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What is Backwardation and Contango in Futures Markets?

Contango and backwardation are terms often used within commodity circles. These terms refer to the shape of the futures curve of a commodity such as gold, silver, wheat or crude oil. A futures curve can be plotted on a chart of a particular contract by using an X and Y axis. The X axis contains the various contract expiration dates while the Y axis contains the corresponding futures prices. A normal futures curve will show a rising slope as the prices of futures contracts rises in time. An inverted futures curve will show a falling slope as the prices of futures contracts falls over time.

A contango market simply means that the futures contracts are trading at a premium to the spot price. For example, if the price of a crude oil contract today is $100 per barrel, but the price for delivery in six months is $110 per barrel, that market would be in contango. On the other hand, if crude oil is trading at $100 per barrel for delivery right now, and the six month contract is trading at $95 per barrel, then that market would be said to be in backwardation.

Contango and backwardation are curve structures seen in futures markets based on several factors. It is important to remember that the futures price eventually converges on the spot price. In other words, any gaps between the futures price and the spot price will close as contract expiration nears.

The shape of the futures curve is important to commodity hedgers and speculators. Both care about whether commodity futures markets are contango markets or normal backwardation markets. In 1993, the German company Metallgesellschaft famously lost more than $1 billion dollars, mostly because management deployed a hedging system that profited from normal backwardation markets but did not anticipate a shift to contango markets.

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