Crowded Shorts and Stupid Math

By: Michael Ashton | Mon, Mar 7, 2016
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With today's trade, WTI Crude oil is now up 45% from the lows set last month! That's great news for the people who had endured a 75% fall from the 2014 highs to last month's low. More than half of the selloff has been recouped, right?

Well...not exactly.

Crude Oil 1-Year Chart

Stupid math.

In a nutshell, a 45% rally from $110 would be a bit more impressive than 45% from $26.05, which was the low print for front Crude. And energy markets, in both technical and fundamental terms, have a lot of wood to chop before prices return to the former highs, or even the $40-60 range on crude that many people think reflects fundamental value.

So why the dramatic rally? Oil bulls will say it is because rig counts are down, so that supply destruction is happening and helping to balance the market. Perhaps, although rig counts have been falling for some time. Also, some producers have been talking about reining in production...again, perhaps this is important although since the US is the world's largest producer of oil and neither Saudi Arabia (#2) nor Russia (#3) are in a good economic position to reduce revenues further than they already have been reduced by falling prices this would seem to be a marginal effect. And I might also add the point that thanks to the very long fall in prices, energy commodities are much cheaper than other commodities - which have also fallen, but far less - on a value metric. But no one trades commodities on value.

The real reason is that being short energy has become a very crowded trade. This is partly because of the large overhang of crude and other products in storage, but also partly because the energy futures curves are enormously in contango, which means there are large roll returns to be earned on the short side by being short - because, when the delivery month approaches, the short position buys back the front month and sells the next, higher-priced, contract. In this way, the seller is continuously selling higher prices and rolling down into a well-supplied spot market. See the chart below (source: Enduring Investments), which shows the return you would earn if you shorted the one-year-out Crude contract and rolled it in to the current spot price.

WTI Crude 1-Year Contango

Obviously, the main risk is if spot prices suddenly rally, say, 45%, leaving you with a heavy mark-to-market loss and the prospect of only making some of it back through carry. That is what has started to happen over the last couple of weeks in crude (and some other contracts). It was a crowded carry trade that is now somewhat less crowded.

What happens over time, though, is that it is hard to sustain these flushes unless the carry situation changes markedly. Once oil prices rise enough that the short on fundamentals is at least a not-horrible bet, the carry trade re-asserts. It is, simply put, much easier to be short this contract than long it. What changes the picture eventually is that the fundamental picture changes, either lowering future expected prices (flattening the energy curve relative to spot, and reducing the contango) or raising spot prices as the supply overhang is actually absorbed (raising the front end, and reducing the contango). In the meantime, this is just a crowded-trade rally and likely limited in scope.

Tomorrow, I will mention another crowded-short trade that has recently rebounded, but which is less likely to re-assert itself aggressively going forward.

 


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Michael Ashton

Author: Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton, CFA
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Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton is Managing Principal at Enduring Investments LLC, a specialty consulting and investment management boutique that offers focused inflation-market expertise. He may be contacted through that site. He is on Twitter at @inflation_guy

Prior to founding Enduring Investments, Mr. Ashton worked as a trader, strategist, and salesman during a 20-year Wall Street career that included tours of duty at Deutsche Bank, Bankers Trust, Barclays Capital, and J.P. Morgan.

Since 2003 he has played an integral role in developing the U.S. inflation derivatives markets and is widely viewed as a premier subject matter expert on inflation products and inflation trading. While at Barclays, he traded the first interbank U.S. CPI swaps. He was primarily responsible for the creation of the CPI Futures contract that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange listed in February 2004 and was the lead market maker for that contract. Mr. Ashton has written extensively about the use of inflation-indexed products for hedging real exposures, including papers and book chapters on "Inflation and Commodities," "The Real-Feel Inflation Rate," "Hedging Post-Retirement Medical Liabilities," and "Liability-Driven Investment For Individuals." He frequently speaks in front of professional and retail audiences, both large and small. He runs the Inflation-Indexed Investing Association.

For many years, Mr. Ashton has written frequent market commentary, sometimes for client distribution and more recently for wider public dissemination. Mr. Ashton received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Trinity University in 1990 and was awarded his CFA charter in 2001.

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