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Tuesday, May 27, 2008 1:26 PM

Quantifying Commodities Speculation

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A debate has been raging as to exactly what percentage speculation is playing in the price of commodities. The Wall Street Journal is reporting Oil Is Up Because the Dollar Is Down.

Certainly energy prices have risen, regardless of what currency you use. In Europe, the price of oil has risen by 50 euros in the past five-and-a-half years. It now stands at about 75 euros per barrel, three times what it was then. But in the U.S., the price of oil has risen to over $120 per barrel, and is now almost five times what it was then.

The sole reason for this enormous difference is the incredible depreciation of the dollar against the euro. From one for one at the end of 2002, it now costs nearly $1.60 to buy a euro.
If the sole reason for higher oil prices was the falling US$ then oil would not be rising in every currency. Ironically, the author even mentions that the price of oil is going up in every currency.

[Added Comment: Some people pointed out that I may have misread the authors comment, in that "difference" pertained not to the rising price of oil itself (now vs. then) but rather the difference between the price of oil in Euros now vs. the price of oil in dollars now. It should go without saying that prices of anything will vary according to relative strength of currencies.]

Calculated Risk wrote about The Oil Speculation Debate, referring to Krugman's article More on oil and speculation.
One of the things I find puzzling about the whole oil market discussion is how complicated people seem to make it. They get all wrapped up in stuff about forward markets, hedge funds, etc., and lose sight of the fundamental fact that there are only two things you can do with the world’s oil production: consume it, or store it. If oil isn’t building up in inventories, there can’t be a bubble in the spot price.
Krugman Misses the Boat

There is a third thing one can do with oil, and that is continually roll over futures without ever taking delivery.

Michael W. Masters of Masters Capital Management, LLC spoke of Commodities Speculation before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Let's look at the highlights.
You have asked the question “Are Institutional Investors contributing to food and energy price inflation?” And my unequivocal answer is “YES.” In this testimony I will explain that Institutional Investors are one of, if not the primary, factors affecting commodities prices today. Clearly, there are many factors that contribute to price determination in the commodities markets; I am here to expose a fast-growing yet virtually unnoticed factor, and one that presents a problem that can be expediently corrected through legislative policy action.

What we are experiencing is a demand shock coming from a new category of participant in the commodities futures markets: Institutional Investors. Specifically, these are Corporate and Government Pension Funds, Sovereign Wealth Funds, University Endowments and other Institutional Investors. Collectively, these investors now account on average for a larger share of outstanding commodities futures contracts than any other market participant.

These parties, who I call Index Speculators, allocate a portion of their portfolios to “investments” in the commodities futures market, and behave very differently from the traditional speculators that have always existed in this marketplace. I refer to them as “Index” Speculators because of their investing strategy: they distribute their allocation of dollars across the 25 key commodities futures according to the popular indices – the Standard & Poors - Goldman Sachs Commodity Index and the Dow Jones - AIG Commodity Index.

Index Speculator Demand Is Driving Prices Higher

Today, Index Speculators are pouring billions of dollars into the commodities futures
markets, speculating that commodity prices will increase. Chart One shows Assets allocated to commodity index trading strategies have risen from $13 billion at the end of 2003 to $260 billion as of March 2008,5 and the prices of the 25 commodities that compose these indices have risen by an average of 183% in those five years!

Commodity Index Investment vs. Spot Prices

The next table looks at the commodity purchases that Index Speculators have made via the futures markets. These are huge numbers and they need to be put in perspective to be fully grasped.

In the popular press the explanation given most often for rising oil prices is the
increased demand for oil from China. According to the DOE, annual Chinese demand
for petroleum has increased over the last five years from 1.88 billion barrels to 2.8 billion barrels, an increase of 920 million barrels.8 Over the same five-year period, Index Speculatorsʼ demand for petroleum futures has increased by 848 million barrels. The increase in demand from Index Speculators is almost equal to the increase in demand from China!

Commodity Index Purchases Last 5 Years

Index Speculators have now stockpiled, via the futures market, the equivalent of 1.1 billion barrels of petroleum, effectively adding eight times as much oil to their own stockpile as the United States has added to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the last five years.

Index Speculator Demand Characteristics

Demand for futures contracts can only come from two sources: Physical Commodity
Consumers and Speculators. Speculators include the Traditional Speculators who have always existed in the market, as well as Index Speculators. Five years ago, Index Speculators were a tiny fraction of the commodities futures markets. Today, in many commodities futures markets, they are the single largest force.15 The huge growth in their demand has gone virtually undetected by classically-trained economists who almost never analyze demand in futures markets.

Index Speculator demand is distinctly different from Traditional Speculator demand; it arises purely from portfolio allocation decisions. When an Institutional Investor decides to allocate 2% to commodities futures, for example, they come to the market with a set amount of money. They are not concerned with the price per unit; they will buy as many futures contracts as they need, at whatever price is necessary, until all of their money has been “put to work.” Their insensitivity to price multiplies their impact on commodity markets.

Commodity Futures Market Size

As money pours into the markets, two things happen concurrently: the markets expand and prices rise. One particularly troubling aspect of Index Speculator demand is that it actually increases the more prices increase. This explains the accelerating rate at which commodity futures prices (and actual commodity prices) are increasing. Rising prices attract more Index Speculators, whose tendency is to increase their allocation as prices rise. So their profit-motivated demand for futures is the inverse of what you would expect from price-sensitive consumer behavior.

You can see from Chart Two that prices have increased the most dramatically in the first quarter of 2008. We calculate that Index Speculators flooded the markets with $55 billion in just the first 52 trading days of this year.19 That’s an increase in the dollar value of outstanding futures contracts of more than $1 billion per trading day. Doesn’t it seem likely that an increase in demand of this magnitude in the commodities futures markets could go a long way in explaining the extraordinary commodities price increases in the beginning of 2008?

There is a crucial distinction between Traditional Speculators and Index Speculators: Traditional Speculators provide liquidity by both buying and selling futures. Index Speculators buy futures and then roll their positions by buying calendar spreads. They never sell. Therefore, they consume liquidity and provide zero benefit to the futures markets.

Is this what Congress expected when it created the CFTC?

The CFTC Has Invited Increased Speculation

When Congress passed the Commodity Exchange Act in 1936, they did so with the understanding that speculators should not be allowed to dominate the commodities futures markets. Unfortunately, the CFTC has taken deliberate steps to allow certain speculators virtually unlimited access to the commodities futures markets.

The CFTC has granted Wall Street banks an exemption from speculative position limits when these banks hedge over-the-counter swaps transactions. This has effectively opened a loophole for unlimited speculation. When Index Speculators enter into commodity index swaps, which 85-90% of them do, they face no speculative position limits.

The really shocking thing about the Swaps Loophole is that Speculators of all stripes can use it to access the futures markets. So if a hedge fund wants a $500 million position in Wheat, which is way beyond position limits, they can enter into swap with a Wall Street bank and then the bank buys $500 million worth of Wheat futures.

In the CFTC’s classification scheme all Speculators accessing the futures markets through the Swaps Loophole are categorized as “Commercial” rather than “Non-Commercial.” The result is a gross distortion in data that effectively hides the full impact of Index Speculation.

Additionally, the CFTC has recently proposed that Index Speculators be exempt from all position limits, thereby throwing the door open for unlimited Index Speculator “investment.” The CFTC has even gone so far as to issue press releases on their website touting studies they commissioned showing that commodities futures make good additions to Institutional Investors’ portfolios.

Congress Should Eliminate The Practice Of Index Speculation

I would like to conclude my testimony today by outlining three steps that can be taken to immediately reduce Index Speculation.

Number One:
Congress has closely regulated pension funds, recognizing that they serve a public purpose. Congress should modify ERISA regulations to prohibit commodity index replication strategies as unsuitable pension investments because of the damage that they do to the commodities futures markets and to Americans as a whole.

Number Two:
Congress should act immediately to close the Swaps Loophole. Speculative position limits must “look-through” the swaps transaction to the ultimate counterparty and hold that counterparty to the speculative position limits. This would curtail Index Speculation and it would force ALL Speculators to face position limits.

Number Three:
Congress should further compel the CFTC to reclassify all the positions in the Commercial category of the Commitments of Traders Reports to distinguish those positions that are controlled by “Bona Fide” Physical Hedgers from those controlled by Wall Street banks. The positions of Wall Street banks should be further broken down based on their OTC swaps counter-party into “Bona Fide” Physical Hedgers and Speculators.

There are hundreds of billions of investment dollars poised to enter the commodities futures markets at this very moment. If immediate action is not taken, food and energy prices will rise higher still. This could have catastrophic economic effects on millions of already stressed U.S. consumers. It literally could mean starvation for millions of the world’s poor.

If Congress takes these steps, the structural integrity of the futures markets will be restored. Index Speculator demand will be virtually eliminated and it is likely that food and energy prices will come down sharply.
Forces At Play

1) The falling US Dollar
2) Commodities speculation by price insensitive index strategy players
3) Rules and regulations at the CTFC that have categorized as commercial hedgers, those who are in reality speculating in enormous size.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock
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