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Stocks for the 2006 Commodities Crunch

Inflation -- as measured by the consumer price Index, anyway -- showed a huge drop in November. Driven by a 16% plunge in energy prices, this broad measure of inflation at the consumer level fell by 0.6% from October. That's the biggest monthly decline in inflation since 1949, and it reset the annual inflation rate to 3.5% from a 4.3% reading in October.

But before you break out the champagne, I suggest you take a look at the evidence that the global system for producing and delivering commodities is breaking down under the pressure of demand.

The world may indeed have plenty of oil, coal, copper, iron, nickel and other essential industrial commodities in the ground to meet current demand -- especially with the big incentives to production that current high prices provide. But there's increasing evidence that commodity industries are suffering from shortages in key materials, gear and personnel. And because of those shortages, they can't get the oil, coal, etc., out of the ground without substantially higher production costs.

And that argues that we're in for another round of commodity inflation in 2006 that will increasingly feed inflation for the economy in general. In November, the core CPI -- that's the CPI with the effects of food and energy prices stripped out -- climbed by 0.2%.

That doesn't seem like much, but November marked the second consecutive month when the core rate climbed by 0.2% instead of the 0.1% monthly increases of April through September. In January 2004, the core CPI hit a 40-year low at an annual rate of 1.1%. With the November number, the core CPI is showing annual inflation of 2.1%. That's still low, but you don't have to be chairman of the Federal Reserve to know which way the trend is headed.

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