Consider this post a public service announcement. The objective is to put recent commodity price trends into a long-term, historical perspective. I think that what it shows is that despite significant declines in the past few years, commodity prices are still holding up quite well relative to where they've been in the past.
We start the review with "Dr. Copper." Copper prices have been extraordinarily volatile in recent decades. Copper has declined 40% from its early 2011 all-time high, but it is still 290% above its 2001 low.
The CRB Raw Industrials index is my favorite commodity index. It doesn't include any energy or precious metals. It includes mostly just basic commodities of the sort that don't lend themselves to speculation or stockpiling. This index has fallen almost 30% from its 2011 high, but it is still almost 110% above its 2001 low.
The chart above shows the inflation-adjusted value (in today's dollars) of the CRB Raw Industrials index. Here we see that despite the huge increase in commodity prices since their all-time lows of 2001, prices today are still about 30% below their early 1980s level in inflation-adjusted terms. I don't include prices going back to 1970 because the composition of the index changed, but most commodity indices show almost no change in real terms from 1970 to 1980. Similarly, commodity prices in the 1960s were largely unchanged in real terms. In the end, what becomes apparent is that commodities tend to become cheaper over long periods. Presumably that is because of technological advances in exploration and extraction techniques. This vindicates the late Julian Simon's view that the only scarcity that exists in the world is human ingenuity. There has demonstrably been no scarcity of commodities.
The CRB Spot Commodity index consists of the Raw Industrials index featured above, plus the CRB Foodstuffs index. After adding in notoriously volatile food prices, the picture remains essentially the same.
The chart above extends the CRB Spot index back to 1970. Note that commodity prices were relatively stable from 1980 through 2000, then they surged from 2001 to 2011.
The chart above converts the index from nominal to real terms. Note that prices in the 1970s were volatile, but ended the decade relatively unchanged.
Finally, the chart above compares the price of gold to the CRB Raw Industrials index. Note how closely they move, but also note how much more volatile gold prices are than most other commodity prices. Both are in a weakening trend.
Are lower commodity prices bad? Are they symptomatic of the onset of deflationary conditions? Do they reflect a weakening of the global economy? Or do they simply reflect more abundant supplies and reversals of the very strong commodity prices that we saw in the years leading up to 2011? I tend towards the latter explanation. After, all, as the saying goes, "the best cure for higher commodity prices is higher prices." Higher prices elicit more supply. We know that for sure is the case with oil: