Commodities Watch: Stronger Dollar Weakens Commodities; Lumber Prices Continue Falling; Cotton Prices Uncertain; Gold, Silver Could Stay Soft for a While (WY, PCL, LPX, GPS, ARO, GLD, SLV, GDX, GDXJ, SIL)

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Today’s commodities news is all about the effect of a stronger dollar on commodities prices. Cotton prices, which rose almost non-stop beginning in August 2010, could be moderating and giving a break to struggling retailers. And the flight to the dollar is also affecting gold and silver prices.  The US dollar is more appealing today than it has been for a while, as the apparently worsening problems in Greece keep weighing down the euro. The euro is trading below $1.40, still slightly higher than where it began the year, and about even with the beginning of both 2009 and 2010. In 2009, the euro rose to more than $1.50 before declining in mid-2010 to about $1.21.

The sharp rise in commodities prices coincided with the rise in the euro for the last half of 2010 and the first four months of 2011, but what now appears to be a near-certain restructuring/default of Greek sovereign debt is chilling the appetite for risk.

But Europe isn’t the only issue. China’s battle against inflation is being waged with higher interest rates on bank loans, which in turn appears to be slowing down the country’s growth. Chinese energy import growth could be slowing down and there is some belief that some of the construction that is going on in China is really just make-work projects to keep workers employed building housing that no one either can afford or wants to buy — the Chinese version of Potemkin villages.

The odd thing about flight to the dollar is that the US economy itself remains pretty weak. If this economy is the best that the world has to offer, things might be worse than everyone fears.

Take lumber prices for example. A contract for a thousand board feet can be purchased today for less than $220, compared with more than $320 in early March. Timber companies like Weyerhaeuser Corp. (NYSE: WY), Plum Creek Timber Co., Inc. (NYSE: PCL), and Louisiana Pacific Corp. (NYSE: LPX) have been counting on demand from China to make up for slack demand in the US, but the cavalry has not arrived yet. Worse, the cavalry may never arrive, at least in the hoped-for strength due to the slower-growing Chinese economy.

US homebuilders have done nothing to support lumber prices either, as they all continue to struggle with a collapse in new housing starts. And in a reverse situation, rising cotton prices have hurt share prices at retailers like Gap Stores Inc. (NYSE: GPS) and Aeropostale, Inc. (NYSE: ARO). That maybe about to turn around though.

Cotton prices have been falling since hitting a peak near $2.10/pound in early March. Currently sitting at about $1.55/pound, falling cotton prices may help retailers in the second half of the year, but inventories of higher-priced goods remain high and a continuing drop in cotton prices is not a sure thing. The risk to retailers remains high.

Cotton growers appear to be expecting prices to remain high and are planting more acres in cotton. In one district in California’s central valley, as much as 90,000 more acres will be planted this year, although not all in cotton. There will also be more wheat, another crop that remains near 12-month highs.

Growers are betting that cotton prices stay high, even though they plan to plant more. Retailers are hoping that cotton prices fall as growers plant more. While not exactly a zero-sum game, an outcome that supports both growers and retailers could be pretty hard to come by.

Finally today, gold and silver prices have moved up only marginally, with gold trading at about $1,514/ounce in the early afternoon, and silver at $34.88/ounce. The stronger dollar is also dampening enthusiasm for the precious metals. The SPDR Gold Trust (NYSE: GLD) is up about 0.22%, to $147.71, in a 52-week range of $113.08-$153.61, and the iShares Silver Trust (NYSE: SLV) is down about -0.3%, at $34.08, in a 52-week range of $16.94-$48.35.

The mining ETFs are faring a bit worse, with the Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF (NYSE: GDX) down more than -1% and the Market Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF (NYSE: GDXJ) off more than -3%. GDX is trading at $55.16, in a 52-week range of $45.88-$64.62. GDXJ is trading at $35.03, in a 52-week range of $25.10-$44.86. The Global X Silver Miners ETF (NYSE: SIL) is down about -2.5%, to $23.56, in a range of $12.90-$31.34.

Paul Ausick