Commodities & the Volatility Epoch


As volatility continues in the sector, it’s now more important than ever for commodity houses to employ experts, not generalists and to remain nimble in their ability to move with the rapidly changing market.

A McKinsey article from January this year focused on this point, making the case that commodity traders need new business models in order to exploit volatility in the market.

This is particularly pronounced with the energy transition well underway, increasing structural volatility and disrupting trade flows. Index funds and commodity trading pools have doubled in AuM, putting pressure on forward curves in often small markets and general de-globalisation and the perceived need to repatriate critical materials is opening new arbitrages.

Geopolitics and the rise of ‘one-off’ events

From a macro perspective ‘one-off’ events seem to be happening rather more frequently than before. Whether that’s Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the outbreak of Covid, sovereign countries are having to reassess their ability to source critical materials.  

This has led to a concerted effort to be able to secure materials more regionally. European refiners have increased US imports to off-set the loss of Russian Oil with the US set to become a net exporter of crude (something that has not been the case since World War II). Rare Earths and other materials that are critical in the production of iPhones and batteries are still predominantly produced in China (80% of rare earths imports in 2019).  The US has set aside a large portion of the $2trn infrastructure spend attempting to counteract the Chinese dominance.

“It’s absolutely correct there is a cornering of the market with Lithium and other rare earths” – said Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry on CNBC

Traditional trade routes have also been affected with now longer, less efficient shipping lanes in use, which avoids unfriendly nations, but increases costs and delivery times.

These supply chain issues and trade disruptions look set to continue alongside general de-globalisation and self-protectionism. The offshoot being the potential opening of new arbitrages and unique opportunities for commodity traders to exploit. 

Energy Transition

Estimated annual investment in hydrocarbons has fallen 50% in the last 10 years. However, according to McKinsey, the level of funds committed to energy transition – approximately $700bn in 2021 – is about 1/3rd of the $2trn required in 2022. This will not likely be sufficient to prevent the emergence of sustained bottlenecks.   

Since the financial crisis of 2008 global miners have been spending very little cash in the ground, preferring dividend increase and share buy-backs (see BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, etc). This has pleased shareholders. However, the reality is that should the demand for metals and rare earths associated with the green push come to fruition, we simply don’t have enough mines either producing or in development. You can’t simply turn on a commodity tap…it takes years to develop a mine. This will create spikes and increase volatility across the market.

Inefficient Markets

The increase in volatility across commodities has resulted in a significant tightening of collateral requirements and increased the frequency of margin calls, which has in turn increased capital requirements. Coupled with the stance of central banks (rising interest rates), the cost of financing the movement of raw materials has increased substantially. This has led to large challenges for smaller trading houses and players.   

According to McKinsey, commodity trading value pools have close to doubled in size since 2018 ($27bn - $52bn in 2021). The increase in volumes across commodity markets can easily been seen across passive ETF’s and Risk Premia funds. These ‘long only’ strategies are mandated to roll positions forward, as they can’t take physical delivery. This often equates to a very large amount of pressure on the forward curve as and when they roll forward. The nimble trader is able to position themselves to take advantage of huge rolls across relatively small markets, with the providers methodology/positioning made publicly available.      


The outcome of all of the above points suggests that volatility is here to stay, at least in the short to medium term. And a ‘long only’ perspective in commodities is possibly not the most efficient way to exploit the space.  

Within the market a commodity traders’ success or failure will be based upon their ability to navigate this new norm.  

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