The Bank for International Settlements is creating some waves with a teaser about a forthcoming report that claims to show that financialization is largely responsible for the recent fall in oil prices. Even by the standards of argument usually seen criticizing financializaton, this one is particularly lame.
BIS notes that the upstream business is heavily leveraged: “The greater debt burden of the oil sector may have influenced the recent dynamics of the oil market by exposing producers to solvency and liquidity risks.” The BIS summarizes the well-known fact that yields on oil company bonds have skyrocketed, and claims that this has contributed to the price decline. But it is plainly obvious that cause and effect overwhelmingly goes the other way: it is the sharp decline in prices that damaged the financial conditions of E&P firms. The closest that BIS can come to showing the direction of causation going from debt to price is this: “Debt service requirements may induce continued physical production of oil to maintain cash flows, delaying the reduction in supply in the market.”
At most, this means that future output may be higher in the future than it would have been had these firms been less leveraged, thereby weighing on future prices and through inter temporal linkages (e.g., storage) on current prices. It is difficult indeed to attribute the earlier price declines that caused the financial distress to this effect. Moreover, the BIS suggests that oil output from existing wells can be turned off like a water faucet. Given that the costs of capping a well are not trivial, this is not true: except under rather extreme circumstances, producers will continue to operate wells (which flow at an exogenously determined rate) even when prices fall substantially. Thus, this channel is not a plausible contributor to an appreciable fraction of the 50 percent decline in prices since July.
Then BIS turns its attention to hedging:
Since 2010, oil producers have increasingly relied on swap dealers as counterparties for their hedging transactions. In turn, swap dealers have laid off their exposures on the futures market as suggested by the trend increase in the CFTC short futures positions of swap dealers over the 2009-13 period.
However, at times of heightened volatility and balance sheet strain for leveraged entities, swap dealers may become less willing to sell protection to oil producers. The co-movement in the dealers’ positions and bouts of volatility suggests that dealers may have behaved procyclically – cutting back positions whenever financial conditions become more turbulent. In Graph 2, three such episodes can be seen: the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, the euro area crisis combined with the war in Libya in 2011, and the recent price slump. In response to greater reluctance by dealers to take the other side of sales, producers wishing to hedge their falling revenues may have turned to the derivatives markets directly, without going through an intermediary. This shift in the liquidity of hedging markets could have played a role in recent price dynamics.
BIS’s conjecture regarding producers hedging directly can be tested directly. The CFTC Commitment of Traders data, which BIS relies on, also includes a “Producers, Merchants, Processors and Users” category. If BIS is correct and producers have gone to the futures market directly rather than hedged through dealers, PMPU short interest should have ticked up. So why they are guessing rather than looking at the data is beyond me.
What’s more, using declines in swap dealer futures positions to infer pro-cyclicality seems rather odd. Swap dealer futures hedges of swap positions means that they are not taking on a lot of risk to the balance sheet. That is the risk that is being passed on to the futures market, not the risk that is being kept on the balance sheet.
The decline in swap dealer short futures positions more likely reflects a reduced hedging demand by producers. For instance, at present we are seeing a sharp drop in drilling activity in the US, which means that there is less future production to hedge and hence less hedging activity. The fact that the decline in swap dealer short futures is much more pronounced now than in 2008-2009 is consistent with that, as is the big rise in these positions during the shale boom starting in 2009. This is exactly what you’d expect if hedging demand is driven primarily by E&P companies in the US. Regardless, the BIS release does not disclose any rigorous analysis of what drives swap dealer positions or hedging positions overall, so the “reluctance of dealers” argument is at best an untested hypothesis, and more likely a wild-assed guess. Using drilling activity, or capex, or E&P company borrowing as control variables would help quantify what is really driving hedging activity.
And the conclusion is totally inane: “This [unproven] shift in the liquidity of hedging markets could have played a role in recent price dynamics.” Well, maybe. But maybe the fact that the moon will be in the seventh house on Valentine’s Day could have played a role too. Seriously: what is the mechanism by which this (unproven) shift in liquidity in hedging markets affected price dynamics?
Further, if E&P company balance sheet woes are making it harder for them to find hedge counterparties, this would impair their ability to fund new drilling, and tend to support prices. This would offset the alleged we’ve-got-to-keep-pumping-to-pay-the-bills effect.
BIS also offers this pearl of wisdom:
Rather, the steepness of the price decline and very large day-to-day price changes are reminiscent of a financial asset. As with other financial assets, movements in the price of oil are driven by changes in expectations about future market conditions.
What, commodities have not previously been subject to large price moves and high volatility? Who knew? I’ll bet if I dug for a while I could find BIS studies casting doubt on the prudence of bank participation commodity markets because the things are so damned volatile. And what accounts for the extremely low volatility in the first half of 2014, something BIS itself documented? Is financialization that fickle?
Moreover, why shouldn’t oil prices be driven by changes in expectations about future market conditions? It’s a storable commodity (both above and below ground), and storage links the present with the future. Furthermore, investments today affect future production. Current decisions and hence current prices should reflect expected future conditions precisely because of the inter-temporal nature of production and consumption decisions.
In fact, oil is not a financial asset, properly understood. The fact that the oil market goes into backwardation is sufficient to demonstrate that point. But it is hardly a sign of inefficiency, or of a lamentable corruption of the oil markets by the presence of financial players, that expectations of future conditions affect current prices. In fact, it would be inefficient if expectations did not affect current prices.
I understand that what the BIS just put out is only a synopsis of a more complete analysis that will be released next month. Maybe the complete paper will be an improvement on what they’ve released so far. (It would have to be.) But that just raises another problem.
Research by press release is a lamentable practice, but one that is increasingly common. Release the entire paper along with the synopsis, or just shut up until you do. BIS is getting a big splash with its selective disclosure of its purported results, while making it impossible to evaluate the quality of the research. The impression has been created, and by the time March rolls around and the paper is released it will be much harder to challenge that established impression by pointing out flaws in the analysis: that’s much more easily done at the time of the initial announcement when minds are open. This is the wrong way to conduct research, especially on policy-relevant issues.
Update: I had a moment to review the CFTC COT data. It does not support the BIS’s claim of a shift from dealer-intermediated hedging to direct hedging. From its peak on 1 July, 2014 to the end of 2014, Open interest in the NYMEX WTI contract fell from 1.78 million contracts to 1.46 million, or 18 percent. PMPU short positions fell from 352K to 270K contracts, or about 24 percent. Swap dealer shorts fell from 502K to 326K, or about 36 percent. Thus, it appears that the fall in short commercial positions were broad-based. Given that PMPU positions include merchants hedging inventories (which have been rising as prices have been falling) not too much can be made of the smaller proportional decline in PMPU positions vs. swap dealer positions. Similarly, dealer shorts include are hedges of swaps done with hedge funds, index funds, and others, and hence are not a clean measure of the amount of hedging done by producers via swaps.
I am also skeptical whether producers who can no longer find a bank to sell them a swap can readily switch to direct hedging. One of the advantages of entering into a swap is that it often has less stringent margining than futures. How can cash-flow stressed producers fund the margins and potential margin calls?