongly on these developments with the Paris milling wheat future, trading above €200/MT for the first time in three years. It has been supported by the abovementioned buying, together with the fundamental support from further crop downgrades within Europe and now also talk that Russia may introduce export curbs to prevent domestic bread prices from rising. 

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Source: Saxo Bank

Gold has become increasingly impacted by its inverse relation to the dollar. More specifically, the Chinese yuan, as the ongoing trade war between the US and China has been driving the price of both the yuan and gold lower against the greenback. The correlation, as seen below, has been rising during the past few months with gold drifting lower during a time where the Chinese government has allowed its currency to weaken in order to offset the drag on the country’s growth caused by US tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of goods.

The factors which impact the performance of gold changes over time. While the dollar always remains one of the biggest source of inspiration, the specific currency to measure against varies. A year ago it was the strong positive correlation to the Japanese yen and negative correlation to US real yields that provided most of the directional input.  

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Strong US growth during the second quarter has kept stocks supported and bond yields relatively stable. This, however, could be as good as it gets with the impact of raised trade tariffs, higher gasoline prices and higher funding costs beginning to be felt during the second half. An escalated trade war, which reduces growth prospects further, is likely to cause a rethink by the Federal Open Market Committee in terms of raising interest rates further. The dollar would likely suffer in such a scenario as it would pause the further widening of the interest gab to other currencies.    

Gold is once again looking for buyers ahead of $1,200/oz, an area which has provided support in the past and which represents a 50% retracement of the $329/oz rally seen between December 2015 and July 2016. For this level to hold, however, it is clear that the dollar appreciation needs to pause or reverse, especially against the yuan as highlighted above. Selling pressure from funds may also begin to slow after they accumulated the biggest gross-short on record. This has left gold in a better position to react to so far absent price-friendly news.

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Source: Saxo Bank

Brent crude oil’s correction lower from $80/b during early July seems to have run its course for now. What triggered the sharp correction was a combination of news impacting the potential outlook for demand and not least the short-term outlook for supply. Trade tensions, which have been growing during the past three months, have increasingly led to worries that global growth and demand may suffer, especially among emerging market economies already challenged by the combination of a stronger dollar and a rising cost of servicing debt in dollars.

What probably did most of the damage was the easing of supply disruptions from countries such as Libya and Canada and reports that the three Opec Gulf Cooperation Council members of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait had already begun ramping up production and exports. The timing mismatch between when these extra barrels are hitting the market and when they are actually going to be needed – later in the year when US sanctions against Iran begins to bite - has helped created a temporary oversupply in the market.

Recent developments highlighted in four charts: Rising supply from key Opec members and Russia have put downward pressure on Brent, the global benchmark, and as a result the front month futures spread has returned to contango. This has forced increased long liquidation from hedge funds who normally keep most of their oil exposure in the most liquid contracts at the front end of the curve.  WTI meanwhile has witnessed a much smaller reduction in speculative longs given the elevated backwardation caused by the continued inventory drop at Cushing, Oklahoma, the massive storage hub which is the delivery hub for WTI crude oil futures.  

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We maintain the view, as highlighted in our recently published Q3 Quarterly Outlook, that Brent crude oil is likely to settle into a low 70s to low 80s range for now. The downside looks protected by the continued risk to supplies despite increased production from some Opec members and Russia. To the upside $80/b has already proved a tough nut to crack and the "trade war leading to lower growth narrative" should continue to offer limited buying appetite above this level.

We should also not ignore additional political initiatives being implemented to prevent the market from rallying. According to recent polls, President Trump has a fight on his hands ahead of the November midterm election. Following the sharp trade tariffs related sell-off in key crops such as soybeans and corn, which has hurt both his base and swing voters, the last thing he needs is a renewed spike in US gasoline prices. On that basis a US political decision to release crude oil from its strategic petroleum reserves cannot be ruled out.

Using Fibonacci to gauge how far the current recovery can take the price we find the short term upside potential being limited to somewhere between $75.35 and $76.33/b.

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Source: Saxo Bank

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