Global mining giants aren't the easiest investments to understand. Sure, they put shovels into the ground and pull stuff out, just like the little mining companies. But they tend to be far more diversified, digging up just about every commodity you can think of, from aluminum and coal, to copper and gold. They also tend to operate everywhere this side of Pluto.
However, if you are willing to take a bigger-picture view - and relax your take on, say, the price gyrations of manganese or the geopolitical situation within Congo - these stocks can be alluring.
BHP Billiton Ltd. is as big as they come. Though based in Australia, it has operations on six continents and the stock trades on several exchanges (including American depositary receipts, or ADRs, in New York). It has a market capitalization of more than $200-billion (U.S.) and last year sold a total of $50-billion worth of iron ore, coal, petroleum, base metals, aluminum and even diamonds.
In short, this stock is one giant bet on commodities, and that is by no means a bad thing when China and India continue to develop their economies at a frenetic pace, feeding on energy and metals and driving up prices in the process.
The big issue for investors: Should you invest now?
The stock has been on a roller-coaster ride over much of the past two years. The ADRs, which are priced in U.S. dollars, hit a peak of $95 in May of 2008 - only to slide a harrowing 74 per cent over the next six months as investors grew alarmed about the health of the global economy.
Then, with central banks slashing their key interest rates to unprecedented levels and governments driving up their deficits in an effort to stimulate their economies, BHP Billiton has bounced back by an impressive 217 per cent.
This year, though, the stock has struggled, rising less than 2 per cent. There's no mystery behind the recent hesitation: If global economic growth sputters, commodity prices could suffer. But if economic growth takes off, then central banks will raise interest rates and governments will remove their stimulative programs, potentially throttling the economic recovery.
On Friday, investors had a taste of what the future could look like. India's central bank unexpectedly raised its key interest rate, setting off a downturn in key commodity prices. And that's just India. What happens when the U.S. Federal Reserve raises its key rate from its current low of 0 per cent?
If you think such a move is still a long way off, then an investment in BHP Billiton looks good right now. After all, the stock (again, the ADRs that trades in New York) is still 18 per cent below its 2008 peak.
But the safer bet is to wait a few months. When other investors start fretting over what the global economy is going to look like without extraordinary levels of government support, that might be the best time to pounce.