I’m postponing writing about my early days as an oil analyst until tomorrow.
An article in the Wall Street Journal, “Investor Bind: How Low Can Oil Go?,” struck my eye as I was waiting a doctor’s office yesterday morning. Two aspects:
The article quotes a Swiss oil trader as saying the current market for petroleum is “irrational.” He explained that the craziness consisted in the market concentrating solely on bad news and ignoring any possible ray of sunshine.
Yes, this is irrational. But, more to the point, this is the essence of a bear market, that good news gets ignored and only bad news gets factored into prices. (A bull market is just the opposite. In a bull market, all the bad news goes in one ear and out the other; only the good news has an influence on prices.) I wonder why he didn’t just say that. Maybe he did, but the reporter didn’t understand. On the other hand, maybe he didn’t realize.
Second, the article leads off with hedge fund Tusker Capital, LLC of Manhattan Beach, California. The fund had been betting heavily on a decline in crude oil prices since at least the middle of last year and has just cashed in its chips after cleaning up oin a major way on the subsequent 60% fall in the oil price.
According to the article, Tusker gained 17% overall in 2014 and is up by 10% for 2015 through mid-January. Implied, but not explicitly stated, is that the largest part of the +10% this year comes from the bet against the price of crude., with is down by 8.6%. Why else would it be the lead in a sotry about a crashing oil quote.
The occupational disease of analysts is that they analyze. As I sat in the waiting room–and waited–it became increasingly clear that I couldn’t make the Tusker numbers make sense.
Tusker has “roughly” $100 million under management now (I take that statement to mean the assets under management are just shy of $100 million, but let’s say $100 million is the right figure). This means it had $91 million under management on December 31st and $78 million at the end of 2013–assuming no inflows or outflows.
Let’s say all of the $11 million gain in assets under management in early 2015 comes from the negative bet on oil. If the same bet were maintained through the second half of 2014, it should have produced a gain of about $55 million. But Tusker’s assets were only up by $13 million in 2014. Either a lot of customer money left, or something really horrible happened in the rest of the portfolio, or “all” is too high a number. My hunch is that at least the last is correct.
Let’s say half the 2015 gain comes from the negative bet on oil (regular readers will know that 1/2 is my default guess on most things). If so, then the bet should have produced a profit of around $27 million in 2014. Same story, although with somewhat less draconian figures–something else happened that caused $14 million in assets to disappear–disaster or withdrawals, or both–or maybe Tusker initially had a much smaller bet gainst oil that it expanded as crude began to sink.
I later Googled Tusker and found an article, from the New York Post, of all places, that said Tusker had assets of $105 million at the end of June 2013 and that the firm strongly believed that the end of quantitative easing in the US would cause a collapse in commodities prices.
To sum up: Tusker made a hugely successful bet against oil that likely made it $40 million – $70 million. Yet it now has less money under management than it did 18 months ago (a period during which the S&P 500 went up by about 30%). There’s certainly a story here. It may not be about oil, though.