Category Archives: Commodities

What are the Odds of a Commodities-Led Global Financial Crisis?

Yves here. While the odds of commodities-triggered 2008 style meltdown is still not the most likely outcome, recall that that pessimists like yours truly assessed the likelihood of Seriously Bad Things Happening as of early 2008 at 20-30%, which I then saw as dangerously high. In other words, tail risks are bigger than they appear.

Some of the things that favor worse outcomes than one might otherwise anticipate is investor irrationality, or what one might politely call herd behavior. For instance, a major news story today was how investors are dumping emerging markets assets willy nilly, when many are not exposed to much if any blowback from lower commodity prices and quite a few are seen as net beneficiaries. The offset is that central banks have been conditioned to break glass and overreact when banks start looking wobbly. But the Fed may be slow to get the memo, since it sees recent data (the last jobs reports and retail sales data) as strong, and is also predisposed to see its medicine as working even though it is really working only for those at the top of the food chain.

Note that this report is from Monday in Australia, and look how much oil prices have dropped since then. WTI is now at $54.28 per Bloomberg.

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“I Hate That Oil’s Dropping”: Why Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant Wants High Oil Prices for Fracking

Yves here. We posted yesterday on how, despite falling oil prices having a ricochet effect across the entire energy complex, so far shale oil well shutdowns didn’t appear to be proceeding at the expected pace. John Dizard of the Financial Times attributed continuing cash-flow-negative exploration and development to continued access to super-cheap funding. He also noted that even when fracking operators were cut off from their money pipeline, a new wave of speculators was likely to sweep in and try bottom-fishing among distressed companies. That meant that normal market discipline would be circumvented, meaning production levels could remain at uneconomically high levels, keeping prices low.

A second danger for the aspiring fracking-industrial complex is that prevailing production forecasts show the US having production well in excess of its domestic consumption levels in a few years. Production of needed export infrastructure would need to ramp up rapidly for so much shale output to be moved overseas. But not only are there “will the transport systems be in place” doubts, there’s also a reason to question whether this investment will pay off. On current trajectories, fracking output peaks in 2020 and falls gradually over the next decade, and declines more rapidly after that. 12 to 15 years of decent utilization is very short for specialized facilities.

Third, some readers, presented with the scenario above, said, basically, “No problem, production will focus on the lowest-cost areas like Marcellus.” As the article below points out, there are parts of the country that have gotten a nice boost from the energy boomlet and will suffer if they aren’t in the most competitive areas cost-wise. And their lenders are also at risk.

Finally, current cost forecasts don’t allow for the possibility of production delays or additions expenditures due to local protests and/or higher environmental standards put in place. Before you pooh-pooh the idea that anything might stand in the way of energy barons, consider the industry they are damaging: real estate, which is another powerful and politically connected industry. If fracking water contamination or fracking-induced earthquakes start affecting higher population density areas (suburbs, cities), we may have a Godzilla versus Mothra battle between competing elites in our future.

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Russia Can Survive An Oil Price War

Yves here. This article is an important sanity check on the impact of the current oil price war on Russia. We’ve seen similarly skewed conventional wisdom on the Saudis: “No, they can’t make it on a fiscal budget basis at below $90 a barrel,” completely ignoring the fact that the Saudis clearly believe it is in their long-term interest to suffer some costs to inflict pain on some of their enemies, and render some (a lot) of shale oil and alternative energy development uneconomical, which increases their ability to extract more in the long term from their oil asset.

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Michael Hudson: Putin’s Pivot to Asia

Yves here. Understandably, US reporting on the just-finished APEC summit focused on Obama’s objectives and supposed achievements. Russia has historically not been a major force in the region and thus received less coverage here. It was therefore surprising to see our man in Japan Clive tell us that Japanese media coverage of Putin at APEC was on a par with the column-inches given to Obama.

On Real News Network, Michael Hudson describes how Putin is shifting Russia’s export focus and economic alliances towards Asia, particularly China. Putin did better at the APEC summit than most Western sources acknowledge, and that could have longer-term ramifications for the US.

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Saudi Cut In Oil Price for US May Lead To Price War

Yves here. We pointed out last month that the US was on the list of Saudi targets when it made clear it was not supporting oil prices at a level higher than $80 a barrel. Some readers rejected the idea that Riyadh would launch a price war to undermine the US, when in fact the desert kingdom has been mightily unhappy with US policies in the Middle East for some time (in case you managed to miss it, ISIS started out as Prince Bandar’s private army and odds are high that it continues to get Saudi support).

A major news story today, that the Saudis are letting oil prices drop further, provides more support for our jaundiced assessment last month.

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Federal Reserve Policy Keeps Fracking Bubble Afloat and That May Change Soon

Yves here.  This post highlights an issue that has also been flagged by Wolf Richter, that fracking depends on junk bond financing that has been made unnaturally cheap by the machinations of the Fed. Steve Horn conflates QE with the Fed’s super-low interest rate policy known as ZIRP, when they are distinct, but they have been implemented with the same idea in mind, that of encouraging investors to make riskier investments, particularly riskier loans.

Horn cites sources that suggest that the Fed could start undoing its  rock-bottom rates in 2015. Bear in mind that that’s a minority view.

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Gail Tverberg: Eight Pieces of Our Oil Price Predicament

Yves here. As oil prices have come into focus as a result of a recent Saudi decision to facilitate a reset at a lower price per barrel, they’ve come into focus yet again as a critical nexus of economic and political power, and that’s before you get to the complicating overlay of climate change considerations.

This article by Gail Tverberg takes a more sophisticated, multi-persepctive approach than the overwhelming majority of articles on this topic. One of her big messages is that there is no way the world economy is getting divorced from oil any time soon.

Even so, I have some minor points of contention. For instance, she correctly points out that oil producers, even the Saudis, need oil prices to be at a moderately high prices to sustain national budgets. But Riyadh has a very low production break even point, a large cash horde, and plenty of borrowing capacity. The desert kingdom could afford a price war, say to hurt geopolitical enemies or to forestall investment in and development of alternative energy sources. Low oil prices make other energy sources look unattractive, and volatile prices also deter investment, making it well-nigh impossible to forecast cost advantages (if any) and end user takeup.

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Ukraine Blowback: Will Australia, Brazil, and Russia Lose Out to Africa as Low Cost Suppliers of Iron Ore?

Yves here, as John Helmer explains in this post, one of the many focuses of economic warfare between the US and Russia is production of iron ore, in which Russia is a large player. Helmer describes how Urkaine is pushing to produce iron ore at the minehead, which means in Africa. Not only would Russia suffer, but Australia and Brazil would take collateral damage.

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Oil – The Next Commodity Domino?

Yves here. As we’ve written, austerity in Europe and Chinese efforts to rein in construction-related lending have delivered enough of a hit to global growth so as to start denting oil prices, which were holding up in large measure due to tensions in the Middle East. This post suggests that more oil price weakness is in the offing. This is a big negative for the fracking boom, needless to say, and may give environmentalists more time to stymie further development.

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Don Quijones: Spain’s Silent Reconquest of Mexico

With the ink still drying on Mexico’s historic energy reform, global oil and gas majors are salivating at the prospect of gaining access to one of the world’s largest and until recently most nationalized energy markets. One of those companies is the Spanish electricity giant Iberdrola, which expects to massively expand its operations in Mexico through increased investments of close to €1 billion.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: €1 billion is chicken feed in this age of inflated corporate balance sheets. Indeed, for some corporations such a sum is probably hardly worth getting out of bed for these days. However, in Mexico it can go a very long way, much further than it can in Europe or the US – especially when you have paid moles lobbying for your every interest at the highest level of government.

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Michael Hudson: The Fracking/World Bank/IMF/Hunter Biden Dismantling Plan for Ukraine

Richard Smith was early to take a dim view of R. Hunter Biden becoming a director of a Ukraine’s biggest private gas producer, Burisma Holdings:

This has to be a hoax, right?

It’s so bizarre that you almost have to assume it’s a hoax. It sounds more like a cliched movie plot — a shady foreign oil company co-opts the vice president’s son in order to capture lucrative foreign investment contracts — than something that would actually happen in real life. But the indications as of this afternoon are that the board appointments actually happened, and that a Ukrainian energy company has retained the counsel of the vice president’s son and the Secretary of State’s close family friend and top campaign bundler.

Michael Hudson reports in a Real News Network interview that the commercial and geopolitical logic behind the Biden role, and the bigger US and World Bank/IMF program, is to push fracking onto a decidedly unreceptive population in eastern Ukraine.

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Whose Oil Will Quench China’s Thirst?

As the heir-in-waiting to the title of world’s largest economy, China finds itself in a strange position in terms of its oil consumption.

In September 2013, China became the biggest net importer of crude, beating out the U.S. for the first time. This came as no surprise, given how rapidly China’s thirst for oil has grown, although landing in top place happened a little ahead of U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) predictions that it would take place in 2014. However, where the U.S. has been shoring up its own internal production, China has lagged behind. Between 2011 and 2014, U.S. oil production rose by 31 percent, as opposed to China, which saw its own production increase by a little more than 5 percent over that time. This leaves China utterly dependent on oil imports, a vulnerable position to be in at a time when its economy is beginning to wobble.

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Will Fossil Fuel Be the Subprime of This Cycle?

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard makes a compelling argument in his latest article: that the $5.4 trillion of investment poured into fossil fuel exploration and development projects over the last six years includes quite a lot of investments that will never show an adequate return. He argues that when that sorry fact starts to be recognized, the losses could be the wake-up call to investors who have shrugged off risk as financial assets climb to ever-more-implausible valuations.

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