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IN commodity markets, there are few phenomena more feared than a corner.
If a few traders become too dominant, they can at times set prices at will by withholding supply, driving values to ridiculous levels.
That’s what happened when the Hunt brothers cornered the market in silver in 1980, sending it to prices that are still a record.
In equity markets, short squeezes like the one that caused Volkswagen AG to briefly become the world’s most valuable company in 2008 also represent a sort of corner.
That situation has been playing out this week in the market underpinning Australia’s main electricity grid.
Regulators were forced Wednesday to suspend the spot market into which generators sell power, saying that trading was getting in the way of ensuring secure and reliable electricity supplies.
That will temporarily switch the network from one run on capitalist principles of supply and demand, to something like a planned economy where the regulator directs utilities what to do.
It’s an extraordinary failure, especially considering that there’s no shortage of generation capacity out there.
The best explanation is that the cornerstone players in Australia’s power market have seen the business model of their coal-fired assets incinerated. They decided YOLO, and chose to make a play for some short-term cash, rather than long-term stability.
Australia’s power market operates as a series of rolling reverse auctions. Generators bid to sell electricity into five-minute windows, with the price they all receive set by the highest-cost player.
For wind and solar, those costs are effectively zero. Coal is relatively cheap too, so the marginal generator who sets the market price is typically gas-fired.
That’s the start of the problem. As the world’s largest liquefied natural gas exporter, Australia’s gas tends to move in line with global prices that have soared thanks to the invasion of Ukraine.
Russian exports of pipeline gas to Europe have declined by about a third over the past month, pushing up the cost of wholesale electricity in Australia to the point where it triggered government price caps.
In theory, the regulator can then direct generators to switch on and sell power into the market, but that’s not happening. Coal-fired power stations, which still account for about two-thirds of Australia’s power mix, have been absent.
About a third of coal-burning capacity was offline during Wednesday’s evening peak, despite pricing that should guarantee hefty profits for every generator who sparks up.
What’s going on? The generators point to an unfortunate series of coincidences. Some units are down for scheduled maintenance.