Commodity Prices — Who’s Holding the Cards?

Экономисты слишком много рук. С одной стороны, они могут объявить-то хорошее. С другой стороны, они могут сказать,, “Хорошо, не так много.” Некоторые из них, возможно, даже третий или четвертый руку. Мой бывший босс, Сам экономист, однажды заметил, что ему хотелось отрубить некоторые из этих рук.

In the last couple of months, I plunged right into an ocean of economist hands as I sat down to do a minor research into this troubling phenomenon of skyrocketing food and commodity prices.

Первый “рука” отметил, что спрос на продукты питания (and energy and commodities in general) выросла в связи с увеличением численности населения и изменение структуры потребления в развивающихся гигантов Азии. Известный спрос и предложение парадигма объясняет рост цен, казалось бы. Это же просто, как, что?

С другой стороны, все больше и больше продовольственных культур отвлекаются в производство биотоплива. Является ли биотопливо требуют первопричину? Биотопливо привлекательны астрономических цен на сырую нефть, которые подъехать цены на все. Is the recent OPEC windfall driving the price increases? Что можно сказать о продовольственных субсидий в богатых странах, что исказить рынок в свою пользу?

Supply Side Difficulties

When explaining the food prices, one economic opinion puts the blame squarely on the supply side. Это указывает непоколебимую пальцем на плохую погоду в странах питания производства, и панические меры наложил на цепочки поставок, такие как запрет на экспорт и меньшего масштаба накопления, что приведет к повышению цен.

Looking at the bigger picture, let’s study oil as a proxy commodity and study its dynamics. Because of its effect on the rest of the economy, oil is indeed a good proxy.

In the case of oil, the dearth on the supply side is more structural, it is argued. The production capacity has stagnated over the last thirty years or so [1]. No infrastructural improvements have been made after the seventies. Действительно, new methodological improvements are expensive for all the easy methods have been fully exploited; all the low-hanging fruits have been picked, так сказать.

The harder-to-reach “fruits” include deep sea explorations, crude oil from sand and, somewhat more tenuously, bio-fuels. The economic viability of these sources of oil depends on the oil price. Oil from sand, например, has an operating cost in the range of $20 к $25, as Shell’s CFO, Peter Voser is quoted as stating [2]. В $100 a barrel, oil from sand clearly becomes an economically viable source. Bio-fuels also are viable at high oil prices.

The huge investments involved in exploiting these new sources and their unpredictable economic viability exert strong upward pressure on oil prices, purely from the supply side, regardless of the demand situation. Once you invest a huge amount banking on a sustained high oil price, and then find that the oil market has softened below your viability level, you have to write off the investment, forcing losses and consequent price hikes.

With the high level of oil prices, investments are moving into infrastructure enhancements that will eventually ease the supply side crunch. But these fixes are slow in coming and are not going to ease the current dearth for about a decade. Другими словами, the high prices are here to stay. По крайней мере, so say the economists subscribing this supply side explanation of things.

Demand Spike

Although I personally find it hard to believe, people assure me that the exponential demand explosion in the emerging economies was completely unforeseen. My friend from a leading investment bank (who used to head their hybrids desk) told me that there was no way they could have anticipated this level of demand. I should probably shelve my scepticism and believe those in the know.

One thing I do know from personal experience is that the dynamics of a demand crash is different in emerging economies for a variety of reasons. В первую очередь, identical movements in fuel prices have different impact in the overall spending pattern depending on the proportion they represent in the purchasing power of an average consumer. A 30% increase in the pump price, например, might mean a 5% reduction in the purchasing power to a US consumer, while it might mean 20% reduction for an Indian customer.

Кроме, retail fuel prices in India are regulated and supported by government subsidies. Subsidies act as levies delaying the impact crude oil price movements. But when the crude oil prices rise beyond a certain point, the subsidies become untenable and the retail fuel prices surge upward, ushering in instant demand crash.

I came across another view of the skyrocketing oil prices in terms of the Middle-Eastern and American politics. The view was that the Saudi oil capacity is going to increase by about 10% soon and the prices will drop dramatically in the first quarter of 2009. It was argued that the drop will come as boost to the new American president, and the whole show is timed and stage-managed with a clear political motivation.


All these different opinions make my head spin. В мой непрофессиональный взгляд, I always suspected that the speculation in commodities market might be the primary factor driving the prices up. Я чувствовал свою правоту в моих подозрениях, когда я прочитал недавний показания в сенате США, где известный менеджер хедж-фонда, Майкл Мастерс [3], shed light on the financial labyrinth of futures transactions and regulatory loopholes through which enormous profits were generated in commodity speculation.

Since speculation is my preferred explanation for the energy and indeed other commodity price movements, I will go over some of the arguments in some detail. I hasten to state that the ideas express in this article are my own personal views (and perhaps those of Michael Masters [3] а также). They do not represent the market views of my employer, their affiliates, the Wilmott Magazine, or anybody else. Кроме, some of these views are fairly half-baked and quite likely to be wrong, in which case I reserve the right to disown them and bequeath them to a friend of a friend. (Также, see the box on Biased Opinions).

Masters points out that there is no real supply crunch. Unlike the Arab Oil Embargo time in 1973, there are no long lines at the gas pump. Food supplies are also healthy. So some new mechanism must be at work that drives up the commodity demand despite the price level.

Masters blames the institutional investors (pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, university endowments etc.) for the unreasonable demand on commodity futures. Since futures prices are the benchmark for actual physical commodities, this hoarding of the futures contracts immediately reflects in the physical spot prices and in the real economy. And as the prices climb, the investors smell blood and invest more heavily, stoking a deadly vicious cycle. Masters points out that the speculative position in petroleum is roughly the same as the increase in demand from China, debunking the popular notion that it is the demand spike from the emerging giants of Asia that is driving the oil price. Аналогично, bio-fuel is not the driver in food prices — the speculators have stockpiled enough corn futures to power the entire US ethanol industry for a year.

Although quants are not terribly interested in the transient economic drivers of market dynamics or trading psychology, here is an interesting thought from Mike Master’s testimony. A typical commodity trader initiating a new trade is pretty much insensitive to the price of the underlying. He has, сказать, a billion dollars to “put to work,” and doesn’t care if the position he ends up holding has five million or ten million barrels of oil. He never intends to take delivery. This price-insensitivity amplifies his impact on the market, and the investor appetite for commodities increases as the prices go up.

Most trading positions are directional views, not merely on the spot price, but on volatility. In a world of long and short Vega positions, we cannot expect to get a full picture of trading pressures exerted on oil prices by studying the single dimension of spot. Is there a correlation between the oil prices and its price volatility?

Figure 1
Рисунок 1. Scatter-plot of WTI Spot prices in Dollar and its volatility. Although the plot shows random clusters at low spot levels, at price > $75 (highlighted in the purple box), there appears to be a structure with significant correlation.

Рисунок 1 shows a scatter plot of the WTI spot price vs. the annualized volatility from publicly available WTI spot prices data [4]. Note than my definition of volatility may be different from yours [5]. На первый взгляд, there appears to be little correlation between the spot price and volatility. Indeed the computed correlation over all the data is about -0.3.

Однако, the highlighted part of the figure tells a different story. As the spot price climbed over $75 per barrel, the volatility started showing a remarkable correlation (из 0.7) with it. Was the trading activity responsible for the concerted move on both prices and volatility? That is my theory, and Michael Masters may agree.

Hidden Currency Theory

Here is a dangerous thought — could it be that traders are pricing oil in a currency other than the once mighty dollar? This thought is dangerous because international armed conflicts may have arisen out of precisely such ideas. But an intrepid columnist is expected to have a high level of controversy affinity, so here goes…

We keep hearing that the oil price is down on the back of a strong dollar. There is little doubt that the oil prices are highly correlated to the strength of the dollar in 2007 и 2008, as shown in Table 1. Let’s look at the oil prices in Euro, the challenging heavy-weight currency.

Figure 1
Рисунок 2. Time evolution of the WTI spot price in Dollar and Euro. The Euro price looks more stable.

At first sight, Рисунок 2 does appear to show that the price is more stable when viewed in Euro, как и ожидалось. But does it mean that the traders are secretly pricing their positions in Euro, while quoting in Dollar? Or is it just the natural tandem movement of the Euro and WTI spots?

If the hidden currency theory is to hold water, I would expect stability in the price levels when priced in that currency. Но, more directly, I would naively expect less volatility when the price is expressed in the hidden currency.

Figure 1
Рисунок 3. WTI Volatilities measured in Dollar and Euro. They are nearly identical.
Figure 1
Рисунок 4. Scatter-plot of WTI volatilities in Dollar and Euro. The excess population above the dividing line of equal volatilities implies that the WTI spot is more volatile when measured in Euro.

Рисунок 3 shows the WTI volatilities in Dollar and Euro. They look pretty much identical, which is why I replotted them as a scatter-plot of one against the other in Figure 4. If the Dollar volatility is higher, we will find more points below the red line, which we don’t. So it should mean that the hidden currency theory is probably wrong [6].

A good thing too, for nobody would be tempted to bomb me back to the stone ages now.

Human Costs

The real reasons behind the food and commodity price crisis are likely to be a combination of all these economic factors. Но сам кризис является безмолвным цунами охватывает мир, как Всемирная продовольственная программа ООН ставит его.

Увеличение цен на продовольствие, хотя неприятно, is not such a big deal for a large number of us. С нашей первой мирового дохода, большинство из нас тратят около 20% нашей зарплаты на питание. Если она становится 30% в результате 50% увеличить в ценах, мы, конечно, не понравится, но мы не будем страдать, что многое. Мы, возможно, придется сократить на поездки на такси, или элитный, но это не конец нашего мира.

Если мы находимся в верхней 10% income bracket (as the readers of this magazine tend to be), мы может даже не заметить увеличение. Воздействие высоких цен на продовольствие на наш образ жизни будет минимальным — сказать, a business-class holiday instead of a first-class one.

Это совсем другая история в нижней. Если мы зарабатываем меньше $1000 в месяц, и мы вынуждены тратить $750 вместо $500 на продукты питания, it may mean a choice between a bus ride and legging it. На этом уровне, the increase in food prices does hurt us, and our choices become grim.

Но есть люди в этом мире, которые сталкиваются с гораздо более суровое реальность как цены взлетят с конца этому не видно. Their choices are often as terrible as Sophie’s Choice. Какой ребенок засыпает голодным сегодня? Медицина для больного одного или пищи для отдыха?

Мы все бессильны против безжалостной рыночных сил, создавая продовольственного кризиса. Хотя мы не можем реально изменить ход этого молчаливого цунами, давайте по крайней мере, стараюсь не обострять ситуацию через отходов. Покупайте только то, что вы будете использовать, и использовать только то, что вам нужно. Даже если мы не можем помочь тем, кто будет неизменно голодать, давайте не оскорблять их выбрасывать то, что они умрут стремление к. Голод это страшная вещь. Если вы не верите мне,, попробуйте натощак в течение дня. Хорошо, попробуйте его, даже если вы делаете — для это может помочь кому-то.


Commodity speculation by institutional investors is one of the driving factors of this silent tsunami of rising food prices. Their trading strategies have been compared to virtual hoarding in the futures market, driving up real prices of physical commodities and profiting from it.

I don’t mean to portray institutional investors and commodity traders as criminal masterminds hiding behind their multiple monitors and hatching plots to swindle the world. The ones I have discussed with do agree on the need to curtail the potential abuse of the system by closing the regulatory loopholes and setting new accountability frameworks. Однако, we are still on the rising edge of this influx of institutional funds into this lucrative asset class. Perhaps the time is not ripe enough for robust regulations yet. Let us make a bit more money first!

Reference and Endnotes

[1] Jeffrey Currie et al. “The Revenge of the Old ‘Political’ Economy” Commodities (Goldman Sachs Commodities Research), Март 14, 2008.
[2] Business Times, “Shell counts rising cost of squeezing oil from sand in Canada,” Март 18, 2008. HTTP://
[3] Testimony of Michael W. Masters (Managing Member / Portfolio Manager, Masters Capital Management, LLC) before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Май 20, 2008.
[4] Cushing, OK WTI Spot Price FOB (Dollars per Barrel) Data source: Energy Information Administration. HTTP://
[5] I define the WTI volatility on a particular day as the standard deviation of the spot price returns over 31 days around that day, annualized by the appropriate factor. Using standard notations, the volatility on a day t is defined as:
sigma (t) = sqrt {frac{1}{{31}}sumlimits_{t - 15}^{t + 15} {left( {ln left[ {frac{{S(t)}}{{S(t - 1)}}} right] - mu } right)^2 frac{{252}}{{31}}} }
[6] Given that the correlation between EUR/USD and WTI Spot is positive (в 2007 и 2008), the volatility, when measured in Euro, is expected to be smaller than the volatility in Dollar. The expected difference is tiny (об этом 0.3% абсолютная) because the EUR/USD volatility (defined as in [5]) о 2%. The reason for the counter-intuitive finding in Figure 4 is probably in my definition of the volatility as in [5].
[7] Monwhea Jeng, “A selected history of expectation bias in physics,” American Journal of Physics, Июль 2006, Volume 74, Issue 7, С.. 578-583. HTTP://

Box: Biased Opinions

As an ex-experimental physicist, I am well aware of the effect of bias. Once you have a favoured view, you can never be free of bias. It is not that you actively misrepresent the data to push your view. But you tend to critically analyze the data points that do not match your view, and tend to be lenient on the ones that do.

Например, suppose I do an experiment to measure a quantity that Richard Feynman predicted to be, сказать, 1.37. I repeat the experiment three times and get values 1.34, 1.30 и 1.21. The right thing to do is to report a measurement of 1.29 with an error of 0.06. Но, knowing the Feynman prediction (и, что еще более важно, knowing who Feynman is), I would take a hard look at the 1.21 trial. If I find anything wrong with it (which I will, because no experiment is perfect), I might repeat it and possibly get a number closer to 1.37. It is biases of this kind that physicists try very hard to avoid. See [7] for an interesting study on biases in physics.

In this column, I do have a favoured view — that the main driver of the commodity price inflation is speculation. In order to avoid pushing my view and shaping my readers’ opinion, I state clearly that there is a potential of bias in this column. The view that I have chosen to favour has no special reason for being right. It is just one of the many “hands” popular among economists.

Об авторе
The author is a scientist from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), who currently works as a senior quantitative developer at Standard Chartered in Singapore. The views expressed in this column are only his personal views, which have not been influenced by considerations of the firm’s business or client relationships. More information about the author can be found at his web site:


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