In the boom times when the price of gold was soaring, Ebenezer Sam-Onuawonto had a dream job and a dollar salary many times the national average in this mining town in southwestern Ghana. When the price fell, he lost his job as human resources chief at a mining company that closed its local operations and could only find work in a construction firm in another city, far from the house he built in Tarkwa for his wife and six children.
“I hardly see my kids now,” said Sam-Onuawonto, his life changed as a result of a slump in global commodity prices whose impact is being felt around the world on currencies, companies, consumers, national economies and – potentially – governments. At one end of the wealth scale, the rout has affected huge companies such as Swiss-based trading and mining company Glencore, whose market value has shrunk in the past year. At the other end, it holds the key to the fate of entire communities dependent on the raw materials they produce.
In Tarkwa, a town of 34,000, production of gold continues but several firms have stopped work or laid off staff in the last two years as the effects of the price slump trickled down. One African bank has shut its Tarkwa branch, bars and hotels are emptier and the streets are less clogged with traffic as people struggle with new financial problems.
“Since the fall in the gold price, things have never been the same,” said Yvonne Mensah, who has seen business wilt at the stationary shop she runs from a converted shipping container. Ghana as a whole, once Africa’s star economy, is suffering. Not only is gold it biggest source of foreign exchange but the price of oil, which it also produces, has sunk, it has double-digit inflation and the value of the cedi currency has declined.
There are similar tales of misfortune across the continent, with the impact felt on both the poor and the middle class. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) says falling commodity prices threaten economic and political stability in developing economies across Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The events are seen by some experts as signalling the end of a commodity “super-cycle” in which prices surged following the rapid industrialisation of China after it opened up in the 1980s. Countries and companies made huge investments in commodities while prices were still high in almost all energy and raw material markets, but this resulted in oversupply when economies stalled in what had been booming markets.
Many producer countries are paying the price for failing to predict the end of the cycle and not reducing their dependence on commodities. The most important factor in the price slump is seen as the economic slowdown and drop in demand in China, though downturns in Indonesia, Malaysia and developed economies such as Japan and South Korea have also contributed to the situation.
Commodity-producing powerhouses such as Brazil, Australia, South Africa and Russia are now in economic downturns. A halving of the oil price in the past year has been especially painful for Russia, also hit by sagging metals and mining prices. “Hundreds of billions of dollars were spent in new oil, natural gas, iron ore, coal and many other commodities in the expectation that China would continue to grow insatiably forever,” said Frederic Neumann, Co-head of Asian Economic Research at HSBC in Hong Kong.
“That’s changed, so many of the investments made by governments and companies now look really bad, and that’s hitting economies and company stocks hard … It’s been a huge bubble, a massive misallocation of capital which now has to be wound down.” There are some beneficiaries, such as consumers in developed nations including the United States who are enjoying lower gasoline prices at the pump, but the developed world is far from immune to the decline in prices.
US Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said last month the decline in commodity prices was one of the main reasons a 2 percent inflation target had been missed. The Fed is keeping Americans waiting for a long-expected interest rate rise.
Britain has also felt the impact. SSI UK, a unit of Thai steelmaker Sahaviriya Steel Industries, announced last month that it was mothballing its iron and steelmaking plant at Redcar in northeastern England after the fall in steel prices this year and axing about 1,700 jobs. Eugene Purvis, 56, a planner for crane maintenance who is being made redundant, said the town of more than 35,000 had been gradually declining and may never recover.
“It could be the demise of the place,” he said by telephone. “Redcar was a lovely place. If you go on the Internet and look through old photographs, it was a lovely place. If you see any photographs now it’s decimated,” he said. “It was that bad that even McDonald’s closed. Shop after shop, even charity shops are closing.”
Even wealthy countries in the Middle East are feeling some impact, with low oil prices hitting government revenues, creating huge budget deficits in some countries. Some governments in the Gulf are being forced to run down assets abroad and to consider rationalising spending, with some even starting to cut consumer subsidies for fuel and energy long seen as part of a social contract with their citizens.
It would take a long downturn for the Middle East to suffer more but investors globally are increasingly losing faith that there will be a strong recovery by commodity prices and expect companies and countries reliant on the sector to hit trouble. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has downgraded its global trade forecast from 3.3 percent to 2.8 percent for 2015, half the annual average of 1990-2008. Specialised commodity merchants, which have less stable income from assets and rely on healthy trading activity, are feeling the heat.
Publicly listed firms such as Glencore, one of the world’s largest resource companies, and commodity merchant Noble Group have seen their stock price and market capitalization evaporate while their credit default swap (CDS) prices – the cost of insurance against a firm’s bankruptcy – have soared. Some experts watching the fall in the value of Glencore have asked whether this is a “Lehman Brothers moment”, a reference to the financial services firm whose collapse in 2008 was followed by a global financial crisis.
Most say the answer is “No”. Even so, traders, companies and even governments are watching nervously. “The energy and commodity complex is being shaken to its very core. The cause is a combination of geopolitics, supply and demand imbalances, technological advances and leverage,” investment bank Jefferies said in a note to clients. “A further collapse in energy prices could bring an increase in geopolitical risk, and clearly the most leveraged players will need to quickly address their capital structures or succumb to the marketplace, which can be both swift and unforgiving.”