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Tuesday, May 27, 2008


the last days of an oil boom?

john mauldin, via minyanville, examines the commodities boom with a special eye on oil -- and concludes:

For a few weeks now, observers have noticed that Iran is leasing tankers and storing oil in them.

...India's refiners are telling Iran they no longer want their oil, preferring the higher-quality stuff that's readily available in the area. So Iran has to decide whether to send it to China or "repackage" it so that it can end up in the US, while they try to get refiners in India to change their minds. Thus, they're leasing tankers to store the oil they're pumping.

I called George at about six this evening and asked him about the Iranian situation, as that is a lot of oil that could come on the market at some point, as well as a possible reason that oil supplies are down. George has analysts on top of this situation.

He told me, "John, it's more interesting than that. It is not just Iran. Today we started checking on how many tankers Iran had, and soon discovered that there is a serious tanker shortage. Lease prices have soared in the past few weeks. It is clear there are a lot of speculators betting that oil is going to rise to $150 or so and are willing to pay very high prices for keeping the oil on the seas waiting for higher prices. It is a speculative boom."

He then told me about flying into New York in the early '80s. Outside the harbor were 30 or so tankers just sitting, waiting for prices to continue to increase as they had been doing for some time. When they did not, they all tried to get into the harbor at the same time, and of course they couldn't. It was the top of the market. Prices dropped, and the owners of the oil had to go to the futures market to hedge what they could. I had heard that story, but George saw it with his own eyes.

Almost everyone (except the stock market) is convinced oil is going higher in the near term. As I noted above, this week's rally was partially due to short covering by large institutions and companies which had sold production far into the future at much lower prices. They finally threw in the towel and took off their hedges.

... Oil is the biggest component of the commodity index funds. If oil drops and looks likely to go lower, then the massive buying of these funds we have seen in the past few months could dry up. As Dennis Gartman says, it takes a lot of buying to make the price of something go up, but it only takes a lack of buying to make it go down. And if there's net selling?

... Let me say that I believe the long-term price of oil is going much higher. ... As for today, if I was in a long-only commodity index fund, unless my time horizon was very long I would be watching it closely and have some close stops. And I might wait until I saw what the price of oil was going to do. If you have some profits, then you might want to think about taking some off the table. Just a thought.

what's interesting to note about commodities is that many peaked back in february and march of this year -- take a look at this chart collage. wheat, corn, cotton (TT), lean hogs, lean cattle, gold and aluminum -- none has been particularly productive as an investment over the last few months. the exception? CL -- light crude.

if there is a speculative bubble ready to burst over oil, the product of some alliance of institutional investing and hedge fund positioning, there won't be much to support notions of a problem with inflation in the western world. as the economist noted, the emerging world is a different story.) indeed, deflation -- the underlying current of credit destruction now afoot, rendering funding scarce and driving down both the supply of and demand for dollar-denominated credit -- would suddenly (shockingly, for many) take the stage.

UPDATE: more from yves smith, relaying the analysis of john dizard:

This is not to say, in my view, and of others, that today's oil prices reflect the economics of marginal supply and demand. There are people out there who have bought physical oil and stored it so as to sell it in the future. But the real commodities buying frenzy has been defensive buying by consumers, government stockpilers, and processors trying to protect themselves from the adverse effects of future price increases.

Eugen Weinberg, a commodities specialist with Commerzbank, who thinks we are in the late stages of a bubble, says: "At the moment we have big inventories worldwide, about 3.5bn barrels in the OECD countries, which does not include China. That is enough so that if Saudi Arabia stopped exporting, the world could run at its present level of demand for a year and a half with no increases in production from other countries."

UPDATE: steve waldman on "limits to arbitrage" and who has the capacity to keep prices elevated in commodities markets.

People with access to the physical commodity could profit from more than the ordinary arbitrage. At every roll, they have the entire community of "index speculators" over a barrel. Shorts are under no obligation to let speculators close out their positions at inflated "market prices", or even estimated "fundamental values". They can force longs to accept prices that overshoot downward, exacting a price for release from obligations that paper speculators are incapable of fulfilling, the obligation to accept delivery. If you think Masters is right, you have to explain why, year after year, those taking the short side have been willing close their positions at a loss rather than forcing more deliveries. Why haven't shorts entered the market who are capable of calling index speculators' bluff?

Hmm. Let's turn once again to Smith:

Remember, you can arbitrage futures to physical only if you are permitted to do so (only certain traders, known to have access to the storage and transport, are allowed to take or make physical delivery) and can actually obtain the relevant commodity.

So, there are potentially barriers to entry for bluff-callers. So, who are these "certain traders" permitted to make delivery? I don't know, but one would imagine that commodity producers would be prominent among them. So, for the conspiracy-minded among you, here's a theory: Producers' core asset is not the stock of goods they have for sale today, but their potential to produce and sell a stream of commodity out into the indefinite future. It might be worth it for producers to bear an opportunity cost by not exploiting futures trades aggressively — that is by letting specs close positions at artificially bid-up prices — in order to inflate the apparent value of their enterprises, especially when producers intend to borrow funds, sell equity, or make stock-based acquisitions. Managers whose compensation is equity-linked might be particularly enthusiastic. Depending on how numerous and competitive the community of enterprises capable of physical delivery on prominent contracts, there might be a tacit cartel on the producer side, accommodating speculative futures prices, while managing spot supply so that cash market prices (which are less consistent and transparent than futures prices) are not outrageously out of line with futures market benchmarks.

the truth is that commodities DO boom and bust -- they always have. it may be important to argue about the mechanism, as waldman here does and cogently, but not as important as simply realizing that -- because it has happened -- there IS a mechanism. and that one is in a speculative bubble is NEVER simply as obvious as looking for invenory buildups, for if it were so easy there would never be a speculative boom in the first place.

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