The Asylum: How a bunch of rogue traders at Nymex took over the world oil market

asylumThe little-known but important story of how a bunch of potato traders at the New York Mercantile Exchange (Nymex) came from nowhere to set the world oil price is told delightfully in the book The Asylum by talented American journalist Leah McGrath Goodman. That no one exactly understood how oil prices are set is demonstrated by the book’s transcript of an extraordinary interview between right-wing Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly and Nymex executive John D’Agostino in 2008.

At the time, the oil price was skyrocketing towards $150 a barrel and O’Reilly was anxious to blame Venezuelan left-wing president Hugo Chavez and OPEC’s “greedy sheiks” for the high prices. D’Agostino was having none of it. He told O’Reilly high demand and a low US dollar were more to blame. O’Reilly was flabbergasted as the conversation continued. “[OPEC] gave Cheney the middle digit… they can change whatever they want, right?” he says. D’Agostino replied, “No, OPEC only set the oil supply, the price of oil is actually set in New York”.

The rest of the conversation is worth reporting in detail:

O’R: Is there a guy who says $125 a barrel?

D’A: No. There’s a huge market that sets the price.  It’s filled with hedgers. It’s filled with speculators.

O’R: Somebody has to put the $125 on the barrel. Who does it?

D’A: They’re getting it from this market.

O’R: Who is “they”?

D’A: The oil producers…

O’R: The CEO of Shell or ExxonMobil says “We’re going to pay $125 a barrel”. Is that what they say? I thought it was the sheiks and Hugo Chavez.

D’A: No, No. They are all looking to the exchanges, the free markets, to set the price. The markets right now are saying the price of crude is about $120 a barrel. It’s going up and gasoline prices are directly related to crude oil prices.

O’R: But somebody has to make a decision.

D’A: It would be great if there was just one person doing that, because then we could go talk to him.

The exchange ended with an exasperated O’Reilly believing he was being hoodwinked. It was a sentiment shared by Fox News viewers who showered the station with angry emails unable to believe American capitalists were setting the price of oil not greedy Arabs and leftist dictators. But D’Agostino was right. The price of oil set by a bunch of anonymous traders off Wall St who thought nothing of bringing the global economy to its knees.

As Goodman said, traders are yellers. One trader told her they yell because they don’t have time to be polite. “It’s a world of super-assholes,” he said. “They’re all dicks, crude, manly men.” They work on the futures market which is a scarier version of the stock exchange. Energy traders bet on the price of oil in any of the months to follow, to a period of ten years. It is precise. Even if you correctly bet prices will go up in a certain year, if you get the month wrong you could lose millions. Traders not only bet on the future price but also on the difference from month to month in a practice called “spread trading”, which they hedge against the outright future bets.

The market was Darwinian where the strongest and loudest ruled. The trading floor was often violent and nice guys didn’t last. Traders were assisted by runners who wore goggles for protection from the constant shower of trading cards raining down on them. Traders were fined $100 for every card that didn’t reach the pit in one minute of trade and expertly flicked cards which would arch perfectly before landing across the two-storey high room. Position in the trading ring was crucial because if you stood close to a major trader you would have access to all their information.

Nymex was always a down-at-heel exchange compared to the New York Stock Exchange. The guys that bet on the blue chip companies looked down on the shabby traders of minerals and commodities. If NYSE traders took an academic and mathematical approach to the market, Nymex operated more from the gut. Overthinking was bad, trading was “freestyle” and the traders were street smart. Porn was common on the floor, as were drugs. There was reputedly firearms too. The cops left them alone as they contributed large amounts to the Police Foundation. The traders’ word was their bond and behind their bland trading jackets, there were many multi-millionaires. There were 816 seats in the exchange and they sold for $1.6 million a pop or leased out at $10,000 a month.

Nymex hijacked the oil market in the 1980s. Before that it was trading home of the humble Maine potato. For half a century, around 70 traders operated out of a redbrick mansion in downtown New York betting on spuds, unaware their world was crumbling around them. A rival market was emerging in Idaho potatoes while Maine’s annual potato crop was falling. The market was also corrupt with stories of bags filled with potato-shaped stones and spoiled Maine potatoes arriving at markets in the Bronx. Worse still, a national consensus was developing that Idaho potatoes tasted better than Maine ones.

Initially this led to volatile prices which the traders loved. The wilder the swings, the more opportunity for profit. When the supply ran out at the end of spring each year, prices would go crazy, with half the market betting prices would rise and the other half hoping they would fall. The trading pit was full of farmers, politicians, bankers and spectators who came to watch the show each May. Traders were obsessed with Maine gossip, Maine weather, Maine soil. Because future contracts were tied to actual quantities, traders had to get in, make money and get out quickly to avoid a pile of potatoes arriving on their doorstep. Traders skilfully exploited the expiration date right up to the last few seconds to end up “flat” in the market without any bets left on the table.

A futures market has practical value. It made it possible for farmers to lock in future profits at an agreed price. It gave them financial stability to plan their business years ahead with price risks transferred to the speculator who pocketed the resulting profit or loss. This underlying utility still drives the futures markets in commodities like oil.

Incredibly, Maine potatoes were the third most traded commodity in America in 1976. But an enemy at the gates was about to spoil Nymex’s party. JR Simplot was an eccentric Idaho farmer, nicknamed the Potato King. When he died in 2008 aged 99, he was worth $3.6 billion, the oldest person on the Forbes 400 rich list. Starting out as an onion farmer, he branched into potatoes winning the contract to supply US armed forces in the Second World War and then McDonald’s in the 1960s. Simplot was annoyed Nymex would not trade his Idaho potatoes. In the May 1976 rush he played against the Nymex traders selling millions of dollars of potatoes driving the price down. But unlike the traders he did not go “flat” at the close of trade.

Simplot was left with a contract to deliver massive amounts of Maine potatoes which to the consternation of the market, he did not have. However he did have plenty of Idaho potatoes which he offered in compensation.  Nymex refused to accept his Idaho potatoes and the market defaulted. Simplot was fined $50,000 but busted the Maine market.

Nymex lost all legitimacy and most traders resigned. In 1977 they appointed a 27-year-old trader named Michel Marks to be its unpaid chairman. Marks was the son of a former Nymex trader and a young prodigy. Reeling from the loss of potato futures, the exchange scraped by, betting on odd trades like Australian beef cattle (when it was supposedly tainted by kangaroo meat, the price oscillated wildly which traders loved). Rival exchange the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (Comex) overtook it and tried to buy cut-price seats at Nymex. The deal went south when Comex pulled out thinking they had paid too much money.

It left Nymex in a huge hole but in the longer term Comex suffered. Marks worked around the clock in 1978 to understand the business inside out. Some traders wanted to bring back a potato market but the Simplot scars were too deep. In any case the market regulator permanently banned potato trading. There was money in platinum and other metals but these markets were not volatile enough to be super profitable. Looking at what was dormant on the books, Marks hit on heating oil.

A far-seeing energy economist named Arnold Safer convinced Marks the free market would eventually set the price of oil. In the earliest days of oil the price was set by John D. Rockefeller with his “barrels”, before it was taken over by a consortium of the Texas railroad and oil majors. Since the 1973 Oil Crisis, OPEC flexed its muscle but Safer told Marks non-OPEC countries would eventually flood the market with excess oil destroying the Middle East cartel. He also advised Marks to only trade things whose prices weren’t fixed by the government. The opportunity came with the deregulation of the heating oil market in the late 1970s. Mark dusted off an old contract to sell heating oil to the Dutch. In an ingenious move, he scratched out Rotterdam and changed it to New York harbour so they could concentrate on local trade.

The futures market for heating oil opened on November 14, 1978. Volume was low on the opening day which was not a good sign. “Low volumes beget no volumes” was the conventional wisdom in the trading pits. Marks hassled the big traders, energy companies and banks to trade with him but no-one believed OPEC could be challenged. However because Nymex had no history with oil, the industry made the fatal miscalculation of ignoring them.

Heating oil merchants paid vastly inflated for their product while even OPEC struggled to turn a buck when its price for oil did not keep up with the changes to supply and demand. Private oil companies exploited the difference by hoarding oil contracts, locking in higher prices. They charged $10 more a barrel than the OPEC price but Marks decided to do exactly the opposite. His heating oil was 20c a gallon cheaper than Exxon. His customers were initially worried whether Nymex could guarantee continuous supply and they also worried Exxon might find out about the deal and punish them. But cheap oil is cheap oil and enough merchants bidded to give Marks the start he needed. Nymex traders didn’t care about the product or the price, what they needed were sufficient bids and offers to work the gaps.

Word slowly got out about the bargains at Nymex. Serious corporate customers arrived in the form of drillers, refiners and shippers of heating oil. Within months the daily number of bids went from hundreds to many thousands. For the first time, buyers and sellers of heating oil could tell exactly what the price was by looking at the Nymex trading board. It gradually attracted all the US heating oil contracts, turning the exchange into an invaluable source of information. People began to trust the exchange because it was a public market and because, unlike the oil companies, it did not rely on ever-increasing prices to make a profit.

Things took off in 1980 when the Iraq-Iran war broke out. When the news broke, over 50 traders immediately flooded the ring clamouring for heating oil. Within days the Nymex price doubled and would have risen further but for government-imposed price limits. The low and high price were the same as everyone was buying and there were no sellers. There was a vast underground trade into the higher-priced unregulated market controlled by the oil companies, an illegal practice but which flourished without supervision.

New US president Ronald Reagan gradually eased price controls and Marks debuted futures on leaded petrol (gasoline) in 1981. That market was so successful it continued for two years even after leaded petrol was banned in the US. In 1983 Reagan removed the last of the oil price controls and Nymex launched its crowning glory: a futures contract on sweet crude light oil, the bedrock of the industry. Marks opened a specific market to sell West Texas Intermediate light to the largest oil storage facility in the world at Cushing, Oklahoma.

The dots began to join. US oil production was declining and Americans were cutting usage. OPEC jacked up its prices as did the oil companies. But the supply scare had caused non-OPEC companies to increase production flooding the market with oil, plummeting the price. Panicked Wall St traders rushed to Nymex to hedge their expensive contracts. Nymex became a huge liquidation warehouse selling off oil at bargain-basement prices. The traders made a killing on each transaction. Suddenly power was no longer in Houston, Amsterdam or the OPEC HQ at Vienna but at a grimy rat-infested building in lower New York, inhabited as Leah Goodman said by “misfits and pranksters and gun-toting gangsters who had absolutely no knowledge of the oil business”.

Other players muscled in on the market but Nymex’s position was secure. Even the oil companies came cap in hand to the exchange and openly traded on the market. When Nymex moved to the World Trade Centre the market was so intense, it did not notice the smoke pouring into the room after the 1993 bombing and traders refused to evacuate. Nymex moved out of the WTC before 2001 which was prescient. But it was slower to see the oncoming of electronic trading and almost lost the market entirely to the more innovative Intercontinental Exchange (ICE). With Nymex’s power waning they agreed to a merger with its former enemy Comex in 2008 and finally the electronic boards replaced the whirring of paper in the pits.  A handful of traders still ply their wares in a small venue using the old open outcry system of the potato trading days. There are calls for it to be preserved. But Nymex is no museum. Although people like Bill O’Reilly never knew it, its traders still set the price of oil to this day.

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