The recent bout of record breaking low temperatures has led to an obvious increase in the demand for natural gas and pushed delivery prices up to $4.40 per million metric British thermal units (mmbtu). These are the highest prices we’ve seen since the heat wave and drought from the summer of 2011. In fact, the Energy Information Administration reported the largest natural gas draw for the week of December 13th since they began tracking it in 1994. Furthermore, many analysts expect to break this record yet again with this week’s report. However, in spite of the recent strength in the market, I believe that there are several structural reasons why this rally won’t last and that the pricing of forward natural gas will head lower from here.
Natural gas prices have fallen by 25% since its April high, which in and of itself is not a big surprise. Natural gas is notoriously volatile to the point that the market doubling or, halving in price is a common occurrence nearly every calendar year. What interests us is that the current low happens to come near the typical late August seasonal low and also coincides with solid technical support as well as significant buying by commercial traders. Let’s see if we can build a case for a natural gas bottom that may hold through the seasonal low run through the typical end of October seasonal peak.
Three dollars per million metric British thermal units has generally acted as good support going all the way back to the 2008 highs above $20. Rallies meanwhile seem to be stalling around $4.50. Due to the large size of the natural gas futures contract this represents a swing of $15,000 per contract from the $3 support area to the $4.50 resistance area. Therefore, if we can carve out a chunk of the next move while limiting the risk, the reward should take care of itself. The recent action is becoming indicative of a reversal since August 8th when the market made a new low at $3.129, below last July’s low and quickly rebounded to generate the first upside reversal bar we’ve seen since last September.
The fact that the natural gas market appears to be running out of new sellers as we near $3 doesn’t come as a surprise. Using the Commitment of Traders Report (COT) to measure historical trading activity can be a bit misleading, however since there have never been more participants in the futures markets than there are now. The COT report is very useful in determining the mix of market participants, though. Commercial traders in natural gas have been building a substantial long position as the market has declined and their position is now near record levels. Furthermore, short commercial traders (natural gas producers) have trimmed their negative outlook on the market and their corresponding positions by 18% in just the last week.
Seasonally, the natural gas market has a primary peak from mid-May through mid-June. The market then tends to sell off through the end of August before making a secondary peak towards the end of October. The secondary peak is usually fueled by the need to generate electricity to run the air conditioners due to late summer heat, which we’ve had very little of this year. In fact, according to the American Gas Association we’re nearly 12.5% below our average number of “cooling degree days” through August 10th. In spite of the favorable climate the Energy Information Agency shows that natural gas in storage has not grown by the expected amount with reserves running roughly .5% above last year’s level.
The trade that is setting up has very little to do with the long-term price of natural gas which should continue to decline over time. However, the combination of technical action combined with the commercial trader positions coinciding with a seasonal low definitely puts us on the lookout for some type of reversal into higher prices as we head into the fall. Considering the natural gas futures have fallen by 13% since July 18th, we think that a move back towards $3.7 per million cubic feet is totally reasonable. Measuring this against current risk levels we think that it should be quite possible to find a trade risking less than $2,000 per contract and expect a reward of at least $3,500 while holding the position for a few weeks, at most.
The United States’ energy dependence has followed the same path as a junkie. We have become addicted to cheap oil over the last forty years. In fact, our entire economy was built on cheap oil. Just like any good junky, we weathered the initial supply crisis in the 1970’s and, having seen the error of our ways, vowed to set ourselves straight. Fortunately, it was just a temporary shock and we didn’t really mean it. Besides, remember how bad it was? It was horrible for domestic employment and inflation was everywhere. We were invaded by foreign automobiles. We were forced to listen to crackpot after crackpot on the evening news telling us that we should be using alternative energy sources available right here in the U.S. Thank goodness that didn’t last.
Fast- forward to 1990 and a tiny little country in the Golden Crescent was having its, “freedom” threatened. Amazingly, one little country, smaller than New Jersey and with fewer people than the city of Houston, was able to mobilize the mightiest fighting force in the world. A desperate addict needing a fix will do almost anything to ensure their supply keeps flowing. The subsequent rally in oil prices was hardly noticed due the prosperous economic times of the period. We got to watch the war on TV with Wolf Blitzer calling the commentary from the video feed on the nose of precisely guided weapons. The technology boom got underway, the war was a huge success and we reveled in national pride.
Here we are in 2010 and we’ve gotten used to paying a higher premium for petroleum products and we’ve successfully defended our suppliers. My issue is this; the United States must develop a consistent and focused energy plan if we are ever going to become self -sustaining. We have the resources. The U.S. has greater natural gas reserves than the Saudi’s have oil. This past week I’ve read two alarming pieces targeting the future of the United States’ energy consumption. After doing some research on my own, it has become clear that there is a major disconnect between where we are being told we are headed versus where we actually are headed.
The government stimulus packages and vehicle emission standards have pushed for electric cars as the primary source of green energy. It’s made for great press as our ailing auto manufacturers have produced catchy, warm and fuzzy commercials and brainwashed the general public into believing we are on the road to self-sufficiency, leading us away from foreign oil dependency and the wars it has brought with it.
However, if look behind the Wizard’s curtain, we reveal some startling facts.
The U.S. currently imports 67% of its oil.
The cessation of Gulf oil production will increase this to 75% by 2012. This will put oil at $125 per barrel and gas at $4-$5 by 2012.
Half of our top ten oil importers are countries that are unsafe to visit according to our State Department. Their official language reads, “Travel Warnings are issued when long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable lead the State Department to recommend that Americans avoid or consider the risk of travel to that country.” This includes countries like, Iraq, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, etc.
According to T. Boone Pickens, our current energy policy prices in oil at $300 per barrel by 2020. Oil is currently just over $80 per barrel.
I wrote about the spread between natural gas and crude oil a few weeks ago stating that it was near an all time high. The spread between any two markets is based on using a standard measure for both to determine absolute value. Energy markets are measured in British Thermal Units, BTU’s. This defines how much work or, power, is generated by the combustion of a given quantity of substance. The current relationship between crude oil and natural gas is that it takes $14.07 worth of crude oil to do the same work as $3.80 worth of natural gas. This means we pay about 3.7 times as much for crude oil to do the same amount of work as we would for natural gas. The five- year average for this ratio, including today’s inflated price is, 1.7.
Natural gas has always sold at a discount to crude oil and until the last 10 years, the relatively low price of crude oil has dictated business as usual. In the wake of 9/11 and the global recession, the government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars aimed at stimulating the economy, nurturing energy independence, cleaning up the environment and improving the infra structure of the country. Unfortunately, the money from that pie, our tax dollars, have been sliced so thinly that the result is virtually, nil. Our dollars’ have been spent on a Jack-of-all trades and master of none. This is most clearly evident in the outside investment and performance of alternative energy source companies specializing in wind, geothermal, solar and fuel cells, which have all lost at least 30% over the last year. Clearly, the investment community has little faith in the current administration’s ability to coordinate a sustainable alternative energy plan.
Finally, the push towards electric automobiles is simply a public relations gimmick. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, highway diesel usage trumps residential gasoline consumption by more than an 8 to 1 margin. Does it really make sense that the government enacted emission restrictions on passenger vehicles prior to commercial vehicles? Electric, residential automobiles with two seats and a 100 mile range are not going to effectively address the problem of energy independence.
The primary focus of our energy policy should be natural gas. It burns 30% cleaner than crude oil and nearly twice as clean as coal, which it’s also currently cheaper than. Finally, in energy equivalents, apples to apples, we have three times more energy reserves than Saudi Arabia. We should regain our dignity by developing the infrastructure, creating fueling stations and putting our people to work through the use of new technologies with an extended shelf life. This is a fundamentally sound path towards a cleaner, more productive and independent country.
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.