Zero to one

faceless man with decorative shoe playing table game

I made my first substantial money investing in tech. Books like «Zero to One» is a book that was referenced a lot for investing in the tech sector and I really respect Peter Thiel as a thinker. I have found this book can also be applied to commodity investing. One can take knowledge from one place and try it in other sectors.

From my experience the biggest change in valuation a company can have is going from the impossible to the possible. A company that is able to get into production, come successfully out of a restructuring, or strikes gold are events I would put in this category. Things that are already seen as possible for a company will already have a lot of this priced in. Unanswered questions, or impossible situations are not priced in, and people do not know what it is worth.

In Zero to One there are three ways of approaching this:

1. Bet on a contrarian truth

What important truth do very few people agree with you on? Here you have to take a step outside the mainstream consensus. Some examples I have for this in the commodity sector are:

  • Renewables like solar and wind can’t save the environment alone. We need reliable baseload power. The solution for this is in many cases nuclear.
  • The electronics industry is experiencing a chip shortage because of increased electronics demand. The tin shortage is the bigger factor, and not production capabilities in the factories that the mainstream media portrays it as.

By betting contrarian here in smaller sectors, one avoids competing one will experience in bigger, more popular sectors.

An important factor to make sure you are correct here is: Is it the right time? If you have seen “2001 a Space Odyssey” they have a version of an iPad in the movie. The movie is from 1968, more than 40 years before the technology and the market was ready for such a thing. You would not want to wait that long for something to materialize.

2. Start by dominating a small market

The book here gives an example of Amazon that started in a small niche market, selling books. They used this as their launching pad for getting into other sectors later.

Also here you can apply this to the commodities market. You will have a better chance with over performing in a niche market like tin, tungsten or uranium than iron ore or coal. But as for every rule there are exceptions. For example, after the big fall in the oil price after 2014, a lot of the workforce had to leave the sector. After investment interest went down in the sector, competition among investors to find the best investments also went down.

3. Strive to be a monopoly

This point is about how you should not compete against other companies. You should be without competition as much as possible. By doing this you prevent the competition from eating away your profits. By doing this companies like Google can focus on improving, and creating new features which the customers will get advantage from.  

I do not apply this to the companies by themselves, but more the sector by itself when it comes to commodities investing. The sector has to be the only solution for their customers. There should not be an easy substitute for them.

The uranium sector is the only source of fuel for the nuclear plants. There is no substitute for uranium to keeping them running. That is why, when the circumstances are right, the price utilities have to pay does not matter.

If you want to solder circuit boards you need tin. Tin is the glue metal. Before you could use lead for soldering, but due to regulatory requirements, plus the health and environmental benefits, tin is the only real alternative now. 

Conclusion

This is something one must try to do with more than this example. From every aspect of your life you might have something you can transfer to another situation. From football you might have to learn to keep cool under pressure, from long distance running you might learn patience and perseverance. All things you can transfer to the rest of your life and maybe to investing. A lot of great things can happen if you go from zero to one.

The Inflation King

Preserving or increasing my purchasing power has been a big reason why I am investing in commodities. At the moment there is no agreement on what the massive amounts of money printing will lead to: Will we have massive inflation or deflation (or will we have stagflation)? For this week I have focused on the Inflation King.

I love reading about historical figures like the Robber Barons: I’ve read about the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Carnegies, Mellons and Morgans. The topic of today is Hugo Stinnes, the Inflation King, or “Inflationskönig” in German. I did not know that much about this Tycoon. Most of the information on Hugo Stinnes has been in German. Not before I read the book ”The New Depression” by James Rickards did I get to know about this man.

If you have grown up in the West and paid attention at school, you know that Germany in the 1920s suffered hyperinflation. This led to a devastating loss of purchasing power for the general population in the country. People lost all their savings they had in the bank, and they had to pay for products with more and more of their currency. There are pictures of people carrying cash in wheelbarrows and kids playing with their useless currency.

The hyperinflation was caused by massive money printing for paying reparations for the First World War from the Treaty of Versailles. The result of this devastating loss of purchasing power for the population. The depression that followed sowed the seed for what came to pass in the 1930s and 1940s.

The reichsmark became worthless. The exchange rate between it and the US dollar went from 208 to 1 in early 1921 to 4.2 trillion in late 1923.

Hugo Stinnes was born in 1870 and was from a prosperous German family who had interests in the coal mining industry. Later Hugo inherited the business, and expanded it by buying more mines and diversifying into shipping, buying cargo lines. He could then use his own vessels to transport the coal. (With John D. Rockefeller making a lot of money on transporting oil, it was probably not a bad idea to be in charge of your own transportation). He also expanded the shipping to include lumber and grains.

Hugo Stinnes

Prior to the Weimar hyperinflation, Stinnes borrowed vast sums of money in reichsmarks to make more purchases in the different sectors. (I have not found out if he was just a very big gambler, or if he had read up on the works from the Austrian School or similar). When the hyperinflation hit, the value of coal, steel and the price for shipping retained their value, while the reichsmarks fell in value. (Hugo Stinnes also had investments outside Germany where the currencies had not lost their value on the same scale).

Stinnes was able to repay his debts in worthless reichsmarks from his profits from his investment in commodity production and shipping. The price of the product (commodity) and the shipping of the products went up while the debts stayed the same. Stinnes made so much money during the Weimar hyperinflation that his German nickname was ‘Inflationskönig’, which means ‘Inflation King’.

The reason why I bring up the example of Hugo Stinnes is that we have heard mostly about the middle classes being destroyed. If you are prepared you can take advantage of this instead of becoming a victim. Hyperinflation has happened in several places. Three examples are in Hungary, Venezuela and in Zimbabwe. There are cautionary tales throughout history which illustrate the consequences when too much money gets printed.

My takeaway

Writing this I have not run to the bank and borrowed as much as possible to do the same. (However, I did increase my mortgage a bit. I had already paid down a lot on it, and the mortgage is less than two times my yearly salary). I am also using most of my monthly salary to add to my commodity investments. With countries printing trillions of fiat currency with no end in sight, the value of the currencies will go down. The deflationary pressure we have experienced since the 1980 and forwards with products imported from low cost countries will not be enough. The price of labor might still be low, but the price of the commodities that go into the products will go up. For commodities we have no new supply coming online at today’s prices.

As for currency default, my home currency is one of the few in the world that is not printing itself into oblivion. I am more worried about the USD than the Norwegian Krone. I have most of my investments outside my home currency in CAD, USD and AUD. I do not expect hyperinflation but a steady devaluation of most currencies and the commodities going up or keeping their value.

Printing new money (stimulus) is far easier for governments than the alternative, which is a full-blown deflation, crashing markets and a subsequent depression. In a depression, prices of everything fall and the purchasing power of the currency actually goes up, which encourages savings and hoarding cash. Why buy a car today (if you have the money), when you can buy the car next year for less currency. The thing with inflation is that it hurts people that have been good savers the most.

Inflation is already here. I go by the definition that inflation is an increase of money supply. “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” Increasing prices, which we often call inflation, is a result of the inflation. The question is if we will see increasing prices on goods and services. For anyone who has seen the price of copper or lumber, or anything that is not included in the reported  CPI, the answer is yes. We get a decline of purchasing power of a given currency over time.

I do not care if you are a Tin Baron or Uranium-, Silver-, or Gold bug. We will all be inflation kings.

The Big Commodity Short

large bison

This Sunday I will give my thoughts about the coming supercycle in commodities and why I am bullish on almost all of them going forward.

Most people are aware that I am a Uranium Bug and that I have a good allocation to precious metals. I have also just recently made my first allocation to the oil business, but I have to admit that I am optimistic about the whole commodity sector. I have tried to give an explanation for this enthusiasm in the following paragraphs. 

Backdrop

Commodities are currently 50% cheaper than their lowest point the last 50 years if you compare them to the S&P 500. There are several reasons for this. The cyclical nature of commodities is that we go through boom and bust cycles. We have seen many of these over the decades. Still, the latest downturn has been exaggerated by a number of contributing factors:

A big factor is there is so much passive money waiting to chase the next big thing. We are looking back at 10 years where everyone has been piling into tech companies, weed and cryptocurrencies. Some people are maybe a bit agitated that these sectors have taken away money from commodities, but there is also a silver lining. Instead of having a better funded market, that might be in a supply and demand equilibrium, we are seeing great potential for outside returns on our investments.

I listened to a great interview with Mark Thompson on the podcast “Mining Stock Daily” in their “Tin Special”. He put into words what has been in the back of my mind about the commodities sector for a long time:

The median fund in the world’s allocation to commodities is zero, and most funds do not touch it. In the 80s and 90s, the risky part of people’s portfolios were either allocated to biotech or to commodities exploration. That part is now consumed by tech companies or bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) instead. We therefore have not had the needed allocation to commodities that you need to find new deposits. This has in turn affected the supply side. This underinvestment makes commodities very attractive after 10 years of underinvestment.

In the meantime commodities, which are essential for maintaining our living standards, have underperformed. The cost of producing the commodities is in many cases higher than what the companies make selling them. This has led to production cuts and supply being removed from the market. Prices have to increase a lot to incentivize production. However, this supply can’t be turned back on with a flip of a switch. Ramping up production takes time. The companies have to hire and train workers, permits have to be granted and CAPEX investments have to be made. 

The easiest example I can choose from here is uranium. The world is totally dependent on uranium for the 10 % of energy production coming from nuclear power. If we want a snowball’s chance in hell of making the climate goals, we can not depend on windmills and solar panels alone. At today’s prices the cost of producing uranium is higher than what they get paid by utilities. For incentivising new supply the price of uranium has to go up. If not quoting Rick Rule the lights go out. 

We have the same scenario with battery metals like #lithium #nickel and #copper needed for electrification of the world. There are many other commodities that I have not mentioned, but safe to say I am bullish on most of them.

In the coming commodity super cycle we will see massive amounts of passive funds crowding into the different commodity sectors. Passive investing has increased by a lot the last 10 years, and this will hit the very small markets like a ton of bricks. This will have a bigger impact than most people can imagine. When 50% of the market is passive, it will be very different from the bull run in the early 2000s. Passive flows say: let’s buy what is going up no matter what price. Because of this you get big moves. I believe we will see new all time highs in most of the commodity sectors. Many of the sectors today are trading for a total value under the value of companies like Apple or Amazon. When passive funds see the outperformance of the different commodity sectors sustained over time, we will see a rotation away from growth/tech stocks. It is just a question of time. 

We are seeing some evidence for this already. Again, I will give some examples from the uranium sector, it is the one I am following the closest. In Australia Paladin will be included on ASX 200 and 300 later this year. This means that there will be passive flows coming into the company and give the valuation of the company a tailwind. In Canada we have the same situation with Nexgen and Denison Mines will be added to the S&P/TSX Composite Index.

The picture above is a comparison between QQQ (an ETF that includes 100 of the largest companies listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange) and URNM (the NORTH SHORE GLOBAL URANIUM MINING ETF). The last year URNM has a return of 222% compared to 63% for the QQQ.

I expect this to be a trend we will see continue over the next 5 years. After overperformance the funds will rotate out of their old favorite sectors and enter the commodities sector. A couple more quarters of outperformance and we should witness the metaphor about forcing the contents of Hoover Dam through a straw coming to fruition.