Who Holds Positions in Agricultural Futures Markets

62 Pages Posted: 25 Aug 2019

See all articles by Michel A. Robe

Michel A. Robe

University of Richmond - E. Claiborne Robins School of Business

John Spencer Roberts

Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC)

Date Written: June 2, 2019


We use non-public data regarding all trader-level futures positions, reported to the U.S. grain and oilseed derivatives market regulator (the CFTC), in order to describe the nature of market participants, the maturity structure of their holdings, and the aggregate position patterns for nine different categories of traders that we separate based on their main lines of business. We provide novel evidence about the overall extent of calendar spreading and about the contribution of commercial traders to total spreading activity.

Our sample’s 3,854 traders account for 86 to 93 percent of the total futures open interest at the end of an average day in 2015–2018. Well over 90 percent of their positions have maturities of less than a year. Among our nine trader categories, just three (hedge funds and commercial dealers/merchants, plus commodity index traders on the long side) account for about four fifths of all reported trader positions. In fact, fewer than 200 “permanent” large traders (overwhelmingly from these three categories) make up the bulk of the daily open interest in the four largest agricultural futures markets.

In the aggregate, the positions of commercial dealers and hedge funds (including commodity pool operators, commodity trading advisors, managed money traders, and associated persons) are highly negatively correlated. This correlation is strikingly strong for short positions: as a result, the sum total of commercial dealers’ and hedge funds’ respective shares of the short open interest fluctuates relatively little over time.

We show, for the first time, that calendar spreads account for more than a third of all large trader positions; that much of the intra-year variation in the total futures open interest can be tied to changes in the extent of calendar spreading; that about half of all spread positions involve contracts expiring in 4 to 12 months (either spreading with shorter-dated contracts, or involving only maturities of 4 to 12 months); and that commercial traders who are not swap dealers (dealers and merchants, mostly) make up from a quarter to two fifths of all calendar spread positions. Again, commercial dealers’ and hedge funds’ shares of the spread open interest are negatively correlated. None of these patterns can be inferred from public data, as the CFTC’s Commitments of Traders Reports (COT) do not break out spreads for “traditional” commercial traders in general and commercial dealers and merchants in particular.

Keywords: Agricultural futures, Open interest composition, Term structure, Calendar spreading

JEL Classification: G10, G13, N22, N50, Q14

Suggested Citation

Robe, Michel A. and Roberts, John Spencer, Who Holds Positions in Agricultural Futures Markets (June 2, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3438627 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3438627

Michel A. Robe (Contact Author)

University of Richmond - E. Claiborne Robins School of Business ( email )

Richmond, VA 23173
United States

John Spencer Roberts

Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) ( email )

1155 21st Street NW
Washington, DC 20581
United States

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