Oil and the Stock Market

By: Henry To | Thu, Jun 26, 2008
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June 22, 2008

Let us begin our commentary with a review of our 9 most recent signals in our DJIA Timing System:

1st signal entered: 50% long position on September 7, 2006 at 11,385;

2nd signal entered: Additional 50% long position on September 25, 2006 at 11,505;

3rd signal entered: 100% long position SOLD on May 8, 2007 at 13,299, giving us gains of 1,914 and 1,794 points, respectively.

4th signal entered: 50% short position on October 4, 2007 at 13,956;

5th signal entered: 50% short position COVERED on January 9, 2008 at 12,630, giving us a gain of 1,326 points.

6th signal entered: 50% long position on January 9, 2008 at 12,630;

7th signal entered: Additional 50% long position on January 22, 2008 at 11,715;

8th signal entered: 100% long position SOLD on May 22, 2008 at 12,640, giving us gains of 925 and 10 points, respectively;

9th signal entered: 50% long position on June 12, 2008 at 12,172, giving us a loss of 329.31 points as of Friday at the close.

We will update our readers (and "clean up" our text above) of our DJIA Timing System's performance soon after the end of this quarter, and then subsequently move to a semi-annual update schedule. Please refer to our subscribers' area for our March 31st update. As of Friday at the close, our DJIA Timing System is still beating our benchmark, the Dow Jones Industrials Average, on all timeframes since the inception of our system.

First things first. There is no doubt that every stock market trader in the world is now watching the price of oil very closely. As our commentary last weekend implies, the $135 "price signal" of crude oil is not only implying current supply/demand constraints, but also the relatively low confidence among market participants that credible alternative energy sources would be developed in the near future. This view among market participants is exemplified by a recent book ("When Markets Collide") written by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO and co-CIO of PIMCO), which warns of continuing inflationary pressures and higher commodity prices. In the book, El-Erian recommends both institutional and retail investors to increase their portfolio allocations to "real return" assets, such as commodities, infrastructure, and TIPS.

Over the long run, the ability of a society to hold down consumer price inflation rests on three things: 1) productivity growth, 2) labor force flexibility, and 3) monetary, fiscal, and financial system regulatory policy. While Bush's fiscal policy has been relatively loose over the last few years (the latest with the implementation of the $168 billion fiscal stimulus) and thus has been conducive to rising inflation, it is prudent to say that both monetary policy and labor flexibility - combined with the deflation in housing prices and write-downs in the US financial sector - has been deflationary for consumer prices over the last 18 months. In other words, market participants such as El-Erian (and even Vanguard, which has traditionally stayed away from commodity investing) is betting that the "global capitalist engine" is running out of steam, especially within those sectors that produce the basic needs of modern society, namely the agricultural, mining, and energy sectors.

But it is safe to say that no one has a perfect crystal ball (e.g. this is the third time over the last 20 years that George Soros has "cried wolf" on the US financial/capitalist system). And if one is an equity investor, it is even more dangerous to read a publication from a bond guy, even if he (i.e. PIMCO) had been correct on the housing market and its accompanying risks over the last few years! While there are still short-term supply/demand constraints in the global crude oil market (some would argue that it is in the grips of a mania or a "blowoff phase"), my sense is that many investors may choose to "look through" the current constraints in the global crude oil market if becomes apparent that alternative energy sources can credibly compete with fossil fuels sometime in the next few years (as discussed in our commentary last weekend). For now, that is still the $64 billion question, but subscribers should note that since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the adoption of the capitalist system by the West, humans have been ingenious in finding technological solutions to the dominant problems in modern history, and consequently maintaining a steady rate of productivity growth over the last 200 years, with the occasional "hiccups" such as the US Civil War, the two major World Wars, and the Great Depression. Out of the many obstacles to global productivity growth today, there is no doubt that lower energy/commodity prices rank as our number one obstacle. In other words, an alternative energy solution - if/when one comes to pass - will provide the global economy the "best bang for the buck," and will subsequently reward those (greatly) entrepreneurs who can be the "first mover" and commercialize such a solution (most likely, it will be a combination of solutions). The unique capitalist engine of the United States, (and to some extent, Japan, Germany, Brazil, Greater China, India, and Korea), with her significant pools of venture capital, PhD holders, investment bankers, strict patent laws, and a 300 million strong immediate market, is still the perfect candidate for bringing about a market-driven solution.

Unfortunately, whether any credible alternative energy solutions will emerge over the next few years is still not clear today. Based on our research, it now looks like that the year 2010 will bring about the confluence of four key technologies to alleviating our dependence on crude oil: 1) plug-in hybrid technology, 2) more efficient lithium-ion battery technology, 3) commercialization of cellulosic ethanol, and 4) the ability of solar power to reach "grid parity," although this is not likely until 2011 or beyond (and only if real fossil prices stay at current levels). Such an impact should not be understated. As Clayton Christensen discussed in "The Innovator's Dilemma," it is immensely difficult for established companies to adopt and commercialize disruptive technologies (even Toyota with its innovative hybrid technologies had to be "dragged" to develop their lithium-ion technology by GM and skyrocketing oil prices). Given that GM, Toyota, and Nissan all now have a 2010 goal to commercialize lithium-ion battery technology, this represents a seismic change in the auto industry - a change not witnessed since the "democratization" of the automobile by Henry Ford. In the meantime, given that crude oil prices are probably in the throes of a mania, there is no telling where oil prices will be over the next 6 to 12 months (the oil price hasn't been responding to its "traditional anchors" such as OECD inventory, global economic growth, etc.).

That being said, I believe that both crude oil and energy prices should at least cool down over the next few months, based on the fact that economic growth has been and is continuing to slow down across the world. That continues to be the message of the MarketThoughts Global Diffusion Index (MGDI). We last discussed the MarketThoughts Global Diffusion Index (MGDI) in our March 9, 2008 commentary ("The Message of the MarketThoughts Global Diffusion Index") - arguing that the recent rise in commodity and energy prices are due to short-term supply issues and are not sustainable in the long-run. To recap, we first featured the MGDI in our May 30, 2005 commentary. For newer subscribers who may not be familiar with our work, the MGDI is constructed using the "Leading Indicators" data for 25 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), as well as China and Brazil. Basically, the MGDI is an advance/decline line of the OECD leading indicators - smoothed using their respective three-month averages. More importantly, the MGDI has historically led or tracked the CRB Index and the CRB Energy Index pretty well ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since our May 30, 2005 commentary, we have revised the MGDI by incorporating the leading indicator for the Chinese economy (we have since added Turkey back into the MGDI since the OECD has again started publishing reliable data for the country). This revision is obvious; as China is now the fourth largest economy in the world and has been responsible for a significant amount of global economic growth over the last few years (its contribution to global economic growth last year surpassed that of the US). So what are the latest readings telling us?

Following is a chart showing the YoY% change in the MGDI and the rate of change in the MGDI (i.e. the second derivative) vs. the YoY% change in the Dow Industrials and the YoY% change in the CRB Energy Index from March 1990 to April 2008 (the May readings will be updated and available on the OECD website in early July). In addition, all four of these indicators have been smoothed using their three-month moving averages:

MarketThoughts Global Diffusion Index (MGDI) vs. Changes in the Dow Industrials & the CRB Energy Index (March 1990 to April 2008) - The deviation of the change in the CRB Energy Index and the year-over-year and annual rate of change (second derviative) in the MGDI suggests that energy prices should cool down, and soon, despite the fact that crude oil is still in a secular bull market.

Note the immense divergence of the year-over-year change in the CRB Energy Index vs. that of the MGDI (both its first and second derivative) since September of last year! Given the historical (positive) correlation with OECD growth and the rise in commodity and energy prices since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is no reason to expect this continued divergence. At this point - it is reasonable to believe that the bulk of the recent rise in commodity and energy prices have been due to speculation, short covering, and the panic over the 1970s concept of "Stagflation," which few professional economists and forecasters actually understand. More importantly, a significant factor that has provided support for energy demand over the last six months - price subsidies in many emerging market countries - have declined substantially over the last few weeks, culminating in China's announced 18% price hikes in retail fuel prices last Thursday.

As far as Goldman Sachs' very low estimate of demand destruction (64,000 barrels a day in the "high case") stemming from the recent cut in subsidies in many emerging market countries (including China), my sense is that it is overly optimistic from a demand standpoint. I have read the actual report. Goldman does not disclose the gradient of their elasticity curve (sensitivity of demand relative to prices). For all I know, Goldman may have just plucked it out of thin air since it is very difficult to reconcile the historical data with that of the historical experience. For example, Goldman estimates that these countries collectively consume 19 million barrels a day. With the recent rise in gasoline prices this year, American consumers - who consumes about 20 million barrels a day (about half of which are in the form of gasoline/petrol) - are consuming 400,000 barrels/day less than what they were last year. In a region with relatively low average income, a sudden hike in fuel prices (33% in Indonesia, 50% in Egypt, 18% in China, etc.) is a big deal. Sure, these countries are continuing to grow, but the US is too - especially with the implementation of the fiscal stimulus that began early in May.

Moreover, based on historical experience, the elasticity of demand for fuel relative to income levels - by definition - has to be very high given the exponential increase in fuel demand in these countries over the last few years. In other words, there are still many marginal consumers of fuel in these countries - at least on a scale that they have been consuming fuel in the last 18 months. Given the recent spike in fuel prices, much of this incremental demand should also go away. The 64,000 barrel a day demand destruction (high case) estimate by Goldman is definitely too low. Even though Goldman argues that elasticity of demand relative to price is pretty rigid given historical experience (they cite the November 2007 Chinese hike experience), that is also the same experience in the US as well in November 2007. Interestingly, the recent spike and the demand destruction in the US are saying otherwise. i.e. Unlike November 2007, folks are finally cutting back.

Finally, Chinese airline passenger growth has literally gone off a cliff since the beginning of this year, as shown in the following chart courtesy of Morgan Stanley Research:

China: Slowdown in Air Passenger Traffic Growth, Jan-07 to Apr-08

Interestingly, the steep decline in passenger and revenue passenger kilometer (RPK) growth occurred well before the latest hike in fuel prices (yes, the Chinese government has been subsidizing jet fuel prices as well). At this point, economists still do not have a good explanation for this decline (some attribute this decline to the decline in travel in the aftermath of the recent snowstorms and the earthquake in Sichuan Province), but it is not inconceivable that Chinese economic growth has been moderating as well, especially given the recent tightening imposed by the People's Bank of China and the slowdown in global exports.

More follows for subscribers...

 


 

Henry To

Author: Henry To

Henry K. To, CFA
MarketThoughts.com

Henry To, CFA, is co-founder and partner of the economic advisory firm, MarketThoughts LLC, an advisor to the hedge fund Independence Partners, LP. Marketthoughts.com is a service provided by MarkertThoughts LLC, and provides a twice-a-week commentary designed to educate subscribers about the stock market and the economy beyond the headlines. This commentary usually involves focusing on the fundamentals and technicals of the current stock market, but may also include individual sector and stock analyses - as well as more general investing topics such as the Dow Theory, investing psychology, and financial history.

In January 2000, Henry To, CFA of MarketThoughts LLC alerted his friends and associates about the huge risks created by the historic speculative environment in both the domestic and the international stock markets. Through a series of correspondence and e-mails during January to early April 2000, he discussed his reasons and the implications of this historic mania, and suggested that the best solution was to sell all the technology stocks in ones portfolio. He also alerted his friends and associates about the possible ending of the bear market in gold later in 2000, and suggested that it was the best time to accumulate gold mining stocks with both the Philadelphia Gold and Silver Mining Index and the American Exchange Gold Bugs Index at a value of 40 (today, the value of those indices are at approximately 110 and 240, respectively).Readers who are interested in a 30-day trial of our commentaries can find out more information from our MarketThoughts subscription page.

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