January 9, 2016 Leave a comment
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Markets, Freedom, and Truth
January 16, 2015 1 Comment
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.
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.
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?
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)?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
February 12, 2014 1 Comment
Canada’s housing market has soared while the US market crashed.
Canada has the most overvalued housing market in the world:
The WSJ recently commented:
Canada, for example, is very open to foreign investors, which means that in an age of unprecedented global liquidity cash-rich wealthy individuals who are looking for places to park their excess funds can do so in its housing market far more easily than in Japan, with its closed system.
Now, the Canadian government is eliminating “its controversial investor Visa scheme, which has allowed waves of rich Hongkongers and mainland Chinese to immigrate since 1986.”
The story continues in The South China Morning Post:
Canada’s government has announced that it is scrapping its controversial investor visa scheme, which has allowed waves of rich Hongkongers and mainland Chinese to immigrate since 1986.
The surprise announcement was made in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s budget, which was delivered to parliament in Ottawa on Tuesday afternoon local time. Tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires in the queue will reportedly have their applications scrapped and their application fees returned.
The decision came less than a week after the South China Morning Post published a series of investigative reports into the controversial 28-year-old scheme.
The Post revealed how the scheme spun out of control when Canada’s Hong Kong consulate was overwhelmed by a massive influx of applications from mainland millionaires. Applications to the scheme were frozen in 2012 as a result, as immigration staff struggled to clear the backlog.
“In recent years, significant progress has been made to better align the immigration system with Canada’s economic needs. The current immigrant investor program stands out as an exception to this success,” Flaherty’s budget papers said.
“For decades, it has significantly undervalued Canadian permanent residence, providing a pathway to Canadian citizenship in exchange for a guaranteed loan that is significantly less than our peer countries require,” it read.
Under the scheme, would-be migrants worth a minimum of C$1.6 million (HK$11.3 million) loaned the government C$800,000 interest free for a period of five years. The simplicity and low relative cost of the risk-free scheme made it the world’s most popular wealth migration program.
A parallel investor migration scheme run by Quebec still remains open. Many Chinese migrants use the alternative scheme to get into Canada via the French-speaking province and then move elsewhere in Canada. The federal government has previously pledged to crack down on what it said was a fraudulent practice.
Flaherty also announced yesterday the scrapping of a smaller economic migration scheme for entrepreneurs.
All told, 59,000 investor applicants and 7,000 entrepreneurs will have their applications returned, Postmedia News reported. Seventy per cent of the backlog, as of last January, was Chinese, suggesting more than 46,000 mainlanders will be affected by yesterday’s announcements.
The Immigrant Investor Program, which has brought about 185,000 migrants to Canada, was instrumental in facilitating an exodus of rich Hongkongers in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and in the run-up to the handover. More than 30,000 Hongkongers immigrated using the scheme, though SAR applications have dwindled since 1997.
The investor visa plan is truly stupid and should be eliminated. The idea of requiring loans to the government in exchange for citizenship is incredibly perverse. All money lent to the government is wasted and hurts the economy. The Chinese and Hongkongers who participated in this program could have really invested that money in productive endeavors instead. But this is a double-whammy to the Canadian economy, because to pay back those loans the Canadian state must tax its citizens, which hurts the economy even more.
But what effect will this have on Canada’s housing bubble? It will reduce demand for Canadian real estate. That obviously doesn’t help keep prices high.
Yet the really critical factor is central bank policy. The Bank of Canada is not up to date on its financial statements, but as of November it held more assets than ever. I am interested to see whether Poloz will “taper” with his American counterparts.
My intuition says that he won’t. Poloz wants to keep down the Canadian dollar and subsidize exports. The Bank of Canada has been expanding its balance sheet since mid-2010. Canada’s M1 money supply has grown dramatically. Canada’s housing prices are high. Canada’s interest rates are low. Yield on Canadian government bonds have fallen below American bonds. Yet consumer prices are not rising quickly, so the Bank of Canada sees its policy as an epic success so far.
— Read more at zerohedge —
December 7, 2013 Leave a comment
By Marc Faber
As a distant but interested observer of history and investment markets I am fascinated how major events that arose from longer-term trends are often explained by short-term causes. The First World War is explained as a consequence of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne; the Depression in the 1930s as a result of the tight monetary policies of the Fed; the Second World War as having been caused by Hitler; and the Vietnam War as a result of the communist threat.
Similarly, the disinflation that followed after 1980 is attributed to Paul Volcker’s tight monetary policies. The 1987 stock market crash is blamed on portfolio insurance. And the Asian Crisis and the stock market crash of 1997 are attributed to foreigners attacking the Thai Baht (Thailand’s currency). A closer analysis of all these events, however, shows that their causes were far more complex and that there was always some “inevitability” at play.
Take the 1987 stock market crash. By the summer of 1987, the stock market had become extremely overbought and a correction was due regardless of how bright the future looked. Between the August 1987 high and the October 1987 low, the Dow Jones declined by 41%. As we all know, the Dow rose for another 20 years, to reach a high of 14,198 in October of 2007.
These swings remind us that we can have huge corrections within longer term trends. The Asian Crisis of 1997-98 is also interesting because it occurred long after Asian macroeconomic fundamentals had begun to deteriorate. Not surprisingly, the eternally optimistic Asian analysts, fund managers , and strategists remained positive about the Asian markets right up until disaster struck in 1997.
But even to the most casual observer it should have been obvious that something wasn’t quite right. The Nikkei Index and the Taiwan stock market had peaked out in 1990 and thereafter trended down or sidewards, while most other stock markets in Asia topped out in 1994. In fact, the Thailand SET Index was already down by 60% from its 1994 high when the Asian financial crisis sent the Thai Baht tumbling by 50% within a few months. That waked the perpetually over-confident bullish analyst and media crowd from their slumber of complacency.
I agree with the late Charles Kindleberger, who commented that “financial crises are associated with the peaks of business cycles”, and that financial crisis “is the culmination of a period of expansion and leads to downturn”. However, I also side with J.R. Hicks, who maintained that “really catastrophic depression” is likely to occur “when there is profound monetary instability — when the rot in the monetary system goes very deep”.
Simply put, a financial crisis doesn’t happen accidentally, but follows after a prolonged period of excesses (expansionary monetary policies and/or fiscal policies leading to excessive credit growth and excessive speculation). The problem lies in timing the onset of the crisis. Usually, as was the case in Asia in the 1990s, macroeconomic conditions deteriorate long before the onset of the crisis. However, expansionary monetary policies and excessive debt growth can extend the life of the business expansion for a very long time.
In the case of Asia, macroeconomic conditions began to deteriorate in 1988 when Asian countries’ trade and current account surpluses turned down. They then went negative in 1990. The economic expansion, however, continued — financed largely by excessive foreign borrowings. As a result, by the late 1990s, dead ahead of the 1997-98 crisis, the Asian bears were being totally discredited by the bullish crowd and their views were largely ignored.
While Asians were not quite so gullible as to believe that “the overall level of debt makes no difference … one person’s liability is another person’s asset” (as Paul Krugman has said), they advanced numerous other arguments in favour of Asia’s continuous economic expansion and to explain why Asia would never experience the kind of “tequila crisis” Mexico had encountered at the end of 1994, when the Mexican Peso collapsed by more than 50% within a few months.
In 1994, the Fed increased the Fed Fund Rate from 3% to nearly 6%. This led to a rout in the bond market. Ten-Year Treasury Note yields rose from less than 5.5% at the end of 1993 to over 8% in November 1994. In turn, the emerging market bond and stock markets collapsed. In 1994, it became obvious that the emerging economies were cooling down and that the world was headed towards a major economic slowdown, or even a recession.
But when President Clinton decided to bail out Mexico, over Congress’s opposition but with the support of Republican leaders Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, and tapped an obscure Treasury fund to lend Mexico more than$20 billion, the markets stabilized. Loans made by the US Treasury, the International Monetary Fund and the Bank for International Settlements totalled almost $50 billion.
However, the bailout attracted criticism. Former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin used funds to bail out Mexican bonds of which Goldman Sachs was an underwriter and in which it owned positions valued at about $5 billion.
At this point I am not interested in discussing the merits or failures of the Mexican bailout of 1994. (Regular readers will know my critical stance on any form of bailout.) However, the consequences of the bailout were that bonds and equities soared. In particular, after 1994, emerging market bonds and loans performed superbly — that is, until the Asian Crisis in 1997. Clearly, the cost to the global economy was in the form of moral hazard because investors were emboldened by the bailout and piled into emerging market credits of even lower quality.
Above, I mentioned that, by 1994, it had become obvious that the emerging economies were cooling down and that the world was headed towards a meaningful economic slowdown or even a recession. But the bailout of Mexico prolonged the economic expansion in emerging economies by making available foreign capital with which to finance their trade and current account deficits. At the same time, it led to a far more serious crisis in Asia in 1997 and in Russia and the U.S. (LTCM) in 1998.
So, the lesson I learned from the Asian Crisis was that it was devastating because, given the natural business cycle, Asia should already have turned down in 1994. But because of the bailout of Mexico, Asia’s expansion was prolonged through the availability of foreign credits.
This debt financing in foreign currencies created a colossal mismatch of assets and liabilities. Assets that served as collateral for loans were in local currencies, whereas liabilities were denominated in foreign currencies. This mismatch exacerbated the Asian Crisis when the currencies began to weaken, because it induced local businesses to convert local currencies into dollars as fast as they could for the purpose of hedging their foreign exchange risks.
In turn, the weakening of the Asian currencies reduced the value of the collateral, because local assets fall in value not only in local currency terms but even more so in US dollar terms. This led locals and foreigners to liquidate their foreign loans, bonds and local equities. So, whereas the Indonesian stock market declined by “only” 65% between its 1997 high and 1998 low, it fell by 92% in US dollar terms because of the collapse of their currency, the Rupiah.
As an aside, the US enjoys a huge advantage by having the ability to borrow in US dollars against US dollar assets, which doesn’t lead to a mismatch of assets and liabilities. So, maybe Krugman’s economic painkillers, which provided only temporary relief of the symptoms of economic illness, worked for a while in the case of Mexico, but they created a huge problem for Asia in 1997.
Similarly, the housing bubble that Krugman advocated in 2001 relieved temporarily some of the symptoms of the economic malaise but then led to the vicious 2008 crisis. Therefore, it would appear that, more often than not, bailouts create larger problems down the road, and that the authorities should use them only very rarely and with great caution.
July 30, 2013 Leave a comment
Continuing the theme from our last post, Marc Faber — publisher of The Gloom Boom and Doom Report — argues how central bank policy distorts asset prices. The unwavering commitment to monetary expansion will reach its conclusion when inflation explodes or the system becomes so unwieldy it just collapses.
He takes this analysis a step further, to the social implications of central bank intervention. He says monetary intervention ultimately foments social unrest and must culminate in disaster, be it financial meltdown or war.
July 30, 2013 1 Comment
Jim Rogers, the commodities investor, argues that the Canadian economy is not as bad as in many Western countries.
However, he believes there is a “major disconnect” between “asset values and economic realities” all over the world. Central banks, desperate for growth, are inducing these distortions by aggressively pumping money into their economies.
This dependence on central bank intervention to propagate what he calls an “artificial boom” guarantees disaster.
So even if Canada’s footing seems strong, the interconnected nature of the world’s economy assures that problems in the US, Asia, and Europe are problems for everyone.
Basically, it’s business-as-usual in the maturing business cycle.
He still looks favorably on agriculture. I can corroborate what he says about farming. Part of my family owns a big farm in Alberta.
In general, farming is a horrible business and no one wants to get involved in it. As more people, particularly in Asia, rise from grinding poverty and increase their demand for food, supply will be significantly constrained.