Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hot Money, Hot Commodities and the US Dollar Carry Trade Part 3

In part one of the article, I argued why the collapse of the US dollar is inevitable and commodities are the only safe haven in the event of currency collapse; In part two of the article I begin to demystify some mis-conceptions about commodities investment. Some times even Jim Rogers could be wrong. I specifically cited the example of the UNG natural gas fund.

In this part three, I will elaborate more on what are the correct approaches for commodities investment, and what is the best commodity to invest in. I am going to discuss the things that Jim Rogers was wrong about.

I can not emphasize this enough: When you invest in something, you should always ask the question WHO PAYS FOR YOUR PROFIT. You can't create money out of thin air. Some one has to pay you for you to make a profit. If you can not figure out who pays for your profit, then your investment thesis has a problem.

In the market, the majority of people must be the losers so as to allow a few people in the minority to make obscene amount of profits. That's how the world works. Always think for yourself, do not let other people do your thinking for you. I have high respect for Jim Cramer who I think is a smart guy. Unfortunately too big a crowd gathered around him, so that the biggest crowd must necessarily be the biggest crowd of fools and losers, by definition. That's not Jim Cramer's fault, but his success, as an entertainer.

Warren Buffet is the buy-and-hold-forever type of investor. Who pays Warren Buffet if he nevr sells? The companies he own keep operating profitable businesses to genenate fortune for him.

Who pays the day traders who buy and sell equities in short periods? It's got to be fellow day traders. So day trading is nothing but gambling, a zero sum game with 50/50 winning and losing odds. In recorded history no one becomes a billionaire through day trading.

Who pays you when you invest in something for long term? The rest of the investor community, Mr. market pays you. All long term profitable investments requres two things:

  1. You need to have the wisdom to recognize the long term value of your investment.
  2. The rest of the world must disagree with you, so you can buy your investment cheap.

I must particularly emphasize the second point. For your investment thesis to be correct, people must disagree with you. They will ridicule you, curse you, calling you all sorts of names. If people laughed at you, don't be discouraged and don't get angry. Instead take their laugh as a compliment and take comfort in the fact that most people disagree with you, so you are in the minority, so you are probably right.

But you still need to make sure you are right in the first place. This requires hard work doing your due diligence research. This also requires that there need to be some people, who, after spending time doing their own due diligence, no longer laugh at you and start to agree with you. That is important. If every one in the world laughs at you, then you are an idiot. If 99% of people laugh at you but 1% do take you seriously, then it says you are a genius and the world is a fool.

All the successful investors receive more than enough of their fair share of being laughed at, in the early stages of their investment careers, including Warren Buffet and Jim Rogers. But no one laughs at Warren Buffet any more. Every one takes him seriously now. That's his problem. Anything he wants to buy, it leaks out before he could buy enough so he ended up paying more. Any time he wants to sell, people beat him before he could sell much. When you have a big crowd around you, it makes a billionaire very hard to make his next move.

Jim Rogers also have a big fan group, so even though he deserves high respect from me, I will take him with a few grains of salt. His pitch on agriculture commodities, his best favor, for example, I think is flawed. Let me discuss why. hope some one can pass this note to Jim Rogers himself, so he knows why he is wrong, or argues with me why he is still right.

Jim noted that every one needs to eat, and there is limited land resource to produce all the food people need to eat. That is a fact. But that is a fact known by every one already, and it is a true fact for millions of years already. The best invest ideas always come from facts that are recent news, and that few people know, not from something every one already know for a long time. So this immediately rings an alarming bell on Jim's agriculture commodity thesis.

Jim failed to notice that the threshold for demand destruction is low for food, and hence it caps the value appreciation potential of food. Poor peoplein poor countries already dedicate 75% to 90% of their disposable income on food. How are they going to pay more? There is not much room to go from spending 90% of income to spending 100%. People will just have to eat less and eat what their income can afford them. So this reduces demand and caps the price appreciation. In fiat currency term, the price can still go up a lot. But in purchase power term, there is virtually no room for growth.

Consider that no one can spend more than 100% of disposable income, and that food expenses are already the biggest percentage of people's spending, I would say that in terms of purchase power, agriculture products are probably the WORST of commodity investments, not the best.

Applying the same thinking, I think Jim's another pitch is a great one: Water. Water is more important than food to sustain human lifes. How much an average family spends on water, in terms of percentage of disposable income? I am paying roughly $1.50 for one unit, about 97 gallons. That's only 1.5 cents a gallon. So there is a lot of appreciation potential. If there is water shortage, when water bills hit 25% of a family's spendings, people will start to use less while each gallon will become more expensive. Pushing the theoretical limit, you can probably survive reasonably well on just two gallons of water per day and the water will costs a family of four about $1000 per month. That's roughly $4 per gallon water. So that's a lot of appreciation potential going from 1.5 cents to $4 per gallon of water. That price target is actually realistic, as people in some Arab country are already paying more per gallon for water, than for gasoline!!!

Water is just an example to stimulate thinking. Investing in water is tough. How do you store water at low cost for long time without spoil it, besides there is no shortage of water on earth. There is only a shortage of water purification treatments and transportation. Maybe investing $1000 or so for a secured drinking water supply, is a wise investment for your family.

I consider precious metals as commodities in a broad sense. Many gold bugs consider gold as a sacret cow, different from other commodities. I disagree. Gold or any precious metal is simply a metal that is precious. Nothing more and nothing less. Sacret cow only exists in religions.

What's the best commodity to invest in? As I discussed in my last article, the only sensible to invest in a commodity is to either hoard the physical stuff, or invest in the companies that produce the stuff. So an ideal commodity to invest in should be easy to store, and has the largest price appreciation potential:
  1. It should be compact and easy to store, and remain safe and stable for long term. This immediately rules out any thing gaseous or liquid, because they are hard to store.

  2. It should be price inelastic on the demand side. That means price can be driven up to very high level, and the industry consumers can still afford it. This immediately rules out food products and base metals that are used in bulk quantities, like steel, copper and aluminum.

  3. It should also be price inelastic on the supply side, that means it should probably be a by-product. Most producers will not bother to increase the production of their main product just to produce more by-product and marginally increase their by-product profits.

Once you apply these rules, there are not many commodities that can qualify as the best commodities investment. Three metals meet all the requirements: Palladium, silver and tellurium. No. 46, 47 and 52 on the periodic table.

Silver is almost as widely known as gold, and more widely used as money than gold, throughout human history. People in China and other Asian countries love silver better than gold. Recent news from China indicate that silver investment is red hot, while the gold market is flat. Jim Rogers himself encourages the Chinese to buy silver and palladium, rather than gold.

Over 70% of global silver supply is produced as a base metal by-product, only 30% is produced from primary silver mines. So silver can be classified as a by-product metal. On the demand side, silver is price inelastic. Silver is widely used in the electronics industry, but so little silver is used in individual components, that the cost is never a concern. On the jewelry side, material cost ofsilver is a very small percentage of total cost of most silver jewelries, so at current price level, silver jewelries are price inelastic as well.

I like silver as a storage of wealth. But I like palladium much better, as an investment. For decades, there is a large structural deficit in global palladium supply. The global palladium deficit was only filled in by the annual Russian Government paladium stockpile sale, which is about 1 to 2 million ounces a year. Global mine production is about 6.5 million ounces per year while consumption well exceed 8 million ounces per year. Read Platinum 2009 Interim Review to get an idea of platinum/palladium supply/demand numbers.

Russia has the world's largest nickel mine, Norilsk Nickel (Nilsy.PK), which is also the world's largest palladium producer, since they produce palladium as a by-product. The Russian government accumulated the excess palladium production during the Soviet Era in their strategic metals stockpile. You must read the 2003 report by Alan Williamson to understand the Russian palladium stockpile and how its size could be estimated. A false rumor regarding the Russian palladium stockpile trigger the palladium price spike of 2000/2001.

Many metals analysts have been speculating that this Russian palladium stockpile is near depletion. If that is the case, it will be a paradigm shift event which could send the metal price sky high, far exceeding the 2000/2001 price peak of palladium price.

Two recent news items confirms that the Russian palladium stockpile has indeed depleted. One is on August 31, 09, another is on October 15, 09. So far, this news has not caused much attention and has not resulted in explosive palladium rally yet. My favorite palladium mines, SWC and PAL, have moved up in share price. But they are still far from the heights where I expect to see them to reach.

But looking at the performance of palladium price in the past year, how could any one still complain? As fellow SA contributor John Lounsbury also noticed, Palladium already did far better than platinum, silver and gold in the past 12 months. I just wish more people learn the story of the depleting Russian palladium stockpile.

Many years ago, Warren Buffett correctly pointed out that Mr. Market is a fool. My own experience tells me that I could never underestimate the foolishness of Mr. Market, or the stupidness of the world. You only need to look at the global warming hysteric fiasco.

The foolishness of the general investor community can be best reflected in the tellurium story. Two years ago I advocated for hoarding physical tellurium and predicted that the business of First Solar (FSLR) is not going any where, as they could be suffocated by a global tellurium shortage brought about due to the emerging new applications of tellurium based electronic devices, like phase-change memory. How many people listened and believed me? More people in the world understand Einstein's Relativity Theory, then people who understand tellurium supply and demand! Now Numonrx was able to make multi-layer phase-change-memory chips. This is a paradigm shift in the electronics industry. As advanced as the modern microelectronics industry is, they were never able to produce a multi-layer computer chip. It's going to be huge for tellurium and a gigantic jackpot for the tellurium investors.

But for now, people still fight hand over fist to buy FSLR stocks, believing that First Solar can grow its business unlimited. Some investors actually believed that tellurium can be extracted from sewages, because I told them most tellurium is extracted from the slime mud produced during copper electrolysis production. Yeah right! Just don't do it at home and don't dig out the sewage pipe in your toilet. I assure you there is no tellurium to be found.

Full Disclosure: The author hoards physical tellurium, physical palladium, and has large long positions in SWC and PAL, as well as silver mining stocks SSRI, PAAS and CDE. The author no longer holds position in UNG and has no short or long position in FSLR. The author holds other positions unrelated to the discussion in this article.