These are tough times to be in the commodity business. A selloff in the oil market that began in June 2014 has extended to a range of raw materials and is starting to resemble a full-blown meltdown. Investors reacting to weaker Chinese demand and an end to cheap money provided by the Federal Reserve are rushing to sell positions in companies that produce, trade, and ship everything from oil to gold to copper and aluminum. A Bloomberg commodities index that tracks returns from 22 raw materials has fallen 50 percent since a 2011 high and is trading near its lowest level since 1999. Of the 10 worst performers in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index this year, eight are commodities-related companies.
Monday, Sept. 28, was particularly tumultuous. In the span of a few hours, Alcoa, a 127-year-old industrial bellwether and the largest U.S. aluminum producer, announced it would break into two smaller companies, while Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s top oil producers, said it was abandoning its drilling campaign in U.S. Arctic waters after spending $7 billion. The carnage culminated when shares of Glencore— the Swiss commodities powerhouse that trades and produces some of the world’s most critical raw materials, including zinc and copper—lost nearly a third of their value.