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Time to Sell Natural Gas

Time to Sell Natural Gas

I received a crackly, hard to understand call late last night from one of my old natural gas buddies in the Barnet shale in Texas. Chances are that CH4 peaked in price last night with the expiration of the front month contract. It was time to sell.

I spent five years driving a beat up pick up truck on the tortuous, jarring, washboard roads of this forlorn part of the country, buying up mineral rights from old depleted fields for pennies on the dollar.

The sellers thought I was some moron hippie from California, probably high on some illegal drugs. “You want to redrill these fields and throw dynamite down the holes?” It was a crazy idea. Since I was offering hard cash, they couldn’t sign the dotted line fast enough.

During the late nineties nobody had ever heard of fracking. Even in the oil industry only a few specialists were aware of it. My old buddy, Boone Pickens, claims he was doing it in the fifties, but then nothing the wily oilman ever does surprises me.

Only a few reckless independent wildcatters were experimenting with the new process. The oil majors wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. It was unproven, dangerous, and could never deliver sufficient volumes to get them interested. With the deep pockets a trial lawyer could only dream about, they couldn’t afford the liability risk of polluting a town’s drinking water. So it was left to small fry like me to finance this ground-breaking technology.

I ended up developing a couple of fields, riding gas up from $2 to $5 MMBTU, then selling them off to the gas companies. My partners and I made a fortune.

We have remained in touch over the years. Whenever something indecipherable happens in the international capital markets, they call me for an explanation. When something special sets up in the natural gas market, I get the first call.

On Election Day we all go out and get drunk because their conservative vote cancels out my liberal ones, so why bother? We do this at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, a favorite of former President George W. Bush, where the 24-ounce chicken fried steaks fall over both sides of your plate.

I didn’t reenter the gas market until the Amaranth hedge fund blow up took the price up to $17 in 2006, and then down like a stone. I figured out that the United States Natural Gas Fund (ETF) suffered from a peculiar mathematics that was death for long side investors.

The natural gas futures market often trades in a contango. This is when front month contracts trade at a big premium to far month ones, adjusted for the cost of borrowed money. This premium completely disappears at expiration, when the commercial buyers, like electric power plants and chemical companies, take physical delivery of the gas.

What (UNG) does is buy contracts three months out, run them into expiration, and then roll the money into new contracts another three months out. The premium they pay rapidly falls to zero. Then they repeat the process all over again. It is a perfect wealth destruction machine.

The same dilemma besets futures contracts for oil (USO), corn (CORN), wheat (WEAT), and soybeans (SOYB) to a lesser degree, and a lot of traders make their livings from these anomalies.

What (UNG) does is buy contracts three months out, run them into expiration, and then roll the money into new contracts another three months out. The premium they pay rapidly falls to zero. Then they repeat the process all over again. It is a perfect wealth destruction machine.

I have seen a period when natural gas rose 40%, but the (UNG) dove 40%, thanks to the costly effects of the contango. Needless to say, this makes the (UNG) the world’s greatest short vehicle in a falling market. It is a fantastic heads I will, tails you lose security.

There is another crucial factor making natural gas such a great natural short that few outside the industry are aware of. You cannot store natural gas to the degree you can semi liquid oil. Unlike Texas tea, natural gas wells can’t be capped without damaging their long-term production. It has to flow and be sold at whatever price you can get. If you don’t, it goes away. This means that when the price of natural gas falls, it does so with a turbocharger, also making it an ideal short play.

To make a long story short, I made another fortune riding gas down from $17 to $2. I haven’t touched it for 2 years. Other hedge fund manager friends of mine made billions on this trade, and then retired to a sedentary life of philanthropy.

At this point, natural gas is up an unbelievable 56% in three months, thanks to Mother Nature’s brutal assault on most of the country, except here in balmy California. Demand is at an all time high, prices a 5-year peak, and speculative long positions in the futures market at an eight-year apex. Storage was taken down to a six month low of 1.2 trillion cubic feet with today’s 230 billion cubic foot draw down.

Expiration of the front month contract triggered a super spike in the (United States Natural Gas Fund to an astounding $27, while underling natural gas made it all the way up to $5.50, nearly triple the subterranean $1.90 low set in April, 2012.

This is happening in the face of one of the greatest supply onslaughts in history that will hit the market throughout the rest of this year. They’re still hiring and drilling like crazy in North Dakota.

The demand spike came hard and so fast that it caught many suppliers by surprise. That has created a bubble in the pipeline, a temporary shortfall in supplies, and triggered an incredible short squeeze in the natural gas market.

Winter can’t last forever. Eventually summer comes, and the shortage of natural gas pipeline will get more than made up by thousands of new fracking wells in the US.

If the UNG returns to the November, 2013 $17 low by July 18, the value of the (UNG) July, 2014 $23 put rises from our $1.68 cost to $4.72, a potential gain of 181%. That’s a fabulous risk/reward ratio, and we have six months to see it happen.

Keep in mind that liquidity could be an issue here. Yesterday, 1,549 contracts traded against on open interest of 2,297 contracts. The option market spreads here are also humongously wide and the volatility is of biblical proportions, which is endemic to the natural gas market.

Just to get a second opinion, I called Mad Day Trader Jim Parker, as I hadn’t been in this market for a while. He said it was warming up in Chicago, and he was venturing outside for a walk for the first time in three days. Out went the Trade Alert!

Below please find a chart for natural gas generated by Jim?s proprietary trading model. The bottom line here is that there is a high probability that we will drop from the current $5.17 down to $4.70, break that, go down to $4.17, break that, and possibly go as low at the November low of $3.40.

They don?t call this market the ?widow maker? for nothing, so expect a lot of heart wrenching volatility before you see a substantial payoff. So it best to enter a spread of small limit orders and hope for the best.

You can best play the short side through the futures market in natural gas. For those without a futures account, you can buy the 2X ProShares Ultra Short DJ-UBS Natural Gas inverse ETF (KOLD) or the 3x Direxion Daily Natural Gas Related Bear 3X Shares inverse ETF (GASX). The more adventurous can sell short the (UNG) outright, if they can find stock to borrow.
UNG 1-30-14

NATGAS 1-29-14

GASX 1-30-14

KOLD 1-30-14

NGEH4 1-30-14

Natural-gasTime to Sell Winter Short

Billy Bob'sBilly Bob?s in Forth Worth

Coal?s Hatchet Job on Natural Gas

After my year in the White House Press Corps, I vowed never to return, and took a really long shower, hoping to scrub every last spec of prejudice, self-interest, and institutionalized dishonesty off of my battered carcass. But sometimes I see some maneuvering that is so unprincipled, crooked, and against the national interest that I am unable to restrain my fingers from the keyboard.

I?m talking about the absolutely merciless hatchet job the coal producers are inflicting on the natural gas industry. Coal today accounts for 50% of America?s 3.7 trillion kilowatts in annual power production. Chesapeake Energy?s (CHK) Aubrey McClendon says correctly that if we just shut down aging conventional power plants over 35 years old, and replace them with modern gas fired plants, the US would achieve one third of its ambitious 2020 carbon reduction goals.

The share of relatively clean burning natural gas of the national power load would pop up from the current 23% to 50%. Even the Sierra Club says this is the fastest and cheapest way to make a serious dent in greenhouse gas emissions. So what do we get?

The press has recently been flooded with reports of widespread well poisonings and forest destruction caused by the fracking processes that recently discovered a new 100 year supply of ultra-cheap CH4. The YouTube images of flames shooting out of a kitchen faucet are well known. But MIT did a study investigating over 50 of these claims and every one was found to be due to inexperienced subcontractor incompetence, not the technology itself. The demand for these wells is so great that it is sucking in neophytes into bidding for contracts, whether they know how to do it or not.

While the coal industry has had 200 years to build a formidable lobby in Washington, the gas industry is just a beginner, their only public champions being McClendon and T. Boone Pickens. Every attempt they have made to get a bill through congress to speed up natural gas conversion has been blocked not by environmentalists, but other conflicted energy interests.

Memories in Washington are long, and Obama & Co. recall all too clearly that this was the pair that financed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that torpedoed Democrat John Kerry?s 2004 presidential campaign. What goes around comes around.

This will be unhappy news for the 23,000 the American Lung Association expects coal emissions to kill this year. Can?t the coal industry be happy selling everything they rip out of the ground to China?

There! I?ve had my say. Now I?m going to go have another long shower.

 

 

Time to Take That Shower