End of US Planting Can Be Opportunity for Grain Option Writers
Michael: Hello everyone. This is Michael Gross of OptionSellers.com here with head trader, James Cordier. This is your monthly Option Seller TV Show. James, welcome to the program this month.
James: Always a pleasure, Michael. Glad to be here.
Michael: We have a lot to talk about this month. We have turmoil in Washington, we have some activity coming back to the VIX, and we have OPEC announcements, so there’s some volatility coming back into a lot of the markets. We’re going to talk to James about how that might affect some of the commodities we’re looking at. James, what’s your take on the new burst of volatility we’ve seen?
James: Well, Michael, there is a lot of uncertainty right now. The stock market continues to meander and make new highs practically once a week, it seems, to get a new sell-off, and then buyers come back into the market. The VIX, which has been in the news recently, under 10, which I believe is about a 2 or 3 decade low, basically is saying that there’s no fear amongst investors, continue to pile into the stock market and continue to buy. The volatility index is just starting to pick up, however, in commodities. We’ve seen a dramatic move up in basically the energies and some of the metal VIX indexes, and it tells us that there is some ideas that some large moves in either the stocks or in the dollar denominated commodities might be approaching soon. Of course, we like the VIX going up – that increases premiums on both puts and calls that we follow.
Michael: Now, is that spilling over from equities or anything going on in Washington, or is that happening on its own accord for different fundamentals going on in the commodities?
James: I think a lot of investors are taking the cue from what’s happening from Washington and abroad. We have North Korea, we have a situation with Russia and the election, we have things going on in the Middle East right now along with Washington D.C. and a lot of the proposed changes are meeting some stone walling right now that’s going on. It is causing a lot of uncertainty and, of course, that’s something we enjoy following. Some investors don’t care for that very much but it’s certainly something that we like to see happening and it pumps up premiums on commodity options.
Michael: Well, with that background setting for the month, let’s move into our first market. We are going to talk about the grain markets this month. June is a big month in U.S. agricultural markets. This is typically the month where planting is completed in markets like corn, soybeans, to a lesser extent wheat, cotton, and those type of things. When you look at seasonal factors, the end of planting season can play a big role in that. James, maybe you want to talk a little bit about what that often means for certain grain prices?
James: Michael, a lot of our viewers and listeners here today hear us talk about seasonal factors. Corn and soybeans, a lot of people don’t realize, are practically everything that’s consumed. Whether it’s in China, Europe, or here in the United States, it comes from a kernel of corn or from a soybean. Practically everything we eat, dining out or cooking at home, that’s what takes place. Corn and soybeans are an absolute essential to the food system for practically everyone on the planet. It’s a huge market. The corn and soybean market basically has some type of fear or anxiety going into planting season. The planting season has to be just right or a lot of investors feel that we’re going to have smaller yields and possibly a smaller crop. Generally, it’s either too wet or too dry or too hot in May or June, and that does bid up prices often. Generally speaking, at the end of that rally and once the corn and soybeans are planted in the United States, of course, prices then come back down to earth and, lo and behold, the U.S. farmers are some of the best in the world and sometimes a bumper crop. (4:18)
Michael: Now, when we talk about a market like soybeans, we didn’t really see that big run-up this year. We had relatively stable planting season and I think that kind of moves us toward what the fundamentals were this year. There’s a reason we didn’t really see a big run-up in the spring. Would you agree with that?
James: We certainly haven’t seen that run-up yet. Right now, we have soybeans and corn planting just about on schedule. There was some ideas that there would be delays because of too much rain, but boy… too much rain makes a lot of grain later on this year. There still might be one or two rallies in June or July, possibly, there’s a dry spell in there somewhere. People are also talking about El Niño, which can certainly change weather patterns here in the United States. For the most part, the fundamentals are already in gear for low grain prices at the end of this year. Ending stocks, of course, are extremely high and production out of Brazil is at all-time record highs. So, if we get this weather rally sometimes in June or July, that would probably be a selling opportunity. Of course, for our clients, we are already short the grain market based on the fact that, like you said, the fundamentals right now are going to probably overwhelmed seasonal factors this year. I think we’re on the right side of that market.
Michael: I know you were a proponent of selling calls this month. As far as ending stocks go, as you said, global ending stocks are “over 90 million metric tons”, which would be an all-time record for world ending stocks for the ‘16-‘17 crop year. When we’re going into this seasonal time of year where prices often start to weaken in the summer, as you were talking about, we’re going at with a backdrop of record global supplies. Even though prices have come down, I know you were very interested in selling call options on soybeans, not necessarily because you think the bottom’s going to fall out just because you think it’s going to have a hard time rallying in this type of environment. Is that correct?
James: Exactly, Michael. Of course, as option sellers, we’re not exactly trying to predict where the market’s going to go but, of course, where it’s not going to go. With world ending stocks at all-time record highs, record production out of Brazil and Argentina, record production likely here in the United States. Do soybeans fall 5-10%? We’re not sure, but then going up 30%, of course, seems very unlikely. Of course, as option sellers, we are basically betting where the market is not going to go as opposed to where it has to. This year, with record ending stocks and just huge supplies from everywhere, a 30% rally in prices seems quite unlikely.
Michael: Great. If you want to read James’ feature article on the soybean market for May it is on the blog. You can go back and take a look at that where he really outlines the case for selling calls this month. For those of you that would like to read more about seasonal tendencies and the agricultures or other commodities, you can also read about it in our book, The Complete Guide to Option Selling: Third Edition. That is available on our website at OptionSellers.com/book. James, lets move into our second market this month, which is the crude oil market, which we’ve certainly seen a lot of developments there. A lot has been in the news about crude this month. There’s big talk of OPEC. In fact, today right before we came on camera, we just had a big announcement for OPEC. Do you want to talk a little bit about that and what’s going on there?
James: Well, Michael, ever since you and I have been in this business there has been the old adage of buy the rumor and sell the fact. I think that happened in great text today as the OPEC nations and non-OPEC nations decided, and certainly have been discussing for a long time, to extend the production cuts that were announced approximately 6 months ago. They were going to now announce that there were going to be 9 months of further production cuts. Certainly, that has been well advertised. The market did rally on those ideas over the last few weeks. I think crude oil went up from around 48 to 52 recently based on the fact that they would be extending cuts. Today, the cuts were announced that 9 months would be prolonged into the smaller production of many OPEC and non-OPEC nations. The market answered that with a resounding $2 down and the price of oil went from 52-50. Basically, the world is awash in oil, and if the fact that production cuts are going to be extended, they weren’t really that bullish to begin with. Of course, what’s happening in the United States that we might want to talk about is really the deciding factor and what’s changing oil prices.
Michael: I know, even going into these cuts, you weren’t really bullish on crude and that was because of the supply and the production situation in the United States. Is that correct?
James: Correct. Going into the large announcement from OPEC and non-OPEC nations some 6 months ago, very few people are familiar with the fact that weeks leading up to the announcement, OPEC ramped up production to levels never seen before. Though they did cut for the first time in 10 years, or something like that, production just prior to that went up a million and a half barrels. So, cutting and announcing a 1.5 million barrel cut really doesn’t move the needle at all. Of course, here in the United States, mainly the Permian Basin in Texas, production is now ramping up into all-time record highs. If in fact the U.S. does start producing 10 million barrels a day, which is looking like it will happen late this year or early next year, that completely erases the cuts from OPEC, which were thought to be so bullish, and the bottom line is if we have one more barrel of oil than we need the prices go down. Right now, it looks like we’re going to have approximately 1-2 million barrels more per day than we need going into 2018. The real key is going to be can OPEC stay together, be cohesive with these cuts when prices start to fall in the 4th quarter of this year. They’re going to have to hang tough because if they start cheating, this thing can really snowball and come down. We don’t’ see that happening. There’s something going on in Saudi Arabia as far as their first IPO of the largest extent ever seen before, and they’re going to do everything they can to keep oil prices high.
Michael: That in the backdrop of last energy report here this month, still looking at record supplies for this time of year in the states. I think were 528 million barrels or something like that, which is an all-time record for this time of year. All this news, they’ve really been playing up this OPEC deal in the media for the last couple of weeks. Yet, here we are with a backdrop of record supply. A good point you brought up as well in the newsletter was how U.S. frackers have really ramped up production. I think we’re at 9.3 and I think you said we’re headed to 10 here at the end of the year. You can see right where they made those cuts and you put a good chart in the newsletter of where U.S. production starts trekking up again, just making up for what OPEC wants to give away.
James: Exactly right. It is an absolutely gift to the frackers here in the United States that OPEC and non-OPEC nations are cutting production. It’s keeping prices still relatively high, giving new developments here in the United States chances to lock-in hedges. We were reading in the Wall Street Journal today that no longer are producers in Texas and North Dakota and everywhere in between, they’re not so susceptible to the large moves in the price of oil. They’re getting very sophisticated. A lot of areas, especially in the south, they’re able to produce oil anywhere from $20-$25 a barrel, some as high as maybe $30-$35, but they are now locking in future production using the futures market. When you can produce oil for $25 and sell it for $50 and lock that in, that’s what they’re doing. They’re taking advantage of that. As prices do fall, possibly in the 4th quarter this year, they don’t feel any pain. They just keep pumping because they’re locked into futures price at $50 printing money basically. What that’s going to do is exasperate the overproduction and the large supplies, we think, and then we could look at some prices possibly in the low $40’s to $40 later this year.
Michael: Now, one more thing to talk about here as far as the seasonal tendency goes. We talk a lot about seasonals. Seasonals have kind of been knocked a little bit out of whack since the OPEC announcement back in November, but you are thinking that with the latest OPEC moves, we might see that kind of knock the market back into alignment with the seasonal tendencies.
James: We really see that happening. What OPEC will be likely be doing at the very least is coming close to balancing the market again. We’ve had this boom bust every 6 months for oil production and oil prices over the last 2 or 3 years. That did change with the last production cut announcement 6 months ago. We see a slight balancing of oil production versus consumption, and that should throw us right back into the seasonalities that we enjoy so much. We love going short crude oil just as we’re coming out of driving season going into what we call the shoulder season, which means no longer driving season and yet too warm to have to heat homes and businesses in the Northeast. That is shoulder season. The market rolls over in the 4th quarter of the year so we take advantage of selling calls here in the summer and then reverse that position later this year and beginning of next.
Michael: So, although we are bearish crude, neutral to bearish, we are not positioning money that we need the market to necessarily fall. Let’s maybe talk about for our viewers that maybe aren’t that familiar with option selling yet how you would position to take advantage of this type of market.
James: When we heard of the announcement 6 months ago, we thought that would probably neutralize both bullish and bearish factors. We have too much supply, however we have production cuts from OPEC. We immediately put on a strangle in the crude oil market. We did think that the seasonality would probably take a pause until the end of this year. We basically took the excitement by selling $75 calls, meaning we are betting the market can’t get to $75, at the same time putting on a strangle, and by doing that we sold $33 puts – an absolute enormous window for the market to stay inside. That position has worked extremely well. Both of those positions are approximately 20% of what we sold them for. We should now go back into a seasonal pattern where we top-out in summer. What we mean by that is if oil is trading around 50-51 currently, what we would do is look at the winter contracts, say January, February, March, and look to sell options there. If we sell a $70 call while price of oil is at $50, we are basically betting where the market won’t be. This winter, we do expect the smaller demand season of January-February to take hold of 40% rally in crude oil prices during the weakest season of the year. That’s a bet we like to make and with oil at 50 selling calls, for example, around 70, basically what you’re doing is you’re playing football. You’re not necessarily passing to where the runner is or the receiver is, you’re passing it to where you think the market is going to go. Everyone is bullish in the summer and that’s where you go short. What you do is you throw it to the receiver who is running in January when demand is going to be at its least.
Michael: As far as the market goes, the bulls seem to be running out of arguments here. OPEC was a big thing a lot of them were hanging their hats on and that hasn’t taken place. Now we are into summer driving season, which they will probably be talking up a little more, but with the supply where it is right now, prices tend to actually top in early to mid summer. We are just betting it’s not going to go up. It seems like anything can happen, of course, but it certainly seems like pretty high odds position from that point of view.
James: I think with what’s happened to the market here in the last 6 months, we will have some equilibrium. You have producers locking in hedges, you have smaller production, so these moves from 30 to 70 are probably behind us. Crude oil prices 40 to 55 are more likely going to be the norm here for the next few years. Selling puts and going long in the low 30’s, and selling calls in the mid to upper 70’s, I think, is going to be a cash cow the next several years. As you said, anything can happen. We will have to wait and see. Selling options 40% and 50% out-of-the-money in crude oil, I think, is going to be ideal. That market is going to start finding equilibrium and some sort of balance, and what we call historic volatility is still in when you price options. The new norm is going to be more of a $40-$50 price and the volatility that was created over the last several years allows us to sell options 40%-50% out-of-the-money. That’s why we talk about volatility. That is the life-blood of what we do. From time to time, whether it’s fear of turmoil in North Korea, something going on in the Middle East, that is ideal for us is something that pumps up energy price options and we like to take advantage of that.
Michael: Hopefully the media keeps helping out with that and keeps public buying those distant option premiums.
James: That’s the hope.
Michael: For those of you that like to learn more about the crude oil market and our strategy there, it is our feature article in the June newsletter. That will be out at or around June 1st in your mailbox. Keep an eye out for that. Obviously, in addition to our outline for crude, we also have some lessons in there about how you can sell options and manage risk is our feature this month. So, there’s quite a bit of new information there. You don’t want to miss the June issue. James, lets move into our lesson this month. This is one we haven’t done on video yet, but it is one we have talked about in our booklets if you have received our booklets in the mail. A lot of people that call in will ask us, “How do you pick the option you’re going to sell?” It’s really a short question with a very long answer, but we thought what we could do is just provide a few bullet points that if you are looking at trying to understand how this is done, the type of things we look at when we’re selecting a trade in commodities. There is really 5 things that we look at, James, that you and I have discussed. We’ll just kind of go down that list and talk a little bit about each of them. The first one on that list is something we are very big on which is the supply-demand fundamentals of that individual commodity. Do you want to talk about how you approach that when you’re looking at a commodity?
James: Michael, I think a great analogy is years ago when people were investing in dot-com companies and these are names that you’re seeing on TV, they’re names that people are talking about, and the market started falling and people are looking at dot-com companies… “My gosh, I can buy it at 50% of what the price was just a few months ago. It has got to be a great buy.” They buy XYZ dot-com company, it’s down 50% from its highs, it sounds like a great buy. Then it is down 75% from its high and people are just getting white-walled here back in the crash of 2006, 2007, and 2008. You ask that investor, “What are you getting beat up in?” … “Well, I bought this dot-com company.” “What do they make?”… Not sure. “What do they do?”… Not sure. It is very difficult to stay with a position like that. We do fundamental analysis on about 10 commodities. I’ve been trading silver since when I got my driver’s license. I’ve been trading coffee for the last 20 years. We count barrels of oil constantly to try and understand what the value might be. When selecting short options based on fundamentals, when the market moves a dollar against you or people are on TV yelling about OPEC announced the cut or the market is up or down, for an investment to work you have to have staying power. You can’t get bumped out of the market on a small move. So often, if you have fundamental research and analysis, you’ll know that when the market moves slightly against you it is just noise. Computerized trading is moving the markets a lot more than it used to. We love computerized trading, it’s making our options more liquid to trade, but it also does send gyrations through the market from time to time. Having the fundamental research already in place allows you to be patient with your position. We sell options based on fundamentals. If they are not there, or we’re not sure what they are, we simply wait 6 months for them to maybe become more clear in a particular market. We want to sell options far enough out in time and price so that small gyrations in the market doesn’t disturb our position. How often does someone who does look at selling options on commodities or stocks? They’re attracted to selling the short-term option, selling a 30-day option or a 60-day option thinking, “Well, I only have a short period of time. That’ll have to wait.” But what ends up happening is a small move knocks you out of that position. Of course, what happens once month later is that market’s doing exactly what you thought it would do, except you don’t have your option anymore. We look at selling options 6-12 months out. If we thought the sweet spot for short options was closer in than that, that’s what we would do, but I have found that selling options 6 months out-12 moths out allows you the selling power to stay in your position. We were based on fundamentals when the market goes slightly against us, we just aren’t able to have patience and let the market come to us.
Michael: When you know the underlying fundamentals, it’s really giving you the confidence to stay in a position and not get shaken out by this or that or what’s on the news today, which, you know, we talk about over and over and over again in everything we do.
James: Writing short options, you are one thing – you are paid to wait. If you know what the fundamentals are and if they’re on your side it makes it much easier to do that.
Michael: When we’re looking at trade, we look at fundamentals first. Second thing we’re going to look at is seasonal factors, which we’ve already touched on a little bit here today with some of our other things, but seasonals kind of play into the fundamentals because they’re really just reflecting certain fundamentals that tend to happen at different times of year.
James: Exactly right. With the grain market, seasonal factors are there’s fears of planting, too hot or too dry conditions in the summer, and then you go right back to supply and demand in the fall. What seasonals do is they are basically fundamentals. It tells you exactly when the demand might be the most for gasoline, when the demand for natural gas might be the least. What it does is it helps us decide whether we should be long or short that particular market. If you combine that with a supply and demand, basically you are putting everything in place to allow you to put on a position and to stay with it.
Michael: So, those are going to be the 2 core factors we look at when selecting a market. Obviously, the third thing on the list is volume and open interest. We have to find a market that not only is seasonally or fundamentally favorable, but there has to be enough options in there for us to go in and sell some. If there isn’t sufficient volume rope and interest, it’s not a viable market, so that’s the third selection process. That’s kind of self-explanatory, you probably don’t need to expand on that I wouldn’t think.
James: Just the algorithms and the computerized trading is just making option selling just such a pleasure right now. The volume and open interest is increasing dramatically, even on far-out options. Making sure that there’s the ability to get in and out of the market is, of course, of the utmost importance. With computerized trading it is certainly helping a lot.
Michael: We are using those 3 things to really select our market. The last 2 things on the list we are using for timing. What you’ll find is the last 2 things on our list are usually the first things that most option books will tell you to look at, or option gurus or option traders. That’s volatility and the technical setup. Those are the last things we’re looking at because by the time we are looking at those we’ve already picked the markets we want to be in. we are just using those 2 things for our timing, correct?
James: Exactly right, if you’re trading a 2 week or 4 week option, you do need to have perfect timing. We have done all of our homework basically telling us whether we want to be long or short a particular market. Once we’ve made that determination, we try to blend in a little bit of timing to help us sell options when they might be at their peak or close to it. The desire or the need to have perfect timing with our form of option selling isn’t there, but certainly when we can see some technical buying or selling it can increase options that we’re looking to sell maybe 10-15%. We will certainly take advantage of that when we can.
Michael: For those of you that are interest in this, we do get a lot of questions on this so we are probably going to be doing some new upcoming videos on these things, how you can use them, how we incorporate them when we’re managing portfolios as well. You’ll kind of learn from both sides of that. As far as just a little update here for this month, our waiting list for accounts is booked into July now, so if you are interested in possibly working with us directly, you can call Rosemary to schedule a consultation and she is filling the final slots we have now for July openings. If you haven’t heard about our accounts yet and you’d like to learn a little bit more about them, you can request our Discovery Pack, which looks like this, and that will tell you all about OptionSellers.com managed accounts, requirements, and how you can get started in them. You can request that on our website OptionSellers.com/Discovery. We thank everyone for joining us this month. James, thanks for your analysis this month.
James: My pleasure, Michael. Always enjoy it.
Michael: We’ll look forward to talking to you again in 30 days. Thank you.