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CFTC lifts lid on large commodity positions

   By John Kemp
   LONDON, July 29 (Reuters) – Data presented to yesterday’s public hearing on energy markets show the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and exchanges have granted so many exemptions from hard position limits and soft position accountability levels that the traditional position-limiting system has become meaningless.
   CFTC chairman Gary Gensler noted that exemptions have become so numerous they risk “swallowing the rule”. There’s no danger, the rule has disappeared without trace. The scale and frequency it has been broken has seen to that.
   It’s clear from the figures that traders’ positions can be big enough to raise the risk of distorting prices which set fuel costs across the globe.
   Gensler’s slide presentation provided the first comprehensive insight into how exemptions have been used — giving detailed data on the number of times limits have been exceeded since mid-2008 for the Big Four energy contracts on NYMEX (crude oil, natural gas, heating oil and RBOB gasoline). 
    Last week (July 21) there were 37 exemptions in force in the crude contract for an average of almost 5,700 lots (5.7 million barrels of crude oil), and 43 exemptions in force for natural gas for an average of 2,930 lots (29.3 trillion BTUs or 28.5 billion cubic feet).
   These were exemptions from spot-month limits (contracts approaching expiry and therefore most vulnerable to squeezes or settlement failure). They take no account of exemptions in force for contracts further out along the curve.
   For the 12 months between July 2008 and June 2009, 43 traders received dispensations from the single-month limit on the NYMEX crude contract, exceeding the notional limit by an average of 10,000 contracts (10 million barrels) and with excursions lasting an average of 87 days. In other words, it was routine practice to run positions in a single month at twice the notional “accountability level” set by the exchange.
   For natural gas, 26 traders received dispensations from the combined all-months limit, and exceeded it by an average of 32,000 lots (311 billion cubic feet) (four times the usual limit) with excursions lasting an average of 80 days at a time.
   Positions on this scale utterly defeat the objective of setting limits.
   As Gensler noted, the CFTC’s avowed aim has always been “to ensure that markets were made up of a broad group of diverse participants with a diversity of views. The intent was to avoid the concentration of positions of any single party”.
   “In 1980, the CFTC reiterated its goal to prevent market concentration. In its rulemaking, the Commission stated that ‘a trader’s net position has a continued effect on price, and if sufficiently large can become a perceptible market factor’”.
   “Speculative position limits serve to decrease the potential for positions to influence the general price level”.
   But massive exemptions have produced the opposite effect. For NYMEX natural gas, the CFTC data shows 13 traders had positions amounting to more than 10 percent of the open interest in a single month at some point over the last year, 4 traders had positions over 20 percent, and 3 traders had positions over 30 percent. With this much concentration, price setting is hardly the result of a “diversity” of views.
   For the CFTC, the policy question is whether to make minimal changes to the process for setting limits and granting exemptions to restore public confidence in the system’s integrity, or be more aggressive and try to use tighter limits and more narrowly drawn exemptions to reduce the average position size and cut concentration levels.
   (Editing by David Evans)

Nabucco pipeline turns corner but needs gas

Things are finally looking up for the Nabucco pipeline.
After years of setbacks and wrangling, the prospect of building a supply route for Caspian natural gas across Turkey to central Europe, by-passing energy giant Russia, took a big step forward on Monday when five nations signed a transit agreement.
Getting Turkey on board was crucial, at a time of uncertainty in its negotiations to join the European Union.
What the 7.9 billion euro project most needs now is gas. Key potential suppliers Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan face pressure from Moscow to send all their output north, through the Russian pipeline network, rather than west.
China is meanwhile racing to build pipelines that will vie to take Caspian and central Asian gas to the Far East. Iran and Iraq are also potential suppliers to Nabucco but there are political obstacles in both cases.
The European Union, backed by the United States, will need to show unwavering commitment to get Nabucco built and filled. Moscow will try hard to thwart it.
Given their scale and cross-border reach, all big pipeline projects are political. The EU-sponsored Nabucco is just as geopolitically driven as the U.S.-backed Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline was in the late 1990s.
Washington’s determination to create an energy corridor from Azerbaijan across Georgia to Turkey, cutting out Iran and Russia, convinced sceptical oil majors to invest. The fact that BTC was built despite an oil price slump was a triumph of geopolitics over commercial considerations. The rise in prices by the time it opened in 2005 vindicated the investment.
Sceptics say Nabucco, due to be operational by 2014 with a capacity of 31 billion cubic metres a year, will not be built until there is enough signed-up gas to fill it. There is none so far. But the BTC precedent suggests that building it is the key to filling it.
The European Union is weaker and less united than the United States, and Moscow is pressing ahead with a rival South Stream project to pipe gas under the Black Sea to southeastern Europe.
Suppliers will only sign up if they feel confident that the West is fully behind Nabucco, and willing to stand up to Russia.
Last year’s Georgia war and repeated gas crises between Moscow and Ukraine have spurred Europe’s drive to diversify energy sources but made Caucasian and Central Asian governments more wary of the risks of incurring the Kremlin’s wrath.
The EU’s decision to provide 200 million euros in start-up funding for Nabucco is encouraging. But given the credit squeeze, European governments may have to do more to guarantee finance for the project.
The pipeline is only one piece in the puzzle of European energy security, and arguably not the most important.
Creating a single European Union energy market by connecting member states’ pipelines and power grids is the most urgent and practical way to reduce dependency on Moscow.
Developing liquefied natural gas supplies and terminals is another relatively quick way to diversify suppliers and routes.
Reducing fossil fuel consumption through efficiency savings and by developing renewable sources will also help.
But the lengths to which Russia has gone to try to kill off Nabucco highlight the importance of the project.

from John Kemp:

Record US natgas stocks weigh on gas, fuel prices

The volume of natural gas in working storage rose +103 billion cubic feet (bcf) to 2116 bcf in the week ending May 15 - equalling the previous five-year high set in 2006. The massive overhang of natural gas so early in the summer inventory-building season will keep prices under pressure to maximise consumption by power producers.  It will also weigh on margins for both distillates and residual fuel oil over the summer, and force margins on gasoline higher to keep refineries running.  
By the end of the year and into early 2010, however, natgas production should level off or even fall, as current reductions in the number of new wells being drilled translate into lower output.  At that point, the massive gas surplus will shrink rapidly - especially if lower gasd natgas output coincides with the first stages of an economic recovery in H2 2009 and H1 2010. 
The result should be triple support for distillate prices next winter and spring from: (a) recovering economic activity; (b) higher outright prices for natural gas providing a higher floor for other fossil fuels; and (c) diminished need to maximise natgas combustion in the power system, or even pressure to start conserving scarce fuel in favour of burning coal and petroleum liquids.