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Investment View: Care in the commodity

If last week’s results from mining giant BHP Billiton are anything to go by, commodities are still one of the most rewarding games in town. Profits nearly doubled to $6.5m, with demand from China still keeping the price of base metals such as copper and iron ore on the rise.

“Is this trend likely to continue indefinitely?” I was asked in a television interview on the day the results were published. Nothing lasts forever but it is hard to see prices coming down significantly unless there is a serious slowdown in the global economy.

China and India have so much ground to make up on the developed world that their influence on raw material prices is bound to be immense. Presently, the focus is on China becoming the world’s manufacturer but as these nations move towards becoming a consumer-based society, the momentum is likely to increase rather than diminish.

When the quotas for textile imports from China to the European Union were breached recently, many Chinese manufacturers simply switched production to satisfy an increasing level of domestic demand.

Not that commodity prices should be considered a one-way bet. Indeed, there has been some weakening of the copper price recently while many believe that oil cannot remain above $60 a barrel indefinitely. Moreover, BHP’s share price did take a bit of a tumble on the publication of its results. In part, this was because expectations had already been raised following some very robust earnings figures from other leading mining groups. It only goes to show that it is not what companies report that is important in stimulating their share price. It is what investors are expecting that is crucial.

There have been a number of commodity-based funds launched in the past. I recall an ex-colleague, the late and much lamented Julian Baring, launching the gold and general fund from within James Capel in the mid-1980s. Known as Gold Finger in the City, Julian had made it his business to understand both the metal and the companies that extracted it from the ground, However, the “general” in the fund’s name allowed him to stray into other commodities if the outlook for gold did not appear too exciting. The fund was transferred to Mercury, now Merrill Lynch Investment Management. This mighty investment house subsequently launched a world mining trust.

Looking at the (2005) Barclays Capital Equity Gilt Study, you can see that mining companies were a very important component of the stockmarket as the 19th Century came to an end. At that time, it was to meet the growing appetite of an industrialising Europe and North America. Today, these companies are meeting similar demands from the developing Asian countries, which is helping to keep the prices of raw materials buoyant.

You may notice a different title afforded me at the end of this article. As it happens I have acted as investment communications director for longer than I have headed the intermediary division of Gerrard. Simply put, this role requires me to communicate our investment approach to the outside world. However, time moves on and I have a milestone approaching in my life that is leading me to take stock of how best to organise my business life. With our commitment to the IFA market greater than ever, the time is fast approaching to split these (two key) roles. As they say in all the best gossip columns, watch this space.

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