Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New Futures Contracts!

Last week, a couple of the major commodities exchanges announced the addition of some new futures contracts to help producers and consumers of raw goods hedge their expenses, and simultaneously give commodities traders three more reasons to develop stress-related ulcers.
First, across the pond, the world's foremost metals market, the London Metal Exchange (LME) yesterday opened trading of cobalt and molybdenum futures. In shocking concordance with my previous post about the emerging need for a lithium futures contract, the cobalt contract is designed specifically with battery manufacturers in mind, cobalt being a major input to rechargeable batteries in things like laptops and cellphones. Molybdenum, which I had never heard of before this Wall Street Journal article, is apparently used in the production of stainless steel.
Meanwhile, here in the States, the ever-growing Chicago Mercantile Exchange announced that it will be adding a contract for distiller's dried grain (DDG), a by-product of corn ethanol production. This is interesting because, with the addition of the contract, which will begin trading in April, ethanol producers can now effectively hedge every step of their production. For example, before the harvest you might buy a corn contract so as to protect yourself from unexpected price swings at your local grain elevator. Then, once you've got your corn and begin distilling ethanol, you can sell both a DDG and ethanol contract to lock in prices for your two resultant byproducts. Further, you can buy or sell oil, gas, or natural gas contracts to take advantage of spread deviations between the fuels. This is also interesting because the DDG contract may become a major hedge-staple for corporations that produce ethanol for non-fuel purposes... you know, like Jack Daniel's. The government, and now the private markets, are conspiring to make ethanol a real and viable energy source with plenty of economic safegaurds.
A bizarre reaction to these announcements is concern that opening these contracts to the public will increase volatility in the prices of the commodities and could potentially drive them too far one way or the other. Yes, that is true, prices will become more volatile... but only for the traders. The hedgers (people producing and consuming ethanol) actually need volatility to protect themselves from things like price-fixing and sudden, unexpected swings. Without and open public market, there's no way to plan for and predict what DDG would and will cost. Also, hedgers are not entering and exiting positions over and over to make a quick buck, they are locking prices in, exiting positions, and taking the difference as market protection.

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