Harper: Free Trade is a Tax Break for China

Harper was criticized the other day for wanting to increase taxes on various imported consumer goods.

There is no defense for raising taxes ever. This is even more important when Canada will be soon in recession. So what is Harper thinking? He rightly pointed out that the Liberals had voted against budgets in which there were some tiny tax cuts. Okay, sure, the Liberals lack any principled objection to higher taxes. What was his rebuttal to their criticism on the tariff issue?

“What the Liberal Party seems to stand for, Mr. Speaker, is that somehow we should give tax breaks to emerging economies like China.”

OMG, my brain just exploded from the unbelievable stupidity of that statement. I love a good cheap shot at a Canadian political party as much as the next guy, but Harper’s statement is just dumb.

So not taxing imports is a tax break to the countries from which we are buying those imports. So a free trade policy is a tax break for our trading partners.

That is incoherent, protectionist nonsense. First of all, the importer pays the tax, not the exporter. So China is not getting the tax break, per se. It is the one importing Chinese stuff.

But then this is kind of like saying it’s a “tax break” if the government taxes anything less than 100% of your income. The meaning of “tax break” is clearly being twisted. A “tax break” is meant to be a means of reducing a tax liability that already exists. The absence of a tax is not a tax break. Adding new taxes is not the same as taking away tax breaks. The underlying philosophy revealed in Harper’s words is that the government rightfully owns everyone else’s wealth, and letting people keep anything is a tax break. The whole notion is economically utterly perverse.

The case against protectionism is logically irrefutable. Harper, like virtually all politicians, is a mercantilist who thinks protectionism is good (for his friends), meaning he is no ally of capitalism and free trade. He is a classic Canadian crony prime minister.

— Read more at CBC News. —

Recession will come to Canada in 2013.

Oh Carney. What a wacky guy. He seems convinced we will only enter a recession if the US falls off the fiscal cliff. Err, I’m sorry, not a “recession,” but a “near-recession.” Central bankers don’t like to use the word “recession” in their predictions, because that serves as a confession that they are not “managing” the economy effectively.

If the fiscal cliff is resolved, he says, Canada will surge with the resultant economic relief!

So… is it the case that Canada’s only economic threat is idiots in the US Congress? (That’s redundant — I should just say “US Congress.)

Sorry, Carney. That is nonsense.

What about recession in Europe? Asia? Not to mention the general problems of the US, out biggest trading partner.

First there is Europe. The European recession is spreading, evidenced by slowing price inflation and rising unemployment (at 12% for the Eurozone). This deeply aggravates the existing European crisis. Even Germany, the ‘good’ (cough cough) part of Europe, is grinding into economic slowdown. Its central bank predicts a pathetic 0.4% for next year. It could very easily be less. As long as everyone over there relies on Keynesianism to solve their problems, they will never escape the financial death spiral.

Japan is in a recession. Other Asian export markets are slowing down, because the weight of China’s economic distortions are turning into a brutal yoke and necessitating slowdown there.

And what of the US? The perception is that if “something” is done about the fiscal cliff, everything will be rosy. Shockingly, the US is still considered a safe haven. But foreigners are not scooping up US debt like they used to. China is reducing its exposure; Japan’s purchases are slowing. Bernanke’s surprise announcement to expand the Fed’s balance sheet by an additional $45 billion a month to buy US debt is a telltale sign that he understands the problem, at least to some extent. Yet I do not believe that Bernanke’s action will deflect the recessionary pressures coming from both sides.

Then there is Canada. Everyone here thinks we are special. “Well, if the world goes into recession, we will be okay — we’re CANADA!” they say. The myths spawned during the 2008 financial crisis have sunk deep into the nation’s collective unconscious. Canadians feel invincible. That is dangerous. So the debts continue to grow. Harper continues growing the government, thinking it’s perfectly acceptable to do so because Canada is not as bad as other countries (ignoring the fact that it is still bad).

I frequently speak with executives in the oil industry. There are big deals being made, plenty of excitement as usual. But I’ve noticed people seem strangely oblivious to even the prospect of slowdown in 2013. We are largely a resource based economy, so if the entire world is slowing down, they are not going to buy as much of our stuff. It’s a fairly easy prediction to make. Myanmar and Laos are not going to make up for lost demand from China. Canada’s slow growth will drop mid-to-late 2013 unless some new crisis speeds the world’s decline. Canadians should get ready for this. Hold cash. Get ready to use it when prices fall.

China’s real estate bubble.

I am predicting that Asia will enter a recession in 2011.

Recessions are the necessary outcome of loose monetary policies that create bubbles. China has been inflating its economy at a rate of 20% or more per year for several years now.

Clear evidence of this is found in China’s real estate market. To really grasp the magnitude of this, I have embedded the video below. This is not a new video, but it is very worth watching. Sometimes seeing is believing.

The one thing you CAN say about China’s waste though… at least they are building STUFF. Whereas when you think about the pure waste created by America’s military which exists to blow things up and kill people, it doesn’t seem like such a bad misallocation in the end…

The Price of Oil and the State of the Economy

A large number of people have been asking me about the price of oil and what it means for the economy. Rather than just repeating myself all the time, I am writing this article.

SOME CLARIFICATIONS

I feel it is important to clarify how the law of supply and demand works, because I hear a lot of incorrect analysis from people who should know better. If you understand the law of supply and demand, I recommend that you skip to the next section.

Consider the following statement: “The price of oil is falling, and this is increasing the demand for oil — this will push the price of oil back up!”

This proposition is completely wrong.

Let me show you an ordinary supply and demand graph, like anything you will see in an introductory economics textbook.

supply and demand

The x-axis is quantity, and the y-axis is price. The intersection of the demand curve and the supply curve is where the market clears — everyone can buy the amount they want to buy, and everyone can sell the amount they want to sell. Simple enough.

Now consider the following graph, which depicts a change in demand. Specifically, it shows an increase — the demand curve shifts to the right (D1 to D2).

What is happening here? Demand has increased, and the price goes up. What is not happening here? The increase was not caused by a lower price — instead, it caused an increase in the price. The rise in demand is the cause, the rise in price is the effect.

We know for a fact that the price of oil has fallen dramatically in the second half of 2014. Why? Reduced demand, increased supply, or both?

Much of the world is in economic trouble. China is slowing. Japan is a mess. Europe is a disaster. When much of the world is in recession or heading for recession, we expect the demand for oil to fall. And even in the US, where the economy is stronger, oil consumption has fallen 8% since 2010 (there are many reasons for this, but I will not go into it here). So falling demand is a reasonable explanation for the fall in oil prices.

There is also the issue of increasing supply. OPEC is still pumping, business as usual, even though the price is down. Shale oil producers have been producing in a frenzy. There is a greater supply of oil.

Here’s what it looks like:

The graph shows an increase in supply (the supply curve has shifted to the right). The market clears at a lower price. Less supply (S1) has become more supply (S2). The quantity demanded goes from Q1 to Q2.

The price of oil has been falling in the second half of 2014. It fell very fast. Supplies have not increased much since June. This makes me believe that falling demand is the primary cause in this situation.

Now let’s look at a situation where there is “inelastic” supply (meaning it is not very responsive to price) and a fall in demand.

This is an extremely “non-price-sensitive” supply. The Saudi head of oil production has proclaimed that they will keep pumping even if the price drops to $20 a barrel. The other producers need money, so they will keep pumping. They cannot trim production and influence the price. The Saudis have considerable influence in on the supply-side of the market. That’s why the supply is inelastic.

Let’s return to the initial proposition we considered: the oil price is lower, so there will be increased demand for oil. This is bad analysis. Part of the problem is in the fact that “demand” and “quantity demanded” are often used interchangeably. But essentially it is mixing up the issue in the first and second graphs.

The price of oil is down.  The supply has increased. The demand has not increased — the quantity demanded at the new price is greater than at the higher price. This is not the same as saying a lower price of oil will increase the demand for oil. An increase in demand would — in the language of economics — imply a rightward shift of the entire demand curve.

A falling price does not increase demand, it increased quantity demanded. These things sound similar, but they are analytically different and this is important to understand at an elementary level.

Now with that boring stuff out of the way, let us look at the current situation with the price of oil and the economy.

SHALLOW CONSPIRACY THEORIES

I regularly speak with a lot of presidents and CEOs in the Alberta oil industry. A commonplace view is that price collapse is all the result of the Saudis pushing down the price of oil because [insert reasons here].

There are some amusing conspiracy theories floating around as well, particularly that which avers the US and its Saudi allies are manipulating the oil price to drive down the price of oil to hurt some evil countries, like Russia (America’s archenemy) and Iran (Saudi Arabia’s archenemy).

(I want to quickly point out that this is perhaps the only time in my entire life where people have complained about oil market manipulation driving the price… DOWN! Usually it’s greedy capitalists or crooked OPEC producers manipulating the market to drive the price UP to rip everyone off. But I digress.)

Realistically, how much of the blame rests on the Saudis? Maybe some, sure. But I don’t think it’s that much.

After all, how much does Saudi Arabia have to do with the price of steel, coal, and iron ore?

stell

How much do the Saudis influence the price of copper (which, by the way, is almost as much of a barometer for the world economy as oil)?

copper price

COMMODITY COLLAPSE

We see that oil is not the only commodity with a collapsing price. Maybe instead of market manipulation, it’s a sign that the global economy is not as strong as everyone had hoped.

The phony economic boom of the last two decades is slowing down, exposing what the Austrian business cycle theory refers to as “malinvestment.”

The distortion in commodity prices are the result of central banks collectively expanding their balance sheets from $5 trillion to $16 trillion in the last 10 years.

We also need to think about think about China, which has driven a great deal of the marginal demand for commodities in the last several cycles.

China’s radical growth levels were not going to last forever, and investors should have known better. But I guess that’s why they call it a “mania” and “irrational exuberance.”

China went from $1 trillion GDP to $9 trillion GDP in 13 years — an insane growth level that would be impossible but for printing press finance.

The incredible Keynesian-mercantilism started by Deng in the early 90s resulted in China’s demand for oil quadrupling from 3 million barrels per day to 12 million per day. Before then, the $20 price for a barrel of oil was, all things considered, was pretty much the same as it was 100 years when adjusted for inflation. Which makes sense given the basic balance of harder-to-get oil and improving technological methods over time.

The story is the same elsewhere. In the crackup boom phase of the cycle, iron ore prices hit 9x their historic range at the peak, and copper prices hit 5x their historic range.

copper iron

As with the other industrial commodities, there has been massive investment in petroleum production to feed the world’s unsustainable growth projections. Huge scale undertakings in the Canadian oil sands, US shale, and various deep-sea drilling projects, driven by these consumption forecasts and cheap credit, have resulted in major production increases. The bubble finance hype machine over the “Fracking revolution” in US shale led to a 4x increase in oil production with wells that would be uneconomical in a sane world.

So now there is too much oil production and not enough demand. The market needs to normalize, and that means the price of oil (and other commodities) needs to fall so sanity can be restored.

US shale in particular is a nasty bubble — the next “subprime” crisis.

North Dakota needs an oil price of around $55 per barrel at the wellhead and a fleet of about 140 rigs to sustain production at the current level of 1.2 million barrels per day, the U.S. state’s chief regulator told legislators on Thursday. . . . Breakeven rates for new wells, the level at which all drilling would cease, range from $29 in Dunn county and $30 in McKenzie to $36 in Williams and $41 in Mountrail. These four counties account for 90 percent of the drilling in the state.

Breakevens in counties on the periphery of the Bakken play, which have far fewer rigs, range up to $52 in Renville-Bottineau, $62 in Burke and $73 in Divide.

But Flint Hills Resources’ posted price for North Dakota crude was just $32, Helms said, compared with almost $49 per barrel for WTI. Wellhead prices, which are roughly an average of the two, are around $40 and have been falling since the start of this year.

Even before prices hit these minimum levels, drilling will slow sharply. The number of rigs operating in the state has already fallen to 165, down from 191 in October, according to the department. . . .

To keep output steady at 1.2 million b/d for the next three years, the state’s producers need a price of $55 rising closer to $65 in the longer term to support a fleet of 140-155 rigs.

Helms’ projections confirm North Dakota’s oil output will start to fall by the end of the year unless prices rise from their current very depressed level.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/09/bakken-oil-breakeven-kemp-idUSL6N0UO2QR20150109?feedType=RSS&feedName=rbssEnergyNews

Unlike conventional projects, shale wells enjoy an extremely short life. In the Bakken region straddling Montana and North Dakota, a well that starts out pumping 1,000 barrels a day will decline to just 280 barrels by the start of year two, a shrinkage of 72%. By the beginning of year three, more than half the reserves of that well will be depleted, and annual production will fall to a trickle. To generate constant or increasing revenue, producers need to constantly drill new wells, since their existing wells span a mere half-life by industry standards.

In fact, fracking is a lot more like mining than conventional oil production. Mining companies need to dig new holes, year after year, to extract reserves of copper or iron ore. In fracking, there is intense pressure to keep replacing the production you lost last year.

On average, the “all-in,” breakeven cost for U.S. hydraulic shale is $65 per barrel, according to a study by Rystad Energy and Morgan Stanley Commodity Research. So, with the current price at $48, the industry is under siege. To be sure, the frackers will continue to operate older wells so long as they generate revenues in excess of their variable costs. But the older wells–unlike those in the Middle East or the North Sea–produce only tiny quantities. To keep the boom going, the shale gang must keep doing what they’ve been doing to thrive; they need to drill many, many new wells.

Right now, all signs are pointing to retreat. The count of rotary rigs in use–a proxy for new drilling–has fallen from 1,930 to 1,881 since October, after soaring during most of 2014. Continental Resources, a major force in shale, has announced that it will lower its drilling budget by 40% in 2015. Because of the constant need to drill, frackers are always raising more and more money by selling equity, securing bank loans, and selling junk bonds. Many are already heavily indebted. It’s unclear if banks and investors will keep the capital flowing at these prices.

http://for.tn/1xLDxc9

I think long-term Canadian oil sand projects will have a stronger future, because they have more fundamental validity and less bubble finance hype (although there is some of that, of course). And while it it doesn’t seem like it to individual market participants, prices ultimately determine costs and so lower prices will push costs down. Rates of return in the market tend to equalize across different industries — there is not legitimate reason why people should forever expect above-market wages and investment returns in the oil business.

CENTRAL BANKS BACKING OFF?

Because I believe the Austrian business cycle theory is correct, I think China’s tightening of monetary policy has been a major factor here.

Likewise the Federal Reserve, with its 7x increase in the size of its balance sheet, culminating with a “taper” and proceeding into deflation mode following the end of QE3. That’s right, deflation mode. They did not just “taper” the rate of growth on the monetary base then hold it steady. The Fed actually sold off 10% of its assets starting in September before jumping back into open market operations with $250 billion in purchases. This kind of behavior is very disorienting for the market, with capital markets adjusting to money being sucked out and then pumped back in. But it helps explain the strengthening of the USD and the bloodshed in the commodities markets.

fed deflation

Then on Jan 15 came the Swiss National Bank’s surprise decision to end its foolhardy 1.20 EUR peg before Drahgi opened the ECB money floodgates. In its Keynesian desperation to diminish CHF purchasing power, the SNB’s balance sheet increased fivefold since the financial crisis and it amassed assets equal to 100% of the nation’s GDP — which is even more extreme than the insane BOJ, if you can believe it. With this development, the franc soared against the Euro and the US dollar and baffled everyone, even destroying a couple of FX firms overnight in one fell swoop.

Things will get crazy as some central banks tighten and others keep printing. These currency dislocations could lead to a currency crisis somewhere, but that is hard to predict. In any case, the insanity meter is in the red.

WHAT ABOUT GOLD?

Gold and oil often move together. And when the US dollar strengthens, gold usually weakens. But we are not really seeing this. Gold has been quite resilient amidst falling commodity prices and is performing well so far in 2015.

gold price

In this case, I’m not entirely sure what this means. On the one hand, it could indicate that a recession is less likely. On the other hand, it could indicate that investors are worried and are hedging against danger, like more aggressive central bank interventions.

CONCLUSION

The “correction” is healthy. It means reallocating resources to their most economical use. But it is painful — like a heroin addict going into detox.

It would be good for the world if oil went down to $20 a barrel and stayed there for 20 years, but I think the “peak oil” thesis is basically correct, and prices will rise again. We might not see a radical swing like in the 2008 crash, where we went from $37 back to $80 within the year.

The timing for all this depends on what happens in the recovery phase. Major readjustments need to occur. These adjustments could be brutal and quick, and the economy could resume a healthy course within a year, so long as the myriad governments take a “laissez-faire” approach. If governments impair economic adjustment with more taxes, spending, and inflation, we’ll just get a huge mess because the economy is straining against maximum debt levels and a huge bounce-back recovery a la 2008-2009 is not going to work this time.

So there you go. Prepare for some trouble. Hold cash.

Is the gold price being manipulated?

When oil prices rise, many economically illiterate people will say something like this:

“Speculators and oil companies are manipulating the market to drive up the price of oil.”

When there is a price change that people don’t like, it’s often blamed on “manipulation.” Did the price of gas rise in the summer? It’s those monopolistic oil companies.

Of course, no one ever blames the manipulators when the price of oil falls.

When it comes to gold and silver, people behave in a similar way. The difference is that people decry the “manipulators” and “conspiracies” when the price goes down.

I read Ed’s Gold and Silver Daily in the morning because I like the charts. I find it hard to read his commentary, because he is always blaming “da boys” for any price decline. Price declines which, he claims, are “impossible” in the free market. (For example, it’s claimed to be utterly incomprehensible that gold would fall in the post-Cyprus crisis, unless the cause of the decline is manipulation.)

Yet you will never hear Ed, or anyone like him, use manipulation to account for a price increase.

Gold and oil often move together. If gold is down, see if oil is down as well. If you think manipulators are driving down oil prices, then at least you are being consistent if you claim manipulators are driving down gold also. Yet no one ever blames manipulators for driving down oil prices.

In my opinion, people should not worry themselves over gold manipulation. So short-term futures traders might cause the market to move around a bit. But every short has a long. Futures traders do not want to manipulate the price downward if prices “should” be going up with massive shorts, because if so the market will rape them when price rises. Secondly, the banks that are supposedly manipulating gold prices lend huge amounts of money to gold producers. None of the board members of mining companies that I know believe there is manipulation.

And really: if the price of gold is being manipulated to a lower-than-otherwise level, why not just buy more? If someone drives the price of a commodity below what its market price “should be”, it would be… below the price at which it should be. Good deal. If some idiot like Gordon Brown (who sold half of Britain’s gold at hilariously low prices) wants to drive the price down, good luck. They obviously can’t keep it the price down forever.

Forget the manipulators. Here is why I think the gold price is falling: the economy is slowing down. Europe, Japan, and China are in recession. I believe North America is fighting hard to avoid one, but by the end of the year there will be nowhere left to run.

A panic will cause central bankers to inflate even more, and gold will move up in response to new monetary expansion. Otherwise, slowing economies are rough on investments. People want to avoid losses and gather cash, so they sell stuff like gold and stocks. When  demand deteriorates, prices drop. This is totally normal and not at all related to “manipulation.”

WARNING – inverted yield curve appearing in emerging markets.

The inverted yield curve has appeared in various emerging nations’ economies recently. Examples: Brazil, India, China.

Read this, although keep in mind this guy’s economic understanding is demonstrably poor.

The yield curve is the most reliable predictor of recession. It’s not perfect — nothing is — but you could have used the yield curve to predict our last two recessions quite easily.

(In depth economic analysis on this can be found here at the Mises Institute. And note also that you cannot just watch yield curves and predict every recession like magic, as there are some exceptions as explained in this report — but you could have predicted each recession in the last 30 years. Not bad.)

Basically, when short-term rates are higher than long-term rates, it means businessmen see a slowdown in the rate of monetary growth — so they are desperate to borrow now at higher rates to complete ongoing capital projects.

Now is a good time to get out of emerging markets’ equities, if you have not already. I predicted last year that China would be entering recession this year. After the crash, buy foreign equities for cheap. But if you are smart, you don’t own any right now. Too risky.

What will happen to commodities in 2011?

First, consider the following:

Commodities are up across the board, in some cases quite dramatically. This boom is international — manufacturers are bidding up prices and there are strains on available supplies.

Yet consumer prices are not rising significantly. Canada currently has a higher official inflation rate than the US, but not much more. Commodity prices have been bid up in anticipation of rising consumer demand, a prediction which is not panning out.

Remember the insight of Austrian economics — consumers set final prices, not producers. Consumer spending is weak. Unemployment remains high. Without a surge in consumer spending, these prices are unsustainable. If there is a recession in Asia, and I think there will be (probably next year), then these prices are likely to tank.

Western banks are stockpiling excess reserves. If this money does not get lent out, unemployment will remain high and consumer spending will continue to suffer. There are no signs that bankers will suddenly become optimistic. China is slowing down. Same with South Korea and Japan.

What about gold? Gold follows a different set of rules. Central banks buy and sell gold. It is a hedge against the currency crises and mass inflation, rather than recession, where currency appreciates. China is encouraging its citizens to buy gold. When Austrian business cycle theory bites back at China’s bubble, there may be less drive to build shopping malls where no one buys or sells anything, but people will still yearn to preserve their savings with the precious metal as their government devalues money like its going out of style.

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