Natural Resources Endure Shorter Recessionary Bust

Resource investors were not immune to the pain of the latest recession, but, for them, it was more like tearing off a Band-Aid than slowly peeling one away.

The S&P Global 1200, a stock index providing a reliable measure of worldwide equity markets, peaked on Oct. 31, 2007. We all know what happened next: financial crisis, fear and economic decline. The bottom for global equities, or at least what we hope was the bottom, arrived some 16 months later. Natural resources stocks took a similar plunge, but more rapidly. The S&P Global Natural Resources Index, comprising 60 of the largest energy, metals and agricultural product companies around the world, peaked on May 19, 2008, and hit bottom (we hope) on Nov. 20, 2008, a mere six months after the slide began.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which is generally regarded as an authority on U.S. recessions, says the United States entered recession in December 2007. Stock markets around the world gradually began to reflect this through lower prices, although recession wasn’t a foregone conclusion at the time. Even the NBER only makes an official announcement about the beginning of a recession long after it is under way.

Against this recessionary backdrop, resource stocks continued to climb well into 2008. Conventional wisdom tells us an approaching recession should have brought the opposite result. Resources stocks are cyclical, and economic weakness would ordinarily be a grave threat.

However, the effect was delayed for resources stocks because crude oil prices steadily rose throughout 2007 and the first half of 2008. Oil and gas prices heavily impact most natural resources stock funds (and indices) because the energy sector typically accounts for about two-thirds of these funds and benchmarks.

The reasons for oil’s price spike in 2008 were heavily debated, probably because of the anger it generated – recall your frustration at the pump as gasoline approached $5 per gallon. Some believed the prices resulted from high demand or expected future demand from the fast-growing Chinese and Indian economies. Others pointed to supply disruptions in Nigeria and Iraq or speculative investment in oil futures. The Organziation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was blamed for restraining its production levels in an effort to keep prices high and maintain profit margins trimmed by a declining U.S. dollar.

In reality, oil prices were probably high because of some combination of these factors and a growing consensus that long-term demand growth was going to outpace capacity. Whatever theory you accept, the fact is that oil prices were elevated, propping up resources stocks long after recession expectations had taken hold.

Crude oil peaked at more than $147 per barrel during trading on July 11, 2008, before plunging to under $31 on Dec. 22, 2008. Natural gas peaked at around the same time and suffered a decline almost as spectacular. Not surprisingly, natural resources stock portfolios heavily invested in companies locating, extracting and producing these resources went for a ride as well. The S&P Global Natural Resources Index lost 57 percent, peak to trough, over a stretch lasting 185 days.

By comparison, the S&P Global 1200 shed 59.2 percent, peak to trough. It took 495 days.

From December 2007 through the first quarter of 2010, a period covering the entire recession and part of the subsequent recovery, resources stocks actually performed better than global equities, as measured by the S&P indices. Excluding dividends, global equities declined 25.1 percent, while resources declined 20.7 percent. Part of the disparity may result from differences in the sizes of the companies in the two indices. The Global Natural Resources Index contains larger companies than the Global 1200 index, and thus may be less volatile. The strong showing for resources was nonetheless surprising, and occurred despite a complete lack of price recovery in natural gas, where innovation in drilling techniques over the last decade has expanded potential supply and alleviated long-term scarcity concerns.

Cyclical stocks such as resources generally exaggerate the market’s movements, but this was not true of resources stocks during the recession. Resources stocks lived up to their reputation of fierce swings, but did not surpass the losses experienced by global equities. Further, when pessimism and panic finally gave way to rationality, and the world’s major stock markets slowly rebounded, resources began their ascent several months before global equities did.

What kept resources from experiencing a longer and deeper bust?

While large swaths of the Western world were dealing with negative gross domestic product, some resource-hungry developing nations were still growing – and quickly.

China, second in energy consumption only to the United States, managed more than 9 percent GDP growth in 2008 and close to 9.5 percent in 2009. Even in the depths of the recession in the early quarters of 2009, China’s economy was growing at a rate greater than 6 percent.

Within weeks of the resources bottom, China unveiled a $586 billion economic stimulus program ramping up spending on housing, infrastructure, agriculture, health care and social welfare. It was designed to prop up demand and keep China’s economy growing at a high single-digit rate.

The program was good news for resources. Fast-growing economies burn through significantly more resources; they need materials to build factories and energy to power machines. The government was routing yuan directly to housing and infrastructure, two of the most resource-intensive sectors. The spending also supplied the expanding middle class with better jobs and increased payments from social safety nets. This meant more citizens with the ability to afford housing, or to move to better housing, and more materials and energy required in the future to build homes and keep the lights on.

The Chinese economy wasn’t alone in maintaining robust growth during the global recession. India’s economy grew at 7.4 percent in 2008 and 6.1 percent in 2009. Back-to-back fiscal stimulus packages in December 2008 and January 2009, aimed at dampening the effect of the global slowdown, boosted infrastructure and real estate spending.

Inflation expectations were also in natural resources’ corner. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 authorized the U.S. Treasury to spend up to $700 billion to help ailing financial institutions. Governments across Europe followed suit with similar but smaller pledges to support their banking systems. The next year, the United States was back on its spending spree, with a $787 billion fiscal stimulus to kick-start the slowing economy. Fears of surging government debt in the United States and Europe led investors to seek hard assets to protect their purchasing power. Gold prices actually increased in 2008, a year in which double-digit commodity price declines were standard, and many price declines approached or exceeded 50 percent.

As precipitous as the decline was for resources stocks during the recession, it could have been worse. The Morgan Stanley Cyclical Index, a 30-stock sample from economically sensitive industries such as automobiles, chemicals and machinery, declined roughly 74 percent between its peak and trough closing prices.

Factors such as continued economic growth in developing Asia, stimulus plans geared toward “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects, and inflation expectations likely offset the cyclicality of resources stocks during the recession. The biggest difference between the performance of natural resources stocks and the stock market as a whole was not really overall performance, but the timing and length of decline. The fall of resources stocks was more compressed and more dramatic. It wasn’t as drawn-out, but that didn’t make it any less painful for investors.