Investors have gone crazy for commodities, pouring money into everything from oil to copper. Just like the world's mania for tech stocks in the 1990s, this boom is headed for a bust.
As playwright Arthur Miller once observed, "An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted." Most of the illusions that defined the last decade -- the notion that global growth had moved to a permanently higher plane, the hope that the Fed (or any central bank) could iron out the highs and lows of the business cycle -- are indeed spent. Yet one idea still has the power to capture the imagination of the markets: that the inexorable rise of China and other big developing economies will continue to drive a "commodity supercycle," a prolonged upward rise in the prices of commodities ranging from oil to copper and silver, to textiles, to corn and soybeans. This conviction is the main reason for the optimism about the prospects of the many countries that live off commodity exports, from Brazil to Argentina, and Australia to Canada.
I call this illusion commodity.com, for it is strikingly similar in some ways to the mania for technology stocks that gripped the world in the late 1990s. At the height of the dotcom era, tech stocks comprised 30 percent of all the money invested in global markets. When the bubble finally burst, commodity stocks -- energy and materials -- rose to replace tech stocks as the investment of choice, and by early 2011 they accounted for 30 percent of the global stock markets. No bubble is a good bubble, and all leave some level of misery in their wakes. But the commodity.com era has had a larger and more negative impact on the global economy than the tech boom did.
The hype has created a new industry that turns commodities into financial products that can be traded like stocks. Oil, wheat, and platinum used to be sold primarily as raw materials, and now they are sold largely as speculative investments. Copper is piling up in bonded warehouses not because the owners plan to use it to make wire, but because speculators are sitting on it, like gold, figuring that they can sell it one day for a huge profit. Daily trading in oil now dwarfs daily consumption of oil, running up prices. While rising prices for stocks--tech ones included--generally boost the economy, high prices for staples like oil impose unavoidable costs on businesses and consumers and act as a profound drag on the economy.
That is how average citizens experience commodity.com, as an anchor weighing down their every move, not the exciting froth of the hot new thing. The dotcom sensation broke the bounds of the financial world and seized the popular imagination, attracting thrilled media hype around the world and enticing cubicle jockeys to become day traders. There was the dream of great riches, yes, but also a boundless optimism and faith in human progress, a sense that the innovations flowing out of Silicon Valley would soon reshape the world for the better.
Tech CEOs became rock stars because they promised a life of rising productivity, falling prices, and high salaries for generating ideas in the hip office pods of the knowledge economy, or for trading tech stocks from a laptop in the living room. It was impossible in those days to get investors interested in anything that did not involve technology and the United States, so some of us started talking up emerging markets as "e-merging markets," while analysts spent a lot of time searching for the new Silicon Valley, which they dutifully but often implausibly discovered hiding in loft offices everywhere from Prague to Kuala Lumpur.