Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Snapshot of the Energy Markets

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.

Oil is entering a seasonally bullish period that generally lasts from March to August. Natural gas on the other hand tends to trade in the opposite pattern, being weak during those months and stronger during the winter. Other possible areas of interest to investors such as coal and alternatives such as solar, wind and nuclear don't exhibit the same strong seasonal trading patterns. All are affected by greater supply demand factors or government action and these can occasionally be more important than seasonal trends.

Light sweet crude (the champagne of oil) had already reached the $73 level by last June. The price just rose above $80 in the beginning of March. It has been stuck in a trading range from $70 to $83 for eight months however. The usual fall/winter sell off did not take place this year and this indicates strong underlying fundamental support in the market. Supply coming from existing fields is declining rapidly and supply from new discoveries is not even remotely making up for the loss. Only the global recession that has lowered demand has prevented a major oil price spike from already occurring again. The technical patterns on the charts of oil ETFs DBO, USO, USL and the ETN OIL don't indicate that a sustainable rally is in the offing just yet. Investors need to watch for a break above $83 in the futures markets. The first attempt may fail with the price falling back into the range however. The second break above $83 is more likely to stick and offer a profitable trading opportunity.

While the market for oil is global, the market for natural gas tends to be regional because it is usually moved from source to destination through pipelines. Transporting natural gas in a liquefied state by ship is a relatively recent development, is the more expensive alternative, and still only represents a small part of the market. The price of natural gas in the U.S. market went to incredibly low levels last August and September - the spot price at Henry Hub (the basis for futures trading) was as low as $2.25. This was well below estimated costs of production. The CFTC (Commodity Futures Trading Commission) investigations and new supply coming online were two factors that explain this economically bizarre and unsustainable behavior (commodities must trade above production costs, just like a business must sell its products for a profit). The U.S. only has 4% of global natural gas reserves though, so oversupply conditions will disappear eventually. Cold winters and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico are bullish for prices. There appears to be little that would be bullish for natural gas in the next several months though. The natural gas ETF GAZ hit a new yearly low on March 2nd.

As for coal, there are really two distinct markets - one for metallurgical coal, which is used for steel production and one for steam coal, used mostly for generating electricity. Metallurgical coal prices are obviously strongly dependent on the global economy, with Chinese demand being particularly important. Lower steel production because of a faltering recovery would be extremely bearish for this type of coal. Most coal though, 62% globally and 93% in the U.S., is used for producing electricity. Coal and natural gas can be used interchangeably in a large number of U.S. generating plants. So high prices for natural gas are bullish for coal and vice a versa. There is no danger in the U.S. running out of coal in the next many decades, since the U.S. has the largest coal reserves in the world. The ETF KOL has rallied since March 2009 and its chart looks very similar to the charts for the major U.S. stock indices. Expect coal to continue to trade like the overall stock market.

In the alternative energy space, solar stocks had a strong rally at the beginning of the year and than sank when the problems in Europe hit the overall market. Germany reduced subsidies for solar power and China reduced bank lending twice. The market is still dependent on government subsidies and China is a key player, so both actions were bearish. The technical picture on the charts turned from very bullish to bearish almost overnight. Solar stock ETF KWT looks like it has put in a bottom in the last few weeks, this doesn't mean a sustainable rally will necessarily follow immediately.  Some relief from a severally oversold condition should be taking place soon.

Nuclear power is even more dependent on government action than solar, wind or other alternatives. Nuclear plants take years to build and require government approval. There is a nuclear renaissance going on globally. The U.S is not part of it and it remains hidden from most Americans, as well as the fact that 20% of U.S. electricity is generated from nuclear power. There are approximately 52 new nuclear power plants being built globally - China and India are leading the way - and more are on the drawing board. This of course is bullish for uranium in the long-term. However, nuclear energy ETF NLR is currently in a bearish trading pattern. A key event that investors should watch for is the 50-day moving average going up and crossing the 200-day.

Oil is the leader in the energy markets. Rising oil prices are bullish for all the other operators in the space, although there can be a considerable time lag between the rise in oil prices and other energy commodities. Investors should keep in mind that oil is priced in U.S. dollars and a rising dollar lowers its price and a falling dollar raises its price, everything else being equal. The alternatives become increasingly desirable as energy sources with each increase in the price of oil. Investors in energy need to watch developments in the oil market closely and then add the specific supply demand picture in the other markets. The large number of ETFs now available makes it easy to move in and out of any of the energy sectors or sub-sectors and to lessen the risk of owning individual stocks.

Disclosure: No positions

NEXT: Feds Probe Hedge Funds in Euro Collusion Plot

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

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