Mike Blake | Reuters
A Shell Oil facility in Carson, California
With commodity prices rallying off historical lows over the past year, pricing in "robust" expectations, but now, markets need to see real demand, Goldman Sachs said in a note late Tuesday.
"Commodity markets are likely to remain in a holding pattern as they wait for hard data to confirm the most recent leg up," Goldman said. "Markets need to see that the OPEC supply cuts generate real inventory draws and the strong manufacturing survey and Chinese credit data create real activity. In other words, 'show me the activity:' real demand, real stock draws and empty warehouses."
Goldman noted that recent data were indicating global gross domestic product (GDP) growth was tracking around 4.4 percent, above its own estimate for 3.6 percent.
"Confirmation of such robust activity and inventory draws has the potential to push prices above our expectations," it said, but added that the upside risks were greater in metals than in oil as U.S, shale producers were set to begin increasing supply, which would dampen crude prices.
Without follow through from real activity and inventory draws, commodity prices, and broader financial markets, were headed for a "significant correction," it said.
When it comes to oil, Goldman still expected WTI prices would rise as high as $57.50 a barrel in the second quarter, before slipping to around $55 for the rest of the year.
"While recent U.S. crude oil inventories show near record builds, we view imports as the key driver," it said. "Given the high compliance in January to the proposed [output] cuts, we believe that this import channel will reverse from March onward."
On copper, Goldman expected strong "old economy" demand in China, along with rising supply risks, would push up prices further.
Goldman said it was "agnostic" on gold, setting three-, six- and 12-month targets of $1,200, $1,200 and $1,250 an ounce respectively, not far from the current spot price of around $1,233.
With the bank forecasting three Federal Reserve interest rate hikes this year, it expected that would weigh on gold prices.
But at the same time, expectations that the U.S. stock-market rally would fade in the second half and geopolitical risks, such as European elections and potential trade frictions, would rise should be positive for gold prices, it noted.
Goldman did see a major downside risk to the price of one commodity: Palladium.
That's because it believed U.S. demand for autos may be near a peak.
"Weaving a bullish case for palladium is easy – metal is in a structural deficit, the majority of demand is from China/emerging markets where auto sales are still forecast to increase and the possibility of U.S. tax cuts could see increased auto sales," it said.
But it added that it expected the U.S. auto market would peak in 2016-17 and then decline over the next few years. It also cited a risk that potential U.S. trade restrictions on autos would result in higher car prices in the U.S. and lower sales.
—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1
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