Recovery Favors Commodities And Infrastructure-Linked Stocks

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David Evanson and Oliver Pursche

Forbes.com, Winter, 2012

I’m going to go out on a limb here and inside of 24 hours I’ll either be very right, or very wrong. Since content lives on the Internet forever, I’m feeling like I’m very right. When fourth quarter GDP numbers are released today I think there’s going to be a nice upside surprise. And this surprise will be all the nicer given the negative sentiment permeating the market.

And I’ll go a little bit further. With the European Central Bank moving aggressively to stem the sovereign debt crisis, the U.S. Federal Reserve continuing its bond purchases and easy monetary policy, and growth in China and other emerging and established markets coming in stronger than expected, I believe the first and possibly second quarter of 2012 will prove to be rewarding for investors.

Since the global recovery–tepid and halting though it may be–is infrastructure rather than consumer driven, I believe investors should overweight commodities and consider equities linked to commodities. For our fund, I’ve been buying Cliffs Resources (CLF), Monsanto (MON), and Caterpillar (CAT).

Appealing ETFs for their diversified commodity exposure: PowerShares DB Agriculture (DBA), PowerShares DB Base Metals (DBB) and PowerShares DB Energy (DBE).

Cliffs is an international iron ore producer and a significant producer of high- and low-volatile metallurgical coal, while of course CAT is one of the world’s largest manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, industrial gas turbines and diesel-electric locomotives. Both of these companies tap into the infrastructure investments that are on the upswing.

The ETFs mentioned provide exposure to core commodities in agriculture, metals and energy, which in an economy recovering on a global scale, I think will become more valuable. For instance, the PowerShares DB Base Metals Fund is an index composed of futures contracts on some of the most liquid and widely used base metals–aluminum, zinc and copper and as a result reflects the performance of the global industrial metals sector. The PowerShares DB Agriculture Fund is composed of futures contracts on highly liquid and widely traded agricultural commodities such as cattle, soybeans and wheat and provides exposure to the global agricultural trends. Finally, the PowerShares DB Energy Fund holds futures contracts on energy commodities such as light sweet crude oil (WTI), heating oil, Brent crude oil, gasoline and natural gas.

Another way to gain agricultural exposure on a global scale with a stock that I like and which is held by the fund is Monsanto, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of seeds and herbicides. By some counts, Monsanto has 90% market share in each of its core markets, a figure that, accurate or no, clearly links MON to global agricultural trends.

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There’s gloom out there to be sure. So far, corporate earnings have failed to really impress (See JPM, GOOG, etc.). Through the first 2 weeks of earnings, the ratio of negative-to-positive pre-announcements has been the worst since 2008. In looking at 110 companies that have pre-announced and announced fourth quarter earnings, only 51% have surprised on the upside, compared to an average of 76% since the economic recovery began in 2009.

So investors have a right to be cautious. But there’s a bullish argument to be made for stocks, and as investors we need to recognize three main points:

Slowing revenue growth and stalling margin expansion are a natural part of a maturing business cycle.
Given the overall global environment, overall earnings and moderate growth expectations, equities are somewhere between slightly undervalued to fairly valued, depending on the metrics utilized.
Economic activity is improving and has been stronger than most investors, strategists, and analysts had been expecting (recall all those calls last summer that the U.S. would fall into a recession in the fourth quarter of 2011 and that Europe will suffer a deep recession).
In my mind, these trends are incontrovertible and point to an infrastructure-based recovery that offers investors in commodities and some choice stocks connected to them.