The raw material markets posted a marginal gain in the third quarter of 2019 even though the dollar index moved higher and trade issues between the US and China remained unresolved on the final trading day of the first nine months of the year. The commodity asset class consisting of 29 of the primary commodities that trade on U.S and U.K. exchanges moved 0.54% lower in Q3 and were still 4.59% higher so far this year. In 2018 the asset class had lost 6.82% of its value.
Commodities were up 7.95% in 2017 following on the heels of 13.41% appreciation in 2016. The overall winner of the 29 for the quarter was nickel that posted a gain of 36.72% for the three-month period with silver futures in second place with an 11.44% gain. The most significant move to the upside came in the Baltic Dry Index, which rose 38.58% higher after a 93.64% gain in Q2 and a 45% loss in Q1 which reflects the seasonal nature of the shipping index and new regulations for fuel. The biggest loser for the quarter was in iron ore which fell 18.30%. Gasoline was down 17.40%, and LME tin was 14.52% lower. So far in 2019, the commodity that was the best performer over the first nine months of the year was nickel with a better than 62% gain, and palladium, which was 37.55% higher than its closing price at the end of 2018. The Baltic Dry Index gained 46.11% since the end of last year. Natural gas was the worst-performing commodities since the end of last year with a 20.75% loss with FCOJ hot on its heels as its price dropped by 20.30%.
There were two double-digit percentage gainers in Q3, and three double-digit percentage losers during the past three months. Losers outnumber winners in the quarter that ended on September 30 by just under 1.7:1.
The U.S. dollar is always a significant factor when it comes to commodity prices as it tends to have an inverse value relationship with raw material prices. The dollar index posted a 3.51% gain and was 3.43% higher over the first nine months of this year after moving 4.26% higher in 2018, which followed a 10.23% decline in 2017. The dollar rose in Q3 even though the Fed cut interest rates by 50 basis points since July 31.
The Fed pushed the Fed Funds rate at 2.25-2.50% at the end of 2018. However, 2019 has been a year of reversal for the US central bank. At their June meeting, the Fed cited inflation below the 2% target rates and “crosscurrents” from Europe and China as weighing on global economic conditions as reasons for its more dovish guidance when it comes to the path of the Fed Funds rate. Lower interest rates are bullish for commodities prices as they weigh on the value of the US dollar, but the reasons for lower rates may stand in front of future gains. The Fed cut rates by 25 basis points at the July 31 and September 18 FOMC meetings. The weak Chinese economy because of the ongoing trade dispute with the US is a problem for many commodities prices as China is the world’s leading consumer of raw materials. The trade war escalated in early August when the US slapped new tariffs on the Chinese and China retaliated.
Stocks added to gains in the third quarter as the prospects for lower rates support equity prices. The DJIA fell by 5.63% in 2018 but posted an 11.15% gain in Q1. In Q2, the DJIA was 2.59% higher. In Q3, it was 1.19% higher and moved 15.39% to the upside over the first nine months of this year. The S&P 500 moved 6.24% lower in 2018 and moved 13.07% higher in Q1. In Q2, it gained 3.79%. In Q3 it gained 1.19% and was 18.74% higher over the nine-month period. The tech-heavy NASDAQ fell 3.88% in 2018, but it turned around and posted a 16.64% gain over the first three months of 2019. In Q2, it moved another 3.45% higher. In Q3 it suffered a marginal 0.09% loss and was 20.56% higher so far in 2019 as of the close of business on September 30. The VIX index which hovered around 10 in 2017, closed Q4 at 25.42. On March 29, the VIX finished at 13.71 down 11.71 as stocks took the elevator down in Q4 2018 and the stairs higher over the first three months of this year. In Q2, the VIX settled at 15.08, up 1.37 on a quarter-to-quarter basis on the back of trade issues and the rising tensions between the US and Iran. At the end of Q3, the VIX was at 16.24, 1.16 higher compared to the closing price at the end of Q2. As we head into Q4, the danger of periodic spikes in volatility continues to lurk in the background. Commodities are on the front lines when it comes to tariffs and retaliatory measures as duties and subsidies distort raw materials prices. The trade talks between the leaders of the US and China will influence the prices of markets across all asset classes during the initial trading sessions of Q4. Trade, Iran Brexit, and impeachment proceedings in the US will likely dominate the news cycle over the final months of 2019. The Fed has been cutting interest rates, and the issues facing the market could continue that trend.
Precious metals were the most bullish sector in Q3 as the issues facing the world have caused rising fear and uncertainty. Agricultural commodities were losers on the back of fears over the trade dispute as well as abundant crops as we move into the 2019 harvest season. The decline in the Brazilian real and other emerging market currencies also weighed on some of the agricultural products. Energy prices declined in Q3 but were still higher over the first nine months of 2019.
On the geopolitical front, there are many areas of turmoil around the world. Aside from trade, the standoff between the US and Iran in the Middle East had resulted in several incidents including attacks on tankers, missiles landing on Saudi sovereign territory and the downing of the US drone near the Strait of Hormuz. In mid-September, the attack on Saudi oil fields increases tensions in the regions. The Saudi and the US had not responded in an observable way by the end of Q3. As we head into Q4, the trade issue, Iran and Brexit are likely to dominate the news cycle and the markets.
Political divisiveness in the U.S. continues to separate many along partisan lines. The 2020 Presidential election is now in high gear with the first round of debates by the Democrats competing for their party’s nomination. The political party has shifted to the left with many candidates embracing a progressive agenda and “Democratic Socialism.” The leader in the polls on the Democrat side is former Vice President Joe Biden, but Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren together represent a voting block that could pose a threat to Biden’s nomination. Elizabeth Warren has emerged as a leading contender. The election between the eventual nominee and President Trump could be even more contentious than the 2016 contest. On September 24, the Speaker of the House of Representatives announced a formal impeachment inquiry against the President.
In Q3, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London and ex-Foreign Secretary under Prime Minister May, took over for Theresa May. The Prime Minister pledged to take the UK out of the EU by the October 31 deadline, but the Parliament made it illegal for him to exit without an agreement. It is now likely we will see a general election that will serve as a second referendum on Brexit in Q4.
Aside from politics and economics, which continue to be a toxic cocktail of volatility for all markets, the fourth quarter of 2019 is a time of the year when the markets move into winter mode. The injection season in the natural gas market will end, and stockpiles will begin to decline. Gasoline consumption will decrease, and agricultural markets will shift focus to South America as the planting and growing season gets underway. The population continues to grow at a rate of 18-20 million, which continues to put pressure on the demand side of the fundamental equation for the agricultural commodities that feed the world.
A myriad of complex factors on a macro and microeconomic basis with dictate the price direction for the commodities market over the coming three months.
The Invesco DB Commodity Tracking ETF (DBC) product is one of the most liquid macro commodities products with a substantial weighting towards crude oil and energy commodities.
Winners in Q3
During the period from July through September 2019, we saw gains and losses that resulted in a marginal move in the asset class to the upside. Two of the six primary sectors of the commodities asset class posted a gain in Q3. The top three performing commodities for Q3 were nickel which appreciated by 36.72%, COMEX silver futures which were up 11.44%, and LME lead forwards which posted an 8.73% gain compared to its price at the end of Q2. The Baltic Dry Index deserves honorable mention as it was 38.58% higher for the quarter. There were no other double-digit percentage gainers in Q3.
In Q3, precious metals led the commodities asset class with a 7.05% gain, followed by base metals that were 2.71% higher since the end of June 2019.
Commodities that moved between 5% and 10% to the upside include lead which gained 8.73%, palladium which was 7.46% higher, rice that moved 6.56% higher, and NYMEX platinum added 5.33% over the third quarter.
The commodities that were 3% to 5% higher were the ethanol futures market that moved 4.45% higher, feeder cattle appreciated by 4.06%, and gold that gained 3.97%.
Marginal increases of 0-3% occurred in soybean oil that was 2.66% higher, oats moved 1.01% to the upside, natural gas posted a 0.95% gain, and soybeans edged 0.69% to the higher.
Over the last nine months, the precious metals sector leads the asset class with a 17.97% gain. Energy commodities were 11.02% higher, with base metals 5.58% higher, and grains 4.77% above where they closed at the end of 2018.
Losers in Q3
The biggest loser in Q3 was the energy sector as it declined by 5.03% over the three-month period led by an over 17% loss in gasoline futures. Animal proteins posted a 3.51% loss for the period with the price of lean hogs falling by over 9%. Soft commodities lost 3.34%, and the grain sector moved 1.01% lower over the three months that ended on Monday, September 30.
The three worst-performing commodities of Q3 were iron ore, which was down by 18.30%, gasoline futures that dropped 17.40%, and LME tin forwards that declined 14.52%. The three commodities suffered double-digit percentage losses for the quarter.
Those commodities that lost 5% to 10% were lean hogs, which lost 9.22%, Brent crude oil declined by 8.08%, KCBT wheat fell by 8.08%, and CBOT corn was 7.67% lower. NYMEX crude oil dropped 7.53%, LME zinc lost 6.95%, ICE coffee futures fell 6.56% while CBOT wheat posted a 6.11% loss. Soybean meal futures were 5.49% lower, and ICE cotton declined by 5.38%. Live cattle dropped 5.36% in Q3.
COMEX copper suffered a 4.69% loss, with LME copper falling 3.71%. LME aluminum was 3.99% lower. Sugar fell 3.25%. Lumber lost 3.11% of its value. NYMEX heating oil dropped 2.18% in Q3. MGE wheat was down by 1.76%, FCOJ fell 1.19%, and cocoa was 0.33% lower for the quarter.
The leading losers over the first nine months of 2019 were natural gas which declined 20.75% since the end of 2018, FCOJ down 20.30% and LME tin which lost 17.27% in 2019 as of September 30.
Gasoline and heating oil processing spreads reflected seasonal factors as we moved into the off-peak season of demand for gasoline in Q3. Gasoline cracks moved 45.16% lower while heating oil cracks which are a proxy for distillate products posted a 10.88% gain at the end of the third quarter compared to their closing prices at the end of Q2 2019.
On a sector basis, soft commodities were 7.61% lower over the first nine months of 2019. Animal proteins were 4.19% lower than the closing level at the end of December 2018.
The CFTC has defined digital currencies as commodities. The cryptocurrency asset class that was all the rage in 2017 plunged in 2018. In Q1, the asset class moved to the upside but did little to erase losses from last year. In Q2, prices exploded higher. In Q3 prices went the other way as all of the digital currencies moved significantly lower. Bitcoin lost 32.87% in Q3 and closed at the $8,286.18 level. The market cap of the asset class as a whole moved from $347.407 billion at the end of Q2 to $220.249 billion on September 30, down 36.6% for the three-month period as Bitcoin outperformed the other tokens in the third quarter of 2019. Ethereum posted a 42.67% loss in Q3 while Litecoin was 53.26% lower for the period. Bitcoin Cash was 47.42% lower.
Facebook’s announcement of its plans to roll out a digital currency, Libra, with a group of partners added initial support to the cryptocurrency asset class. However, in Q3 concerns from regulators, Congress, and government officials were a sign that widespread acceptance of the crypto asset class is not on the horizon.
Issues to look forward to in Q4
The dollar moved 3.51% higher even though the Fed cut the short-term Fed Funds rate twice by a total of 50 basis points in Q3. The central bank also ended the quantitative tightening program that was pushing rate higher further out along the yield curve during the past three months. The market’s consensus is that the central bank will cut rates by another 25 basis points by the end of 2019. Gold rose to its highest price since 2013 during the quarter.
Gold traded to a low at $1266 in Q2, but it broke out of its $331.30 trading range which had been in place since 2014 and rose to a high at $1559.80 per ounce in early September, the highest level since 2013. The break to the upside in the gold market was a significant technical event in Q2 and led to further gains in Q3. Gold closed the first nine months of the year at $1465.70. The gold market divorced from its historical relationship with the US dollar in Q3 as both the greenback and the yellow metal moved to the upside. In Q3, gold rose to new record highs in all currencies except for Swiss francs and US dollars. The rise in the price of gold continues to be a commentary on the overall devaluation of foreign exchange instruments around the globe.
The commodities markets will be facing a myriad of issues in Q4, which was a very volatile quarter in 2018. Trade between the US and China will continue to be a dominant force as protectionist measures distort supply and demand fundamentals. Tariffs create gluts in one region and shortages in others as we have witnessed in the US and China in the agricultural sector. Brexit will also be a leading issue as the deadline for the UK’s membership in the EU is on October 31. The Parliament passed legislation that Prime Minister Boris Johnson must request an extension if he cannot reach a deal by October 19. The Parliament has prevented the Prime Minister from exiting the EU without an agreement despite his pledge to the British people. Meanwhile, political wrangling will lead to a general election in Q4 that will serve as a second referendum for Brexit.
Iran’s fingerprints on the attack on Saudi oil fields on September 14 will continue to underpin the crude oil market. US sanctions on Iran could cause more provocative actions by the theocracy in Teheran in Q4. The impeachment inquiry by Congress against President Trump will dominate the political news in the US over the coming quarter and into 2020. The Presidential election in November 2020 promises to be the most contentious, perhaps in history. At the end of Q3, Senator Elizabeth Warren surpasses former Vice President Joe Biden in the polls. Senator Warren supports a progressive agenda, which would result in significant changes to the tax and regulatory landscapes in the US. The Senator pledged to end fracking on day-one of her administration, which would have ramifications for US energy independence. She plans to adopt the “Green New Deal” that would change the landscape for fossil fuels in the United States. The bottom line is that more than a few issues, and the unknown could trigger risk-off periods in markets across all asset classes, and commodities are no exception.
History- Results from my best bets for Q3
The results of my best bets for Q3 from my Q3-2019 report are as follows:
- I expect a very choppy stock market in Q3 given concerns over trade, but the Fed has provided support for equity prices. I favor buying VIX-related instruments on price dips
The stock market was choppy in Q3, and the VIX traded in a range from 12.04 to 24.81 providing opportunities to buy VIX-related products on dips and to take profits on rallies. The overall stock market posted a gain in Q3, but the VIX settled Q3 at a higher level than at the end of Q2, reflecting the price variance throughout the quarter.
- The dollar index is likely to remain under pressure if interest rates fall in Q3
I was wrong on this call as the dollar index rose by over 2% in Q3 and interest rates fell. The Fed cut rates twice by a total of 50 basis points and ended quantitative tightening in Q3, but the dollar index continued to move higher, making new highs.
- The path of least resistance for Bitcoin and digital currencies is higher going into Q3. I believe we will see higher highs in the cryptocurrencies
Bitcoin closed Q2 at $12344.05 per token and rose to a high at $13,665 on July 10 at the start of Q3. However, the entire digital currency market ran out of steam on the upside and prices plunged. At the end of Q3, the market cap of the asset class was over 36% lower on a quarter-by-quarter basis with nearly all tokens suffering significant percentage losses over the past three months.
- I am bullish on the Brazilian real and the Canadian dollar
The Brazilian real fell from $0.2611 to $0.23985 against the US dollar from the end of Q2 to the end of Q3, a loss of 8.1%. The Canadian dollar fell from $0.76485 to $0.7560 over the quarter, a loss of 1.16%. Strength in the US dollar and weakness in grain and energy prices weighed on the Canadian currency. The decline in the Brazilian real reflects weakness in emerging market currencies, strength in the dollar, contagion from neighboring Argentina, and fires in the Amazon.
- Gold broke out to the upside. I will use a trailing stop at $1359 on long positions but would reestablish longs in gold and mining stocks if the price falls below that level and runs out of steam. I believe that gold has the potential to move much higher over the coming months
Gold never returned to the $1377.40 level and it moved almost 4% higher after a correction that took the price over $100 lower from the high of the quarter.
- I favor long positions in silver with a stop under $14 as risk-reward and the ratio favor a recovery in the silver market
Silver never traded below the $14 level and moved to a high at $19.54 on the continuous futures contract. Silver posted the second-highest percentage gain in the commodities market in Q3.
- I continue to favor platinum on the long side and would purchase physical metal or the PPLT ETF product on price weakness
Platinum gained over 5% during Q3 as all precious metals moved to the upside.
- I favor FCX stock and would add on price weakness. I also favor copper with a stop below the $2.50 per pound level in Q3
FCX shares moved from $11.61 at the end of Q2 to $9.57 at the end of Q3, a decline of 17.6%. Copper traded to a low at $2.4695 during the quarter before returning to just under the $2.58 level as of the close of business on September 30.
- The moment of truth has arrived for grains as the weather over the coming weeks will dictate the price direction. I will use tight stops on long positions, and only carry a small long core position on rallies
The grain sector fell by 1.10% in Q3 with the most significant losses coming in corn and wheat futures. The 2019 crop will be sufficient to feed the world. Meanwhile, the trade war will continue to create price distortions in the commodities that feed the world.
- I have no significant conviction when it comes to the direction of crude oil. I would look for trade with tight stops on a short-term basis in the energy commodity in Q3
NYMEX crude oil futures traded in a range from $50.52 to $63.38 per barrel in Q3. The lows came on the back of recession fears over the trade war. The high occurred in the aftermath of the attack on the Saudi oilfields on September 14. Crude oil was trading at the $54 per barrel level on September 30, below the middle of its trading range. There were trading opportunities during Q3.
- I am rooting natural gas lower so I can pick up some bargains during the summer months in UNG, call options on futures, or natural gas producer equities for the winter season in late 2019 and early 2020 if the price continues to make lower lows.
Natural gas fell to a low at $2.029 in early August and reached a high at $2.71 per MMBtu in mid-September. The move to the downside allowed for some positioning for the coming winter months, which is the peak season for demand each year.
- I continue to favor sugar, coffee, and FCOJ given the connection to Brazil and expectations for a recovery in the Brazilian currency
I was wrong about the Brazilian currency, which weighed on all three of the soft commodities in Q3.
- Meats look awful, but any news of a trade deal with China or US shipment of pork to China could lift the price given the impact of African swine fever.
Meat prices declined in Q3 on a combination of an escalation in the trade war and the end of the peak season for demand in early September.
Best bets for Q4 2019- Commodities
As we move into Q4, there are lots of events that will move markets across all asset classes.
My best bets for Q4 are:
I expect lots of volatility in the commodities sector in Q4. If the final three months of 2019 are anything like the same period in 2018, fasten your seatbelts for lots of price action.
A full list of my projections and best bets for the final quarter of this year is available to subscribers to the Hecht Commodity Report.
The Invesco DB Commodity Tracking ETF product holds a diversified basket of raw material futures, but it is weighted towards energy products. The fund summary for DBC states:
“The investment seeks to track changes, whether positive or negative, in the level of the DBIQ Optimum Yield Diversified Commodity Index Excess Return™. The fund pursues its investment objective by investing in a portfolio of exchange-traded futures on Light Sweet Crude Oil (WTI), Heating Oil, RBOB Gasoline, Natural Gas, Brent Crude, Gold, Silver, Aluminum, Zinc, Copper Grade A, Corn, Wheat, Soybeans, and Sugar. The index is composed of notional amounts of each of these commodities.”
The most recent top holdings of DBC include:
Source: Yahoo Finance
DBC has $1.42 billion in net assets, which dropped by $190 million from the end of Q2. The product trades an average of 971,935 shares each day. So far in 2019, net assets dropped by $600 million, and average volume declined since the end of 2018, which is a sign of receding interest in the commodities asset class.
As the chart shows, DBC moved from $15.73 at the end of Q2 to $15.04 per share at the end of Q3, a decline of 4.39% for the quarter. DBC underperformed the asset class in Q3 as the composite of 29 commodities rose by 0.02%. The energy sector moved lower, which weighed on DBC in Q3.
Many opportunities lie ahead in the commodities markets in Q4. Commodities are volatile assets and trading rather than investing is likely to yield optimal results. Keep your stops tight and take profits when they are on the table. Never worry about missing a trade or investment because there is always another opportunity just around the corner. Discipline, a logical risk-reward approach using stops, and flexibility are critical elements for success in the world of commodities. Keep your eyes on US interest rates and the dollar, the trade negotiations with China, and Iran. Other factors will also likely impact markets as the economic and geopolitical state of the world is dynamic as we head into the final quarter of the year.
Any investment involves substantial risks, including, but not limited to, pricing volatility, inadequate liquidity, and the potential complete loss of principal. This document does not in any way constitute an offer or solicitation of an offer to buy or sell any investment, security, or commodity discussed herein, or any security in any jurisdiction in which such an offer would be unlawful under the securities laws of such jurisdiction.
The Hecht Commodity Report is one of the most comprehensive commodities reports available today from the #2 ranked author in both commodities and precious metals. My weekly report covers the market movements of 20 different commodities and provides bullish, bearish and neutral calls; directional trading recommendations, and actionable ideas for traders. I just reworked the report to make it very actionable!
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
Additional disclosure: The author always has positions in commodities markets in futures, options, ETF/ETN products, and commodity equities. These long and short positions tend to change on an intraday basis.
The author is long precious metals