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Commodity prices at mercy of world economy

“You can cut rates to the bone, but if nobody’s willing to lend you money, it doesn’t really matter.”

– U. S. Market Aanalyst Phil Flynn

Further declines in oil and metals prices after co-ordinated global interest rate cuts suggest that commodities will not return to their giddy heights until the world economy is on more solid footing.

Commodities’ performance on Oct. 8 also undermines the theory that commodities move independently of other markets. This argument made sense on days when oil and metals prices rose and equities fell but becomes less meaningful when they slump together in the current financial crisis.

“People are panicking”

“The primary difference we have here is the change in worldwide investor psyche,” said Adam Sarhan, founder of New York’s GlobalMacroResearch.com.

“Just months ago, we had a strong, booming global economy. Now, all that has changed and people are panicking and taking any risk they can off the table – and that includes commodities.”

Oil fell by as much as 4.5 per cent on Oct. 8 and copper six per cent, while cocoa and sugar prices tumbled too after a half percentage point cut in global interest rates led by the U. S. Federal Reserve failed to inspire investors in commodities.

When the Fed cut rates on past occasions, the dollar fell and commodities priced in the U. S. currency enjoyed a run-up from the reduced carrying costs for investors.

The dollar fell again after the Oct. 8 rate cut. But oil and copper hit new multi-month lows this time and grains like corn and wheat joined the slide before rebounding in late trade.

The only market that rallied throughout the way was gold – the one asset, other than cash, that investors seem to want now.

“The key problem still exists even with this rate cut,” said Bill O’Neill, partner at LOGIC Advisors in Upper Saddle River, N. J.

“The key is confidence, confidence, confidence. And until we get some change there, the atmosphere for gold is going to continue to be very positive, and copper and the base metals is going to continue to be negative.”

Phil Flynn, analyst at Chicago’s Alaron Trading, concurred. “You can cut rates to the bone, but if nobody’s willing to lend you money, it doesn’t really matter.”

Commodities underperformed stocks and bonds for the first time in a year during the third quarter, with losses that wiped out gains for investors in almost every major commodity index in 2008.

CitiGroup estimated that the net long position in commodities – reflecting the position of investors betting on prices to rise – fell US$50 billion between July and September as investors dumped oil and agricultural futures.

Figures from the U. S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission showed that open interest – the total number of options and/or futures contracts that are not closed or delivered on a particular day – fell across the board in key commodities over the last quarter, led by declines of 20-30 per cent in energy markets such as crude oil and gasoline.

Crude’s crash

U. S. crude oil hit a record peak above US$147 a barrel in July, climaxing a six-year bull run in commodities. On Oct. 8, it closed at US$88. 95, down almost 40 per cent from the year’s high, after data showing a big drop in demand in the U. S., the world’s No. 1 energy consumer.

“It’s still too early to say what this means for future demand,” said Tom Bentz at New York’s BNP Paribas Commodity Futures, referring to the Oct. 8 rate cut. “Right now, the perception is that demand is still struggling.”

– Additional reporting for Reuters by Rebekah Kebede,

Eileen Moustakis, Robert Gibbons, Carole Vaporean and

Chris Kelly in New York, and Karen Norton in London

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