World and Nation

Oil, Gold Prices Drop Sharply In Volatile Commodities Market

Oil, gold and other major commodities fell sharply on Thursday, capping their steepest weekly drop in a half-century, as investors fled what many had believed to be the last safe haven in turbulent markets.

Oil tumbled 6.9 percent in two days of trading, and most other commodities fell by 7 percent or more in that period — including a precipitous 15 percent drop for wheat.

This week’s declines brought an abrupt end to months of big price increases that had attracted speculative cash. “It was the last thing that bankers could hang their hats on,” said Fadel Gheit, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. “Everything else had melted before their eyes.”

For the four-day week ending Thursday, an index created by the Commodity Research Bureau in Chicago fell 8.3 percent, the sharpest one-week decline since the index began in 1956. (Markets are closed for Good Friday.)

Seeking to make sense of the sharp declines, some analysts on Thursday saw a bubble bursting.

“Commodities prices got way out of hand because people felt that when you couldn’t buy stocks because of the soft dollar and the economy, the place to be was in these hard commodities,” said Michael Rose, a trader at Angus Jackson in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Every speculator in the world bought gold and crude oil and the grains and coffee and sugar and cocoa. Prices became insane.”

If the declines continue, they could be good news for consumers. Lower prices for commodities like oil and wheat can translate into lower inflation for many products, including gasoline and groceries. Such a development would ease the job of the Federal Reserve, which is battling lower economic growth with steps that risk adding to inflation.

Indeed, one such step earlier in the week may have sparked the commodity sell-off.

Almost all commodities are priced in dollars on global markets. When the dollar falls, commodity prices tend to rise, and vice versa.

On Tuesday, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates by three-quarters of a percentage point. That was less than markets had expected, sending the dollar higher. Within hours, commodity prices — which had been volatile for weeks — began to drop. Investors who had seen commodities as a hedge against the dollar scrambled to get out of their bets.

“The precious metals markets and all commodity markets had built in a higher cut,” said James Steel, a commodities analyst at HSBC.

Gold, which had recently crossed the $1,000-an-ounce mark after a huge run-up, settled Thursday at $920 in New York trading. Oil intermittently straddled the $100 mark before settling down 2.5 percent, at $101.84 a barrel. That is still an unusually high price, but it is down 7.6 percent since the beginning of the week.

“These are all significant declines,” Steel said.

Some analysts saw them as more than just a reaction to a higher dollar. In their view, investors are growing increasingly worried that a recession will cause a worldwide drop-off in demand for raw materials.