Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Speculation Witch Hunt?

This morning's financial press was riveted by the prospect of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) imposing tough new regulations on energy markets. Speculation has been widely blamed for the run-up in oil prices since early spring--as well as for last year's roller-coaster up to $145 per barrel and then down to $34--though in a subtle but important shift the focus seems to be turning to volatility, which is a very different thing than absolute price levels. I don't need to add my voice to the many already warning that limits on speculative positions could hamper the proper functioning of the market by drying up liquidity and depriving "legitimate" participants of the access to hedging they need. Instead, I believe the CFTC and its supporters in Congress and the administration are barking up the wrong tree, altogether, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the markets.

Let's begin by stipulating that speculation probably has a finite but impossible-to-quantify impact on oil prices. I pointed out this likelihood in mid-2007, when oil prices were at roughly their current level and before they began their wild ride. I've also described the difficulties involved in discerning precisely which trades are speculative and which aren't, based on my own experience trading oil commodities, futures and derivatives over a 10-year span earlier in my career. However, the current determination to clamp down on speculation appears to be based on two hypotheses that are not only unprovable in the real world, but probably entirely false: First, that in the absence of speculation, oil prices would not have spiked to nearly the degree they did last year and would be much lower today than they are, and second, that a market without speculators--or indeed without any futures trading at all--would be inherently less volatile than one in which those factors are present.

The latter proposition is easier to refute, because we've seen ample volatility in markets for which no futures contracts or easily-traded derivatives exist. I experienced this first-hand in the west cost spot gasoline market in the 1980s, a market consisting entirely of the trading representatives of local refiners and a small number of trading companies, some with storage tanks but many with no fixed assets other than a phone and a desk. Every time a refinery experienced a major operational upset, the market would spike by as much as a dime a gallon--a significant fraction of the value of a commodity that was trading well under a buck at the time. I recall one instance when the coking unit of my employer's L.A. refinery had a major fire and was out of commission for several months. Local supplies weren't adequate to cover the shortfall, and the gap had to be filled through imports. I started buying gasoline cargoes at around $0.60/gal., and by the time I had lined up all the supply we needed the price had hit $1.00/gal. before it fell back to more normal levels. That's volatility, and it is a feature of markets in tight balance between supply and demand, whether or not speculators play a role.

The question of where oil prices would have ended up last year absent speculation seems much more complex, until you consider that between 2002 and 2007 global oil demand had been growing steadily at an average rate of more than 1.5 million barrels per day (MBD) per year, outpacing the growth of global supply, and crucially of non-OPEC supply. The latter was essentially flat from 2004-7, when the price of oil roughly tripled from the low-$30s to the low $90s. In effect, the demand curve was marching to the right against a supply curve with a sharply steepening slope, as spare capacity was used up and the long inherent time lags for new oil projects constrained the amount of new production that could be brought on quickly. That path was then quickly reversed in mid-2008, once it became clear just how rapidly demand was falling, both in direct response to the high price of petroleum products--the full manifestation of which in many markets was delayed by government price controls--and by contraction of the global economy due to what we now know was the onset of a recession on a scale not seen in decades. Between February and September of last year, demand in the developed world fell by an astonishing 3.5 MBD. We'll never know whether prices would have fallen sooner if speculation hadn't maintained its momentum during the first half of 2008, but it's borderline delusional to imagine we wouldn't have spiked above $100/bbl without it.

The Wall St. Journal's "Heard on the Street" column on this topic begins with the sage observation that blame is a commodity in infinite supply. To that I would add that we rarely like to apportion that blame on ourselves, though in this case the government would do well to consider how its own actions exacerbated last year's oil price spike and the run-up in prices we've seen this year. The oil markets are mainly driven by supply and demand, and with OPEC maintaining remarkable discipline and cohesion in the face of last year's demand collapse, the supply component that has the most influence in holding down oil prices is non-OPEC production. What has our government done to promote that production? Have we seen our elected officials traveling the world and using their influence and the still-considerable diplomatic and economic leverage of the US to urge producing countries to increase access for foreign firms and investors to new oil exploration and production opportunities, on attractive terms, as the Chinese government has? Have they fast-tracked development in the most promising regions of our own country that were off-limits for drilling, including the eastern Gulf of Mexico, where reserves have already been discovered?

Such actions didn't even occur under an administration that was widely viewed as being in the pocket of the oil industry, and they certainly aren't happening now, for reasons I could devote many more paragraphs to dissecting. "Drill, baby, drill" has given way to tax, baby, tax--and I'm not referring to the climate bill, here, but to earlier talk of a windfall profits tax to fund tax relief for the middle class, which has morphed into an effort to close perceived tax loopholes such as the intangible drilling allowance for producers and the manufacturing tax deduction for refiners. None of this is going to add a barrel of real oil to our supply, and it seems likely to eliminate more than a few, while we pin our hopes on corn ethanol that still only supplies 2% of our total liquid fuels demand, after adjusting for its lower energy content. How much of the market's volatility ultimately derives from our own deeply conflicted attitudes towards oil?

Oil prices have fallen by $10/bbl. or around 14% since June 29. This coincides with a general recognition that the economy hasn't yet turned the corner to a real recovery; we've also seen the S&P 500 drop by about 7% since mid-June. Now, you might suggest that this proves that speculators had driven up prices unrealistically, but it makes at least as much sense to suggest that the producers and consumers of physical oil and its products have altered their buying and inventory decisions in light of new information about the likely state of the economy for the rest of the year. No one can win that argument, but we can all lose if regulators impose tough new controls on energy markets based on a misunderstanding of what has occurred. To that end, while I am deeply skeptical of the idea of anyone at the CFTC passing judgment on what is and what is not a proper hedge, I wholeheartedly support Chairman Gensler's call for greater transparency of market reporting, and for a healthy dialog between the industry and its regulators aimed at reining in those practices most likely to add speculative froth to the market without contributing meaningfully to the liquidity required by all participants. Let's get the additional insights that transparency will bring us, before we decide to blunt the tools that actually provide one of the few means by which firms can mitigate the effect of underlying physical market volatility on their activities.

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