Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Commodity Prices and Money

We have seen a recent spike in prices of various commodities like Oil, Sugar, Cotton, etc. Paul Krugman in recent blogpost highlights this as indication of finite world. We are scrambling to explain these changes through the lens of demand supply. However, just this time, I think there is another explanation.

Three components of commodity prices
In current scenario we should think of commodity price as comprising three parameters with demand-supply being one of them. The second parameter is inflation adjustment. Third parameter is wealth retention value.

Inflation adjustment refers to change in prices reflecting change to money supply that feeds only few areas within the economic value chain. Usually, the inflation adjustment is negligible as money moves through designated channels. However, in recent times, the excess money has spilled on to commodities and other asset classes creating a price expansion divergent from fundamentals.

Wealth retention value refers to ability of the commodity to retain purchasing power for the future. When money supply is stable and in line with fundamentals, there is not much need for commodity to carry the wealth, money can do it better. However, in cases of rapid monetary expansion rare commodities are required to carry wealth. Higher the monetary expansion, more commodities comes into this fold. In post-war Germany wheat bread too joined this group.

In Sum
So I think we should look at commodity prices through this three-component lens. I believe the fundamental driver, i.e. demand supply, is more or less along the long term trend. However, in recent times we have seen higher inflation component markups for many asset classes. Commodities are simply exhibiting similar behavior. Further, we might see, depending on how much trust our currencies exhibit, some change to the wealth retention component in coming years.