The burlap bubble

September 22, 2010, 9:00 PM UTC

It’s not exactly a mystery why gold is on fire. But what’s with burlap?

Along with cotton, rubber and 10 other glamour-challenged commodities, burlap is part of the CRB raw industrials subindex. The index doesn’t include gold and shares little in common with the precious metal – except that both just hit new highs.

Cotton rally has them in stitches

Gold, as we hear about 1,298 times a day lately, is a bet on the global economic crisis and the collapse of paper currencies, notably the dollar. That bet has been working for a decade now, what with the gold price quintupling at a time when stocks at best did nothing.

The appeal of that wager certainly hasn’t waned this week, with the Federal Reserve’s pledge to push up inflation in a bid to keep Americans from hoarding cash. Gold, its vocal fans will have you know, is the best store of value in an inflationary world.

That argument isn’t typically made on behalf of tin, zinc or steel scrap, nor of wool tops, print cloth, hides or tallow – the beef fat that’s turned into candles and soap. But the rising value of the CRB raw industrials subindex shows how inflation fears, a weakening dollar and a modest economic recovery can cast a favorable light on even the rawest commodity.

“Fed easing is definitely supportive of hard asset prices,” says Evan Smith, co-manager of the $600 million U.S. Global Investors Global Resources Fund. “The dollar has rolled over significantly, and that’s part of it.”

But that’s certainly not all of it. Smith adds that “when you start poking into the individual commodities, you start to see there are supply-demand issues.”

He points to market disruptions in cotton, up 33% this year following a flood that wiped out crops in big producer Pakistan, and rubber, also at a 52-week high.

Even with this level of detail, there is a temptation to draw sweeping conclusions from the index’s run. But Smith cautions against these.

To take one example, he doesn’t buy the notion that a record in the CRB raw industrials, also known as the CRB-RIND, necessarily points to a stronger economic recovery ahead.

The last time the index traded above 500 was in early 2008, when grain prices were spiking in a dress rehearsal for the summer’s crude oil surge. That episode didn’t exactly end happily for the global economy, as you may recall.

Smith said he views the 2008 CRB-RIND spike as “probably just the last piece of leverage finding its way into a momentum trade” that reversed spectacularly after the September failure of Lehman Brothers.

He says he doesn’t think leveraged momentum trading is playing nearly as large a role in the index’s rise this time around. He views the gains more as a function of the dollar, issues with individual crops, and the pace of inventory restocking in agriculture-related goods.

Cattle, for instance, were culled by the thousands during the recession, and raising more cows takes more than flipping a switch. This, rather than the actions of evil speculators, likely explains the rising prices of hides and tallow, for instance.

“I don’t think a lot of people are running out there to trade hides,” said Smith.