Tag Archives: futures contracts

The Bean to Corn Ratio Spread

The recent weeks of hot weather have begun to take their toll on the crops in the field. Primarily, we are witnessing soybean’s greater sensitivity to late summer heat relative to corn. Not surprisingly, soybeans have rallied about 14% since August 8th as compared to less than 3% for corn. The result of this divergent behavior among crops grown side-by-side is that the bean to corn ratio has been elevated to levels that we don’t view as sustainable. Therefore, we’ll look at some reference points for the bean to corn ratio as well as the relationship between these two crops before ending with some fundamental data that forces us to re-think the usefulness of historical data in the face of a fundamentally changing marketplace.

The bean to corn ratio is simply the price of soybeans divided by the price of corn. Currently, November soybean futures are trading around $13.55 per bushel and December corn futures are trading at $4.68 per bushel. The November and December futures contracts represent this year’s crop in the fields, respectively. Therefore, the current bean to corn ratio is approximately 2.9. Beans are 2.9 times more expensive than corn on a per bushel basis. The last time this spread was this high was August of 2009. There have only been four years since 1975 when ending prices for the current year’s crop have closed at a spread greater than 3. According to Carl Zulauf of Ohio State’s Department of Agriculture, the maximum traded price for the ratio is 4.1 in May of 1977. He’s also published the low figure of 1.72 in July of 1996. The average for the spread over the last 45 years is 2.52 while the spread’s normal trading range is 2.19 – 2.85.

Soybeans and corn obviously share many of the same concerns throughout the year and therefore their prices tend to move in the same general directions. Their seasonal characteristics are very highly correlated with the lone notable difference being soybeans’ tendency to remain at higher prices later into the spring due to their later planting dates and associated concerns. Once beans get past July 4th, they sell off just like corn until harvest time nears at which point they both get another boost. The correlation between beans and corn has been positive on a weekly basis all the way back to November of 2012. The daily chart, on the other hand is currently displaying the first negative correlation between these two markets since early May of this year which coincides with typical planting issues.

The United States is still the dominant market maker in both corn and soybeans. However, the rapid expansion of Argentina and Brazil’s commercial farming industry is changing the dynamic of the global corn and soybean markets. This year, the combined output of Argentina and Brazil is likely to be nearly 30% of global corn production and as much as 60% of global soybean production. The combined soybean output of Argentina and Brazil is expected to outpace the US by a third. This must change the way we view the data at hand. This is especially true when studies are produced using 45 years worth of data as the Ohio State piece referenced. The global supply of beans and corn hasn’t been split among our countries. The process has been and will continue to be, additive. Total global production will continue to increase overall with foreign production continuing to grow faster than domestic production.

The marketplace always reflects the participants’ best guess of fair value at the last traded price. Therefore, both domestic and global production rates are considered when trades are placed at the US commodity exchanges. However, more weight is always given to prices in the larger context. Daily highs and lows matter more than those of the last minute just as weekly highs and lows are accorded greater importance than their daily counterparts. Therefore, when markets make multi week, monthly or yearly highs or lows, we pay attention. The soybean rally brings us to levels not seen since last December and has pushed the relationship between corn and soybeans to multi-year highs.

We believe that the latest push in this spread has come from speculative buying in the soybean market. There are three primary drivers of mass speculative action in the commodity markets, all of which lead to whipsaw action at extreme price levels. Tension in the Middle East spurs speculative energy buying. Stock market collapses spur knee jerk selling. Finally, droughts spur speculative corn and bean buying. All three of these situations end up with small speculators left holding the hot potato. The current Commitment of Traders report clearly shows large amounts of small speculative buying heading into the USDA Supply/Demand and Crop Production reports. Considering commercial traders have pared their net position by 25% over the last three weeks, we believe it’s likely that this report could mark the high for the bean corn spread as it returns to its normal trading range.

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.

Volume & Open Interest 101

The following is reprinted from the Chicago Board of Trade

Volume and Open Interest

Next to price, volume is the most frequentlycited statistic in reference to a futurescontract’s trading activity. Each unit of volumerepresents a contract traded. When a traderbuys a contract and another trader sells thatsame contract, that transaction is recordedas one contract being traded. Therefore,the volume is the total number of long orshort positions.Open interest, on the other hand, refers to thenumber of futures positions that have not beenclosed out either through offset or delivery. Inother words, the futures contracts that remainopen, or unliquidated, at the close of eachtrading session.To illustrate, assume that a trader buys 15contracts and then sells 10 of them back tothe market before the end of the trading day.His trades add 25 contracts to the day’s totalvolume. Since 5 of the contracts were notoffset, open interest would increase by 5contracts as a result of his activity.Volume and open interest are reported dailyand are used by traders to determine theparticipation in a market and the validity ofprice movement. For instance, if a marketmoves higher on low volume some tradersmay not consider this an important pricemovement. However, the same pricemovement on high volume would indicatethat an important trend may be emerging.Combining volume and open interest alsoyields an interesting perspective on themarket. If a contract experiences relativelylow volume levels but high open interest,it is generally assumed that commercialparticipation, via the commitment of traders report is high. This is becausecommercial hedgers tend to use the marketsfor longer-term hedging purposes, puttingtheir trades in and keeping them until they’reno longer needed to manage a given pricerisk. Conversely, high volume with low openinterest may indicate more speculative marketactivity. This is because the majority ofspeculators prefer to get in and out of themarket on a daily basis.