Monday, December 29, 2014

Lower Oil prices could cause more money printing by Fed

In a normal economic times falling energy costs would be considered unadulterated good news. The facts are simple. No one buys a barrel of oil to display above the mantle. No one derives happiness from a lump of coal. Energy is simply a means to do or get the things that we want. We use it to stay warm, to move from Point A to Point B, to transport our goods, to cook our food, and to power our homes, factories, theaters, offices, and stadiums. If we could do all these things without energy, we would happily never drill a well or build a windmill. The lower the cost of energy, the cheaper and more abundant all the things we want become. This is not economics, it is basic common sense. But these are not normal economic times, and the mathematics, at least for the United States, have become more complicated.

Most economists agree that the bright spot for the U.S. over the past few years has been the surge in energy production, which some have even called the "American Energy Revolution". The stunning improvements in drilling and recovery technologies has led to a dramatic 45% increase in U.S. energy production since 2007, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). And while some suggest that the change was motivated by our lingering frustration over foreign energy dependence, it really comes down to dollars and cents. The dramatic increase in the price of oil over the last seven or eight years, completely changed the investment dynamics of the domestic industry and made profitable many types of formerly unappealing drilling sites, thereby increasing job creation in the industry. What's more, the jobs created by the boom were generally high paying and full time, thereby bucking the broader employment trend of low paying part time work.

The big question that most investors and drillers should have been asking, but never really did, was why oil rocketed up from $20 a barrel in 2001 to more than $150 barrel in 2007, before stabilizing at around $100 a barrel for much of the past five years. Was oil five times more needed in 2012 than it was in 2002? See my commentary last week on this subject.

Despite the analysts' recent discovery of a largely mythical supply/demand imbalance, the numbers do not explain the rapid and dramatic decrease in price. Yes, supply is up, but so is demand. And these trends have been ongoing for quite some time, so why the sudden sell off now? Instead, I believe that oil prices over the last decade has been driven by the same monetary dynamics that pushed up the prices of other commodities, like gold, or of financial assets, such as stocks, bonds, and real estate. I believe that oil headed higher because the Fed was printing money, and everyone thought that the Fed would keep printing. But now we have reached a point where the majority of analysts believe that the era of easy money is coming to an end. And while I do not believe that we are about to turn that monetary page, my view is decidedly in the minority. Could it be a coincidence that oil started falling when the mass of analysts came to believe the Fed would finally tighten?

If I am wrong and the Fed actually begins a sustained increase in rates starting in 2015, oil prices may very well stay low for a long time. But apart from the fact that our broad economy can't tolerate higher interest rates, an extended drop in oil prices may create conditions that further force the Fed's hand to reverse course.

If prices stay low for very long, many of the domestic drilling projects that have been undertaken over the past few years could become unprofitable, and plans for further investment into the sector would be shelved. Evidence suggests that this is already happening. Reuters recently reported a drop of almost 40 percent in new well permits issued across the United States in November (this was before the major oil price drops seen in December). This huge negative impact on the primary growth driver of U.S. economy may be enough in the short-run to overwhelm the other long-term benefits that cheap energy offers. If prices stabilize at current levels, then the era of triple digit oil may, in retrospect, be looked back on as just another imploded bubble. And like the other burst bubbles in tech stocks and real estate, its demise will make a major impact on the broader economy. But there is a crucial difference this time around.

When the dot-com companies flamed out in 2000, most of the losses were seen in the equity markets. Dot-coms either raised money either through venture capitalists or the stock markets. They rarely issued debt. The trillions of dollars of notional shareholder value wiped out by the Nasdaq crash had been largely paper wealth that had been created by the sharp run up in the prior two years. As a result, the damage was primarily contained to the investor class and to the relatively few number of highly paid tech workers and entrepreneurs that rode the boom up and then rode it down. In any event, the Fed was able to cushion the blow of the ensuing recession by dropping rates from 6% all the way down to 1%.

The real estate and credit crash of 2008 was a much different animal. Despite the benefits that lower home prices may have brought to many would be home-buyers who had been priced out of an overheated market, the losses generated by defaulting mortgages quickly pushed lending institutions into insolvency and threatened a complete collapse of the U.S. financial system. Unlike the dot-com crash, the bursting of the housing bubble posed an existential threat to the country. The construction workers, mortgage brokers, landscapers, real estate agents, and loan officers who were displaced by the bust represented a significant portion of the economy. To prevent the bubble from fully deflating, the Fed bought hundreds of billions of toxic sub-prime debt (that no one else would touch) and dropped interest rates from 5% all the way down to zero.

I believe, a bust in the oil industry will likely play out somewhere between these two prior episodes. As was the case with falling house prices, while low prices offer benefits to consumers, the credit and job losses related to unwinding the malinvestments, made by those who believed prices would not drop, can impose severe short-term problems that the Fed will be unwilling to tolerate. Of course, long-term it's always good when a bubble pops, it's just that politicians and bankers are never prepare to endure the short-term pain necessary for long-term gain when they do.

A good portion of the money used to finance the fracking boom was raised by relatively small drillers in the debt market from banks, institutional investors, pension funds, hedge funds, and high net worth wildcatters. Public involvement has been involved primarily in the high yield debt market where energy companies have issued hundreds of billions of "junk" bonds in recent years. In 2010, energy and materials companies made up just 18% of the US high-yield index but today they account for 29%.

But many of the financing projections that these bond investors assumed will fall apart if oil stays below $60. Although the junk bond market is nowhere near as large as the home mortgage market, widespread defaults from energy-related debt could cause a crisis, which could make wider ripples throughout the financial edifice. Bernstein estimates that sustained $50 oil could result in investment in the sector to fall by as much as 75%. According to the Department of Labor, oil and gas workers as a percentage of the total labor force has doubled over the past decade, and have accounted for a very large portion of the high-paying jobs created during the current "recovery." As a result a bust in the oil patch will result in a very big hit to American labor, causing ripple effects throughout the economy.

But we are far less able to deal with the fallout now of another burst bubble than we were in 1999 or 2007 (the years before the two prior crashes). I believe it will take much less of a shock to tip us into recession. But I don't even believe that a burst energy bubble is even our biggest worry. Much greater and more fragile bubbles likely exist in the stock, bond and real estate markets, which have also been inflated by the easiest monetary policy in history. More importantly at present the Fed lacks the firepower to fight a new recession that a bursting of any of these bubbles could create. Since interest rates are already at zero, it has no ability to aggressively cut rates now in the face of a weakening economy. All it can do is go back to the well of quantitative easing, which is exactly what I think they will do.

Despite the widely held belief that 2015 will be the year in which a patient Fed finally begins to normalize rate policy, I believe the Fed has no possibility of withdrawing the stimulus to which it has addicted us. QE4 was always much more probable than anyone in government or on Wall Street cares to admit. A recession and a financial panic caused by sub $60 oil will significantly quicken the timetable by which the Fed cranks up the presses. When it does, oil could once again increase in price, along with all the other things we need on a daily basis. That should finally dispel any remaining illusions that the Fed could successfully land the metaphorical plane. More QE may minimize the damage in the short-term, but I believe it will keep us trapped in our current cocoon of endless stimulus, where we will slowly suffocate to death. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Russian Ruble worries are not the real worry

Right now people are worried about the Russian Ruble. That’s just the warm-up. The main event is going to be the dollar crisis, and when our currency starts to collapse it’s going to be much more problematic.

What’s going to be an even bigger negative is when the Federal Reserve comes back with their monetary guns blazing and they launch QE4. 

Then the oil price is going to rise to an even higher level than it fell from and that’s going to be very bad for consumers who have to pay a lot more for oil and everything else.”


Peter Schiff is a smart investor and author of several best selling books. He correctly predicted the economic meltdown of 2008 - 2009

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Oil and Energy stocks are value buy says Peter Schiff

The stunning 40% drop in the price of oil over the past few months has scrambled global economic forecasts, changed the geo-political landscape, and has severely pressured many energy sector investments. Economists are scratching their heads to determine if the drop is good or bad for the economy or whether cheap oil will add to or decrease unemployment, or complicate the global effort to "defeat" deflation. While all of these issues merit detailed discussions, the first question to address is if the steep drop is here to stay and whether energy prices will stay low enough, for long enough, to seriously reshuffle the economic deck. Based on a variety of factors, this is not likely to happen. I believe a series of technical, industrial, and monetary factors will combine to push oil back up to, and potentially beyond, the levels that it has seen over the last few years.

The dominant narrative explaining the current situation is that oil has collapsed largely because the growing mismatch between surging supply and diminishing demand. But there is little evidence to suggest that such conditions exist on the global stage.

According to the data available this month from the International Energy Agency (IEA), global demand for crude oil has increased by .74%. from 2013 to 2014, and is 3.6% higher than the average demand seen over the past five years (2009-2013). The same trend holds true for the United States, where 2014 demand is expected to come in 1.3% higher than 2013 and essentially the same as the average demand over the previous five years. (As an aside, the relative stagnation of U.S. oil demand provides a strong counterpoint to the current belief that the U.S. economy is stronger in 2014 than it has been in recent years).

So if the low prices are a function of supply and demand, but demand has not collapsed, then the difference has to be supply. The theory here is that the fracking and shale boom in North America has flooded the world market with unexpected supply, thereby pushing down the price. While it is true that the new drilling techniques have revolutionized energy production in the U.S. and Canada, the increase in production has been mostly negligible on the global stage.

Oil production in North America increased a hefty 8.8% from 2013 to 2014, and 17.7% over two years from 2012 to 2014. But outside of North America the story has been quite different. In fact, total global production increased by just .55% between 2012 and 2013 (2014 global data is not yet available). In 2012, North America accounted for just 17.4% of global production, but over the following year contributed 59% to the total increase of global production. So the fracking miracle is, at present, primarily a local phenomenon that has made limited impact on the global stage. In fact, in its most recent data, the IEA estimated that in 3rd Quarter 2014 total world demand exceeded total world supply by only .6%, hardly a figure that suggests an historic glut.

So if it's not supply and demand, what could it be? First, there are technical factors. There was a widespread concern going into 2014 that the recovery would bring with it higher oil prices. This may explain the surge in speculative "long" contracts in crude oil futures seen in 2014. These positions, in which investors sought to make a levered bet on rising oil prices, peaked around July at 4 million contracts, nearly four times as high as 2010. With so much money anticipating an increase, a small pullback in crude could have caused a wave of selling to close out losing positions. If that is the case, in an over-levered market, this could lead to a domino effect that pushes prices far lower than market levels. But as these positions get unwound, markets eventually return to normal. If that happens, we could see a significant rally in oil.

The surging dollar is another factor that has pushed down prices. Oil is globally priced in dollars so any increase in the dollar translates directly into a decrease in the price of crude. Over the past few months the dollar has seen a major rally that I suspect has been caused by the widespread, but unfounded, belief that the Federal Reserve will begin to tighten policy in 2015 just as the other major central banks shift into prolonged easing campaigns. When traders realize that this is unlikely to occur, the dollar should sell off and oil should rise.

Industrial forces will also come to bear soon. Much of the new North American shale production has been characterized by relatively high extraction costs, large production volumes, and fast depletions. A high amount of capital expenditure is needed to maintain production volumes. If the price of crude stays low, we can expect to see a decrease in capex expenditures from the companies most closely aligned with horizontal drilling and fracking. In fact, such evidence has already come to light. This means that volume decreases will start to bite far sooner than they would in the case of traditional oil extraction.

Ordinarily, falling energy prices are a great economic development. Lowering the cost of heating, power, and transportation means consumers and businesses have more money to spend on everything else. But the U.S. economy is now far more vulnerable to energy sector weakness. A substantial portion of high paying jobs that have been created in the last few years have been in energy production. Already the capex slowdown in the Dakotas and Texas is beginning to be felt by energy workers in those areas (12/2/14, The Globe and Mail). If these trends continue, the employment reports that currently drive so much of the economic confidence, will begin to look decidedly weaker.

But falling energy will also help hold down consumer prices. And while this may sound like a good thing to anyone with a standard amount of common sense, it is not seen as a good thing by economists who believe that higher inflation is a prerequisite for economic growth. Weakening employment and slowing inflation could quickly entice the Federal Reserve to launch the next round of QE far sooner than anyone currently predicts. This could turn the table on the current dollar rally and help push oil back up.

If oil stays low, it may turn out that entire U.S. oil boom was just another Federal Reserve inflated bubble. If it pops, the job losses and debt defaults that would ensue could have a far greater impact on the economy and the credit markets than did the bursting of the Internet bubble back in 2000. For those who think that cheap oil prices will provide a strong enough shock absorber, think again. When the housing bubble burst in 2008, $35 oil did not spare the U.S. economy from recession. Nor did $20 oil keep us out of recession in 2001. Oil producers have raised hundreds of billions of "junk bond" financing that may become vulnerable if oil prices stay low for an extended period. I do not believe the Fed will allow debt defaults that would result to impact the broader economy. They will be inclined to support oil prices just as they have been willing to support other strategically important asset classes.

If oil investors overbuilt capacity based overly optimistic price assumptions, which were created by artificially low interest rates and QE, why would similar mistakes made by investors in stocks, real estate, and bonds not be similarly exposed? This could mean that the popping of the oil bubble may be just one of many bubbles that are ready to burst. But given the difficulty of dealing with such a situation, QE 4 may ultimately need to be larger than QE1, 2, and 3 combined!

As a major player in oil production, the U.S. stands to gain far less from the current price slump than many of our trading rivals. Saudi Arabia, the dominant producer, has notoriously low production costs and should likely withstand the current slump with little need for structural reform (Saudi Arabia's geopolitical strategy for cheaper oil was recently examined by John Browne in his recent Euro Pacific column).

The primary beneficiaries of the current oil dip are the Asian countries that use lots of oil but produce very little. Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, India, China and Indonesia all import oil and, therefore, will benefit by varying degrees. Many governments (India, Indonesia, Malaysia) are removing high cost subsidies - so the immediate benefit is not to the consumer, but to government fiscal balances, which will improve greatly.

So every silver lining usually comes with a cloud or two. Although the dip in oil prices is currently the biggest thing on the street and the cause for optimism, good times come with a cost, and they are likely to be short-lived. 

Energy stocks have been unfairly beaten down and could offer long-term value at current price levels.


Peter Schiff is a smart investor and author of several best selling books. He correctly predicted the economic meltdown of 2008 - 2009

Monday, December 8, 2014

Media ignoring the right economic policies


Low inflation, or even deflation, is not a threat to the economy but to the asset bubbles that the Fed has inflated in order to create the illusion of economic growth. 

Without the Fed creating inflation, the bubbles will burst and the government will be forced to deal with its insolvency.

Given that Wall Street economists have a vested interest in downplaying concerns about asset bubbles, it is understandable that the big financial firms have failed to point out the Fed’s historic response to low inflation. 

It is somewhat more troubling to see how the media have completely ignored the past in passing judgment on how the Fed should act today.



Peter Schiff is a smart investor and author of several best selling books. He correctly predicted the economic meltdown of 2008 - 2009

Monday, December 1, 2014

Its going to be a bad ending for stocks

People always say [on Stocks], “Well, if you know it’s a fun ride, why not climb on board and enjoy it with everybody else?” See, the problem I have is you can only enjoy the ride if you don’t realize how disastrously it’s going to end. Since I know it’s going to end in a wreck, I can’t enjoy it. If I get on board, I’m going to be nervous the whole time.


Peter Schiff is a smart investor and author of several best selling books. He correctly predicted the economic meltdown of 2008 - 2009

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