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Trading the Tsunami

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan are tragic and I don’t want to minimize the human devastation, loss and ongoing fear. However, it’s my job to try and explain how this has affected the markets and what I believe is yet to come. The markets’ initial reaction to outside shocks is based on its participants’ fear. The market sells off due to uncertainty. If you or I had direct investments in Japan, we would want to get out and convert to cash while we waited to see how things unfolded. It’s human nature to retreat to a defensive position when confronted with disaster, whether financial, physical or emotional. Japan’s stock market sold off 16% in two days.

The specifics of the disaster in Japan are tied to demand destruction. Japan imports nearly everything it needs to run. The disaster has massively cut imports. Petroleum products, food, manufacturing raw materials and more have slowed to a crawl. Australia is one of Japan’s primary import sources and Australia is an export driven economy.  As a result of this, the Australian Dollar declined nearly 3% immediately.

The other major component of demand destruction lies in Japan’s 30 years of dominance in the manufacturing sector. Japan no longer has the competitive advantage it once held in technology over the rest of Asia or, the labor advantage that it held over the United States. There is a great degree of uncertainty regarding which manufacturing facilities will be rebuilt and which will simply be relocated elsewhere in the world. Japan has lost a large share of its competitive advantages.

The massive mobilization involved in the rescue efforts combined with the destruction of Japan’s refineries and nuclear reactors will squeeze global petroleum supplies. I expect Japan to begin importing large amounts of refined petroleum products from the west coast of the United States. Our refineries are running around 85% of capacity, our crude storage tanks are nearly full and our trade relations with Japan are already in place. China’s Sichuan earthquake in May of 2008 killed 68,000 people and left nearly 5 million homeless. The scale of the military operations required to rescue people and stabilize the infrastructure pushed crude $20 higher per barrel in less than a month. Approximately 430,00 people have been relocated in Japan, thus far.

Once the people are safe, they’ll need to be fed. Every piece of food near the damaged areas will have spoiled. The growing radiation fears are already making their way into the food chain. Japanese people are afraid to consume food that may have been tainted. This will place a large strain on current grain and meat supplies. Current grain and meat stocks cannot be increased. Our inventories are what they are. Fixed supply plus greater demand means rising grain and food prices are on their way. Live cattle prices climbed more than 20% immediately following the ’03 blackout and power was only out from 4-8 hours. Obviously, the length of the outage is much greater in Japan while the population base is smaller. We’ll need more data to quantifiably compare the two.

The reconstruction process is the final phase to discuss. Financing the reconstruction will be difficult on Japan’s ailing economy; in fact this topic deserves its own article. Heavy equipment companies like Caterpillar and John Deere have already attracted some attention. Oil refinery companies will also benefit. Nuclear reactor technology is a short term negative as General electric has taken a hit even though Japan may rebuild their reactors. Commodity prices will rise as Japan re-stocks and this will be evident in meat and grain prices. Copper and steel will also see increased demand. The wild card in the reconstruction process is natural gas. The radiation scare may be enough to push the political conversation of natural gas to the front burner.

This blog is published by Andy Waldock. Andy Waldock is a trader, analyst, broker and asset manager. Therefore, Andy Waldock may have positions for himself, his family, or, his clients in any market discussed. The blog is meant for educational purposes and to develop a dialogue among those with an interest in the commodity markets. The commodity markets employ a high degree of leverage and may not be suitable for all investors. There is substantial risk of loss in investing in futures.