Below is my list of what I consider the best books about commodities. My list covers everything from trading them, to commodity specific books, to insights into key players in the industry and more general reference books. This page will be a live page so I’ll be adding reviews as I go. Got a book you can recommend then send me a tweet @PeterSainsbury7.
Timing Techniques for Commodity Futures Markets – Colin Alexander (US) (UK): This book has really opened my eyes to technical commodity trading. The author gradually builds up the tools you need to understand how commodity futures prices move. At the very least it will help you analyse what the balance of risks are – potential loss vs potential gain. Central point is to have a short, medium and long term view of charts to gauge support, resistance and trends. Definitely one to re-read.
Market Wizards: Interview with Top Traders – Jack D. Schwartz (US) (UK): The book is exactly what it says on the cover, a series of interviews with traders of commodity futures, stocks and other assets. The book delves into what factors they look for when making trades or investments. A familiar theme that stretches through the interviews is that its more important what you do out of the market than in it, i.e. take your time doing the research and waiting for the right opportunity that fits your strategy and risk profile. As with all of these kind of books they only ever review the sample of successful traders that used these measures and won. No doubt there are plenty that did the same and lost. But of course no one wants to interview the losers.
Oil 101 – Morgan Downey (US) (UK): A very detailed reference book for anyone wanting to understand how crude and product markets work. This is not a light book – either in terms of weight or writing – but very useful nonetheless.
The Sugar Casino – Jonathan Kingsman (US) (UK): Jonathan takes you through the history of the sugar market, over-rated concerns about obesity, the controversial role of speculators, how companies are implementing sustainability, the way governments interfere in the market etc. The author puts each chapter in context with a story from his own experience being involved in sugar trading and an interview with prominent people involved at different points in the sugar supply chain.
The Elements of Power – David Abraham (US) (UK): Focusing on rare earth metals David delves into what happened in China to drive the price of these metals to stratospheric heights. Lots of good insight in the book about how opaque the markets are, shadowy characters aplenty. A worthwhile read given our dependence on these metals (as well as many other ‘minor’ metals) in things like smartphones and wind turbines.
Hot Commodities – Jim Rogers (US) (UK): A very well written introduction to commodities and commodity markets. It was published in the early 2000’s so you need to consider that when reading it, but even so it’s full of useful insight. I particularly liked the chapter about lead – a hated commodity because of its health impacts, yet prices can still go up if supply falls faster than demand. Bear in mind that Jim Rogers is a long-term commodity bull – he has is own commodity index – so beware the presumption that prices can only go one way. Note that he also makes no mention of how contract expiries can erode returns.
The Economist Guide to Commodities: Producers, Players and Prices; Markets, Consumers and Trends – Caroline Bain (US) (UK): The book goes through the major commodities in turn, focusing on base and precious metals, energy and agricultural commodities highlighting the main trends in demand, supply and price followed by an outlook for the future. The book includes an introduction to commodity market fundamentals, introducing the basic economics of commodities and commodities as a financial asset. However, the book misses out on any discussion of the longer term impact of high commodity prices and the financial crisis on demand destruction and measures to improve efficiency. Finally the book fails to recognise climate change as an emerging trend affecting both price volatility in agricultural commodities and also potential future supplies of a broad range of other commodities.
Commodities: 50 Things You Really Need To Know – Peter Sainsbury (US) (UK): I hope you like it. I’ll let you read what other readers have had to say about it. (link)
Commodity trading houses / people
The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich – Daniel Ammann (US) (UK): A great autobiography about the commodity trader Marc Rich. A fascinating story of how his family emigrated to America and charts Rich’s rise and fall. Some fascinating stories about how Rich saw opportunity wherever he went from inventing the modern day crude spot market to finding a way for Iran to sell its oil while under sanctions.
Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction – Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner (US) (UK): Want to be better at forecasting the future? Then this book at least tells you how to think about it in a better way and how you can train yourself to get better. Key insight is the use of Bayesian analysis to estimate a probability based on outside evidence (past occurrences) and then constantly adjust your outlook based on inside intelligence (based on the thing you are trying to forecast).
The Signal and the Noise – Nate Silver (US) (UK): A book I’d been meaning to read for some time. Although some of the chapters were a bit difficult to follow (I don’t know anything about baseball) there are some good insights in this book and overall its a good read. Especially worth noting the Bayesian path to less wrongness.
Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe them Anyway – Dan Gardner (US) (UK): Builds on previous work of Tetlock and others to explain why we really should know better than to trust the pundits that grace our TV screens. The author outlines why pundits such as Paul Ehrlich and others are so compelling, but at the same time need to be given a wide berth. Although the book feels a bit repetitive towards the second half as examples are dug up and used again, overall this book is a great read. The kind of critical thinking required to guard against being taken in is hard, indeed very hard to do all the time. This book will get you started.
The Big Reset – Willem Middlekoop (US) (UK): I have a problem with books like this in that they are really only a one sided view of an investment case – that you should be long gold. There is no discussion over the relative merits of the argument and why it could be wrong or what might delay the outcome that the author thinks that the market is underestimating. That said its a well written book with lots of useful insights about how central banks intervene in gold markets. Although the author uses articles sourced from newspapers and Wikileak releases as evidence to support his argument, sometimes the amount of text can interrupt the flow of the book.
Narconomics: How To Run a Drug Cartel – Tom Wainwright (US) (UK): Not the usual commodity markets that I read about, but this book is certainly one of the most interesting and well written. From why drug cartels are a lot like Walmart managing their supply chain, how cartels operate much like multi-national companies, why efforts to disrupt the supply of drugs is so fruitless and finally to the impact that legalisation (when done correctly) can snuff out the illegal drugs industry this book has everything any self respecting management consultant to the illegal drugs industry needs. The author takes you on a fascinating journey through some of the most dangerous places in the world where drugs are grown and manufactured all the way to the end users. A welcome boost for how and why economists and economics in general have something very useful to say about how the world could be a better place.
This book is a great read for anyone that wants to understand why markets of all kinds do not match the efficient market hypothesis of many economist ideals and models, nor that economics and finance do not match the symmetry of the sciences . The key message is the one on reflexivity; that the price of an asset doesn’t just reflect the market it represents but also influences it as well. According to Soros “When events have thinking participants, the subject matter is no longer confined to facts but also includes the participants perceptions. The chain of causation does not lead directly from fact to fact but from fact to perception and from perception to fact.” Although it is some 30 years old now its still as relevant, if not more so today than ever.
This book is a real eye opener into how apparently wasteful activity researching Roulette wheels and Blackjack tables has had a positive impact on society, from game theory and statistics to chaos theory and artificial intelligence. And conversely how methods used to study things as diverse as ice sheets and epidemics have been used to take on the bookmakers. In short, this book is a great demonstration of how important it is to read outside of your comfort zone, as its here that the real insights are to be found. One of the most interesting chapters was on the rise of bots in the world of sports betting and financial markets – how they learn about their opponents in the markets, how they spoof, and how they learn to compete to survive.
On my reading list
The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power – Daniel Yergin
The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World – Daniel Yergin
The New Case for Gold – James Rickards
Merchants of Grain by Dan Morgan