Category Archives: commodities

Crude oil basis risk is receding… for now.

Companies that hedge oil prices have been forced to reevaluate their strategies over the last couple of years. Many companies have used the NYMEX WTI contract, one of the oldest energy futures contracts and still one of the most liquid. The WTI contract is for oil delivered into Cushing, Oklahoma, but since crude oil is a global commodity and transportation links have historically been good, fluctuations in the WTI price have been a reasonable benchmark for global supply and demand.

However, in the last few years, the differential between WTI and Brent, the other leading global benchmark, have exploded and been very volatile. Suddenly, geography made a great deal of difference. Technology has opened up new production in North America, first from the Canadian oil sands and more recently from US tight oil fields. A bottleneck in the capacity of pipelines for shipping production out of Oklahoma down to the US Gulf Coast meant that the central US experienced a glut of supply, disconnecting the regional price from the global one.

Historical Spreads 2

This has meant that fluctuations in NYMEX’s WTI futures price reflected local variations in demand and supply that did not necessarily track variations in global supply and demand and global crude price. Hedgers not located in the central US faced increasing basis risk in using the WTI contract. Some switched to using the ICE Brent contract instead. Others adjusted their hedge ratios. These events have been a key feature of the recent marketing duels between NYMEX and ICE over which contract is best.

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Futurization wheat and chaff


Finally, a journalist has located a real cost of futurization, as opposed to the many imagined ones.


Is wholesale power trading as profitable a line of business as they say?

EDF Trading

Gregory Meyer, in today’s Financial Times, reports that banks are scaling back their trading in U.S. wholesale electric power markets. In his companion article, he quotes me saying that

The banks had the balance sheet, but the reality was it was the taxpayers that were giving them the balance sheet. It’s not clear we want the taxpayer subsidising proprietary trading in electricity or even hedging in electricity.

I am very circumspect about whether power trading operations are as profitable as they are often advertised to be. Here’s one reason why.

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With a hedge, could Conoco have it all?

conoco logo

Liam Denning’s Heard on the Street column in this morning’s Wall Street Journal is reliably hard-nosed about budget trade-offs:

Investors want it all—but they should be careful about companies that promise it.

ConocoPhillips is a case in point. … E&P stocks tend to compete on growth, whereas the integrated majors are prized for how much cash they return to shareholders. Conoco offers both. It targets annual production growth of between 3% and 5% a year out to 2016. And it offers a dividend yield of 4.6%, around double the average for its peers.

What’s not to like about that?

…Conoco’s near-term strategy implicitly relies on high oil prices, not merely to provide operating cash flows but also to attract high prices for disposals. The danger is not that Conoco suddenly can’t pay its dividend; indeed, it has prioritized it. Rather, it is that weaker prices or unexpected costs would upset the cash-flow math and force investors to dial back their enhanced expectations–and Conoco’s valuation with them.

Conoco’s exposure to oil prices is a matter of choice, not circumstances. The company does practically no hedging. The company’s stated “policy is to remain exposed to the market price of commodities.” In fact, the company takes this curious commitment so far that “we use swap contracts to convert fixed-price sales contracts which are often requested by natural gas and refined product customers, to floating market prices.”[1]

Conoco has good company as a non-hedger. We’ve written before about the notable fact that ExxonMobil refuses to hedge. But even among smaller E&P firms, roughly 50% of the firms report no hedges at all in any given year.[2]

Perhaps Conoco can afford to remain exposed. Its balance sheet is in very good shape so that it has unused debt capacity which could cover some shortfall. Nevertheless, if exposure to commodity prices were truly a threat to Conoco’s twin goals of investing for growth and paying a reliable dividend, the company could do something about that. But to do so would require giving up its third goal of being fully exposed to oil prices.

Two out of three ain’t bad.

[1] ConocoPhillips Form 10-K for FY2011, p. 74.

[2] Haushalter, G. David, 2000, Financing Policy, Basis Risk and Corporate Hedging: Evidence from Oil and Gas Producers, Journal of Finance 55, 107-152.

Reading the Term Structure

Natural gas prices have been rising recently. But I always like to look at the whole term structure of futures prices to get a better sense of what is really going on. My colleagues at CRA, Billy Muttiah and James Dunning, prepared this chart which overlays snapshots of the term structure at the start of the last several months. It tells a simple story.

Natural Gas Futures Prices - 12-05-2012

What’s going on is mostly a story about the long-run. Only a small amount of recent spot price changes are due to short-run factors and changes in the spot vs. futures price. Prices at all maturities have been going up. And the shifts are roughly parallel throughout the term structure.

A quick look like this doesn’t clarify whether it is long-run demand shocks, long-run supply shocks or any number of other combination of factors. But it does focus attention in the right place.

Futurization #4 — an agenda item for the CFTC hearing

In a speech this past Friday, CFTC Commissioner Scott O’Malia once again voiced his concern that burdensome swap dealer registration rules and disadvantageous margin requirements for swaps may be driving the futurization of derivatives trading. He proposed that the Commission host a hearing on the futurization question in order to inform development of the right rules for the swaps market.

In order for a hearing to be informative, it is essential to put the right questions on the agenda. I suggest the Commission squarely ask what swap markets are for?

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Futurization #3 — long live innovation and customization

Defenders of the OTC swaps model like to talk a lot about the ability to custom tailor the terms of a swap to each customer’s particular needs, and also about the room given to innovate new product designs. The listed futures exchange model cannot accommodate this degree of innovation and customization. That’s true, as far as it goes.

Fortunately, the Dodd-Frank OTC derivative reforms preserve a space for this element of the OTC swaps model. Customized swaps are still allowed. Swaps that implement new product designs are still allowed. Exchange trading is not mandatory for all swaps. Clearing is not mandatory for all swaps.

When we talk about futurization of swaps, we are talking about the larger subset of swaps that are either already marketed as off-the-rack products, or that can be easily repackaged as such. This represents the vast majority of OTC swap trading.

Dodd-Frank was architected to allow standardized derivative trading either on the newly created swap exchanges or on the pre-existing futures exchanges. The current talk about futurization is all about the choices being made for trading these standardized derivatives. Instead of transitioning onto swap exchanges, they are moving out of the swaps marketplace and onto the futures marketplace. Customized derivatives will have to continue to be offered as swaps, which Dodd-Frank explicitly allows.

Moving standardized derivatives onto exchanges, and clearing those transactions can benefit customers. There is a lot to be gained from encouraging efficiency and product development in ready-to-wear derivatives.

Artisinal production has its benefits, but mass production does, too. The Dodd-Frank reform permits both.

It never hurts to check the data

This coming Friday the CFTC will be hosting a Research Conference on derivatives markets. The agenda touches on HFT, swaps market structure and the financialization of commodities.

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SEC Staff examines copper ETFs with blinders on

The SEC is currently considering whether to allow JP Morgan and Blackrock to list new copper ETF’s on the NYSE Arca. Some copper industry players oppose the listing, as does U.S. Senator Carl Levin and the advocacy group Americans for Financial Reform. Comment letters can be found here. Earlier this month, SEC Staff in the Division of Risk, Strategy, and Financial Innovation filed a memo reporting its empirical analysis that downplays any potential problem. That memo is a testament to how America’s financial regulators too often fail in their duty to protect the sound functioning of US financial markets.

The SEC staff asks two narrow questions.

First, is there a simple and enduring mechanical link between the flow of money into a commodity ETF and the price of copper. They answer, ‘no.’

Second, is there a simple linear relationship between copper inventories and copper prices. Again, they answer, ‘no.’

The Staff’s analysis is faulty in many ways. Both industry players and the advocacy group Americans for Financial Reform filed careful, detailed critiques of the econometrics and reasoning. These are well worth reading, and thoroughly impugn the soundness of the Staff’s conclusions.

What alarms me most is the narrow scope of the questions that the Staff posed, even had they bothered to do a thorough analysis of those questions. A proper regulator needs to assure that the market functions well. There are any number of ways in which its operation can be disrupted. We have a long, long history of commodity markets in the US, and that means we have a long history with market manipulation and other price distortions. We have a long, long history with financial markets in the US, and that means we have many experiences with asset bubbles, especially in the recent past with the dotcom and housing bubbles, as well as the oil price bubble. Neither of the two empirical tests the SEC Staff examined touches in any way on the issues one would want to examine in order to assure the sound functioning of the copper market and the healthy contribution that financial trading could make to the market. The mechanical link the Staff searched for would not show up in a market rife with manipulation. Nor is that mechanical link necessarily symptomatic of an asset price bubble. So failing to find such a link provides no assurances that this market will function properly. And it is alarming that the SEC Staff does not explore any of these other important issues that must be settled. Just as the SEC Staff did in the Madoff case, it carefully asks the wrong questions and thereby comes to easy answers.

Personally, I’m confident that financial markets have a valuable contribution to make in extending the efficiency and productivity of the real economy. I believe that’s true for all commodity markets as well, copper included. But making that happen requires active engagement by US regulators, and not a ‘see no evil’, hands off, laissez faire approach. That way lies market disruption and an undermining of the productivity of the economy.

The SEC can do better. It must. American industry depends on it.

Futurization #2 – why?

Why Futurize Swaps?

Futurization is the movement of derivative trades out of the OTC swaps marketplace and into the futures marketplace. There are different ways in which this shift may take place. Economically, they all have one thing in common: a recognition that there is in fact nothing special about swaps as a financial instrument. In general, any package of risk that can be structured via a swap can also be structured using futures and options contracts that can be traded in the futures marketplace.

The essential distinction between the OTC swaps marketplace and the futures marketplace is the regulatory rules, not the product designs that can be offered. Of course, a difference in regulatory rules can be economically significant, too. But it is important to keep straight the real source of any economic impact.

Prior to the Dodd-Frank Act, the OTC swaps marketplace lacked regulatory oversight, transparency and clearing, and the vast majority of derivative trades were executed in this marketplace as a result. After the Dodd-Frank Act, all OTC swaps trades are subject to regulatory oversight, and the vast majority must be traded transparently and cleared. There are exceptions that allow the OTC swaps market to continue offering swaps that are custom designed, and therefore ill-suited to exchange trading and clearing. However, for the vast majority of swaps, the Dodd-Frank Act removed the main advantage of the OTC swaps marketplace. With the mandates of oversight, transparency and clearing, the main raison d’être is gone.

Consequently, all players in the industry are now reassessing the choice of venue for derivatives trades: the OTC swaps market or the futures market. When the new calculus leads them out of swaps and into futures, that is the essence of the futurization of swaps.

How is the futurization of swaps to take place? I group the different ways into two main categories.

First, in many cases, plain vanilla futures and option contracts can easily substitute for swaps.

This is exemplified by the recent decision by the ICE to simply switch its cleared energy swaps into futures contracts. There was more to it than simply changing the package label, but not much more. ICE’s cleared energy swaps may be a special case for the ease with which such a transition can be executed, but from an economic standpoint it is much more representative than is yet widely recognized.

The vast majority of interest rate and foreign exchange swap transaction could be readily supplanted by plain vanilla futures and option contracts, as can other commodity swaps. For example, the CME’s IMM has long offered interest rate and currency futures which serve the same risk packaging function as interest rate and currency swaps. But these products were overshadowed by the OTC swaps marketplace because that marketplace had the advantage of not being regulated. Now that the Dodd-Frank Act has imposed comparable regulatory rules which remove the advantage of the OTC marketplace, these products may once again come out from under the shadow of the OTC and steal back the business. That hasn’t happened yet. But be patient.

A second, more contorted category involves attempts to somehow trade swaps, but to do it under the futures regulatory rules. These are the so-called “swap futures”. One example comes from the CME, which, in September, announced plans to launch its interest rate swap futures product. This is a futures contract where the underlying product is a traditional interest rate futures contract. So long as the customer owns the futures contract, the margining and other regulatory rules of the futures exchange apply. But, if the contract is held to delivery, then the customer finds itself holding an OTC swap, and the margining and regulatory rules of the OTC swaps marketplace then apply. Another example comes from the upstart Eris Exchange, which launched its interest rate swap futures product back in 2010. Instead of making the underlying product an actual swap, Eris cash settles its futures product to mimic those on an OTC swap.

This second category has all the buzz, currently. But perhaps not for long. The push for this second category is predicated on the idea that it is possible to have the best of both worlds—the current regulatory arbitrage benefits of the futures marketplace along with the economic advantages of swaps. But there never were any special economic advantages of swaps, so the underlying rationale for swap futures is faulty. After the buzz dies down, and the players recognize the problem, the action may turn back to the first category. On that, we are still waiting. Be patient.