Page last updated at 23:03 GMT, Wednesday, 30 April 2008 00:03 UK

Poor could gain as commodities soar

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News

Though painful for consumers, soaring oil prices - along with increasing grain and metal prices - are not universally bad news.

Oil platform off Angola
Wealth is transferred to oil and gas rich countries

"There are winners and there are losers," observes Bradley George, head of global commodities and resources at Investec Asset Management.

From a global perspective, countries that import a lot of energy, food and metals - notably the US and most countries in the European Union - are losing out.

Commodity-rich nations - such as Nigeria, Oman and Kazakhstan, to name but a few - are the winners.

"This is the biggest transfer of wealth that has happened in years," explains Mr George.

From West to East

At the macroeconomic level, rich nations are getting poorer relative to formerly poor nations that are now getting richer - an almost accidental implementation of at least some of the targets that anti-poverty campaigners have been calling for years.

Nowhere is this more true than in countries with large energy deposits, such as oil, gas and coal - though it is worth noting that many of these countries were phenomenally wealthy even before the latest surge in energy costs.

Fastest growing sovereign wealth funds 2007
Gas pipeline in Alaska
Nigeria: 291%
Oman: 256%
Kazakhstan: 162%
Angola: 84%
Russia: 74%
Source: Global Insight's Sovereign Wealth Fund Tracker

"There has been a shift of financial weight from West to East, particularly to China, Asia, the Middle East and other energy countries," observes Jan Randolph, head of sovereign risk at Global Insight.

Last year, this shift was made visible by a 24% rise in sovereign wealth funds - or state-owned investment funds - in emerging economies to $3.5 trillion (1.75 trillion).

Nigeria's sovereign wealth rose 291% last year, closely followed by Oman (up 256%), Kazakhstan (up 162%), Angola (up 84%) and Russia (up 74%). They are all oil and gas exporters.

Global Insight puts this into context. This, it says, is "more than enough to match the total annual economic output of the United Kingdom, Germany and France".

Producing winners

But although energy exporters' wealth is growing faster than that of others at the moment, there are also winners amongst the world's leading commodity importers.

Iron mine in Australia
Demand for iron ore and steel is set to grow for years

China in particular is also a significant exporters of manufactured goods, produced with the imported raw materials.

""The largest player remains China," according to Global Insight's new Sovereign Wealth Fund Tracker.

Moreover, some countries in the West remain major exporters of manufactured goods. In Europe, Germany stands out, in spite of the current strength of the euro, while many exporters in the US are benefiting from the US dollar's weakness.

Diverse demand

Many in the financial markets expect to see the wealth, and thus the geo-political power, of developing nations to continue to grow in the years ahead.

"We're in an environment of high demand growth" explains Mr George - and not just for oil and other energy sources.

Sugar cane harvest in Brazil
Farm prices, pushed higher by soaring demand, are causing a food crisis

As the Bric economies - which comprise Brazil, Russia, India and China - become wealthier, urbanisation and infrastructure developments will continue to fuel demand for energy and metals.

Food prices are also set to soar as people in these countries begin to eat more, and as their diets become more protein-based and thus more land and energy intensive.

But that is only half the story, Mr George continues: strong demand will also come from the West, where years of underinvestment in infrastructure will need to be rectified. Power, sanitation and transport networks will need to be upgraded, he reasons.

Increasingly wealthy consumers in emerging nations will also buy more manufactured goods, which will need to be shipped. And new travel habits will lead to hundreds of new airports being built in China, India and elsewhere.

"All of this requires commodities," Mr George says.

African revival?

So far, much of the focus has been on Asia, though there are also signs that rising commodity prices bring benefits to poverty-struck Sub-Saharan African nations, where economic growth is at its highest rate and inflation at its lowest rate in more than three decades.

Baosteel in China
China uses steel both in manufacturing and to develop its infrastructure

This year, at a time when dark recession clouds hang over the US and Europe, the average growth rate for Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to come in at 6.5%, according to the International Monetary Fund. That is a strengthening from last year's 6% rate, in sharp contrast to the world as a whole where growth is set to slow from 4.9% to 4.1%.

None of this means poverty is about to be eradicated; most of the wealth is sticky, with little trickling down to those who need it the most.

Recent rice and grain price rises have created a global food crisis that is threatening to spark off "social unrest on an unprecedented scale", according to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

At the same time, "farmers in developing countries are planting less, producing less, due to the escalating cost of fertilizer and energy", he adds.

And yet, although there are plenty of risks on the horizon, the mere fact that many African nations are getting better prices for the commodities they sell has real potential to work as a fillip for development and poverty reduction.

"A lot of African countries are getting their act together," according to Investec Asset Management's chief executive, Hendrik du Toit. Whereas in the West, "we're going to have leaner times ahead".

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