Natural gas tops gains in 2013, gold in biggest loss since 1981

Written by Reuters | London | Updated: Jan 1 2014, 19:20pm hrs
Natural gasNatural gas futures climbed steeply amid fresh signs of chilly winter weather and stronger-than-usual seasonal demand. (AP)
Natural gas was the best-performing commodity in 2013 while US oil also gained, but gold notched up its biggest fall since 1981 as commodities ended the year amid uncertainty about the scope for rising global demand to absorb ample supplies. Corn fell the most in 2013 with losses of nearly 40 percent as record US production boosted global supplies, while major consumer China is cutting back on expected imports.

For 2014, commodities investors are focusing on an improved economic outlook in top consumers the United States and China, although increased supply may spoil the party, particularly for oil and copper.

"This optimism that we are living through will help support commodity markets in the first and second quarters," said Jonathan Barratt, chief executive of commodity research firm Barratt's Bulletin in Sydney.

"It should provide an undercurrent of strength."

Ample supplies of many commodities may outweigh any stronger demand, leading to another lacklustre year for broad commodity indices.

"Commodity prices are probably going to be flattish coming into the new year," said Colin Hamilton, head of commodities research at Macquarie in London.

The Thomson Reuters/Core Commodity CRB index, which tracks 19 commodities, closed the session down 0.85 percent, its worst daily performance in two months.

It fell 4.8 percent in 2013, the third straight year of losses.

NATURAL GAS JUMPS

US natural gas futures climbed steeply amid fresh signs of chilly winter weather and stronger-than-usual seasonal demand. The front-month contract ended the year up 27 percent. If drawdowns for the rest of the heating season match the five-year average, it would result in the lowest end-winter inventory since 2008. That could help prop up prices next year as utilities scramble to rebuild stocks.

US oil prices closed the year 7.2 percent firmer as traders headed into 2014 eyeing improving demand, the end of the Federal Reserve's monetary stimulus and the dramatic overhaul of the world's largest oil market caused by the shale revolution. The market recouped a 7 percent decline in 2012, but could come under pressure as the US shale boom adds to supply in the world's largest oil consumer.

Brent crude ended the year almost flat at $110.80 a barrel, with supply disruptions having offset concerns over weak demand.

"As we move into 2014, markets are once again trying to balance various supply disruptions with some positive news," a JBC Energy report said.

GOLD PLUNGES

Gold lost 28 percent in 2013 for its biggest annual decline since 1981 as investors ploughed money into equities, where the Dow Jones industrial average has jumped 26 percent and Japan's Nikkei nearly 60 percent.

Holdings in SPDR Gold Trust, the world's largest gold-backed exchange-traded fund, fell 40 percent in 2013 to their lowest since 2009 as investors lost faith in bullion as an inflation hedge, anticipating the Federal Reserve's move to trim its commodity-friendly bond purchases.

"As soon as short-term interest rates start rising, then you can't afford to invest in something that doesn't pay yield, like gold - it's going to be equities," Standard Bank analyst Walter de Wet said.

Among industrial metals, zinc was this year's best performer with a largely flat outcome, as investors bet mine closures would transform an oversupplied market into one facing a deficit.

Zinc is tipped by many analysts for gains next year after other base metals scored losses in 2013 as uncertain demand in a recovering global economy combined with largely ample supply.

Nickel and aluminium, with the heaviest surpluses, were set to be the worst performers, down 18 percent and 12 percent respectively.

Copper on the London Metal Exchange, with perhaps the widest investor focus, slipped 7 percent in 2013, but the losses were more modest than many expected as an anticipated surge in new mine production faced processing backlogs, creating delays for refined product.

BUMPER CORN CROPS

In agricultural markets, US corn futures fell nearly 40 percent, the biggest annual slide on record, following a bumper global crop and a rebound in US production. Adding to those woes, China has rejected more than half a million tonnes of US corn, citing unapproved genetically modified strains, and imposed strict checks as Beijing seeks to curb cheap imports and support domestic prices.

Cocoa markets were on track for annual gains of more than 20 percent as speculators have piled in due to forecasts of a global deficit and strong demand for cocoa butter.

Coffee and sugar, however, notched up heavy losses, pressured by abundant global supplies.