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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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Can We Blame Hedge Funds For Low Oil Prices?

When oil prices were spiking in 2008 and some commentators were predicting prices of $200 a barrel, many pundits and politicians turned to blame speculators and hedge funds for pushing prices upwards. That period of high prices passed and speculators avoided any tough new regulations in part due to mix empirical evidence surrounding the causes of price volatility. Now though, the opposite case is being made; hedge funds shorting oil may be behind recent volatility and the current low price of oil. Related: U.S. Failing To Harness Hydro Power Potential 

Given the benefits to consumers from low oil prices, there is little talk of new regulation to prevent hedge fund shorting, but it is unclear if regulation would do much good in any event. While there is a correlation between hedge fund positions and oil prices, it is unclear if hedge funds are causing moves in the price of oil, or if oil markets are simply responding to a third set of unobserved causal factors.

At a basic level, oil prices are based on the intersection of supply and demand. On the supply side are producers from OPEC to U.S frackers. The demand side is a little more complicated. Of course consumers and businesses fall into the demand category, but it could be that hedge funds also play a role here. If hedge funds and other investors buy up oil in anticipation of a future recovery in prices, then they might be able to help prop up the price of oil or even drive the price of oil higher. That was the case often made in 2007 and 2008.

Related: Other Energy Companies Accused Of Downplaying Climate Change

There is definitely some evidence that is going on today. When investors buy and store oil, they will eventually have to sell it, which moves them to the supply side of the price equation. As a result, theoretically investors should help to limit volatility in oil markets by buying in anticipation of future higher prices and selling in anticipation of future lower prices. As each type of trade is unwound, it acts as a stabilizer for the market and should help to cushion price changes. This is true even when hedge funds and others short oil since eventually they have to buy to cover those short positions.

Still the bigger issue is whether hedge funds and other investors are large enough to materially move the overall oil market, which is one of the largest and most liquid of all markets globally. While the hedge fund industry as a whole manages roughly $2.7 trillion in assets, managed futures or commodity trading advisors (CTA) only manage around $330 billion according to Barclays. For comparison purposes, the overall oil market trades about 96-97 million barrels of oil per day. At an average price per barrel of around $50, that implies a total value of all oil traded of roughly $4.8 billion per day. Related: Saudi Cash Crisis Intensifies As Interbank Rates Soar 

Obviously CTA firms could be influencing the price of oil given their level of assets and the level of the traded market size in oil, at least in the short term. CTA firms could represent an additional 10 percent of demand in the market on days when the price of oil appears too low or 10 percent supply on days when it appears too high. That would be feasible and require about $500 million in capital versus total CTA AUM of $330B. Still over the course of a year, total oil trades come to more than $1.25 trillion in value which dwarfs CTA assets and represents a sizeable piece of the overall hedge fund industry.

So what is the moral of this story? It is unclear if CTA firms are having a sizeable impact on the oil industry, but they could be in the short term. Over the medium and long term, the oil markets are far too large to be consistently influenced by hedge funds or other investors especially since at any given point investors are likely to be taking opposite sides of the same trade.

By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com

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  • jack barton on December 01 2015 said:
    I believe the cta's / hedge fund managers were 'pulsing' the eti crude market, both on the up and during the crash. I distinctly renember a hedge fund guy from morgan who kept pushing the panic button every few weeks last year, when the market started tumbling. It's almost like he was covering shorts - all the way down. That really bothered me.
    I'm a producer in west texas, and i believe we have a product (wti crude) that's a $70/bo item. It sure looks like the traders/brokers/hedge funders run it up 50% ($105), then hold it with emotion and a few statistical facts until it snaps the other way, passing through $70 and bottoming around 50% lower ($35).
    Sure, we have lots of product in the system, but our overage is NOT that much, and 'much' less production is on the way, folks. And soon...
  • Brian Burmeister on December 01 2015 said:

    This is a comment for you. I agree with you about WTI being too low. I think it is massively oversold, and I also agree that the hedge funds and the big banks are manipulating it up and down, and making huge amounts of money in the process. I guess this might be a blessing for myself and others, as we are able to buy in on the stocks of the oil companies at a very low price. That was not possible until 2015. Never the less, I think it is high time WTI starts to head back up, and I think declining domestic production is the only way we will see prices head back up. I am not counting on an OPEC cut. Jack, I am sure you are right on about lower production is coming soon. I certainly hope so, since that is the only thing that will save us. We also need to see production in the Gulf of Mexico slow down, as they have been pumping oil in the Gulf like oil was selling at $100 per barrel! The production from the Gulf has offset portions of the massive declines in production from areas like the Eagle Ford. Never the less, the EIA is still predicting huge declines in December (and I am guessing well out into 2016). (http://www.eia.gov/petroleum/drilling/pdf/dpr-full.pdf)

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