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Feb 28, 2018

Jargon Hack: What are Commodities?

By Lindsay Goldwert

Think gasoline, corn, livestock (turned into beef), gold, steel, aluminum, and oil.

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If there’s anyone left to trade after the zombie apocalypse, it could be in commodities.

Commodities are the stuff of life. They’re also one of the building blocks of the economy, and they’re as old as time. They’re things like gold, steel, aluminum, oil and even food. Pork bellies and cattle, live and turned into beef. They’re also the unleaded gas in your car. The corn and sugar in your pantry.

All of these things are commodities. They’re all valuable, and that’s why people invest in them.

What are commodities?

Unlike some of the more esoteric elements of the economy, commodities are rooted in reality. They’re heavy, they fill up pallets, and sometimes they even smell and make noise. They’re more tangible than currency, and they’re certainly more earthy than that flashy new stuff called cryptocurrency. And they’re easier to understand.

Commodities are useful. People were trading in gold and wheat thousands of years ago. Why? Their value is undeniable. Gold is generally considered the safe haven for investment, because everyone has always recognized its value.

How are commodities traded?

Commodities are divided into several categories, including energy, metals, agriculture, meat and consumer goods. Energy includes oil and gasoline, both natural and unleaded. Metals include gold, silver, platinum and copper. Agriculture includes corn, soybeans and wheat. Meat includes hogs and live cattle. Consumer goods include cocoa, coffee, cotton and sugar.

Commodities are divided into several categories, including energy, metals, agriculture, meat and consumer goods.

In the U.S. the two largest commodity exchanges are in New York (of course, think Wall Street) and Chicago (which makes sense, considering the stockyards of “The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair.) They are called the New York Mercantile Exchange, the NYMEX and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, CME.

Why do people invest in commodities?

Here’s something else, to keep in mind: Commodities can act as hedge against inflation, according to some experts, since they tend to increase in value as inflation rises.

Inflation can have a negative impact on  other stocks. And as we wrote recently, fears about inflation have sparked some of the current market turmoil. So commodities can potentially work as a stabilizing position in a portfolio when other equities are particularly volatile.

How do people invest in commodities?

There are three primary ways to invest in commodities

You can buy the actual raw product. Cowboys still run cattle drives into Fort Worth, Texas and miners still extract gold from the depths of South Africa. But if you don’t feel like buying a ton of zinc on a pallet and trying to figure out how to unload it, there are other ways.

Some investors put their money in commodity futures. They may try to predict what will happen to the price of bacon a month or two down the road.

Others might invest in exchange-traded funds, also known as ETFs. They’re perhaps the most user-friendly tools for investors, since they act as baskets of commodities (such as pork bellies) which are traded as units on the market.

What are the risks?

Commodities can still be subject to volatility, caused by natural shortages, or even political uncertainty. President Trump and the U.S. Department of Commerce unveiled a blueprint recently that would impose a 24% tariff on all steel imports, and even steeper tariffs of 53% on steel imports from a dozen countries. This could spark fresh price swings in commodities markets.

Explain it to me: What’s a tariff?

Oil is also notoriously volatile, experiencing the worst spikes during its long history in 1979, when the unstable political situation in Iran disrupted the flow of petroleum, followed by an even worse spike in 1980 with the Iran-Iraq war. Oil prices spiked once again to their biggest peak ever in 2008, when hit $100 a barrel for the first time, due to a regional crisis.

Even something as simple as corn can be the plaything of the environment and politics. Remember when biofuels like ethanol were going to change the world? That was also in 2008, when corn prices spiked so dramatically from the ethanol boom that was blamed for driving up food prices in general.

Back in October, the CME Group in October started including the trading of bitcoin futures in its exchange. Is cryptocurrency the new commodity?

Not yet. The thing about commodities is that they’re rooted in the real world. And for investors looking to diversify, they can potentially have a place in your portfolio that can hedge against inflation and rising interest rates.

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Written by

Lindsay Goldwert

Lindsay Goldwert is an author and freelance personal finance writer, as well as the host of Spent podcast


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