Supporting our highest conviction trade yet, we now see fundamentals, sentiment, and technicals aligned for a significant correction in crude oil prices. While DS partners already hold a position in DTO, we are moving to formally call a short term WTI crude continuous spot price target at $70. Below we explain in detail our thesis supporting this trade strategy.
Crude supply rose by 5 million to 330 million barrels in the past two weeks, still above average market high water mark levels. Despite a large draw from the 375 million barrel supply peak in May 2009, refiners are voicing their concern by halting production capacity just above 81%. Crack spreads are increasingly narrow as weak consumer habits choke the profitability of refiners and discourage production managers from adding to the more costly finished good stockpiles (i.e. gasoline, distillates, etc.).
When crack spreads rise alongside prices, refiners benefit from higher gas prices by increasing their margins. However, stagnating crack spreads near all time lows signals weaker consumer demand for final petroleum products, forcing refiners into slowing production to keep spreads at current levels.
In short, higher oil prices are hurting refiners and consumers in an environment where end demand for energy is not responsible for price gains.
The fundamental global price function of supply and demand should be respected, but IEA have recently been misstated by oil hawks. The International Energy Agency has predicted global demand for oil to begin at 86 million barrels per day (mb/d) in Q1 2010 and finish Q4 near 87 mb/d. While these estimates may have risen from earlier expectations for weaker demand, the upward price momentum has been baked into stocks.
The 2010 mean demand estimate of 86.3 mb/d compared to December global supply of 86.2 mb/d, on an unexpected rise of 270 kb/d, suggests that supply is gaining while demand growth, rooted in non-OECD developing Asian countries, is less than stable. Also important are upside supply surprises from the OPEC 12, which prove that there are incentives for the cartel member states to raise production levels at these prices.
Rooted in U.S. equity values lie traders' economic sentiment. Crude oil prices are historically volatile during periods of uncertainty, where the commodity reflects market participants' confidence in the economy as a whole. Bullish sentiment has been on the rise for much of the previous year, as traders have been talking up the potential for crude to hit $90 per barrel. This optimism has been rooted in the manufacturing expansion in the second half of 2009, GDP expansion in Q3 and expectations of expansion in Q4, and global demand upgrades by the IEA mentioned above. Though mainly, there is the $144 per barrel price hemorrhage of July 2008 fresh in traders' minds and expectations for a lasting economic recovery in 2010. These factors have combined to create a short averse commodity trader's market, where resistance levels have remained weak as rallies occur.
As you may have already guessed, we consider prices to be floating on a thick layer of froth, aided by the mentality that oil will continue a sustainable rise, despite the 130% rally from February '09 to January '10. The catalysts necessary to cause this confidence shift are simply the reverse arguments of price inflating factors that are now being proven overblown.
First, the manufacturing recovery has outpaced most expectations, as ISM Manufacturing Surveys show positive forward indicators of growth, inflating expectations to levels where the probability of upside surprises is greatly reduced. Second, the manufacturing sector has contributed largely to GDP expansion in Q3 and is expected to carry the U.S. economy towards +3% growth in 2010. Future disappointments from the goods producing sector would not only implicitly hurt oil, but would indirectly lower crude prices as the forecasts for broad based economic growth are revised lower. Third, the IEA estimates for Global demand for crude oil are overblown and supply is increasing more rapidly than predicted. All the while, a public announcement from China proclaimed that QE in response to the economic recession is now being reversed, causing the market's expected rate of energy consumption to be revised lower.
Wrapping up, Q4 earnings results seem to be less positive than Q2 and Q3, where specific results from financials and transports so far bode badly for animal spirits. Further write downs from JP Morgan (JPM) and Citi (C) on credit card defaults and foreclosures have pushed the consumer's recovery further down the time line, while CSX Corp. (CSX) reported lower transport volume, dampening the spirits of bulls citing manufacturing growth during the period.
While fundamental analysis and sentiment shifts are both worth pointing out, the technical support to one's argument is always most crucial to a high conviction trade. Glance over the visual below, then we will discuss the technical signals in more detail.
The bearish wedge pattern is a classic technical pattern, where market prices for an underlying security increase over a period of time, but growth between peaks shrinks while growth between troughs is sustained. In this cycle, the moving average convergence to divergence (MACD) graph and histogram show weakening moving average momentum, as depicted by the downward sloping trend between peaks on the MACD sub-chart.
While the wedge has been forming for some time, two further technical signals support now as the turning point for crude prices. The first signal comes from the 50 day simple moving average (sma) at $77.50, which prices broke beneath more than once in futures markets on Monday, before the WTIC closed higher at Tuesday's close.
The second and most convincing sign came when the MACD histogram broke below zero, marking a bearish cross. Had trading momentum led to higher price levels and an MACD reversal above the most recent rally peak in late October, the bearish wedge would not have formed and crude prices could have consolidated to move higher. Instead, we saw a perfect lower peaking reversal to complete the bearish wedge and seal this call.
The WTI continuous spot, charted above, closed at $79.32 on Tuesday and will allow for a better entry point for oil shorts on Wednesday. We own the PowerShares Double Short Crude Oil ETN (DTO) and added to our position at $79 dollars. The vehicle attempts to provide 2x inverse price movement compared to the WTI crude oil spot.
We are setting a price target for the WTI spot at $70, where we will take profits from our DTO position and reassess our position.
Disclosure: Author holds a long position in DTO