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.
What’s Made from a Barrel of Oil?
Oil is a building block that makes modern life possible. Here are the proportion of finished products that are created from a barrel of oil.
What Products Are Made from a Barrel of Oil?
From the gasoline in our cars to the plastic in countless everyday items, crude oil is an essential raw material that shows up everywhere in our lives.
With around 18 million barrels of crude oil consumed every day just in America, this commodity powers transport, utilities, and is a vital ingredient in many of the things we use on a daily basis.
This graphic visualizes how much crude oil is refined into various finished products, using a barrel of oil to represent the proportional breakdown.
Barrel of Oil to Functional Fuel and More
Crude oil is primarily refined into various types of fuels to power transport and vital utilities. More than 85% of crude oil is refined into fuels like gasoline, diesel, and hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGLs) like propane and butane.
Along with being fuels for transportation, heating, and cooking, HGLs are used as feedstock for the production of chemicals, plastics, and synthetic rubber, and as additives for motor gasoline production.
|Refined Crude Oil Product||Share of Crude Oil Refined|
|Hydrocarbon gas liquids||2.0%|
Source: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
Crude oil not only powers our vehicles, but it also helps pave the roads we drive on. About 4% of refined crude oil becomes asphalt, which is used to make concrete and different kinds of sealing and insulation products.
Although transportation and utility fuels dominate a large proportion of refined products, essential everyday materials like wax and plastic are also dependent on crude oil. With about 10% of refined products used to make plastics, cosmetics, and textiles, a barrel of crude oil can produce a variety of unexpected everyday products.
Personal care products like cosmetics and shampoo are made using petroleum products, as are medical supplies like IV bags and pharmaceuticals. Modern life would look very different without crude oil.
The Process of Refining Crude Oil
You might have noticed that while a barrel of oil contains 42 gallons, it ends up producing 45 gallons of refined products. This is because the majority of refined products have a lower density than crude oil, resulting in an increase in volume that is called processing gain.
Along with this, there are other inputs aside from crude oil that are used in the refining process. While crude oil is the primary input, fuel ethanol, hydrocarbon gas liquids, and other blending liquids are also used.
|U.S. Refiner and Blender Inputs||Share of Total|
|Hydrocarbon gas liquids||3.0%|
The process of refining a 30,000-barrel batch of crude oil typically takes between 12-24 hours, with refineries operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Although the proportions of individual refined products can vary depending on market demand and other factors, the majority of crude oil will continue to become fuel for the world’s transport and utilities.
The Difficulty of Cutting Down on Crude Oil
From the burning of heavy fuels that tarnish icebergs found in Arctic waters to the mounds of plastic made with petrochemicals that end up in our rivers, each barrel of oil and its refined products impact our environment in many different ways.
But even as the world works to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels in order to reach climate goals, a world without crude oil seems unfathomable.
Skyrocketing sales of EVs still haven’t managed to curb petroleum consumption in places like Norway, California, and China, and the steady reopening of travel and the economy will only result in increased petroleum consumption.
Completely replacing the multi-faceted “black gold” that’s in a barrel of oil isn’t possible right now, but as electrification continues and we find alternatives to petrochemical materials, humanity might at least manage to reduce its dependence on burning fossil fuels.
Mapped: Visualizing U.S. Oil Production by State
The U.S. is the largest oil producer in the world. Here we map the share of oil production in the country by all 50 states in 2020.
Mapped: Visualizing U.S. Oil Production by State
In 2018, the United States became the world’s top crude oil producer. It has strongly held this position ever since.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the country accounted for nearly 15% of the world’s total oil production in 2020, churning out close to 13 million barrels of crude oil per day—more than Russia or Saudi Arabia.
Although total U.S. oil production declined between 1985 and 2008, annual production increased nearly every year from 2009 through 2019, reaching the highest amount on record in 2019.
The Dominant Oil Producing States
Impressively, 71% of total U.S. oil production came from just five states. An additional 14.6% came from the Gulf of Mexico, which is a federal jurisdiction.
Here are the five states that produce the largest amount of crude oil:
|Share of Total Production|
Rounding the top 10 are states like Alaska, California, Wyoming, Louisiana, and Utah.
Texas is undoubtedly the largest oil-producing state in the United States. In 2020, Texas produced a total of 1.78 billion barrels of oil. Texas is home to the most productive U.S. oil basin, the Permian, routinely accounting for at least 50% of total onshore production. A distant second is North Dakota, which produced about 431.2 million barrels of oil in 2020.
Regional Distribution of U.S. Oil Production
A total of 32 of the 50 U.S. states produce oil. They are divided among five regional divisions for oil production in the U.S., known as the Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts (PADD).
These five regional divisions of the allocation of fuels were established in the U.S. during the Second World War and are still used today for data collection purposes.
Given that Texas is the largest U.S. oil-producing state, PADD 3 (Gulf Coast) is also the largest oil-producing PADD. PADD 3 also includes the federal offshore region in the Gulf of Mexico. There are around 400 operational oil and gas rigs in the country.
Impact of U.S. Oil Production on Employment
Rapid growth in oil production using advanced drilling methods has created high-paying jobs in states like North Dakota and Texas.
Thanks to the rapid development in the Bakken Shale formation, North Dakota boasts the nation’s lowest unemployment rate. The state has also grown personal income and state economic output at a fast rate, due to oil and gas industry growth.
Oil production from the Eagle Ford Shale has transformed a relatively poor region of South Texas into one of the nation’s most significant economic development zones. In fact, due largely to the oil and natural gas industry, the Texas Comptroller estimates that Texas has recovered 100% of the jobs lost during the Great Recession.
Looking to the Future
The U.S. slashed its oil production forecast through next year just as OPEC and its allies begin to roll back their production cuts in the coming months.
U.S. oil output will drop to 11.04 million barrels a day this year, down from a forecasted 11.15 million. This was a result of the deep freeze that shut down the oil industry in Texas. The EIA also lowered its output forecast for 2022 by 100,000 barrels a day.
Despite its forecast for a rise in supply from outside the cartel this year, OPEC said in its report that it is uncertain about the levels of investment expected to determine the non-OPEC supply outlook for the years to come.
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