Will We All Be Victims of Cheap Oil?

OILEarlier this year we wrote that Russia’s economy was fundamentally weaker than Europe’s and that their decision to start a trade war in retaliation for economic sanctions over the Ukraine would hurt Russia far more than Europe. As it happened Russia has suffered that fate and had a helping more. The collapsing price of oil was a mortal wound to the soft underbelly of the Russian economy, leading to a spectacular collapse in the value of the Ruble and an estimated 4.5% contraction in their economy for 2015.

The Ruble’s earlier decline this year had already made the entire Russian stock market less valuable than Apple Computers, but as the price of Brent oil continued to slide below $60 (for the first time since 2008) investors began to loose confidence that Russia could do much to prop up the currency, prompting an even greater sell-off. That led to an unprecedented hike in the Russian key interest rate by its central bank, moving it from 10.5% to 17% yesterday. Moves like that are designed to reassure investors, but typically they only serve to ensure a full market panic. The Ruble, which had started the year at about 30 RUB per dollar briefly dropped to 80 before recovering at around 68 to the dollar by the end of trading yesterday.

The Russian Ruble over the last year. The spike at the end represents the last few weeks.
The Russian Ruble over the last year. The spike at the end represents the last few weeks.

Cheap oil seems to be recasting the economic story for many countries and millions of people. The Financial Times observes that oil importing emerging markets stand to be big winners in this. Dropping the cost of manufacturing and putting more money in the pockets of the growing middle class should continue to help those markets. The same can be said of the American consumer, who will be benefiting from the sudden drop in gas and energy prices.

The Financial Times always has the best infographics.
The Financial Times always has the best infographics.

Losers on the other hand seem easy to spot and piling up everywhere. Venezuela is in serious trouble, so is Iran and the aforementioned Russia. Saudi Arabia should be okay for a while, as it has significant foreign currency reserves, but as the price drops other member states of OPEC will likely howl for a change in tactic. But along with the obvious oil producing nations, both the United States and Canada will likely also be victims, just not uniformly.

Carbon Tracker Initiative
Carbon Tracker Initiative

Manufacturers may be breathing a sigh of relief in Ontario, but Canadian oil producers are sweating it big. Tar sand oil requires lots of refining and considerable cost to extract. Alberta oil sands development constitute some of the most expensive projects around for energy development and a significant drop in the price of energy, especially if it is protracted, could stall or erase some future investments. This is especially true of the Keystone Pipeline which many now fear isn’t economically viable, in addition to being environmentally contentious.

This chart was produced by Scotiabank
This chart was produced by Scotiabank

Saudi Arabia has continued to allow the price of oil to fall with the intention of hurting the shale producers in the United States. This price war will certainly claim some producers in the US, but it will difficult to know at which point that market will be effectively throttled. Certainly new projects will likely slow down but the continued improving efficiency of the fracking technology may make those producers more resilient to cheap energy.

But there is one more potential victim of the falling price of oil. That could be all of us. I, like many in the financial field, believe that cheap energy will enormously benefit the economy. But our biggest mistakes come from the casual confidence of things we assume to be true but prove not to be. A drop in energy should help the economy, but it doesn’t have to. If people choose not to spend their new energy windfall and save it instead, deflationary pressure will continue to grow. As I’ve previously said, deflation is a real threat that is often overlooked. But even perceived positive forms of deflation, like a significant reduction in the price of oil, can have nasty side effects. The loss to the global economy in terms of the price of oil is only beneficial if that money is spent elsewhere and not saved! For now confidence is that markets will ultimately find the dropping price of oil helpful to global growth, regardless of the early losers in the global price war for oil.

Only Time Gives Clarity to Investors

The reality of the 21st century is that finding clarity in world events for investors is almost impossible. Take the recent price drop in oil, which has been hailed as both a good and bad thing. And as the new lower price of energy slowly becomes the norm, everyday news reports come in about its respective benefits and unintended negative consequences.

https://twitter.com/Walker_Report/status/540161044786589698

Those seeking to know what those events mean and what guidance headlines should give will only be frustrated by the almost endless supply of information that seeks to empower decisions but leaves many scratching their heads in wonder about the future.

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A big reason for this is the sheer volume of information that we can now rely on. Since the advent of computers and the more recent rise of high-speed communication and networking we have found that the core truth of an event still isn’t apparent until after something has happened. In other words it’s almost impossible to predict corrections before they happen despite an almost inconceivable amount of data and endless ability to process it.

This is true no matter where we look in the world of investing. Consider Black Friday, the end all and be all day in shopping in the United States. This year Black Friday seemed to fizzle. Sales were down 11% year-over-year and that got people nervous. Yet Cyber Monday, the electronic version of Black Friday, sales were up 17% and topped $2 billion for the first time. Combined with the longer sales period leading up to the weekend, many suspect that total sales were actually higher.

All of this data conflicts with each other, which for investors means sometimes you will be wrong. Small things sometimes prove to be big things, and what initially appears simple turns out to be surprisingly complex, and much of it you simply won’t predict. This points investors back to some dull but surprising truths about investing.

1. Not much has changed when it comes to determining what makes a company worthwhile to invest in. Corporate health, sound governance and healthy cash flow still tell us more than loud hype about potential new markets, new products and new trends.

2. Time is a better arbiter than you about investing. The old line is time in the market, not timing the market, and that still appears true. Many Canadians are likely wringing their hands about the sudden drop of oil and the impact it is having on their portfolios. But the best course of action maybe not to abandon their investments, but make sure they are still sensibly invested and well diversified. The market still tends to correct in the long run and immediate volatility (both up and down) are smoothed out over time.

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The S&P 500 over the last 50 years. From Yahoo Finance

Not every sensible investment will work out, but a portfolio of sensible investments over time will. For investors now wondering about the future and their investments in Canada, the best thing to do is understand the logic behind their investments before choosing a course of action.

 

America Is In Great Shape; Be Afraid!

markets_1980043cAll year people have been expecting a correction in the US Markets. For most of the year I have listened to portfolio managers discuss their “concern” about the high valuations of American companies. I have also listened to them point out that America remains the strongest economy and the most likely to see significant growth in the coming year.

Flash forward to late-September, early October and the markets have finally had their corrections. At the bottom every market was negative, including the TSX which had given up all of its YTD high of 15%. That was the bottom. The recovery was swift, money flowed back into the markets, and hedge fund managers managed to make a mockery of some otherwise nervous DIY investors. Now the markets look strong again, with the S&P 500 reaching new highs. Nobody is happy.

All of this comes on the news that US GDP was up 3.9% in the third quarter, a full .5% above analyst expectations (that sounds small, but it’s worth billions) while energy prices continue to decline, manufacturing is highly competitive and US consumers look poised for a significant Christmas bonanza. So what’s wrong with this picture? Why are both the Globe and Mail and the Financial Times worried about the US stock market?

https://twitter.com/Walker_Report/status/537581249440014337

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The answer is a combination of fear, data, and the insatiable need for stories to populate the media everyday. First is the fear. Stocks are at all time highs. The problem is that “all time high” isn’t some automatic death sentence for a stock market. The stock market always hits new highs all the time, and a by-product of that is that corrections can really only happen after a high is reached. Look at the history of the S&P 500 since 1960:

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 11.02.50 AMAs you can probably tell, there are a lot of “new highs” that had occurred over the last 40 years, but each new high did not automatically translate into some automatic correction. There were legitimate reasons why the economy could continue to grow, and in the process make those companies in the stock market more valuable. That isn’t to say that the stock market can’t be “frothy” or that their aren’t problems in the stock market today. It merely means that setting a new market high isn’t proof of an impending collapse.

The second issue is data. We live in an age of Big Data. Data is everywhere and there is so much it can be hard to separate the useful data from the useless. Some of the data is concrete, but much of it takes time to understand or even become clear. The first analysis of the higher than expected GDP numbers seemed great (more economy, Yay!) but upon closer inspection, there are reasons to be cautious. While the GDP was higher than expected, it was largely due to growth in government spending, not consumer spending. In fact consumer spending was lower quarter over quarter. In addition there are a number of concerns about how corporations are spending their profits and whether that is sustainable. Many of these concerns, when taken in context, seem to be the same from earlier in the year.

The third factor is the insatiable need to write something. Content is king in the news world and providing insight (read: opinion) means that you must constantly produce new stories to publish. That means that there is a need to be constantly suggesting that things are about to go wrong (or more wrong than they already have) to create a compelling story. It isn’t that these stories are wrong, just that constantly saying the stock market is going to go down isn’t insightful, since at some point we can expect the stock market to correct for one of a number of reasons.

So is America frothy? Are we poised an some kind of financial collapse? I don’t know, and nobody else does either. We are no more likely to correctly know when the market might correct again than we are to guess the future price of gas. The best response is to diversify, and remember some core elements of investing. Buy low and sell high. With that in mind sturdy investors should probably start giving the beat-up and maligned Europe a second look…

Russia Invades Ukraine, Needs Potatoes

This Russian paratrooper crossed the Ukrainian border “by accident”

Last week it looked as though Russia was escalating its engagement in Ukraine, sending supplies directly into Ukrainian territory and potentially starting a full blown war. But things have remained opaque since then, with increasing reports that Russian troops were crossing the border and Russia steadfastly denying it. But after days of reports from the Ukraine that Russia had started a low level invasion to assist with Pro-Russian forces, CNN reports this morning that Russia is now using tanks and armoured personal carriers and is fighting on two fronts within the Ukraine.

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Whether this proves to be a false start, or if Russia is going to become more open in its military involvement it’s hard to say. What is clear is that this war in Ukraine is far from over.

Meanwhile this week also saw some evidence about the rising cost of food in Russia as a result of the retaliatory trade restrictions directed at nations like the United States, Canada and most of Europe. Reported in Slate and Vox.com, this graph of rising food costs is actually quite surprising. Potato prices have risen by 73%!

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I’m reluctant to say too much about this situation and what it means from an investor standpoint, lest people think I am taking the suffering of people in a war zone too lightly.  I will say that as emerging market countries become richer and begin to flex their national muscles, jostling over everything from important natural resources, long disputed borders, and sometimes even national approval, its likely that international events could increasingly be outside of our control. Since much of our manufacturing is now outside of our borders, and often even energy supplies come from nations openly hostile to us, we find ourselves in an economic trap of our own making. How can you act with a free hand against a nation that holds so many of your own economic interests?

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From “The Economist” July 27th, 2013 “When Giants Slow Down”

I sincerely doubt that our sanctions against Russia or high potato prices will bring Putin to his knees, (although his people may get fed up with higher food costs) but in the past it was much clearer how to deal with this kind of brinkmanship. Today we live a world where many of our economic interests are heavily tangled with nations who do not share our same strategic goals. It is said that nations do not have friends, only interests, and as Emerging Markets look increasingly attractive to foreign investors we may have to remind ourselves that Emerging Markets are not simply opportunities for growth, but nations with their own set of interests and goals separate from our own.

My Car Runs on Geopolitics – Why “Fracking” is an Important Investment for Your Portfolio

frackingI’m an environmentalist. But as a Financial Advisor I consider that some of the best opportunities I can provide to my clients is exposure to the burgeoning US and Canadian energy markets. That’s right I’m a big proponent for one of the most ecologically damaging and publicly derided forms of energy extraction.

However, next time you put gas in your tank consider this: 7000 fighters are currently making a mockery of whatever pretense Iraq was making at being a legitimate country. ISIS, the Islamic faction currently pushing into northern Iraq from Syria with aims to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the region has been routing Iraqi government forces. An army a quarter of a million strong, equipped with the latest in weapons, tanks and aircraft are losing regularly to a rag tag group of extremists equipped only with machine guns.

Meanwhile in the Ukraine we have fresh assurances that Russia will abide by a new ceasefire between Ukrainian government forces and rebels loyal to the Russian government. While Russia may have undone its own objectives of building a rival economic group, they have successfully reminded everyone why Russia, no matter how weakened it may be, is a powerful force that controls a great deal of energy needed for global consumption.

Across many of the nations that produce some form of energy (oil, natural gas, coal, etc.) there are very few that can claim to be a democratic, civil society not embroiled in some kind of sectarian civil war. But as of this year the United States has become the world’s largest producer of energy, outpacing Russia and Saudi Arabia, and that promises to change the way we think about economies and economic opportunities going forward.

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In many developed countries there is a great deal of hand-ringing about the sudden rise of hydraulic fracturing – a relatively recent method of energy extraction that is reducing the cost of production and breathing new life into American manufacturing. “Fracking” comes with a number of environmental downsides, some of which are both scary and quite dramatic.

But energy is the life blood of civilisations and a steady supply of affordable energy is what gives us the ability to grow our economies and invest in new technologies. Sometimes this means making hard choices about how we allocate resources, and what the long term impacts of certain industries to our environment might be. But affordable energy, in the form of both oil and natural gas, provided from countries like Canada and the United States doesn’t just help bring back domestic manufacturing. It also economically weakens dictators and states that ignore human rights and puts power back in the hands of liberal democracies to enforce sanctions.

In other words there are numerous political and economic benefits that come along with cheaper Western energy. While this doesn’t address our environmental problems it’s important to love your monsters. The tools that give us our wealth and prosperity shouldn’t be abandoned just because they pose challenges, rather it invites us to both reap profits and seek new ways to conquer those problems we face. That is at least until either Google or Tesla solve all our driving problems.

Environmentalists Don’t Get Economics, and That’s Dangerous for Everyone

From the Toronto Star
From the Toronto Star

The Keystone Pipeline has enraged many people since it was first announced. Traditionally framed as a conflict between environmentalists and oil executives, the Keystone Pipeline is 1897 km of 36 inch pipe running from Hardisty, Alberta to Steel, Nebraska and for several years it has existed in limbo. Caught in the cross hairs of politicians, environmentalists, various national interests and corporations, it has been six years of waiting and becoming more unlikely that it may ever get built. A definitive win for the champions of the environment.

Or is it? In simple terms, NOT having a Keystone Pipeline does indeed impede the growth of Tar Sands industry, hampering the longer term ability to send extracted oil to be refined. But it doesn’t stop it. In fact, not building doesn’t stop the oil companies from shipping at all. The Keystone Pipeline has become a symbol of social angst about the environment, but in its place a number of much more terrible and dangerous options have been pursued. For instance, if you live int he city of Toronto you may have noticed that the CP Rail line that runs through the heart of many residential neighbourhoods is actually carrying hundreds of thousands of oil tankers destined for the same location as the proposed pipeline.

In response to constant deferral Canada’s rail lines have picked up the slack, moving as much oil around as the proposed pipe would have. This first came to my attention around a year ago at a lunch where a portfolio manager for an energy fund was explaining that even though Keystone had stalled, a new pipeline had indeed opened. The difference was that it was actually the railway system. Since then it has slowly been gaining wider acknowledgement that in place of a relatively safe oil pipeline we instead now have hundreds of trains travelling through neighbourhoods and schools and towns carrying vast amounts of highly toxic oil, among other dangerous things.

All this leads to the hard truth about difficult economic decisions. Sometimes the big bad business is still making the best decision. Opposing development, no matter how well intentioned, rarely changes the underlying needs that feed those projects. Worse still, not recognizing the economic drivers behind controversial projects like this only leads to the kind of unintended blowback that creates future messes. For environmentalists the likely outcome will have been to have slain a largely symbolic dragon, while in reality they have set the stage for future environmental disasters on a much greater scale than they had ever intended. They haven’t changed the direction of the energy market, or the need for oil. But they have undermined a good economic proposal in favour of a bad one.

Crude Oil YTD