Spreading the Energies
Some of my favorite spreads are in the energy sector. In particular, I love to trade the crack spreads. But there’s also another lesser-known energy spread in my bag of tricks: crude oil against natural gas.
A few years ago, the correlation between crude and nat gas broke down. It lasted for a few years and was not resolved until 2014. This made for some tough sledding for anyone trying to trade the two markets against each other. But since the correlation has been back to normal over the last three years, the odds of successfully trading the spread have gone up. To that end, it looks like a buying opportunity is shaping up right now.
Making Plans for Labor Day?!
Two days ago marked the first day of spring. Ironically, the trade opportunity that popped up on my radar screen yesterday is for the Labor Day (September) contracts. I guess that’s why these are called futures contracts, right?
A crude oil futures contract controls 1,000 barrels of crude and a natural gas futures contract controls 10,000 MMBtu (million British thermal units) of nat gas. To simplify the spread, I plot the difference between the actual values of the contracts.
Over the last couple of years, one September crude oil contract has been worth anywhere from 40% more to a little more than double the value of one September natural gas contract. Therefore, the blog has been plotting the spread between one crude oil contract and the sum of the value of two natural gas contracts.
Yesterday the September crude oil/natural gas (x2) spread closed at -$15,930 (premium nat gas). This was the lowest price it has been in fourteen months.
Notice that this was only the fourth time in the last year that the spread has closed at -$15,500 or lower. The lowest closing price was the January 20, 2016 low of -$16,170 and the longest that it ever closed at -$15,500 or lower was two consecutive days.
Actually, I fudged on that count just slightly. The August 2, 2016 close was -$15,430. That’s only $70 away from the -$15,500 threshold, which is close enough in horseshoes and hand grenades. So we’ll say it’s close enough for spread trading, too.
Each of the dips to -$15,500 or lower was followed by rebounds that took the September crude oil/natural gas (x2) spread north of -$6,000. Now interestingly enough, each close above -$6,000 was also a short-lived excursion as well. Once the spread achieved this level, it soon rolled over and plunged again. It’s been a perfect trading range for nearly a year and a half.
In light of this, it looks like the trade opportunity here is to buy the spread now and look for a rally above -$6,000 before taking profits. Also, an ‘add-on’ position could be purchased once the rebound starts. So that’s exactly how the IMC blog is gonna play it.
The ratio between the values of a September crude oil contract and a September natural gas contract confirm what we’re seeing in the spread. The ratio closed at 1.51:1 yesterday. The last three times it closed at 1.52:1 or lower, a major recovery soon followed.
The biggest challenge for the ratio’s recovery happened in January 2016. The ratio closed at 1.52:1 on January 12th and didn’t fully recover above this level until two weeks later. During this time, the contract low of 1.4:1 was established on January 20th.
In the grand scheme of things, though, this extended stay at 1.52:1 or lower was not all that dramatic because the spread only stayed at -$15,500 or lower for two days. This is why using both the spread and the ratio together is a good idea.
For tracking purposes, the blog will make a hypothetical trade by buying one September 1,000 barrel crude oil contract and simultaneously selling two September 10,000 MMBtu (million British thermal units) natural gas contracts at -$15,500 (premium nat gas) or better. Initially, the spread will be liquidated on a three-day close below -$16,500.
Trade Strategy for ‘Add-On’ Position:
For tracking purposes, the blog will make a hypothetical trade by buying one September 1,000 barrel crude oil contract and simultaneously selling two September 10,000 MMBtu (million British thermal units) natural gas contracts on a close at -$13,000 (premium nat gas) or higher. Initially, this ‘add-on’ spread will be liquidated on a two-day close below -$15,500.