Planning Ahead Trading Futures

They say that the most important read for a comedian is timing. The comedy in trading is that the market typically delivers its own punch line at the expense of the trader’s timing. Twenty years of trading has proven one thing right over and over again; traders aren’t meant to get it right. The markets constantly change and a pattern that has been developing for months may be no good on the day the trader pulls the trigger. When the trader is right, they’re lucky to price either the entry or the exit well. Typically, there’s meat left on both sides of that bone. Therefore, the psychological positive reinforcement must come from the bottom line, rather than the lines on the charts. With this in mind, let’s look at some trading opportunities on the horizon and how to prepare for them.

Starting with a seasonal top, unleaded gas should be rapidly approaching its seasonal high. The build in prices tends to peak just past Memorial Day. Whether this is a gasoline producer conspiracy or, purely supply and demand, there’s no argument about when it hurts the most. The unleaded gasoline market has put in a very tradeable top in eight out of the last 10 years during the Memorial Day – June 15 window of opportunity.

Moving to agricultural commodities takes us to the typical weather patterns and their effects on crops. It’s important to understand that the historical seasonal patterns are based on the most probable outcome of a full data set. Therefore, extreme weather events like drought and flood will only register as one year’s data. Thus the historic spikes we’ve seen don’t have nearly the impact when compared to 10 or 20 year’s worth of data. This is why sample size is so important when providing the general guidelines for what’s expected to happen.

Once we get past Memorial Day, we’ll begin looking for a bottom in the live cattle market before June 10th. Fundamentally, the cattle market should be well supported. There simply aren’t many cattle out there. The breeding herd has been on a gradual decline for years. This year is no exception with the 2013 herd coming at the lowest level in 61 years. The tiny herd size provides the market with two different ways to rally. First of all, if corn prices remain low, we’ll see cattle affordably held back for breeding. Secondly, if corn prices rise, we’ll see the herd size continue to dwindle. Either scenario takes steaks off the summer grill.

Fortunately, you’ll be able to finance that new grill using the falling interest rates that typically begin between Memorial Day and the third week of June. Even though some of the newer interest rate contracts may not have the history of cattle, corn or, gold at least interest rate futures all tend to trend in the same direction. The typical pattern is for interest rates peak in the early summer and decline through the rest of the year and into lay-away season.

The final classic summer seasonal trade is to sell soybeans once the planting fears have begun to pass. The soybean market always has support through the planting season. In fact it’s not uncommon for soybean futures to set their high price for the year in May or June. Once the crop is safely in the ground, the market breathes a collective sigh of relief. Given normal growing conditions, the decline in prices really picks up after pollination in July.

The summer markets appear to have gotten off to predictable starts. I think the one, notable exception is the strength in the stock market, which we believe has about run its course. In fact the Russell 2000 – S&P 500 spread trade we mentioned last week appears to have finally turned in our expected direction. The most important concept in these trades is being aware of the seasonal tendencies of different markets as they approach. Mark them down on your calendar. It will take half an hour to do the entire year’s worth for the markets you actually trade. This way you’ll always know if you’re near a market’s inflection point and in trading, predicting inflection points is how we measure our timing.

This blog is published by Andy Waldock. Andy Waldock is a trader, analyst, broker and asset manager. Therefore, Andy Waldock may have positions for himself, his family, or, his clients in any market discussed. The blog is meant for educational purposes and to develop a dialogue among those with an interest in the commodity markets. The commodity markets employ a high degree of leverage and may not be suitable for all investors. There is substantial risk of loss in investing in futures.

Effects of Deflating the Yen

The Japanese economy has been on life support since their stock market peaked in late 1989. This is also when they began to lose their productivity gains in manufacturing and technology against their neighbors. Their immigration policy and small family sizes have shrunken the labor pool to a point that even with consistent per capita GDP growth, they continue to fall behind fiscally. Their new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe is attacking deflation in Japan in a way that makes Ben Bernanke look like a spendthrift. The obvious objective of deflating the currency is to make Japanese exports cheaper on the open market. This will grow GDP and spur new hiring thus, improving the domestic Japanese economy. The big questions are, how long can currency depreciation boost their economy, what are the side effects and lastly, will it work?

Japan is an interesting country in that they are a manufacturing country with very little in the way of raw materials or commodities to use in the production process. Therefore, Japan must import virtually, all of the raw materials they use. They’re becoming a high tech assembly country as opposed to their classic vertical production model. Their days of making the steel that goes into the car is over and so are many of the old jobs. It has become cheaper to import Chinese steel than to make it their selves. Currency depreciation will provide an initial rise in Japanese exports, as the inventory that has already been produced will be cheaper on the open market. However, these gains will be offset by newly purchased production inputs paid for in depreciated Yen.

The export market has been the key to Japan’s post WW2 growth. In fact, Japan’s balance of trade (exports-imports) had been mostly positive for 25 years before the tsunami hit in March of 2011. Prior to the Tsunami, Japan generated about 30% of its energy from nuclear power. They are currently running only 3 nuclear reactors out of 54. Manufacturing countries require large energy inputs and Japan uses more than 25% of their gross revenues to import energy and they are third in global crude oil consumption and imports. Depreciating the Yen will severely impact their energy costs. For example, the Yen has declined by 30% since November. That would be the equivalent of paying around $5.00 per gallon of gasoline, right now. This is what Japan will be paying to fuel their manufacturing centers.

This leads us to the effects of a depreciating currency on the local population. The Japanese private citizens are the ones bearing the brunt of this policy in two ways. First of all, Japanese citizens will be forced to pay more for everything that isn’t locally sourced and produced. This will trim their discretionary spending and put a crimp in local small businesses and service providers. Getting less for your money is never enjoyable. Secondly, the individual Japanese citizens are paying for the currency depreciation because the there is no international market for Japanese bonds selling at artificially low rates. The Japanese government is forcing their citizens with historically high savings to use it to buy underpriced Japanese Government Bonds. This transfers the debt from the government to the taxpayer.

I have no idea why the Japanese people haven’t revolted. I’m sure much of it has to do with culture. We tend to speak out in protest while they tend to tow the party line. It will be very interesting to see how this turns out as pensions go unfunded and taxes rise to pay for the massive social programs Prime Minister Abe has in store. Japan’s total debt (public + private) is now more than 500% of GDP according to The Economist (9/19/2012). The U.S. total debt to GDP ratio ranks 7th in the world at just under 300%.

The massive devaluation that is taking place will allow Japan to gain market share in the short term, especially against high quality German manufacturers. Continuation of this policy will put the European Union in a very uncomfortable spot. Germany is their economic leader and the country that would be hurt most in a competitive devaluation campaign. This may finally force the European Union to ease further in an attempt to remain competitive outside the Euro Zone. Easing euro Zone monetary policy may be the next link in the chain as the race to the currency bottom heats up. Finally, the pundits have coined a new phrase to help the guy on the street differentiate currency wars from fiscal policy. Welcome to, “coordinated global easing.”

This blog is published by Andy Waldock. Andy Waldock is a trader, analyst, broker and asset manager. Therefore, Andy Waldock may have positions for himself, his family, or, his clients in any market discussed. The blog is meant for educational purposes and to develop a dialogue among those with an interest in the commodity markets. The commodity markets employ a high degree of leverage and may not be suitable for all investors. There is substantial risk of loss in investing in futures.

Spread Trading the Russell 2000 Vs. S&P 500

The stock market has made a lot of noise this week with the Dow Jones Industrial Average climbing above 15,000 for the first time in history. In fact, all of the major averages are up about 18% year to date. There is a general consensus that the massive liquidity operations the Federal Reserve board has implemented are the primary contributor to the market’s rally. However, there are several competing theories as to where the top may be. This week, we’re going to take a look at seasonal tops in the Russell 2000 small cap stock index compared to the S&P 500 large cap index to try and lock in some profits while minimizing downside risk.

The Russell 2000 is a stock index made up of small companies with a median market capitalization value of around half a billion dollars. This compares to the S&P 500 market capitalization average of nearly 28 billion dollars. Another way of putting this in perspective is that the Russell 2000’s largest company by market cap is Alaska Air as compared to the S&P 500’s largest company, Apple. The important thing here is to differentiate the small cap growth stocks of the Russell 2000 from the large caps that make up the S&P 500.

The reason for this is that small caps and large caps tend to behave differently. Small caps tend to lead. Therefore, they overshoot the tops and the bottoms. The smaller nature of the stocks in the Russell 2000 means that it takes less money to move the underlying stock. Small companies are also easier to grow. Of course, extra growth comes with extra risk. The composition of the Russell 2000 changes regularly due to new companies being added while others are removed. The large cap indexes like the S&P 500 are more stable due to the massive size of the companies it’s comprised of. Steady, stable, predictable growth is what is hoped for in the S&P 500.

We’ve all heard the old adage, “Sell in May and walk away.” There is a bit of truth to this as the primary stock market gauges are typically flat through the summer with a bit of upside bias and lots of downside volatility. In fact, this seasonality is even more pronounced in the Russell 2000, which tends to bottom in August. In other words, growth is minimal while full risk exposure remains. This is not an ideal risk to reward scenario. Over the last ten years, the Russell 2000 has called the late spring / early summer top correctly eight times. The two years it was wrong were 2008 and 2009 when the markets had already been beaten down. The average profit on the trade I’m about to detail was $4,250 for the other eight years.

There are two different ways to lay this trade out. The complicated way would be to find the least common multiple of the underlying futures contracts and work out the rest of the equation as percentages and then translate the percentages back into dollars and cents. Fortunately, we can simply use the futures contracts as they are and buy an S&P 500 futures contract while simultaneously selling a Russell 2000 futures contract.

This application takes advantage of the Russell 2000’s larger built in multiplier. Calculating the value of the Russell 2000 futures contract is as simple as multiplying the index by its $100 multiplier. Thus, a June mini-Russell 2000 contract trading at 970.00 has a cash value of 970.00 X $100 = $97,000. Meanwhile, the mini-S&P 500 has a built in $50 multiplier. Therefore, the mini-S&P 500 futures contract has a cash value of 1625.00 X $50 = $81,250. Buying one mini-S&P 500 futures contract and selling one mini-Russell 2000 creates a net short cash value of  $15,750 worth of small cap stocks.

The maximum value for this spread position was $16,671 in May of 2011. This represents the farthest the Russell 2000 futures have climbed above the S&P 500. We recently made a high of $16,200 two weeks ago.  Currently, this spread is trading at $15,350. I expect the recent April high to hold. If the market trades above the recent high of  $16,200, I will exit the trade at a loss. Recently, the average price for this spread is around $11,500. Therefore, I will use this support as the first place to look for profits. This sets up a trade that is slightly short the stock market through exploiting seasonal and market capitalization biases. Furthermore, this trade has had a relatively high historical winning percentage and is currently providing us with a 4-1 risk to reward ratio.

This blog is published by Andy Waldock. Andy Waldock is a trader, analyst, broker and asset manager. Therefore, Andy Waldock may have positions for himself, his family, or, his clients in any market discussed. The blog is meant for educational purposes and to develop a dialogue among those with an interest in the commodity markets. The commodity markets employ a high degree of leverage and may not be suitable for all investors. There is substantial risk of loss in investing in futures.

Grain Market Repeat of 2010

The grain markets are beginning to look like 2010 all over again. The corn, bean and wheat markets all had substantial rallies, with each setting all time highs in 2008. The markets then formed a secondary peak in 2009 before drifting lower to sideways through the early summer of 2010, which ended up being the base for the all-time highs. The most consistent reason for expecting a similar outcome this year is based on the same external factors in play this year like, ending stocks and global demand. However, these factors have already been accounted for. The hidden key to these expectations lies in the market actions of the commercial traders.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) publishes a weekly report of the each market’s main participants and their actions within the markets they trade. These groups include small speculators like ourselves who hope to profit from our actions in the market as well as commodity trading advisors (CTA’s) who manage pools of money and are professional traders. The CFTC also tracks the actions of hedgers, people who genuinely use the futures markets for their intended purpose of mitigating risk throughout the crop cycle. A new category added over the last few years has been that of index traders. Index traders manage money based on an exchange-traded fund like CORN, obviously an ETF based on corn. Index traders simply track the movement of the underlying asset in their fund. Their actions are seen as adding volatility and speed to the market. They buy on the way up to match the index to the underlying as it climbs and sell on the way down to match the market as it falls.

The final group of traders tracked in the primary report is the commercial traders. This is the group of traders that either produces or, consumes the underlying market. In the case of corn, this would include Fortune 500 companies like Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland and Con Agra on the production side and Pillsbury, McDonalds and Kellogg’s as end line consumers. We follow this group because of the market research facilities that they employ. They have access to the best models and end line estimates of where they believe the market should be valued. Therefore, when a market becomes significantly over or, undervalued they can take advantage of the difference between where the market is trading compared to where they think it should be trading.

This brings us to our current situation. All three primary grain markets provided clues to the coming rallies based on the surge of accumulation by end line users during the post planting lulls. Fear in the grain markets comes in three phases and each carries with it a build in premium followed by a sell off if the fears are unfounded. The first concern is planting fear. Provided the crops get in the ground on schedule, the market will gradually decline with a sigh of relief. The second is summer drought. Enough said, there. Finally, weather concerns around harvest. Again, followed by a post harvest decline and sigh of relief.

The commercial traders’ net position has grown substantially throughout this spring. In fact their purchases, viewed in the aggregate of the three markets is only eclipsed by their buying in 2010. This tells us two things. First of all, we are starting the season at prices that are generally viewed as under valued by the end line consumers. Secondly, that there is significantly more fear of a future shortage than surplus. Based on the commercial traders’ predictive capabilities, we believe that there is the possibility for a significant rally this summer if weather conditions are not perfect.

This blog is published by Andy Waldock. Andy Waldock is a trader, analyst, broker and asset manager. Therefore, Andy Waldock may have positions for himself, his family, or, his clients in any market discussed. The blog is meant for educational purposes and to develop a dialogue among those with an interest in the commodity markets. The commodity markets employ a high degree of leverage and may not be suitable for all investors. There is substantial risk of loss in investing in futures.