What Is a Spot Commodity?

A spot commodity is a commodity up for immediate trade, as opposed to a commodity under contract for trade at a future date. Commodities are necessary goods used in commerce that are interchangeable with other commodities of the same type.

Spot commodities trade on a spot market with an expectation of delivery at settlement. In contrast, commodities traded on the futures market have a delivery set at a future date.

Key Takeaways

  • A spot commodity is up for immediate trade and delivery upon settlement, unlike a futures commodity that has a delivery date set in the future.
  • Spot commodity prices are more susceptible to supply and demand than futures commodities.
  • Spot commodities must be ready for immediate sale and delivery, as most trades typically settle within two days.
  • Backwardation is when the price of a commodity future rises toward the spot price as the settlement date nears.
  • Contango is when futures contracts trade below the expected spot price of a commodity at settlement.

How a Spot Commodity Works

Spot commodities must be ready for immediate sale and delivery, as most trades typically settle within two days. Because of this, the price of a spot commodity has more exposure to supply and demand pressures within the market than futures contracts. Future contracts will specify a price for the delivery of a certain quantity of a commodity at a later date.

The perishability of a commodity also factors into the volatility of its spot price. During periods of excess supply, the cost of spoilage eventually outweighs the cost of holding the commodity.

Special Considerations

Since the value of a commodity futures contract derives from the value of the underlying commodity, it’s reasonable to expect the price of the futures contract to trend toward the spot price of a commodity as the futures contract approaches its settlement date.

Typically, the price of a futures contract for a commodity moves higher, toward the expected spot price, as the futures contract settlement date nears. This process is known as normal backwardation. Economists believe the higher rates on futures contracts factor in the risk of a shortage of the commodity in the spot market.

The opposite situation is known as contango. Contango is when futures contracts trade below the expected spot price of a commodity at settlement.

Spot Commodity vs. Futures Contract

Futures contracts initially involved providing a hedging mechanism for buyers and producers. When farmers plan to grow crops or raise animals for the agriculture industry, futures contracts provide them with some certainty around their financial return at harvest or slaughter. The price is locked in, despite what may happen to market prices in the intervening period.

For buyers expecting to take physical delivery of a commodity at settlement, a futures contract protects a spike in prices. As an example, airlines will partake in fuel hedging and purchase futures in airline fuel to establish a capped or fixed cost.

By contrast, commodities speculators use futures contracts to profit on price volatility in commodities markets. Speculators do not intend to take delivery of a commodity at settlement.

Example of a Spot Commodity

For example, hog markets can experience supply and demand shortages when animals are affected by illness or by weather fluctuations. In a typical year, one might expect the price of a futures contract to be higher than the expected spot price. Investors will hedge the risk of trouble that might constrict supply or demand.

If a combination of bad weather and infection decimated the hog population, spot prices would rise due to the unexpectedly constrained supply. The rise in spot prices could then push the market into contango as futures contracts adjust to match the increase in expected spot market prices.