If the current surge in financial and commodity markets ends in a big bust up, we can thank central banks around the world for failing to send the message that banks and other financiers shouldn’t be using cheap money to speculate.

Since central banks have cut the cost of money to record lows (0.25% in the US for example), the sharemarket rebound that began in mid-March has spread to all other asset classes, except fixed interest securities and the US dollar (where its fall has helped drive the rebound in commodities and other markets).

Commodity prices have soared more than 33% since the start of the year, dragged higher by a 100% plus appreciation in the price of oil. Chinese buying of copper, aluminium, iron ore and other commodities have helped underwrite and then power the surge.

What is happening now is a very quick action replay of what happened after the US Fed flooded the world with cheap money after the dot.com crash in 2001, except this has happened in the space of less than a year.

A story in the Financial Times tells us something about the intensifying competition in commodities among US and European banks.

“The financial crisis has boosted Barclays Capital and JPMorgan’s commodities business as commercial banks benefit from their stronger credit position by gaining new clients, ­according to Greenwich Associates.”

“Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley remain the two top banks in commodities, but the Greenwich Associates’ 2009 commodities survey, a sector benchmark, shows JPMorgan and Barclays Capital have emerged as a new tier of tough competitors, gaining business in 2008 and early this year.”

Oil prices have doubled this year to more than $US66 a barrel, the Australian dollar is up 33% from its lows earlier in the year, Asian and emerging markets have jumped more than 44%, Wall Street is up 36%, China and Japan have jumped.

In May, oil futures soared 30%, the biggest monthly gain since March 1999, which should be an enormous warning sign: the world economy and especially those in the US, Japan, Europe and China certainly didn’t perk up up in May to justify anywhere near a 3% rise in oil prices, let alone 30%. OPEC and the International Energy Agency all reckon oil consumption is falling around the world because of the slump.

The Reuters/ Jefferies CRB Index rose 1.3% to 253.05 on Friday for a gain of 14% for May, the biggest monthly jump since July 1974.

Gold prices jumped $US20 an ounce last week to around $US980, a three month high and could reach $US1,000 this week according to the usual collection of bulls. Silver futures posted their biggest monthly gain in 22 years.

This isn’t the stuff of a gathering and very large economic rebound, it’s speculation through and through.

It’s merely the simple arbitrage of buy gold and then sell the US dollar, all financed by money that costs you next to nothing. Money for jam.

Some analysts claim it’s the emerging rebound in emerging markets like China, Russia, India and Brazil: all four major markets depend on healthy global economic growth for activity, they haven’t got enough domestic consumption to replace the stuttering US or Japanese economies by themselves.

China’s stockmarket has led the way. It’s up more than 45% so far in 2009, the US is up 36%, Australia though has risen less than those as investors here take a more cautious route.

India’s economy expanded at a faster-than-expected pace of 5.8% in the quarter ended March 31 from the first quarter of 2008, which was better than expected, but overall growth in the year to March was sharply down from the 9% of the year before.

But we also learned that first quarter growth in Malaysia contracted by 4.4%, the Philippines by 2.3%, and in Thailand contracted by 1.9%.

In Japan, industrial production rose by 5.2% in April from a month earlier. But inflation fell and is now negative, unemployment rose to a five year high and looks like going higher.

All this isn’t a sign of high consuming economies increasing their appetites for raw materials such as oil copper and other metals; is an indication that recession still dominates.

And yet the value of the Australian dollar is up almost 33% from its lows and finished over 80 US cents on Friday for the first time in eight months, and opened that way this morning.

The Australian dollar against the US dollar is a proxy for what is happening in commodity markets. The current state of the Australian economy is more soundly based than those offshore, but that has been the case all the way through the current slump, despite what the nervous nellies might say in politics, business and banking.

The expected March quarter contraction in GDP will give us a very mild recession where growth will have shrunk by less than 1%: that is a long way from the 6% plus falls in the US (on an annual basis) or 15% in Japan, or 6% in Europe.

Investors greeted news that the second estimate of first quarter economic growth in the US was a bit better than first reported: it was a contraction of 5.7% against the first reading of minus 6.1%.

US consumer confidence also improved last month, so US investors were receptive to the thought higher energy prices meant higher earnings for oil companies; not the downside that it could mean lower consumer spending and less driving during the US summer, as happened a year ago.

No one has wondered what a 100% surge in oil prices might do to US consumers who were battered last year by a 50% rise in oil prices in early 2008, the credit crunch, subprime mortgage/housing slump and then the deepest recession since the War.

The capacity for American consumers and business to withstand a surge in oil and energy costs this year is much less than it was in 2008. Could this be the one factor that tips the US economy over the edge and into a double dip recession later this year, as some more far-sighted economists are starting to wonder?

It’s not a question of feeding into an inflationary surge, but a cutting of the spending power of consumers whose strength and net worth have already been shredded by the recession, the credit crunch, higher petrol prices and job losses.

For Australian exports, the benefits seen by the Reserve Bank in higher Australian dollar export income is being reduced daily as the Aussie rises. Very soon those huge cuts in coal and iron ore prices will have a real impact on the bottom lines of BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, and start cutting returns for gold, copper and exports of rural products.

There’s also the chance that the higher value for the Aussie dollar, if it continues into the closing months of this year, could send the economy lower and trigger a temporary bout of deflation as the impact of the sluggish economy continues to squeeze price pressures lower.

The Baltic Dry Index, which tracks transport costs on international trade routes surged 25.4% last week as strong Chinese demand for raw materials (mainly iron ore) led to severe congestion at ports in China.

That tells us something about the unreal nature of the current boomlet.

Much of that rise in the index is due to Chinese shipping levels rising, especially for iron ore.

The number of container ships riding at anchor outside Singapore, Hong Kong and other Asian ports continues to run at record levels, which tells us international trade remains depressed because export demand remains depressed.

Not even the impending collapse of General Motors at 10pm Sydney time tonight (8am Monday on the US East Coast), will stop the surge from continuing. Everything old seems new again.

Peter Fray

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