The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns (2011-2020)
Being a commodity investor can feel like riding a roller coaster.
Take silver. Typically known for sharp, idiosyncratic price movements, it faced double-digit declines in the first half of the decade, falling over 35% in just 2013 alone. By contrast, it jumped over 47% in 2020. Similarly, oil, corn, and others witnessed either steep declines or rapid gains.
The above graphic from U.S. Global Investors traces 10 years of commodity price performance, highlighting 14 different commodities and their annual ranking over the years.
Commodity Price Performance, From Best to Worst
Which commodities were the top performers in 2020?
The aforementioned silver tripled its returns year-over-year, climbing 47.9% in 2020. In July, the metal actually experienced its strongest month since 1979.
Along with silver, at least seven other commodities had stronger returns than the S&P 500 in 2020, which closed off the year with 16.3% gains. This included copper (26.0%), palladium (25.9%), gold (25.1%) and corn (24.8%).
Interestingly, copper prices moved in an unconventional pattern compared to gold in 2020. Often, investors rush to gold in uncertain economic climates, while sectors such as construction and manufacturing—which both rely heavily on copper—tend to decline. Instead, both copper and gold saw their prices rise in conjunction.
Nowadays, copper is also a vital material in electric vehicles (EVs), with recent demand for EVs also influencing the price of copper.
As investors flocked to safety, silver’s price reached heights not seen since 2010.
The massive scale of monetary and fiscal stimulus led to inflationary fears, also boosting the price of silver. How does this compare to its returns over the last decade?
In 2013, silver crashed over 35% as confidence grew in global markets. By contrast, in 2016, the Brexit referendum stirred uncertainty in global markets. Investors allocated money in silver, and prices shifted upwards.
As Gold as the Hills
Like silver, market uncertainty has historically boosted the price of gold.
What else contributed to gold’s rise?
- U.S. debt continues to climb, pushing down confidence in the U.S. dollar
- A weaker U.S. dollar makes gold cheaper for other countries to buy
- Low interest rates kept the returns of other safe haven assets low, making gold more attractive by comparison
Here’s how the price of gold has changed in recent years.
Gold faced its steepest recent declines in 2013, when the Federal Reserve bank discussed tapering down its quantitative easing program in light of economic recovery.
Hitting the Brakes On Oil
Oil suffered the worst commodity price performance in 2020, with -20.5% returns.
For the first time in history, oil prices went negative as demand plummeted. To limit its oversupply, oil producers shrunk investment, closed wells, and turned off valves. Unfortunately, many companies still faced bankruptcies. By November, 45 oil producers had proceeded with bankruptcy filings year-to-date.
This stood in stark contrast to 2019, when prices soared 34.5%.
As is custom for oil, prices see-sawed over the decade. In 2016 and 2019, it witnessed gains of over 30%. However, like 2020, in 2014 it saw huge losses due to an oversupply of global petroleum.
In 2020, total production cuts hit 7.2 million barrels a day in December, equal to 7% of global demand, in response to COVID-19.
Visualizing China’s Dominance in Clean Energy Metals
Despite being the world’s biggest carbon emitter, China is also a key producer of most of the critical minerals for the green revolution.
Visualizing China’s Dominance in Clean Energy Metals
Renewable sources of energy are expected to replace fossil fuels over the coming decades, and this large-scale transition will have a downstream effect on the demand of raw materials. More green energy means more wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries needed, and more clean energy metals necessary to build these technologies.
This visualization, based on data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), illustrates where the extraction and processing of key metals for the green revolution take place.
It shows that despite being the world’s biggest carbon polluter, China is also the largest producer of most of the world’s critical minerals for the green revolution.
Where Clean Energy Metals are Produced
China produces 60% of all rare earth elements used as components in high technology devices, including smartphones and computers.
The country also has a 13% share of the lithium production market, which is still dominated by Australia (52%) and Chile (22%). The highly reactive element is key to producing rechargeable batteries for mobile phones, laptops, and electric vehicles.
But even more than extraction, China is the dominant economy when it comes to processing operations. The country’s share of refining is around 35% for nickel, 58% for lithium, 65% for cobalt, and 87% for rare earth elements.
Despite being the largest economy in the world, the U.S. does not appear among the largest producers of any of the metals listed. To shorten the gap, the Biden administration recently launched an executive order to review the American strategy for critical and strategic materials.
It’s also worth noting that Russia also does not appear among the top producers when it comes to clean energy metals, despite being one of the world’s leading producers of minerals like copper, iron, and palladium.
Low Regulation in the Clean Metal Supply Chain
While China leads all countries in terms of cobalt processing, the metal itself is primarily extracted in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Still, Chinese interests own 15 of the 17 industrial cobalt operations in the DRC, according to a data analysis by The New York Times and Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
Unfortunately, the DRC’s cobalt production has been criticized due to reports of corruption and lack of regulation.
Part of the Congolese cobalt comes from artisanal mines with low regulation. Of the 255,000 Congolese artisanal miners, an estimated 40,000 are children, some as young as six years old.
The Rise of Clean Energy Metals
The necessary shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy opens up interesting questions about how geopolitics, and these supply chains, will be affected.
In the race to secure raw materials needed for the green revolution, new world powers could emerge as demand for clean energy metals grows.
For now, China has the lead.
Ranked: Nuclear Power Production, by Country
Nuclear power accounted for 10% of global electricity generated in 2020. Here’s a look at the largest nuclear power producers.
Nuclear Power Production by Country
Nearly 450 reactors around the world supply various nations with nuclear power, combining for about 10% of the world’s electricity, or about 4% of the global energy mix.
But while some countries are turning to nuclear as a clean energy source, nuclear energy generation overall has seen a slowdown since its peak in the 1990s.
The above infographic breaks down nuclear electricity generation by country in 2020 using data from the Power Reactor Information System (PRIS).
Ranked: The Top 15 Countries for Nuclear Power
Just 15 countries account for more than 91% of global nuclear power production. Here’s how much energy these countries produced in 2020:
|Rank||Country||Number of Operating Reactors||Nuclear Electricity Supplied|
|#5||South Korea 🇰🇷||24||152,583||6.0%|
|Rest of the World 🌎||44||207,340||8.1%|
In the U.S., nuclear power produces over 50% of the country’s clean electricity. Additionally, 88 of the country’s 96 operating reactors in 2020 received approvals for a 20-year life extension.
China, the world’s second-largest nuclear power producer, is investing further in nuclear energy in a bid to achieve its climate goals. The plan, which includes building 150 new reactors by 2035, could cost as much as $440 billion.
On the other hand, European opinions on nuclear energy are mixed. Germany is the eighth-largest on the list but plans to shutter its last operating reactor in 2022 as part of its nuclear phase-out. France, meanwhile, plans to expand its nuclear capacity.
Which Countries Rely Most on Nuclear Energy?
Although total electricity generation is useful for a high-level global comparison, it’s important to remember that there are some smaller countries not featured above where nuclear is still an important part of the electricity mix.
Here’s a breakdown based on the share of nuclear energy in a country’s electricity mix:
|Rank||Country||Nuclear Share of Electricity Mix|
|#13||South Korea 🇰🇷||29.6%|
|#17||United States 🇺🇸||19.7%|
|#19||United Kingdom 🇬🇧||14.5%|
European countries dominate the leaderboard with 14 of the top 15 spots, including France, where nuclear power is the country’s largest source of electricity.
It’s interesting to note that only a few of these countries are top producers of nuclear in absolute terms. For example, in Slovakia, nuclear makes up 53.6% of the electricity mix—however, the country’s four reactors make up less than 1% of total global operating capacity.
On the flipside, the U.S. ranks 17th by share of nuclear power in its mix, despite producing 31% of global nuclear electricity in 2020. This discrepancy is largely due to size and population. European countries are much smaller and produce less electricity overall than larger countries like the U.S. and China.
The Future of Nuclear Power
The nuclear power landscape is constantly changing.
There were over 50 additional nuclear reactors under construction in 2020, and hundreds more are planned primarily in Asia.
As countries turn away from fossil fuels and embrace carbon-free energy sources, nuclear energy might see a resurgence in the global energy mix despite the phase-outs planned in several countries around the globe.
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