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Commodities: The Top Asset Class of 2018 So Far

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Commodities: The Top Asset Class of 2018 So Far

Commodities: The Top Asset Class of 2018 So Far

Is the commodity supercycle coming back from the dead?

For now, such a claim could perhaps be considered both bold and premature – but there does seem to be some compelling evidence that is mounting to back it up.

The Asset Quilt

According to the most recent “Asset Quilt of Total Returns” put together by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, commodities are the top returning asset class of 2018 so far. The chart, which shows the total returns of asset classes over the years, has commodities at an annualized return of 22.7% year-to-date.

Right behind it is gold, which sits at 11.6% on an annualized basis:

RankAsset ClassTotal Returns (2018*)
#1Commodities22.7%
#2Gold11.6%
#3Equities (Emerging Markets)6.5%
#4Equities (S&P 500)6.3%
#5Equities (Europe, Australasia, Far East)5.9%
#6Global Bonds (High Yield)3.4%
#7Cash1.4%
#8Global Bonds (Investment Grade)-2.0%
#9U.S. Treasuries-5.7%
#10Real Estate-14.6%

*These returns are annualized in order to compare them with past years

Interestingly, commodities haven’t been on top of BAML’s chart since the years 2000 and 2002, which were at the beginning of the last commodity supercycle.

A Deeper Dive

Here is how commodities have fared from 2000 to 2018, based on annual returns. If the commodity sector keeps the pace for the rest of 2018, this will be the best year for the asset class since 2003.

Commodity performance 2000-2018

For various reasons, commodities have bounced back in the last three years.

The return of oil prices have helped to resurrect the sector. Ironically, the anticipated metal demand from renewable energy – which will be used to wean society off of fossil fuel consumption – is also a massive driver behind commodities right now.

Not only are base metals like copper, aluminum, and nickel essential for the “electrification of everything”, but lesser-known materials like lithium, cobalt, rare earths, vanadium, uranium, and graphite all play essential roles as well. They do everything from enabling lithium-ion batteries and vanadium flow batteries, to making possible the permanent magnets that generate electricity from wind turbines.

The environment for investing in commodities is the best since 2004-2008.

– Goldman Sachs, February 2018

Not surprisingly, here are how metal and energy commodities have performed since January 1, 2016:

CommodityPrice Change (Since Jan 1, 2016)
Vanadium459%
Cobalt277%
Palladium88%
Oil (WTI)86%
Nickel72%
Aluminum70%
Copper46%
Gold26%
Silver24%
Natural Gas21%
Platinum7%
Coal-8%
Uranium-40%

Some minor metals, like vanadium, have increased by over 400% in price in the last two years. That begs the question: how much room could there possibly be for price appreciation left?

Supercycle Potential

As Frank Holmes of U.S. Global Investors described in a recent post, the last boom was so prolific that investing in an index tracking commodities (such as the S&P GSCI) in 2000 would have resulted in the equivalent of 10% annual returns for ten years.

He also shared this chart, which shows the ratio in value between commodities and the S&P 500:

Commodities vs. Equities

In other words, commodities seem to be more undervalued than any time in the past 20 years, at least relative to equity indices such as the S&P 500.

Even if the above ratio comes back up to the median of 3.5, it’s clear that there could still be vast amounts of opportunity available in the sector for investors.

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Energy

Visualizing China’s Energy Transition in 5 Charts

This infographic takes a look at what China’s energy transition plans are to make its energy mix carbon neutral by 2060.

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China Energy Mix

Visualizing China’s Energy Transition in 5 Charts

In September 2020, China’s President Xi Jinping announced the steps his nation would take to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 via videolink before the United Nations Assembly in New York.

This infographic takes a look at what this ambitious plan for China’s energy would look like and what efforts are underway towards this goal.

China’s Ambitious Plan

A carbon-neutral China requires changing the entire economy over the next 40 years, a change the IEA compares to the ambition of the reforms that industrialized the country’s economy in the first place.

China is the world’s largest consumer of electricity, well ahead of the second place consumer, the United States. Currently, 80% of China’s energy comes from fossil fuels, but this plan envisions only 14% coming from coal, oil, and natural gas in 2060.

Energy Source20252060% Change
Coal52%3%-94%
Oil18%8%-56%
Natural Gas10%3%-70%
Wind4%24%+500%
Nuclear3%19%+533%
Biomass2%5%+150%
Solar3%23%+667%
Hydro8%15%+88%

Source: Tsinghua University Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy; U.S. EIA

According to the Carbon Brief, China’s 14th five-year plan appears to enshrine Xi’s goal. This plan outlines a general and non specific list of projects for a new energy system. It includes the construction of eight large-scale clean energy centers, coastal nuclear power, electricity transmission routes, power system flexibility, oil-and-gas transportation, and storage capacity.

Progress Towards Renewables?

While the goal seems far off in the future, China is on a trajectory towards reducing the carbon emissions of its electricity grid with declining coal usage, increased nuclear, and increased solar power capacity.

According to ChinaPower, coal fueled the rise of China with the country using 144 million tonnes of oil equivalent “Mtoe” in 1965, peaking at 1,969 Mtoe in 2013. However, its share as part of the country’s total energy mix has been declining since the 1990s from ~77% to just under ~60%.

Another trend in China’s energy transition will be the greater consumption of energy as electricity. As China urbanized, its cities expanded creating greater demand for electricity in homes, businesses, and everyday life. This trend is set to continue and approach 40% of total energy consumed by 2030 up from ~5% in 1990.

Under the new plan, by 2060, China is set to have 42% of its energy coming from solar and nuclear while in 2025 it is only expected to be 6%. China has been adding nuclear and solar capacity and expects to add the equivalent of 20 new reactors by 2025 and enough solar power for 33 million homes (110GW).

Changing the energy mix away from fossil fuels, while ushering in a new economic model is no small task.

Up to the Task?

China is the world’s factory and has relatively young industrial infrastructure with fleets of coal plants, steel mills, and cement factories with plenty of life left.

However, China also is the biggest investor in low-carbon energy sources, has access to massive technological talent, and holds a strong central government to guide the transition.

The direction China takes will have the greatest impact on the health of the planet and provide guidance for other countries looking to change their energy mixes, for better or for worse.

The world is watching…even if it’s by videolink.

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Energy

Visualizing the Flow of U.S. Energy Consumption

From renewables to fossil fuels, we’ve visualized the diverse mix of energy sources that powered U.S. energy consumption in 2020.

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Breaking Down America’s Energy Consumption in 2020

The United States relies on a complex mix of energy sources to fuel the country’s various end-sectors’ energy consumption.

While this energy mix is still dominated by fossil fuels, there are signs of a steady shift to renewable energy over the past decade.

This radial Sankey diagram using data from the EIA (Energy Information Administration) breaks down U.S. energy consumption in 2020, showing us how much each sector relies on various energy sources.

The Balance of Energy Production and Consumption

In 2019 and now in 2020, America’s domestic energy production has actually been greater than its consumption—a development that hasn’t taken place since 1957.

Last year’s numbers were severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing a 5% drop in energy production and a 7% drop in consumption compared to 2019. Total energy production and consumption for 2020 came in at 95.75 and 92.94 quads respectively.

The energy amounts are equalized and measured in quadrillion BTUs (British thermal units), also known as quads. A quad is a huge amount of energy, equivalent to 183 million barrels of petroleum or 36 million tonnes of coal.

So how is America’s overall energy production and consumption split between energy sources?

U.S. Energy Production and Consumption Share by Source

Energy SourcePercentage of U.S. Energy ProductionPercentage of U.S. Energy Consumption
Petroleum32%35%
Natural Gas36%34%
Renewable Energy12%12%
Coal11%10%
Nuclear9%9%

Source: IEA

America’s new margin of energy production over consumption has resulted in the country being a net total energy exporter again, providing some flexibility as the country continues its transition towards more sustainable and renewable energy sources.

Fossil Fuels Still Dominate U.S. Energy Consumption

While America’s mix of energy consumption is fairly diverse, 79% of domestic energy consumption still originates from fossil fuels. Petroleum powers over 90% of the transportation sector’s consumption, and natural gas and petroleum make up 74% of the industrial sector’s direct energy consumption.

There are signs of change as consumption of the dirtiest fossil fuel, coal, has declined more than 58% since its peak in 2005. Coinciding with this declining coal dependence, consumption from renewable energy has increased for six years straight, setting record highs again in 2020.

However, fossil fuels still make up 79% of U.S. energy consumption, with renewables and nuclear accounting for the remaining 21%. The table below looks at the share of specific renewable energy sources in 2020.

Distribution of Renewable Energy Sources

Renewable Energy Source2020 Energy Consumption in QuadsShare of 2020 Renewable Energy Consumption
Biomass4.5239%
Wind3.0126%
Hydroelectric2.5522%
Solar1.2711%
Geothermal0.232%

Source: IEA

The Nuclear Necessity for a Zero-Emission Energy Transition

It’s not all up to renewable energy sources to clean up America’s energy mix, as nuclear power will play a vital role in reducing carbon emissions. Technically not a renewable energy source due to uranium’s finite nature, nuclear energy is still a zero-emission energy that has provided around 20% of total annual U.S. electricity since 1990.

Support for nuclear power has been growing slowly, and last year was the first which saw nuclear electricity generation overtake coal. However, this might not last as three nuclear plants including New York’s Indian Point nuclear plant are set to be decommissioned in 2021, with a fourth plant scheduled for retirement in 2022.

It’s worth noting that while other countries might have a higher share of nuclear energy in their total electricity generation, the U.S. still has the largest nuclear generation capacity worldwide and has generated more nuclear electricity than any other country in the world.

Converting Energy to Electricity

The energy produced by nuclear power plants doesn’t go directly to its end-use sector, rather, 100% of nuclear energy in the U.S. is converted to electricity which is sold to consumers. Along with nuclear, most energy sources aside from petroleum are primarily converted to electricity.

Unfortunately, electricity conversion is a fairly inefficient process, with around 65% of the energy lost in the conversion, transmission, and distribution of electricity.

This necessary but wasteful step allows for the storage of energy in electrical form, ensuring that it can be distributed properly. Working towards more efficient methods of energy to electricity conversion is an often forgotten aspect of reducing wasted energy.

Despite the dip in 2020, both energy production and consumption in the U.S. are forecasted to continue rising. As Biden aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 (from 2005 emission levels), U.S. energy consumption will inevitably continue to shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable and nuclear energy.

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