Definition and Examples of What Commodities Are

Definition and Examples of What Commodities Are and Why Investors Care

Corn is just one of the many different things that can be sold as a commodity. To put it simply, anything that can be made grown or dug out of the earth is a commodity.
Corn is just one of the many different things that can be sold as a commodity. To put it simply, anything that can be made grown or dug out of the earth is a commodity.. Universal Images Group / Getty Images

If you have ever asked yourself, "What is a commodity?" rest assured you are not alone.  Along with stocks, bonds, real estate, and other assets, commodities form one of the major asset classes.  Though they are largely not appropriate for individual investors, everyone from packaged food companies to airlines rely on them to conduct business.  This cheat sheet will give you an overview of the topic.

Question: What are commodities?

Answer: Commodities are objects that come out of the Earth such as wheat, cattle, soybeans, corn, oranges, gold, uranium, copper, aluminum, coal, cotton, and oil. Commodities of the same grade are consider fungible - that is, interchangeable with other commodities of the same grade regardless of who produced or farmed it.  For example, if a mining company in Colorado produces high quality copper, and a different mining company in Wyoming also produces high, the copper produced by both mining companies is fungible as long as it receives the same grade.  As a buyer of high quality copper, it doesn't matter which mining company produced it as long as the same quality of copper can be received.

Question: Who trades commodities and why?

Answer: Farmers, miners, investors, speculators, consumers, and strategic users buy and sell commodities for a variety of reasons.

 For example, a farmer in the Midwest may want to pre-sell his corn in something known as the futures market so he can sleep well at night knowing he won't be bankrupted if corn prices decline between the time he lays out the planting and harvest costs and when he's ready to go to deliver to market.

 A company like Kraft Heinz might buy huge amounts of raw coffee for future use in the manufacturing of its Maxwell House coffee brand at today's prices, allowing it the company to monitor and measure its upcoming production costs.

Question: How are commodities traded?

Answer: Most, but not all, commodities trade on what is known as a commodities exchange such as the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) or the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX).  This allows incredible efficiency and risk reduction for a variety of reasons.  You can also buy commodities directly.  For example, you might purchase Canadian gold maple leaf coins and store them somewhere safe as a hedge against inflation risk.

Let's look at the New York Mercantile Exchange, a commodity futures exchange in New York City that handles countless transactions in the billions of dollars.

Question: What are commodity exchanges and how do they work?

Answer: Imagine you wanted to buy 30,000 bushels of corn for a cornbread company you own.  You're not going to go knock on doors and talk to farmers.

 Instead, you are going to use a commodities broker to bid for them   The NYMEX, as it is known, standardizes the commodity contract.  Each contract must be made up of 5,000 bushels of corn, or 127 metric tons.  The contract price is quoted in cents per bushel.  Listed contracts can represent physical delivery in March, May, July, September, or December.  

Question: What are commodity options?

Answer: If you are a new investor, do not go down this path.  You have no business asking this question, you will most likely lose everything you risk, and you will probably end up substantially poorer as a result.  Asking, "What is a commodity?" is one thing, asking "What is a commodity option" can be, for the wrong person, the economic equivalent of inquiring how to construct a nuclear weapon in your basement.  Still, if you want to know what a commodity option is, the simple explanation is it is an option on a future; a derivative of a derivative, giving you a sort of super-leverage.  You're paying for the right or obligation to buy or sell the underlying future which itself is a right or obligation to buy or sell the underlying asset.

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