Gold surges. Copper soars. Oil spikes. But no panic.
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Typically, cycles in metals can last for years, and eventually mining and extraction companies feel the confidence to expand production. Analysts say that should happen this time, in general, for everything from the aluminum in aircraft to the nickel that's increasingly used in batteries for hybrid cars.Skip to next paragraph
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In the meantime, the high prices are affecting businesses and consumers throughout the economy.
From a simple wedding band to a titanium watch, many goods will cost more.
At Firefly, a jewelry and gift shop in Boston, owner Martin Checkoway says vendors of silver bracelets and necklaces have been restrained in their price increases. "There's only so much the end customer is going to pay," he says. But in recent weeks some artisans have raised their prices by 5 to 10 percent, he adds.
Raw materials also cost more on construction sites and factory floors.
And from Iowa to California, metal prices have gotten so high that one cyclical form of crime has returned: theft from scrap bins. Marty Forman, a metal recycler in Milwaukee, takes the ups and downs of his business - and the risk of burglary - in stride. But he guesses the price trend will be upward as demand keeps growing.
"The bottoms will not be as low" in future cycles, he says. "There's only so much metal in the ground."
The metals boom has also given a boost to some commodity-driven economies, such as Canada, and roiled others, such as Peru.
"They've seen tremendous growth in the economy but not much in terms of being able to filter that down to the poor," says Mark Johnson, who manages the USAA Precious Metals and Minerals mutual fund. That goes a long way toward explaining the rise of populist politics there, he adds.
Even as the commodities boom alters the dynamics of elections and wage bargaining at mines, it isn't necessarily fueling broader inflation in today's more service-driven economy.
"A lot of it can be absorbed in terms of the macro economy," says Mr. Schenker of Wachovia.
Commodities are drawing plenty of attention from investors, however.
Some are "gold bugs" worried that the dollar could fall in value, that stocks could tank, or that inflation will return.
Others are simply looking for alternative places to invest at a time when neither stocks nor bonds are soaring. The "yearn for yield" has fueled a range of other investments, from hedge funds to real estate.
Commodities have a reputation for risk. But recent research suggests that futures contracts on commodities have historically offered similar returns as stocks for a similar level of risk. And because they don't necessarily move in sync with the stock market, they can be useful in diversifying a portfolio, say researchers Gary Gorton, of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, and K. Geert Rouwenhorst, of the Yale School of Management.
Other avenues for small investors include mutual funds focused on commodities or gold stocks.
Mr. Johnson, whose precious metal fund has posted returns of more than 80 percent in the past year, also sees diversification as the key reason to buy. By putting perhaps 5 percent of one's assets in such a fund, investors will likely reduce the volatility of their portfolios.
But he adds a word of caution: "This is definitely a risky category."