After rocketing $500 an ounce in the first eight months of the year, gold prices have tumbled as investors take an increasingly bearish view of commodities in general.
For most commodities, that skepticism is warranted. But gold's recent nosedive and predictions that it will fall to $1,400 an ounce in coming weeks, well below the September record of $1,923.70, has some market watchers raising their eyebrows. After all, isn't gold a different kind of commodity -- a sort of haven, an asset that serves as a refuge from uncertain economic times and volatile markets, just the kind that we have lived through in the second half of 2011?
Yes. But the gold market has changed a great deal in recent decades. It has never really been dominated by end users as copper, soybeans and crude oil ultimately are. Instead, with every year that has passed, the role of speculators in the gold market has grown.
Investors no longer buy gold bars and stash them in bank vaults; they snap up gold ETFs or other derivatives tied to the price of gold, and they can buy or sell whenever they want. Long-term investors, who want to maintain a strategic allocation to gold in their portfolios, have given way to speculators eager to jump on or off the bandwagon as momentum dictates.
There is still more than $100 billion in gold held in easy-to-sell exchange traded vehicles, by some estimates. Investors who don’t want to lose more, or who want to hang on to what is left of any profits, may well add to the selling pressure. The changes to the ways in which gold can be purchased and the much broader investor base have dramatically changed its nature as a haven.
So are there any "safe" commodities left to invest in? If you listen to economists, probably not. Forecasts of a slowdown in global growth next year are common, and that will wreak havoc on demand for things like copper and crude oil. It's not surprising that their prices have come under siege. But there is one intriguing option: potash.
True, potash never really glitters like gold; rather, it lurks in the shadows. It's not traded on the futures markets. Investors who are interested have to invest indirectly, via stocks of producers like Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan (POT +2.90%) and The Mosaic Company (MOS +4.50%). But the absence of a futures contract also means potash prices haven’t been the focus of speculation.
Not that potash prices don’t face risks. Shelley Goldberg, a Roubini Global Economics analyst who last week produced a report analyzing the potash market, concluded that there are in fact many risks involved. Cash-strapped farmers may cut back on fertilizer purchases for a year or two without harming productivity, creating some short-term downside risk to both the commodity price and the stock prices. Still, the long-term fundamentals remain relatively upbeat. Demand for agricultural productivity isn’t going to abate, particularly in emerging markets like China, India and Brazil.
Global demand was expected to climb 11% this year, and even if the rate of growth in demand from China ebbs, Indian needs will likely more than compensate as the country tries to become self-sufficient in foodstuffs, especially grains. Goldberg points out that India’s fertilizer budget is bigger than its military budget.
With that in mind, when designing a portfolio for 2012, you might want to think about including shares of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan, whose stock ended last week at $39.50. Largely bullish analysts expect the shares to hit $60.
If you’re still in the mood to gamble a bit, there’s upstart Western Potash, the development-stage player that now trades for C$1 a share on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Analysts rate it a "speculative buy" and say its share price could double -- that is, if it isn’t acquired by one of the behemoth players in the industry or Chinese or Indian interests....