Category Archives: Dubious statistics

Oil, Ruble and Ideology

Yves here. Since the financial media is covering the continuing meltdown of the ruble intensely, we thought it would be helpful to add some information that seems to be missing from most reporting. This post by Jacques Sapir from the 14th (hat tip Michael Hudson) provides important detail on the importance of oil to the Russian economy (far less than typically depicted, although it is the biggest source of foreign exchange), the impact of the fall of the ruble and oil prices on the domestic budgets, and the odds of a Russian default. Note that Sapir is sanguine on the default front and does not see a rerun of 1998 in the offing, by virtue of of Russia having large foreign currency reserves. Note that Menzie Chinn of Econbrowser differs, and uses a chart from the Economist to make his point:

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Ilargi: Will the Oil Collapse Kill Energy Junk Bonds?

Yves here. Some ahead-of-the-curve analysts have warned of the magnitude of energy debt, mainly junk bonds issued to fund shale gas projects, that are now at risk thanks to plunging oil prices whacking the entire energy complex.

We’ve heard over the last few weeks sunny proclamations of how many shale players have lower cost structure than commonly thought and could ride out weak prices. The supposedly super bearish Bank of America report published earlier in the week called for oil prices to drop to a scary-sounding $50 a barrel. But the document sees that aa a short-term phenomenon. As supply and demand equilibrates (shorthand for “of course some people will drive more, and a lot of wells will get shut down”), it anticipates that oil prices will rebound to $80 to $90 a barrel in the second half of 2015.

The problem with conventional wisdom, even pessimistic-looking conventional wisdom, is that the noose of a lot of borrowings is likely to change the decision-making process of those producers.

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New Study Says US Fracking Boom Will Fade Quickly After 2020

A new study by a team at the University of Texas, published in Nature News, throws cold water on bullish US natural gas production forecasts by the US agency, the Energy Information Administration. Its analysis suggests that the fracking boom will be a relatively short-lived phenomenon, which raises doubts about the attractiveness of investing in shale plays and in liquified natural gas transport facilities, particularly for export.

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Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt: How Academics Cook Their Studies to Flatter Private Equity

Yves here. This is the third part of an interview by Andrew Dittmer with the authors of an important new book on private equity, Private Equity at Work (see Part 1 and Part 2).

Here, Appelbaum and Batt discuss some important, widely publicized academic studies in which the results were skewed so as to favor the private equity industry.

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Economic Development and the Effectiveness of Foreign Aid: A Historical Perspective

Yves here. Ebola is serving as a reminder that the fate of members of advanced economies isn’t necessarily divorced from those of citizens of poor, developing nations. And it isn’t as if those countries are completely neglected. They are simultaneously the recipients of foreign aid, while at the same time being de facto capital exporters. So while this study below is informative, it ignores the elephant in the room, which is the degree to which looting simply overwhelms the amount of funding provided by foreign aid.

As Nicholas Shaxson wrote in Treasure Islands (p. 157):

Global Financial Integrity (GFI) in Washington authored a study on illicit financial flows out of Africa (March 2010). Between 1970 and 2008, it concluded:

Total illicit financial outflows from Africa, conservatively estimated, were approximately $854 billion. total illicit outflows may be as high as $1.8 trillion… The GFI estimate – equivalent to just over 9 per cent of its $51 billion in oil and diamond exports during that time – simply has to be a gross underestimate of the looting. Many billions have disappeared offshore through opaque oil-backed loans channeled outside normal state budgets, many of them routed through two special trusts operating out of London.

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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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Treasury Liquidity Freakout: Searching for a Market-Maker

As someone old enough to have done finance in the Paleolithic pre-personal computer era (yes, I did financial analysis using a calculator and green accountant’s ledger paper as a newbie associate at Goldman), investor expectations that market liquidity should ever and always be there seem bizarre, as well as ahistorical. Yet over the past month or two, there has been an unseemly amount of hand-wringing about liquidity in the bond market, both corporate bonds, and today, in a Financial Times story we’ll use as a point of departure, Treasuries.

These concerns appear to be prompted by worries about what happens if (as in when) bond investors get freaked out by the Fed finally signaling it is really, no really, now serious about tightening and many rush for the exits at once. The taper tantrum of summer 2013 was a not-pretty early warning and the central bank quickly lost nerve. The worry is that there might be other complicating events, like geopolitical concerns, that will impede the Fed’s efforts at soothing rattled nerves, or worse, that the bond market will gap down before the Fed can intercede (as if investors have a right to orderly price moves!).

Let’s provide some context to make sense of these pleas for ever-on liquidity.

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Private Equity Now Looking to Even Bigger Chumps, Namely 401 (k)s and Retail

One of the reasons that private equity has managed to flourish is that its biggest investor group is what is traditionally referred to as dumb money: public pension funds, which account for 25% of industry assets. Readers may recall that even CalPERS, widely considered to be the savviest public pension fund, recently had a public board meeting where the questions asked of prospective gatekeepers, the pension fund consultants, were, with one exception, softballs. And that question was the only one to address the SEC’s revelation that private equity firms have been engaging in large scale fee-skimming and other forms of grifting. And remember, the SEC also stated that the investors in these funds, known in industry nomenclature as limited partners, have done a crappy job of negotiating their agreements.

But in predictable fashion, as one group of marks, um, sales targets, starts to dry up, private equity funds, aka general partners, are hunting for new ones. And having gone very systematically after every conceivable large pot of money, the only place left for them to go is down market, in terms of size and sophistication.

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More Private Equity Fibbing: Marketing Materials Often Exaggerate Returns

I’m a little slow to write this up because private equity abuses are so pervasive as to fall in the “dog bites man” category. But that doesn’t mean that the public at large, or worse, intellectually captured, credulous investors understand that.

One of the latest abuses to come to light is private equity firms effectively lying about their returns in past funds when dialing for dollars for prospective funds. The overview from Reuters, which broke the story last week:

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That Shrinking Slice of a Barely Growing Pie: Why the Glorious Economy of Ours Feels so Crummy

ves here. There’s one thing to add to Richter’s useful recap of what the supposedly sparkling 3Q GDP results mean for those of us who live in the real economy. The GDP deflator fell from 2.1% in the second quarter to 1.3% this quarter, so some of the rosiness of the results was due to the swing in the deflator.

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Yanis Varoufakis: Why the European Bank Stress Tests Have to be Phony

Yves here. I have to admit I never focused on what turns out is a blindingly obviously reason why the European bank stress tests are an exercise in optics. Even though this website derided the US stress tests as a cheerleading exercise, and earlier criticized the Administration for failing nationalize Citigroup as FDIC chairman Sheila Bair sought to do, the US authorities were in a position to Do Something about sick banks. Consider the European case (note I consider Yanis to be too charitable toward US bank regulators, but keep in mind that he’s comparing them to his home-grown version). And then you have the additional problem, which was widely discussed in 2009 to 2011 or so, that the apparent insolvency of states was the result of and bound up with the overindebtedness of European nations. Perversely, tha is almost never put front and center these days when the topic of seriously unwell European banks comes up.

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Drilling Deeper: New Report Casts Doubt on Fracking Production Numbers

Yves here. We’ve discussed the fracking bubble intermittently, particularly that many of the valuations ascribed to shale gas wells don’t reflect how short their production lives really are. This report by Steve Horn of DeSmogBlog focuses on a related result from the same set of unrealistically high production assumptions: that overall fracking output forecasts are likely to prove to be high.

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Ilargi: Europe Redefines “Stress” in Its Bank-Boosterist Stress Tests

Yves here. As we’ve repeatedly pointed out, bank “stress tests” are officially-orchestrated bank PR. And the reason they worked so well the first time was that exercise was accompanied by all sorts of Administration “we’re fully behind the banks” messaging, including a commitment that any banks that fell short would get a heapin’ helping of new capital. But the effort to talk bank stock prices up worked so well that many, even the weaker ones, were able to float new shares.

The Europeans have tried emulating the Americans, but with more emphasis on the optics and less on prodding the banks to take meaningful steps to shore up their capital bases. Ilargi describes how even this exercise in porcine maquillage is failing to cover up the unhealthy state of many banks.

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