Posts Tagged ‘excessive speculation’

Fundamental Misconceptions in the Speculation Debate

July 29, 2009

Today’s Wall Street Journal features a misguided editorial blasting the CFTC for considering constraints on oil speculation.  The piece serves as a good reminder of how often those schooled only in the stock and bond world misunderstand the function of the futures market and the role of speculators within that arena.  The Journal’s editors and others are trying to apply the rules of those capital markets to contract markets like commodity futures.  This makes no more sense than trying to play a game of baseball by the rules of football.  In real life, as in the sports analogy, playing by the wrong rules leads to chaotic consequences.

Misconception #1: who should determine price?  In the capital markets, speculators and investors determine the price of securities.   This is not the way the commodity futures markets are supposed to operate.  Commodities are consumables, not investment vehicles.  Economic efficiency demands that the price  be determined by those that produce or  use these resources.  The role of the speculator in price discovery should only be on the margin, testing the limits to see when commercial demand or supply enters the market.  Speculators in these markets should not be the primary determinants of price. 

“Overspeculation” or “excessive speculation” exists when speculators become primary drivers of price.  When this happens, commodities are no longer efficiently allocated —  if prices are driven below the point where commercial supply and demand meet, shortages result.  When prices are driven to excessively high levels, economically wasteful inventory buildup is created; Nobel laureate Paul Krugman recently reversed his opinion on the impact of speculation,  pointing to huge oil stores as evidence that oil prices have been artificially inflated.  More dire consequences also can be the result of these price distortions, including unnecessary and economically damaging price volatility and even the potential for a systemic crisis in the oil industry and it financiers.

Misconception #2:  We need all this speculation for liquidity.  The commodity futures markets absolutely need a healthy amount of speculation to bridge the gap between commercial interests who may not be in the market at the identical time.  But just like any powerful medicine, an overdose causes more harm than good.  Speculation is good only up to the point where speculation becomes the main determinant of price. 

There has been a great amount of confusion between volume, open-interest and liquidity.  Traditional speculators are short-term traders who are indifferent to being long or short the market — such volume indeed creates liquidity.  Much of the problem has been created by the new breed of non-commercial participant, particularly the commodity indexed funds which are long term holders and are overwhelmingly oriented to the long side of the market.  They represent not liquidity, but a big fat bid, which actually drains liquidity from the markets by crowding out long commercial interests.

Misconception #3:  Investors need unconstrained access to the commodity markets to protect against inflation.  The idea that commodities are the only inflation hedge available to investors has been heavily promoted by those that profit from selling commodity-linked products.  This is simply a myth promulgated by Wall Street marketing departments.  As I’ve written about before, investors have very real, and possibly superior, alternatives, from TIPS to commodity linked equities. 

Misconception #4:  Position limits are an abridgement of free market rights.  The confusion of capital markets with contract markets comes into play here.  The imposition of constraints on non-commercial participation is not about heavy-handed regulation, but about appropriate market governance.  In the capital markets, I know of nobody who complains about rules against front-running, touting or insider trading.  Those are rules designed to protect the integrity of capital markets.  Contract markets like futures exchanges need rules to protect their integrity as well.  It’s just that different markets require different types of rules.  In the futures markets, integrity implies that commercial interests determine price, and this requires governance that restrains non-commercial participants.  Speculative position limits are one of the time-tested ways to ensure this critical integrity.

Informed people of good will can argue whether the markets are indeed “overspeculated” at this point.  We can reasonably debate whether position limits are the appropriate response, or whether whole different types of governance are needed.  One can perhaps even argue whether the risks of overspeculation to the economy should be balanced against the risks to Wall Street profits from curtailing their activities.  However, those that argue that the futures markets should play by the rules of the capital markets merely reveal their ignorance.

Defining Excessive Speculation

July 14, 2009

The Commodity Exchange Act was passed in 1936.  The legislation mandates that regulators prohibit “excessive speculation,” but never defines the term.  In the current public debate about the role of speculation, there’s been some understandable unease as we all should feel discomfort at the thought of prohibiting any transactions in a free market system.  It’s important to move towards a definition of “excessive speculation” if our policymakers are going to comply with existing law properly and if we are going to have functioning commodity markets.

It should be understood that “speculation” in the commodity world is a specific, technical term which has no ethical connotations.  Speculation is simply those transactions entered into by entities with no legitimate commercial interest in the underlying commodity (or related commodity – e.g., an airline might legitimately hedge jet fuel costs with heating oil futures).    The university endomwent manager making a permanent allocation to a commodity index is just as much a “speculator” as the day trader trying to make a quick buck in pork bellies.  In other words, if you’re not a bona fide hedger, by definition you’re a speculator. 

The introduction of OTC commodity swap contracts puts a slight twist on this definition.  Wall Street’s swap desks are essentially “pass through” entities — if a swap desk is offsetting risks underwritten to a legitimate hedger, then their futures positions should be viewed as hedge positions; conversely if they are offsetting risks to say, an indexed endowment or to a commodity ETF, these should be considered non-commerical, speculative positions.  The swap industry has tried to argue that every position they take is a hedge for some contract they’ve written — to my thinking this is an intellectually dishonest argument; the key factor is the commodity exposure of the end client, not the intermediary.

So just when is speculation “excessive”?  In theory, the price of futures and derivatives should be a reflection of physical market pricing.  That is, the price of consumable, commercial goods should be set by the consumers and users of such commodities.  This makes good economic sense for allocating resources.  The activities of non-commercial futures and OTC derivatives market participants should not determine the pricing.  The reality has always been more complex — traditional speculators have served to bridge the momentary lack of a match of commercial interests (i.e., buyers and sellers not coming together at the exact time), and in doing so, set a market price.  Speculators have also served to push the boundaries, finding out where commercials will enter the market, thus performing a price discovery role.  However, in each of these traditional roles, commercial interests are “in the drivers seat” and the prime, long-term actor in setting price.

A good definition of “excessive speculation” is the market condition where non-commercial interests set the price.  This occurs when speculative interests dwarf commercial volume and crowd out commercial transactions at a given price.  The textbook belief is that this can never happen on the assumption that commodity prices are extraneous to derivatives market activity, and that there is an infinite supply of capital on both side of the market.  Under such a theoretical system, when long speculators push up the price above the “true” level, for example, an adequate number of shorts will come in to stabilize prices.  This is clearly an idealized and inaccurate set of assumptions as there is no known “true” price, speculative capital is not infinite, nor is it now neutral (many new entrants, e.g., institutions indexing, have a long bias).  In the real world, speculation can be excessive.

Many commodity markets today display symptoms of excessive speculation.  The breakdown of the basis (relation between physical and futures prices) and lack of convergence (cash and futures prices aligned at time of delivery) in certain agricultural commodities, the unusually high corellation with financial assets, and the huge buildup in oil inventories all bear witness to prices being distorted by non-commercial interests.   The Wall Street firms that have profited from promoting and facilitating this participation are steadfastly denying the obvious evidence — they know that the simple recognition of this excessive speculation would compel regulators to act.

The crafters of the Commodity Exchange Act were right to worry about excessive speculation.  When commodity prices are distorted by speculators, we all bear the economic burden – prices set too low cause disruptive shortages, those set too high result in wasteful inventory buildup.  Distorted prices can send the wrong signal to the Federal Reserve and to investors.  Erratic basis and convergence can financially ruin commercial participants and render the markets commercially unusable.  The United States built up a huge competitive advantage in credible commodity exchanges — all this could be lost, too.

There are few higher economic callings for our regulators than ensuring the integrity of our financial markets.  The policymakers of 1936 understood the dangers in “excessive speculation.”   The CFTC begins public hearings on rules designed to protect against just this danger today.  Let’s hope they get it right.

Another Reason Oil Prices Are Falling?

July 10, 2009

Last August, economist Robert McCullough examined the volatility in the crude oil market surrounding the price spike on July 3, 2008 and the subsequent fall in energy prices.  In his final report McCullough examined the many events and announcements that had the potential to impact oil prices over this period.  He found that fundamental factors of supply and demand were not statistically significant, but found (on page 13 of the pdf):

The proxy for the short-lived Commodity Markets Transparency and Accountability Act of 2008 was highly significant. Interestingly, this was the only variable that would have affected excess speculation as opposed to supply and demand fundamentals…. One conclusion to be drawn from these statistics is that the news stories cited by pundits to explain the dramatic spike in oil prices have little or no explanatory power.

In other words, the prospect of regulation of the futures markets had a statistically significant impact on prices.   Let’s fast forward to the steep drop in crude this month.  While there’s certainly been negative news on the economy, we had some negative news at various points while oil doubled from February.  It is at least worth noting that the recent drop in oil coincided with a period in which Washington is seriously considering constraints on excess speculation in the energy markets. 

To the degree that excess speculation is a factor in artificially inflating oil prices, it needs a constant inflow of new money to sustain those prices, just like a Ponzi scheme needs new funds to keep the game going.  It’s hard to imagine money managers continuing to commit capital to commodities at the risk that they might be forced to liquidate if position limits are imposed.

More on the Wheat/Crude Oil Connection

July 6, 2009

Apparently the Senate report of excessive speculation in the wheat market has moved (discussed in this post last week).   All 247 pages of it can now be found here.

Going through the report, one of the footnotes briefly references an op-ed of mine that appeared in the Boston Globe last August and can be found here.

It’s interesting to see the Senate report touch upon the crude oil/wheat connection — the authors are absolutely right to see linkage.  That connection is the fact that we are treating contract markets (whether exchange trades futures or OTC swaps) as if they were capital markets.  These markets were designed with different ends in mind (contract markets are designed for risk transference, while capital markets are designed for investment), and require different rules of governance.  

Whenever I write about the need for regulatory reform in these markets, I get some responses accusing me of everything from gross ignorance of the commodity markets to Marxism.  The need for reform is consistent with broad free-market beliefs, but recognizes that those markets need governance (not necessarily governmental) to protect their integrity.  In the capital markets, everyone accepts the need for prohibitions against front-running customer orders or trading on inside information.  Contract markets need rules, too, (e.g., speculative position limits) and while these rules differ from those that govern investment markets, we should accept that they are no less critical.