COT: Oil longs in major retreat as volatility jumps
Head of Commodity Strategy
Summary: The COT reports published weekly by the US CFTC highlight futures positions and changes made by hedge funds across commodities, forex and financials during the latest reporting week to last Tuesday, March 8. A week where the war in Ukraine, and increased sanctions against Russia dictated most of the market swings, especially in commodities where spiking prices and rising volatility helped drive a second week of long and short liquidations
This summary highlights futures positions and changes made by hedge funds across commodities, forex and financials up until last Tuesday, March 8. A week where the war in Ukraine, and increased sanctions against Russia dictated most of the market swings. The prospect for lower growth and even higher inflation helped send the MSCI World stock index down by 4.5%, bond yields rose while the dollar hit multiple month highs against several major currencies.
The Bloomberg Commodity Spot index jumped a massive 11.2% during the reporting week, with gains being led by industrial metals, and not least energy where crude oil surged higher by 20% before suffering a major correction the day after the reporting week ended. Overall it was another week where surging volatility across most commodities saw money managers cut both long and short position, the net result being a small 2% reduction in the overall long across 24 major commodities to 2.17 million lots. Increasingly difficult market conditions helped trigger a 180k lots reduction across oil, fuel products and natural gas while net length was added to most other sectors led by grains and softs.
During 2021 the 30-day volatility on the BCOM Spot index traded within a 10.5% range between 9% and 19.5% but since the war started on February 24, it has surged higher, thereby forcing many hedge funds targeting a certain level of volatility to cut their exposure. Led by the energy and industrial metal sectors it jumped 3% to 22% during the reporting week before finishing at 28.5% on Friday. As long the volatility remains stable, trend and momentum following hedge funds will normally buy into strength and sell into weakness. The mentioned volatility surge partly helps to explain the current dislocation in energy between reduced positioning and surging prices.
Energy: Despite rallying by around 20%, speculators cut their combined length in WTI and Brent crude oil by 100.3k lots to a three-month low at 435k lots, the largest one-week reduction since last July. Brent which jumped 22% during the week saw the biggest impact with the 38% to 158k lots being the biggest reduction made by money managers in a single week since ICE started publishing the data in 2011. The slump took the net in Brent close to the December low at 154k lots low point when oil briefly traded below $70/b in response to the rapidly spreading omicron virus variant. The move was driven mostly by a pullback in outright longs of 63.5k lots, but also by the biggest addition in short bets (+33.6k lots) since 2016.
Long liquidation across all three fuel futures added to the story of speculators booking some profit after a one-week gains up to 42% had taken all three to record highs.
Metals: Gold surged to near the 2020 record high during the reporting and the fear of missing out of further gains saw funds raise their exposure in gold, silver and platinum through a combination of fresh buying and short positions being scaled back. As the table highlights, all three metals saw their net long jump to levels not seen in many months. Gold buyers added to 5% to 176k, a 20-month high, silver 15% to 49k, a two-year high and platinum by 72% to a one-year high at 26k.
Continued gold buying during the past five weeks had lifted the net long by 113k lots or 180% and after failing to hit a fresh record high above $2075 the temptation to book profit helped trigger the subsequent sharp correction which only paused on Friday when support was found at $1960, the 31.8% retracement of the February to March 290 dollar rally.
In HG Copper the return to a fresh record above $5/lb last Monday helped support a 36% increase in the net long to 42k lots, some 49k below the December 2020 peak and an additional 34k lots below the 2017 record at 125k lots. Highlighting a market where money managers remain unconvinced about copper's short to medium term potentials, not least given continued uncertainty about the strenght of the Chinese economy.
Agriculture: Speculators finally managed to turn their CBOT wheat position around after 27k lots of net buying flipped the net to a long of just 20k lots. However, the hesitancy towards buying wheat at record levels and following a one-week surge of 30% was clear to see in the behavior, with the bulk of the net change being due to short covering and not fresh longs. KCB wheat meanwhile saw a small reduction of 2% after speculators cut short and long positions. Corn was also bought while the soybean complex was mixed.
Following weeks of sugar selling, buyers suddenly returned to lift the net long by 135% to 140k lots. During the week, the price jumped by 6% with surging fuel prices raising the prospect of more demand for plant-based fuels such as sugar towards ethanol production. Net selling of coffee extended to a third week with a weakening demand outlook, as shipments to Russia are cancelled, helping to offset continued worries about weather related declines in the Brazil output this season.
Russia’s unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation entered a second week, thereby supporting continued broad dollar strength. The Bloomberg Dollar Index reached a 20-month high reflecting haven demand and the market beginning to price in a relative faster pace of US rate hikes.
Speculators using IMM futures contracts to express their views on forex ended up, despite the mentioned strength, reducing bullish dollar bets for an eight consecutive week. Albeit at a slowing pace than recent weeks, the combined dollar long against ten IMM futures contracts was nevertheless reduced by 3% to $7.3 billion, the lowest since last August.
Looking beneath the bonnet we the find the relative small net change hiding increased selling of EUR, GBP and CAD being more than offset by short covering in CHF and JPY. The minor currencies saw demand for MXN and BRL while particularly challenging trading conditions saw continued reductions in both Ruble long and short positions.
The COT reports are issued by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the ICE Exchange Europe for Brent crude oil and gas oil. They are released every Friday after the U.S. close with data from the week ending the previous Tuesday. They break down the open interest in futures markets into different groups of users depending on the asset class.
Commodities: Producer/Merchant/Processor/User, Swap dealers, Managed Money and other
Financials: Dealer/Intermediary; Asset Manager/Institutional; Leveraged Funds and other
Forex: A broad breakdown between commercial and non-commercial (speculators)
The reasons why we focus primarily on the behavior of the highlighted groups are:
- They are likely to have tight stops and no underlying exposure that is being hedged
- This makes them most reactive to changes in fundamental or technical price developments
- It provides views about major trends but also helps to decipher when a reversal is looming
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