Page last updated at 00:06 GMT, Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Commodity boom continues to roll

By Orla Ryan
Business reporter, BBC News

Maintenance worker
Oil supplies continues to buckle under the weight of rising demand
Wheat may not have the same glitter as gold, but in the past year, investors have found much to please the eye and pocket in fields of billowing crops.

Agricultural goods - known in market-speak as "softs" - are the latest to join a commodity boom that has already pushed up prices of oil, copper and nickel, buttressed by demand from emerging tigers such as China.

Others, such as gold, have been buoyed by their perception as a safe haven in troubled economic times.

With oil having breaching the $100 mark and gold surging to record highs in the first few days of January, we take a look at the outlook for commodities in 2008.

OIL

Consumers have dug deeper into their pockets to fuel their cars as the price of oil has soared in the past year, with the disorder in Iraq just one of many geopolitical factors likely to support prices in the year ahead.

Trade has been volatile, with prices moving in a huge $50 range over the last year.

The headline $100 is very uninteresting. What is more interesting is what is happening to longer-term prices and annual average
Paul Horsnell, Barclays Capital

Iran's push to acquire nuclear power and, many believe, nuclear weapons has sparked concerns it could use its own oil supplies as a bargaining chip in any future showdown. Equally, militant violence in Nigeria's largest oil-producing region serves to inflate prices.

The weak dollar, which makes it cheaper for importers to buy dollar-denominated oil supplies, is one more factor working in favour of continued oil price strength.

Given Opec's reluctance to boost output and the weakness in non-Opec supply, as well as steady demand from Asian giants such as China, many analysts are confident of further price rises

Oil passed the $100 mark in early January when a single trader in search of market fame pushed through a small trade.

It hit the headlines, but more interesting may be the long-term average. Barclays Capital's head of commodities research, Paul Horsnell, forecasts that this will be higher in the coming 12 months, as 2008 looks set to be the seventh successive year of oil price rises.

GOLD

Those wanting an excuse to buy some gold jewellery need look no further than the yellow metal's impressive performance over the past year.

Gold prices rose more than 30% last year, soaring to an all-time high of more than $900 by the middle of January.

Gold jewellery

With the crisis in the US sub-prime market still unfolding, demand for gold is coloured by the longer-term trend for dollar weakness and mounting inflationary fears.

"Investors need to brace themselves for more dollar weakness. This is another potential positive for precious metals," says Deutsche Bank's global head of commodities research, Michael Lewis.

Some analysts see gold moving towards $1,000, but its upward path is likely to be marked by bouts of profit-taking.

BASE METALS

Copper, tin and other base metals have, quite literally, been the building blocks of economic growth, particularly in China.

But, much as they benefit from stronger economic growth, they also suffer in times of economic weakness, with the price of copper, lead, nickel and zinc all falling in the last quarter of 2007.

Worker in copper factory

Ultimately, tight supply, particularly in copper, and continued strong demand outside of the US should support base metals in the longer term, analysts say, as long as American economic weakness does not infect economies elsewhere.

Rising costs, a shortage of skilled labour and the generation of cashflow - ensured by steady prices and demand - also foster the right conditions for mergers.

Looming large on the horizon is a decision by mining giant BHP Billiton about a bid for Rio Tinto, while Swiss miner Xstrata has also said that it is holding merger talks, although it is not clear with whom.

AGRICULTURE

Miners have dug deep and reaped huge profits in recent years, but planters of crops are beginning to gather an equally profitable harvest.

There is a lot of blue sky, not only over farmers' fields, but also in investor thinking. As a result, the rally in agricultural prices may be only just beginning.

"In real terms, agricultural prices are still very, very cheap," said Deutsche Bank's Mr Lewis.

Italian shop selling Pasta
Italian shoppers have gone without pasta to protest at prices

"What we have seen with metals and energy are the most powerful and endurable rallies in history. If this was to repeat itself in agriculture, soybeans would have to rise another 80%," he said.

World wheat stocks are expected to hit a 30-year low this year, partly driven by the worst drought in Australia in 100 years, which halved the winter wheat crop to 12 million tonnes in 2007.

Wheat prices may come down as farmers shift more acreage to the crop, said Barclay Capital's Mr Horsnell.

But ultimately, low inventories, poor harvests and growing demand for biofuels look set to support prices of soft commodities.




SEE ALSO
Quick guide: Biofuels
24 Jan 07 |  Science/Nature
Counting the cost of wheat price hike
21 Sep 07 |  Special Reports
Wheat breaks through $10 a bushel
17 Dec 07 |  Business
Single trader behind oil record
03 Jan 08 |  Business
Gold surges to new record highs
02 Jan 08 |  Business
Firm 'struggling' to replace lead
16 Nov 07 |  Northamptonshire
Xstrata bids for Australian firm
05 Dec 07 |  Business
BHP given Rio takeover deadline
21 Dec 07 |  Business


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