Thursday, May 22, 2008

Commodities Prices: Speculation Exposed

"The most exciting thing that happened Tuesday was the testimony of Michael Masters to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security (who have sweeping powers) as he spilled the beans and gave the Senate a very detailed inside view of exactly how speculators are the primary cause of high commodity prices.

Don't look for any commentary on this in the WSJ or most media outlets, you would think this entire investigation isn't going on as you watch CNBC wearing their Oil $130 party hats this evening!

What 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.

With very bold categories in his presentation like "Index Speculator Demand is Driving Prices Higher" Masters lays out a simple and compelling case that illustrates how over $250Bn of speculative money has poured into the commodities markets since 2003, driving the average cost of commodities indexed up 183% WITHOUT ANY SIGNIFICANT INCREASE IN ACTUAL DEMAND.

It's not just oil, there is a chart on page 4 of his presentation that shows how on Jan 1st 2003 sugar futures stockpiled totaled 2.3Bn pounds. On March 12th of this year, speculators had stockpiled 48Bn pounds of sugar. Soybean oil went from 163M pounds to 4.5Bn pounds, corn from 242M bushels to 2.4Bn bushels, coffee from 195M pounds to 2.4Bn pounds. wheat from 166M bushels to 1.1Bn bushels. Even cattle and hogs have had 10-fold increases in speculation. This is your "demand," 10 month supplies of commodities removed from the markets over 5 years and held by speculators who point to the "demand" as evidence of a tight supply - A TOTAL CROCK!

Speculators "consumed" as much additional oil as China in the past 5 years (848M barrels) while gasoline stockpiles have risen from 1.1Bn gallons to 3.5Bn gallons and natural gas stored by speculators has gone up from 331M BTUs to an insane 2.3 Billion BTUs. Aluminum - 10x, Nickel - 5x, Zinc - 10x, Copper - 7x, Gold - 10x, Silver - 15x — Madness!

In fact, Index Speculators have now stockpiled, via the futures market, the equivalent of 1.1 billion barrels of petroleum, effectively adding eight times as much oil to their own stockpile as the United States has added to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the last five years.

Demand for futures contracts can only come from two sources: Physical Commodity Consumers and Speculators. Speculators include the Traditional Speculators who have always existed in the market, as well as Index speculators. Five years ago, Index Speculators were a tiny fraction of the commodities futures markets. Today, in many commodities futures markets, they are the single largest force. The huge growth in their demand has gone virtually undetected by classically-trained economists who almost never analyze demand in futures markets.

I urge you to set aside the time to read this full report, it is an excellent presentation of pretty much everything I've been "ranting" about for 2 years put together by a guy who trades commodities for a living and is, as I am, totally fed up with the destruction of our economy and the suffering that is being caused by this rampant commodity speculation. In order for Goldman Sacks to make $1Bn, every driver on Earth needs to pay another $1 per gallon for gas this year - is that an efficient market? If all 2Bn of us just send GS a check for .50, THAT would be efficient. Unfortunately, as we discussed last week, Goldman's partners in crime who got together and formed the ICE back in 2003 (when all this started) also want their Billions - no matter what it costs you.

One particularly troubling aspect of Index Speculator demand is that it actually increases the more prices increase. This explains the accelerating rate at which commodity futures prices (and actual commodity prices) are increasing. Rising prices attract more Index Speculators, whose tendency is to increase their allocation as prices rise. So their profit-motivated demand for futures is the inverse of what you would expect from price-sensitive consumer behavior.

When Congress passed the Commodity Exchange Act in 1936, they did so with the understanding that speculators should not be allowed to dominate the commodities futures markets. Unfortunately, the CFTC has taken deliberate steps to allow certain speculators virtually unlimited access to the commodities futures markets.

Masters closes with the key issue, that:

The CFTC has granted Wall Street banks an exemption from speculative position limits when these banks hedge over-the-counter swaps transactions. This has effectively opened a loophole for unlimited speculation. When Index Speculators enter into commodity index swaps, which 85-90% of them do, they face no speculative position limits.

The really shocking thing about the Swaps Loophole is that Speculators of all stripes can use it to access the futures markets. So if a hedge fund wants a $500 million position in Wheat, which is way beyond position limits, they can enter into swap with aWall Street bank and then the bank buys $500 million worth of Wheat futures. In the CFTC's classification scheme all Speculators accessing the futures markets through the Swaps Loophole are categorized as "Commercial" rather than "Non-Commercial." The result is a gross distortion in data that effectively hides the full impact of Index Speculation.

Additionally, the CFTC has recently proposed that Index Speculators be exempt from all position limits, thereby throwing the door open for unlimited Index Speculator "investment." The CFTC has even gone so far as to issue press releases on their website touting studies they commissioned showing that commodities futures make good additions to Institutional Investors' portfolios.

This is how the current administration, through the "Enron Loophole" and other directives to the CTFC, has perverted an organization that is supposed to be CONTROLLING speculation and turned them into more than an enabler, but an actual cheerleader for the commodity markets. You would think this would be news but the same people who are sucking over $2Tn a year out of our pockets (over and above what we paid for the same commodities 5 years ago) are also the people who control the mainstream media and the very government that is listening to this testimony.

In order to put a stop to this YOU have to act. YOU have to get mad, YOU have to tell people what is happening because no one else is doing it are they? Feel free to copy this, Email it, print flyers - whatever - this is something that needs to be talked about and what better time than the day oil hits $130 a barrel while you drive less than you did last year, when it was $51.03 in January!"

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