Readers Opine on Market Effects of Population Boom

Martin Hutchinson, contributing editor for Money Morning, has offered his projections on the effects of world population growth on the market, namely increased prices for commodities like oil …

Martin Hutchinson, contributing editor for Money Morning, has offered his projections on the effects of world population growth on the market, namely increased prices for commodities like oil and metals, with an invitation for reader comment. Responders contribute by noting that Malthusian doomsayers of times past have so far been proven wrong, and that new developments in technology and the will to innovate may present unforeseen solutions for the population boom and the commodities prices that follow. For more on this continue reading the following article from Money Morning.

Money Morning Contributing Editor Martin Hutchinson detailed earlier this week how worldwide population growth will affect global commodity prices, prompting many readers to express praise for his well-supported analysis.

Hutchinson cited the United Nations report "2010 Revision of World Population Prospects" published May 3, where the UN estimated that the global population would reach 9.3 billion in 2050. This means prices for oil, metals, and food are also likely to climb much higher by 2050.

"The total impact of the UN’s spiraling population projections will be seen over the long haul," said Hutchinson. "And that means that — even when interest rates are back to normal levels — global commodity prices will not return to levels we would consider ‘normal.’ Oil prices will never see $20 a barrel again; their bottom is probably somewhere in the range of $60 a barrel to $80 a barrel — after which they march higher."

Hutchinson said this also means investors can benefit by positioning themselves with long-term holdings in certain producers of oil and agricultural products and well-run, diverse countries, like Canada.

The following reader letter praises Hutchinson’s intellectual analysis, while also questioning the role of technological advancements in a growing population. Money Morning likes to highlight insightful and informed reader comments, as well as give our editors a chance to respond. You can read Hutchinson’s comments below.

Reader Letter:

Mr. Hutchinson,

Whenever I see a Money Morning article by you – to paraphrase the old E.F. Hutton marketing message – I listen.

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For the first few paragraphs, I agreed with you, but as I neared the middle of your article, my cynicism about so many apocalyptic scenarios (in spite of the fact that I’ve become a perma-bear) made me pause. I thought back to an earlier doomsaying British economist.

But low and behold, by the end of the first section, you referenced Thomas R. Malthus. I was more than impressed – I became downright giddy. You once again proved your understanding of the complex world economy and the fact that doomsdayers before us have been proven wrong often.

On the other hand, there remains the remote possibility that technology provides us with what’s needed to make us all Malthusians. This would include the advent of commercial fusion (cheap and abundant energy), genetic agricultural breakthroughs (increased crop outputs), and nanotechnology (totally synthetic metals and fuels, among other things).

In this case, however, your sanguine appraisal rings very logical, pragmatic, and likely. The odds of your being right seem to significantly outweigh the odds of your being wrong. A clear awareness of history makes your forecasts that much more valid.

Your explanation of how productive activity has been superseded by the printing of money, which has in turn made commodities all that much more valuable, further supports your assertions.

Unlike a Bloomberg article, which is usually like getting a reading from the oracle at Delphi; with a strong opinion buttressing an idea at the beginning of the piece, and a counterargument destroying the initial assertion by the end of the missive; you stand behind your theories from start to finish with strong evidence and facts.

As a passive investor, I’ve been following your advice to great personal benefit. It helps that we appear to think similarly. Yet if that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t be taking the economic and financial positions that I do with as much certainty.

Thank you for making me and those like me feel at home intellectually and economically.

Phil S.

Martin Hutchinson:

Dear Mr. S.:

Thank you very much for your kind and most encouraging letter. I agree with you in being optimistic that technological advances will solve many of our problems. But they will not necessarily solve the ones we most want solving or think most likely to be solved.

For example, in 1961 you’d have got good odds that, by 2011, we’d be colonizing all the useful planets and making our first ventures into interstellar space, and that our power problems would have been solved by fusion reactors. Equally, anybody who had suggested the PC and the Internet would have been thought seriously eccentric.

It’s thus clear that our 1960-2000 assumptions about cheap commodities get changed once the big population groups in China and India get rich, and that further increases in population raise the risk that we’ll run into an environmental or resource problem we can’t solve. Another worry, brought out by the Japanese quake, is that ice ages, meteors and other cosmic harassments are more common than we think, and so we’d better have a good margin of safety in our population/resource balance to avoid being wiped out when the planet suddenly can’t give us what we thought it could.

High commodity prices and restrained worldwide population growth (or preferably the beginnings of shrinkage) are thus good for us in the long term.

This article was republished with permission from Money Morning.


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