What Is Contango?

When it comes to commodity investing and trading, contango is a dirty word. Many investors have given contango a bad name (and rightfully so) as it has the ability to destroy value in an underlying position with the blink of an eye. Now that the ETF universe has rapidly expanded and there are a number of complex products offering exposure to the commodity world, contango has become more prevalent than ever. A number of investors have fallen prey to this phenomenon often without realizing what it was and how it impacted their holdings. Contango is simply a part of the commodity world and is not necessarily a bad thing, as it can create opportunities for profit [see also Understanding Contango: Natural Gas Example].

By definition, contango is the process whereby near month futures are cheaper than those expiring further into the future, creating an upward sloping curve for future prices over time. The reason behind this is most often attributed to storage costs; storing barrels of oil or bushels of corn isn’t cheap and the costs have to be passed down the line. Some commodities, like natural gas and crude oil, are known for exhibiting steep contango over time, while others may have very little evidence at all. In some cases, a commodity will present backwardation, which is simply the opposite of contango, when near month futures are more expensive than those expiring further into the future, creating a downward sloping curve for future prices over time [see also The Ten Commandments of Commodity Investing].

How It Affects You

For futures contract traders, most will see one of these two phenomenons developing before establishing their next position, and they will not present a major issue. For those who like to keep a constant presence in the futures market, contango may force you to sell your contract low and buy the next contract at a higher price, erasing value. Backwardation can have the opposite effect, instantly creating value (assuming the position will appreciate after purchase). But those looking to avoid contango can simply find a contract further out or hold off on purchasing until prices change. The real issue comes with exchange-traded funds that track commodities, as they present several nuances that allow contango to have deadly consequences.

Currently, there are a number of different styles for using ETFs to invest in commodities, as innovation in the space has sought to avoid this futures-curve issue, but the most popular funds, by far, are first generation products that focus on front-month contracts. Popular funds like the United States Natural Gas Fund LP (UNG) and United States Oil Fund (USO), both of which combine for an average daily volume of over 17 million, utilize an automated roll process that will fall prey to contango every time. The funds will invest in a futures contract for their respective commodity and at a certain point in the month, will automatically sell the current contract and buy into the next one. If a futures curve is contangoed, the fund is forced to sell low and buy high, instantly creating losses for investors who may have had no idea what caused them [see also 25 Ways To Invest In Natural Gas].

How You Can Avoid It

The easiest way to avoid contango is to simply be aware of it in the first place. Closely monitoring futures curves will give you a very clear idea for how an investment will behave and if you are in any danger. There are also a number of ETFs that are now dedicated to eradicating the impacts of contango like the United States Commodity Index Fund (USCI), which has been dubbed “the contango killer” fund. There are also a number of inverse commodity products that will profit as a commodity position loses value to the automated futures roll [see also 12 High-Yielding Commodities For 2012].

At the end of the day, contango is simply a natural part of commodity investing, but if you do your homework you can effectively control it and make it work for you.

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Disclosure: Photo courtesy of Agência Brasil. No positions at time of writing.

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  • Rob

    If I understand this correctly, would it possible to monitor spot prices since the last roll-up, and sell positions that will lose value to contango before the next automated roll process?

    It seems that this way you could lose only the transaction fees of selling and repurchasing a position, which may sometimes be cheaper than the losses due to contango.

    • http://twitter.com/JaredCummans Jared Cummans

      That is possible to do with ETFs and is probably encouraged with the first generation products. Those are designed for active traders anyways so if you are privy to the automated roll you can certainly avoid it.

      • Rob

        Thanks Jared!

        I plan to buy and hold, so I will probably choose some ETFs and ETNs that avoid contango. Still, this is some great information and it’s good to know that contango can be avoided with a watchful eye.