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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 November, 2003, 13:03 GMT
Chinese whispers drive metals boom
By Myles Neligan
BBC News Online business reporter

stock market trader
Watch those mining stocks go

The FTSE 100 closed at 4,397 on Friday, just 0.45% up on the week, as fresh doubts over the strength of the US economic rebound set in.

The stop-start progress of the equities market contrasts with a sustained boom in the often overlooked commodities sector, fuelled largely by rapid economic growth in China.

BBC News Online takes a closer look.

The main global stock markets have jumped by up to 30% since the US-led invasion of Iraq in March, but the outlook for share prices remains murky because of lingering worries over the long-term macroeconomic picture.

In this uncertain climate, commodities - natural resources such as metals, oil, and some agricultural products - have grabbed the attention of investors looking for a safer bet.

China has become a phenomenal engine of growth
Evy Hambro, Merrill Lynch
Commodity prices, which fell throughout the 1990s, have this year dramatically reversed the downward trend, thanks in part to expectations of stronger global growth next year.

But an additional factor supporting the commodity market this year - and the one that promises further price rises in years to come - is a surge in demand from the world's fastest-growing economy, China.

Metal moment

Gripped by a runaway economic boom, China is importing billions of dollars' worth of natural resources every month as it rushes to meet the needs of its huge and increasingly affluent population.

This has lifted commodity prices across the board, giving a welcome boost to Brazilian dairy farmers and Malaysian palm oil producers.

There's a risk of a bubble here
Matthew Parry, Economist Intelligence Unit
But industrial metals - needed to fuel China's booming construction and automotive industries - have benefited most, with nickel prices on the London Metals Exchange rising by 70% since the start of the year, and copper climbing by almost 35%.

Spectacular increases of this kind have got pulses racing in the City, spurring talk of a "commodities super-cycle" that will ensure solid returns for years to come.

Most investors seeking to cash in on the Chinese commodities boom have found that the easiest way of doing so is to buy up shares in mining companies.

It's a tactic that has paid off handsomely, with the FTSE's main mining stocks - BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto - rising by 36% and 16% respectively since the start of the year.

And last week, Merrill Lynch said its mining investment fund had risen by more than 200% in the five years to October 2003, against a 21% loss for the FTSE 100 over the same period.

The fund's manager, Evy Hambro, said the Chinese boom looked set to support metals prices until at least 2008.

"China has really become a phenomenal engine of growth today for the world economy. It has rewritten the formula for economic demand," he said.

Fragile gains

However, some experts warn against betting too heavily on commodities, arguing that Chinese growth could still be outweighed by events in the rest of the world.

"There's a risk of a bubble here," said Matthew Parry, commodities analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

"China is still a smaller economy than the UK, and a lot of the growth in demand we're seeing could be down to re-stocking."

Other analysts have warned that China's economic renaissance may turn out to be more fragile than it appears.

They highlight fears that government efforts to tackle bad debts weighing on the country's banks may trigger a credit squeeze, stopping the economy in its tracks.

Another danger is that Beijing may yield to US pressure for a revaluation of the Chinese currency, sharply reducing the country's vital export earnings.

But for Jim Lennon, mining analyst at Macquarie bank, the biggest risk is that investors eager for a piece of the Chinese commodity bonanza may feed a speculative bubble around small, untested mining companies.

"In a recovery, people tend to buy fairly indiscriminately, including companies which are basically just exploration projects," he said.

"That's where comparisons with the dot.com era come in."


MARKET DATA - 11:37 UK

FTSE 100
5428.78up
22.84 0.42%
Dax
5732.06up
18.55 0.32%
Cac 40
3783.91up
14.37 0.38%
Dow Jones
10403.79up
78.53 0.76%
Nasdaq
2273.57up
35.31 1.58%
Data delayed by at least 15 minutes

SEE ALSO:
US rebound spurs market hopes
09 Nov 03  |  Business
US growth in the spotlight
26 Oct 03  |  Business


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