Business Analysis: How China is helping commodity prices to defy gravity

Is the world witnessing a new 'super-cycle' ... or just another speculative bubble?
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The Independent Online

The idea that there is going to be a "landing" for the Chinese economy at all is "pure fantasy", according to Jim O'Neill, head of global economics at Goldman Sachs and a leading City thinker on emerging economies.

Whether China has a soft or hard landing, or any sort of slowdown, is not an academic debate. The on-going strength of Chinese economic growth has huge real-world implications for business, not least the producers of the commodities that feed the Chinese dragon. The world's major mining and oil production companies are having to sit up and take notice of analysis such as that by Mr O'Neill. If he is right, their investment levels are totally inadequate.

Surging Chinese demand is one of the main reasons why the price of commodities from oil to copper are not only hitting new highs but staying at these historic highs. For instance, the price of iron ore is up 72 per cent this year. Crude oil is trading at over well $50 a barrel - more than double its level two years ago. Chinese oil imports have trebled over the past two years - not because of rising car use but because of power generators in factories hit by acute shortages in the country's network electricity supply.

The point that commodity producers are having to grapple with is this: are we in the grip of a new "super cycle", a period of rapid and sustained economic growth?

That is, what we are seeing is not a speculative bubble, but commodity prices and conditions that are driven by the fundamentals of supply struggling to keep up with booming demand. It is not just economic growth per se that fuels demand for commodities such as base metals but the process of industrialisation - which Europe went through in the 19th century. Now it is China's turn and it may well be followed by India - where the current economic boom is based on the development of the service sector.

If prices are likely to stay high, then billions of pounds worth of extra investment are justified. It is this view that is driving some startling deals at what would be, in an ordinary cycle, the peak. For instance in October, Lakshmi Mittal's steel empire announced that it would pay $4.5bn (£2.4bn) for the leading US steel producer, ISG. And last week, the mining giant BHP Billiton shocked the markets by announcing it would pay 12 per cent more than a rival to buy Australia's WMC Resources, which produces copper, nickel and uranium, for A$9.2bn (£3.8bn). Mark Lidiard, of BHP Billion says: "We're not betting on a super cycle. But we believe that the ingredients are there."

He says that the WMC deal is not based on new, more bullish predictions for the price of copper or nickel but a view that demand for these metals will remain strong for years, given the pace of industrialisation in China and elsewhere.

It is China that has captured the imagination. It is seen as the catalyst for a new super-cycle. The world's most populous country has seen GDP grow at some 10 per cent a year for a decade, while the annual increase in industrial production has grown even faster (but don't forget that China was the world's biggest economy, back in 1820).

Analysts at Citigroup say that previous super-cycles occurred in the late 1800s/early 1900s, driven by the urbanisation and industrialisation of the US, again in the 1940s and 1950s with the post-war reconstruction of Europe, and most recently in the 1960s and early 1970s, powered by Japan's economic renaissance.

"This new super-cycle will drive sustained earnings growth that will outweigh conventional sell signals in a more conventional maturing cycle," says Citigroup's Bruce Rolph.

For Goldman Sachs' Mr O'Neill, the best parallel for what China is going through now is the rapid industrial growth of Japan and South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s. He predicts massive growth coming through between now and 2050 not only in China but also in India, Brazil and Russia - he has coined the term "BRICs" to represent these countries collectively. While he sees vast potential in Russia and Brazil, it is nothing near as colossal as India and China.

By 2050, the Chinese economy will be significantly bigger than the US (though not in per capita terms), while the size of the Indian economy will overtake Japan's around 2035, according to Goldman Sachs.

The implications of this rapid growth are enormous: for instance, over the next 15 years, demand for oil will grow at up to 3 per cent a year - that is double the average rate of the past 20 years. But, despite the large amount of cash being invested by commodity producers - in mining, capital expenditure levels in 2005 will be some $12bn above 2001 - it seems that no-where near enough is being spent, given the level of commodity prices - to allow supply any chance or catching up with demand.

According to CSFB, over the next three years alone, the oil industry is in danger of under-investing by up to $95bn.

Mr O'Neill says the likes of steel and oil companies are still reeling from their experience of the 1980s, when the investment seen in the previous decade led to huge over-capacity. Some sense that China's growth spurt may stall suddenly too.

"A lot of these people [industrialists] are very tainted by what happened in the 1980s ... [but] there is no landing for China. That is a nonsensical debate," Mr O'Neill says.

On his analysis, Chinese demand for commodities will not slow down till 2030 - but by that point India will have taken over as the world's most dynamic economy. "India's growth potential is even more sustainable than China," he says, pointing to the one-child policy in China which has limited population growth.

Economic power will shift eastwards more dramatically than anything Western business imagines. It will be vibrant India and China that will bail the West out of the economic malaise of an ageing population. To get there, Western companies need to invest billions more than planned on extracting resources to feed the emerging industrial engine of the East.