One potential winner from Russia-Ukraine conflict: Commodities

  • By Reshma Kapadia,
  • Barron's
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Russia’s attack on Ukraine overnight is scrambling a series of assumptions about broad investment themes, but one is intact—and even supercharged: The commodities boom.

A lot is still unknown about how Russia’s latest aggression in Ukraine will play out, including the severity of the sanctions the West is pulling together. But one likely outcome is a sharp reduction in exports from Russia, which is often known for its energy production but also is a major source of industrial metals and grains.

In past geopolitical conflicts, investors tend to flee risky assets—including commodities. But this time the reaction is different because of the commodities backdrop, and Capital Economists analysts see assets linked to commodity prices holding up well over the next few months.

Much of the focus is on energy because years of underinvestment in energy infrastructure—some of it due to a push toward decarbonization and sustainability— has already caused prices to rise to levels where consumers are noticing it.

Now, add in the conflict. Russia accounts for roughly 40% of the European Union’s natural gas imports and just less than a third of its crude imports. In a note to clients, Capital Economics estimates energy prices will remain high for some time, even if the West doesn’t sanction Russia’s energy exports, and oil rising to $120 to $140 a barrel if the conflict escalates further.

While previous conflicts didn’t lead to the West sanctioning Russia’s energy exports or provoke Russia to use energy as a weapon, Capital Economics’ chief commodities economist Caroline Bain in a briefing noted that the risk of this happening could keep oil prices higher, even if supply isn’t affected.

The conflict’s costs could show up in grocery prices. More than a quarter of global wheat exports and 80% of sunflower seeds come out of Russia and Ukraine and most of the exports flow through Black Sea ports that could be in the middle of military conflict, according to Capital Economics, which has raised near-term forecasts for most agricultural commodities by around 25%.

If the military operation moves through Ukraine there could also be physical damage to crops, feeding into the outlook for higher grain prices and edible oils from sunflower. If the past is any guide, Capital Economics says the country’s industrial metals exports—aluminum, nickel and palladium—could be at a bigger risk of getting hit with sanctions. These metals were already in demand amid recent supply chain disruptions and the move toward a digital world and sanctions would only mean prices stay elevated for longer, according to the research firm.

In a note to clients, Christopher Granville, TS Lombard’s managing director of global political research, says the West will try to cause “sufficient economic pain to Russia to induce it to desist while minimizing the economic pain for the rest of the world resulting from high commodity prices,” with the ultimate aim to weaken Putin’s political grip inside Russia as the country is gripped by economic pain.

Those sanctions will likely mean cutting off Russia’s two main banks, Sberbank and VTB, from the global financial system. And that could disrupt the flow of commodities ranging from metals and grains to bulk chemicals or fertilizers—even if those producers aren’t immediately sanctioned, Granville adds.

That is could spell more gains ahead for broad commodities-oriented funds. The Invesco DB Commodity Index Tracking Fund () is already up 14.5% so far this year. It could also benefit commodity producers in emerging markets—as well as commodity-rich countries.

Brazil’s agricultural, energy and metals riches are in a good position to benefit from the conflict, though inflation could pose a risk more broadly to the economy. Indonesia is a large nickel producer while India and China are among the biggest aluminum producers. It isn’t a straight positive as oil-importing countries like India will also feel the sting of higher energy prices.

Surging commodity prices, of course, raise concerns about stagflation. But Granville notes a difference between the current situation and the 1970s Arab oil embargo that sparked a period of stagflation: Russia likely wants to continue exporting all it can. And that could mean, he says, the threat to flows of oil and gas could prove to be overdone.

The global economy hopes so.

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