Posts Tagged ‘Oil’

Five potential emergencies- energy crisis

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

As you have read from our series on the self-sufficiency theme, the modern complex societies that we live in is not as robust as it seems. The reason why it seems robust is that (as we wrote in our ?How To Foolproof Yourself Against Salesmen & Media Bias? report), we have the habit of falling into one of the mental pitfalls. When you see that the tap flows and lights turn on reliably day after day, this mental pitfall will lull you into complacency. Then one day, when crisis happens, it will hit everyone on the head that modern life is fragile.

One of the main potential emergencies that can quickly disrupt our modern way of life is this: energy emergency. As we wrote in An Achilles Heel of modern society- specialisation and division of labour,

The crucial question to ask is this: what is the ?glue? that stick together all these specialised and divided labour into a system that we called the ?economy?? The answer is: energy.

Today, we can have 99% (a figure that we plucked from the sky, but you get the idea) of the population not working and yet not starve. That?s thanks to the Green Revolution that allows more and more food to be grown by less and less people.

But this comes at a cost- energy. As Sean Brodrick wrote in The Ultimate Suburban Survivalist Guide,

Energy consumption by agriculture has increased 100 times, or more. According to 1994 data, 400 gallons of oil equivalents are expended annually to feed each American. The energy consumption breaks down as follows:

  1. 30% for the manufacture of inorganic fertilizer
  2. 18% for the operation of field machinery
  3. 15% for transportation
  4. 12% for irrigation
  5. 7% for raising livestock (not including animal feed)
  6. 5% for crop drying
  7. 5% for pesticide production
  8. 8% miscellaneous

These estimates don?t include the energy used in packaging, refrigeration, transportation to retail outlets, and cooking.

At the same time, the vast majority of Americans have gotten further and further away from their food sources.

The implication is clear. As energy prices increase (and they will), prices for our basic survival need- food- will increase. If you believe in the China growth story (i.e. the secular rise of China), you will have to seriously question whether the global energy production can keep up with the colossal demand of a rising China (see The Problem that can throw us back into the age of horse-drawn carriages). Since most of our energy comes from fossil fuels (especially oil), the question is this: how quickly can the global economy restructure itself away from using oil? To retool and reconfigure the entire economy away from using oil is not that easy and it takes time.

This is just the best-case scenario- a gradual rising in oil prices over the years, resulting in a gradual declining in the standard of living. There are other worse possible scenarios?

Now, consider these facts (source: The Ultimate Suburban Survivalist Guide):

  1. 81% of the world?s discovered and useable oil reserves come from just 10 countries.
  2. 30% of the world?s oil comes from just 3 countries- Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Now, look at the second point more carefully. What is common among the three listed countries?

All three of them are close neighbours of Iran. The Iranians, who are Shiites Muslims, have ambition of dominating that region. They are steering the Shiites in these three countries into their sphere of influence. No doubt, part of their plan for domination includes acquiring nuclear weapons. If the Iranians (who are led by their mad President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) acquire nuclear weapons, it will significantly tip the balance of power in the region away from the US.

If you see how Russia uses the supply of natural gas as a tool against its neighbours (e.g. Ukraine), we can imagine the Iranians trying the same on the Western world.

There is a worse scenario than that. That region is a potential military flashpoint. What if Israel miscalculates (see New urgency for action against Iran) and plunge the region into war? In any shooting war involving Iran, we have no doubt that they will find ways to block the Straits of Hormuz, one of the energy chokepoints in the world. As the US Department of Energy reported,

Chokepoints are narrow channels along widely used global sea routes. They are a critical part of global energy security due to the high volume of oil traded through their narrow straits.


The international energy market is dependent upon reliable transport. The blockage of a chokepoint, even temporarily, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs. In addition, chokepoints leave oil tankers vulnerable to theft from pirates, terrorist attacks, and political unrest in the form of wars or hostilities as well as shipping accidents which can lead to disastrous oil spills.

A temporary disruption lasting not more than say, 40 days is manageable for the US because they can open up their Strategic Petroleum Reserve. But if the emergency last longer than that, then there will be a heavy price to pay.

That?s not all the Iranians can do in a shooting war. Since the oil fields of 30% of the world?s oil is so near Iran, our guess is that it would not take them too much to take down these oil fields? productive capacity. Back in 1990, Saddam Hussien sabotaged the oil fields of Kuwait by setting fire to them. An irrational Iranian President will surely think of trying something worse with missiles, artillery shells, ground troops or worse still, nuclear missiles. Although the Iranian may not have military technology as sophisticated the US (although the gap is probably closing with Russian help), they have a large pool of manpower to call up as canon fodder. During the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranians used human wave techniques to beat back the Iraqis.

Therefore, a second oil crisis (the first one is in the 1970s) is definitely possible. The question is, are you ready?

Why oil cannot function as currency reserves?

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Not long ago, we were talking to an analyst from a pretty reputable value fund manager. He was adamant that gold is in a bubble because “everyone is buying it.” When we heard his rationale for this belief, we knew straight away that he had not clearly thought through his underlying beliefs about gold and the nature of money.

In fact, his understanding about the nature of money is closer to the level of an uninformed person on the street than what we expect from an investment professional. For example, this analyst was completely blind to the colossal difference between the rarity of gold and the rarity of rocks, citing that there are heaps of gold in the world! It is one thing to have a different opinion about gold because one belongs to the deflation camp. But it is just simply too shocking to hear a suit-wearing investment professional from a reputable fund manager sprouting such nonsense! If a person cannot see the difference between the rarity of gold and rocks, then it will be beyond his level to even understand the properties of good money, which is critical to understanding gold.

Now, if you are new to this blog, you may wonder whether gold is a bubble or not, since there is no (or rather, very limited, to satisfy the pedantic) industrial use for it. If this is your question, we recommend that you read If gold has no intrinsic value, is it a bubble?. Or better still, you may want to read our book, How to buy and invest in physical gold and silver bullion for a fuller picture.

At this point, this analyst posed a very good question. Given that everyone agrees that the US dollar is going to depreciate further in the long run, then wouldn’t oil be a better substitute (e.g. as currency reserves) for it than gold? As that analyst said, oil should be a better substitute because it is a vital commodity, whereas gold has hardly any practical and industrial use? In other words, will oil function better as money than gold?

To answer this question, first we have to understand what money is. At the root of its nature, it is a medium of exchange. From this nature, it then follows that money functions as unit of accounting, store of wealth and so on. The question then becomes, is oil a better medium of exchange than gold?

At first glance, it seems that the answer is yes. But if you think carefully, if oil ever becomes a medium of exchange tomorrow, it will bring about disaster to humanity. To understand why, let’s have a thought experiment. Remember, back in If gold has no intrinsic value, is it a bubble?, we wrote,

Now, imagine if one day the US government decree that all tooth-pastes become legal tender for payment and settlement of debt (i.e. function as money), how would you feel if you have to physically consume your money daily for the sake of oral hygiene?

Let’s say the government declares that 30 days from now, tooth-pastes will function as legal tender money. What will happen? Firstly, the prices of tooth-pastes will sky-rocket. Next, tooth-pastes will disappear from the shelves of supermarkets. People will be hoarding and stockpiling tooth-pastes. After 30 days, when tooth-paste officially becomes legal tender money, people will start to have bad breath, especially the poor, who can’t afford to consume tooth-pastes for the sake of oral hygiene. Then the demand for tooth pastes will rise to the moon, not because the demand for oral hygiene increases, but because the demand for tooth-pastes as money increases. Not only that, no matter how much tooth-pastes Colgate produces, there will always be shortages because there will be mass-hoarding of them as money.

This may be a funny though-experiment. But if oil should ever function as medium of exchange, the outcome will not be funny. There will be an acute shortage of oil, as nations will be hoarding and stock-piling oil in a frenzy. Guess what will happen if we have acute oil shortages in a Peak Oil world that is addicted to oil? The way of life as we know will grind to halt and we will all be back to travelling in horse-drawn carriages.

That is why, when governments undermine the store-of-value function of money (something that can only be done in a fiat monetary system), investors will flock to useful, vital and scarce commodities to store their wealth. This in turn will result in those scarce commodities becoming scarcer. The food riots around the world in 2008 were an example of how this can happen (see Who is to blame for surging food and oil prices?). That also explains why the housing ‘shortage’ situation in Australia is an intractable problem (see Does rising house prices imply a housing shortage?).

That is the reason why gold and silver?functioned as money historically. The free market tried using scarce, useful and vital commodities (e.g. salt, sugar, tobacco, cattle) as money before and it didn’t work out. Those that did probably did not evolve into more advanced civilisations.

Of course, just because it is stupid to let oil function as currency reserves does not necessarily mean it wouldn’t. As Albert Einstein said, two things are infinite: the universe and stupidity.

Demand for money, inflation/deflation & its implication

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

Two years ago, we first covered the root cause of inflation in Cause of inflation: Shanghai bubble case study:

The mainstream economists? definition of inflation is rise in the general level of prices. However, according to the Austrian School of economic thought, the definition of inflation is the increase in the supply of money, in which the effect is the rise in the general level of prices.

As we have shown in yesterday’s chart in Australian money supply growth in September 2008, the supply of money in Australia had gathered momentum in the month to September 2008. In 12 months, the M3 money supply increased by 19.5%. The narrower definition of money, M1, increased by 8.3%. Does this mean that Australia is going to face runaway price inflation soon?

As a general principle, in the long run, there is a relationship between sustained monetary inflation and price inflation. In the same way, there is a relationship between a long-term lifestyle of eating excessive junk food and ill-health. In the interim, this relationship is more complicated. Using the junk food analogy, say that junk food eater dies of heart disease. What is the cause of death? Is it the heart disease? Or is it his sustained junk-food life-style?

Back to inflation, it is certainly possible to see continuing monetary inflation and slowing price inflation. In the US, the latest CPI figure even hinted of a price deflation! Therefore, in the short-term, there may not be a correlation between monetary inflation and price inflation. Part of the problem lies in the nature of how price inflation is measured and defined. As we said before in How much can we trust the price indices (e.g. CPI)?, price indices is a logically invalid idea. The implication is that it is possible to ‘define away’ price inflation and pretend that it is not a problem by torturing the statistics.

But setting aside the logical validity of price indices, what other dynamics is involved that can result in such non-correlation in the short-term? We will introduce one such dynamic- demand for money. This dynamic should not be confused with demand for credit. In lay-person’s terms, the demand for money is the desire for people to keep cash balance. As we wrote in The mechanics of deflation- increase in demand for holding cash,

Deflation happens when liquidity dries up. This can happen in a period of severe economic pessimism when the apprehension of the future drives people to increase their holdings of cash for the sake of peace of mind. When that happens, the quantity of money in circulation decreases, which means there are fewer money chasing after a given amount of goods and services. Consequently, prices have to decrease to accommodate for the decreased supply of money in circulation.

Let’s say the quantity of money increases in the system. But if people want to increase their holdings of cash due to fear and uncertainty of the future, they will withdraw these cash from circulation in the economy. Consequently, prices fall. As we wrote,

When deflation mentality gets a stranglehold on to the minds of the people, no one will dare to borrow money out of fear. Also, when prices are falling, the money that one borrows will be worth more by the time the debt is due. There is no point in spending money because if one waits a little longer, prices will fall further. Central bankers can print as much money as they can, but in such a deflationary environment, no one will want to borrow them.

Today’s credit crisis is an example of this. Banks are hoarding cash and are unwilling to lend while borrowers are repaying debts with every scraps of cash that they can get their hands on. As a result, liquidity dries up in the system even though the supply of money is desperately increased by the central bank. In such a situation, some broader measures of money supply will be shown to decrease.

The opposite can also occur. As we quoted Ludwig von Mises in What is a crack-up boom?,

But then finally the masses wake up. They become suddenly aware of the fact that inflation is a deliberate policy and will go on endlessly. A breakdown occurs. The crack-up boom appears. Everybody is anxious to swap his money against ?real? goods, no matter whether he needs them or not, no matter how much money he has to pay for them.

In such a situation, the demand for money collapses. People want to keep their cash balance as low as possible as they constantly want to get rid of their cash for ‘stuffs.’ In the extreme case (i.e. hyperinflation), prices rise by the hour as people rush out to buy things the moment they are paid their wages, for fear that if they do not do so, price inflation will render their cash worthless.

Now, let’s look at what’s happening in the world. Merely 6 months ago, when oil prices was threatening US$150 and soaring food prices was driving people in poor nations to riots, the fear was price inflation. Today, with oil prices below US$50 and hardly any news on food prices, the fear is price deflation. Such extreme volatility is unprecedented in the history of humanity. It is this volatility and madness in prices that will wreck the real economy in the longer term (see Real economy suffers while financial markets stuff around with prices).

Where is the source of such extreme volatility?

As you may have already guessed by now, governments and central banks, in their attempt to solve the global financial crisis, is creating all these volatility through their interventions against the free market. Ironically, their ‘solutions’ are sowing the seeds of economic hardships for the next generation.

Will deflation win?

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

In just a few months ago, the talk in town was price inflation. Oil, food and commodity prices were rising, as we wrote Who is to blame for surging food and oil prices?. Today, the talk is different. US house prices have never stop falling. Gold, oil and base metals are falling. There is even talk about the end of the commodity boom, the end of the commodity “super-cycle.” Economic slowdown and recessions are the expectations of the market.

Long time readers of this publication should never be surprised to see this is happening. As we said back in March last year in Inflation or deflation first?,

If you have been with us long enough, you may have heard us mulling over both the threats of inflation and deflation on the global economy (see Spectre of deflation and Have we escaped from the dangers of inflation?). You may be wondering whether we are contradicting ourselves. How can both threats exist simultaneously? Since one is a general rising of prices and the other is the opposite, are they not mutually exclusive?

At this current phase of the financial crisis, we are experiencing deflation. It is reported that the US M3 money supply is currently “collapsing.” A falling money supply is the definition of deflation, for which the symptoms will be falling asset prices, which if prolonged enough, will lead to falling consumer prices. But before we go off to celebrate falling prices, remember that this is an evil type of deflation because it is the type that is associated with bad debts, bankruptcies, unemployment, falling income, bank runs and so on. The angelic type of deflation is caused by rising output and production, which is clearly not the case in the debt-addicted Western economies but more true for China with its government-forced savings.

When the US money supply shrinks, it increases in value relative to the other currencies as the US dollar gets repatriated back to make up for the dwindling supply of cash back in the US. That’s why we are witnessing a rally in the US dollar and a fall in commodity prices as there is a mad scramble to liquidate whatever assets to raise cash.

With the current legal powers, the US Federal Reserve is quite powerless to stop deflation (see Are we heading for a deflationary type of recession?). It can cut interest rates, but it cannot force people to borrow. Even at 2% Fed fund rate, the shrinking M3 money supply is proof that monetary policy is still tight (see What makes monetary policy ?loose? or ?tight??). Will the Fed continue to cut interest rates? It had already tried but failed a few months, which resulted in skyrocketing oil and gold prices. We doubt Ben Bernanke is going to try it again.

Meanwhile, the US Treasury is preparing open up the bottomless coffers of the US government to nationalise Freedie Mac and Fannie Mae, who are essentially insolvent. The question is, with the US budget deficit already in the red (plus the massive current account deficits), where is the money going to come from to do that? If a savings-less individual spend more than he/she earns, that individual is basically bankrupt. But for governments, it is a completely different story. They can make up for the shortfall by borrowing from the public by selling newly issued government bonds. As a last resort, it can sell the bonds to the Federal Reserve, which is called “monetising debt” or printing money.

Will it get that bad? It can if the deflation threatens to shock and awe the entire nation into a Greater Depression. By then, as we said before in A painful cleansing or pain avoidance at all cost?,

Even if Ben Bernanke is an Austrian economist, political pressure alone will do the job of forcing him to act otherwise. This is the Achilles? heel of democracy. The mob will scream at the Fed to bail them out by ?printing? money (i.e. pump liquidity into the economy in the form of cutting interest rates). Should the Fed refuse to comply, we can imagine the mob storming the Federal Reserve to demand the head of Ben Bernanke. Therefore, the Fed will have no choice but to acquiesce to the desire of the mob, whose aim is to avoid immediate pain as much as possible.

Therefore, as we advised before in Recipe for hyperinflation,

Therefore, watch what the US government is doing with the monetary ?rules? in its attempt to fight deflation.

Fighting for resources in the Caucasus

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

As we know, on the day of the Beijing Olympics 2008 opening ceremony, a war was brewing between Georgia and Russia. We do not know what the quarrel between Georgia, Russia and the disputed provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was all about. Claims of genocide by Georgia on South Ossetia were made by the Russia, while Georgia claimed that Russia was trying to bully its tiny neighbour. Who is in the right?

We do not know.

But as we said before in Are we in a long-term inflationary environment?,

The implication is extremely unpalatable: some nations will have to rise at the expense of the others, which may result in armed conflicts (touch wood, heaven forbid!).

We believe the conflict was at the root about jostling and pushing for the influence and control of natural resources. Russia is an energy rich nation- much of Europe is dependent on Russia for its gas supplies. It also has abundant reserves of oil too. And disturbingly, Russia has shown to have no qualms in using energy to bully its neighbours and settle disputes.

In terms of natural resources, the Caucasus is a very strategic region. As this map in the Wikipedia shows,

Detailed map of the Caucasus region (1994), including locations of economicaly important energy and mineral resources: South Ossetia has reserves of lead and zinc, Abkhazia has coal, and Georgia has oil, gold, copper, manganese, and coal.

In terms of oil, this article from The Age explains,

While Georgia does not produce oil itself, US and European energy firms have counted on the pro-Western country – sandwiched between Russia and Iran further south – to host a conduit for oil and gas exports from Azerbaijan.

Since President Mikheil Saakashvili took power in 2004 two new pipes have been built, and the explosion of violence between Georgia and huge northern neighbour is threatening those, notably the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline.

Transporting oil through the Caucasus is designed to make the West less dependent on supplies from Russia, which has shown worrying willingness to close the taps in disputes with other ex-Soviet states in recent years.

Make no mistake about this: in the years to come, countries that own and control energy reserves (and natural resources in general) will be the ones calling the shots. As we said before in The Problem that can throw us back into the age of horse-drawn carriages,

… supplying environmentally sustainable energy indefinitely at a rate fast enough is a colossal global problem that must be solved. If not, the latter generations will not live better than the current generation.

Many of the oil fields located in US-friendly oil producing nations are in decline. The implication is that as the years goes by, more and more of the world’s energy are produced in nations that are not so receptive to the US and its Western allies.

It is no coincidence that we are seeing conflicts in such regions of the world.

Can there be an alternative reserve currency?

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Today, we will answer another of our readers’ question from our earlier article, What is a crack-up boom?,


So in a crack-up boom, will this be different to the times of Germany? There are so many fiat currencies out there, whats to stop Australia for instance adopting the Euro? (I bet there are many reasons). What about if people get sick of $USD, and start trading in Chinese Yuan instead? Or Reals? Is that possible? Due to our global trade system, that was not as highly developed in the time of Germany?s troubles, would that not alter the possible outcome when the crack-up ?conditions are met??

Sergey Stadnik

It the new hyperinflation hits the world, starting with US. What?s going to become such an anchor: gold, oil, Chinese Yuan?

For those who are new to this publication, the context of these two questions lies in the US dollar being the world’s reserve currency. Please note that as always the case, we are not making any predictions about the future. Instead, we are exploring the possibilities with a view to understand what are the economic signs to watch out for.

First, how will today’s crack up boom different “to the times of Germany” in the 1920s? Well, if a crack up boom is confined to only one currency, then it is only that currency’s country that get affected. For example, Zimbabwe is ravaged by hyperinflation today. There is no major economic effect on the rest of the world because of it. But the US dollar is a different- it is the world’s reserve currency. An inflating reserve currency will have an effect on to the rest of the world- see How does the US export inflation?. As we can all read from the mainstream media, inflation has become a global phenomenon, with the sky-rocketing oil prices blamed on the ‘weak’ US dollar (see Can ?weak US dollar? be partially blamed for rising oil prices?).

Now, let us suppose that the US will fall into a crack-up boom (i.e. hyperinflation). As we said before in What if the US fall into hyperinflation? (and we encourage you to read this article for the context), when that happens,

… a disorderly flight from the US dollar is a Black Swan event that will result in a mad scramble to find a reliable alternative. It will be a time of volatility and uncertainty. No prize for guessing that gold will be the primary beneficiary when that happens.

Will the Euro become the reserve currency? Or the Chinese yuan? There are a few problems with that:

Firstly, all these currencies are fiat money (in fact, all currencies today are fiat money). As we said before in What should be your fundamental reason for accumulating gold?, money is fiat if it

… enjoys legal tender status through the authority of the government instead of through the choice of the free market. This means that fiat money is not backed by anything physically tangible?it derives its value from an elusive intangible called ?confidence.? Simply put, fiat money is backed by nothing!

For this reason, we can liken choosing a reserve currency to a beauty contest that chooses the least ugly woman as the winner- all choices are bad choice and we have to choose the least bad choice.

Secondly, each of these currencies have their own unique problems.

Thirdly, if an alternative reserve currency is to emerge, it will involve unhealthy economic conflict and competition among the nations (similar to the years prior to the Second World War). A good way to illustrate this instability is to use the reality TV show, Big Brother, as an analogy. In that show, all house mates vie, plot, back-stab and struggle among each other in order to win the one and only top prize. In the same way, the country having the world’s reserve currency will be in a very commanding position. We can be sure that if China vies for this position, there will surely be opposition.

All these problems leave only one candidate to function as the world’s reserve currency- gold. The world used gold under the classical gold standard (there is a brief history of money in Why should you invest in gold?) and it arguably worked very well until the interruption of the First World War. But it will require the global economic situation to deteriorate to the point of extreme pain for the idea of reverting to the gold standard to be entertained. So, don’t hold your breath on that. But if it does happen (who knows?), we can imagine it happening the way we described in What is the future of silver?.

Lastly, can oil function as money? As we said before in Properties of good money, oil does not fulfil the necessary properties to function as money.

A resemblance of the beginning of Weimar-style inflation

Monday, June 9th, 2008

As we can all learn from the news media, inflation seems to be infecting every nation in the world. Despite the destruction of credit (deflation) in the United States through asset write-downs, bad debts and wealth destruction through home price deflation, price inflation is still turning into a more and more serious problem not only in the United States, but also in the rest of the world. Most notably, with the prices of oil (which is an input for many stages of production, for example, see Can rising oil prices undermine the benefits of globalisation?) in an upward warpath, government ministers are murmuring of the threat to global growth, as this Bloomberg article, Soaring Oil Price `Dangerous’ for Growth, Steinbrueck Says, reported:

Soaring oil and food prices will spur inflation and could imperil economic growth, German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck said.

“We are facing a very dangerous situation caused by these tremendously increasing prices for commodities, food and oil,” Steinbrueck said today at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

Here in Australia, our Prime Minister is putting the blame on oil producers, as this article reported,

As the bowser price of petrol climbs towards $1.80, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, have blamed a lack of supply from oil-producing countries.

Can increasing production really solve the problem? Based on the simplistic supply-demand curve taught at first year economics courses, it is easy to conclude that rising prices is due to rising demand without the corresponding rise in supply. But there is far more than meets the eye in this problem.

Here we must make one point clear: There are indeed fundamental reasons why the prices of commodities, food and oil are rising (see The Problem that can throw us back into the age of horse-drawn carriages, Why are the poor suffering from food shortages? and Example of a secular trend- commodities and the upcoming rise of a potential superpower). But monetary inflation accentuates price inflation and distorts the price signals for demand and supply. As we explained in How is inflation sabotaging our ability to measure the value of things?,

If you want to measure the length of a box, you may use the ruler to do it. The reason why a ruler can do such a job is because its length is reasonably consistent for the foreseeable future. Now, imagine that ruler is as elastic as a rubber band. Do you think it is still a useful tool to measure the length of the box? An elastic ruler is useless because you can always make up the measurement of the box to whatever you please just by stretching the ruler such that the edge of the box is aligned to any intended measurement markings in the ruler.

Now, let come back to measuring the value of oil. Since oil is priced in US dollars and if the supply of US dollars [and other fiat money e.g. Australian dollars, Euros, etc] can be expanded [inflation] and contracted [deflation e.g. credit contraction] at will by the Federal Reserve, how useful do you think it is as a calibration for measuring the value of oil?

The presence of index speculators in the commodities futures market (see Who is to blame for surging food and oil prices?) is an example of how prices are distorted by monetary inflation. As we explained before in How to secretly rob the people with monetary inflation?, such price distortions ultimately harm societies (and by extensions, nations) in the end. Today, it is the poor nations that are bearing the brunt of commodities price inflation as the richer ones hoard them (see Price fluctuations and hoarding), which lead to even more price inflation, which further encourages even more hoarding. Ultimately, all these will result in further global mis-allocation of resources for production. As we said in The economics of inflation, that was what happened in Weimar Germany in the 1920s:

In the acutest phase of the inflation Germany offered the grotesque, and at the same time tragic, spectacle of a people which, rather than produce food, clothes, shoes, and milk for its own babies, was exhausting its energies in the manufacture of machines or the building of factories.

Our fear is that the world may be embarking on a similar path. Countries like China and Middle East are embarking on massive investment spending sprees as they spend their hoard of rapidly depreciating US dollars. This is probably the answer to the question we posed in What to do with US$ raised from dumped US Treasuries?. Soaring commodity prices may induce massive mal-investments into the commodity producing industries. For example, massive amount of capital could be further poured into the extraction and refining of lower quality oil in hostile terrains. Wars may even be fought for the sake of securing commodities (well, we wonder whether the root of Iran’s war rhetoric and US invasion of Iraq related to the fight for commodities?). Meanwhile, investments into alternative energy are languishing and dragged slowly by other seemingly more urgent agendas.

If this hyper-inflationary crack-up boom continues, all of us here know where the root of the problem begins: lack of honest monetary system (see Why should you invest in gold?).

Can rising oil prices undermine the benefits of globalisation?

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

Right now, there is much talk about price inflation. As you read the news media headlines, you will get to see a lot of talk about the soaring oil and food prices. There are rumours that the Fed is going to raise interest rates to fight inflation. Some people are comparing today with the infamous stagflation of the 1970s. We have heard of inflation in the Middle East, China, Singapore, South Korea and even Japan. It seems that the world is infected with the inflation bug.

Today, we read a news article, China, Starbucks and inflation, of which one of its paragraphs caught our attention:

“In many rural economies, you have farmers who go in their trucks with the produce they grow to the market to trade it,” said Lawrence Eagles, head of the International Energy Agency’s oil industry and market division. “But if it no longer becomes profitable because of the cost of gas, they’re going to simply return to subsistence farming, which would be a significant development.”

It is obvious that if most of these rural farmers return to subsistence farming, the price of food will rise, thanks to the rising price of oil. This led us to mull about the inflation problem.

Nowadays, we live in the modern age of globalisation. One of the characteristics of globalisation is specialisation. Countries specialise in producing things that they are particularly skilled at or can do so at a relatively lower cost than the others (see the theory of comparative advantage). Individually, our jobs are becoming more and more specialised. We see more and more experts at narrower and narrower fields of discipline.

No doubt, globalisation can bring about a lot of prosperity and wealth (and a lot of other negative side effects as well). For example, we have a case whereby Australia grows macadamia nuts (because it has a comparative advantage), ships them to China for packing (where the low cost of labour allows packing to be done at a much lower cost) and them ships them back to Australia for sale. Producing and packing macadamia nuts in either country alone will result in higher costs. But thanks to the globalisation, we can enjoy lower prices than otherwise.

But we see a weak point in globalisation. In the above example, it only works if the cost of shipping things is not prohibitive. As oil prices rises, the cost of shipping increases. As shipping cost increases, the benefits of specialisation and comparative advantage cannot be exploited just as easily.

Using the quote from the above-mentioned news article, we can imagine that with specialisation and comparative advantage, the farmers specialise in growing food for the city dwellers, while the city dwellers specialise in producing white goods in the factories for the farmers. Both benefits. But as the price of transport shoot up, this cosy arrangement can potentially break down.

So, as we can all see, this is another example of to show that much of the prosperity and comforts of modern life depends cheap and abundant energy. Take that away, and the good life as we know will be under threat.

How the rich make their killing from soaring oil prices?

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

Take a look at this article from the news media: Opportunities in crisis as oil stocks dwindle,

A new oil shock that is sweeping the world has sent airline tickets soaring, car drivers reeling and retailers bemoaning the shrinking purses of customers. It is an oil shock of rare proportions.

It is in such events that investors thrive: surely there is an opportunity here for an investor to make a profit from the rising oil price?

Well, how would the rich profit from the soaring oil prices?

There is one rule of thumb that all investors, especially the budding ones, should take note: by the time you get to read about profit opportunities on the media, the biggest and most lucrative killings have already been made. What remains are the leftover scraps. The best investors hop on to the long term major trend long before the mainstream media screams about it. As early as the end of 2006, we had already whispered about the future of oil prices at Is oil going to be more expensive?. The world-class investors who are making a killing from soaring oil prices now would have made their move two years ago.

So, now that mainstream media are talking about how to profit from soaring oil prices, what will the world-class investors be looking at right now? No doubt, they will be thinking steps from the crowd. We believe they will be casting their eyes on alternative energy.

Back in April last year, we examined the idea of alternative energy- see our currently evolving guide, How to profit from rising energy prices?. In particular, take a read at Part 3 (Centralised or Distributed Power) of the “Smart money in alternative energy” series to see how the future of energy will look like in the long run. Regardless of whether you believe the former model (centralised power) or the latter model (distributed power) will be the outcome of the future, there is one problem for the investor: currently, there is no certainty on which forms of alternative energy (e.g. wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, clean coal, biofuels, etc) will be implemented or commercially successful in the future. By the time the world work them out, the most lucrative profits would have already been made.

But how would the best investors invest in alternative energy? Remember the concept of the asymmetric pay-off strategy in our guide, How to profit from a stock market crash?? The same applies to alternative energy. We do not know which alternative energy will be the winner, but we know that the winner (or winners) will probably win a whopping big victory (or victories). The losers may end up discarded and forgotten (we believe ethanol will probably go the way of the losers). Therefore, the way to invest in alternative energy will be to allocate fractions of your capital into each and every alternative energy candidate that you believe will have good chances of winning. Eventually, one or more of the candidate will win so big that your combined losses on the losers will pale in comparison to the combined wins.

Obviously, this strategy will work only for those who have large enough capital.

Who is to blame for surging food and oil prices?

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

Imagine you are standing in a typical petrol station in 1974 on a typical day (there was an oil shock in 1973). This is what you may see back then:

Cars queued for hours to get petrol in 1974

Now, imagine you get sucked into a time warp and time-travelled to today on 2008. This is what you may see:

A typical petrol station in 2008

So, let’s say a passer-by told you that petrol price had doubled more than 2 ½ times over the past 2 years, would you laugh at the passer-by? “Yeah right!” you may say. “Where’s the queue and rationing?”

Indeed, this is what has happened. As we said before in The Problem that can throw us back into the age of horse-drawn carriages, there are good reasons why the oil price rose over the past decade. In fact, this is true for commodities in general (e.g. base metals, food). As we explained before in Why are the poor suffering from food shortages? and Example of a secular trend- commodities and the upcoming rise of a potential superpower, there are good reasons for this. Already, we are hearing of food riots in the Middle East and Asia.

Yet, strangely, these upward price movements seem unreal. Where’s the queues and rationing? How do we explain this?

Two days ago, in the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing, this question was put forth: Financial Speculation in Commodity Markets: Are Institutional Investors and Hedge Funds Contributing to Food and Energy Price Inflation? Here, we must give special thanks to one of our readers, Zoo for highlighting this piece of information at Picture of a fiat money.

Here, let us zoom into the testimony of Michael Masters, who is the Managing Member and Portfolio Manager, Masters Capital Management, LLC. As our reader Zoo said, “It seems it is the testimony of Michael Masters, a hedge fund manager, which made all the Senators sit up and take notice (sic).” This is Michael Masters’ introduction in his testimony:

Good morning and thank you, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, for the invitation to speak to you today. This is a topic that I care deeply about, and I appreciate the chance to share what I have discovered.

I have been successfully managing a long-short equity hedge fund for over 12 years and I have extensive contacts on Wall Street and within the hedge fund community. It’s important that you know that I am not currently involved in trading the commodities futures markets. I am not representing any corporate, financial, or lobby organizations. I am speaking with you today as a concerned citizen whose professional background has given me insight into a situation that I believe is negatively affecting the U.S. economy. While some in my profession might be disappointed that I am presenting this testimony to Congress, I feel that it is the right thing to do.

You have asked the question ?Are Institutional Investors contributing to food and energy price inflation?? And my unequivocal answer is ?YES.?

That’s a strong categorical statement. Unlike many mainstream financial commentators, Michael Masters did not fluffed around with the “on-the-other-hand” and “having-said-that” types of answer. It is as clear as you can get, backed up by evidence, charts and numbers.

So, how do we explain such a spectacular rise in commodity prices without the queues and rationing? Michael Masters answered,

What we are experiencing is a demand shock coming from a new category of participant in the commodities futures markets

Just who is this “new category” of market participants? Is it China and India? No! The rising demand of these two giant nations had been gradually brewing and simmering over the past decade and will continue to the next decade and beyond. Their demand are hardly a shock. Michael Masters pointed the finger at:

Institutional Investors. Specifically, these are Corporate and Government Pension Funds, Sovereign Wealth Funds, University Endowments and other Institutional Investors. Collectively, these investors now account on average for a larger share of outstanding commodities futures contracts than any other market participant.

To give you a sense of scale of their share on the commodities futures contracts, Michael Masters gave an example:

According to the DOE, annual Chinese demand for petroleum has increased over the last five years from 1.88 billion barrels to 2.8 billion barrels, an increase of 920 million barrels. Over the same five-year period, Index Speculators’ [institutional investors’] demand for petroleum futures has increased by 848 million barrels. The increase in demand from Index Speculators is almost equal to the increase in demand from China!

There are a few more examples given by Michael Masters in his testimony. What happened was that these institutional investors hoarded commodities through the futures market, affecting futures price, which in turn affected the spot prices (i.e. the real world market price). The spot prices are the prices that we all face in our daily life.

In additional, these institutional investors (which Michael Masters called “Index Speculators” are a completely different breed from the traditional speculators. The latter were relatively small fries who (1) had limited supply of money, (2) specialised in certain commodities and (3) price conscious (i.e. they are careful with what price they pay for). The Index Speculators are poles apart. They have vast amount of money (fiat money in US dollars) to be distributed among “key commodities futures according to the popular indices” and are not conscious about the price they pay. They think in terms of portfolio asset allocation, which means that if they decide to allocate, say 2% of their assets into a specific commodity, they will “buy as many futures contracts as they need, at whatever price is necessary, until all of their money has been ‘put to work.’ ” Unlike the traditional speculators who buys and sells, Index Speculators never sell because they treat commodities as some kind of quasi-assets. You can expect such behaviour to have colossal impact on commodity prices.

How did all these Index Speculators came about? Michael Masters explained,

In the early part of this decade, some institutional investors who suffered as a result of the severe equity bear market of 2000-2002, began to look to the commodity futures market as a potential new ?asset class? suitable for institutional investment. While the commodities markets have always had some speculators, never before had major investment institutions seriously considered the commodities futures markets as viable for larger scale investment programs. Commodities looked attractive because they have historically been ?uncorrelated,? meaning they trade inversely to fixed income and equity portfolios. Mainline financial industry consultants, who advised large institutions on portfolio allocations, suggested for the first time that investors could ?buy and hold? commodities futures, just like investors previously had done with stocks and bonds.

The value of assets devoted to commodities by these Index Speculators grew from just US$13 billion in 2003 to US$260 billion as of March 2008. Over these 5 years, the prices of commodities grew by an average of 183%. In 2003, they were small fries in the commodities futures market. Today, they are the largest force in the market.

Why is it that no one seems to know about this phenomenon? Michael Masters believes that (emphasis in the original testimony):

The huge growth in their demand has gone virtually undetected by classically-trained economists who almost never analyze demand in futures markets.

To compound the effect of Index Speculators on commodity prices, it must be noted that the commodity futures markets are much smaller than the capital markets. For example, it is 240 times smaller than the global equity market. Thus, every dollar on commodity futures has a much greater impact on prices than the same dollar on equities. To compound the problem even further, it was observed that their demand increases prices, which in turn increases demand even more. That is, hoarding begets more hoarding.

So, let’s return to the petrol problem. Let’s say OPEC increases production in an attempt to help bring down the price of oil. Or the world decides to to embark on an oil fast. Will that work? You can see that these Index Speculators can easily pour more money into the oil futures sink hole.

Sad to say, through a loophole, the US Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) allows such speculators “unlimited access to the commodities futures markets.” As Michael Masters explained,

The really shocking thing about the Swaps Loophole is that Speculators of all stripes can use it to access the futures markets. So if a hedge fund wants a $500 million position in Wheat, which is way beyond position limits, they can enter into swap with a Wall Street bank and then the bank buys $500 million worth of Wheat futures.

In the CFTC?s classification scheme all Speculators accessing the futures markets through the Swaps Loophole are categorized as ?Commercial? rather than ?Non-Commercial.? The result is a gross distortion in data that effectively hides the full impact of Index Speculation.

So, whose fault is this? We can blame these Index Speculators. But as we said before in Connecting monetary inflation with speculation,

Thus, by further inflating the supply of money and credit in the financial system at such a time, there comes a situation whereby there are excess liquidity without adequate avenues for appropriate investments.

Is it surprising to see the arrival of the Index Speculators?