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Metals, oil prices set for weak 2009

PARIS, February 4 – Depressed prices for metals and oil are likely to stay weak for most of this year given the worsening state of the global economy, but gold and agricultural commodities are on a firmer trend, analysts say.

"The world recession and debt reduction," which reduce liquidity on financial markets, "will remain the dominant factors" on commodity markets in the medium term, said Calyon Credit Agricole analyst Robin Bhar.

The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has cut production and the mining sector is cutting jobs rapidly, amid expectations that demand for metals and for oil will continue to fall this year.

At BNP Paribas, analyst Harry Tchilinguirian said that since a recovery was not expected before the third quarter, prices were unlikely to stabilise before then.

In addition, speculator and institutional investors, who had played a significant role in a strong rise of commodity prices up to the middle of 2008, "play a far lesser role when the market is falling," said Philippe Chalmin, an expert in raw materials and president of the Cyclope group that specialises in analysing raw materials markets.

The price of iron was likely to fall particularly sharply this year when the average price level would be 60 percent below the average in 2008, Cyclope forecast, and the price of aluminium would be 20 percent lower.

But these price levels concerned averages for the year and "given current prices, they can\’t fall much further," Chalmin said. The price of aluminium is the lowest for six years.

Gold, which attracts money seeking protection during times of uncertainty and risk aversion, should hold up better.

The price of an ounce of gold rallied at the end of January to return above 900 dollars, the highest point for three and a half years. Cyclope says it could fall by 2.0 percent on average this year from the equivalent level last year.

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On the London Bullion Market on Tuesday, the price of gold fell to 905.50 dollars an ounce from 918.25 dollars the day before.

Goldman Sachs analysts think that the price of oil could drop below 30 dollars per barrel by the end of the first quarter of this year and then rally to 65 dollars on average on the second half of 2009.

On the New York Mercantile Exchange (Nymex) on Tuesday, a barrel of "light sweet crude" for delivery in March closed at 40.78 dollars, up 70 cents from its close on Monday.

Tchilinguirian expects the price of oil to be 40 dollars per barrel on average in the second quarter, rising towards 70 dollars per barrel at the end of the year. Cyclope meanwhile expects an average price of about 50 dollars, rising to 60 dollars at the end of this year.

Agricultural commodities are likely to hold up best in 2009, as they are less affected by the rapid slowdown in industrial activity than the sectors of energy or metals.

And the harvest in 2009-2010 is likely to be less abundant that that in 2008-2009 which was "extraordinary", Chalmin said.

However, "the biggest importers of wheat and rice are countries that produce oil such as Nigeria and Algeria," he said. "Since oil prices are weak, they can no longer pay high prices for these imports."

Cyclope forecasts that on average the price of wheat will be steady this year in line with prices last year, but that there will be a rise by eight percent in the price of cocoa, which is running at the highest levels for 25 years, as well as a rise of 12 percent in the price of corn and of 23 percent for sugar.

Next year, the metals and oil markets might rally strongly

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Bhar observed that given cutbacks in supplies in these two markets, there could be "a supply shortage" when economic recovery begins to spread, laying the basis for "a future market rise."

He said that "Chinese and Indian demand has not disappeared, given the pressures in these countries for industrialisation."

And production costs which "have risen strongly in the last five years" have not fallen despite the crisis, and could contribute to a firming of prices, he said.

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