Making the Case for Investing in Natural Resources

July 11, 2017 |
3 minute read
|

The natural resources sector is often characterized as cyclical, as producers and service providers experience underlying exposure to and commensurate volatility of commodities in the oil and gas, mining and agriculture sectors. After a couple of years of challenging sector returns, some institutional investors are questioning what the role of natural resources should be in a portfolio and if now is a good time to invest in the asset class.

At Commonfund, we continue to believe in the strategic role of natural resources and the three core reasons for inclusion in a well-diversified portfolio:

  • Growth and potential for alpha generation
  • Diversification
  • Inflation hedging potential

Let’s take a closer look at each attribute.

Growth and alpha exposure to essential commodities

While it is possible to directly invest in commodities via futures contracts, investing in operating businesses (public or private equity) that focus on commodity-related areas (e.g. oil and gas producers like Shell, oilfield service companies like Baker Hughes or mining companies like Rio Tinto) can offer similar exposure, but with the potential for realizing operating leverage, earning the equity risk premium and in the case of private investments, an additional illiquidity premium. In contrast, while investing directly in commodity futures offers investors explicit exposure to macro supply and demand dynamics, marginally higher correlation to inflation and lower correlations to other asset classes they come with lower return expectations due to the lack of inherent cash flow and growth associated with owning the commodity future (outside of potential positive price movements). Further, negative roll yields associated with futures markets in contango1 can lead to negative returns in flat commodity price environments. Alternatively, public or private companies can generate positive cash flows in flat price environments. This is a critical consideration for long term investors with real return objectives of approximately 5 percent.

Additionally, natural resource inputs underlie many facets of the economy. These inputs come in many forms: oil inputs in transportation, natural gas inputs in electricity, and metals and mining inputs in manufacturing, infrastructure and technology, for example. While each individual commodity experiences its own volatility based upon their respective supply and demand curves, there are opportunities to generate attractive relative returns by targeting higher growth and/or lower marginal cost investment opportunities, which can be resilient regardless of the point in the cycle and offer greater return potential.

Diversification

Natural resource related assets have historically shown positive diversification benefits relative to traditional asset classes. As shown in the below chart, we compare the quarterly and rolling 5 year returns of the S&P Small Cap Energy index relative to common asset class indices. Both data series indicate strong diversification properties particularly versus a traditional S&P 500 and Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond portfolio with rolling 5 year correlations close to zero.

CH1-CorrS&PSmCap

Inflation hedging potential

Natural resource related assets have historically shown a positive relationship with inflation. In the chart below, we show correlations relative to the Consumer Price Index (“CPI”) to indicate how well a particular asset class might historically perform relative to inflation. While there are no pure hedges to inflation (i.e. correlation of 1), natural resources, as represented by the S&P Small Cap Energy Index, have exhibited a higher correlation relative to other asset classes. While pure commodities have historically demonstrated an even higher correlation, this comes at a cost to long term returns.

CH2-CorrCPI

Tactical considerations

While we counsel long term strategic allocations to the sector, recent relative underperformance has driven the natural resource sectors market weights well below their longer term average. This potentially increases the risk to traditional portfolios to an inflationary environment as the sectors with the highest positive correlation to CPI have been reduced. Additionally, we show the price multiples for the broad S&P 500 index and the S&P 500 Energy and Metal & Mining sectors indicating pricing may present a good relative entry point.

CH3-SP500

The combination of these three attributes – growth and potential alpha generation, diversification and inflation hedging – offers natural resources a unique role within a portfolio. While natural resources businesses can exhibit inherent volatility with the pricing fluctuations of the underlying commodities, in our experience it is exceedingly difficult to exactly time these cycles. Some years will always perform better than others. But, if an investor stays consistent in allocating a portion of the portfolio to the space with a bias towards advantaged producers and service providers, one can not only expose the portfolio to these cycles, but potentially take advantage of them.

  1. Contango occurs when the current futures price of an asset (as quoted in the futures market) is higher than the current spot price of the underlying asset.

Stay connected with the Insights Blog

Popular Blog Posts


Market Commentary | Insights Blog

Chart of the Month | The Surprising Relationship Between Money Supply and Inflation

The potential for rising inflation is becoming a top concern for many investors and consumers. Many believe that inflation is already here as evidenced by price increases in commodities, homes,...
Perspectives | Insights Blog

The Case for Using the Higher Education Price Index® (HEPI) to Define Inflation for Colleges

When calculating return targets for an endowment portfolio, a conventional piece of the equation is often the Consumer Price Index (CPI). CPI plus 5% is the common short-hand formula for institutions...
Investment Strategy | Insights Blog

What is an OCIO?

Outsourced investment management, once primarily a solution for small institutions with limited resources, is now used by a broad range of long-term investors. When properly implemented, outsourcing...

Disclaimer

Certain information contained herein has been obtained from or is based on third-party sources and, although believed to be reliable, has not been independently verified. Such information is as of the date indicated, if indicated, may not be complete, is subject to change and has not necessarily been updated. No representation or warranty, express or implied, is or will be given by The Common Fund for Nonprofit Organizations, any of its affiliates or any of its or their affiliates, trustees, directors, officers, employees or advisers (collectively referred to herein as “Commonfund”) or any other person as to the accuracy or completeness of the information in any third-party materials. Accordingly, Commonfund shall not be liable for any direct, indirect or consequential loss or damage suffered by any person as a result of relying on any statement in, or omission from, such third-party materials, and any such liability is expressly disclaimed.

All rights to the trademarks, copyrights, logos and other intellectual property listed herein belong to their respective owners and the use of such logos hereof does not imply an affiliation with, or endorsement by, the owners of such trademarks, copyrights, logos and other intellectual property.

To the extent views presented forecast market activity, they may be based on many factors in addition to those explicitly stated herein. Forecasts of experts inevitably differ. Views attributed to third-parties are presented to demonstrate the existence of points of view, not as a basis for recommendations or as investment advice. Market and investment views of third-parties presented herein do not necessarily reflect the views of Commonfund, any manager retained by Commonfund to manage any investments for Commonfund (each, a “Manager”) or any fund managed by any Commonfund entity (each, a “Fund”). Accordingly, the views presented herein may not be relied upon as an indication of trading intent on behalf of Commonfund, any Manager or any Fund.

Statements concerning Commonfund’s views of possible future outcomes in any investment asset class or market, or of possible future economic developments, are not intended, and should not be construed, as forecasts or predictions of the future investment performance of any Fund. Such statements are also not intended as recommendations by any Commonfund entity or any Commonfund employee to the recipient of the presentation. It is Commonfund’s policy that investment recommendations to its clients must be based on the investment objectives and risk tolerances of each individual client. All market outlook and similar statements are based upon information reasonably available as of the date of this presentation (unless an earlier date is stated with regard to particular information), and reasonably believed to be accurate by Commonfund. Commonfund disclaims any responsibility to provide the recipient of this presentation with updated or corrected information or statements. Past performance is not indicative of future results. For more information please refer to Important Disclosures.