The great Chinese commodities play

September 22, 2009

China’s dominant position in world commodity markets is as enduring as one of its emblematic Forever bicycles. As Communists, the People’s Republic spent years perfecting the art of buying in bulk, dictating prices through sheer mass of demand. Now that the country has become the world’s factory, it would make sense for China to take a more refined approach to trading raw materials. It’s worth seeing the latest moves by China’s $200 billion sovereign wealth fund in that light.

Having been rebuffed in its efforts to purchase offshore commodity assets in Australia, China’s purse managers are taking stakes in commodities brokerage businesses. Most recently, China Investment Corp bought a 14.5 percent stake in trading firm Noble Group for $850 million. The purchase comes just days after CIC signed a cooperation pact with commodity trader Glencore.

Some are looking at this as a flexing of muscle — an “attempt to increase its influence in the sector,” the BBC calls it. Our reporter Neil Chatterjee also hits on this angle, talking about Beijing trying to gain “leverage in opaque global markets and access to the raw materials needed to feed its economy.”

A 14.5 percent stake in a Hong Kong brokerage hardly seems enough to wield much influence in global markets. And the Glencore deal is seen as more focused on China developing market expertise.

More likely, CIC sees a good investment opportunity in Noble, and its political masters see an opportunity to improve China Inc’s understanding of how global commodity markets work. There is lots of pent-up demand for such experience in China, and that’s enough of a reason to invest in an Asia-based commodities broker. In some ways, CIC is just making a very logical bet.

In as much as it wants to be able to improve its knowledge, China is also trying to gain influence. But let’s not kid ourselves about what kind of influence the world’s fastest growing economy is already exercising in global commodity markets.

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