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Simple guide to commodity trading
Rajesh Kumar, Outlook Money
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January 05, 2007

You may have your debt and equity funds in place, but investing in commodities could just be the one element to improve your portfolio. Commodity trading provides an ideal asset allocation, also helps you hedge against inflation and buy a piece of global demand growth.

In 2003, the ban on commodity trading was lifted after 40 years in India. Now, more and more people are interested in investing in this new asset class. While price fluctuations in the sector could get rather volatile depending on the category, returns are relatively higher.

However, as this is not a primary area of investment for most, there is a lot of apprehension about when and how to invest. Outlook Money seeks to answer some of these questions and help you assess a whole new turf for making money.

Why invest in commodities?

Commodities allow a portfolio to improve overall return at the same level of risk. Ibbotson Associates, a leading US-based authority on asset allocation estimates that commodities increased returns between 133 and 188 basis points, at no extra risk.

Who should invest?

Any investor who wants to take advantage of price movements and wishes to diversify his portfolio can invest in commodities. However, retail and small investors should be careful while investing in commodities as the swings are volatile and lack of knowledge may result in loss of wealth.

Investors must understand the demand cycles that commodities go through and should have a view on what factors may affect this. Ideally, you should invest in select commodities that you can analyse rather than speculate across products you have no idea about.

Investing in commodities should be undertaken as a kicker in your portfolio and not as the first destination for your money.

What is commodity trading?

It's an age-old phenomenon. Modern markets came up in the late 18th century, when farming began to be modernised. Though the trade's mechanisms have changed, the basics are still the same.

In common parlance, commodities means all types of products. However, the Foreign Currency Regulation Act (FCRA) defines them as 'every kind of movable property other than actionable claims, money and securities.'

Commodity trading is nothing but trading in commodity spot and derivatives (futures). If you are keen on taking a buy or sell position based on the future performance of agricultural commodities or commodities like gold, silver, metals, or crude, then you could do so by trading in commodity derivatives.

 Commodity derivatives are traded on the National Commodity and Derivative Exchange (NCDEX) and the Multi-Commodity Exchange (MCX). Gold, silver, agri-commodities including grains, pulses, spices, oils and oilseeds, mentha oil, metals and crude are some of the commodities that these exchanges deal in.

Trading in commodities futures is quite similar to equity futures trading. You could take a long position (where you buy a contract) or a short position (where you sell it). Simply speaking, like in equity and other markets, if you think prices are on their way up, you take a long position and when prices are headed south you opt for a short position.

How big is the Indian commodity trading market as compared to other Asian markets?

The commodity market in India clocks a daily average turnover of Rs 12,000-15,000 crore (Rs 120-150 billion). The accumulative commodities derivatives trade value is estimated to have reached the equivalent of 66 per cent of the gross domestic product and the future will only see the percentage rising, says ICICI vice-president Kedar Deshpande.

What do you need to start trading?

Like equity markets, you have to fulfil the 'know your customer' norms with a commodity broker. A photo identification, PAN and proof of address are essential for registration. You will also have to sign the necessary agreements with the broker.

Is there a regulator for the commodity trading market?

The Forward Markets Commission is the regulatory body for the commodity market in India. It is the equivalent of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi), which protects the interests of investors in securities.

What kind of products can be listed on the commodity market?

All commodities produced in the agriculture, mineral and fossil sectors have been sanctioned for futures trading. These include cereals, pulses, ginned cotton, un-ginned

 cotton, oilseeds, oils, jute, jute products, sugar, gur, potatoes, onions, coffee, tea, petrochemicals, and bullion, among others.

What are the risk factors?

Commodity trading is done in the form of futures and that throws up a huge potential for profit and loss as it involves predictions of the future and hence uncertainty and risk. Risk factors in commodity trading are similar to futures trading in equity markets.

A major difference is that the information availability on supply and demand cycles in commodity markets is not as robust and controlled as the equity market.

What are the factors that influence the commodity prices in the market?

The commodity market is driven by demand and supply factors and inventory, when it comes to perishable commodities such as agricultural products and high demand products such as crude oil. Like any market, the demand-supply equation influences the prices.

Variables like weather, social changes, government policies and global factors influence the balance.

What is the difference between directional trading and day trading?

The key difference between commodity markets and stock markets is the nature of products traded. Agricultural produce is unpredictable and seasonal. During harvesting season, the prices of these commodities is low as supply goes up. There are traders who use these patterns to trade in the commodity market, and this is termed directional trading.

Day trading in commodity markets is no different from day trading in the equity market, where positions are bought in the morning and squared off by the end of the day.

Does commodity speculation affect agricultural income in India?

The vision for the commodity market in India is to reduce information asymmetry and make a robust market available to the end producer or farmer. It is also expected to balance out price information and give the producer a better price and a platform to hedge.

The futures market will allow the farmer to see the upside of the price over two to three months and help him decide where to sell.

How to keep updated?

Most commodity trading firms have a research team in place that prepares commodity charts and conducts detailed study on the trends of the commodity in question.

Investing strategies based on this research are usually provided to clients.

They usually provide daily market reports before the market opens and intra-day calls during trading hours, along with monthly and weekly research reports.

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