Fundamental Misconceptions in the Speculation Debate

by: Jeffrey Korzenik

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal features a misguided editorial blasting the CFTC for considering constraints on oil speculation. The piece serves as a good reminder of how often those schooled only in the stock and bond world misunderstand the function of the futures market and the role of speculators within that arena. The Journal’s editors and others are trying to apply the rules of those capital markets to contract markets like commodity futures. This makes no more sense than trying to play a game of baseball by the rules of football. In real life, as in the sports analogy, playing by the wrong rules leads to chaotic consequences.

Misconception #1: Who should determine price? In the capital markets, speculators and investors determine the price of securities. This is not the way the commodity futures markets are supposed to operate. Commodities are consumables, not investment vehicles. Economic efficiency demands that the price be determined by those that produce or use these resources. The role of the speculator in price discovery should only be on the margin, testing the limits to see when commercial demand or supply enters the market. Speculators in these markets should not be the primary determinants of price.

“Overspeculation” or “excessive speculation” exists when speculators become primary drivers of price. When this happens, commodities are no longer efficiently allocated – if prices are driven below the point where commercial supply and demand meet, shortages result. When prices are driven to excessively high levels, economically wasteful inventory buildup is created; Nobel laureate Paul Krugman recently reversed his opinion on the impact of speculation, pointing to huge oil stores as evidence that oil prices have been artificially inflated. More dire consequences also can be the result of these price distortions, including unnecessary and economically damaging price volatility and even the potential for a systemic crisis in the oil industry and it financiers.

Misconception #2: We need all this speculation for liquidity. The commodity futures markets absolutely need a healthy amount of speculation to bridge the gap between commercial interests who may not be in the market at the identical time. But just like any powerful medicine, an overdose causes more harm than good. Speculation is good only up to the point where speculation becomes the main determinant of price.

There has been a great amount of confusion between volume, open-interest and liquidity. Traditional speculators are short-term traders who are indifferent to being long or short the market — such volume indeed creates liquidity. Much of the problem has been created by the new breed of non-commercial participant, particularly the commodity indexed funds which are long term holders and are overwhelmingly oriented to the long side of the market. They represent not liquidity, but a big fat bid, which actually drains liquidity from the markets by crowding out long commercial interests.

Misconception #3: Investors need unconstrained access to the commodity markets to protect against inflation. The idea that commodities are the only inflation hedge available to investors has been heavily promoted by those that profit from selling commodity-linked products. This is simply a myth promulgated by Wall Street marketing departments. As I’ve written about before, investors have very real, and possibly superior, alternatives, from TIPS to commodity linked equities.

Misconception #4: Position limits are an abridgement of free market rights. The confusion of capital markets with contract markets comes into play here. The imposition of constraints on non-commercial participation is not about heavy-handed regulation, but about appropriate market governance. In the capital markets, I know of nobody who complains about rules against front-running, touting or insider trading. Those are rules designed to protect the integrity of capital markets. Contract markets like futures exchanges need rules to protect their integrity as well. It’s just that different markets require different types of rules. In the futures markets, integrity implies that commercial interests determine price, and this requires governance that restrains non-commercial participants. Speculative position limits are one of the time-tested ways to ensure this critical integrity.

Informed people of good will can argue whether the markets are indeed “overspeculated” at this point. We can reasonably debate whether position limits are the appropriate response, or whether whole different types of governance are needed. One can perhaps even argue whether the risks of overspeculation to the economy should be balanced against the risks to Wall Street profits from curtailing their activities. However, those that argue that the futures markets should play by the rules of the capital markets merely reveal their ignorance.