Typical street scene in Santa Ana, El Salvador. (Photo: iStock)

Typical street scene in Santa Ana, El Salvador. (Photo: iStock)

IMF Survey: Commodity Prices Buoyant in Year of Crisis, Recovery

December 30, 2009

  • Prices rebounded despite high inventories from weak demand during recession
  • Price impetus came from perception that worst of global recession was over
  • Rising demand will require extra capacity in many commodity sectors

Commodity prices were surprisingly buoyant in 2009, and are expected to increase further in 2010 as world activity expands after the global crisis.


At the outset of 2009, the sharp declines in prices of the previous year seemed to foretell the usual misery for commodity markets during and after a global downturn. In the end, however, prices rebounded relatively soon and staged a strong rally from the second quarter of 2009—despite generally high inventories after the weakening of demand in the global recession of 2008–09 (see Figure 1).

This commodity price rally at the early stage of the recovery in global industrial production (and ahead of global economic growth) contrasts with past experience. After previous global industrial downturns, prices typically continued to fall or rose at very modest rates, far below the increases recorded this year.

The IMF’s commodity price index, for example, rose by over 40 percent in the 8 months since global industrial production reached a trough in February 2009. In contrast, after earlier downturns, it rose by only 5 percent on average over the 8 months after a trough (see Figure 2). However, commodity prices also fell faster and by larger magnitudes in the second half of 2008 than in previous recessions.

What explains the early rally in commodity prices? As for prices of risky assets more generally, the initial impetus came from the perception that the worst of the global recession was over and that the wide-ranging public intervention had succeeded in lowering uncertainty and systemic risks in the financial sector. Against this backdrop of an expected improvement in near-term outlook, commodity markets benefited from the increased incentives to hold inventories.

Commodity funds

At the same time, improving financial conditions provided for increased credit availability for inventory financing at more normal costs while rising inflows into commodity funds likely facilitated the hedging of inventory positions. The additional forward-looking demand for inventories, and some stabilization in stock buildups as end-user demand bottomed out, allowed for easier absorption of the continued excess supply (current supply minus current end-user consumption). Downward pressure on spot prices in turn eased as a result.

Further into 2009, additional impetus came from the buoyant recovery in emerging Asia and, as the year progressed, stronger-than-expected global activity more generally. The growing evidence of a relatively favorable economic performance in many emerging and developing economies had a strong impact on commodity prices, as commodity demand prospects increasingly depend on growth in these economies, given the steady rise in their market shares (see table). Moreover, commodity demand in these economies is more income elastic than in advanced economies.

Within these broad trends, the magnitudes of price increases in 2009 have varied considerably across commodities. Fuel and metals prices rose by much more than prices of food or agricultural raw materials. The variation in prices changes has reflected the usual differences in the cyclical sensitivity of demand across commodities, but also commodity-specific factors.

In particular, in oil markets, prices were not only supported by recovery expectations, but also by Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries supply cuts, while metals prices have been buoyed by restocking in China as well as some supply restraint. In contrast, favorable harvest outcomes led to a weakening of the prices of some major food crops in the second half of 2009.

Prospects for 2010

Looking ahead into 2010, prices of many commodities are likely to increase further. The demand side should generally be the main source of upward pressure, as global activity is widely expected to expand at a faster pace. With inventories remaining above average for many commodities and substantial spare capacity in many commodity sectors, the upward pressure is likely to remain moderate for some time, unless much stronger-than-expected global growth or other surprises lead to a rapid drawdown of these buffers.

Commodity price prospects also depend on global macroeconomic conditions more broadly, including price developments for internationally traded goods and services more generally.

Information about expected future spot prices derived from key commodity futures options confirms that investors anticipate higher prices in 2010, but the probability of another commodity price spike would seem remote over the near term.

Expected to remain high

Looking at commodity price prospects from a longer-term perspective highlights how prices are expected to remain high by historical standards. The effects of the crisis have been to reduce prices somewhat below their 2008 peaks, but demand is expected to continue rising at a solid pace as industrialization continues in emerging and developing economies. Accommodating this demand will eventually require further capacity expansion in many commodity sectors, with some need to tap higher-cost sources.