This time, the Federal Reserve has created a truly global problem. A big chunk of the trillions of dollars that it pumped into the financial system over the past several years has flowed into emerging markets. But now that the Fed has decided to begin “the taper”, investors see it as a sign to pull the “hot money” out of emerging markets as rapidly as possible. This is causing currencies to collapse and interest rates to soar all over the planet. Argentina, Turkey, South Africa, Ukraine, Chile, Indonesia, Venezuela, India, Brazil, Taiwan and Malaysia are just some of the emerging markets that have been hit hard so far. In fact, last week emerging market currencies experienced the biggest decline that we have seen since the financial crisis of 2008. And all of this chaos in emerging markets is seriously spooking Wall Street as well. The Dow has fallen nearly 500 points over the last two trading sessions alone. If the Federal Reserve opts to taper even more in the coming days, this currency crisis could rapidly turn into a complete and total currency collapse.
A lot of Americans have always assumed that the U.S. dollar would be the first currency to collapse when the next great financial crisis happens. But actually, right now just the opposite is happening and it is causing chaos all over the planet.
For instance, just check out what is happening in Turkey according to a recent report in the New York Times…
Turkey’s currency fell to a record low against the dollar on Friday, a drop that will hit the purchasing power of everyone in the country.
On a street corner in Istanbul, Yilmaz Gok, 51, said, “I’m a retiree making ends meet on a small pension and all I care about is a possible increase in prices.”
“I will need to cut further,” he said. “Maybe I should use my natural gas heater less.”
As inflation escalates and interest rates soar in these countries, ordinary citizens are going to feel the squeeze. Just having enough money to purchase the basics is going to become more difficult.
And this is not just limited to a few countries. What we are watching right now is truly a global phenomenon…
“You’ve had a massive selloff in these emerging-market currencies,” Nick Xanders, a London-based equity strategist at BTIG Ltd., said by telephone. “Ruble, rupee, real, rand: they’ve all fallen and the main cause has been tapering. A lot of companies that have benefited from emerging-markets growth are now seeing it go the other way.”
So why is this happening? Well, there are a number of factors involved of course. However, as with so many of our other problems, the actions of the Federal Reserve are at the very heart of this crisis. A recent USA Today article described how the Fed helped create this massive bubble in the emerging markets…
Emerging markets are the future growth engine of the global economy and an important source of profits for U.S. companies. These developing economies were both recipients and beneficiaries of massive cash inflows the past few years as investors sought out bigger returns fostered by injections of cheap cash from the Federal Reserve and other central bankers.
But now that the Fed has started to dial back its stimulus, many investors are yanking their cash out of emerging markets and bringing the cash back to more stable markets and economies, such as the U.S., hurting the developing nations in the process, explains Russ Koesterich, chief investment strategist at BlackRock.
“Emerging markets need the hot money but capital is exiting now,” says Koesterich. “What you have is people saying, ‘I don’t want to own emerging markets.'”
What we are potentially facing is the bursting of a financial bubble on a global scale. Just check out what Egon von Greyerz, the founder of Matterhorn Asset Management in Switzerland, recently had to say…
If you take the Turkish lira, that plunged to new lows this week, and the Russian ruble is at the lowest level in 5 years. In South Africa, the rand is at the weakest since 2008. The currencies are also weak in Brazil and Mexico. But there are many other countries whose situation is extremely dire, like India, Indonesia, Hungary, Poland, the Ukraine, and Venezuela.
I’m mentioning these countries individually just to stress that this situation is extremely serious. It is also on a massive scale. In virtually all of these countries currencies are plunging and so are bonds, which is leading to much higher interest rates. And the cost of credit-default swaps in these countries is surging due to the increased credit risks.
And many smaller nations are being deeply affected already as well.
For example, most Americans cannot even find Liberia on a map, but right now the actions of our Federal Reserve have pushed the currency of that small nation to the verge of collapse…
Liberia’s finance minister warned against panic today after being summoned to parliament to explain a crash in the value of Liberia’s currency against the US dollar.
“Let’s be careful about what we say about the economy. Inflation, ladies and gentlemen, is not out of control,” Amara Konneh told lawmakers, while adding that the government was “concerned” about the trend.
Closer to home, the Mexican peso tumbled quite a bit last week and is now beginning to show significant weakness. If Mexico experiences a currency collapse, that would be a huge blow to the U.S. economy.
Like I said, this is something that is happening on a global scale.
If this continues, we will eventually see looting, violence, blackouts, shortages of basic supplies, and runs on the banks in emerging markets all over the planet just like we are already witnessing in Argentina and Venezuela.
Hopefully something can be done to stop this from happening. But once a bubble starts to burst, it is really difficult to try to hold it together.
Meanwhile, I find it to be very “interesting” that last week we witnessed the largest withdrawal from JPMorgan’s gold vault ever recorded.
Was someone anticipating something?
Once again, hopefully this crisis will be contained shortly. But if the Fed announces that it has decided to taper some more, that is going to be a signal to investors that they should race for the exits and the crisis in the emerging markets will get a whole lot worse.
And if you listen carefully, global officials are telling us that is precisely what we should expect. For example, consider the following statement from the finance minister of Mexico…
“We expected this year to be a volatile year for EM as the Fed tapers,” Mexican Finance Minister Luis Videgaray said, adding that volatility “will happen throughout the year as tapering goes on”.
Yes indeed – it is looking like this is going to be a very volatile year.
I hope that you are ready for what is coming next.
Update: things are back to normal – Lloyds will gladly accept your deposits again:
Lloyds Banking Group says problems affecting cash machines and debit cards have been resolved
— Sky News Newsdesk (@SkyNewsBreak) January 26, 2014
First HSBC bungles up an attempt at pseudo-capital controls by explaining that large cash withdrawals need a justification, and are limited in order “to protect our customers” (from what – their money?), which will likely result in even faster deposit withdrawals, and now another major UK bank – Lloyds/TSB – has admitted it are experiencing cash separation anxiety manifesting itself in ATMs failing to work and a difficult in paying using debit cards. Sky reports that customers of Lloyds and TSB, as well as those with Halifax, have reported difficulties paying for goods in shops and getting money out of ATMs.
All three banks are under the Lloyds Banking Group which said: “We are aware that some customers are unable to use their debit cards either to make purchases or to withdraw money from ATMs. “We are working hard to resolve this as swiftly as possible and apologise for any inconvenience caused.”
Further from SkyNews, TSB, which operates as a separate business within the group, issued a statement saying: “We are aware that some TSB customers are unable to use their debit cards either to make purchases or to withdraw money from ATMs. “This has impacted all Lloyds Banking Group brands. We are working hard to resolve this and unreservedly apologise for any inconvenience caused.”
TSB chief executive Paul Pester said in a tweet: “My apologies to TSB customers having problems with their cards. I’m working hard with my team now to try to fix the problems.”
Clients were not happy:
On the microblogging site, one TSB customer Nicky Kate said: “Really embarrassed to get my card declined while out shopping, never had any problems with lloyds then they changed my account.”
Hannah Smith: “I am a TSB customer with a Lloyds card still (like everyone else). And I’ve been embarrassed three times today re: card declined.”
Another customer Julia Abbott said: “Lloyds bank atm and card service down. 20 mins on hold to be told this. Nothing even on website. Shoddy lloyds. … shoddy.”
Helen Needham said: “#lloyds bank having problems with there card service… Can’t pay for anything or get money out!”
Another Twitter user wrote: “This problem is also affecting Halifax debit cards as I found out trying to pay for lunch with my wife!”
And Jane Lucy Jones tweeted Halifax, saying: “Why can’t I get any money out of any cashpoints, what is going on?
What is going on is known as a “glitch” for now, and perhaps as “preemptive planning” depending on who you ask. Sure, in a few months in may be called a bail-in (see Cyprus), but we will cross that bridge when we get to it.
Quarterly earnings for Royal Dutch Shell have declined sharply due to large expenditures, delays, and lower than expected production. The oil-giant reported that it expects fourth quarter earnings from 2013 to come in 70% lower than the same quarter for the previous year. Fourth quarter earnings are expected to decline to $2.2 billion, down from $7.3 billion in 2012. The decline prompted Shell to issue a profit warning, its first in 10 years, hitting its stock price. The company expects to release a full-earnings report on January 30.
Shell’s capital spending surpassed $44 billion in 2013, a 50% jump over the prior year. While investing in growth is necessary to turn a profit, many of Shell’s projects are floundering. After sinking over $5 billion in a multi-year effort to tap oil in the Arctic, Shell has nothing to show for it except for a series of mishaps and bad publicity. The company wants to return to the Arctic in 2014 after taking the year off last year to regroup, and submitted a scaled-back plan that they hoped would soothe the concerns of the Department of Interior. Yet with a January 22, 2014 decision from the Court of Appeals from the Ninth Circuit found that Interior violated the law when it sold offshore leases for exploration back in 2008. The ruling throws Shell’s plan into deep uncertainty, and is merely the latest blow to the company’s bungled Arctic campaign.
Shell has also bet big on Kazakhstan, sinking over $30 billion in a project, again with little to show for it thus far. The project is 8 years overdue.
Related article: UAE to Invest $1.2bn in Kurdish Oil
The latest news may be indicative of a new phase for major international oil companies. Shell is not alone in investing huge sums to develop complex oil fields in far flung places around the globe. As easy-to-get oil declines, Shell and other oil companies are forced to search for oil in places that present geological and engineering difficulties –and thus present significantly higher costs. According to Reuters, the rising cost of oil projects around the world is a major topic of discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Another example is Chevron’s Gorgon LNG project, which is expected to come in at $54 billion, or $20 billion more than originally expected. Italian oil company ENI expects to blow around $50 billion on the Kashagan oil field in Kazakhstan, five times what it expected.
Ben van Beurden, Shell’s new CEO, hopes to take a more conservative approach, paring back large investments in “elephant projects,” according to the Wall Street Journal.Other major oil companies are also promising their shareholders they will cut back on expenditures. Reducing costs may be a good strategy in the short-term, but the profitability of major oil companies depends on their ability to replace reserves and produce oil, not just now, but 10-20 years from now. If these companies decide not to invest in new oil fields, they will not have additional capacity coming online in the years ahead.
But it is telling that Shell and others do not find it wise to invest in new oil projects. If that is indeed the case, then the world could be looking at much more expensive oil in the not-so-distant future as existing fields naturally decline and supply tightens.
By. Nick Cunningham
Jang was a powerful general in the military before his execution in December [Reuters]
|North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has ordered the execution of his uncle’s entire family, including his children and relatives serving as ambassadors to Cuba and Malaysia, according to South Korea’s state news agency, Yonhap.Jang Song-thaek, a once powerful North Korean military general, was executed last month as divisions between him and his nephew Kim widened.
Kim referred to Jang as “worse than a dog” and “human scum” in his announcement of his execution, which he said was for treachery and betreyal. Pictures showed Jang being led from his office by state security.
“Extensive executions have been carried out for relatives of Jang Song-thaek,” an anonymous source said to Yonhap in a report published on Sunday. “All relatives of Jang have been put to death, including even children.”
The executed relatives include Jang’s sister Kye-sun, her husband and ambassador to Cuba, Jon Yong-jin, the ambassador to Malaysia, Jang Yong-chol, who is Jang’s nephew, as well as his two sons, the sources said.
The two ambassadors were recalled to Pyongyang in early December. The sons, daughters and grandchildren of Jang’s two brothers were all executed, the sources told Yonhap.
One source told Yonhap that some relatives were dragged out of their houses and shot in front of a crowd.
South Korea’s state news agency did not specify when they were killed. The article does not mention any specific sources and the agency is known for its anti-North Korean bias.
Something has bothered me of late: why is the price of crude oil still elevated? Other commodities have taken a battering since 2011. Gold, copper and iron ore – all are way down off their peaks. But oil has seemingly defied gravity. And that’s despite increased supply from shale oil in the U.S., still soft demand particularly in the developed world and declining rates of inflation growth across the globe.
What gives? Well, shale oil proponents will say falling oil prices are just a matter of time. And that the boom in shale oil will reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil, leading to cheaper local oil, which will free up household budgets and spur consumption as well as the broader economy. Perhaps … though I’d have thought all of that would be already reflected in prices.
On the other side, you have “peak oil” supporters who suggest high oil prices are perfectly natural when oil production has peaked, or at least the good stuff has disappeared. Yet the boom in U.S. shale oil appears to put at least a partial dent in this thesis.
There may be a better explanation, however. It comes from UK sell-side analyst, Tim Morgan, in an important new book called Life After Growth. In it, he suggests that the era of cheap energy is over. That the new unconventional forms of oil are far less efficient than old ones, meaning they require significant amounts of energy to produce. In effect, the energy production versus energy cost of extraction equation is rapidly deteriorating.
Morgan goes a step further though. He says cheap energy has been central to the extraordinary economic growth generated since the Industrial Revolution. And without that cheap energy, future growth will be permanently impaired.
It’s a bold view that’s solidified my own thinking that higher energy prices are here to stay. And the link between cheap energy and economic growth is fascinating and worth exploring further today. Particularly given the implications for the world’s fastest-growing and most energy-intensive region, Asia.
Real vs money economy
First off, a thank you to Bob Moriarty of 321gold for tipping me off to Morgan’s work in this well-written article. Morgan’s book is worth getting but if you want the skinny version, you can find it here.
Morgan begins his book outlining four key challenges facing economies today:
- The biggest debt bubble in history
- A disastrous experiment with globalisation
- The massaging of data to the point where economic trends are obscured
- The approach of an energy-returns cliff edge
The first three points aren’t telling us much new so we’re going to focus on the final one.
Here, Morgan makes a key distinction between what he terms the money economy and the real economy. He suggests economists around the world have got it all wrong by focusing on money as the key driver of economies.
Instead, money is the language rather than the substance of the real economy. The real economy is a surplus energy equation, not a monetary one, and economic growth as well as the increase in population since 1750 has resulted from the harnessing of ever-greater quantities of energy.
In fact, society and economies began when agriculture created surplus energy. Before agriculture, in the hunter-gatherer era, there was an energy balance where the energy which people derived from food was largely equivalent to the energy that they expended in finding the food.
Agriculture changed that equation. It allowed for the creation of surplus energy. In essence, three people could be supported by the labor of two people, allowing one person to engage in non-subsistence activities. This person could make better agricultural tools, build bridges for better infrastructure and so on. In economic parlance, this person didn’t have to concentrate on products for immediate consumption but rather the creation of capital goods. The surplus energy equation allowed for that.
The second key development was the invention of the heat engine by Scottish engineer James Watts in 1769, although a more efficient version was produced later in 1799. This invention allowed society to access vast energy resources contained in oil, natural gas, coal and so forth. In other words, the industrial revolution allowed the harnessing of more energy to apply vast leverage to the economy.
In sum, the modern economy is the story of how society overcame the limitations of the energy equation. Or as Morgan puts it: “…all goods and services on which money can be spent are the products of energy inputs, either past, present or future.”
The creation of surplus energy during the Industrial Revolution and subsequent explosion in economic and population growth isn’t an accident. They’re tied at the hip.
Understanding the distinction between the money economy and the real economy can also help us better understand debt. Debt is a claim on future energy. The ability of indebted governments to meet their debt commitments will partially depend on whether the real (energy) economy is large enough to make this possible.
Era of cheap energy is over
Morgan goes on to say that the era of surplus energy, which has driven economic growth since 1750, is over. The key isn’t to be found in the theories of “peak oil” proponents and the potential for absolute declines in oil reserves. Instead, it’s to be found in the relationship between the energy extracted versus the energy consumed in the extraction process, also known as the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) equation.
The equation maths aren’t difficult to understand. If the EROEI is 10:1, it means that 10 units are extracted for every 1 unit invested in the extraction process.
From 1750-1950, the EROEI of oil discoveries was very high. For instance, discoveries in the 1930s had 100:1 EROEIs. That ratio declined to 30:1 by the 1970s. Today, that ratio is at about 17:1 with few recent discoveries above 10:1.
Morgan’s research suggests that going from EROEIs of 80:1 to 20:1 isn’t disruptive. But once the ratio gets below 15:1, energy becomes a lot more expensive. He suggests the ratio will decline to 11:1 by 2020 and the cost of energy will increase by 50% as a consequence.
Non-conventional sources of oil will provide little respite. Shale oil and gas have EROEIs of 5:1 while tar sands and biofuels are even lower at 3:1. In other words, policymakers who pin their hopes on shale oil reducing energy prices are seriously deluded.
And further technological breakthroughs to better locate and extract oil are unlikely to help either. That’s because technology uses energy rather than creates it. It won’t change the energy equation.
While some unconventional sources offer hope, such as concentrated solar power, they won’t be enough to offset surplus energy turning to a more balanced equation.
Oeuvre to growth tool
If the real economy is energy and the days of surplus energy are coming to an end, then so too is economic growth, according to Morgan. In his own words:
“…the economy, as we have known it for more than two centuries, will cease to be viable at some point within the next ten or so years unless, of course, some way is found to reverse the trend.”
This terribly pessimistic conclusion requires some further explanation. Morgan explains the link between energy and the economy thus. If your EROEI sharply declines, it means more energy is needed for extraction purposes and less energy is available to the economy. Ultimately, this results in the cost of energy rising as a proportion of GDP, leaving less value for other things. Put another way, with the leverage from surplus energy diminished, there’s less energy available for discretionary uses.
Now I don’t have total buy-in to Morgan’s thesis. It certainly solidifies my thinking that the era of cheap energy is indeed over. It provides a unique and compelling way to think about this. And the proof is seemingly all around us. It explains the high oil prices and the surge in agriculture prices (agriculture relies on energy inputs).
You can’t help but being more bullish on energy and agriculture plays in the long-term. Oil drillers for one as they’re more reliant on increased work than the price of oil. Also, the likes of fertiliser companies given agriculture land is tapped out, making an increase in output essential and thereby requiring greater quantities of fertiliser.
Morgan thinks inflation is on the way given a squeezed energy base with still escalating monetary bases. Regular readers will know that I am a deflationist over the next few years. But nothing is certain in this world and Morgan’s arguments on this front have some credibility.
As for whether this spells the end of a glorious 250 year period of economic growth, well, I’m not so sure. The link between energy and economies is compelling. But whether we’re at a tipping point where surplus energy disappears is a guess. I’m convinced that we’re coming up against resource constraints that will inhibit economic growth. To say that we’re imminently coming to the end of economic growth requires further evidence, in humble opinion.
Impact on Asia
Asia has been the largest demand driver for energy over the past decade. The region’s net oil imports total 17 million barrels of oil a day. China is now the largest net oil importer, having recently overtaken the U.S.. Other large net oil importers in Asia include India and Indonesia. Obviously, higher oil prices would be detrimental to these net importing countries.
It may be somewhat offset by agricultural prices staying higher for longer. China and India are agricultural powerhouses. And the impact of agriculture on their economies is still profound (agriculture accounts for 14% of Indian GDP and 10% of China).
On the other hand, higher agricultural prices mean higher food prices. And given lower incomes in Asia, the proportion of household budgets dedicated to purchasing food is much higher than the developed world. Therefore higher food prices has a larger impact on many Asian countries. Witness periodic recent protests on this issue in Indonesia, Thailand and India. So net-net, higher energy prices would still be a large negative for Asia.
Turning to resource constraints potentially inhibiting future economic growth: given Asia has the world’s strongest GDP growth, it would be disproportionately hit if this scenario is right. The past decade may represent a peak in the region’s economic output. Whether there’s sharp drop or gradual fade is impossible to forecast.
These are but a few of the potential implications for Asia.
AC Speed Read
– The real economy is a surplus energy equation, or the harnessing of ever-greater quantities of energy.
– That equation has deteriorated to such an extent that one can now declare the era of cheap energy over.
– If the economy is energy and cheap energy is gone, future economic growth will be inhibited.
– Consequently, higher energy and agricultural prices can be expected in the long-term.
– The impact on Asian growth may be disproportionately large.
This post was originally published at Asia Confidential:
China and Japan’s war of words reveals a larger struggle for regional influence akin to a mini Cold War. Last week’s tempestuous pissing contest in Davos, which The FT’s Gideon Rachman notes, left people with the belief that “this is not a situation that is getting better; it is getting worse.” Following Abe’s analogies to WWI, China’s Yi compared Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine to Merkel visiting the graves of Nazi war criminals and as the rhetoric grows the US has asked for reassurance from Abe that he will not do it again. So we have two countries, each building up their militaries while insisting they must do so to counter the threat of their regional rival. Added to this, a deep distrust of each other’s different political systems coupled with a history of animosity makes the two nations deeply suspicious of each other. Each country insists it loves peace, and uses scare tactics to try to paint its opponent as a hawkish boogeyman. Sound familiar to anyone else?
U.S. officials say they are seeking assurances from Japan that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won’t repeat a visit to a war shrine that angered China and South Korea and will ask Mr. Abe to consider reaffirming Tokyo’s previous formal apologies over World War II in a bid to ease tensions in East Asia.
But even as Washington looks for calm, Seoul and Beijing bristled again this week over new comments by Mr. Abe on his shrine visit, underscoring the challenges the U.S. faces in its diplomatic push.
The FT sums up the tensions in Davos last week…
Lately, it seems that Japanese officials can’t sneeze without incurring the wrath of the Chinese — and vice versa. So it’s no surprise that even conciliatory statements from Shinzo Abe have been soundly rebuffed. On Thursday, Abe wrote a message, published in local Chinese-language papers, conveying greetings for the lunar new year. According to Reuters’ translation of the Japanese-language version, Abe insisted that Japan has “taken the path of peace” since World War II, and “nothing has been changed in the policy of continuing to uphold this position.”
Friday, Abe further extended the olive branch. According to Channel NewsAsia, Abe told a parliamentary session that “Japan and China are inseparable.” He also expressed his desire for the two countries to restart diplomatic meetings. “Instead of refusing to hold dialogue unless issues become resolved, we should hold talks because we have issues,” Abe said.
China flatly rejected these overtures. Responding to earlier requests for a bilateral dialogue, Qin Gang responded with bitter sarcasm: “Such kind of dialogue will be of no effect. Chinese leaders are very busy. Let them spend more time on things useful and effective.” China has repeatedly expressed its position that no diplomatic meetings between China and Japan can be held until Shinzo Abe proves his sincerity. During Friday’s press conference, Qin Gang laid down a specific path for restarting dialogue: Abe should declare that “I will pull back from the precipice, immediately admit and correct mistakes and make no more visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.”
As I wrote earlier, at this point it seems impossible that anything Abe will do will satisfy Chinese leaders (the things he could do, like apologizing for his visit to Yasukuni and/or Japan’s imperialistic past, are incredibly unlikely). To Chinese officials, Abe is “self-contradictory,” as an editorial in China Daily put it. Unless Abe apologizes for and refrains from repeating actions that upset China (from visiting Yasukuni to building up Japan’s military), China will dismiss as insincere his rhetoric about dialogue and peace. Meanwhile, from the Japanese perspective, were Abe to devote the rest of his administration to proving his friendship to China, it would have obvious negative repercussions for Japanese interests.
So we have two countries, each building up their militaries while insisting they must do so to counter the threat of their regional rival. Added to this, a deep distrust of each other’s different political systems coupled with a history of animosity makes the two nations deeply suspicious of each other. Each country insists it loves peace, and uses scare tactics to try to paint its opponent as a hawkish boogeyman. Sound familiar to anyone else?
Ever since the Cold War ended, strategists have been warning leaders to drop the “Cold War mentality.” But it apparently hasn’t worked, because that is exactly what we have right now between China and Japan. The two countries identify so strongly as rivals that it’s impossible for either country to do or say anything without triggering a response from its counterpart. The tensions pop up in the most unexpected places – during Abe’s Africa tour, during a global economic summit in Switzerland.
Even the strong economic ties between China and Japan haven’t helped forestall tensions. In fact, it’s the other way around – tensions are eroding the economic relationship. The Telegraph recently reported that, according to a poll, 60 percent of Chinese business leaders are unwilling to work with Japanese firms. In 2012, China-Japan tensions even erupted into outright calls to boycott Japanese products, with rioters targeting Japanese businesses and restaurants. While Japan’s business view of China is less affected (according to The Telegraph, 80 percent of Japanese are willing to continue trade with China and South Korea), economic interests are shifting to other regions, notably Southeast Asia. Economic ties are likely to continue worsening. It’s certainly hard to see the next round of negotiations on a trilateral China-Japan-South Korea free-trade agreement going off as planned in February 2014.
As with the Cold War, part of the problem is that both China and Japan willfully read each other’s every move as a challenge or threat. For all the distrust between China and the United States, the problem hasn’t reached this level (yet). The U.S. has too many potential enemies (Russia, Iran, North Korea) and too many global interests for China to realistically interpret every diplomatic or strategic maneuver as somehow anti-China (although certainly some hawks within China do try). Japan, with its more limited global presence and strategic interests, is a different story. Meanwhile, as China is currently limiting its military build-up and strategic goals to the near seas, it’s easy for Tokyo interpret each move (for example, a new air defense identification zone) as directly aimed at Japan.
My colleague Zachary wrote Friday that one byproduct of the United States’ decline could be the emergence of regional hegemons. We might be seeing the beginning of this process now, with China and Japan in a Cold War-style battle, not for global power but for regional dominance. The territorial dispute highlights this by increasing the possibility of military conflict, but even if the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands were to sink into the ocean tomorrow (one possible benefit of global warming) the tensions would remain. It’s a regional Cold War, currently being fought with words but with an arms race looming on the horizon. And, like the Cold War, tensions are unlikely to end until one country claims victory.
On Friday, when stocks were plunging, natural gas soared 9.6% to $5.18 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) at the Henry Hub. Up 20% for the week. The highest close since June 2010.
Back then, the “shale gas revolution” had turned into a crazy no-holds-barred land-grab and fracking boom that veered into overproduction and a “glut” – accompanied by a historic collapse in price. The US could not export its excess production due to export restrictions and the lack of major LNG export terminals. By April 2012, when the Japanese were paying around $17 per MMBtu for LNG on the world markets, natural gas in the US hit a decade low of $1.92 per MMBtu, and predictions that it would go to zero showed up in the mainstream media. That was the bottom.
But nothing can be priced below the cost of production forever. By Friday, natural gas was up 170% from the April 2012 low. Turns out, only a low price can cure a low price.
The low price caused demand to creep up.
Gas exports via pipeline to Mexico have been growing, especially since additional pipeline capacity went into service last year. Mexico is switching power generation from using its own oil to cheap US natural gas. This allows it to export its more valuable oil to the US. Ka-ching. But building gas-fired generating capacity is a slow-moving process.
Other exports are also moving forward – in people’s heads. There are pipelines between the US and Canada, but the US is a net importer. Exports of LNG are at this point still a pipedream, so to speak, though deals are being made, contingent on getting government approvals to export LNG. It’s going to take years before LNG can be exported in large quantities.
But the low price had short-term and structural impacts. Utilities dispatched electricity generation from their coal-fired plants to their gas-fired plants. And there have been structural changes: utilities have built gas-fired power plants and have retired – not mothballed! – their oldest, most inefficient, and most polluting coal-fired power plants. Global industrial companies have been building plants in the US for energy-intensive processes and for processes that use natural gas as feed stock. Even natural gas in transportation is picking up.
The low price destroyed the business model for drillers.
Thousands of unprofitable wells litter the land. Many billions were written off. Real money that had been recklessly thrown around during the boom disappeared into the ground. Investors were lured with false promises. The bloodletting in the industry was enormous. Some of the largest drillers have pulled back from drilling for dry natural gas. Most of the wells that are still being drilled are in fields that are rich in natural-gas liquids and oil, which sell for much higher prices and make wells profitable. Dry natural gas has become a byproduct. In the immensely productive Bakken shale-oil field in North Dakota, where gas occurs along with oil, 30% of it is flared – burned at the well as a waste product. The low price doesn’t justify building pipelines to haul it off.
But shale gas wells have sharp decline rates, and new wells need to be drilled constantly to make up for the decline in older wells. These days, not enough wells are being drilled, and production in all gas plays combined – except for the Marcellus – is already in slight decline. The only production boom left is in the Marcellus: the “shale gas revolution” in the US is now a one-pony show.
In January 2012, according to Baker Hughes, there were 143 rigs drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus – the most prolific parts of which are in Pennsylvania. Today, there are 86. But during the drilling boom, someone forgot to install sufficient pipeline infrastructure. So, wells were shut in, perhaps thousands of them, a giant reservoir waiting for takeaway capacity. That was 2012. Last year, part of a new pipeline network went into service, and bottlenecks were removed, and the gas started flowing to New York City and other places. Drilling is down. Production – the delivery of gas to the markets – is soaring!
How long can it last? Well decline rates in the Marcellus are as steep as elsewhere, and this sudden burst in production, if not supported by a new bout of drilling, will taper off as it has in other fields. And that’s today’s one-pony show of the US “shale gas revolution.”
Then cold fronts swept across the country.
These polar vortices, as they’re now referred to for additional flair, have caused demand for gas as heating fuel to spike to record highs. And more bitter cold weather is being forecast. Natural gas in underground storage dropped to 2,423 billion cubic feet (Bcf) for the weekending January 17. The last time storage levels were this low during an equivalent week was in January 2005!
At the time, gas was selling for $12 to $14 per MMBtu and hit an all-time high of $15.40 in December that year. But demand has changed. In 2013, demand was over 18% higher than in 2005; this year, it might be over 20% higher [my article from nine days ago…. Natural Gas Squeeze? “Panic hasn’t ensued just yet”].
And the big money has jumped into the fray.
For years, the favorite game was to short natural gas, playing the glut for all it was worth, a sport that has gotten very complex and, if you get the timing wrong by a few hours, very expensive. Some of the spike late Friday, and some of the action all week, was due to a hard squeeze on these folks – as the big money arrived en masse.
On Wednesday, the big money went public. As reported by MarketWatch, Citi analysts wrote that, “With tight fundamentals, $5 gas is not impossible.” What had been obvious for a while, showed up in the media: “Strong demand is expected to push gas inventories to very low levels with cold weather lingering.” And the price took off once again.
Now everyone is bent over weather data, trying to figure out what nastiness the winter will still serve up, and they’re betting on the weather because cold snaps happen relatively fast and are observable. Watching the fundamentals is like watching paint dry. But it’s the fundamentals that have changed the equation. The polar vortices are merely speeding up the calculus.
Natural gas is famous for its head fakes, unexpected plunges when it should rise, and inexplicable rises when it should drop. It’s being manipulated in a myriad ways. It’s always a bet on the weather, except when it’s not. It can turn around in a second and cause whiplash. It’s a seatbelt-mandatory commodity. And once every few years, there is a panic, and it spikes to dizzying highs.
While natural gas was soaring on Friday, and all week, the rest of the markets were tanking, with emerging markets “trading in full-blown panic mode.” What gives? Read…. A Teeny-Weeny Bit Of Taper, And Look What Happened
For decades, Eustace Conway has lived an independent, sustainable life, building shelter for himself on his land, growing his own food, setting up outhouse facilities, composting, and allowing others to learn these methods first-hand so that we may once again have a populous versed in the healthy manner of primitive survival skills.
After a preliminary visit from the local Planning & Inspections department, several independent local government agencies together performed a raid on Mr. Conway’s property, and now the Watauga County Health Department has ordered a cease & desist on Mr. Conway’s educational activities.
Venture capitalist Thomas Perkins wrote a letter to the editors at the Wall Street Journal, comparing the plight of the rich to the Holocaust, called “Progressive Kristallnacht Coming?”… and the WSJ published it.
“I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich,'” Perkins writes. Thomas Perkins, one of the founders of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, was comparing taxes on the super rich to the slaughter of millions in the Holocaust.
“From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent,” Perkins continues. “There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these ‘techno geeks’ can pay.”
Perkins ends his rant with: “This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”
Obviously, there has been backlash to the letter. “It certainly proves you can get rich without being very thoughtful, perceptive, or intelligent,” Slate’s Matt Yglesias writes. More people took to Twitter to express their outrage:
Serious rich-dude bubble to see “treatment” of rich by progressives as parallel to Nazi treatment of Jews… http://t.co/wATqtmPxQe
— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) January 25, 2014
— Matthew Campbell (@MattCampbel) January 25, 2014
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) January 25, 2014
Rich idiot warns of looking “progressive Kristallnacht”: http://t.co/Ik228BONLq
— Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) January 25, 2014
The Wall Street Journal did not immediately respond to The Huffington Post’s request for comment.
CORRECTION: A previous headline misrepresented the analogy Perkins made in his letter.