Commodity ETFs Get No Love From Investors

by on February 14, 2011 | ETFs Mentioned:

It doesn’t seem like that long ago that exchange-traded commodity products were the darlings of the ETF world. Praised for democratizing an entire asset class (and one capable of delivering non-correlated returns to investors at that), commodity ETFs saw billions of dollars of cash inflows in 2009. Investors rushed to get their hands on everything from copper to tin, and they embraced the transparency and liquidity that the exchange-traded structure had to offer.

Last year was a banner year for commodities, with inflationary pressures, surging demand from emerging markets, and a host of supply issues conspiring to push prices of various resources sharply higher. Corn prices surged, gold repeatedly set new record highs, and a host of other agricultural products–including sugar and soybeans–climbed sharply higher. While 2010 was a stellar year all around for investors–most major asset classes posted nice gains–commodities were clearly the star. Lists of the year’s best performing ETFs included numerous commodity products, and gains of 50% were relatively common [see Best Commodity ETF Performers of 2010].

Considering the white hot performances turned in, 2010 should have been another great year for commodity ETFs–especially given investors’ tendency to chase returns. And a cursory look does indeed show continued strong interest in commodity ETPs; according to data from the National Stock Exchange, long unleveraged commodity products took in close to $11 billion in inflows. But there is more (or actually, less) to that number than meets the eye. Almost all of cash inflows into commodity ETPs in 2010 were attributable to physically-backed precious metals funds:

Category Inflows
Physical Gold ETFs $8,064
Physical Silver ETFs $1,389
Physical Platinum ETF $689
Physical Palladium ETF $599
All Other Commodity ETPs $251
Total 2010 Inflows $10,992
Source: NSX.com

According to the ETF Screener, there are 74 non-leveraged, non-inverse commodity ETPs. Stripping out the seven physically-backed precious metals products (GLD, IAU, SGOL, SLV, SIVR, PPLT, and PALL), this group took in only about $250 million last year. January inflows showed a decent bounce back, but the lack of interest still seems a bit strange. Precious metals have obviously been on quite a hot streak, so it shouldn’t be a total surprise that assets have been flowing into these funds at a torrid pace. But gold and silver aren’t the only commodities that have posted eye-popping gains over the last year–yet they account for the lions share of inflows. The iPath Cotton ETN (BAL) jumped more than 95% in 2010, yet took in just $17 million of new assets.

War On Contango

It seems likely that the lack of interest in certain commodity ETPs has something to do with the manner in which exposure is achieved–and perhaps not necessarily the underlying resource. The seven precious metals products highlighted above are all physically-backed, meaning that the underlying assets are physical commodities. The majority of commodity ETFs don’t invest directly in natural resources, but rather in futures contracts written on those commodities. And as investors have learned, the returns generated by a futures-based fund can be impacted not only by changes in the spot price of the underlying asset, but by the slope of the futures curve. While futures-based funds often exhibit near-perfect correlation to the spot commodity prices, there can be a significant difference between the return delivered by a futures strategy relative to a hypothetical return on spot prices. For example, the United States Oil Fund (USO), which invests in futures contracts on light, sweet crude oil, has lagged behind a hypothetical return on spot crude oil over the last several years:

The potentially adverse impact of contango in the returns of commodity ETFs has been well documented, and it appears that the nuances of futures-based investment strategies have had a material impact on investors interest in commodity products. Exposure to spot commodity prices remains desirable, but that simply isn’t possible for many resources. The high value-to-weight ratio of gold and silver makes construction of a physically-backed fund relatively straightforward. Funds that hold barrels full of crude oil or bushels of wheat would be impossible for logistical reasons, while the costs incurred in offering physically-backed exposure to other commodities would be a deterrent as well.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to address the issue of contango in commodity products. It is perhaps no coincidence that two of the most successful commodity products to hit the market recently were designed to tackle the contango issue. The United States Commodity Index Fund (USCI) screens 27 potential component commodity futures based on observable price signals, including a filter to select those least likely to be impacted adversely by contango. USCI raked in more than $90 million last year (it debuted in August) and had blown away other broad-based commodity funds from a performance perspective [see Under The Hood Of The "Contango Killer" Commodity ETF].

Another popular commodity ETF has been the Teucrium Corn Fund (CORN), a resource-specific product designed to reduce the effects of contango and backwardation. Unlike many commodity ETPs, CORN spreads exposure across multiple maturities, allocating 35% to the second-to-expire CBOT Corn Futures Contract, 30% to the third-to-expire CBOT Corn Futures Contract, and 35% to the CBOT Corn Futures Contract expiring in the December following the expiration month of the third- to-expire contract. That results in a smaller “roll yield” that can potentially deliver returns that correspond more closely to a hypothetical investment in spot corn prices. CORN took in $35 million last year, and that success has prompted Teucrium to roll out a natural gas ETF (NAGS) that approaches exposure in a similar manner. The company also has plans for a crude oil ETF (CRUD) that should begin trading within the next month [see Ideas For Contango Free Commodity Access].

Multiple issuers have filed for approval of physically-backed copper ETFs, and ETF Securities has already introduced three physical metal funds (copper, tin, and nickel) on the London Stock Exchange.

Betting On Commodities–Through Stocks

Another explanation for the tepid interest in commodity ETFs may be the surge in popularity of funds focusing on commodity intensive equities. Because the profitability of companies engaged in the extraction and sale of natural resources depends on the prevailing market price, mining stocks and other companies engaged in various aspects of commodity production can provide a contango-free option for establishing exposure to natural resource prices. The 25 products in the Commodity Producers Equities ETFdb Category took in $2.5 billion in aggregate last year. While funds focusing on gold and silver miners were among the most popular, broad-based funds such as HAP and other sector-specific options such as WOOD (timber) and COPX (copper miners) also attracted significant dollar amounts [take a closer look at the Copper ETF Options].

Innovation Continues

Since the first generation of commodity products burst on to the scene, investors have seemingly become more critical of the manner in which exposure to natural resources in offered. Contango has become a four-letter word to those who have been burned by an upward sloping futures curve, and interest in products that offer exposure through futures contracts has waned considerably. As recent product launches and the growing pipeline show, issuers are constructing the “next generation” of commodity ETPs to avoid the issues that have plagued the current lineup. Here’s to continued innovation in the commodity ETF space, leading to better options for accessing a very attractive asset class [also read What Every Investor Should Know About Commodity ETF Investing].

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Disclosure: No positions at time of writing.