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A general view of Qian'an steelworks of Shougang Corporation on January 20, 2016 in Tangshan, China.Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images

You, too, can be a commodity market expert.

Don't scoff. The abrupt, unexpected moves in recent weeks – including a record-breaking 19-per-cent jump in iron ore's price on Monday – may make you fear that understanding the dynamics of the metals markets is beyond any mortal's ken.

Fortunately, I've spent the past four days attending the annual Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada Conference in Toronto. The massive get-together of mining-industry movers and shakers was illuminating.

I emerged with three hard nuggets of insight, extracted from multiple interviews and presentations, then purified in the blast furnace of the journalistic mind.

I'm happy to share these treasures so you, too, can understand the commodity markets just as well – or just as poorly – as I do. Here goes:

It's all about China. No kidding, right? The Asian giant gobbles up half of the world's production of most industrial metals. As goes its economy, so goes the outlook for those metals.

Still, it's amazing how this simple truth can get overlooked. The knowledgeable folks at the PDAC convention largely yawned at the jump in iron prices on Monday, arguing it simply wasn't consistent with China's growth trajectory.

"This year will be another difficult year for commodities," Paul Robinson, a director of CRU Group consultancy, told one session. "We don't think what has happened in China over the past couple of days is sustainable."

He is probably right. On Wednesday, the Financial Times reported that a flower show in the Chinese industrial city of Tangshan was a major reason for the surge in iron-ore prices.

Tangshan's local steel mills had been ordered to throttle back on production from late April to October to keep skies clear for the 10 million visitors that are expected to attend an international horticultural exhibition. This past weekend, the city urged the mills to increase output ahead of the shutdown – and that, in turn, appears to have sparked a manic rush to order extra iron ore on Monday.

So everything truly does depend on China. Or at least on Chinese flower shows.

For every price action, there are equal and opposite explanations. One of the stars of the convention was gold. The yellow metal is off to a rip-roaring start to 2016 and lots of folks see it headed even higher.

The interesting question is why. One theory is that it's about a rush to safety. "There's a bit of strength right now in precious metals because all around the world people are losing faith in central bankers," Randy Smallwood, the chief executive of Silver Wheaton Corp., told me.

A rival theory, propounded by the team at Capital Economics, is that gold's new rush is based on economic optimism. Investors expect a surge in inflation as the U.S. economy picks up steam and so they're looking for a refuge.

Yet another theory is that gold production is peaking, creating a shortfall of the precious metal.

David Garofalo, the chief executive at Goldcorp Inc., told me he used to be a skeptic about the peak-gold theory, but has recently grown convinced. His company's research shows gold production by major producers is set to decline 8 per cent between 2015 and 2018.

So is gold's rise being driven by pessimism over monetary policy, optimism about growth ahead, or calculations of growing scarcity? Beats me. But I do know gold was everyone's favourite topic at the PDAC show.

The truth is out there. Finance theory says that capital markets are efficient processors of information and that any pricing discrepancies will be quickly resolved. Finance practice suggests otherwise.

Consider, for instance, the odd fact that metal prices have tumbled in recent years, but prices for mines mostly haven't. Barrick Gold Corp., for instance, was able to dispose of several non-core properties during 2015 at what look to be premium prices.

"Nothwithstanding the fact that the market has been in malaise, the prices [for mines] have been phenomenal," Rick McCreary, deputy chair of investment banking at TD Securities Inc., told a standing-room-only session on capital markets at PDAC.

This may speak to a shortage of high-class properties, but it's still rather puzzling.

Equally confounding is the discrepancy between the lofty yields that the bond market is demanding from many miners and the much more reasonable rates being charged by Canadian banks on loans to those same miners.

The gap seems to reflect Canadian banks' strategy of building lasting relationships by supporting the industry through thick and thin.

"The bond market has a very short-term focus," said Egizio Bianchini, global co-head of the metals and mining group at Bank of Montreal. "It's all about probability, with no weight given to optionality or relationships."

Fair enough, but it still raises the question of whether bond investors or bank lenders have evaluated the risk more precisely.

Consider that just one more mystery that you can now enumerate as an accredited commodity market expert.