Commodity: Analysis and definition


In economics, a commodity is a marketable item produced to satisfy wants or needs. Often the item is fungible. Economic commodities comprise goods and services.
When an economist, economics professor, or economics textbook talks about a commodity, they mean a good that possesses the following properties:

– Usually produced and/or sold by many different companies;

– Something that is uniform in quality between companies that produce/sell it. You cannot tell the difference between one firm’s product and another.

The word commodity came into use in English in the 15th century, from the French commodité, “amenity, convenience“. Going further back, the French word derives from the Latin commoditas, meaning “suitability, convenience, advantage”. The Latin word commodus (from which English gets other words including commodious and accommodate) meant variously “appropriate“, “proper measure, time, or condition“, and “advantage, benefit“.

A commodity good or service has full or partial but substantial fungibility; that is, the market treats its instances as equivalent or nearly so with no regard to who produced them. As the saying goes, “From the taste of wheat, it is not possible to tell who produced it, a Russian serf, a French peasant or an English capitalist.”

Petroleum and copper are other examples of such commodities, their supply and demand being a part of one universal market. Items such as stereo systems, on the other hand, have many aspects of product differentiation, such as the brand, the user interface and the perceived quality. The demand for one type of stereo may be much larger than demand for another.

One of the characteristics of a commodity good is that its price is determined as a function of its market as a whole. Well-established physical commodities have actively traded spot and derivative markets. Generally, these are basic resources and agricultural products such as iron ore, sugar, rice. Soft commodities are goods that are grown, while hard commodities are ones that are extracted through mining.

There is another important class of energy commodities which includes electricity, gas, coal and oil. Electricity has the particular characteristic that it is usually uneconomical to store; hence, electricity must be consumed as soon as it is processed Commoditization occurs as a goods or services market loses differentiation across its supply base, often by the diffusion of the intellectual capital necessary to acquire or produce it efficiently.

As such, goods that formerly carried premium margins for market participants have become commodities, such as generic pharmaceuticals and DRAM chips. An article in The New York Times cites multivitamin supplements as an example of commoditization; a 50 mg tablet of calcium is of equal value to a consumer no matter what company produces and markets it, and as such, multivitamins are now sold in bulk and are available at any supermarket with little brand differentiation. Following this trend, nano-materials are emerging from carrying premium profit margins for market participants to a status of commodification.

There is a spectrum of commoditization, rather than a binary distinction of “commodity versus differentiable product“. Few products have complete undifferentiability and hence fungibility; even electricity can be differentiated in the market based on its method of generation (e.g., fossil fuel, wind, solar), in markets where energy choice lets a buyer opt (and pay more) for renewable methods if desired.

Many products’ degree of commoditization depends on the buyer’s mentality and means. For example, milk, eggs, and notebook paper are not differentiated by many customers; for them, the product is fungible and lowest price is the main decisive factor in the purchasing choice. Other customers take into consideration other factors besides price, such as environmental sustainability and animal welfare.

To these customers, distinctions such as “organic versus not” or “cage free versus not” count toward differentiating brands of milk or eggs, and percentage of recycled content or Forest Stewardship Council certification count toward differentiating brands of notebook paper.

Markets for trading commodities can be very efficient, particularly if the division into pools matches demand segments. These markets will quickly respond to changes in supply and demand to find an equilibrium price and quantity. In addition, investors can gain passive exposure to the commodity markets through a commodity price index.