Commodities and Futures: Analysts predict price rebound

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The Independent Online
DO COMMODITIES make good investments? Not always. If you were one of those who bought gold at its recent peak - just over dollars 400 an ounce in August - you may be sceptical since it has now plummeted to dollars 357.

Great excitement was generated by the gold investments of the financiers George Soros and Sir James Goldsmith in the spring.

Economists and pundits waxed eloquent about rising inflation, fanning expectations for a rebound - not only in gold but in commodity prices generally.

This year many commodity markets have indeed experienced more activity and sharper price swings than they have in years.

However, inflation is not rising rapidly. And prices for gold, coffee, copper and soybeans have dropped back after their moment of glory.

The short answer seems to be that commodities are a better investment today than they were over the past 10 years, but not as profitable as they are likely to be in another five to 10 years.

Lawrence Eagles, commodity analyst with GNI Commodities Research, believes that some, but not most, commodity prices will rise in the next few years.

Because of commodities' varying production cycles, it will be five years or so before there is another general commodities price bounce similar to the 1970s, when oil shocks, crop failures and rising inflation conspired, he says.

Prices for silver, cocoa and sugar, for instance, have good short-term prospects. They have been depressed for so long that producers cannot recover their costs and production cutbacks have been occurring since the late 1980s.

But in the base metals industry, undergoing its worst phase of oversupply now, cutbacks are still under way. For example Inco, the world's largest nickel producer, announced a 16 per cut in 1994 production last week. Mr Eagles predicts base metals will not recover for several years.

A slightly more optimistic view comes from Goldman Sachs, the US investment house. A recent study estimates commodity prices will increase by 8 to 10 per cent in the next year.

Over certain periods - during inflation or crises such as the Gulf war, when oil prices surged sharply - commodities outperform other assets, it found. They also generally reduce risk in a portfolio by diversifying.

Compared with other assets from 1952 to 1993, commodities brought in a lower return than UK equities but beat UK bonds and cash. But Goldman recommends that commodities make up only 3.5 per cent of an investment portfolio, illustrating that they are risky as well.

Investment advisers warn clients only to invest in commodities and futures with money they can afford to lose.