What's behind the big commodities rally, and why it could be just getting started

Key Points
  • After years of languishing under low market volatility and weak global growth, commodities are on the move higher.
  • One index is at a multi-year peak as prices rise in energy, gold and base metals.
  • Traders in the space see the rally continuing in the face of a trade war threat and as the market gets more comfortable with the global economic growth theme.
Energy has been challenging for private equity, says Jeff Eaton
Energy has been challenging for private equity, says Jeff Eaton

Threats of a trade war and continued signs of global growth are combining to create myriad opportunities for investors in one long-dormant asset class: commodities.

In fact, the geopolitical turbulence and market volatility putting downward pressure on the stock market is working out just fine for the commodities market, which languished for years under slow economic conditions and a general trading malaise.

One popular commodities index just hit a 2½-year high, and investors in the space see the trend continuing.

"Long-term when you look at the global picture, it sets itself up for a measured supercycle," said Mike Wilkins, commodities expert for Fidessa, a London-based trading technology provider. "Beyond the rhetoric and saber-rattling, there is a good, compelling story for growth and continued uptake in the end for commodities, especially base metals."

Commodities tomorrow: Crude poised to cross $70 into summer season
Commodities tomorrow: Crude poised to cross $70 into summer season

The group has rallied sharply since an early-February dip. The PowerShares DB Commodity Index Tracking exchange-traded fund is up about 9 percent since then and some 16 percent over the past 12 months. The CRB Commodity Index has risen similarly and is at a peak not seen since late-2014.

Commodity booms bring bigger returns for traders and investors along with higher prices for consumers, contributing to expectations that inflation is about to accelerate.

Bond king Jeffrey Gundlach, of DoubleLine Capital, went into this year forecasting that commodities would outpace stocks, and so far he's been right.

There are multiple explanations for the current run, with some pointing to short-term bursts off headlines and others signaling longer-term trends about economic fundamentals. Another factor is the threat of a U.S.-China trade war that almost certainly would restrict global flows and push values higher.

Aluminum prices, for instance, have surged following U.S. sanctions against Russian company Rusal, the second-largest global firm as measured by output of the metal.

At the same time, copper prices recently have turned around amid hopes that the synchronized global growth theme remains intact, while the market for grains and other agricultural products also have been steady gainers as production has dropped and farmers retool for more demand ahead.

"Prices had been relatively depressed over the last 3½ years. It's been a down type of market mainly because we have dealt with at or near-record production just about everywhere around the globe," said Mark Schultz, chief analyst at Northstar Commodity. "That is now reversed, and you're starting to see things build back up."

Of course, the area that often takes the most focus in commodities is energy, and oil prices have been a tear that looks like it has legs.

Even as most other commodities were flat to down Thursday, oil scored another strong gain and is up nearly 15 percent for 2018. That's come amid record-breaking demand for gasoline to fuel the global expansion.

"Some of the additional sources of supply or excess supply that would normally keep a lid on prices are having issues," John Kilduff, Again Capital founding partner, told CNBC. "Now the Saudis are really again going for the jugular here and trying to goose the price higher."

Another focal point in the commodities sphere is gold.

The yellow metal is pushing higher this year, gaining more than 2.5 percent before dipping Thursday, and is considered a bellwether indicator of inflation. Rising interest rates often can spell trouble for the gold trade, but not this time around.

"Normally inflation and gold have an inverse relationship. However, when inflation is rising more quickly than interest rates, causing real yields on government bonds to decline or turn negative, gold can flourish," said Lindsey Bell, CFRA investment strategist. "This is a key example of gold as a store of value."

Finally, there are trading patterns that are influencing commodities.

Technicians watch the price movement of assets independent of fundamentals for clues as to what might be in store.

Paul Ciana, technical strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said a number of chart formations are pointing to further price upside.

"A rally so far [has been] led by energy and metals, the rallies in gold and silver are young while oil and copper have room to trend," Ciana said in a research note. While he said a wider rally will depend on how agricultural commodities perform, a look at a broad index "suggests commodity markets are on the verge of signaling a secular bull trend."

He further pointed out that commodities generally do well when the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates.

The central bank already has enacted one increase this year and markets are betting on at least two and perhaps three more. Ciana said one of the few periods where commodities rose when rates didn't was in 2010-11.

WATCH: The global case for commodities

The impact of trade tensions on the demand for commodities
The impact of trade tensions on the demand for commodities