Friday, June 27, 2008

The Baby and the Bath

Over the course of the last year, speculation has become a primary focus of concerns about the rapid increase in oil prices. For a Congress under intense pressure from constituents to address energy prices, regulating speculation in energy commodities could present the best prospect for appearing to deal decisively with the current energy crisis prior to the November election. Nor would I rule out the possibility that it might even provide some genuine price relief, although there are ample fundamental reasons for oil to be much dearer than it was just a few years ago. However, if Congress is going to take on the energy markets, it is imperative that it does so in a measured way, to avoid impeding their legitimate functions--some of which might be considered as speculative as the "commodity index" investment that has come in for the most severe criticism. Overkill could ultimately cost businesses, and eventually consumers, as much as inaction.

There's no shortage of conflicting opinions on this topic. A number of academics and financial experts have dismissed the possibility that speculation in oil futures could have much influence on the price of the physical commodity, pointing instead to the very real contribution of rapid demand growth in the developing world, slower production growth, particularly among non-OPEC producers, and the disappearance of global spare production capacity. Others have highlighted the recent and substantial flow of funds into the market from a new class of commodity investors, including pension funds and other institutions. They spot a cause-and-effect relationship in the accompanying rise in oil prices and find worrying parallels to the high-tech and housing bubbles. For my own part, I worry about the systematic linkages between the impact of this additional demand on futures prices and the mechanisms by which the price of oil purchased by refineries is set. But while I see a connection between speculation and higher fuel prices, I am skeptical of attempts to quantify it.

My background gives me a unique vantage point on this debate. After my graduate training in business and economics, I acquired a hands-on education in markets during a decade spent trading energy commodities for Texaco, Inc. This included a two-year stint trading international petroleum products from London, involving extensive dealings with our futures trading group and external floor broker. When I returned to Los Angeles, I was responsible for managing the commodity risk profile of the company's West Coast refining and marketing operations. Although this experience wasn't recent, I have no conflicts of interest in this area that would constrain my objectivity about the various proposals for regulating oil market speculation.

Some of the recent suggestions for regulating energy futures and derivatives trading might do more good than harm. This includes raising margin requirements, which might decrease liquidity, but also ought to reduce volatility by deterring investors from putting on enormous positions in hopes of turning small per-unit margins into huge aggregate gains, a strategy that hedge funds have employed in many markets. Shrinking volatility would be bad for traders, who thrive on it, but good for the economy. Closing the so-called "Enron Loophole" probably falls into a similar category of positive benefit vs. cost.

Other ideas seem likely to do much more harm to non-financial firms seeking to manage their business risks. For example, one of Senator Obama's recent anti-speculation proposals would force all energy commodities to trade on regulated exchanges. If this shut down the over-the-counter "swap" transactions that are used to bridge the price gaps between the small selection of crude and products traded on the NYMEX and the actual grades that companies buy and sell, it would make it much harder for businesses to hedge their risks. Airlines come to mind, here. Because there is no futures contract for jet fuel, an airline hedging its fuel supplies by buying crude oil or heating oil futures/options often also executes a swap covering the difference in price between jet and crude or jet and diesel. Otherwise, it runs the risk that when it purchase its jet fuel later, the hedge will have only appreciated by a fraction of the increase in the price of the physical product, or worse yet, might have lost money, while jet fuel prices continued to climb due to local or global scarcity. But as important as this transaction has become to airlines, it seems unlikely to generate the scale and liquidity required to merit launching an exchange-traded futures contract to cover it.

An even worse notion making the rounds on Capitol Hill would require anyone buying a futures contract to take physical delivery of the oil or product. As sensible as this might sound to the public, it would be catastrophic for the market and for the vast majority of participants, large and small, who use these markets to manage the enormous price risks associated with real-world energy activities. Even the small minority of players who rely on the NYMEX for physical supply in the New York Harbor would suffer, as liquidity for these contracts dried up. Consumers used to buying heating oil at a fixed-price for the season or year would probably lose this option, as all but the largest suppliers would be unable to offer this service.

Even the basic principle of limiting futures market activity to entities that produce or consume oil or its products is fundamentally flawed. On any given day, the producers and end-users wouldn't be active enough to make a real, liquid market. I experienced this first hand trading refined products on the West Coast. Top management preferred us to deal mainly with other oil companies, but when our own output fell short, the other refiners weren't always in the mood to sell. Without being able to buy from risk-taking independent traders who had previously taken a bet on the market, we would have run out of product on many occasions, and consumers would ultimately have been harmed.

Speculation plays an important role in lubricating the wheels of commerce, although it may also be contributing to higher oil prices, as investors increasingly turn to these markets as an inflation hedge or as another long-term asset class. My advice to Congress is to err on the side of caution in regulating energy commodity trading, and to specify very precisely which activities they want to rein in, rather than designing indirect and intricate rules that would ultimately entangle many participants that are essential to the efficient functioning of these markets. If Congress disrupted the entire energy market, just to constrain speculation by pension funds and other portfolio investors, the resulting chaos would hardly benefit consumers.

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