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Coyote Ugly: The Performance of Natural Gas

For those global macro investors that have been long of natural gas this year, it has been an ugly relative ride.  Some might even say, coyote ugly.  In fact, natural gas at the Henry Hub fell to $2.25 per MMBtu last week, which is its lowest price since February 15, 2002 when natural gas traded at $2.18 per MMBtu.  This isn’t surprising given that natural gas inventories continue to pile up and are currently 18 percent above their five year range and on pace to exceed the all time high level of 3,565 billion cubic feet, which was recorded in October of 2007.

 

The commodity investment race is not even close this year.  Crude oil is up ~+59.4% and natural gas is down ~-50.4%.  Obviously a primary fact that has worked in oil’s favor is that it is a global commodity that is priced in USD, so USD down will naturally equal oil up.  Any commodity trader that has abided by our “Burning the Buck” call this year is sitting pretty on his energy book at the moment.  Conversely, the natural gas longs, who have been focused on the Dennis Gartman-esque investment thesis that was based on the extremes of the oil / natural gas ratio (outlined in the chart below) have been on the wrong side of the pain trade.

 

The benefit to low natural gas prices will of course be seen this winter for consumers.  As the Beccy Tanner from the Wichita Eagle reported yesterday:

 

“ The price of heating a home with natural gas is expected to be half what you paid last year — that is, if the hurricanes don't disrupt fuel supplies to Kansas or snow and ice storms don't blanket the state later this year.  The market price can change, it all depends on the weather," said Dave Springe, consumer counsel for the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board in Topeka, a state agency charged with representing consumers in utility cases. "But generally, the news is good. What we are seeing right now is that natural gas prices are at all-time lows.  Average household savings of $200 to $300 for the winter are possible.  In this economy, this is good news for consumers, said Al Walker, a spokesman for Kansas Gas Service, a utility company that provides service to 642,000 customers in 343 Kansas communities. The utility, which adjusts its cost of gas charge monthly, now charges $5.19 for 1,000 cubic feet of gas, compared with $10.47 a year ago.”

 

For the average consumer who pays a $400 - $500 dollar heating bill in the winter, the decline in natural gas prices will provide some real relief versus last winter.

 

Also, as natural gas stays at low relative prices, it’s possible that it may take some share from coal and oil, which is longer tail and prices relative to transportation demand.  In fact, we saw increased focus on this issue in congress this week.  Specifically, Senator Schumer, Democrat of New York, stated that “the Senate is more open to natural gas as a transition fuel than the House was, but the Senators from the coal states who are crucial votes are going to want first consideration for coal.”  Oil is currently trading at roughly $11.70 per MMBtu, so on an energy equivalency basis almost 4x the price of natural gas, which is a real and tangible factor in the long term.

 

According to most estimates, coal provides roughly half of the electrical power in the United States, while natural gas provides roughly 20%.  As is widely known, natural gas is also much more environmentally friendly. In fact, on every pollutant level natural gas scores more favorably versus oil and coal.  We’ve outlined this in the table below:

 

Coyote Ugly: The Performance of Natural Gas - DJ2

 

The reality is this: with lower pollutant levels, a cheap relative energy price, and ample domestic supply, natural gas will have its day, but investors, as they have learned in the year to date, can only focus on these long term trends, in lieu of short term fundamentals, quantitative levels and global macro factors, at their peril.

 

Daryl G. Jones

Managing Director

 

Coyote Ugly: The Performance of Natural Gas - a1

 


Burning The Buck: Update...

It put a smile on my face to hear of my least favorite manic media network talking about a “burning buck” today. I wonder where they read about that investment theme…

 

This is a funny business. If you can’t wake-up to something to laugh at, you probably aren’t awake. The 2009 Global Macro inverse correlation that continues to dominate is that which is anchored on a US Government sponsored Burning Buck. It can make you smile and cry all at once.

 

Today, despite a Burning Buck becoming consensus, the US Dollar continues to get sold. The chart below outlines the severity of this US Currency Crisis. At down -0.36% today, the US Dollar Index is threatening to crash through the $77.00 line. Crash? Yes. When the world’s said “reserve currency” drops -13.5% in 6 months, by Research Edge’s definition - that’s a crash.

 

There are actually two charts below – the intermediate term one showing that the US Dollar Index is broken across all 3 of our investment durations (TRADE, TREND and TAIL), and the long term chart showing the US Dollar Index price dating back to the date that matters, 1971, when Nixon abandoned the Gold standard.

 

The long term chart provides the critical context of our Burning Buck call. On only one occasion in the last 38 years has the US Dollar Index sustainably weakened below the $78 level other than right here and now – that occasion, of course, was one of the leading indicators to our calling the 2008 US stock market crash.

 

At what point does Burning The Buck hurt US stocks rather than help them? In 2009, after watching the US Dollar crash on the downside and the US hedge fund community seeing their shorts crash to the upside, anything can happen here. At 1041 in the SP500, I have the generational short squeeze in US stocks running out of momentum.

 

Remember, like calling bottoms, calling tops are processes, not points.

KM

 

Keith R. McCullough
Chief Executive Officer

 

Burning The Buck: Update...  - a1

 


RESTAURANT INDUSTRY – DEMAND ISSUES

Given the news from MCD today, the following thoughts on unemployment help to explain why MCD is seeing sluggish trends in the USA!

 

This chart tells the story about a key demographic for the QSR segment - the core 16-24 year olds - which are heavy users of fast food. 

 

The following is taken from Andrew Barber’s post “Stagflation: Where the Pain is...”:

 

IDLE YOUTH

Looking at total employment ratio’s estimated by the Department of Labor shows that, on a seasonally adjusted basis 16-24 year olds had a very rough summer in 2009 with the figure hitting the lowest level since inception in 1948 and fewer than 50% working for the first sustained period since the draft ended (without seasonal adjustment that ration would be over 51%).

 

DOL methodology excludes military personnel from the labor force estimates but, with up a huge percentage of all men 18-21 drafted (or motivated to enlist by the draft) at periods between the end of WW2 & early 70’s, and furthermore with 72% of all Vietnam period veterans accessing GI bill benefits (significantly higher than WW2 & Korea vets, presumably because Vietnam vets were significantly younger as a group) it must have skewed this data immensely. Note that the prior Assistance Readjustment act of 1972 raised GI bill benefits for returning servicemen to payout levels exceeding many entry level salaries –essentially creating a huge incentive for veterans not to work during the subsequent recessionary periods. This all suggests that, on the whole, the employment picture for young Americans is significantly worse than at any point in the living memory of the majority of the population.

 

RESTAURANT INDUSTRY – DEMAND ISSUES - 16 24

 

 


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PSS: SELL MORTIMER, SELL!

CEO Matt Rubel sold 100,000 shares just days after commenting on the 2Q earnings call that Q2 marked the bottom. Yes, that came as an initial shocker to us on many levels. But the picture becomes far less suspect after a deeper dive.

 

First off, when Matt Rubel joined PSS in July 2005, his employment contract included an option on 720,000 shares of common stock at $20.93/sh and 214,250 shares of restricted stock. Under the vesting schedule, 120,000 shares were to vest on the 1st and 4th anniversary of the grant, with 240,000 shares on the 2nd and 3rd anniversary.  We just passed the four year lockup. 

 

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, check out the chart below. We’re not looking at the most stellar track record of market timing here. Rubel’s last three sales left money on the table as the stock kept grinding higher. In fact, he had a $630k sale immediately before a 100% run in the stock in July 2008.  His best trade was calling the top and selling 25% of his stock in the late summer of 2007 – just as the credit environment melted down, the economy went sour, and the SRR deal turned out to be horribly timed.

 

THE question here is whether he is again ‘calling the top.’  That answer is No. Say what you want, but the guy has a Macro process. We sat down with him for a couple hrs last month, and walked through the macro call, and how he is aligning the company’s resources to leverage the upside. I’m genuinely not concerned about this sale. Check out our PSS Black Book for more details on our thesis.

 

 

PSS: SELL MORTIMER, SELL! - PSS RubelTrans 9 09


SBUX – Interesting Takeaways

Starbucks CFO Troy Alstead presented this morning at an investor conference and based on his comments, the company appears to be maintaining its momentum.

 

First, in reference to my comments earlier this morning on MCD’s August sales trends, Mr. Alstead stated that there is a great deal of noise in the coffee segment that has helped everyone in coffee, including Starbucks.  This helps to explain why SBUX’s sales trends are becoming less bad at the same time MCD launched its national campaign behind its McCafe beverages.

 

Signs that SBUX’s focus on cost cutting and improving profitability is working:

 

SBUX removed 30 stores from its planned closure list.  These 30 stores were significantly underperforming and slated to close, but are now contributing profitably. 

 

Mr. Alstead said that the initial results out of the 2009 class of stores are encouraging.

 

He stated that management still has limited visibility (though he believes the company has more visibility than it had 6 months ago), but that SBUX shaped its plans and forecasts around the expectation that there is still a long economic recovery ahead of us.  That being said, he thinks the company is positioned to live in this environment and still grow margins.

 

SBUX is still a growth story:

 

Mr. Alstead commented that going forward, SBUX’s growth will be more focused on improving the profitability of its currents store base rather than unit growth.  Along those same lines, he said that capital spending will first be allocated to preserving the health of its current portfolio before going to new unit development.  To that end, he said that the company’s business model can now yield very healthy profit growth with only slight comp growth (more mature comp growth). 

 

There is still unit growth ahead, however.  Unit growth will continue to be cautious in 2010, but the CFO said that there is room for growth in the U.S. and significant opportunity outside of the U.S.  Specifically, he said that he does not see the company growing as fast as it did 2-3 years ago, but expects it to accelerate from 2009 and 2010 levels.  The company will pursue this growth in a more disciplined manner, with a close watch on the velocity in which it penetrates markets and a focus on achieving a 2 to 1 sales to investment ratio.

 

Mr. Alstead also said that there is huge headroom for non-store channel growth as the Consumer Product Group’s business is still under exploited in the U.S. and open to pursue internationally. 

 

Driving shareholder returns:

 

When asked how the company will use its free cash flow, Mr. Alstead responded that management is focused on driving shareholder returns and will be making strategic decisions about “how to distribute cash.”  I have been saying for some time now that I would like to see SBUX establish a dividend in order to increase its total amount of cash returned to shareholders to a level more in line with that of its global restaurant peers (MCD and YUM).  This could be one way the company will decide to distribute cash.

 

 

Other key takeaways:

 

The CFO stated that the company’s decision to raise prices on some products while lowering prices on others to reflect costs and the consumers’ willingness to buy will be net neutral to net positive to margins.

 

SBUX continues to be focused on its advertising with the CFO mimicking a comment that CEO Howard Schultz has made in the past that the company will no longer allow itself to be defined by others.

 

SBUX – Interesting Takeaways  - sbux

 


Stagflation: Where The Pain Is...

“I want to be clear on something: less bad is not good”, “That’s not how President Obama and I measure success”  Vice President Biden, WSJ Saturday September 6th on last week’s unemployment number… 

 

The single biggest market story of last week was unemployment re-accelerating to new highs and the subsequent crashing of the US currency. In our investment process, what happens on the margin is critical, and on the margins of the US Employment data –the demographic and duration tails, the picture is becoming increasingly grim:

 

DESTITUTION’S DURATION

In the charts below we have taken the monthly unemployment figures compiled by the Department of Labor for the estimated total of individuals without work for a period of 27 weeks or greater and averaged it to quarterly for the past 60 years. Chart 1 illustrates the raw number, while chart 2 shows the same figures divided by the Labor Department’s estimate of the total working population. Note that in chart 2 we are now exceeding the early 80’s industrial-job death rattle for ultra long duration unemployment.

 

Stagflation: Where The Pain Is...  - a1

 

Stagflation: Where The Pain Is...  - a2

 

IDLE YOUTH

 

Looking at total employment ratio’s estimated by the Department of Labor shows that, on a seasonally adjusted basis 16-24 year olds had a very rough summer in 2009 with the figure hitting the lowest level since inception in 1948 and fewer than 50% working for the first sustained period since the draft ended (without seasonal adjustment that ration would be over 51%).

 

DOL methodology excludes military personnel from the labor force estimates but, with up a huge percentage of all men 18-21 drafted (or motivated to enlist by the draft) at periods between the end of WW2 & early 70’s, and furthermore with 72% of all Vietnam period veterans accessing GI bill benefits (significantly higher than WW2 & Korea vets, presumably because Vietnam vets were significantly younger as a group) it must have skewed this data immensely. Note that the prior Assistance Readjustment act of 1972 raised GI bill benefits for returning servicemen to payout levels exceeding many entry level salaries –essentially creating a huge incentive for veterans not to work during the subsequent recessionary periods. This all suggests that, on the whole, the employment picture for young Americans is significantly worse than at any point in the living memory of the majority of the population.

 

Stagflation: Where The Pain Is...  - a3

 

Obviously the data we are working with are only estimates, and we are making some big assumptions, but the data clearly seems to paint a bleak picture with more people unemployed for sustained periods and fewer young people with the disposable income that comes with a job. With a depleted currency, structural stagflation is becoming a legitimate risk.

 

Andrew Barber

Directordrew Barber
Director


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