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Friday, July 8, 2011

Hedge Fund Speculation and Oil Prices

Mark Jickling
Specialist in Financial Economics

D. Andrew Austin
Analyst in Economic Policy

Dramatic swings in crude oil prices have led Congress to examine the functioning of the markets where prices are set. A particular concern is that financial speculators may at times drive prices above the level justified by supply and demand. Most oil speculators do not produce or take delivery of commercial quantities of oil; rather, they trade financial contracts whose value is linked to the price of oil. These derivative contracts—futures, options, and swaps—allow speculators to profit if they can forecast price trends or exploit new arbitrage opportunities. Derivatives also permit oil companies, airlines, utilities, and other energy-consuming or energyproducing firms to reduce or “hedge” price risk by locking in today’s price for transactions that will occur in the future. Hedgers and speculators trade on regulated futures exchanges in a continuous auction market. Prices set there serve as benchmarks for many physical oil transactions.

Some contend that oil speculators do not always trade on fundamental information related to supply and demand, but are nonetheless able to drive up prices by flooding the market with cash and overwhelming the influence of commercial hedgers who actually deal in physical oil. On the other hand, most empirical studies suggest that speculation does not generally increase price volatility, although the occasional emergence of speculative “bubbles,” when market prices may diverge significantly from fundamental values, is well known. Neither economists nor regulators have reached a consensus as to the causes of oil price movements in recent years—some point to the fundamentals (where both demand and supply are inelastic in the short run, and questions exist about the capacity to meet growing global demand in the long run), while others focus on financial markets. Both are possible sources of price volatility.

This report examines the relationship between the price of oil and the positions of various classes of traders in crude oil futures and options. Position data come from the Commitments of Traders report, published weekly by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). A statistically significant correlation is evident between changes in positions held by “money managers” (a category of speculators that includes hedge funds) and the price of oil. In other words, during weeks when money managers have been net buyers of oil futures and options (or increased the size of their long positions), the price has tended to rise. Price falls, conversely, have tended to coincide with reductions in money managers’ long positions. This statistical relationship is weaker for other classes of speculators and for commercial hedgers.

There are several possible explanations why money managers’ trades might be more closely linked to prices. Money managers might identify information that will affect prices (and trade on that information) more quickly or accurately than other market participants. Other traders might copy the trades of certain hedge funds viewed as market leaders, driving prices further in the same direction. In this way, money managers’ trades could move the price, even though their positions account for a relatively small share of the total market.

Causation could also run in the opposite direction—perhaps on average money managers chase price trends rather than set them. Other traders whose positions appear in the Commitments of Traders data, such as commercial hedgers or swap dealers, may be less price-sensitive than hedge funds and react more slowly to price changes. Data presented in this report cannot explain causes of oil price movements, but are intended to provide a context for evaluating arguments about the impact of speculation.

Date of Report: June 29, 2011
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: R41902
Price: $29.95

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