Glencore’s big bet on the commodity craze

April 14, 2011, 8:37 PM UTC

Here’s a $12 billion bet the commodity boom is far from over.

Glencore, the Swiss-based trading firm, filed Thursday for an initial public offering in Hong Kong. The filing comes at a time when investors are pouring money into commodity funds — even as a yearlong run-up in the prices of things like oil, metals and so-called soft goods like sugar and coffee is giving even some commodity bulls a few second thoughts.

An issue that's not going anywhere

Goldman Sachs, for instance, this week told clients to sell positions in crude, cotton and copper, thanks to the sharp run-up in those prices (see right). The call comes four months after Goldman started pounding its mahogany-and-maple John Townsend table on the commodity sector, saying stronger than expected economic growth would translate into robust demand.

But now there are signs the recovery in rich economies is going to be weaker than forecasters were projecting at the end of the year, thanks in part to the surge in gasoline prices since unrest exploded in the Middle East.

Goldman and other forecasters have taken to saying falling demand for gasoline will translate into lower crude demand – a factor they say isn’t likely to be accepted with grace by a market in which speculators have bet four times as much on rising prices than they did in the 2008 oil spike.

Though Goldman continues to see a long-term case for buying commodities, it is clear that the firm believes we are due for a pullback in prices — something we haven’t seen in a year or so.

But of course, the beauty of the Glencore business is that it stands to profit even when prices fall, as the fools who believe commodities as an asset class promise big returns without big risks inevitably panic and trade out of the sector on the next big selloff. And then buy back in after the ensuing rally, etc.

That is a game that worked well for the Wall Street brokers with the U.S. stock market, till the crashes of 2000 and 2008 scared a large number of people out of the water for good. And unless the global recovery actually collapses rather than simply hitting a speed-bump, the long-term case for commodity appreciation still looks plausible, at the very least.

That should give Glencore plenty of time to cash in before everyone realizes the case for long-term commodity investment is a mirage too. It’s not exactly heartwarming, but hey, that’s business.

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