I was fortunate enough to be interviewed for a Wall Street Journal heating oil story last week. The primary question was, “How high can prices soar?” Supplies have tightened up considerably during Mother Nature’s onslaught and another bout of cold weather is hitting us, pushing prices higher yet again. Short-term demand related issues like the ones we’re experiencing now due to the weather are never a reason to jump into a market. My less than sensational outlook on current prices pushed me to the closing section of the article. This week, I’ll expand on the topic by looking at the diesel and heating oil markets and formulating a trading plan for the current setup.
I’ll work from big picture to fine detail in order to provide some context for the current situation. First of all, the fracking boom has fundamentally altered the energy landscape of the United States. We are quickly moving from net consumer towards becoming a net producer in the oil and natural gas markets. This paradigm shift is leading to an energy market structure that places us on the side of selling price spikes that are demand based. In this instance, bad weather has created a temporary increase in heating oil use. The price spike will not hold because we have the capacity to rebuild domestic energy stocks cheaply and rapidly.
The same bout of weather is responsible for driving heating oil costs to record levels in the Northeast where more than 80% of all heating oil is consumed. The flip side is that this same weather pattern is keeping people indoors. People staying inside only create heating oil demand. People in normal conditions add to diesel demand through their purchases of goods and services while they’re out and about spending money. Therefore, the net balance of the broader term market shifts towards a bearish supply issue as diesel fueled trucks have less to deliver and fewer miles to cover as citizens remain toasty and warm in their homes instead of out shopping and eating.
The domestic energy market can control supply but has little control over demand except at extremely high prices. Energy production costs are fairly fixed. The primary variable in an energy producer’s arsenal is capping low yielding wells. Prices as a trend however are falling in general as the current processes become more efficient in their cost of execution. Therefore, over time, energy prices should generally decline. Furthermore, energy producers in times of price spikes will sell as much of their expected forward production as possible at these higher prices. This allows energy producers to slow down price spikes through their implementation of profitable short hedges at unsustainable current market prices.
The best way to view these actions is by comparing spread prices to Commitment of Traders data. Spread prices allow you to compare the current market price against a forward price. Current prices or the cash, “spot” markets are the most volatile as they are the most susceptible to short-term supply and demand disruptions. Forward prices are more predictable due the amount of time left to factor in risk variables. Typically, these risk variables include physical storage, insurance costs and interest rates. This leads to forward contracts being priced structurally higher the farther out one looks. This is normal market behavior and the gradually elevated price along the timeline is called, “contango.” Conversely, in times of drama the spot price can overshoot the prices of the deferred contracts. This situation is called, “backwardation.” Backwardation is the market’s incentive to get producers to sell the physical product at the currently elevated price.
Drilling into the details, (pun intended) we can see that there’s definitely a premium in the delivery month futures contract. Knowing that this pricing structure is temporary along with the weather I’m going to let this entire rally pass. There are two reasons I think there’s a better place to buy. First of all, the heating oil market is nearing solid resistance on the daily, weekly and monthly charts. Secondly, I expect the demand numbers along with the general economic numbers for the next month to be dismal. This will lead to a selloff and drop the market under $3 per gallon. I expect the market to be supported around there and provide a solid bottom to buy into the spring driving rally. Don’t let the hype suck you in.
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