Econonomics of Energy and Environmental Policy

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Cheap Money, Geopolitics and Supernormal Backwardation of the WTI Forward Curve

Open Access Article

Financial speculators frequently trade in the most liquid short-tenor contracts. We study repeating patterns of sharply steepening slopes in the WTI forward curve to investigate whether, after controlling for macroeconomic variables, physical market fundamentals, and basic arbitrage, calendar spread behavior is partly explained by speculation related to assessed geopolitical risk. We estimate WTI forward curve backwardation using the slope component from the parsimonious Dynamic Nelson-Siegel factor model, and then regress the resulting time series on a variety of economic, financial, and geopolitical variables. Results show that geopolitical risk in juxtaposition with low interest rates explains a significant percentage of the slope variation from 2011 to 2021. We then investigate whether there is evidence to support the common narrative that speculators buy the geopolitical threat and sell the event. We find confirmation of the hypothesis. We further study the dynamic effects of interest rate and geopolitical risk on speculative activity using a Factor-Augmented Vector Autoregression analysis. Impulse response functions from the latter indicate that independent shocks related to geopolitical threat result in heightened supernormal backwardation for a month or more. We recommend changing margin requirements in WTI futures markets in light of these findings to disincentivize this speculative behavior.
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Keywords: Speculation, backwardation, oil, futures, geopolitics

DOI: 10.5547/2160-5890.12.1.melg

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Published in Volume 12, Number 1 of The Quarterly Journal of the IAEE's Energy Economics Education Foundation.


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