Monday, February 18, 2008
Hopefully, you are taking steps now to safeguard your financial future, including buying gold through one of the various methods discussed in previous posts. Today I'd like to spotlight a different commodity which has just broken out of a two year congestion period - natural gas. As oil prices have gone through the roof lately, natural gas prices had stayed relatively low. Every previous time this has happened in history, natural gas prices have risen to "catch up" to the rise in oil prices. So what's the best way to play this?
The most conservative investors can play the rise in gas prices by buying shares in the natural gas exchange traded fund (symbol: UNG), which mimics the rise in price of natural gas futures contracts, without the extra risk and hassle of margin calls. Unfortunately, since this ETF is based on futures contracts, there are no long-term options available, although there are currently options that run out as far as October 2008.
A good single company stock play on natural gas is Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest natural gas companies in North America. After a huge run up over a five year period, it too had been in a period of consolidation over the last two years, but has recently broken out and up of that pattern, just like natural gas itself. It has a very strong balance sheet and a number of politically prominent board members, including former US Senators. Most invitingly of all, over the last few years the CEO and other insiders have regularly bought millions of dollars worth of Chesapeake shares with their own money.
It is important to keep in mind that natural gas has one critical difference with other energy sources like crude oil, coal, or heating oil - it cannot be transported by sea except in liquid form - and the liquid form requires special processing terminals in seaports. North American has very few such terminals, and efforts to build more inevitably run into the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) syndrome from community residents and environmental activists. That is why natural gas prices soared so high when the Gulf Coast was threatened by Hurricane Katrina a few years ago. This provides a natural competitive barrier against large amounts of imported foreign gas for Chesapeake.
A higher risk strategy is to purchase Chesapeake call options. Regular readers know I prefer to buy the longer-term LEAPS to smooth out short term price volatility (see previous posts for a detailed explanation of how options work). I bought some January 2010 $60 strike price call options two weeks ago and they are now up about 40%, but there should be more room to run in the near future.
The obvious danger here is that Chesapeake shares get dragged down with the general market if there is a large stock decline, which is why I prefer the longer-term options. Another way around that is to use the highest risk strategy of buying natural gas futures contracts directly. This is difficult for the small investor because natural gas is a very large contract with some of the highest margin requirements of any futures contract. So the small investor who wants to go this route is best advised to purchase options on natural gas futures contracts instead. This has the added advantage of not requiring any margin and hence not being subject to margin calls.
One final thought - I find it extremely humorous when Senator Clinton tries to make the case that Obama will not be able to withstand the "Republican attack machine" that will be unleashed on him if he should become the Democratic nominee. The reality is that anyone who can withstand the Clinton attack machine has nothing to fear from the "vast right wing conspiracy!"
Monday, January 21, 2008
- Lieutenant Commander John Sidney McCain, III, USN (to his North Vietnamese captors)
Last week, politics in South Carolina hit probably its lowest point since the state plunged America into its bloodiest-ever war with the 1860 attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Fliers were mailed to households throughout the state claiming that John McCain, a true American hero whose son is serving in Iraq with the US Marines, had betrayed his fellow POW's in Vietnam by receiving special treatment from the enemy. As regular readers know, Senator McCain is not my first choice for President this year, but I couldn't let this base and vile attack go unanswered. For the real story, I highly recommend the exhaustively researched and definitive work on the POW experience, P.O.W.: A Definitive History of the American Prisoner-Of-War Experience in Vietnam, 1964-1973, as well as Robert Timberg's The Nightingale's Song, from which the following excerpts are taken:
Knocked out on ejection, he regained consciousness as he hit the tepid water of a small lake in the center of Hanoi...His right knee was broken...he also broke both arms...An angry crowd of several hundred Vietnamese had gathered, all seemingly armed. Stripped down to his skivvies, he was kicked and spat on, then bayoneted in the left ankle and left groin...an onlooker slammed a rifle butt down on his shoulder, smashing it.
His captors, demanding military information, told him that as a war criminal he was not protected by international covenants governing the treatment of prisoners of war. He responded as he had been trained, with name, rank, serial number, and date of birth. Infuriated, his interrogators kicked him and pounded him with their fists. "That just knocked me out, so the interrrogations were fairly short," recalled McCain, as if he had somehow outfoxed the North Vietnamese by getting them to beat him senseless.
For the rest of his hospital stay he was never bathed, never cleaned, never shaved...He was told he needed more surgery on (his) knee but that he wouldn't get it because of his "bad attitude." One day an officer asked McCain if he wanted anything special to eat. He said, no, he would eat what everyone else ate...One evening (fellow POW Norris Overly) told McCain and (Air Force pilot Bud) Day that the Vietnamese might send him home...Said McCain, "I wouldn't even consider any kind of a release. They'll have to drag me out of here."...The next day Overly was moved out...Five years later, when McCain was freed with the rest of the POWs, Overly called him. They spoke briefly. They have not talked since.
One day, (fellow POW) Jack Van Loan peered through a peephole in his cell door and saw a crowd of North Vietnamese dignitaries trudging through the courtyard toward the cell that McCain and Day shared...A few minutes later, Van Loan heard McCain cut loose with a string of obscenities that knifed through the silence of the cellblock. "It was some of the most colorful profanity that you would ever hope to hear," said Van Loan. "He was calling them every name in the book, and telling them that he was not going home early, that he wasn't going to ask for amnesty and not to ask him that again and to get out and, furthermore, screw you and the horse you rode in on...Those guys came tumbling back out of there like tumbleweeds... You can't imagine the example John set for the rest of the camp by doing that."...That night, guards removed Bud Day from the cell, leaving McCain by himself. He was alone for the next two years.
A week later he was braced in a stark room...Ten guards were standing by...Amid laughter and muttered oaths, (McCain) was slammed from one guard to another, bounced from wall to wall, knocked down, kicked, dragged to his feet, knocked back down, punched again and again in the face. When the beating was over, he lay on the floor, bloody, arms and legs throbbing, ribs cracked, several teeth broken off at the gumline. "Are you ready to confess your crimes?"..."No." The ropes came next...his arms, battered, broken, and bruised in one way or another since the day he was shot down, were lashed behind his back, then cinched tightly together to intensify the pain. He was left on a stool. Throughout the night, guards came in, asked him if he was ready to confess, then smashed their fists into him when he told them no.
The next several days fell into a harrowing routine. The ropes came off in the morning. Beatings were administered throughout the day, usually by one guard, sometimes two. On occasion two guards would hold him up while a third hammered him senseless. At night, the ropes were reapplied...Still plagued by dysentery, he often regained consciousness to find himself lying in his own waste. During one beating, staggered by a fist to the face, he slumped to the floor, smashing his left arm...breaking it again. But he was back in torture ropes that night.
There is obviously much more, but you get the picture. Regardless of what you think of Senator McCain's politics, you have to respect and honor him for his valor and service to our nation during wartime. You especially have to respect him for allowing his own son to join the Marines and deploy to Iraq, something only a handful of legislators, including fellow Naval Academy graduate and Senator Jim Webb, have done. Back to finance with the next post...
Monday, January 14, 2008
-James Howard Kunstler
Every wage earner, every producer of capital, is a speculator whether he would be or not. We must speculate on how we are to make our income, and after we have made it, we must speculate on how we are to keep it where it will be safe until it is needed. Speculation is just another name for intelligent assumption of risks.
Now most of my friends who are out and out speculators frankly admit the fact, as opposed to that so-called investment class who would like to think that they take no speculative risks. By all the time-honored yardsticks of financial measurement these out and out speculators should have failed in the last two years of declining stocks and grain futures, and those who invest for a six percent return should have their capital intact. But such has not been the case. As a matter of fact, very few of my old speculator friends have lost all they had, yet every speculator I know of has less in 1933 than he had in 1929. On the other hand, millions of people who never meant to risk a dime have lost their lifetime savings in the four years following 1929.
Many of my very close friends who look with horror on so-called speculation have lost all they had through the failure of banks, building and loan associations, and defaulted bonds, where they had their savings invested; or else they have failed through the decline in farm lands or city real estate. This doesn't seem quite fair since those who never asked more than a six per cent return certainly had a moral claim to safety of principal.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Neither Lean Hogs nor Live Cattle have yet hit their buy targets mentioned in the previous post, although Live Cattle came very close and the hogs look like they are trying to put in a bottom here. We will continue to wait for all the stars to align correctly before committing capital. In the meantime, one of the most exciting commodities out there, Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice, looks like it is entering a seasonal down pattern. And unlike Lean Hogs or Live Cattle, it's probably OK to go ahead and short it now. In fact, I did just that yesterday and am already up over two points on the trade. As you can see on this chart, this year's seasonal down leg has already begun:
Since my brother is an Obamite, I have listened to Obama speak a few times now, and I am very impressed with his oratorical ability. His acceptance speech in New Hampshire was, I thought, very similar to Jesse Jackson's keynote address at the 1984 Democratic convention, one of my all-time favorite speeches, although Obama's was obviously much shorter and suited to its specific occasion. Both speeches really jump out and grab you emotionally, and both men are very, very good at delivering such speeches.
The problem, of course, with both speeches is that the specific economic proposals contained within them would not actually help the people they spend the rest of their speeches implying they really want to help. Bottom line: America has a more than $9 trillion dollar foreign debt that China, Japan, and the Gulf Arabs own a huge piece of. The dominos have started falling - first housing, then sub-prime mortgages, then sub-prime mortgage derivatives, then the hedge funds that owned those derivatives, and now the banks that lent money to the hedge funds and loaded up on lots of derivatives themselves. Since consumers can't tap into their home equity anymore, they are maxing out their credit cards to pay for greatly inflated gas. They have already stopped going to Starbucks, and they are even spending less than usual at Target and Walmart. The next dominos to fall are auto loan companies, followed by banks that own large amounts of credit card debt that will never be repaid. The whole house of cards is finally coming down, since the Asians and Arabs who have financed this charade for several decades have finally tired of it, and are now diversifying out of dollars and into gold, which is re-assuming its historical role as the world's reserve currency.
None of the candidates are talking about the only issue that will matter by November when millions more adjustable-rate mortgages have reset and the banks are failing - how to avoid another Great Depression. The correct answers are simple to state, but politically undoable until the average consumer feels much more pain than they do now: drastically slash government spending with no sacred cows (the military, Social Security, Medicare, etc.) left untouched to balance the budget, and re-establish some form of modified gold standard to restore the stability of our currency as the founding fathers insisted upon. Instead, the candidates are all babbling about health care. The one thing that will never happen is another good, old fashioned, New Deal-type government entitlement program costing billions of dollars. That jig is up once and for all. Our foreign payday lenders won't lend us the money to finance any more living beyond our means as a country, so we will have to bite the bullet and "endure the unendurable," until we have our financial house in order.
And you can just forget about anybody in the mainstream media raising this issue with any of the candidates...it has been positively surreal watching the Clinton News Network, NBC, and the rest of their ilk abandon Hillary and Bill and embrace Obama like a teenage girl experiencing her first crush!
You've got to love Camille Paglia. Check out her latest dissection of Hillary.
Friday, December 28, 2007
"Woooooooooo, Pig! Sooie!"
- President William Jefferson Clinton (at University of Arkansas sporting events)
Similar to the grains (corn, soybeans, and wheat) discussed in the previous post, the Lean Hog contracts are very liquid and have high seasonal correlation from year to year, as do the Live Cattle contracts. Almost every year, the April contracts for both Lean Hogs and Live Cattle soar in price beginning in late-December or early-January, following dramatic plunges in price immediately prior to Christmas. Right on schedule, both hogs and heifers plunged in price this fall and early-winter, and I made some good money earlier this year shorting the hogs.
While published reports and market commentaries continue to be bearish on all of the major meat contracts (Lean Hogs, Frozen Pork Bellies, Live Cattle, and Feeder Cattle), over the last several trading days the cattle contracts have started to move upward right on schedule. Since the Live Cattle contract is the more liquid of the two, I have started watching that April 2008 contract closely, and plan to get on the train on the second consecutive close above 99. The Lean Hogs haven't started moving up yet, but I will continue to watch that April 2008 contract as well, and plan on getting onboard on the second consecutive close above 68.
The secret to trading is good money management much more than trade selection. Investors spend most of their time trying to find the next "sure thing," and not nearly enough time focusing on the mechanics of their swing. You want to search out opportunities where you have any type of edge and then take a cut. If a trade goes against you, cut it quickly, and if it goes your way, let it run with a trailing stop. As long as the amount of money you make on winners exceeds the amount of money you give back on losers, you win, even if you only "won" on 2 out of every 10 trades. The historical trends indicate that the odds are in your favor with the meats in January, but it's the mechanics of your swing - waiting patiently for the right entry point, cutting your losers quickly and letting your winners run - that will make you come out ahead in the end. Good trading!
The hagiography of Benazir Bhutto has begun in earnest, as you can see from the framing and composition of the above photograph that appeared on Time's website. While there is no doubting her bravery in returning to Pakistan, the picture of her as an earnest liberal democrat focused solely on the welfare of her people is far from the mark. My favorite description of her comes courtesy of Marty Schwartz, immortalized forever as the "Champion Trader," by Jack Schwager in his trading classic, Market Wizards: Interviews with Top Traders. While it was Michael Lewis' Liar's Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street that first got me interested in being a trader, it was Marty Schwartz's Pit Bull: Lessons from Wall Street's Champion Day Trader, one of the all-time classic trading books, that really made me believe it was possible to succeed at this game.
Bhutto was an early investor in an international fund managed by Marty. He met her at a lavish and opulent party in England, and described her as follows:
"This was not the woman I'd seen on TV, her body covered in drab black tentlike garb, her thin ascetic face devoid of makeup, her straight black hair pulled back under a black scarf. A gold chain hung over one shapely shoulder and attached to it was a quilted black Chanel pocketbook. Chanel beads, Chanel shoes, and Chanel fragrance all adorned Benazir - Coco in her most opulent hour had never worn as many accoutrements as Benazir Bhutto. This woman had money radiating out of every aperture."
Having worked in the intelligence field, and having visited and analyzed many third world countries, especially in Asia, I recognize Bhutto's type very clearly - someone who could not get ahead in her country's domestic politics on her own power, and therefore tried to use the United States to accomplish her goals for her. Mark Steyn, the most astute political commentator on the current scene, as usual nailed it.
Another astute analysis came from an estranged relative, Bhutto's niece Fatima. Coincidentally, I finally got around just last month to reading Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, a book my brother gave me as a gift several years ago. This meticulously documented book makes it clear that the Taliban was a Pakistani-funded and supported creation from its very beginnings, and that Bhutto lied directly and repeatedly to United States officials about Pakistan's activities in support of the Taliban.
In light of this history, why on earth would anyone at Foggy Bottom believe that she would really welcome "NATO boots on the ground" in the Pakistani border areas where Osama Bin Laden is hiding? Both times she was deposed as Pakistan's ruler, corruption was the excuse, but the real reason was her attempts to bring Pakistan's Islamist-infiltrated intelligence service to heel. It is quite clear she would say anything to the United States she thought they wanted to hear to gain the assistance of the CIA in regaining power - a power she was not capable of seizing unaided.
The most obvious recent similar example of someone who hoodwinked the United States this way was Ahmad Chalabi. You can read that whole sad story here.
Hopefully, Pakistan will emerge from this chaos with responsible, mature, non-Islamic fundamentalists in firm and clear command and control of Pakistan's nukes. If not, the special forces of the United States, India, Israel, or some unprecedented combined force might very well be sent in to take them out. To paraphrase H.P. Lovecroft, that scenario would indeed be "too horrible to describe," but the groundwork for it is already being laid. Note my use of the word "hopefully" at the beginning of this paragraph, and remember that hope is not a good investment strategy. As if we needed yet another reason to BUY GOLD!
Thursday, December 27, 2007
To every thing, turn, turn, turn
History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
- Mark Twain
The shapes of the annual price curves for wheat and corn follow reasonably predictable patterns based on their respective planting, growing, and harvesting seasons, as well as on seasonal fluctuations in demand for the products derived from those grains. Based on supply and demand factors in any given year, the degree to which grain prices rise or fall will change, but the basic seasonal pattern normally at least somewhat resembles those of past years. With the rising demand for grain products in China and India, price rises should continue to be in excess of the historical norm in 2008, just as they were in 2007.
As discussed in the previous post, both wheat and corn tend to rise in price between November and sometime in early-February, when prices tend to fall off sharply. Historically, the best contracts to play this seasonal rise have been the July contracts for both grains. Soybeans also tend to rise in early-January, but tend to fall again about two weeks later, and also tend to trade with more volatility than wheat and corn. Additionally, soybeans are much more affected by fluctuations in the price of oil than the other two major grains, so this discussion will focus on wheat and corn.
Both wheat and corn are already up from their November lows this year, and I am long July futures contracts of both. I started with a stop of $1,000 below my entry point on each and have now moved those stops up to lock in a $500 profit. I will continue to trail my stop up as these markets rise, and will move up those stops very tight in late-January in expectation of the "February break" frequently observed in these grains. Of note, in recent years corn has tended to "break" as early as mid-January, probably due to traders anticipating this traditional price move and getting out ahead of the pack.
Following the "February break," wheat and corn both tend to recover in price and go on to reach even higher prices, peaking sometime between May and July. If you are fairly confident this pattern will recur, another way to play this seasonal pattern that is developing right now is to buy options that are about 10-20% out of the money on the July futures contracts. Since you pay cash upfront for the options, you wouldn't have to worry about margin calls as the prices of the underlying futures contract moved against you during the "February break," as you would if you tried to hold a standard futures contract position all the way through to the summer decline in prices.
A more conservative way to play the likely agricultural commodity scenario for 2008 is to buy the corn/wheat "spread." This simply means buying the July 2008 corn contract, while simultaneously selling the July 2008 wheat contract. In 2006, corn prices went up more than wheat prices because of government subsidies for corn-based ethanol that distorted the free market (and led directly to tortilla riots in Mexico). So in 2007, lots and lots of farmers switched their wheat acreage over to corn to take advantage of the higher corn prices, which led directly to wheat prices rising more than corn prices in 2007 (to all-time highs). You can therefore expect to see farmers switch current corn acreage to wheat and soybeans in 2008, which should lead corn prices to outperform wheat prices due to the lower amount of corn harvested. By being long corn and simultaneously short wheat, you don't care anymore whether prices are going up or down - you win as long as corn becomes relatively more expensive than wheat over the holding period of the two contracts, even if both corn and wheat decline in price.
If you would like to play the agricultural commodity boom, but just can't bring yourself to trade futures contracts or options on futures contracts, probably the best way to do so is to buy some shares in an ETF with the symbol MOO that contains many agricultural-related stocks. If you want to increase your leverage on that bet, you can buy options on the ETF, the longer-dated the better. For those who prefer to play individual company stocks instead of ETFs, a personal favorite of mine that is in my wife's portfolio has the symbol POT. It's a Canadian potash mining company, and potash is a key ingredient in fertilizer. No matter how farmers decide how much of their acreage will be allocated to wheat, corn, and soybeans each season, they will still need ever more fertilizer! Again, you can increase the leverage by buying LEAPS on POT. A good friend of mine has had LEAPS on POT for more than six months and is currently up on that position in triple digit percentage terms even after the two market pullbacks that occurred this fall.
The main reason I prefer the futures to the ETF or to a single stock is that it is still not clear if we will suffer a major stock market correction in 2008 or not (regular readers know I consider this possibility to be highly likely). If we do, MOO and POT will most likely initially crash right along with the rest of the market, although I think that they will be among the first stocks to recover. I have MOO and GDX on my very short list of ETFs to buy once the crash is over.
Just a quick update on our old friends the yuan, the yen, and gold, all recommended here over the last few months.
I hope everyone had a very Merry Christmas! The upcoming year is filled with possibilities for profit, and we will be discussing them in this forum.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
And as for Roger, as a good friend once told me, "The Wheel of Karma always turns." Couldn't happen to a nicer guy!
We've talked a lot about financial commodities such as the yuan, the yen, and precious metals over the last few months, and those are all still looking like great places to be invested over the next few years, but today, I'd like to discuss a different group of commodities - the grains, the most liquid and widely traded of which are wheat, corn, and soybeans.
For a wide variety of reasons detailed here, agricultural commodities in general, and the grains in particular, are in the middle of what should be long-running bull markets. And the current rate cutting moves by the Fed are making the picture even rosier for grain bulls. The reason I draw your attention to this sector today is that agricultural commodities in most years have very pronounced seasonal patterns that can give a speculator an edge. For example, here are the average seasonal charts for wheat over the last 15 and 30 year periods.
You can see on these charts of the various different monthly contracts that wheat has a strong tendency to rise from early-December through mid-February, following which it suffers what commodity traders refer to as the "February Break." So far so good this year, as corn, wheat, and soybeans are all in uptrends right now as we head into mid-December. There are a number of different ways to play this trend, although as you can probably guess by now, my favorite is options on futures contracts! We will discuss some of the other ways in future posts.