Who Will Do Well After the Global Commodities Glut?


Global commodity markets are beginning to turn around, but the industry leaders could be changing. For the last three years, the global economy has been severely impacted by the oversupply of commodities and dramatic price drops. The large multinational producers have been desperately trying to survive, and if they’re fortunate position themselves strategically for the long, slow recoveries. For commodity producers with money now is the best time to negotiate future commodity-extraction agreements. Countries with low-cost reserves to license will likely have to change their terms to attract new foreign investment. Chinese producers will likely become the new global leaders in many key commodity markets. Anti-trade/anti-foreigner sentiments have been increasing around the world, and these will influence where multinationals go. With the growth of developing-country multinational producers, the trend toward increased transparency of large government commodity agreements could reverse, and corruption levels could worsen. Multinationals from developed countries will be somewhat less active and this will reduce the influence of their countries’ foreign offices around the world.


While commodity cycles and their effects on multinational producers and developing countries are normal, the scale of changes in the down cycles and the reversal of so many large fortunes are catching much of the world by surprise. It appears most commodity markets have passed their worst moments and are now recovering, albeit very slowly: the new cycles are beginning.

  • Many commodity supply leaders—companies with the best-paid management talent—are in serious financial trouble. Why did they get the timing of so many large capital investments wrong? Why were they expanding supply capacity after many years of demand growth, right before the crash?
    • Severe commodity downswings can occur almost overnight. Exports of copper to China in 2015 were half of what they were in 2012, when copper demand was at its peak. In 2015 the equity shares of the large Anglo-Swiss miner and trader Glencore, who has been very active in copper, fell to a sixth of what their value was in 2011.
    • The Spanish renewable energy firm Abengoa SA is struggling to avoid what could be Spain’s largest-ever corporate bankruptcy. It announced in August 2016 that its latest action was to sell five of its US ethanol plants for $357 million.
    • Petrobras is implementing a divestment plan to sell $15 billion in assets to help pay off the company’s very high debt load of $126 billion. In the spring and summer of 2016, Petrobras sold stakes in Argentina and Chile subsidiaries, a large offshore oil field to Norway’s Statoil, and petrochemical unites to Mexico’s Alpek.
  • The global economic slowdown and global commodities slump is also severely impacting an array of large services and equipment supply companies.
    • The mega ocean shippers like the Danish Maersk Line, Dutch Hapag-Lloyd, and China Bulk Shipping have 30% more capacity in the water than cargo. UK marine data provider Vessels Value says that in the five years through 2015, ship owners ordered an average of 1,450 ships annually. This year through July orders fell to 292 vessels. It will take several years before the surplus capacity is scrapped and demand for shipping increases enough. Maersk recently announced it was replacing its chief executive and was looking at splitting the company up.
    • The Union Pacific railroad in the United States suffered an 11% decline in total freight volume in the first half of 2016. Coal volume was down 21%.
    • Samsung C& T, Samsung’s construction arm, has lost at least $700 million in the Roy Hill iron-ore mine in Australia in the last two years. Unfortunately in 2013 before commodity prices began falling, Samsung C& T agreed to take the risk for cost overruns, while committing to an aggressive timeline for when the iron-ore exports would begin.
    • In July 2016, oilfield services companies Hallliburton and Schlumberger announced another round of layoffs of 5,000 employees and 8,000 employees, respectively.
    • Both GE and Honeywell reported in July 2016 disappointing overall financial results because of weak sales of equipment into the energy sector.
  • Emerging-market economies are suffering. Many African countries are in serious turmoil because of the fall in commodity prices and some lessening of support by China, Africa’s biggest trading partner.
    • As of July 2016, 97.1% of Angola’s exports and 92.2% of Nigeria’s were petroleum; about 45% of Angola’s gross domestic product and 35% of Nigeria’s have come from the petroleum sector.
    • An interesting rivalry is developing among China, India, and Japan for relationships with African countries. India and Japan are suspicious of China’s presence and leverage on the continent and they are taking steps to improve their individual positions.
  • Social unrest is increasing in many countries because of the poor economic conditions brought on by the depressed commodity markets.
    • Since the Peruvian president Mr. Humala took office in 2011, 53 people have been killed and close to 1,500 injured in social conflicts in the country, mostly related to commodity-extraction industries.
    • In Nigeria, rebels and unhappy habitants in the Niger Delta are physically attacking oil facilities and crippling the Nigerian government that desperately needs the revenue of oil exports. Their attacks have cut production by 700,000 barrels per day since 2015.
    • In today’s environment, fair elections in Africa’s democracies are difficult to hold as presidents try to cling to power. In Uganda, Congo-Brazzaville, and Burundi the presidents all won flawed elections with the opposition being violently confronted. In Zambia, the loser of the recent election is disputing the result, after a contentious election run up.
  • In a severe downturn, the lowest-cost producers take advantage of their positions as much as possible. They want to keep their operations as busy as they can, not require any worker layoffs or reduced wages, drive competitors out of business or get them to close high-cost plants, and if the opportunities are right, purchase high-quality businesses from companies desperate to sell.
    • In the world steel industry with global oversupply, China, the world’s number one steel producer, has been producing steel at a record pace. China’s first-half exports are up 9% year to year. At the same time, US Steel Corp is unprofitable, cutting thousands of jobs, and idling plants. Germany’s Thyssen-Krupp AG has held talks with Tata Steel of India and others to merge various operations to strengthen themselves. Caparo Industries out of London declared bankruptcy in 2015 for 16 of its 20 businesses.
    • Saudi Arabian Oil (Aramco) is planning an initial public offering to sell as much as 5% of the company for an estimated $100 billion in the next three years.
    • Norway’s Statoil is cutting back its planned capital spending on the giant Johan Sverdrup offshore field to approximately $30 billion from approximately $38 billion so the field remains profitable even when oil prices are low. Statoil continued to push ahead with the project two years ago even after prices had fallen because the field will contribute approximately 40% of the country’s total crude output in the 2020s.
  • In this period of industry restructuring, the international investments of Chinese companies are very important, for the first time in 200 years.
    • Chinese firms have executed about $160 billion foreign takeover deals in the first seven months of 2016, more than any full year on record.
    • In August 2016 a US panel approved state-owned ChemChina’s planned purchase of Syngenta, which supplies about one-fifth of the world’s pesticides and about 10% of soybean seeds to US farmers. If the purchase is ultimately approved by the US and EU governments, it will be China’s biggest-ever overseas deal.
    • State-run State Grid Corp. of China, the world’s largest electricity provider by revenue with $312 billion, is pursuing a takeover of CPFL Energia SA, the Brazilian electric company, for $13 billion. This might be China’s biggest investment in Brazil.
    • On August 30, 2016, Zhongwang, one of China’s biggest aluminum producers, agreed to buy US-based Aleris Corp. for $1.1 billion. Aleris makes rolled aluminum for the aerospace, automotive, and construction industries. The US military is a client for its armored vehicles. There is a glut of steel, aluminum, and other metals in the world largely caused by an oversupply by Chinese producers. Metal exports from China are facing new tariffs and other barriers around the world.
  • As of the summer of 2016, it appears energy and materials commodity prices hit bottom in 2015 and are slowly recovering. The commodity fuel (energy) index of indexmundi.com is up approximately 45% since the beginning of 2016, although it’s still 23% down from the highs of a year earlier. Noticeably, private equity firms are beginning again to invest in oil opportunities. The metals price index of indexmundi.com is up 10% for the year, but still down 15% from a year ago.
  • For the last twenty-five years, the international activities of multinational corporations have been growing rapidly and transforming the global economy. Multinational affiliate sales as a share of world GDP more than doubled from close to 25 percent in 1990 to more than 50 percent in 2014, according to the UNCTAD, World Investment Report (2015).
  • Many commodity producers are reluctant to start new ventures today, even to secure low-cost reserves. Governments facing years of economic difficulties are struggling with how much effort should they apply to save existing ventures (and the jobs), mitigate the impacts of the closed or canceled ventures, and change the incentives to attract new multinational and local investments.
    • Exxon Mobil is not continuing its involvement in a venture to build a new LNG export terminal in Alaska. The project is not forecast to be very competitive in the world. Just a year ago, the Alaska state government paid $65 million for TransCanada Corp.’s 25% share in the overall project that was expected to cost between $45 billion and $65 billion. BP and ConocoPhillips, other shareholders in the venture, are also expressing concerns about the project.
    • An article in the Wall Street Journal on August 31, 2016 about commodity mining in Indonesia highlighted the recent mining asset sales by Newmont Mining Corp. and BHP to local companies and the significant decrease in total mining exploration spending in the country since 2012. In 2012, spending on mining exploration in Indonesia was approximately $450 million and in 2015 it was about $100 million. These changes stem from the heavier government regulations of mining operations and restrictions to foreign investment that Indonesia implemented several years ago when the commodity markets were strong.
  • At a time of a global oversupply of hydrocarbon products, China is reshaping its energy supply and demand mix.
    • China Petroleum & Chemical, or Sinopec, is attempting to double domestic natural gas production in the next five years in order to reduce coal usage in the country and reduce China’s need for imported liquefied natural gas—that many investors around the world were counting on. Sinopec is counting on rapidly expanding natural gas production from shale reserves.
    • US coal exports to China have recently shrunk to almost nothing. They were almost 6 million short tons in 2011, 10 million tons in 2013, and about 300 thousand todate in 2016. Out of seven West Coast export terminals proposed in the past five years, none has opened.
  • In developed countries, wind and solar renewables are really changing the energy supply mix. Will this momentum change with lower hydrocarbon prices?
    • A key signal is that wind and solar renewables are becoming a significant energy source in Texas, the center of the US oil and gas industry. In 2001, renewables (wind, solar, and hydro) accounted for 2% of Texas energy; in 2016 they will account for 16%. One night this past Winter, nearly 50% of the power flowing into the state grid came from wind turbines in the state. Federal subsidies for renewables have been a big factor, but equally big have been the falling costs of solar and wind technology. Besides plentiful hydrocarbon resources, Texas also is rich in wind and sun.
  • While closing or selling high-cost operations, some producers are looking toward technology to help them dramatically reduce their costs. But they need a relatively strong financial balance sheet to do.
    • Shale 2.0. The technology of shale oil production is rapidly advancing despite current cost constraints. Over the last five years, production well productivity has risen more than 400%, 40% in the last year. BP PLC is pushing hard into fracking in the United States to increase its oil and gas, attempting to leverage its capabilities to apply new technologies at large scale.
    • Risk-averse large mining conglomerates, like Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, are investing heavily in automation technologies to help them go to more remote places, dig deeper, and move minerals and metals to the market faster, including very large motorized conveyor-belt systems; supercomputers, drones with fancy remote sensors, and software for building three-dimensional maps of a mine in real time; driverless trucks and trains; and autonomous drilling systems.
    • Mining companies are investing in technology to reduce the costs of producing titanium dioxide and to make this material suitable for 3-D printing. Powdered forms of materials like titanium dioxide are melted layer by layer with a laser to create 3-D objects. The value of the global 3-D printing market is expected to grow to about $6 billion in 2016, up from about $1 billion in 2010.
  • New environmental risks from commodity operations are coming to light.
    • Recent figures indicate that around a third of the annual methane emissions in the United States can be traced to the natural gas industry. While methane doesn’t remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide (12 years compared to 500 years), it is about 25 times more potent as a cause of global warming. The Environmental Defense Fund, an American NGO that often works with industry, estimates 2-2.5% of the gas flowing trough the supply chain leaks out.


From my recent blog, Predicting Future Commodity Developments, I noted commodity markets act like complex social-physical environment systems: Most of the time the markets are relatively stable with modest increases and decreases in prices, demand changes, and supply changes around the world. But severe shocks or disturbances to the systems, such as from natural disasters and severe market disruptions can push the systems across their thresholds into different dynamics, often with unwelcome surprises. The recent large downward swings in commodity prices and demand may have pushed many commodity markets over their “stability” thresholds. We can expect in the upcoming few years more disruption and chaos, and new market dynamics to develop. Then a new “stable” market will be the norm. We should look for the signs of new market dynamics and understand them.

Chinese Companies

  • China companies will be the industrial leaders around the world in commodities. They will be the biggest, invest the most money, and generally be aggressive to capture the most market share.
  • The Chinese government will likely support Chinese companies moving abroad with various means of support to help them penetrate foreign markets and avoid trade and tariff costs.
  • In general, transparency of commercial transactions between governments and commodity producers will go down worldwide; corruption levels will increas

Producer and Country Restructurings and Bankruptcies

  • Restructuring of most of the commodity supply chains is not done, not by a long shot. Many operations/countries have just used up their cash and will have to borrow extensively to pay their bills.
  • Sovereign-wealth funds will continue to sell assets to cover national-government expenditures.
  • State-owned companies will continue to add large amounts of debt to pay for large projects that were already underway and to continue selling their high-priced reserves at a loss because prices haven’t recovered enough.
  • Some countries will stop paying on their international loans and require bailouts and restructuring plans from international monetary agencies like the International Monetary Fund
  • International loans for large commodity projects and developing countries will become more expensive.
  • US courts of law will be involved more often in the settlement of large disputes among governments, international companies operating in their countries, and NGOs representing local community interests.
  • EU authorities will attempt to impose a strong rule of law on multinational producers. A number of EU member countries will undermine EU actions to attract foreign investment to their countries and support local interests.

Developed Countries

  • Since many materials are strategic resources for a developed country, dealing with the changes in foreign ownership of commodity producers is a constant challenge because of the political firestorms that accompany them. In the future many cases will involve producers from China and Russia.
  • As the influence of the developed countries’ multinationals wanes, the influence of the developed-countries’ foreign offices/state departments will also wane. The connection points into the developing countries will be fewer.

Developing Countries

  • Many developing countries will reverse many of the foreign-ownership restrictions and contract, royalty, and tax limitations they imposed at the height of the commodity markets and offer new terms to attract foreign and domestic investment.
  • Some countries will try to maintain the tougher conditions on multinationals because of nationalist political pressures and local interests in controlling the country’s resources and spoils.

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