Rising geopolitical tensions and high oil prices are continuing to help renewable energy find favour amongst investors and politicians. Yet how much faith should we place in renewables to make up the shortfall in fossil fuels? Can science really solve our energy problems, and which sectors offers the best hope for our energy future? To help us get to the bottom of this we spoke with energy specialist Dr. Tom Murphy, an associate professor of physics at the University of California. Tom runs the popular energy blog Do the Math which takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth.
In the interview Tom talks about the following:
Why we shouldn’t get too excited over the shale boom
Why resource depletion is a greater threat than climate change
Why Fukushima should not be seen as a reason to abandon nuclear
Why the Keystone XL pipeline may do little to help US energy security
Why renewables have difficulty mitigating a liquid fuels shortage
Why we shouldn’t rely on science to solve our energy problems
Forget fusion and thorium breeders – artificial photosynthesis would be a bigger game changer
For the last month or so, despite ongoing fund inflows, high-yield credit's performance has been generally muted. Compared to the exuberance of the equity market it has been downright flaccid and given how 'empirically' cheap it is on a normalized spread basis through the cycle (and the fortress-like balance sheets we hear so much about) some would expect it to be the high-beta long of choice in the new-new normal rally-to-infinity. However, it is not (and has not been since late January). There are some technical factors including a bifurcated HY credit market (between really 'good's and really 'bad's and illiquids and liquids), low rate implications on callability and negative convexity affecting price but the lack of share creation in the HYG (high-yield bond) ETF also suggests a lagging of support for high-yield credit. This is a very similar pattern to what was seen in Q1/Q2 last year as equity kept rallying away from a less sanguine credit market only to eventually collapse under the weight of its own reality-check. European credit and equity markets are much more in sync together as they have fallen recently but financials in the US exaggerate this credit-signaling-ongoing-concerns trend while equity goes on about its bullish business. Another canary dead?
When Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf sleeps, he dreams -- like all good bankers -- about numbers. He probably doesn't dream about the number 600 -- the number of foreclosure packages signed each day by his robosigners. He probably doesn't dream about 14,420 -- the number of conveyance claims fraudulently submitted to HUD in exchange for $1.7 billion from the FHA [Inspector General report.] And, he almost certainly doesn't dream about his share of laughably small $25 billion penalty he and his fellow bankers might pay to slough off legal liability for the millions of Americans they've helped make homeless (don't know why they're bellyaching...they're all getting $2,000!) No, I imagine the number he fixates on is 35 -- the third rail around which his stock seems to go into spasms every time it gets close. I'm exaggerating, of course; it's only happened three of the last four times since November 2007. The other time, in September '08, the stock soared right through 35 to nearly 45 -- before plunging to 7.80 six months later. Stumpf might be dreaming about 35 a lot this week, as the stock's edging toward that buzzing rail yet again. And, darn it, did the SEC have to pick this week to file that subpoena to compel him to hand over the documents he promised in regards to a $60 billion fraud investigation? Now, with earnings coming up in a couple of weeks?
Earlier today, outgoing Treasury Secretary and tax challenged part-time pathological liar (see here) Tim Geithner said that any worries of the US debt ceiling are misplaced, and that at best such an event would occur "late in the year" (and to think the August 2011 extended $16.394 trillion debt ceiling was supposed to last well into 2013). Naturally, coming from Geithner, it meant this statement was a flat out lief the second it left his mouth, which is why we decided to do our own analysis of just when the latest and greatest debt ceiling would be breached. The answer is that at the current rate of debt issuance, which incidentally is going to accelerate sharply due to the recent extension of the payroll tax cuts which will require an incremental $100-150 billion total debt to be funded, and extrapolating future issuance solely on historical patterns, the US debt ceiling D-Day will be September 14, 2012. This means that there will be just over 6 weeks for the GOP to hijack each and every presidential debate before the November election with just this topic. Because there will hardly be anything more humiliating for Obama than to have to defend his platform even as the country is once again past the verge of insolvency, and forced to "commingle" retirement funds to keep Treasury operations running. Which incidentally is just as we predicted would happen when we explained why the GOP fast shelved the payroll tax debate so rapidly. It was nothing but a prelude to precisely this. Because once it is raised, and it will be raised of course, next up will be yet another ratings downgrade by S&P and this time, Moody's as well. All of which will most likely happen before November.
The last 90 minutes of the day dragged ES (the S&P 500 e-mini futures contract) back up to the safety of its VWAP on what seems to be some comments by Jamie Dimon on the Fed looking for much larger job creation (prompting QE3 moves) or another housing bottom-call? After what had been an ugly day in which stocks sold off (aggressively after the European close) back to the post-Bernanke reality that is the less sanguine credit markets, the USD weakened, commodities and stocks popped (led by financials), and Treasuries sold off (belly underperforming). It seems that no matter who comes on TV nowadays and says anything, the algos market will rally. By the close, Financials were the only sector in the green (as GS and JPM surged but not so much BAC or MS) but Materials, Energy, and Industrials were the worst. VIX managed to get above 17 before reversing back to unchanged and the term-structure steepened back a little. Gold (which dropped the most in 2 weeks today after Goldman's long call) remains the only metals/oil commodity higher on the week - though only marginally - as plunges in Oil and Silver bounced quite positively into the close. Stocks underperformed credit on the day in general but the low volume limp up into the close saw them even out and we note that as ES hit its VWAP - heavier negative delta volume came through somewhat suggesting this was an effort to ease institutional exit - as both NYSE and ES volume was above average. 30Y Treasuries are back to higher in yield for the week but this afternoon's selloff lifted yields 4-5bps off their earlier lows. Broad risk assets led the equity market down but quite coincidentally, the S&P ended the day almost perfectly in CONTEXT with risk assets and credit/vol (after a significant dislocation the last few days).
The price of gold is being actively managed by central planners and their proxies. The main culprit here appears to be the US authorities, as the manipulation is most apparent in the US open gold market. For the most part, this 'management' has resulted in letting the price of gold rise, but not too much, or too quickly. The price of gold has always been an object of interest for governments and central bankers. The reason is simple enough to understand: Gold is an objective measure of the degree to which fiat money is being managed well or managed poorly. As such, whenever paper money is being governed poorly, the price of gold becomes an important barometer. And this is why the actual price of gold is a strong candidate to be 'managed.' Or 'influenced'. Or 'manipulated'. Whichever word you prefer, they all convey the same intent. Some who are reading this are likely having an eye-rolling moment because they hold a belief that there is no conspiracy to manage the price of gold. This is an interesting belief to hold because it runs heavily against the odds. We could spend a lot of time discussing how a belief such as 'gold is not being manipulated' gets promoted and inserted into the popular consciousness, but we won't. Instead, we'll simply note that the people who hold this belief -- and you may be among them -- react to the concept at a visceral level, often with strong emotions such as anger or contempt, and even anxiety. When a strong emotional response surfaces during a conversation of ideas, it usually means that beliefs are in play -- neither facts nor logic. Experience has taught me that when someone becomes dismissive or angry or hostile when the idea of price manipulation is discussed, it's best to simply drop the conversation and move on. No combination of logic or facts is effective against a deeply-held belief. It's better to wait until some new evidence calls that belief into question, opening the door for revisiting the topic. But for those with an open mind, there is a very interesting trail of dots to connect.
For every semi-positive data point the bulls have emphasized since the market rally began, there's a counter-point that makes us question what all the fuss is about. The bulls will cite expanding US GDP in late 2011, while the bears can cite US food stamp participation reaching an all-time record of 46,514,238 in December 2011, up 227,922 participantsfrom the month before, and up 6% year-over-year. The bulls can praise February's 15.7% year-over-year increase in US auto sales, while the bears can cite Europe's 9.7% year-over-year decrease in auto sales, led by a 20.2% slump in France. The bulls can exclaim somewhat firmer housing starts in February (as if the US needs more new houses), while the bears can cite the unexpected 100bp drop in the March consumer confidence index five consecutive months of manufacturing contraction in China, and more recently, a 0.9% drop in US February existing home sales. Give us a half-baked bullish indicator and we can provide at least two bearish indicators of equal or greater significance. It has become fairly evident over the past several months that most new jobs created in the US tend to be low-paying, while the jobs lost are generally higher-paying. This seems to be confirmed by the monthly US Treasury Tax Receipts, which are lower so far this year despite the seeming improvement in unemployment. Take February 2012, for example, where the Treasury reported $103.4 billion in tax receipts, versus $110.6 billion in February 2011. BLS had unemployment running at 9% in February 2011, versus 8.3% in February 2012. Barring some major tax break we've missed, the only way these numbers balance out is if the new jobs created produce less income to tax, because they're lower paying, OR, if the unemployment numbers are wrong. The bulls won't dwell on these details, but they cannot be ignored.
James Bianco plays straight-man to Charles Biderman in this extended (and admittedly audio-challenged) discussion of the reality behind money printing, inflation, and the US Treasury market. Following our discussion of the deficit earlier, it seemed appropriate to listen to this back-and-forth as Bianco addresses who is really buying US Treasuries, how 'money' is created by the Fed for the banks, and where inflation is leaking into the system. "The day the Fed admits there is an inflation problem is the day they are too late" is how they summarize the temporary/transitory verbiage that the Fed needs to keep using to placate the masses. Gold (and TIPS) remain their preferred strategy as Bianco argues that putting the 'inflation' threat in context is critical - this is not about 14/15% comparisons, this is about investor expectation that we get 3% inflation with the Fed at ZIRP and intending to keep printing money - which is just as toxic. The two end with an interesting conversation on the simultaneous debt deflation and price inflation and the importance of not comparing either to their extremes by way of shrugging off concerns.
The deliberations on Obamacare have ended. The next catalyst will be late June, when the Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether Obamacare is constitutional or not. If overturned, expect lots of fingerpointing, and even more allegations that it is all Bush's fault, especially if the vote goes down according to party lines.
Dumbfounded. That’s the only way to describe the reaction that future historians will have when they look back and study the utter perversion that is our global financial system. We live in a time when a tiny handful of people have their fingers on a button that can conjure trillions of dollars, euro, yen, and renminbi out of thin air. In the United States, it comes down to one man. Just one. With a single decision, he controls the lever that dominates the entire economy. When you control the money, you control everything– financial markets, consumer prices, risk perceptions, investment habits, savings rates, hiring decisions, pay raises, sovereign debt, housing starts, etc. One man.
Today's primetime popcorn event is about to begin: as reported earlier, the House Financial Services Committee will hold an oversight and investigations hearing on the collapse of MF Global, beginning at 3 pm. The hearing will focus on the decisions during the company's final days that led to the disappearance of up to $1.6 billion in customer funds. The party line is that "The investigation aims to "not only to find out where the money went but to identify what went wrong in order to prevent this from happening again," Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) said." What instead will happen is that a bunch of politicians will huff and puff, and nothing will happen once again, because to take down Corzine, would mean to start eating away at the entire rotten core of today's captured political system, which has and always will be run out of Wall Street. It will also be amusing to listen to Edith O’Brien plead the Fif
Nothing has changed. You are counting the commitments of people who need the money. It is like getting a loan from the bank and trying to make them more comfortable by telling them, not only will we co-sign our own loan, but we will give them a guarantee that we will pay it back. These are the same people who constantly try to overwhelm current problems with huge headlines and promises of a better future. They don’t have the money, and never will. They also promised speculators in Greece would lose their shirts. We need to see the details, but be prepared to be underwhelmed.
There was a time when Mr. Pink would send out witty activist letters full of zing and sarcasm, which would brighten many a trader's day. Then Mr. Pink started running a multi-billion fund and Mr. Pink matured into Dan Loeb. Today, Loeb returns with a vengeance having submitted a zinger letter to YHOO CEO Scott Thompson, in his capacity as a 5.8% shareholder of YHOO stock. Needless to say, Loeb is less than pleased with Yahoo's recent snub of his board of director candidates. The result are sentences such as the following: "Only in an illogical Alice-in-Wonderland world would a shareholder be deemed to be conflicted from representing the interests of other shareholders because he is, well, a shareholder too."..."this “long-term vs. short-term” excuse is a canard and particularly inapt in the case of Yahoo!. If there ever was a company in need of a sense of urgency, it is this one."..." Was it “short-term” thinking that led Third Point to push for the resignations of Jerry Yang, Roy Bostock, Arthur Kern and Vyomesh Joshi? If so, is there a Yahoo! shareholder on the planet who thinks this “short-term” thinking was bad for the Company? Was it “short-term” thinking that led Third Point to speak up for shareholders by questioning the fairness of the attempt by the Company to give away control to private equity funds – without receiving a premium – to entrench Roy Bostock and Jerry Yang? Or to suggest, as Third Point has, that the Company’s stake in Alibaba is more valuable than generally understood, and that the Company should hold on to it unless it can get fair value? Was it “short-term” thinking to point out the lack of media and advertising expertise on the Board and nominate extraordinarily qualified nominees to fill that gaping hole?" And so on. Loeb concludes amicably: "We remain willing to engage further with you but will not deviate from our demand for badly-needed shareholder representation." We are confident his next letter, which will be released in 1-2 months, will hardly be so pleasant.