Thursday, August 21, 2008

Defining Speculation

Oil market speculation is back in the news, because Vitol S.A., one of the world's largest oil-trading firms, has apparently been re-classified as a "non-commercial" market participant by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). That marks them as a speculator, this year's scarlet letter. Before we pass judgment on the influence of such firms on the price of oil, and thus on the petroleum products consumers buy, it's worth considering what we really mean by speculation, and how this might be distinct from the activities of the participants that the CFTC deems "commercial", i.e. those conducting futures, options and swap transactions in conjunction with their physical production or consumption of various forms of energy. More importantly, we should evaluate whether speculation is an important enough factor in the oil market to merit distracting us from the urgent pursuit of solutions that would expand energy supplies and shrink demand.

As big as they are, Vitol hardly fits the profile of the kind of speculators that stand accused of driving up the price of oil and everything connected to it to unprecedented levels. Vitol has been trading oil since the 1960s, and I did my first deal with them in the 1980s, when I traded petroleum products for Texaco's West Coast refining and marketing subsidiary. I got a much better sense for just how large a player they were in the physical markets for oil, feedstocks and refined products when I traded international products in London in 1989-91. There were few markets in which Vitol didn't participate, and a few niches that they dominated. Although I haven't had any contact with them in at least 14 years, their growth during that interval has been impressive. So I was hardly shocked to learn that they had apparently accounted for a significant fraction of the open interest in crude oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) earlier this year. Any non-producer transacting the volumes of physical oil and products deals they do could not manage their business properly without extensive use of futures, options and over-the-counter swaps, little of which could fairly be called speculation.

Texaco's trading division had very firm rules about speculation on futures or options, which it defined as long or short positions that weren't directly linked to a like quantity of physical oil or products we were buying, selling, or holding in inventory, contemporaneously. Even for a group focused on "wet" cargoes--actual liquids on ships, barges, or in pipelines--that was sometimes limiting, because it meant we had to do the physical transaction first, and then scramble to hedge it. But while we couldn't take "naked" long or short positions in the market, we could transact "spreads" that were basically bets on some aspect of the market, such as a widening or narrowing of the price difference between futures contract months, or between different products, or different locations. While we weren't speculating on the absolute price, risking large swings in profit and loss, we were certainly risking smaller amounts on these other market attributes. I think most people would consider that speculation, since we didn't have to do it to support our physical trading or the company's much larger producing and refining businesses. But aside from some modest, inconsistent profits it gave us insights into market trends that passive observers don't usually gain: if you really want to understand a market, you have to be in the market.

Now consider Vitol, buying and selling oil and product cargoes all over the world and owning interests in oil terminals on three continents, a few oil fields, and a small refinery in the Persian Gulf. That doesn't put them in the same league as ExxonMobil--which, unless things have changed a great deal since the Exxon-Mobil merger in 1999, doesn't trade on the NYMEX at all--or legitimize every position they take as non-speculative. However, it's a far cry from the stereotypical view of asset-class commodity speculation by pension funds and hedge funds, executed by twenty-somethings who wouldn't know an octane from an antelope. That's important, because long-established oil trading firms like Vitol have institutional memories that span many up and down cycles of the oil market and know that a trend can turn when you least expect it. It doesn't mean they wouldn't risk a big loss to make a big profit, but in my estimation it makes them poor candidates to be the driving force behind a wave of speculation perceived to have pushed the price of oil beyond the level that could be explained by the fundamentals alone.

The roughly 20% drop in oil prices since the beginning of July should calibrate our estimates of the influence of such speculation. It was clearly not sufficient to maintain momentum in the face of weakening fundamentals of demand, supply and risk. At the same time, our response ought to distinguish between the kind of speculation represented by oil market neophytes hoping to cash in on an attractive investment trend, and the speculation that is an absolute requirement of a smoothly-functioning commodities market. Anyone who thinks the oil market would work just fine with only producers, refiners and end-users has never spent a day trading, or seen liquidity vanish just when a specific transaction was most desirable or necessary, because there was no middleman willing to take it on as a bet. But regardless of whether one variety of speculation should concern us more than another, the market's dramatic response to sliding demand serves notice to policy makers that their best and most productive avenue for addressing the impact of high oil prices is surely prompt and meaningful action on supply and demand, rather than rounding up today's version of the usual suspects.

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