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The Flip Side of Financialization of Commodities

Recently, a paper by Ilia Bouchouev (“From risk bearing to propheteering”) was published that had some very thought-provoking analysis. The paper traced the development of the use of futures and concluded that while futures markets in the past (specifically, he was considering energy markets but notes the idea started with agricultural commodities) tended towards backwardation – in which contracts for distant delivery dates trade at lower prices than those for nearer delivery dates – this is no longer as true. While others have noticed that futures markets do not seem to provide as much ‘roll return’ as in the past, Mr. Bouchouev suggested that this is not a random occurrence but rather a consequence of financialization. (My discussion of his fairly brief paper will not really do it justice – so go and read the original from the Journal of Quantitative Finance here).

Let me first take a step backward and explain why commodities markets tend towards backwardation, at least in theory. The idea is that a producer of a commodity, such as a farmer growing corn, has an affirmative need to hedge his future production to ensure that his realized product price adequately compensates him for producing the commodity in the first place. If it costs a farmer $3 per bushel to grow corn, and he expects to sell it for $5 per bushel, then he will plant a crop. But if prices subsequently fall to $2 per bushel, he has lost money. Accordingly, it behooves him when planting to hedge against a decline in corn prices by selling futures, locking in his margin. The farmer is willing to do this at a price that is lower than his true expectation, and possibly lower than the current spot price (although, technical note: Keynes’ ‘Theory of Normal Backwardation’ refers to the difference between his expected forward price and the price at which he is willing to sell futures, so that futures prices are expected to be downwardly biased forecasts of prices in the future, and not that they are expected to be actually lower than spot ‘normally’). He is willing to do this in order to induce speculators to take the other side of the trade; they will do so because they expect, on average, to realize a gain by buying futures and selling in the future spot market at a higher price.

Unfortunately, no one has ever been able to convincingly prove normal backwardation for individual commodities, because there is no way to get into the collective mind of market participants to know what they really expect the spot price to be in the future. Some evidence has been found (Till 2000) that a risk premium may exist for difficult-to-store commodities (agricultural commodities, for example), where we may expect producers to be the most interested in locking in an appropriate profit, but on the whole the evidence has been somewhat weak that futures are biased estimators of forward prices. In my view, that’s at least partly because the consumer of the product (say, Nabisco) also has a reason to hedge their future purchases of the good, so it isn’t a one-sided affair. That being said, owners of long futures positions have several other sources of return that are significant and persistent,[1] and so commodity futures indices over a long period of time have had returns and risks that are similar to those found in equity indices but deriving from very different sources. As a consequence, since the mid-2000s institutional investment into commodity indices has been significant compared to the prior level of interest, even as actual commodity returns have disappointed over the last 5-10 years. Which brings us back to Mr. Bouchouev’s story again.

He makes the provocative point that part of the reason commodity returns have been poorer in recent years is because markets have tended more toward contango (higher prices for distant contracts than for those nearer to expiry) than backwardation, and moreover that that is a consequence of the arrival of these institutional investors – the ‘financialization’ of commodities futures markets, in other words. After all, if Keynes was right and the tendency of anxious producers to be more aggressive than patient speculators caused futures to be downwardly biased, then it stands to reason that introducing more price-insensitive, institutional long-only buyers into the equation might tilt that scale in the other direction. His argument is appealing, and I think he may be right although as I said, commodities are still an important asset class – it’s just that the sources of returns has changed over time. (Right now, for what it’s worth, I think the potential return to spot commodities themselves, which are ordinarily a negative, are presently a strong positive given how badly beaten-down they have become over time).

All of that prelude, though, is to point out a wonderful corollary. If it is the case that futures prices are no longer biased lower by as much as they once were, then it means that hedgers are now getting the benefit of markets where they don’t have to surrender as much expectation to hedge. That is, where an oil producer might in the past have had to commit to selling next year’s oil $1 lower than where he expected to be able to sell it if he took the risk and waited, he may now be able to sell it $1 higher thanks to those institutions who are buying long-only indices.

And that, in turn, will likely lead to futures curves being extended further into the future (or, equivalently, the effective liquidity for existing markets will be extended further out). For example, over the last decade there have been several new commodities indices that systematically buy further out the curve to reduce the cost of contango. In doing so, they’re pushing the contango further out, and also providing bids for hedgers to be able to better sell against. So Mr. Bouchouev’s story is a good one, and for those of us who care about the financial markets liquidity ecosystem it’s a beautiful one. Because it isn’t the end of the story. Chapter 1 was producers, putting curves into backwardation to provide an inducement to draw out speculators to be the other side of the hedge. Chapter 2 is Bouchouev’s tale, in which financial buyers push futures markets towards contango, which in turn provides an inducement to draw out speculators on the other side, or for hedgers to hedge more of their production. In Chapter 3, also according to Bouchouev, the market balances with hedgers reacting to economic uncertainty, and speculators fill in the gaps. Of course, in Chapter 4 the Fed comes in and wrecks the market altogether… but let’s enjoy this while we can.


[1] …and beyond the scope of this article. Interested parties may refer to History of Commodities as the Original Real Return Asset Class, by Michael Ashton and Bob Greer, which is Chapter 4 in Inflation Risks and Products, 2008, by Incisive Media. You can contact me for a copy if you are unable to find it.

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