Small margin increase is a big deal for oil

The CME is raising the amount of upfront capital required to trade crude oil contracts. While the modest increase is being downplayed in the media, it could pressure oil lower.

By Jim Cramer May 10, 2011 9:00AM

jim cramerthe streetWhen the CME (CME) broke the back of the silver market by increasing margin requirements, it was huge news. Of course, it took a virtual doubling in the requirements to shoot that elephant, and the beast stirred in Monday’s session. Nevertheless the CME's move certainly cooled the frenzy.


Can margin requirements do the same for oil? Looks like the CME wants to find out after the harrowing session last week that saw oil plummet $10 in a couple of hours. That's why I think last night's 25% increase in the margin required to buy in the oil complex could have impact.


It took an 84% increase in margin requirements to stop silver in its tracks, causing a 27% plunge in the precious metal. We are nowhere near that with these boosts in margin. However, the exchange didn't take up the margin rates 84% in one fell swoop, so I expect more increases if the zaniness continues.


The weird thing is that you can hardly find a word about these increases announced last night. No coverage to speak of at all. It started just like that with silver too, as if people didn't think it would matter -- but it mattered plenty.

The reason why it could matter greatly here, too, has to do with the way oil is consumed. There's not much oil that isn't used. So at any given moment the margin price can be tilted by keeping some of the market via speculative tie-ups. You need those tie-ups to cost more to discourage them but, of course, the exchange doesn't feel like that's its job.


But oil is not silver. It is not something we can just say, "You know what, I will just pump salad dressing into my car today." So these changes could mean some downward bias even though they are not big requirement lifts and the market is allegedly very deep. I write "allegedly" because no market that falls as quickly as this one did last week can possibly be deep. That's just nonsensical, no matter how many graybeards and commodity apologists/professors tell us otherwise.

No matter, the requirement boost, while played down in the media, is a big deal. And if the dollar keeps getting stronger, I expect a retest for lower oil quickly . . . and I bet if we hear talk of more margin boosts, it won't hold.


At the time of publication, Cramer had no positions in the stocks mentioned.


Jim Cramer is co-founder and chairman of TheStreet. He contributes daily market commentary for TheStreet's sites and serves as an adviser to the company's CEO.


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