The cycle of bubbles will continue. Assets will always chase higher returns. The markets in the United States that are available for the general public to allocate funds to are mostly, “long only.” The general investing public is provided with a number of choices as to what they can buy to invest in. We’ve seen the cycle rotate from sector to sector within the stock market or, between stocks and bonds. Arts, antiques, cars and real estate have all had their periods when ownership was lucrative. Fortunately, being able to short sell commodities with a phone call or a mouse click is much easier than selling a car or a house when the market turns.
Lately, commodities have taken center stage as the thing to own. We’ve seen it in gold and oil and more recently in grains, agricultural commodities and stock index futures. Thirteen commodity futures markets set new records for commodity index funds’ open interest in 2010. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen commodity positions being transferred from the index funds to the small speculators. This transfer of positions from index and commercial traders to small speculators typically occurs near the end of a protracted move.
Bubbles are created through the over popularity of an asset class. The speed of the bubble cycle increases when leverage is involved. We’ve seen this in the stock market crashes of 1929 and 1987 and as recently as May of 2010 in the, “Flash Crash.” The world is still unwinding the over leveraged global mortgage debacle. The new vogue in leveraged assets has been the creation of commodity funds. Commodity funds have provided a long only investment entry into the futures markets for the novice investor. These funds have gone from non-existent to more than $370 billion in equity at the top of the first commodity bubble in 2008. We have since surpassed that total.
The commodity index fund market is no different than the mortgage backed security market was when it was marketed to the public as a way to, “ratchet up returns while providing diversification.” Investment office salespeople need products to sell. These products are usually a good idea at the beginning but, become overpopulated and over valued as a result of a good idea turning into the next big thing and eventually falling of their own weight.
I’ve suggested that the global economy is due to slowdown. Furthermore, the governmental response to the economic crisis has done little to right the long-term path of our economy. Over the last three years, the stock market is higher, reported unemployment is below 10% and gas prices have stabilized. However, it has taken a Herculean effort by the government, which has dropped the Federal Funds rate from 4.5% to 0, expanded the Treasury’s balance sheet by $1.5 trillion and printed $1 trillion on top of that just to bring GDP and our population’s complacency back to where it was at the end of 2007. This is the Government’s form of a leveraged asset, which is also becoming overvalued and overpopulated and is in peril of falling of its own weight.
Diversification among long only assets will not provide the type protection people expect when these markets begin to falter. Over the last five years, there have been 13 weeks when the S&P 500 closed more than 5% lower from week to week. Conversely, there has only been one week in the last 5 years when bonds have closed that much higher. That was the flight to quality run of November 21, 2008. That was the height of the panic of the meltdown. The truth is, when liquidation hits the market, it tends to cross all classes. These are the days when the commentators lead in with, “There’s a lot of red on the board today.” Gold, copper, oil, grains, cattle, etc. have all averaged at least as many large losses as the stock market. Forty percent of these losses coincided with large stock market declines. In this day of instant everything, instant liquidation to cash is only a few mouse clicks away in the futures markets rather than end of day fund settlements.
The futures markets were meant to be traded from the long AND the short side. Commercial traders use this feature to manage their own production and consumption concerns. Individual traders can also have this direct link to the commodity markets. The liquid flexibility of the futures markets allows individual traders to hedge their holdings through the direct use of short selling just as it allows leveraging of outright exposure on the way up. The right brokerage relationship can make them the perfect tool in the hands of the individual managing their own portfolio as opposed to the long only fund salesman seeking out the next tool in the general public.
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.