How Do You Buy Spot Oil?

March 23, 2009

We get the emails all the time: How do I get into ‘spot' oil? The answer is, it depends.

  • The shifting definition of ‘the price of oil'
  • Separating contango from correlation
  • Real investment options


Readers often ask, "How do I buy the spot price of oil?"

The first question to ask is, which oil? West Texas Intermediate (WTI)? Brent Crude? Russian? Saudi Arabian? Oil from Dubai? The OPEC basket price?

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) does a nice job collecting the weekly average spot oil prices from countries all over the world. Maybe that's what you're looking for?

For most people, what they mean when they say "oil" is the oil they hear about on the nightly news or read about in the Wall Street Journal. If that's the case, they're not talking about spot oil at all. Instead, they're probably referring to the price of the "front-month" oil futures contract trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That contract covers the price of West Texas Intermediate-grade oil, delivered on a specific date within the next month to a transfer hub in Cushing, Oklahoma, and it is the de facto reference for oil prices in the U.S.

If you are reading the latest "This Week in Petroleum" from the EIA, you'll notice that they have data not only on spot prices, but prices on four different futures contracts. That's because they recognize that in the world of oil, spot and future are inextricably tied in the minds of the media.


What Is The Spot Price?

Still, the emails pour in: We want access to the spot price of oil.

What does that mean?

The spot price is what you would fork over to take physical delivery of that oil today. The EIA defines it as:


The price for a one-time open market transaction for immediate delivery of a specific quantity of product at a specific location where the commodity is purchased "on the spot" at current market rates.


The spot price is relatively unimportant in global oil markets. Most refiners purchase oil with the help of long-term contracts, either one-off privately negotiated contracts or contracts from an exchange.

But the idea of spot price is one that fascinates investors - everyone is intent on trying to invest in something that tracks "the price of oil" as closely as possible. Why? To counteract that pesky profit eater - contango.

As we cover in Hard Assets University, contango has a huge impact on investors in oil futures contracts. Contango is the situation where the "out-month" contracts are more expensive than the "near-month" contract. When that's the case, there are real costs to allowing a contract to roll forward into the next month's contract.

In fact, contango can turn rising oil prices into a loss if it is steep enough. Just a few months ago, the contango in oil was so severe that simply investing in the front month created a 15% monthly headwind. That spurred a lot of emails asking how to access spot oil, as investors in oil futures saw their investments lag further and further behind oil itself. By investing in something that tracks the spot price of oil, an investor would gain (or lose) on the movement of oil itself - not on the need to roll a contract over at the end of the month.

But how?


Investment Vehicles

As we have talked about before, there are many exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that focus solely on oil. Each ETF is structured slightly differently depending on the futures contract it holds, but all aim to give investors an easy way to invest in oil.

Because of this, as you would expect, each of the ETFs are closely correlated with spot oil prices.


Daily Correlations, 12 months ending 2/17/09

WTI 1 0.9954 0.9963 0.9941 0.9961
OIL 0.9954 1 0.9999 0.9949 0.9960
USO 0.9963 0.9999 1 0.9959 0.9970
USL 0.9941 0.9949 0.9959 1 0.9989
DBO 0.9961 0.9960 0.9970 0.9989 1



But what does a correlation tell you? A perfect correlation of 1 means that when the price of one entity goes up, the price of another also moves up. A correlation of zero means that when the price of one entity goes up, the other price moves randomly. Negative correlations mean the two are mirror images.



But what correlation does not tell you is the amplitude or investability of those correlations. For example, if the price of oil goes up from $10 to $20 and temperature goes from 80 to 82 degrees on a given day - that would be a perfect correlation of 1. Personally, I'd much rather make ten bucks off oil than be a little warmer.

The oil ETFs are all highly correlated with the spot price of WTI oil, which makes sense. It would be surprising to find any long asset that connected to petroleum that consistently went up on the same day oil went down. The more important question is how these investable alternatives have performed versus a hypothetical investment in in-tanker spot oil.


3 mos 34.2% 37.2% 38.2% 39.4% 39.0%
6 mos 5.1% 4.7% 5.7% 6.9% 7.1%
12 mos -51.8% -68.0% -63.3% -49.7% -47.6%



Quite a wide range in returns - some performing better, some performing worse - some even doing both depending on the time frame you look at, but none exactly tracks spot's return.


The Futures Curve

There is a simple reason the ETFs don't exactly track the price of spot oil - they all use the futures market to trade in oil, and futures prices, by definition, are not spot oil. As a futures contract comes close to its due date, if all goes according to plan, its price can approach (or converge) on spot. But the futures price starts either higher or lower than spot, meaning that the market values future oil more or less than oil it can take delivery on today. And that difference impacts returns.

Each ETF has its own approach to deciding which contracts to hold and when those contracts must roll to the next contract. These variables open the ETFs to the effects of backwardation and contango.

The chart below was created by taking four different futures contracts and subtracting spot price from each on a daily basis. If the difference is positive (the future price is higher than spot price), the futures curve was in contango. If the difference is negative (the future price is lower than spot), the futures curve was in backwardation.


WTI: Futures - Spot


During the past two years, oil futures have switched back and forth between contango and backwardation. Logically, the front-month contracts show the least effect of both backwardation and contango - with usually only a few cents between the front-month contract and spot. But this doesn't always hold true; for example, on December 22, 2008, there was an $8.81 difference between spot and the front- month contract.

It is also interesting to note that while contango isn't new, this past fall saw some of the steepest contango we've seen in the past two years.



Ultimately, there may be no magic solution for getting the price of OIL, not OIL FUTURES, into your portfolio.

One option, which had iffy results the last time around, is the MacroShares Oil Up (and down) ETFs (UOY and DOY, for up and down, respectively). Instead of holding actual futures contracts, they hold promises-to-pay: The up fund promises to pay the down fund for any dollar change on the price of a barrel of oil, and vice versa, as measured by the front-month futures contract.

In theory, despite the fact that the word "futures" is in the description, Macros should provide something closer to the real return of the daily spot-price change in oil compared to an ETF simply rolling the front-month contract over and over again. It should also - again in theory - avoid the contango issues, since it never actually rolls anything; rather, the two funds simply exchange assets based on the daily dollar change on whatever the front-month contract happens to be.

The gigantic caveat is that there is no active arbitrage mechanism that forces the Macros to stay close to the price of oil, at least in the short term, so they often trade at large discounts or premiums to the reference price. Right now, they are trading at a 10% premium each to their reference price, so again, you can't count on them to track spot crude perfectly.

The Macros are scheduled to be liquidated on December 27, 2013. On that day, investors in the funds will be paid out based on the price of the February 2014 oil contract. That should be relatively close to the "spot" price of crude at that time, so if you wait long enough, you should get what you're looking for. In the interim, however, the returns may vary.

As investors (not necessarily traders), we need to step back once in a while and think about what we're really trying to capture. It's nice to think about the spot price of oil that we hear about on the news. But in the case of oil, the front-month contract may simply be the best economic proxy we can get.


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