Commodity traders thrive in highly liquid markets that provide easy access to the world's most popular futures contracts. Lower bid/ask spreads in these venues reduce slippage during entry and exit, thereby increasing profit potential. Meanwhile, less erratic price action supports short-term intraday and swing trading, as well as long-term position trading and market timing.
New participants often confuse commodity futures with index and financial futures contracts, including the S&P 500, Eurodollar and 10-Year Treasury Notes. Commodities represent real physical substances that can be bought or sold on spot markets. They originate inside the Earth or on top of it – rather than in the minds of Wall Street mathematicians. In addition, commodities have physical supply and demand limitations that impact pricing, while financial instruments can be created from numbers on a spreadsheet.
Identifying Top Commodity Markets
CME Group now ranks as the top futures exchange in the world, after a decade of consolidation that added the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT), the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX), the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (COMEX) and the Kansas City Board of Trade (KCBOT). In the second quarter of 2018, the combined exchange reported the top five commodity futures contracts as follows:
Average Daily Volume (ADV)
|Henry Hub Natural Gas Future||752,588||1,342,406|
|Chicago SRW Wheat Future||117,581||480,959|
Like all world markets, commodity futures volume and open interest fluctuate in reaction to political, economic and natural events, including the weather. For example, a Midwestern drought can generate strongly trending agricultural futures, attracting capital from other futures venues. Volatility tends to gradually rise and fall over long time periods, because commodity trends develop slowly and can last for years and decades, rather than weeks or months. (For more, see: Interpreting Volume for the Futures Market.)
Long-Term View on Top Contracts
10-year price charts provide a solid technical foundation for traders and market timers looking to play these highly liquid instruments. While commodities attract fundamentally oriented players, including industry hedgers, technical analysis is widely used to predict price direction. In fact, modern charting has historic origins in the 17th-century Dutch tulip markets and 18th-century Japanese rice markets.
Crude Oil Monthly Chart
Crude oil futures hit an all-time high at $147.27 in June 2008 and sold off into the upper 30s during the economic collapse. It recovered around 70% of the steep decline into the 2011 top and eased into a trading range, bounded by $112 on the upside and $80 on the downside. The contract broke down in 2014 and entered a steep downtrend that tested the bear market low in the third quarter of 2015. A new uptrend began in mid-late 2017, hitting the high 80s in Oct. 2018 before leveling off to the low 60s.
Corn Monthly Chart
Corn futures went to sleep between 1998 and 2006, carving out a long rounded bottom that attracted limited trading interest. It entered a strong uptrend in the second half of 2006, rising vertically into the 2008 peak above $7.00. The contract lost more than half its value during the economic collapse, finding support near $3.00 and entering a recovery wave that topped out above $8.50 in the middle of 2012. The subsequent downtrend relinquished four years of gains, with price settling just above the 2008 low in the second half of 2014. Quiet basing action since that time may last into 2016 or longer, with the next uptrend finding substantial resistance above $6.00.
Natural Gas Monthly Chart
Natural gas futures trade unlike other energy or commodity markets, with a 20-year series of vertical spikes that have been repealed as quickly as they appear. Rallies above $10 in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2008 met with heavy resistance that triggered nearly 100% retracements in the next 1 or 2 years.
Soybeans Monthly Chart
Soybean futures bottomed out at a multi-decade low between 1999 and 2002. The contract then entered a strong uptrend that posted vertical rally peaks in 2004, 2008 and 2012. It turned lower in the second half of 2012, in an orderly correction that accelerated to the downside in 2014. The decline ended just above the 2009 low. By late Nov. 2018, prices spiked above $27.
Wheat Monthly Chart
Wheat futures sold off into 1999 and carved out a rounded bottom that persisted into a 2007 breakout. The contract went vertical into 2008, hitting a parabolic all-time high near $12.00 and collapsing in an equally ferocious downtrend, giving up 100% of the rally in just two years. The contract bounced in late 2009, retracing two-thirds of the decline into a three-year
that broke support at $6.00 in 2014. The subsequent downtrend has been testing $3.00 for nearly a year, with that level marking support for more than a decade.
The Bottom Line
Crude oil leads the pack as the most liquid commodity futures market, followed by corn and natural gas. Agricultural futures tend to generate the highest volume during periods of low stress in the energy pits, while gold futures have gone through boom and bust cycles that greatly impact open interest. It now stands as the seventh-most-traded commodity contract, just behind RBOB Gasoline.