Someone must really hate the metals market. Last Thursday, a lone wolf trader made $5.6 million wager in the options market by essentially shorting the exchange-traded fund SPDR S&P Metals and Mining (NYSEARCA:XME). In order for the options trade to be profitable, the underlying XME must fall nearly 35% by this September's expiration date.
That's a mighty big gamble on a commodity market that has shown significant strength after bottoming earlier this year. Year-to-date, the XME is up 52%. Against its January low, the metals ETF has gained 90%. Some of the companies within the XME's top holdings — like Coeur Mining, Inc. (NYSE:CDE) — have already skyrocketed over 200% for the year. Even more ominous as a short trader, the energy markets — which are often tied to the fortunes of the metals market — have been on the rise as well.
Although the bet seems ill-advised, there's obviously a reason for it — otherwise, why waste nearly $6 million? One possible reason could be long-term historical performance. While both base and precious metals have shown resilience this year, they are well off prior highs. Gold bullion, for instance, is roughly 32% off its all-time record high. Worse yet, base metal copper is still trading at half its peak 2011 valuation. To the short trader, the metals have proven very little in this recent run up.
In addition, there is a technical argument. During the first half of 2015, the XME struggled to maintain a critical support level at $25. Unfortunately for those pushing the long-side argument, the XME eventually succumbed to short-side pressure, dropping to near $12 in January of this year. The subsequent rally pushed the metals ETF to the $25 level multiple times on an intraday basis, but has failed to close above this marker. That may represent stronger than expected resistance, since this is where so many traders have initiated their short positions.
At the same time, we have to be real — support and resistance lines are meant to be broken, one way or another. True, the $25 level is strong resistance now. However, a decisive push past that level could spell big trouble for the bears. Any short positions still held at that price point risk a short squeeze — that is, upward pressure that forces short traders to exit their positions, thus driving the market even higher. This occurs because in order to exit a short position, borrowed assets to initiate the position must be bought back.
Also, we have to consider that there's serious volume behind the XME rally. If it was purely the result of speculative, one-off trading, the rally would lack the confidence necessary to incentivize other people to join. But with volume levels at multi-year highs, it's safe to say that there's real enthusiasm behind the XME — and there's definitely strength in numbers to back it up.
Finally, there's the fundamentals. Although the XME is a broad ETF covering the general spectrum of metals, precious metal miners are an important component. With so much economic uncertainty, gold and silver have been this year's hottest markets. Even if base metals collapse, there's a genuine possibility that precious metals could continue moving higher.
If so, one poor bastard is about to have a bad day.