Why I Avoid Commodities

I’ve been biased against commodity producers and for the most part have stuck to my bias. They have great growth and returns on capital in a cyclical upswing, but they
tend to peak before you expect. They are capital-intensive and lack pricing power. They are prone to competition, overcapacity, and overleverage. Plus cost overruns is frequent and so does funding uncertainty.

Occasionally, I’ve been seduced by a commodities story that appears to be either so
cheap or so unique that it can’t lose. For a while, it doesn’t. Inevitably, though, demand and pricing fall apart quicker than you expect and a stock price drop of 50% or more leaves me wondering I have ever strayed from our discipline to avoid commodity stocks.

I got really lucky twice. Once with Cliff Natural Resources and Tronox. I got in Cliff at $19 and got out at $25. Then iron ore prices collapsed and so did Cliff. It went down to a $3 a one point. With Tronox, I actually wrote a piece in Seeking Alpha recommending the buy. It turned out to be my worst recommendation on Seeking Alpha. My thesis was grounded on the fact that the demand for titanium dioxide
would rise and the glut of TiO2 would disappear. I loss confidence in my thesis and I got out between $21 and $26. Then Tronox collapsed to a few dollars. Since Tronox has rebounded to $14 and Cliff is at $6. The rollercoaster stock price action points out how little control commodity producers (and their shareholders) often have over their destinies.

This does not mean I am good at investing in commodity stocks and I should avoid them. I got out because I was a chicken, not because I knew that commodity prices would collapse. I was just lucky and my analysis was weak.

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