BHP Billiton plc, Centamin PLC & Royal Dutch Shell Plc: Which Commodities Stock Is Best?

The commodities sector has proved to be an unlikely hero during the past few months.

Indeed, many of the Footsie’s major diggers and drillers have staged an impressive recovery since falling through the floor in January.

Diversified producer BHP Billiton (LSE: BLT) has seen its share value ascend 57% during the past three months, while oil giant Shell (LSE: RDSB) and gold play Centamin (LSE: CNY) have advanced 39% and 75% respectively.

Market imbalances

However, I find such stunning rises rather difficult to comprehend. The same fear about an economic ‘hard landing’ in China — a factor that drove many resources firms down to multi-year lows at the start of 2016 — continues to loom in the background.

Sure, Chinese imports of copper, iron ore and oil may have continued to rise in March. But many commentators believe this is merely the result of strategic stockpiling, rather than a signal of strong underlying demand. Indeed, GDP growth of just 1.1% between January-March and the final quarter of 2015 is not indicative of an economy cranking back into gear.

At the same time, the world’s commodity giants continue to flood the market with unwanted material, worsening already chronic supply/demand imbalances. BHP Billiton for one has a stream of development projects across the copper, oil and potash markets that threaten to keep material prices under the cosh in the years to come.

Gold shines

The gold market does not suffer from the same market dynamics as most other commodities, making Centamin’s recent heady ascent more justifiable, in my opinion.

The digger has benefitted from a steady rise in precious metal values, with enduring concerns over the health of the global economy prompting fresh inflows into these ‘rush to safety’ assets. And creaking global economic growth could send gold and silver values still higher in the months to come.

Meanwhile, Centamin’s products — like those of Shell and BHP Billiton — have received an additional leg-up in the form of a weakening US dollar. These commodities are priced up in dollars, making them cheaper to buy when the North American currency fades.

High risk

However, I believe that the recent feeding frenzy for these stocks is so severe that all three in danger of a colossal correction should recent newsflow begin to change.

A predicted 90% earnings decline for 2016 leaves BHP Billiton changing hands on a ridiculously-high P/E ratio of 84.5 times. And while Shell deals on a much-better multiple of 24.4 times, an estimated 37% bottom-line drop illustrates the colossal revenues woes it still faces.

At least it can be argued that Centamin’s lower earnings multiple leaves it in less danger of a biting retracement. The 10% earnings bounce projected for this year results in a P/E rating of 13.3 times.

All things considered, I believe the gold excavator is the superior stock amongst the three. But that’s not to say that Centamin is in the clear, however, as a likely recovery in the dollar later in the year could put gold prices — and with it the firm’s stock price — on the back foot once again.

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Royston Wild has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Royal Dutch Shell. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.