In commodity trading, two terms that often surface are ‘contango’ and ‘backwardation.’ These concepts are key in understanding the futures market structure and can significantly affect the strategy and profitability of traders and investors.
The Futures Market
The futures market is where parties agree to buy or sell a commodity or financial instrument at a predetermined price at a specific future date. Unlike the spot market, where trades occur immediately, futures contracts allow for the postponement of delivery and payment.
What is Considered a Commodity?
Commodities are typically divided into two types:
- Hard Commodities: These are natural resources that must be mined or extracted. Examples include oil, natural gas, gold, silver, and other minerals.
- Soft Commodities: These are agricultural products or livestock, such as corn, wheat, coffee, sugar, soybeans, and pork.
As you see, gold and silver, our primary products, are considered commodities.
Contango occurs when the prices of futures contracts rise above the expected future spot price, meaning that contracts with a later expiration date are more expensive than those nearing expiration. This situation is the norm for non-perishable goods that have a carry cost, such as storage, insurance, or financing costs.
For instance, if the current price of oil is 50 USD per barrel, but a six-month futures contract is trading at 55 USD, the market is in contango. This indicates that traders anticipate the spot price to rise over time or are factoring in the costs associated with holding the commodity.
Traders and investors need to be wary of contango, especially those investing in commodity index funds or Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) that roll over futures contracts. As they sell nearing-expiration contracts and buy more distant expiration contracts, they may incur a ‘roll-over loss,’ especially if the market remains in contango over time.
Why Does Contango Happen?
Many factors contribute to a market’s state of contango:
- Storage Costs: Holding physical commodities incurs costs. Market participants will pay a premium for future delivery to avoid these costs.
- Political Instability: The supply network and trade corridors experience interruptions.
- Interest Rates: Higher interest rates can increase carry costs, leading to higher futures prices.
- Demand Outlook: If future demand is expected to increase, due to seasonal changes or economic growth, future prices may reflect that anticipation.
- Weather: Crop commodities can be impacted by the weather.
- Risk Premium: Traders may demand compensation for the risk of price volatility or decline in the underlying commodity.
- Sentiment: How investors feel about the market can impact the market.
According to the theory of storage, contango should be the norm for commodity markets due to the inherent costs of storage. However, markets frequently alternate between contango and backwardation due to ever-changing supply and demand dynamics.
Backwardation is the reverse condition where futures prices are lower than the expected future spot price, leading to a downward-sloping curve when plotted against expiration dates. This indicates immediate demand for the commodity is high, or there are concerns about current shortages.
For example, if the current price of wheat is 200 USD per ton, but a futures contract due in six months is trading at 190 USD, the market is in backwardation.
In backwardation, the roll yield is positive, investors may make a profit when rolling over futures contracts. This condition can offer opportunities for traders, especially in the commodity spot markets, by storing and selling at higher current prices while locking in lower future prices.
Why Does Backwardation Happen?
The market conditions that may lead to contango may also cause backwardation. Supply disruptions, seasonal changes, and risk premiums may impact the market.
The Role of ETFs and Index Funds
ETFs and index funds that track commodity indices can impact the futures curve. Their need to systematically roll contracts can contribute to contango or exacerbate it when large volumes are involved.
How Contango and Backwardation Affect Investors
In contango, long-term investors holding futures may lose money if the spot price at the future’s maturity is below the futures price they paid, known as negative roll yield. This is common with commodities that have high storage costs.
In backwardation, traders and investors holding futures contracts could gain if the spot price at the future’s maturity is higher than the futures price. This is known as positive roll yield.
Contango vs Backwardation: Strategic Implications for Traders
Understanding whether a market is in contango, or backwardation can significantly influence trading strategies:
- Long Positions in Contango: Holding a long position in a contango market can lead to a negative roll yield, as investors are buying high and selling low each time, they roll contracts.
- Short Positions in Backwardation: Conversely, holding short positions in a backwardation market can also result in a negative roll yield due to the same dynamics in reverse.
- Hedging: Producers and consumers of commodities might hedge differently depending on the market structure, choosing the optimal points on the curve for their contracts.
- Arbitrage Opportunities: In both contango and backwardation, there may be opportunities for arbitrage, where traders can exploit the price difference between the spot market and futures market.
Contango and backwardation can have significant implications for commodity traders, hedgers, and investors in commodity ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds). Understanding these market conditions is crucial for making informed trading decisions and managing risk in futures markets.
Contango and backwardation are not just abstract concepts; they are crucial for understanding market conditions and making informed decisions in futures trading. They reflect the underlying currents of the market sentiment and fundamental supply and demand factors. Recognizing the state of the market can help traders and investors mitigate risks and capitalize on potential gains. The strategic response to contango and backwardation can mean the difference between profit and loss in the volatile world of commodity trading.