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Jeremy Grantham is convinced that this time really is different when it comes to the commodity bubble.  His latest narrative covers the decline in natural resources and why we have moved from a period of low prices to a period of rising prices.  This is fairly shocking commentary from one of the great bubble spotters in history and the king of mean reversion.  He writes:

“The history of pricing for commodities has been an incredibly helpful one for the economic progress of our species: in general, prices have declined steadily for all of the last century. We have created an equal weighted index of the most important 33 commodities. This is not designed to show their importance to the economy, but simply to show the average price trend of important commodities as a class. The index shown in Exhibit 2 starts 110 years ago and trends steadily downward, in apparent defiance of the ultimately limited nature of these resources. The average price falls by 1.2% a year after inflation adjustment to its low point in 2002. Just imagine what this 102-year decline of 1.2% compounded has done to our increased wealth and well-being. Despite digging deeper holes to mine lower grade ores, and despite using the best land first, and the best of everything else for that matter, the prices fell by an average of over 70% in real terms. The undeniable law of diminishing returns was overcome by technological progress – a real testimonial to human inventiveness and ingenuity.

But the decline in price was not a natural law. It simply reflected that in this particular period, with our particular balance of supply and demand, the increasing marginal cost of, say, 2.0% a year was overcome by even larger increases in annual productivity of 3.2%. But this was just a historical accident. Marginal rates could have risen faster; productivity could have risen more slowly. In those relationships we have been lucky. Above all, demand could have risen faster, and it is here, recently, that our luck has begun to run out.

…Just as we began to see at least the potential for peak oil and a rapid decline in the quality of some of our resources, we had the explosion of demand from China and India and the rest of the developing world. Here, the key differences from the past were, as mentioned, the sheer scale of China and India and the unprecedented growth rates of developing countries in total. This acceleration of growth affected global demand quite suddenly. Prior to 1995, there was (remarkably, seen through today’s eyes) no difference in aggregate growth between the developing world and the developed world. And, for the last several years now, growth has been 3 to 1 in their favor!

The 102 years to 2002 saw almost each individual commodity – both metals and agricultural – hit all-time lows. Only oil had clearly peeled off in 1974, a precursor of things to come. But since 2002, we have the most remarkable price rise, in real terms, ever recorded, and this, I believe, will go down in the history books. Exhibit 2 shows this watershed event. Until 20 years ago, there were no surprises at all in the sense that great unexpected events like World War I, World War II, and the double inflationary oil crises of 1974 and 1979 would cause prices to generally surge; and setbacks like the post-World War I depression and the Great Depression would cause prices to generally collapse. Much as you might expect, except that it all took place around a downward trend. But in the 1990s, things started to act oddly. First, there was a remarkable decline for the 15 or so years to 2002. What description should be added to our exhibit? “The 1990’s Surge in Resource Productivity” might be one. Perhaps it was encouraged by the fall of the Soviet bloc. It was a very important but rather stealthy move, and certainly not one that was much remarked on in investment circles. It was as if lower prices were our divine right. And more to the point, what description do we put on the surge from 2002 until now? It is far bigger than the one caused by World War II, happily without World War III. My own suggestion would be “The Great Paradigm Shift.”

The primary cause of this change is not just the accelerated size and growth of China, but also its astonishingly high percentage of capital spending, which is over 50% of GDP, a level never before reached by any economy in history, and by a wide margin. Yes, it was aided and abetted by India and most other emerging countries, but still it is remarkable how large a percentage of some commodities China was taking by 2009. Exhibit 3 shows that among important non-agricultural commodities, China takes a relatively small fraction of the world’s oil, using a little over 10%, which is about in line with its share of GDP (adjusted for purchasing parity). The next lowest is nickel at 36%. The other eight, including cement, coal, and iron ore, rise to around an astonishing 50%! In agricultural commodities, the numbers are more varied and generally lower: 17% of the world’s wheat, 25% of the soybeans (thank Heaven for Brazil!) 28% of the rice, and 46% of the pigs. That’s a lot of pigs!

…This is an amazing picture and it is absolutely not a reflection of general investment euphoria. Global stocks are pricey but well within normal ranges, and housing is mixed. But commodities are collectively worse than equities (S&P 500) were in the U.S. in the tech bubble of 2000! If you believe that commodities are indeed on their old 100-year downward trend, then their current pricing is collectively vastly improbable. It is far more likely that for most commodities the trend has changed, just as it did for oil back in 1974, as we’ll see later.

…I believe that we are in the midst of one of the giant inflection points in economic history. This is likely the beginning of the end for the heroic growth spurt in population and wealth caused by what I think of as the Hydrocarbon Revolution rather than the Industrial Revolution. The unprecedented broad price rise would seem to confi rm this. Three years ago I warned of “chain-linked” crises in commodities, which have come to pass, and all without a fullyfledged oil crisis. Yet there is so little panicking, so little analysis even. I think this paradox exists because of some unusual human traits.”

Is it really different this time?  I am not so certain.  I am still a believer in the idea that a permanent bet on higher commodity prices is a bet against human ingenuity and if there is one great long-term bet over the course of human existence it has been on ingenuity….

You can read the entire Grantham letter here.

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