Suspected Front Running Cost USO $120 Million in February

The Wall Street Journal today reports that U.S. Oil (USO) has lost 20% of its value year-to-date, while the price of crude fell just 2.2%. The fund, which has grown from $7 million three years ago to $3.8 billion, is essentially losing money, and unable to track the crude oil market, because traders are front-running the roll. The roll is the movement from the first month contract that is soon to expire to the second month and soon-to-be front month contract.

Regulators are paying attention because it appears the fund is actually moving the market. Since U.S. Oil is so big and announces the day it will make the roll it appears speculators are making bets on these moves before they happen. The Journal says this is “adding to the costs of U.S. Oil’s roll and raising concerns among regulators that traders may be manipulating prices.”

“It’s like taking candy from a baby,” said Nauman Barakat, senior vice president at Macquarie Futures USA in New York, told the Journal. And this is hurting the fund’s investors.

The Journal reports that on the last roll, Feb. 6, U.S. Oil moved 80,000 contracts out of March into April. Thirty minutes before the New York Mercantile Exchange closed, the spread between the two month’s oil contracts jumped from $4 to $5.98, which cost the fund $120 million more than it would have a day earlier. At the same time, a trader could have pocketed $1,390 on each spread trade, which costs $810 to place.

The Journal says U.S. Oil complained to Nymex the following week. Last week, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission began investigating the trading.

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