Investing in Commodities or US Real Estate – And How About Africa?
For the last six months, I have recommended investments in commodities and US real estate. I explained in my last article why I believe US real estate remains an attractive investment. In this article, I take a look at commodities. I follow by asking start by asking whether the commodity-rich countries of the world deserve a closer look.
My interest in commodities stems from the following certainty: with the world’s population growing, the demand for commodities will continue to increase. Table 1 provides information on commodity prices from 2007 through the global recession to the current day. It might surprise some to learn that overall, commodity prices are 35% higher today than they were in 2007.
Energy prices are interesting. While oil is 44% higher and coal is 35% higher, natural gas prices depend on where you are buying. The natural gas price in Germany is 40% higher than in 2007, while in the US, it is 47% lower than in 2007. One wonders how long US gas prices will stay down and how these prices will impact markets for other energy sources. The uranium price is down sharply. Most of the decline is attributable to the falloff in demand for nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster.
Food prices are up 35% with variations due to weather and harvest conditions. Wheat prices are just 8% higher than 2007 while rice, corn, and soy prices are 60%+ higher.
Overall, agricultural raw material prices are up only 16%. In part, this is attributable to weak timber prices resulting from the global real estate/building collapse. But cotton, wool, and rubber prices have increased significantly.
There are sizeable variations in metal price changes since 2007. While China’s construction boom and resulting need for steel has caused iron ore price to increase more than 300%, lead, aluminum, and nickel prices are lower.
Table 1. – Commodity Prices, 2007 – 2013
Timber prices can be expected to recover as the housing cycle gains steam. But beyond that speculating on commodities is a high risk game. Consequently, I turn now to countries that export commodities for possible investment opportunities.
What about Commodity Investments in Sub-Saharan African Countries?
Table 2 provides data on the largest 10 Sub-Saharan African countries (SSA) as measured by GDP, population, area, and/or per capita GDP. Including the top 10 from each category results in 21 countries. South Africa has the highest GDP while Nigeria has by far the largest population. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the largest country in SSA, just a bit smaller than Algeria, the largest country in Africa. And Botswana has the largest per capita income in SSA followed by South Africa.
Table 2. – Sub-Saharan Africa: The Largest Countries
Oil exports a very important for some SSA countries as indicated by Table 3. Equatorial Guinea’s oil export dependency is extreme while Nigeria and Angola are the largest exporters.
Table 3. – SSA Oil Exports
Table 4 provides economic performance data on SSA countries with 20 million+ people. Certainly by Western standards, the GDP growth rates of most of these countries are impressive. However the government deficits of Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Côte d’Ivoire and Mozambique are high. Government debt levels of most countries are low, largely because there is no market for them.
Table 4. – Economic Performance, SSA Countries, 2010-12) Averages
South Africa and Nigeria with stock market capitalizations of $908 and $51 billion respectively both have ETFs that track them: South Africa – EZA and Nigeria – NGE. I view both countries as very high risk. Religious and ethnic tensions are increasing in Nigeria and the recent economic performance of South Africa has been disappointing. So other commodity exporting countries are examined next.
The Leading Global Commodity Exporters
Table 5 provides data on the 10 largest commodity exporting countries. The high numbers for the three European countries are due to the fact that exports to other European Union countries constitute 50% of their exports. In the US, including this data would be analogous to counting food sales from Kansas to the rest of the country as exports. So what are we left with? The US, Canada, Australia, and Brazil along with 3 oil exporters. My view on oil exporters: better to buy a global oil company than bet on a country.
Table 5. – 10 Leading Commodity Exporting Country Shares, 2012
(World Totals in US$ bil.)
There are three other countries worth considering as commodity exporters: Chile, Indonesia, and Peru. Their data are presented in Table 6.
Table 6. – Commodity Export Shares, 2012
So, let’s consider the economic performance of the 7 countries from the two tables above. Table 7 provides average data for the 2011-13 periods.
Table 7. – Economic Growth, Government Deficits and Debt, 2011-13
Commodities are risky – too much speculation. But the countries listed in Table 7 are all good investment bets. The world needs their resources and will keep buying them. Investment vehicles for all of them (ETFs and mutual funds) are readily available, e.g., Peru – EPO, Indonesia – EIDO, Chile – ECH, Australia – EWA. Brazil – EWZ, US – USCI, and Canada – EWC. But if I were forced to choose between investing in a continuation of the US real estate recovery of these countries, it would be US real estate. Brookfield Asset Management – BAM – has investments in both commodities and real estate.