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This country may spark next commodity supercycle

India's new government may be the catalyst for the next global commodity supercycle, according to HSBC.

Narendra Modi's landslide presidential election victory gave his nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party a strong mandate for reform, especially within India's poor infrastructure sector - a key source of hard commodities demand.

India is already a large commodities producer but HSBC argues that if Modi increases infrastructure investment, demand for commodities such as steel and energy will outpace domestic supply, boosting global prices.

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Steel kitchen utensils being sold at the Begum Bazaar in Hyderabad, India.
Dhiraj Singh | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Steel kitchen utensils being sold at the Begum Bazaar in Hyderabad, India.

"It is worth remembering how quickly commodity demand from China ramped up a decade ago and then began to outpace domestic supply. This drove a sharp rise in a range of commodity prices, what many analysts have called a 'supercycle'," HSBC economists Paul Bloxham and Frederic Neumann said in a report published last week.

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"Given India's large population, we believe it is fair to argue that a rapid pick-up in per capita commodity consumption could have a significant impact on global demand," they added.

Industries that could see increased commodity usage include housing, roads and transportation, HSBC said. Urbanization in India lags behind Chinese urbanization; fewer families live in homes built from steel and concrete, while electricity and transportation remain hot-button issues due to years of underinvestment.

Manufacturing could also increase base metals demand. If Modi can repeat the success he achieved in Gujarat – a major manufacturing hub – on a national level, more commodity-intensive industrial equipment would be required.

The World Steel Industry's forecasts support HSBC's theory. In April, it forecast Indian steel demand could rise over 3 percent in 2014 due to an increase in construction and manufacturing. Demand rose 1.8 percent in 2013.

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When will demand ramp up?

"If India follows a similar pace of progress [to China], it would begin to emerge as a significant commodity net importer over the next few years," the economists said.

They noted China began to require large commodities imports in 2003, 25 years after major reforms were introduced. India's major reforms came in 1991.

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However, other experts aren't convinced and warn that growth impediments extend beyond India's leadership.

"If the government is willing to make difficult decisions about reform to labor markets, land and subsidies, money could be allocated to infrastructure but I doubt this will be on a scale as large as China demonstrated," said Gaurav Sodhi, analyst at the Intelligent Investor.

Is China a bigger factor?

"Slowing demand from China is a greater risk to commodities than a resurgent India is an opportunity," Sodhi said.

Many analysts have expressed concern about the potential impact of Beijing's rebalancing away from a manufacturing-driven economy towards consumption. Iron ore has been hit hard by slowing Chinese demand; prices are currently near 20-month lows.

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Warren Gilman, chairman & CEO of investment firm CEF Holdings, was equally pessimistic, calling HSBC's predictions "wishful thinking."

"Although the election results are potentially positive for economic growth, I remain 'from Missouri' (i.e. in need of proof) when it comes to the actual implementation of policy," he said.

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