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It feels like 10 years ago, but it's really only been about seven weeks since that fateful April 20, when a COVID-19-driven collapse in demand pummeled West Texas Intermediate crude oil futures. Prices hit the floor, fell through it, and landed in negative territory at -$37.63 a barrel.
In those seven weeks, WTI has rocketed almost 200%. The S&P Oil & Gas Exploration and Production Select Industry Index has risen nearly 70%, though it's still down more than 24% for the year.
Over the past few days, though, oil benchmarks have been creeping 2% and 3% lower, which in my experience is a big, neon sign saying "Selling Ahead." And several marquee energy stocks like Occidental Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: OXY) and Halliburton Co. (NYSE: HAL) are also flashing sell-off warnings.
This reminds me of the old Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote Looney Tunes cartoons – remember them? One of the (many) cheesy running gags had Wile chasing Road Runner only to overshoot him at a cliff. Wile would hang there in midair for a second, have a "Maalox moment," and then drop.
That's not all that different than what's happening in crude right now. Both the commodity and most of its associated stocks entered what market technicians like me call "overbought" territory. Now they're dropping like rocks. Investors are starting to figure out if they're in over their heads.
How do I know? The answer is worth exploring because it can make you a sharper trader. There's one simple, small number you can look at in any stock chart that can tell you instantly how to play it.
I'll get into that briefly, and then I'll tell you how to play the oil patch's precarious "Wile E. Coyote" situation…
How to Instantly Tell Overbought from Oversold
This is ridiculously easy once you know what to look for; it's one basic technical indicator.
It's called the relative strength index (RSI). The RSI is a momentum indicator that analysts have used for more than 40 years to measure the size, or magnitude, of recent changes in a stock's price. As you'll see in a second, the RSI looks like an oscillator – a line graph that moves between an upper boundary at 100 and a lower boundary at 0.
Here's the cool part.
If the reading is below 30, chances are good that the stock you're looking at is oversold or undervalued; it could be time to grab shares at a bargain. On the other hand, if the RSI is reading above 70, bandwagoning is in effect, and the stock is probably overbought. Time to tighten up those trailing stops I mentioned, or maybe even start looking for the exits.
Take a look at the charts on OXY and HAL both, and keep in mind that on Tuesday, both were above 70.
These charts don't look like the ones I usually use, with the different simple moving averages. To make this really simple, the charts are stripped of everything but price, volume, and RSI. The reading runs across the top; it looks like a cross section of a mountain range. And the RSI itself is circled in a big bold, red oval.
The why of crude's overbought condition doesn't matter as much as the fact of its overbought condition, but there's really no mystery there, either. Oil traders and investors have gotten caught up in the "Irrationality Rally," too, just the same as everyone else in nearly every sector that's been rallying like crazy the past several weeks. They're starting to wake up to that fact.
Here's what to do about it before everyone opens their eyes…
About the Author
Chris Johnson is a highly regarded equity and options analyst who has spent much of his nearly 30-year market career designing and interpreting complex models to help investment firms transform millions of data points into impressive gains for clients.
At heart Chris is a quant - like the "rocket scientists" of investing - with a specialty in applying advanced mathematics like stochastic calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, and statistics to Wall Street's data-rich environment.
He began building his proprietary models in 1998, analyzing about 2,000 records per day. Today, that database, which Chris designed and coded from scratch, analyzes a staggering 700,000 records per day. It's the secret behind his track record.
Chris holds degrees in finance, statistics, and accounting. He worked as a licensed broker for 11 years before taking on the role of Director of Quantitative Analysis at a big-name equity and options research firm for eight years. He recently served as Director of Research of a Cleveland-based investment firm responsible for hundreds of millions in AUM. He is also the Founder/CIO of ETF Advisory Research Partners since 2007, noted for its groundbreaking work in Behavioral Valuation systems. Their research is widely read by leaders in the RIA business.
Chris is ranked in the top 99.3% of financial bloggers and top 98.6% of overall experts by TipRanks, the track record registry of financial analysts dating back to January 2009.
He is a frequent commentator on financial markets for CNBC, Fox, Bloomberg TV, and CBS Radio and has been featured in Barron's, USA Today, Newsweek, and The Wall Street Journal, and numerous books.
Today, Chris is the editor of Night Trader and Strikepoint Trader and contributes to Money Morning as the Quant Analysis Specialist.