Wednesday, June 27, 2012

China and the miners: place your bets

“A crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind” goes a Chinese proverb.

For investors who want to make money out of one of the century's biggest and most profitable themes - the commodities boom led by China - now is a time of great opportunity and risk.

There is an apparent opportunity because the mining shares that have done so well are relatively cheap after several months drifting lower.  And risk because the cause of the share price weakness, the slowdown in China, could yet end in a crash.

The China-boom-or-bubble debate has been a hardy internet staple on business/investment chat sites for several years.  Perhaps only the inflation-deflation argument has generated more heated argument.

On the one side you have the China bulls who believe the country's thirty year 10% annual growth record is good for another decade or more yet.  They call the current slowdown a blip and claim normal service will be resumed later in the year as government stimulus measures kick in. These include the first interest rate cut for three years and a car subsidy program.

The China bears fret that the incredible China boom is literally that - too good to be true - and that Chinese growth is unsustainable  Just like Ireland, Spain and Japan, a boom underpinned by cheap money and property speculation will give way to bust.

"Dubai times a thousand" was how a renowned bear (Jim Chanos) put it but he said that 2 years ago and, although property prices have come down in some top tier cities, the general crash he predicted has yet to materialise.

I lean towards the side of the bears but it is an oft-observed fact that the economic phenomena that seem unsustainable can persist for much longer than you think.  People have been calling the demise of the US (and Japanese and UK) sovereign debt markets for years.  They may be proved right eventually but you can lose a lot of money shorting something prematurely.

As for the bull case, I have a lot of time for Dr Stephen Loeb and he is in the "blip" corner.  His article "Silver, Copper, Gold and China" states the case for continuing China growth and a recovery in commodities (and miners) very well.

If you are persuaded by his argument and think the commodities boom has a lot further to run, then now would be a good time to back your judgement and buy ETFs which hold physical commodities like gold and copper which have suffered recently.  Loeb is very keen on silver which has a key industrial role in for example solar panel production.

Another option is the shares of mining companies.  Obvious choices are highly diversified giants quoted in London such as BHP and Anglo-American.  In the past I have had profitable dealings in mining royalty holder, Anglo Pacific (AFP), which has recently been marked down due to some specific problems at a coal mine which it will recover from (see here).

Finally I am intrigued by Glencore which always seems to be in the headlines, most recently because of its on-off merger with Xstrata.  It's shares have slid by almost a third in just a couple of months.  The markets have been a bit dubious of this company I think partly because it's profits derive from trading commodities as much as producing them and the trading bit is somewhat opaque.  However there is no doubt that the people who have built up Glencore, including multi-billionaire Ivan Glasenberg, are extremely smart and ambitious.

Buying Glencore would be a triple play on a China recovery, a successful conclusion to Xstrata merger and on the company's management.  Too rich for my blood but the share price, at under £3, makes it tempting.

From our website:  Massive tax rises in Spain for 2012

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