California’s water futures market slow to rise as it may not be meeting the real need

I wrote about potential problems with the NASDAQ Veles California Water Index futures market. The market is facing more headwinds as farmers are wary of participating in the cash-only markets that does not deliver physical water.

Their reluctance illustrates a deeper problem with the belief in and advocacy for relying on short-run markets to finance capital intensive industries. The same issue is arising in electricity where a quarter-century experiment has been running on whether hourly energy-only markets can deliver the price signals to maintain reliability and generate clean energy. The problem is making investment decisions and financing those investments rely on a relatively stable stream of costs and revenues. Some of that can be fixed through third-party contracts and other financial instruments but the structures of the short term markets are such that entering or exiting can influence the price and erode profits.

In the case of California Water Index futures market, the pricing fails to recognize an important different between physical and financial settlement of water contracts: water applied this year also keeps crops, particularly permanent ones such as orchards and vineyards, viable for next year and into the future. In other words, physical water delivers multi-year benefits while a financial transaction only addresses this year’s cashflow problem. The farmer still faces the problem of how to get the orchard to the next year.

Whether a financial cash-settlement only futures market will work is still an open question, but farmers are likely looking for a more direct solution to keeping their farming operations viable in the face of greater volatility in water supplies.

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