It looks like the ultimate case of the tail that wagged the dog: soybean oil foreshadowing price trends of crude oil (Figure 1). It seems odd. How could the modest soybean oil, whose average daily volume in dollar terms amounted to $2.8 billion in February 2017, lead the colossal West Texas Intermediate crude oil market, whose volume that same month was 21 times greater?
Everybody knows that the muscles in a dog’s tail aren’t strong enough to wag the animal but, as any dog owner knows, a canine’s tail is highly expressive and can indicate its feeling and what it intends to do. Likewise, it’s fairly obvious that vegetable oils aren’t causing crude oil prices to move up or down. But the vast difference in the size of the crude oil and vegetable oil markets may be a part of the explanation for their behavior. Because of the relatively small size of the market, vegetable oil prices may be highly sensitive to subtle supply and demand shifts in crude oil.
The key mechanism that drives the relationship is biofuels. Sixty-four countries have or are considering biofuel mandates or targets, including the 27 nations of the European Union. If crude oil is in short supply, refiners may increase their purchases of biofuels, driving the price higher. Likewise, if crude oil supply is abundant or if demand is weak, refiners may reduce their buying of vegetable oils, driving the price down in a manner that appears to anticipate a coming decline in crude oil prices.
Over the past dozen years, the relationship between movements in vegetable oil prices and ensuing changes in crude oil prices have been quite remarkable:
There is no guarantee, of course, that such a relationship will hold up in the future. There are at least two factors that could temper the apparent relationship between vegetable oil and crude oil prices: 1) some countries may sour on biofuel mandates and repeal them. 2) if crude oil traders accept that vegetable oils may be a leading indicator of crude oil prices, they might change their behavior and respond more quickly to moves in vegetable oil prices. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case for the moment.
For the time being, crude oil traders might well be advised to heed the most recent moves in soybean oil and palm oil, and to give serious consideration to the possibility that the next move in crude oil might be downward. There are other reasons to think that crude oil might be vulnerable to a decline, including:
Oil prices have plenty of upside risks as well, including those coming from possible increases in demand and potential supply disruptions. That said, if oil prices were to fall over the coming weeks or months, don’t say that the vegetable oil markets didn’t warn you.
All examples in this report are hypothetical interpretations of situations and are used for explanation purposes only. The views in this report reflect solely those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of CME Group or its affiliated institutions. This report and the information herein should not be considered investment advice or the results of actual market experience.
Erik Norland is Executive Director and Senior Economist of CME Group. He is responsible for generating economic analysis on global financial markets by identifying emerging trends, evaluating economic factors and forecasting their impact on CME Group and the company’s business strategy, and upon those who trade in its various markets. He is also one of CME Group’s spokespeople on global economic, financial and geopolitical conditions.
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