Posts Tagged ‘Oil’

Connecting monetary inflation with speculation

Saturday, May 10th, 2008

One of the common explanations we find in the news media for high oil prices is that they are the speculators’ fault. In our previous article, Price fluctuations and hoarding, we have a better word to describe such speculative activity- hoarding. Speculators (or rather hoarders) are blamed for bidding up the price of oil, resulting in a global price inflation scourge. Many economists call such price inflation as ‘cost-push’ inflation.

But in reality, there is a deeper underlying cause for such price inflation. As we quoted Marc Faber in Marc Faber: Bernanke Policy Will ?Destroy? U.S. Dollar,

As the US began their aggressively loose monetary policy from September 17 2007 by cutting interest rates from 5.25% to 3% [, Marc Faber said,]

What is the result? I tell you what the result is! The stock market in September 17 by the S&P is down 10%, the US dollar is down 10%, gold and oil are up 40%. Well done Mr. Bernanke!

How does monetary inflation (see Cause of inflation: Shanghai bubble case study) lead to speculation? At the root of speculation lie human decisions for improving one’s lot in life. The ultimate aim of the economy is to satisfy infinite wants with finite resources. With all these mal-investments accrued over the years, it has come to the point that too many resources are wasted in ends that are either (1) cannot be completed or (2) unwanted. As we said before in Why does the central bank (RBA) need to punish the Australian economy with rising interest rates?,

Therefore, in order to put the economy back into a sustainable growth path, consumptions and investments have to slow down in order to allow for the economy to catch a breather for the rebuilding of its capital structure. The rebuilding of capital structure is necessary for the economy to replenish its resources for the future so that growth can continue down the track. Unfortunately, this rebuilding itself requires resources now. Therefore, current wasteful consumptions have to be curtailed and mal-investments have to be dismantled to make way for the rebuilding.

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.

To understand this idea, put yourself in a position of a person with excess wealth in US dollars to invest in. Where can you invest your wealth to give yourself a real return in an economy that is in recession with serious price inflation? With asset price deflation and a credit crunch, there are not many financial assets to park your wealth in. At least in Australia, with rising interest rates, cash is an option. But in the US, with short-term interest rates lower than the price inflation rate, cash is not an option. Even long-term Treasury bonds are not good enough. In the end, the most attractive option would be to hoard commodities that have good supply/demand fundamentals. But if too many people are in the same boat as you, such hoarding will only result in further rise in prices.

So, is there any wonder why there are speculations (or rather, hoarding) in commodities?

Can “weak US dollar” be partially blamed for rising oil prices?

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

Yesterday, we questioned the validity of using fiat money as a unit of measure for the value of a commodity. Today, we will look at idea that the “weak US dollar” is one of the scapegoats for rising oil prices.

Frequently, we hear from the media explaining that one of the ’causes’ of rising oil prices (and by extension, inflation) is due to the “weak US dollar.” But notice one thing: oil prices had been rising in all currencies, not just in terms of US dollar. This leads us to one basic principle: everything else being equal, a falling US dollar has no effect on oil prices measured in non-US currencies. Of course, in the real world, everything else is not equal- oil prices rises to different degrees in terms of other currencies too, including the Australian dollar. In that case, can the rising in oil prices in terms of non-US currencies be attributed to supply/demand fundamentals?

But wait a minute! What is the meaning of “weak US dollar?” Can we interpret the meaning of “weak US dollar” to mean that the supply of US money and credit has been expanding at a faster rate than the supply of its non-US counterparts? Well, consider this fact: the supply of non-US money and credit has been expanding at an arguably greater rate than the supply of their US counterpart. For example, Australia’s money supply increased 21.6% (see Australia?s monetary growth update?February 2008) while the US money supply was estimated to be significantly below that figure (the US no longer publish figures on their M3 money supply). Putting aside the argument of which nation’s money supply has been increasing at a faster rate, this is the basic point: the supply of fiat money and credit of all nations have been increasing. In other words, high oil price is not just a problem of the “weak US dollar.” As we said before in What if the US fall into hyperinflation?,

Now, in this age of freely fluctuating currencies, the currency?s value is a relative concept. For example, a falling US dollar implies a rising Australian dollar. Therefore, one way to ?maintain? the value of the US dollar relative to the Australian dollar is to devalue the Australian dollar. Perhaps this is the route that central bankers will concertedly take to instil ?confidence? in the US dollar in order to create the illusion that the US dollar is still a reliable store of value? Well, they can try, but growing global inflation and skyrocketing gold price relative to all currencies will be tell-tale signs of such a dirty trick.

We can include oil prices in the last sentence of the above-quoted paragraph. Thus, we believe that global monetary inflation is one of the major contributing factors in accentuating the rise in oil prices, in addition to the fundamental supply/demand factors. It is an error to blame it on the “weak US dollar.”

In the next article, we will connect monetary inflation with oil price speculation.

Oil at $40 or $200?

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

Yesterday, Goldman Sachs analysts predicted that oil can hit US$200. As this news article, New ‘super-spike’ might mean $200 a barrel oil, reported,

With $100-a-barrel here for now, Goldman Sachs says $200 a barrel could be a reality in the not-too-distant future in the case of a “major disruption.”

Goldman on Friday also boosted by $10 the low end of its 2008-2012 projected range for crude to $60 a barrel — significantly lower than current prices, to be sure, but a possible mark for oil if “normalized” trends return to the marketplace.

Mind you, those Goldman Sachs guys predicted US$100 a couple of years ago and no one believed them. This time round, people take their forecasts more seriously.

At the same time, Citigroup analysts predicted that oil will hit US$40 within 2 years.

Why is there such a vast difference in the price forecast of oil?

Is it possible for oil to fall in demand so drastically that its price falls to US$40? Can its demand surge so hight till its price hits US$200? If one asks such questions, it shows a fundamental error in thinking. You see, the underlying assumption behind these questions is that the US dollars is an immovable yardstick of measurement. The truth is, the US dollar is as elastic and twang as rubber band. With deflation, the US dollar shrinks, and with inflation, the US dollar stretches (see What is inflation and deflation?). As we said before 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 can be expanded and contracted at will by the Federal Reserve, how useful do you think it is as a calibration for measuring the value of oil?

Can oil fall to US$40? Yes, it will take an acute deflation of money and credit in the global financial system to result in that. If you wonder how such a deflation will look like, the Great Depression is the best template. Can oil surge to US$200? Sure, other than Chinese and Indian demand (see The Problem that can throw us back into the age of horse-drawn carriages), monetary inflation can lubricate the upward slide of oil prices.

If you notice, the mainstream media is catching on to this understanding too. They are starting to blame rising oil prices on the weak US dollar. Speculators and ‘investors’ are also blamed. But there are a couple of things they do not see. What are they? Keep in tune!

The Problem that can throw us back into the age of horse-drawn carriages

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

In future, if we look back at 2008, will we find that it is the year of the turning point in terms of global growth? Right now, for all intents and purposes, the US is in recession. Japan looks like it is falling back into recession again. Western Europe seems to be sluggish. But there are other bright spots, namely the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China and perhaps the Middle-East and Eastern Europe) countries. (We know we are generalising here, but we are doing so for the sake of brevity because the focus of today’s article is something else). Thus, there is little wonder that although the IMF is lowering forecasts for global growth, it is still positive (i.e. their forecast does not point to a global recession).

But what is the greatest danger facing the global economy today?

Recently, we read BHP to use half of state’s electricity in the news media:

BHP Billiton will need nearly half of South Australia’s current electricity supply to power its vastly expanded Olympic Dam copper and uranium mine.

China is growing rapidly in a massive scale. Such massive growth requires massive amount of metals for building skyscrapers and infrastructure. Mining and producing all these metals requires copious amount of electricity. Copious amount of electricity requires copious amount of energy. The recent snowstorms in China shows that the entire nation has a very narrow margin of energy supply before serious disruptions occur. If China is to grow further, its current supply of energy is inadequate. China has abundant coal (it used to export coal). But today, there is not even enough for her energy needs. By now, you should be able to appreciate what is involved (in terms of energy usage) to keep China in its trajectory of growth. And we have not included India into the picture.

Maintaining the way of life in the developed Western nations requires huge amount of energy. As we said before in Smart money in alternative energy?Part 1: current energy quandary,

The most important ingredient that drives the efficiencies, comforts, automation and wonders of today?s modern way of life is energy. The trains, cars, ships and aeroplanes that transport massive quantities of people and goods over vast distances quickly require energy in the form of fuel. The heavy machines that do heavy physical work far beyond the scope of human labour require energy too. The powerful computers that process and store vast amount of data and information as well as automate mental labour requires energy in the form of electricity. The heating in winter and cooling in summer of our abode requires energy too. Take energy away and our modern way of life will very much grind to a halt and bring us back to the hard life of our ancestors. In fact, contemporary life rests on the premise of abundant and cheap energy. Therefore, whoever controls the supply and provision of energy controls power and wealth.

To elevate the way of life in developing nations (e.g. India, China) to a level that is on par with the developed Western world requires a greater initial upsurge of energy use. After that, to maintain that level of way of life for all these additional billions of people, the world will see a permanently much higher plateau of energy usage indefinitely. It should be clear by now the gravity of the implications of such projections.

Can the earth supply enough energy fast enough to allow the developing world to embark on such a path? The earth may have plenty of energy under the ground (i.e. coal, oil and gas), but can humanity extract them fast enough for such unceasingly growing usage? An analogy for this question would be to imagine yourself trying to breathe through a straw. Yes, there may be plenty of air around you, but if you have to breathe through a straw, there is no way you can do strenuous exercise without turning blue. There are two big-picture issues with regards to the world’s energy supply:

  1. Peak Oil. As we said before in Is oil going to be more expensive?,

    Put it simply, the Peak Oil theory states that the world?s oil production has reached the peak and is entering the stage of terminal decline. One common misunderstanding of Peak Oil is that the world is running out of oil. No, the world is not running out of oil?the world is running out of easily accessible oil.

  2. Energy production capacity Even if you do not believe in the Peak Oil theory, there is another problem. There is not enough infrastructure to extract oil and natural gas from unforgiving and inhospitable terrains (e.g. Arctic, Siberia, undersea). Oil extraction is one problem. Refining them is another infrastructure challenge.

Next, even if energy supply is not a problem, there is another headache- global warming. Burning all these oil, natural gas and coal will release colossal amount of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere. It will be a sad irony if China and India achieves the same level as the West in the way of life, only to face environmental disasters that will drag them down again.

In summary, 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. That is where the best investment opportunities lie.

What can derail the China growth story?

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

Recently, news of fuel shortages in China has been hitting the news wire again- see China Facing Renewed Fuel Shortages from the Associated Press. In fact, this problem had been festering since last year November, when we wrote Result of Chinese price controls.

If this fuel shortage problem continues to worsen in the months ahead, will it eventually result in a major correction in the Chinese economy? As we put forth this question before in Can China really ?de-couple? from a US recession?,

Does China have enough capital goods, labour (yes, there are reports of labour shortages in China) and raw materials to continue the current trajectory of capital investment growth in China?

With such high oil prices and rampaging inflation in China, this is a worry that cannot be ignored. Keep watch on the Chinese fuel situation.

Oil prices?the big picture

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

In November last year, we wrote Is oil going to be more expensive?. A few months had since gone by and oil prices are still going nowhere. Last month, it even went under US$50. We guess by now, short-term traders are no longer enthusiastic on oil anymore.

As long-term investors, we must always keep our focus on the big picture. There is a growing consensus that sources from conventional oil fields are declining and that more unconventional sources of oil will have to be found and developed. This article, Future oil much harder to extract, from the mainstream newspaper, echo that view. Though the theory of Peak Oil is not mentioned in that article, it is clear that this theory forms the underlying assumption. However, not everyone believes in Peak Oil. Also, there are optimists who believe that technology will one day come to the rescue by making the extraction of oil from unconventional sources (i.e. oil sands) commercially viable. We believe that such optimism is currently premature?serious constraints still exists (see Curing oil sands fever). Then there is this idea of ?exploration paradox? where exploration is declining despite high oil prices (see Oil takeover time). Finally, there is always this wild card?Middle-East conflict.

If you are a pessimist who believes in (1) theory of Peak Oil, (2) ?exploration paradox,? (3) impracticality of oil extraction from oil sands, (4) inevitable Middle-East conflict, (5) continuous monetary inflation and (6) forthcoming ferocious oil appetite of China and India, then you will have to be bullish in the long-run price of oil and bearish on future human civilisation.

As for us, our advice is always the same: be prepared.

Analysing recent falls in oil prices?real vs investment demand

Saturday, January 13th, 2007

In November last year, we explained our opinions on the future of oil prices (see Is oil going to be more expensive?). Recently, oil prices had been falling very rapidly to even below US$53. Were we wrong?

Before we answer this question, we have to understand the distinction between the real and financial side of the economy. The real side where you find the physical market for goods, services and labour. The financial side is where you find the flow of financial capital, assets and payments. For example, the stock, debt and derivatives markets are part of the financial side of the economy. As Ross Gittins said in his article, Two sides to the story of nation’s rising prosperity, as the financial side grows in importance, it balloons and crowds out the real side. In Australia, with hundreds of millions more of superannuation money seeking to find a home, we can expect the financial service industry to grow even more, which means the financial side of the economy will rise in further prominence in the future.

Now, let?s go back to oil. What makes up the demand for oil? There are basically two types of demand for oil: (1) The physical demand where the real side of the economy uses for its everyday needs and (2) The investment demand where the financial side of the economy shifts the money here and there from one asset class to the other. We need to ask ourselves the following question: Has the physical demand for oil changed? Will it change in the long run?

From the International Energy Agency (IEA), we can see that world oil supply exceeds world oil demand by just around a couple of millions of barrels per day (or around 2.5% of demand). From the US Department of Energy (DOE), we learnt that,

In the AEO2006 reference case, the combined production capacity of members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) does not increase as much as previously projected, and consequently world oil supplies are assumed to remain tight. The United States and emerging Asia?notably, China? are expected to lead the increase in demand for world oil supplies, keeping pressure on prices though 2030.

World oil demand is expected to increase to around 120 million barrels per day in 2025, from 84.5 million in 2006, with developing nations (notably China) capturing a mounting slice of the increase. World oil supply is expected to barely keep up (assuming that Peak Oil is not true) with the demand.

These forecasts are based on a fundamental economic assumption: ceteris paribus, which means ?everything else being equal.? But as we know in real life, things rarely happen nicely according to plan. Unexpected surprises often do happen. The biggest wild card is the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. Would the Israelis or the Americans strike Iran, resulting in Iranian retaliation by disrupting the global flow of oil? Will the US succeed in creating a viable state in Iraq or will Iraq descend into chaos, thus removing a major oil-producing nation from the equation? Would war break out in the Middle East again, destroying and damaging oil infrastructures in the region?

As we can see, the fundamentals of oil are still intact. Therefore, from what we can see, such a rapid drop in oil prices is mainly due to the change in investment demand?asset managers (we prefer to see them as ?money shufflers?) shifting their preferences from one asset class to another.

Some of the reasons given by the financial media to ?explain? the recent falls in oil prices are nonsense. For example, they blamed the warmer than expected weather in North America for the price fall. In reality, oil demand is primarily driven by transportation needs, not by winter heating needs.

One more thing: as oil prices fell because of the fall in investment demand, guess what will happen to the real demand for oil?

Good news! Gold fell by more than 3% overnight!

Saturday, January 6th, 2007

This morning, we were pleasantly surprised to see that gold prices (along with the other metal commodities) plunged overnight in New York. It was just a few days ago when gold prices was north of US$640 and it is suddenly US$605 today. We checked out the financial media and found those dubious ?reasons? for the plunge:

  1. The US$ surged after a better than expected jobs data (which ?means? the Fed is more likely to raise interest rates, which in turn is bullish on the US$).
  2. Oil prices fell due to warmer than expected weather in North America.
  3. Profit taking ahead of the weekend.
  4. Funds hate uncertainty?so they pull the sell trigger and ask questions later.
  5. Tightening of money supply in China and India, led to a stronger US$ (the US$ and gold price has a so-called inverse relationship).
  6. French President Chirac urged a growth-oriented Euro policy, which is bullish for the US$.
  7. ?Investors? were nervous because the energy market was being beaten up badly.

As we said before in How much should we listen to the financial media?, the financial media have to always come up with ?reasons? to explain the market?s behaviour. At times, there can be no particular rationale behind such developments simply because those are characteristics of mindless herd behaviour.

For us, what if the gold price falls further in the next wave of panic selling? If that happens, we welcome that as another opportune time to further increase our hoard of this undervalued treasure. Indeed, we do thank those hedge fund managers for selling us gold and silver at such giveaway prices. Meanwhile, for us as investors, we do well to remind ourselves of the fundamental reason for holding them so that we would not be unduly perturbed by short-term price volatility.

Awash with cash?what to do with it?

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

Not long ago, an Australian executive went to the Middle East to promote one of his company?s software systems to potential Arab clients. In his sales pitch, he sprinkled the words ?low-cost? all over to stress the cost effectiveness of the product. After a while, one of the Arabs pulled him aside and growled, ?What do you mean by ?low-cost?? We don’t care about the cost! Just cut the nonsense and give us what we want now!? Upon returning to Australia, that executive remarked that the Middle East is ?just awash with money.?

Just where do all these money come from?

The answer, as you would have guessed by now, is the United States. The US, being in the enviable position of having its money as the world’s primary reserve currency, is not subjected (for now) to the same rules as the other countries?it can spend more than it earns simply by printing its own dollars to pay foreigners. Thus, it can sustain greater trade deficits than would otherwise be tolerated by foreigners.

For years, the US has been running a ballooning trade deficit?its imports, which is paid by its own printed dollars, has been exceeding its exports by an ever-widening margin. From China, the US has been importing consumer goods and from the oil-producing nations, oil. The US dollars that are used to buy oil are nicknamed ?petrodollars? (the money in the above-mentioned story is such dollars).

Today, those foreign countries that account for the vast majority of US imports (namely the oil-producing Middle Eastern nations, Russia, China and Japan) are sitting on so much US dollars that they do not know what to do with it. Therefore, they recycled much of those dollars by purchasing US Treasury bonds. As a result, the long-term interest rates in the US are being artificially suppressed by those purchases.

As we said before in Will the US dollar collapse?, some of these countries are murmuring about diversifying their reserves away from the US dollars because they see that such state of affair is increasingly unsustainable. With the US continually inflating its money supply (printing money), their reserves of US dollars are increasingly become more and more worthless. In fact, we believe that given the swelling amount of US dollars in the world, its current price is overvalued.

Now, here comes a problem. Countries like China and Saudi Arabia are sitting on a massive pile of US dollars parked in US Treasuries. They also know that the US dollars are overvalued and are becoming more and more worthless as each day passes. On one hand, they would not want the US dollar to collapse to its intrinsic value because that would mean the purchasing power of their US dollar reserves would be crunched. On the other hand, they would not want to continue maintaining their holdings of US dollars because they lack confidence in its value. Selling their US Treasuries at once and using the proceeds to buy alternatives to the US dollars will be unacceptable because by virtue of the magnitude of their US dollar holdings, such action will have an immediate and significant impact on the market prices. This will have a very disruptive and destabilising effect on the global financial markets. Thus, the only sensible solution is to quietly and slowly diversify away from their holdings of US dollars so as not to disturb the market prices unduly. This would take a long period of time.

The next question is, what would these countries buy to replace their US dollars?

How is inflation sabotaging our ability to measure the value of things?

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

In our previous article, Is oil going to be more expensive?, we mentioned that monetary inflation (?printing? of money) is one of the reasons why we believe that the price of oil will probably rise in the long run. In fact, we can extend this rise in price to commodities in general. Even further still, if the central bank prints money consistently enough, everything will rise in price, from your weekly groceries to the stock market. A fine example of such madness will be Zimbabwe?in May this year, its inflation tops 1000 percent (yes, it is one thousand, no typo error)!

Let?s come back to the example of oil. Let?s say oil price is trending up for the next few years. What will be the first conclusion that comes to our mind? Naturally, we will believe that the rise in price of oil reflects its increase in value in the market. This will then lead us to conclude that the demand for oil is outstripping its supply. Since oil is priced in US dollars, we are in effect using it to measure the value of oil. Now, hold that thought while we divert to an analogy…

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 can be expanded and contracted at will by the Federal Reserve, how useful do you think it is as a calibration for measuring the value of oil? The answer will depend on how responsible the Federal Reserve is in maintaining the quality of the US dollar. We will discuss this topic for another day.

With this, we would like to end this article with a quote from Chapter 12, Section 5 (The Root of the Stabilization Idea) of Ludwig Von Mises?s book, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics:

The endeavors to expand the quantity of money in circulation either in order to increase the government?s capacity to spend or in order to bring about a temporary lowering of the rate of interest disintegrate all currency matters and derange economic calculation. The first aim of monetary policy must be to prevent governments from embarking upon inflation and from creating conditions which encourage credit expansion on the part of banks.