The Daily Parker

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More financial musical chairs

When the economy went into its current medically-induced coma, cash movements slowed almost to a halt in some sectors. If you had cash four weeks ago, you have probably held onto it; if you held debt four weeks ago, you probably haven't gotten all the cash flows you expected.

As yesterday's brief collapse of oil futures contracts demonstrated, the game of musical chairs almost became frighteningly real for traders:

When you read a news article or hear an economist mention the price of oil, it typically refers not to a physical barrel filled with viscous liquid but to the price of a futures contract that trades on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. By convention, the “price of oil” is the going per-barrel price reflected in a futures contract for the ensuing month.

In the case of the most widely followed contract in the United States, that would be West Texas Intermediate crude, which you would need to physically obtain from storage facilities in Cushing, Okla., where major pipelines intersect.

Plenty of major entities trade such futures without ever thinking too much about those physical details — and certainly without getting any oil on their expensive suits. Speculators speculate, companies hedge their risks of price swings, and transactions take place at the level of abstraction on a computer screen.

But as each contract’s settlement date approaches, the financial speculators sell their contracts to “real” buyers of oil, like refineries. This can cause problems for traders who may be in over their heads. Chris Arnade, a trader-turned-author, said on Twitter on Monday that he once found himself in that position: “I ended up almost taking physical delivery of lots of oil.”

It gets worse:

All of that points to a deflationary collapse — a glut of supply of goods and services, and consequently falling prices — that surpasses anything seen in most people’s lifetimes.

Oil isn’t the only commodity with a plunging price. Corn futures have fallen 19 percent since early February. The price of inflation-protected government bonds suggests inflation will be only 0.56 percent a year over the coming five years, and the Consumer Price Index fell 0.4 percent in March.

In other words, the suckage has barely started for a lot of people.

So, instead of worrying about the end of the world as we know it, enjoy Chicago Public Rado's drone footage of a quiet city:

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