Is the NASDAQ water futures market transparent enough?

Futures markets are settled either physically with actual delivery of the contracted product, or via cash based on the difference in the futures contract price and the actual purchase price. The NASDAQ Veles California Water Index future market is a cash settled market. In this case, the “actual” price is constructed by a consulting firm based on a survey of water transactions. Unfortunately this method may not be full reflective of the true market prices and, as we found in the natural gas markets 20 years ago, these can be easily manipulated.

Most commodity futures markets, such at the crude oil or pork bellies, have a specific delivery point, such as Brent North Sea Crude or West Texas Intermediate at Cushing, Oklahoma or Chicago for some livestock products. There is also an agreed upon set of standards for the commodities such as quality and delivery conditions. The problem with the California Water Index is that these various attributes are opaque or even unknown.

Two decades ago I compiled the most extensive water transfer database to date in the state. I understand the difficulty of collecting this information and properly classifying it. The bottom line is that there is not a simple way to clearly identify what is the “water transfer price” at any given time.

Water supplied for agricultural and urban water uses in California has many different attributes. First is where the water is delivered and how it is conveyed. While water pumped from the Delta gets the most attention, surface water comes from many other sources in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, as well as from the Colorado River. The cost to move this water greatly varies by location ranging from gravity fed to a 4,000 foot lift over the Tehachapis.

Second is the reliability and timing of availability. California has the most complex set of water rights in the U.S. and most watersheds are oversubscribed. A water with a senior right delivered during the summer is more valuable than a junior right delivered in the winter.

Third is the quality of the water. Urban districts will compete for higher quality sources, and certain agricultural users can use higher salinity sources than others.

A fourth dimension is that water transfers are signed for different periods and delivery conditions as well as other terms that directly impact prices.

All of these factors lead to a spread in prices that are not well represented by a single price “index”. This becomes even more problematic when a single entity such as the Metropolitan Water District enters the market and purchases one type of water which they skews the “average.” Bart Thompson at Stanford has asked whether this index will reflect local variations sufficiently.

Finally, many of these transactions are private deals between public agencies who do not reveal key attributes these transfers, particularly price, because there is not an open market reporting requirement. A subsequent study of the market by the Public Policy Institute of California required explicit cooperation from these agencies and months of research. Whether a “real time” index is feasible in this setting is a key question.

The index managers have not been transparent about how the index is constructed. The delivery points are not identified, nor are the sources. Whether transfers are segmented by water right and term is not listed. Whether certain short term transfers such as the State Water Project Turnback Pool are included is not listed. Without this information, it is difficult to measure the veracity of the reported index, and equally difficult to forecast the direction of the index.

The housing market has many of these same attributes, which is one reason why you can’t buy a house from a central auction house or from a dealer. There are just too many different dimensions to be considered. There is housing futures market, but housing has one key difference from the water transfer market–the price and terms are publicly reported to a government agency (usually a county assessor). Companies such as CoreLogic collect and publish this data (that is distributed by Zillow and Redfin.)

In 2000, natural gas prices into California were summarized in a price index reported by Natural Gas Intelligence. The index was based a phone survey that did not require verification of actual terms. As part of the electricity crisis that broke that summer, gas traders found that they could manipulate gas prices for sales to electricity generators higher by simply misreporting those prices or by making multiple sequential deals that ratcheted up the price. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Commodity Futures Trading Commission were forced to step in and establish standards for price reporting.

The NASDAQ Veles index has many of the same attributes as the gas market had then but perhaps with even less regulatory protections. It is not clear how a federal agency could compel public agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, to report and document prices. Oversight of transactions by water districts is widely dispersed and usually assigned to the local governing board.

Trying to introduce a useful mechanism to this market sounds like an attractive option, but the barriers that have impeded other market innovations may be too much.

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