The bottom of the commodities barrel

We might be nearing the bottom of the market in commodities, says Merryn Somerset Webb. But that doesn't necessarily mean you should pile in.

When investors look back to 2015 you might think they'd remember it for one thing and one thing alone: the collapse in commodity prices. Over the last year, pretty much all prices (bar those of some agricultural commodities) have fallen sharply with oil leading the way. It's just hit a six-year low.

We discussed what's happened in these markets in our cover story on gold miners last week, but it's pretty straightforward. When Chinese demand really kicked off at the start of the century, prices soared. Huge amounts of capital poured into increasing commodity production (ie, lots of firms dug lots of new holes in the ground and dug stuff out). Then just as supply was growing fast, crisis hit, China slowed and super-boom turned to super-bust.

That's hit resources stocks now dragging down indices worldwide. It's hit the currencies of all the countries dependent on commodity exports. It's given the corporate bond market a bit of a turn: according to Ed Yardeni of Yardeni Research, just under 20% of high-yield corporate bonds are attached to energy firms. And it's starting to affect dividend payouts in the UK: Anglo American is to get rid of some 60% of its staff, over half its assets and (for now at least) its dividend. That's nasty and given that payouts from resource firms make up a hefty percentage of the overall UK market yield, it's pretty worrying for income investors too.

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Normally we might look at a misery list like this and wonder if it is time to start buying every commodity stock in sight. When a firm like Anglo capitulates so dramatically, it makes sense to think as Jonathan Allum puts it in his Blah! newsletter that we might be "within spitting distance of a market bottom". The problem is that market bottoms can last a long time (I've just done two interesting video interviews on this with Charlie Morris, new editor of the Fleet Street Letter, and Edward Chancellor watch out for those) and this one looks like it might last a bit longer.

Why? Yardeni again: "Rather than responding to falling prices by cutting production, many commodity producers are increasing their output... in a vain attempt to bolster their revenues so they can meet their debt-servicing obligations." Doesn't sound good does it? Expect more dividend cuts.

This doesn't help the already ugly picture for anyone looking for income from their portfolio. And I'm afraid to say that our cover story doesn't either.A good many of our readers have long looked to buy-to-let to provide them with a stable retirement income. That might still work for those buying in cash, but for those buying with a mortgage it probably won't. This week, I look at the effects of the new tax regime around property investment. Add them up and you might join us in thinking that, when investors look back on 2015, they'll remember it more for the carnage in the buy-to-let market than anything else.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.