Streetwise Professor

March 23, 2018

Will Chinese Oil Futures Transform the Oil Market? Highly Unlikely, and Like All Things China, They Will Be Hostage to Government Policy Whims

Filed under: China,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation,Russia — The Professor @ 11:08 am

After literally years of delays and false starts, the International Energy Exchange (a subsidiary of the Shanghai Futures Exchange) will launch its yuan-denominated, China-delivery crude oil futures contract on Monday.

Will it succeed?  Well, that depends on how you measure success.  No doubt it will generate heavy volume.  Speculative enthusiasm runs deep in China, and retail traders trade a lot.  They would probably make a guano futures contract a success, if it were launched: they will no doubt be attracted to crude.

Whether it will be a viable and successful contract for commercial market participants is far more doubtful.  Its potential to become an international benchmark is even more remote.

For one thing, most successful commodity futures contracts specify delivery in a major production area that is connected to multiple consumption regions, but the INE contract is at a major consumption location.  This will increase basis risk for non-Chinese commercials, even before taking into account the exchange rate issue.  Considering the cash basis (the cash-futures basis is more complicated), basis risk between a delivery location and a location supplied by that delivery point is driven by variability in transformation costs, most notably transportation costs.   The variance in the basis between two consumption locations supplied by a delivery point is equal to the variance in the difference between the transformation costs to the two locations, which is equal to the sum of the variances, minus 2x the covariance.  This is typically bigger than either of the variances.  Thus, non-Chinese hedgers will typically be worse off using the INE contract than the CME’s WTI or DME’s Oman or ICE’s Brent, even before liquidity is considered.

In this respect, the INE’s timing is particularly inauspicious, because the US crude oil export boom, which is seeing large volumes go to Asia and China specifically, has more tightly connected WTI prices with Asian prices.

I deliberately say “transformation costs” (rather than just transport costs) above because there can be disparities between international prices and prices in China due to regulations, currency conversion issues, and taxes.  I don’t know the details regarding the relevant tax and regulatory regime for oil specifically, but I do know that for cotton and other ags the tax and quota regime has and does lead to wide and variable differences between China prices and ICE prices, and that periodic changes in this regime create additional basis volatility.

Related to transformation costs, the INE has implemented one bizarre feature that is likely to undermine contract performance.  Specifically, it is setting a high storage rate on delivery warehouses.  The ostensible purpose of this is to restrain speculation and reduce price volatility:

One of its strategies to deter excessive price swings is to set related crude storage costs in China at levels that are at least twice the rate elsewhere. That’s seen discouraging speculators interested in conducting so-called cash and carry trades, which seek to take advantage of differences between the spot price and futures of a commodity.

This will be highly detrimental to the contract’s performance, and will actually contravene the intended purpose.  Discouraging storage will actually increase volatility.  It will also increase the volatility in the basis between the INE price and the prices of other oil in China.  The fact that discouraging storage will make the contract more vulnerable to corners and squeezes will further increase this basis volatility.  This will undermine the utility of the contract as a hedging mechanism.

Where will hedging interest for the contract come from?  Unlike in say the US, there will not be a large group of producers will big long positions that they need to hedge (in part because their banks insist on it).  Similarly, there is unlikely to be a large population of traders with inventory positions, as most of the Chinese crude is purchased by refiners.  The incentives of refiners to hedge crude costs are limited, because they have a natural hedge: although they are short crude, they are long products.  To the extent that refiners can pass on crude costs through products prices, their incentives to hedge are limited: this is why there is a big net short futures exposure (directly and indirectly) by producers, merchants and processors in WTI and Brent: sellers of crude (producers and merchants) have an incentive to hedge by going short futures because they have no natural internal hedge, and the big refiners’ natural hedge mutes their incentive to take long positions of commensurate size.

Ironically, regulation–price controls specifically–may provide the biggest incentive for refiners to hedge.  To the extent they cannot pass on crude cost increases through higher product prices, they have an incentive to hedge because then they have more of a true short exposure in crude.  Moreover, this hedging incentive is option-like: the incentive is greater the closer the price controls are to being binding.  I remember that refined product price restrictions have been a big deal in China in the past, resulting in periodic standoffs between the government and Sinopec in particular, which sometimes involved fuel shortages and protests by truckers.  I don’t know what the situation is now, but that really doesn’t matter: what matters is policy going forward, and Chinese policies are notoriously changeable, and often arbitrary.  So the interest of Chinese refiners in hedging will vary with government pricing policy whims.

If hedging interest does develop in China, it is likely to be the reverse of what you see in WTI and Brent, with hedgers net long instead of net short.  This would tend to lead to a “Keynesian contango” (the Canton Contango? Keynesian Cantongo?), with futures prices above expected future spot prices, although the vagaries of Chinese speculators make it difficult to make strong predictions.

Will the contract develop into an international benchmark? Left to its own devices, this is highly unlikely.  The factors discussed above that create basis risk undermine its utility as an international benchmark, even within Asia.  But we are talking about China here, and the government seldom leaves things to their own devices.  I would not be surprised if the government explicitly requires or strongly pressures domestic firms to buy crude basis Shanghai futures, rather than Brent or WTI.  This contract obviously involves national prestige, and being launched at a time of intense dispute on trade between the US and China I suspect that the government is highly motivated to ensure that it doesn’t flop.

Requiring domestic firms to buy basis Shanghai could also force foreign sellers to do some of their hedging on INE.

Another issue is one I raised in the past, when China peremptorily terminated trading in stock index futures.  The prospect of being forced out of a position at the government’s whim makes it very risky to hold positions, particularly in long-dated contracts.

All in all, I don’t consider the new contract to be transformative–something that will shake up the world oil market.  It will do better than the laughable Russian Urals oil futures contract (in which volume over six months was one-third of the projected daily volume), but I doubt that it will develop into much more than another venue for speculative churn.  But like all things China, government policy will have an outsized influence on its development. Refined product pricing policy will affect hedging demand.  Attempts to force firms to use it as a pricing mechanism in contracts will affect its use as a benchmark, which will also affect hedging demand.

If you are looking for a metric of success as a commercial tool (rather than of its success as a money making venture for the exchange) look at open interest, not volume.  And look in particular in open interest in the back months.  This will take some time to build, and in the meantime I imagine that there will be a lot of awed commentary about trading volume.  But that’s not the main indicator of the utility of a contract as a commercial risk management and price discovery tool.

Update. I had a moment to catch up on Chinese price regulations.  The really binding regulations, which resulted in shortages and the periodic battles between Sinopec and the government date from around 2007-8, when (a) oil prices were skyrocketing, and (b) I was in China teaching a course to Sinopec and CNPC execs, and so heard first-hand accounts.   These battles continued, but less intensely post-Crisis because the controls weren’t binding when prices collapsed.  Moreover, the government adopted a policy that effectively implemented a peg between crude and refined prices, but only adjusted the peg every 22 days and only if the crude price had moved 4 percent.  Subsequently, in 2013, Beijing revised the policy, and eliminated the 4 percent trigger and shortened the averaging period to 10 days. Then in 2015, after the collapse in oil prices, China suspended this program.  A few months later, it introduced a revised program that makes no adjustments to the price when crude falls below $40 or rises above $130.

Several takeaways.  First, at present the adjustment mechanism reduces the incentives of refiners to hedge crude prices.  Under the earlier adjustment system, the lags and thresholds would have created some bizarre optionality that would have made hedging decisions vary with prices in a highly non-linear way.  The system in effect from 2015 to 2016 would have created little incentive to hedge because the pricing system imposed hardly any constraints on margins that were allowed to vary with crude prices.

Second, the current system with the $40 floor and $130 ceiling actually increases the incentive to hedge (relative to the previous system) by buying futures when prices start to move up towards $130 (if that ever happens again).  That’s actually a perverse outcome (triggering buying in a rising price environment, and selling in a falling price environment–positive feedback loop).

Third, and most importantly, the policy changes often, in response to changing market conditions, which reinforces my point about the new futures contract being subject to government policy whims.  It also creates a motive for a perverse kind of speculation–speculation on policy, which can affect prices, which results in changes in policy.

One thing I should have mentioned in the post is the heterogeneity of refiners in China.  There are the big guys (Sinopec, CNPC, CNOOC), and there are the independents, often referred to as “teapot refineries.”  Teapots might have more of an incentive to hedge, given that they are in more tenuous financial straits–but those very tenuous straits might make it difficult for them to come up with the cash to pay margins.  And even they still have the natural hedge as long as price controls don’t bite.  It’s worth noting, however, that Chinese firms have a penchant for speculating too. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the teapots turn plunger on INE.

Government policy towards the independents has been notoriously volatile–I know, right? In 2015, China granted the independents the right to import oil directly.  Then in late-2016 it thought that the independents were dizzy with success, and threatened to suspend their import quotas if they violated tax or environmental rules.  As always, there are competing and ever changing motives for Chinese policy.  They’ve lurched from wanting to protect the big three and drive consolidation of industry to wanting to provide competitive discipline for the big three to wanting to rein in the competition especially when the independents sparked a price war with the big firms.  These policy lurches will almost certainly affect the commercial utilization of the new futures market, even by Chinese firms.

Updated update. The thought that cash-and-carry trades are some dangerous speculative strategy puzzled me–it’s obviously not a directional play, so why would it affect price levels. But perhaps I foolishly took the official explanation at face value.  Chinese firms have been notorious for using various storage stratagems as ways of circumventing capital controls and obtaining shadow financing.  Perhaps the real reason for the high storage rate is to deter use of the futures market to play such games.  Or perhaps there is a tax angle.  Back in the day futures spreads were a favored tax strategy in the US (before the laws were changed and the IRS cracked down), and maybe cash-and-carry could facilitate similar games under the Chinese tax code.  Just spitballing here, but the stated rationale is so flimsy I have to think there is something else going on.

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1 Comment »

  1. Nothing like the free market, eh? Has China ever completely blown any of their schemes and ate crow over it? (Honestly, I don’t know) It seems that they will force this to “succeed” much like Rosneft.

    Comment by Howard Roark — March 23, 2018 @ 6:42 pm

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