Page last updated at 10:17 GMT, Wednesday, 23 July 2008 11:17 UK

Investing in the material world

Samantha Washington
Producer, Alvin Hall's World of Money

Bull statue on Wall Street
How long will the commodities "bull market" last?

While both the US and UK indexes for stocks and shares enter a bear market, one index has risen by 30% since last year - the Dow Jones AIG Commodities Cash Index.

This is the result of the prices of some of these raw materials, like gold, wheat and oil reaching record highs in the last few months.

Many of these prices are now down from their peak, prompting some analysts to say the bubble is about to burst.

But one expert says the upwards trend for some of these natural resources could continue until 2020.

Agricultural Investment

While the increased cost in natural resources like oil result in higher prices for consumers, it can present an opportunity for investors.

And it is not just about oil.

Of course, prices will come down
Peter Kendall, wheat farmer

The basic forces of supply and demand led to the price of wheat more than doubling earlier this year.

But does this make agricultural commodities a wise investment?

Wheat farmer Peter Kendall says those same supply and demand forces are already lowering prices.

"You will see a supply response to the high prices.

"Last year we produced 603m tonnes of wheat, the forecasts now are for 650 tonnes.

"So, of course, prices will come down."

Plots for sale

While you can grow more crops, it is not so easy to create more land.

Accordingly, while residential and commercial property markets have slumped, the value of agricultural land has skyrocketed.

Wheat field
Some have begun to look at farmland as a new investment

Mark Ashbridge from real estate company, Savills, says he has seen an increase in business from those looking to buy farmland.

"Five years ago we were trading good arable land for 2,500 an acre.

"Today we're seeing the same land trade for between 5,000 and 7,000 an acre and sometimes more."

Unlike mortgages for houses, commercial loans are still readily available as lenders see agricultural land as a good asset to lend against.

But, buying a farm is not practical for most people looking to buy into rising agricultural or "soft" commodity prices.

Risky Business

Funds which invest directly into commodities are another option.

There are only so many gold mines and copper mines
Graham Neale, Killik & Co

Stockbrokers Killik & Co has seen its clients' exposure to commodities rise from virtually nothing to 5% of their investment portfolios in recent years.

But Graham Neale from Killik & Co says you need to proceed with caution and take a long-term view.

"Commodities often sell-off [fall in value] by up to 25% in a year, whereas most people would be surprised if their share or bond portfolios were to suffer such a loss."

Furthermore, Graham Neale says that unlike agricultural crops, only the surge in hard commodities like metals is durable because supply will not keep up with demand in the shorter term.

"There are only so many gold mines and copper mines and it takes many decades to find a new source of supply."

Gold Rush

Buying metals may seem more tangible than buying wheat or oil.

Gold bar
After five years of strong commodity markets, a contrarian like myself would start to get worried
Anthony Bolton of Fidelity
And one of the most accessible of these is gold.

It can be bought as coins or bars, or also in jewellery form.

The price has fallen to $970 from the peak of over $1,000 an ounce.

Despite this, Sandra Conway, managing director of ATS Bullion in London, says demand remains strong.

"Over the last year, our turnover has doubled.

"We've even seen people selling their property and putting their money in gold instead."

Exchange Traded Funds

But not everyone wants to take the risk of storing gold bars or coins.

A recent development to the investment landscape is the Exchange Traded Fund (ETF).

In its simplest terms, this allows investors to buy shares in a listed company whose sole asset is the physical commodity.

You're going to see farmers on the cover of Fortune magazine
Jim Rogers, author of Hot Commodities
The ETF offers the investor to take part in the price changes of commodities like gold, silver, and platinum without having to take actual delivery of the metal.

The funds, which are bought through a stockbroker, also exist in other commodities on a variety of stock exchanges.

ETFs are also cheaper than most unit funds as management charges are relatively low.


Anthony Bolton
Anthony Bolton thinks time is almost up for commodities

There has been much discussion about whether the commodities surge is just another bubble waiting to burst.

Jim Rogers, author of Hot Commodities, says the average "bull market" in commodities has lasted nineteen years.

"By the time this turns into a bubble, you're going to see farmers on the cover of Fortune magazine.

"If history is any guide, this bull market around 2018, 2020, may be coming to an end."

Meanwhile, other experts are less optimistic on the outlook for commodities.

Former fund manager at Fidelity, Anthony Bolton said recently told Bloomberg that it is time for investors to pull out of the sector.

"After five years of strong commodity markets, a contrarian like myself would start to get worried," he said.

"I would switch out of commodity stocks today and move into financial stocks."

At the time of writing, the price of oil is down 5% from its peak, the price of gold down 4% and the Dow Jones Commodities Cash Index down 9%.

BBC Radio 4's Alvin Hall's World of Money was broadcast on Saturday, 19 July 2008 at 1204 BST with a longer repeat on Monday, 21 July 2008 at 1504.

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