Energy & materials stocks make up 25% of the S&P 500. Without their participation it’s nearly impossible for a sustainable rally. One of the key contributors to the “sell in May and go away” data is the seasonal trends in commodity related stocks. Over the last 10 years materials and oil related stocks have averaged 17% gains from October to May. That seasonal strength adds tremendously to the overall indices. As I often mention here, much of this is attributable to the strong seasonal demand trends in the oil markets. Oil demand tends to dip during the fall and early winter before spiking in February and continuing into the July 4th holiday when the summer driving season officially ends. This trend has clearly continued again this year as oil and gasoline have rallied over 95% since the March bottom:
The strong seasonal trend says you should be selling commodities now, but this isn’t the only evidence that makes me cautious heading into late summer. David Rosenberg, of Gluskin-Sheff notes some important drivers of the recent commodity rally:
With the U.S. still in recession, what has been fueling the commodity markets have been the revival signs in China, and here, the news has become mixed from a commodity standpoint. We learned that Chinese imports of refined copper hit a record high in May for the fourth month in a row; but domestic supplies were actually put to work in terms of consumption at a much slower rate. In fact, the FT estimates that Chinese copper usage actually fell 3.5% in May even as imports surged 6% MoM (and 25.8% from a year ago). The same holds true for aluminum where consumption fell 1% in May.
Without question, the largest contributor to the recent run-up in commodity prices was China’s stimulus plan. The IEA data has been unquestionably mixed in recent months (including yesterday’s downgrade of world oil demand) and hasn’t warranted the incredible price moves. It’s not a stretch to say that China, along with regular seasonal speculation have been the primary drivers of the commodity price climbs. And we’re now getting signs from China that they have stopped the stockpiling and expect lower prices going forward. The Sydney Morning Herald notes:
“We don’t anticipate that the country will continue to build its reserves,” said Yu Dongming, the head of the metallurgical department of the National Development and Reform Commission.
Zhang Bin, an economist with the Government’s most influential advisers, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, warned that Beijing was leaning against Chinese speculative buying of a range of commodities including Australia’s most lucrative exports, coal and iron ore.
“The commission is acting to reduce pressure on commodities prices and discourage over-production in heavy industry, including guiding steel production and reducing the building of excess capacity,” Dr Zhang told the Herald.
“Too much increase in inventories of commodities is not a good thing because the economy is still not that strong and cannot consume this level of imports of iron ore and coal.”
We’re also seeing signs of inventory accumulation as firms begin to ride the back of higher prices and add supply to the markets. Francisco Blanch, head of global commodity research at Merrill Lynch notes:
“We expect commodity prices to come off in the short run, in the next two or three months. Oil and some of the metals markets will start to suffer because of large inventory accumulation.”
The trend is your friend until it ends. The supply demand dynamics, China repositioning and seasonal trends are pointing to an end to this upward trend in commodities. And that, will likely keep the stock market from going anywhere fast….
* Thanks to reader Deborah for a great contribution to this article.
Mr. Roche is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Discipline Funds.Discipline Funds is a low fee financial advisory firm with a focus on helping people be more disciplined with their finances.
He is also the author of Pragmatic Capitalism: What Every Investor Needs to Understand About Money and Finance, Understanding the Modern Monetary System and Understanding Modern Portfolio Construction.