366. FUTURES PRICES DETERMINE PHYSICAL OIL PRICES
A number of high-profile economists, like Paul Krugman, have recently been making the argument that trading in oil futures can't really influence the price of physical oil because it doesn't remove any oil from the market. Here's a classic statement of this argument by Jon Birger, a staff writer from Fortune:
Here's a suggestion: The next time a Congressional committee wants to hold a hearing on how "speculators" are driving up oil prices, each committee member should first be required to demonstrate - preferably in their opening remarks - a basic understanding of the mechanics of futures trading.I will now provide that explanation, and in the process show that both Krugman and Birger are grossly misinformed about the way physical crude is actually priced in the global oil market.
Even better, they should be required to explain in detail how it is that investors who never take delivery of a single barrel of crude - and thus never remove a drop of oil from the open market - are causing record high oil prices.Source
Most crude oil is traded based on long-term contracts, and the prices in those contracts are set by a system known as "formula pricing". In this system, the price of delivered crude is set by adding a premium to, or subtracting a discount from, certain benchmark or marker crudes, namely: West Texas Intermediate (WTI), Brent and Dubai-Oman. Generally, WTI is used as the benchmark for oil sold to North America, Brent for oil sold to Europe and Africa, and Dubai-Oman for Gulf crude sold in the Asia-Pacific market (Source1, Source2).
Originally, the benchmark prices were spot prices, but over time problems began to arise due to the depletion of the benchmark crudes:
In the early stages of the current oil pricing system which emerged in the period 1986-88, crude oil was priced off the spot market quotations of these benchmarks (namely dated Brent, spot WTI and Dubai) as assessed by oil reporting agencies such as Platts and Petroleum Argus. In the last few years [i.e. since the early 2000s] however, there have been some serious doubts about the ability of the spot physical market to generate a price that reflects accurately the margin of the physical barrel of oil. One of the main problems is that very little actual trading occurs in these crudes which makes the process of price discovery very difficult.SourceThe rapidly declining size of spot markets for the benchmark crudes led to chronic problems with speculators cornering those markets with a technique called the "squeeze":
Low volumes of crude oil available for spot trading make price discovery problematic and increase the vulnerability of markets to squeezes, distorting prices and undermining market confidence. A squeeze refers to a situation in which a trader goes long in a forward market by an amount that exceeds the actual physical cargoes that can be loaded during that month. If successful, the squeezer will claim delivery from sellers who are short and will obtain cash settlement involving a premium. It is true that all markets are prone to squeezes and in the last few years there have been occasions on which the Brent market was subject to successful squeezes. But it is also true that it is easier to squeeze thinner markets.SourceThe Brent spot market in particular was plagued by frequent squeezes in the early 2000s, and this is well attested to by numerous sources here, here(pdf), here, here, and here etc.
Here's an interesting tidbit on the subject:
Dated Brent, which acts as a price marker for many international grades, is physical crude traded on an informal market, rather than a regulated futures exchange. This lack of regulation poses problems for oil producers and consumers seeking a fair price, said Robert Mabro, director of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies and a leading Brent expert.To deal with this problem, many key oil exporters shifted away from the spot market, and began to use futures prices as the benchmark in formula pricing:
"There are regular squeezes in the Brent market," Mabro said. "In the trading community, people are fed up. This general view that you can do whatever you like in an informal market is okay, as long as you regulate the market a bit. But if it's a free-for-all, you're back to the cowboy age."
A typical Brent squeeze involves a company quietly building a strong position in short-term swaps called contracts for difference, or CFD's, for a differential not reflected in current prices. The company then buys enough cargoes in the dated Brent market to drive the physical crude price higher, which boosts the CFD differential, Mabro said.
The company may lose money on the physical side, but it's more than compensated from profits on its offsetting paper position in the short-term swaps market, Mabro said.
"The whole trick is to collect more money in CFDs than you lose on the physical squeeze," Mabro said. "People seem to do it in turn. It depends on who's smart enough to move in a way that nobody notices until it happens."Source
The declining liquidity of the physical base of the reference crude oil and the narrowness of the spot market have caused many oil-exporting and oil-consuming countries to look for an alternative market to derive the price of the reference crude. The alternative was found in the futures market. When formula pricing was first used in the mid-1980s, the WTI and Brent futures contracts were in their infancy. Since then, the futures market has grown to become not only a market that allows producers and refiners to hedge their risks and speculators to take positions, but is also at the heart of the current oil-pricing regime. Thus, instead of using dated Brent as the basis of pricing crude exports to Europe, several major oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran rely on the IPE Brent Weighted Average (BWAVE).11 The shift to the futures market has been justified by a number of factors. Unlike the spot market, the futures market is highly liquid which makes it less vulnerable to distortions. Another reason is that a futures price is determined by actual transactions in the futures exchange and not on the basis of assessed prices by oil reporting agencies. Furthermore, the timely availability of futures prices, which are continuously updated and disseminated to the public, enhances price transparency.As you can see, Krugman and Birger are profoundly confused about the way the international oil markets actually function. Futures aren't a paper bet on the direction of prices determined by some independent process. Futures themselves *determine* the price of most physical oil traded today. The futures price (+ or - the differential) literally *is* the price of oil.
 The BWAVE is the weighted average of all futures price quotations that arise for a given contract of the futures exchange (IPE) during a trading day. The weights are the shares of the relevant volume of transactions on that day. Specifically, this change places the futures market, which is a market for financial contracts, at the heart of the current pricing system.Source(pdf)
Further information on this topic is available in The Oil in the 21st Century: Issues, Challenges and Opportunities, Ch. 3 "Origins and Evolution of the Current International Oil Pricing System" (P. 41-100) and in Petroleum Refining: Separation Processes, Ch. 3 "International Oil Markets" (P. 77-114)