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Forex Blog - Whither the Price of Oil?
Whither the Price of
May 23, 2008
Those Nasty Index Speculators
Where Are All the Tankers?
Where Will Oil Prices Go?
Is it 1980 All Over Again?
The Middle East, California, and
Help for Myanma
Why has the price of oil risen so much in the past few months? Is it
a supply and demand issue as some believe; or is it because of an
out-of-control futures market driven by the proliferation of commodity
index funds and rampant speculation, as everyone tries to get in on the
rise in commodity prices? This is a very complex issue, with a lot of
emotion attached to it.
This week I try to give you an
understanding of why oil prices have risen and whether they are likely
to stay at such lofty heights or maybe even fall! And we look at a very
odd statistic: where are all the tankers? There are some very unusual
things happening in the oil patch. If you are currently exposed to the
energy or commodity markets, or are thinking about it, I believe you
will find this letter of interest. At the end of the letter, I also
tell you how you can personally see that help gets to the victims of
Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. It is a desperately needy situation. There
is a lot to cover, so we will get to the essay right after this quick
I have talked for the past few months about why I feel we
may be in for a tough investment environment and a Muddle Through
Economy. I think in this type of market cycle it is important to
increase your portfolio allocation weighting to noncorrelating
investment strategies. I work with Steve Blumenthal and his team at CMG
to help investors find managers who can take smaller minimums and who
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completed a special write-up on Eric Leake of Anchor Capital, an
investment advisor I am particularly impressed with. For the last
12-1/2 months, he is up 16.77%, in comparison to the S&P 500 index
that is down -2.08% (net of fees from April 30, 2007 through May 15,
2008). Equally impressive is that he has generated this return while
being uncorrelated to the S&P, and with lower volatility than the
You can get this report and others I have written by going to https://cmgfunds.net/public/mauldin_questionnaire.asp and filling out the form. If you are a manager and would like to be considered for the platform, drop a note to PJ Grzywacz at [email protected].
And if you are an investment advisor and would like to see the managers
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client portfolios, we do have a program to work directly with you.
And as always, if you have a net worth of over $2 million, I strongly suggest you go to www.accreditedinvestor.ws
and register there. My partners in the US (Altegris Investments),
London (Absolute Return Partners) and South Africa (Plexus) are experts
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commodity funds. We have a very strong selection of funds in a wide
variety of styles to help you diversify your portfolio. (In this
regard, I am president and a registered representative of Millennium
Wave Securities, LLC, member FINRA.) And now, let's jump into the oil
Those Nasty Index Speculators
institutional investors in the form of large commodity index funds the
reason behind the current rise not just in oil prices but in the prices
of seemingly all commodities? Michael Masters, a long-short hedge fund
manager, in testimony before the Congressional Committee on Homeland
Security and Governmental Affairs, said:
"You have asked the
question 'Are Institutional Investors contributing to food and energy
price inflation?' And my unequivocal answer is 'YES.' In this testimony
I will explain that Institutional Investors are one of, if not the
primary, factors affecting commodities prices today. Clearly, there are
many factors that contribute to price determination in the commodities
markets; I am here to expose a fast-growing yet virtually unnoticed
factor, and one that presents a problem that can be expediently
corrected through legislative policy action."
You can read the entire testimony at http://www.mcadforums.com/forums/files/michael_masters_written_testimony.pdf, but let's hear the basics of his argument:
we are experiencing is a demand shock coming from a new category of
participant in the commodities futures markets: Institutional
Investors. Specifically, these are Corporate and Government Pension
Funds, Sovereign Wealth Funds, University Endowments and other
Institutional Investors. Collectively, these investors now account on
average for a larger share of outstanding commodities futures contracts
than any other market participant.
"These parties, who I call Index Speculators, allocate
a portion of their portfolios to "investments" in the commodities
futures market, and behave very differently from the traditional
speculators that have always existed in this marketplace. I refer to
them as "Index" Speculators because of their investing strategy: they
distribute their allocation of dollars across the 25 key commodities
futures according to the popular indices - the Standard & Poors -
Goldman Sachs Commodity Index and the Dow Jones - AIG Commodity Index."
index funds are composed of a number of commodities. While oil is the
biggest component of the various funds, they also have exposure to
grains, base metals, precious metals, and livestock. When you buy one
of these funds you are buying a basket of commodities.
an investor want exposure to a long-only index of commodities? Perhaps
for portfolio diversification, as commodities are uncorrelated with the
rest of the portfolio, or as a way to play the growing demand for
commodities of all sorts from emerging markets, as a hedge against
inflation, and so on. Mainline investment consultants began to suggest
a few years ago to their clients that they get into the commodity
market on a buy and hold basis, just like they do with stocks and bonds.
they have done so in a very large way. As the chart below shows, at the
end of 2003 there was $13 billion in commodity index funds. By March of
this year, that amount had grown 20 times, to $260 billion. Masters
also shows that this corresponds with the stratospheric rise in
commodity prices. In many commodity futures markets, index speculators
are now the single largest participant.
Is Correlation Causation?
is no doubt that the rise in the investment in commodity indexes and
the rise in prices correlate significantly. But does correlation
necessarily mean that there is a direct cause and effect? Masters says
it does. (Later we will look at arguments against this view.)
an illustration, he shows that the rise in demand for oil from China in
the past five years has been 920 million barrels of oil per year. But
index demand (the word Masters uses) for oil has risen by 848 million
barrels, almost as much as another China.
And Masters gives us
facts that are interesting. There is enough wheat in the index
speculator "stockpiles" in the US to feed every many, woman, and child
all the bread, pasta, and baked goods they can eat for the next two
years - about 1.3 billion bushels. Yet wheat has soared in price.
the prices of the indexes have risen, the demand for the indexes has
grown. And these indexes are not price sensitive. If a billion dollars
is invested in a given week, the index funds simply buy whatever
allocation of futures contracts is needed to make up their index, at
whatever price is offered.
For the first 52 trading days of the
year, demand for commodity index funds grew by more than $55 billion,
or more than $1 billion a day. And as Masters points out, "There is a
crucial distinction between Traditional Speculators and Index
Speculators: Traditional Speculators provide liquidity by both buying
and selling futures. Index Speculators buy futures and then roll their
positions by buying calendar spreads. They never sell. Therefore, they consume liquidity and provide zero benefit to the futures markets.
Speculators' trading strategies amount to virtual hoarding via the
commodities futures markets. Institutional Investors are buying up
essential items that exist in limited quantities for the sole purpose
of reaping speculative profits."
And now we get inflammatory:
about it this way: If Wall Street concocted a scheme whereby investors
bought large amounts of pharmaceutical drugs and medical devices in
order to profit from the resulting increase in prices, making these
essential items unaffordable to sick and dying people, society would be
What about position limits? Aren't there real
limits to the amount of a physical commodity that a fund or speculator
can accumulate? Masters points out that there is, but the CFTC has
given investment banks a loophole, in that they can sell unlimited size
positions in the OTC swap markets if they hedge the positions.
a hedge fund could buy $500 million worth of wheat, which would be way
beyond the actual market position limit, through a swap with a Wall
Street bank, without having to worry about position limits. And there
is no doubt that large purchases of any commodity will drive up prices,
at least in the short term.
What does Masters think Congress
should do? Prohibit pension funds from commodity index buying, close
the swaps loophole on speculative positions, and make the CFTC
(Commodity Futures Trading Commission) provide more transparency as to
who is buying commodities. That would stop those nasty index
speculators from driving up food and energy prices. Prices would come
back down and we could all go back to driving our SUVs without having
to worry about the cost.
Well, then, maybe not. It is not that
simple. While there is no doubt that excess demand in the form of index
buying can have a very real effect -on prices, it is not the whole
What an index funds does is buy a futures contract for a
given commodity when money is first invested. Say that contract is six
months out. When the contract is one month from expiration or delivery,
the index fund sells that contract and buys another contract six months
out. They sell before the contract could have an effect on the cash
price of the physical commodity. The cash price is determined by supply
Let's look at supply. Masters mentioned wheat. Yes,
the index speculators have built up a large futures position. But that
is not the same as a large physical position. With demand soaring
abroad and droughts crimping supply, the world's wheat stockpiles have
fallen to their lowest level in 30 years, and stocks in the United
States have dropped to levels unseen since 1948. That could go a long
way to explaining rising wheat prices.
Corn? The USDA is expected
to report corn stocks for the year ending Aug. 31, 2009, to fall to 685
million bushels, according to analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters,
down 47% from 1.283 billion bushels in 2008. The corn crop season ends
on Aug. 31. (They expect wheat and soybean stocks to rise, for which we
can be thankful.)
Bob Greer, executive vice president at PIMCO,
rebuts Masters arguments in a very cogent paper recently sent to me. He
argues that index funds do not affect the price but may contribute to
"Some market observers have tried to tie the level of
inventories to index investment, most notably in crude oil. Their
arguments take one of two forms:
"1) The indexer's act of selling
the nearby and buying the distant contract forces the futures curve to
be upward sloping (future price is higher than nearby price). This
creates an incentive to own inventories and earn the "return to
storage" represented by the slope of the futures curve. The act of
increasing inventory keeps the commodity off the market, thus
"2) A variation of the above argument is that
the short seller, who takes the other side of the indexer's purchase,
needs to protect their position by buying and holding the physical
"It would be nice if either of these arguments were
true, in which case, the developed world would not be hostage to the
Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Any time we
needed to increase crude inventories, we need merely to bring in more
indexers, and the inventory would appear. In fact, the explanation for
inventory levels of any commodity is much simpler. If, in the cash
markets, production exceeds demand, inventories will rise. Otherwise
they will fall. That is why, in six of the last eight years, global
wheat inventories fell, regardless of index investment (USDA). That is
why from 2006 to 2008, crude oil inventories declined and the crude oil
curve went from upward sloping to downward sloping, in spite of
increasing index investment (EIA). Furthermore, the second argument
above breaks down when applied to non-storable commodities such as live
Further, Greer shows a chart from Deutsche Bank which
highlights the fact that many commodities which are not in the index
fund portfolios have risen higher than exchange-traded commodities
(rice, for instance). Look at the chart below:
Greer concludes with these important paragraphs:
intrinsic value, commodity futures prices converge to cash prices, and
cash prices are set by the level of demand to consume physical goods
such as steak, gasoline, and Wheaties. The price setting mechanism is
not based on possibly erroneous assessment of a financial statement,
nor on irrational exuberance. In commodities there is an outside
measure of intrinsic value--the cash market--that is not dominant in
equity, real estate, or tulip bulb markets. As actual commodity prices
go higher or lower, they reflect consumption requirements for actual
products, many of which are not very storable.
"This is a sharp
contrast from internet stocks or vacation condos, which are subject to
speculative bubbles. Unfortunately, our conventional wisdom regarding
factors that create bubbles is rooted in asset classes like stocks and
real estate, asset classes that have fundamentally different
characteristics than physical and futures markets.
is not the same thing as causality. It is a coincidence that commodity
index investment has increased in the last few years just as commodity
prices have increased. If there is any causality, it is the other way
around. Rising commodity prices have caused an increased interest in
commodity investment. And it is certainly causality that fundamental
supply, demand and inventory factors have driven commodity prices in
many markets higher, whether or not those are markets in which index
investors participate. This is the same causality that has driven
commodity prices both higher and lower for many decades."
Where Will Oil Prices Go?
let's look at the fundamentals for oil. While a large part of this
week's rise in oil was short covering (you can tell that from open
positions), the supply of oil was down 7% from last year, even with
demand beginning to fall. But there is an interesting footnote to that
statistic, which we will visit later. Look at the chart below from www.economy.com:
that supplies turned down sharply this last month, while the momentum
of falling supply had been dropping since January. That is to say, the
change in crude oil stocks was a negative 10% in January and was a
little over -4% a month ago, falling to -7% today. But this is in the
face of demand slowing. Today we learned that gasoline usage was down
4.2%, as prices are finally changing American driving behavior.
Spencer noted in his always interesting Dow Jones column that there is
a disconnect between the New York Stock Exchange and the New York
Mercantile Exchange, just one mile apart. The NYSE is pricing in $75
oil in oil stocks, while the futures market is surging over $135, and
there are calls for near-term $150-a-barrel oil. The stock market is
telling us that oil, at least in futures terms, is in a bubble.
frankly, if you listened to their testimony, and more importantly pay
attention to their actions, oil company executives simply do not
believe that the price of oil is going to be $135 a barrel for the next
few years. If they did, they would be punching more holes in the ground
in places where it might be expensive to get the oil to market - but at
$135 a barrel it would be profitable.
And then there is an odd
circumstance in the oil picture that I think may suggest that we could
see a break, and perhaps a violent one, in the near term for the price
Where Are All the Tankers?
few weeks now, observers have noticed that Iran is leasing tankers and
storing oil in them. At about $140,000 a week or so, that is expensive
storage. At first, conspiracy theorists were wondering if they were
preparing for some kind of war or attack. But more conventionally, it
may be they are having problems selling their oil. Their oil is not
very high-quality, and there are only a few places that can take it and
refine it. India, China, and the US are among the countries with
refineries that can take Iranian oil. (And yes, George Friedman of
Stratfor tells me some of it does end up in the US from time to time.)
refiners are telling Iran they no longer want their oil, preferring the
higher-quality oil that is readily available in the area. So Iran has
to decide whether to send it to China or "repackage" it so that it can
end up in the US, while they try to get refiners in India to change
their minds. Thus, they are leasing tankers to store the oil they are
I called George about six this evening and asked him
about the Iranian situation, as that is a lot of oil that could come on
the market at some point, as well as a possible reason that oil
supplies are down. George has analysts on top of this situation.
told me, "John, it's more interesting than that. It is not just Iran.
Today we started checking on how many tankers Iran had, and soon
discovered that there is a serious tanker shortage. Lease prices have
soared in the past few weeks. It is clear there are a lot of
speculators betting that oil is going to rise to $150 or so and are
willing to pay very high prices for keeping the oil on the seas waiting
for higher prices. It is a speculative boom."
He then told me
about flying into New York in the early '80s. Outside the harbor were
30 or so tankers just sitting, waiting for prices to continue to
increase as they had been doing for some time. When they did not, they
all tried to get into the harbor at the same time, and of course they
couldn't. It was the top of the market. Prices dropped, and the owners
of the oil had to go to the futures market to hedge what they could. I
had heard that story, but George saw it with his own eyes.
everyone (except the stock market) is convinced oil is going higher in
the near term. As I noted above, this week's rally was partially due to
short covering by large institutions and companies which had sold
production far into the future at much lower prices. They finally threw
in the towel and took off their hedges.
Is it 1980 All Over Again?
may be getting ready to stage a very interesting economic experiment.
Is Masters right that prices are driven by speculation, or is it supply
and demand? Follow me on this one. I am not saying that this will
happen, but it is an interesting scenario.
countries subsidize the price of oil to their citizens, so they do not
feel the pain of higher oil prices. But the headline of today's Financial Times
is that Asia is finally getting ready to cut their subsidies as oil
rises to $135. The awareness that they need to allow market conditions
to prevail is finally being acknowledged, as they cannot afford the
subsidies. This is going to help drive down demand for oil over time.
demand starts to fall, let's remember that the storage facilities for
oil waiting to be refined are a finite item. If all those tankers end
up needing to find a home at the same time, even as demand for oil is
going down, you could see the price of oil go down rather quickly in
the short term.
If you are leasing tankers to deliver oil that
is already hedged in price, you want to get it to port as soon as
possible so that your lease payments stop as soon as possible. You only
hold it on the high seas if you think the price is going up by more
than your carrying costs (the cost of money and leasing the tanker). If
you start to lose money, you sell your oil on the futures market and
get it to port as fast as you can.
Now, here is where it could
get interesting. Oil is the biggest component of the commodity index
funds. If oil drops and looks likely to go lower, then the massive
buying of these funds we have seen in the past few months could dry up.
As Dennis Gartman says, it takes a lot of buying to make the price of
something to go up, but it only takes a lack of buying to make it go
down. And if there is net selling?
If we see money start to flow
out of the index funds (and ETFs) because of momentum selling, that
means the funds are not only selling their oil components, but also the
grain and metal and meat. If the index funds are the key component in
the rise of prices, we should see the price of all commodities go down
in tandem and in sympathy. If oil is the only thing going down as index
funds go down, then it is a supply-related issue.
But what if
index funds continue to grow? If there is an abundance of oil, it will
eventually show up in the spot price, as storage will be lacking, no
matter what the longer-term futures prices do. The market will soon
tell us whether index funds are a major factor. I tend to think that
even while index fund buying is bullish, it is not the major factor
that is the driver of commodity prices. And even if it is significant
in the short term, in the long term fundamentals will drive the true
If it is simply index speculation, it will end in tears when the fundamentals catch up.
me say that I believe the long-term price of oil is going much higher.
I was writing about $100 oil two years ago. $150 and $200 oil is in the
cards at some point in the future. If you have not read the Outside the
Box from last Monday, you should. My friend David Galland points out
that Mexico, which supplies 14% of US oil, is likely to be a net
importer of oil by the middle of the next decade, as their internal
demand increases and production decreases. Iran will be a net importer
within six years for the same reasons. Russia's oil exports are down
this year, as are Mexico's. Energy costs are going to rise in the next
decade, and maybe much sooner.
You can click on the following link to read the Outside the Box
on where oil exports are headed in our future. And Casey Research does
some top-notch analysis of energy investments (not just oil) in a very
reasonably priced letter, if you are inclined to invest in individual
As for today, if I was in a long-only commodity index
fund, unless my time horizon was very long I would be watching it
closely and have some close stops. And I might wait until I saw what
the price of oil was going to do. If you have some profits, then you
might want to think about taking some off the table. Just a thought.
The Middle East, California, and Help for Myanmar
weekend I will travel with Tiffani to Laguna Beach to be at good friend
Rob Arnott's annual shindig for Research Affiliates. In addition to the
high-powered brain trust he has speak (Peter Bernstein, Burton Malkiel,
Harry Markowitz, Paul McCulley, Jack Traynor, etc. - now that is name
dropping!), two of my good friends and science fiction hall of famers
(as well as leading futurists) Vernor Vinge and David Brin are going to
present an evening session on what they see in our future. I will be
moderating and trying to keep David focused. It should be a fun evening.
South African partner, Prieur du Plessis, is absolutely driven to get
me to come with him to Dubai and Abu Dhabi this fall, and I am going to
go. I have never been to those cities, but have read and heard amazing
things, and look forward to seeing with my own eyes.
Now, as to
Myanmar. By now, you know of the tragedy that is unfolding there. My
great friends at Knightsbridge (Ed Artis, Jim Laws, and the team) are
arranging to be allowed to go in with official visas to provide aid.
These Knightsbridge volunteers are the best of the best when it comes
to disaster relief. They know how to get medicine, food, and supplies
to where it is needed most, and they personally take it in. They are
staging in Thailand. Not only will they take in needed supplies, but
they will be able to help coordinate with other NGOs (non-governmental
organizations) that don't have "boots on the ground" to get aid to
where it is needed. (Note: no dollars will be spent in Myanmar in
keeping with current US government regulations.)
There will be
two four-man teams going in. These guys all pay their own way. But they
need money for supplies, transportation, etc. We need $150,000 to make
a dent. I am going to give you a web link below. You can donate by
check or credit card. The address is: Knightsbridge International, Post
Office Box 4394, West Hills, California 91308-4394. If you write a
check, please note on the check that the money is for Myanmar relief.
The Knightsbridge website is www.kbi.org.
It is being changed as I write to update some of the more recent
missions, but the link to donate by credit cards works just fine.
know these guys personally and have spent a great deal of time with
them. They have my full 120% endorsement. I am told all the time that I
should charge for this letter. So, instead of paying for the letter,
why don't you make a donation? If 10,000 readers sent $100 or $1,000,
it would make a huge difference in the lives of desperate men, women,
and children. Please consider helping people who have so little. And
for some of you more adventurous types, maybe even think about going.
Enjoy your holiday weekend.
Your hoping we can help in Myanmar analyst,
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