Natural gas a value and sentiment play

Here is a chart of US natural gas (source) going back 25 years. Adjusted for inflation, gas has never been cheaper. Compared to oil and coal on an energy equivalent basis, gas is far cheaper than it has ever been.


Here are three big US gas producers, Chesapeake, Encana and Southwestern, all of whom have been beaten down to 2008 levels (chart from yahoo):

Finally, here is a composite sentiment measure (sentimenttrader.com), which suggests that investor sentiment, which is a contrary indicator at extremes, has never been more negative on the sector:


An NG long could even be paired directly against a crude short, since such a large difference between NG and crude or coal simply cannot last in a market economy. Even if gas stays low as economic activity slows, crude will likely come down.

A look at the real value of gold on an historical basis.

I like making random gold ratio charts in stockcharts.com since it lets you chart the ratio of anything: gold:oil, gold:copper, gold:SPX, etc:

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If you do this kind of analysis on a longer-term basis, you see that gold is getting a bit expensive relative to other commodities, capital goods or labor (or you could say that each of those things is getting cheap when priced in gold). What is clear is that gold is no longer cheap by any measure. I don’t think this type of analysis has anything to do with where gold price goes in the near-term (technicals and sentiment drive that), but it’s helpful to think about where gold is on an historical basis.

  • The Gold:Oil and Gold:Copper ratios are moderately high, and would be off the charts if oil and copper were to crash.
  • Rent on a nicer 1BR apartment in Manhattan has fallen from 8 ounces in 2001 to 2 ounces today. This is about what it cost in the 1920s-60s.
  • 10 ounces in 2001 bought a 12-year-old Honda Civic, and now it gets you a brand new one with extras. A Model T Ford cost 15 ounces by the 1920s. The VW Beetle cost 30-50 ounces in the ’50s.
  • Median family income in was about 50 ounces in 1920, 90 ounces in 1955, over 100 in 1965, 70 in 1975, 75 in 1985, 95 in 1995 and way over 100 in 2000. Today, it’s about 30.

On a purchasing power basis, gold is adequately priced – it is certainly no longer cheap. Of course, markets don’t care about this on anything but the longest term – gold was overvalued at $500 in 1979, but it still spiked over $800 and then fell to a ridiculously low level in 2000. In the scenario where the dollar goes to zero, everything will soar in dollars, not just gold, so you’d still have to evaluate gold in terms of goods and services.

I’m still in the dollar bull camp for the foreseable future. Treasuries are pointing the way (record low 10-year yields, 3.5% on the 30-year, almost like Japan), and it looks like another bout of deflation is underway, if you define deflation as a contraction in money and credit (if credit is marked to market). Europe’s soveriegn debt implosion is deflationary. The same goes for the Australian real estate collapse and the pending RE collapses in China and Canada, and the US muni and junk market troubles.

I don’t see the dollar as any worse fundamentally than the euro or yen, and much better technically. Japan’s history since ’89 is proof that printing and spending and running up huge public debt doesn’t necessarily kill your currency. When there is too much private debt going bad but not being written off, it overwhelms the mismanagement of the currency and props it up. It doesn’t matter what you think of the fundamental value of the dollar if you’re in debt and can’t find enough dollars to make your payments. And until asset and labor prices and demand for goods and services can justify borrowing costs, there’s no credit expansion so no inflation.

Sentiment-wise, we’ve still got a great long-term case on the long-dollar trade. Fear of the dollar has been widespread since early 2008, but the DXY has just bounced around sideways – no crash. The crash happend from 2000-08, while nobody but old-school Austrians noticed.

Major dollar rally coming soon, to a trading screen near you.

Sorry for my long hiatus from blogging. I’ve been trading very little over the last six months, demoralized and righly so due to chronically awful trade execution and overreaching. I have a highly valid reversal strategy, but it is not a trend strategy, and I need to keep my bearish macro views out of the equation (though I suspect that they would be better suited to the next 2 years that the last 2 – but I need to forget about that and keep such discussions academic, for risk of corrupting a perfectly good trading model).

I’ve done some soul-searching and review of my trading history and this blog, and come to the conclusion that I should not abandon this pursuit but instead work to remedy my fatal flaws. A review of my history shows that I am able to identify turns in markets with a very high degree of probability. The fatal flaws are not analytical, but as is usually the case, emotional and procedural. This blog actually has a very good record of both initiating positions and closing or reversing them. As a trader, I would have done well to follow its advice, but I would often revert back to my bear bias, and way too soon, as when I shorted risk last March-April, booked huge profits and went long (including buying bottom tick in EUR and CHF) in June, only to reverse and go short again in July on bias alone without my proven criteria for a valid set-up.

My basic methodology as it has evolved here since August 2008 when this blog began, is to use sentiment and technical data to identify oversold and overbought conditions that are long in the tooth and due for clearing reversals.

The classic set-up is like this:

  • DSI sentiment has plateaued or bottomed at an extreme (<20% or >80% for at least 5 weeks, the longer the better – this can go on for 6 months at the outside, more commonly 4-12 weeks if we are talking <20% or >80% readings).
  • A major move comensurate with that sentiment has occurred (the market is trading at highs or lows), which to the mass of traders seems totatally justified by fundamentals.
  • Price action shows weakening momentum. This is indicated by a diverging trend in oomph indicators MACD and RSI. This usually means that the rate of change is slowing and that each new little push is slower and on lower volume, even as new extremes in price are reached.
  • A loose stop-loss level can be identified (a level that should it be broken decisively, would indicate that the prevailing trend still has legs). This is a mult-week strategy, so stops should use daily or even weekly levels — no use for 5 minute charts here.
  • Markets are highly coordinated in recent years. E.g., if the dollar is looking like it is going to rally, don’t be long stocks or commodities or short bonds.
  • Adjust stops downward to breakeven after the reversal, and tighten stops to a gain as DSI data reaches 40-60% middle ground.
  • Tighten stops much more or close positions after DSI data approaches the opposite extreme (e.g., if you shorted SPX when DSI bulls were 90%, prepare to close and consider the trade finished once DSI reaches 25%).
  • This is not a trend system! Repeat, this is not a trend system! Trade reversals only, as those have the highest probability. Once the oversold/overbought condition is cleared, the probability of the market continuing in your direction is vastly lower, and does not justify the risk (no matter your opinion of the longer-term situation or fundamentals). This last point was my fatal flaw.
So, we have a classic long-dollar set-up developing right now. I give it strong odds that we experience a major dollar rally within 2 months, with all of the de-leveraging that entails in other markets. This is not the place to put on a heavy position if you are not willing to accept big drawdowns, since this market could easily trend for a while yet, with the stock markets holding up as well.
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source: futures.tradingcharts.com
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Note that this trade is confirmed by the opposite in the stock market. Plateau in DSI and other sentiment indicators at a high level of bullishness for several weeks. This condition will be cleared to the downside as the dollar breaks upward. Copper, oil, etc will also correct hard down, and the anti-dollar currency pack (CAD, GBP, EUR, AUD and probably CHF) will fall as well. Not sure about JPY – it often trades up with the dollar during these little episodes of risk unwinding.
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As always, the timing is the most uncertain factor here, but the longer the dollar sentiment stays low, the less risk there is in this trade and the stronger the resulting rally will be. I can’t say whether this will come next week or in early June, but we are at the point where traders should be nervous about short-dollar, long-risk positions, because that trade is running on momentum alone and meets the requisites for sudden reversal.
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The archetypal set-up was long-dollar in fall 2009, after dismal trader sentiment since early June 09. The set-up was in place by late August, but the dollar continued to drift down through November, helped along by small clearing rallies and brief upticks in sentiment. Because average sentiment was low for an extraordinarily long time (6 months), we had a very powerful rally, from 74 to 88, over the following 6 months. This time, sentiment has been low for two months so far, certainly enough for a good rally, but not necessarily for the same killer trade. On the other hand it is somewhat better because the readings are more extreme.
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The clearing episodes are the wall of worry or the slope of hope that keep the trend going.  A smoothy trending market with a flattening slope is more dangerous for followers and better for reversal traders. So far we have such a market, but if it gets choppy, with little sell-offs in stocks and small dollar rallies, it can last longer, and if the clearing events are big enough, it would cancel this trade. There will be others.

Weakness developing in commodities

Checking the 15-min bar chart, copper and oil are not looking too spirited.

Here’s oil:

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And copper, same scale:

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And of course platinum and palladium are looking busted. Daily charts here.

Platinum:

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Palladium:

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The technical damage in these metals is probably not a good sign for gold and silver either.

Silver’s daily chart leaves a thing or two to be desired:

Matt Simmons: Nuclear bomb may be needed to seal the leak.

Simmons is among the most prominent oil and gas analysts, if not the most prominent. He says that the Russians have used small nuclear detonations inside wellbores to seal some major blowouts in the last 30 years.

He also mentions the second huge plume of oil that has been discovered deep underwater a few miles away from the well. Apparently the use of dispersant chemicals has only made things worse by increasing the density of the oil so that it doesn’t all float to the surface where it can be sucked into tankers.

Here’s the Bloomberg interview:

Don’t count on a big rally in commodities.

Yes, the “inflation/risk trade” is moderately oversold, but when oil, copper and the like start to fall, they can just slide straight down for months. I believe that the commodity rally of the past 15 months was just a dead cat bounce correcting the crash after the massive 2007-2008 bubble.

Now that we’ve had that correction (and then some when it comes to the metals), there is little reason for prices to remain elevated. The supply/demand situation today certainly doesn’t justify $3.00 copper or $1.00 nickel or zinc, and demand will be even weaker in a year when the construction bubbles in China, Australia and Canada are over.

Here’s a pattern I see in crude. Now that the uptrend (higher highs, higher lows) is busted (we made a lower low), all rallies may be short and weak:

TD Ameritrade

Copper’s uptrend is still technically intact but very weak(see RSI), and it could play out the same way:

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Of course, if a large rally does develop, it will just be more fodder for the bears. I’ve entered a short on copper at $3.13 today, and am prepared to add to the position. I’ve also just picked up some July puts on crude futures (expiry June 17). I don’t like near-term options, but these got cheap today and will pay off 25:1 if oil is $55 three weeks from now.

If another broad-based rally in risk assets develops, I’m covered with longs on stock futures. However, I would not be surprised to see stocks (and the Euro) rally for a while here while commodities decline. When trends start to exhaust correlations can break apart.

Commodities crash underway: straight down or choppy?

Commodities did spectacularly well from winter 08-09 to winter 09-10. Many tripled in price, such as oil, copper and palladium. The world seemed convinced that another great phase of inflation was underway or would start real soon now.

The reality is that demand is anemic and that there has been little or no economic growth. The only exceptions are property bubbles in China, Australia and Canada that are just running on fumes, where America’s was circa 2006. The commodity bounce was purely a technical reaction from an extremely oversold condition, exacerbated by mistaken faith in Keynesian policies deployed worldwide. The rally began to stall out from mid-autumn to this March, and is now starting to roll over in force.

Here’s a 3-year chart of copper, a very liquid and widely followed market. Many believe it is an economic guage, but this is nonsense IMO, since it was trading well under a dollar as the economy was booming a decade ago, and like a lot of other commodities was very expensive in the stagnant 1970s (and right now of course). Prices are driven first and foremost by fads. Why else would you expect it to trade at $3.50 in the middle of a deflantionary depression when stockpiles are huge?

Stockcharts.com

I don’t like to brag, since I get plenty of timing wrong, but back in April I noted the divergence in RSI and MACD right as copper made its top around $3.60.

Another favorite guage of risk appetite is the silver:gold ratio, which has remained stalled for the better part of a year now, and looks set to decline again:

Stockcharts.com

Also check out the palladium:gold ratio, since palladium experienced a major speculative bubble lately which has started to crash very hard:

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Here’s oil, West Texas Intermediate… in all of these commodity charts, note the severity and unrelenting nature of the last drop in 2008. There were few rallies where one could safely get on board for a short sale — you were either short from the top for the ride of your life or just had to watch.

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I’m not expecting a lot of chop in these markets. I’d love a nice rally here to increase short positions, but it’s not the nature of commodities to take their time on the way down. Traders had months to see this trade coming and set up shorts, but for those who don’t over-leverage themselves it is by no means too late to get on board.

By the way, the commodity currencies (Australian, New Zealand, Canadian dollars, Brazilian Real and South African Rand) have also started to fall hard but have a long way to go to correct their rallies from last winter.

Want to see one commodity market that we’re definitely not too late to short? Gold and silver mining stocks (GDX ETF below). The gold bugs have been extremely confident and their ranks have swelled lately, so a deep set-back is much needed in this sector. After all, mining stocks often have a greater correlation with the S&P 500 than with the gold price (which I expect to fall, though not as much as stocks).

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Ironically, I’m part of a group that’s building a huge database and stock screener in this space, called the Mining Almanac. Launching our beta site right at the top of a commodities bubble couldn’t be worse timing, so I’m trying to make lemonade and using it to search not for value stocks (what I designed it for) but the opposite so that I can short them!

For safety, don’t buy gold stocks, which are a financial asset with value contingent upon stock market conditions, tax laws (seen in Australia lately as their leftist government has slapped an extra tax on the mining industry) and myriad operational concerns. Along with plenty of cash and treasury notes, buy gold itself, either stored in your name in a vault oversees or in your personal posession. Gold is money, and in a deflationary depression with undertones of currency crisis, you want the very best.

David Rosenberg warns: Chinese stocks lead commodities markets.

I’ll let his chart do the talking:

Source: gluskinsheff.net

To very little fanfare, the Chinese stock market — the first index to turn around in late 2008 — has slipped into a bear market. It is down 15 % from the nearby high and 20% from last year’s interim peak. Why this is important is because the Shanghai index leads the CRB commodity spot price index by four months with a 72% correlation (and over an 80% correlation with the oil price). Don’t get us wrong — we are long-term secular commodity bulls; however, we have been agnostic this year from a tactical standpoint — never hurts to take profits after a double!

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