Silver had a stand-out year, rising over 80 percent on the back of enthusiasm for precious metals that have industrial applications. Wheat, corn and soybeans have also done well, as severe weather patterns battered crops in Russia, Australia, Africa and South America.
Recently, cocoa futures have surged in the wake of political unrest in the world's largest supplier of the bean, the Ivory Coast. There, a disputed presidential election has nearly shut down the West African nation's commodity exporting businesses.
But the best-performing commodity of the year was cotton, which has more than doubled in price since last year, climbing to 182.75 cents per pound. Investors in cotton have made out handsomely as demand in emerging markets like China grew, while devastating floods in Pakistan wiped away a large portion of that nation's harvest.
In a new report, the Associated Press suggests that as cotton grows more expensive, it could finally start to have an impact at the consumer pricing level. The impact, the wire service suggests, could be even harsher because people have cut back on spending considerably since the financial crisis and recession of 2008.
"We have been so used to deflation for years and years," David Bassuk, managing director at the retail consultancy AlixPartners, told the AP. "Customers are going to be surprised."
Some executives are more sanguine about the rising price of cotton. There are many factors that go into the final pricetag of a pair of jeans or a t-shirt, and raw materials make up just a portion of the whole.
"There's no doubt there may be some price increases that come up, but we don't want to ever let that be the first answer … that just because cotton prices are up, that we're automatically going to pass that on to consumers," Mike Duke, Wal-Mart's chief executive officer and president, told the wire service in an interview.
A key question for investors is whether high prices will finally cause a backlash. Different commodities have different elasticities, because of the way those prices filter into the final consumer market. Shifts in the price of crude oil futures tend to generate a swift reaction, because heating oil and gas prices shift on a day-by-day basis.
Other commodities, like wheat and coffee, typically take longer to be felt in the aisles of the local grocery store or at the Starbucks counter. The average price of a loaf of bread or a cup of coffee isn't much higher than it was 12 months ago.
But when the reaction happens, it can be swift and sharp. Cotton futures investors could see further gains if the supply situation continues to constrict Chinese and South Asian manufacturers, but a collapse in consumer demand could lead to sudden and debilitating volatility.
Indeed, Bloomberg reports that some heavy hitters are hedging their bullish bets on cotton. On the IntercontinentalExchange, a new rule could have provoked this pullback: The exchange said that traders holding over 300 contracts have to prove an economic need for them during the delivery period.
"Many liquidated positions were prompted by the exchange's rule," Sharon Johnson, a senior analyst at Penson Futures in Atlanta, told the news service. "[This] week, we saw speculative traders also book profits as prices surged."
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