Gasoline consumption in the United States has been dropping for years. In the last decade, vehicle fuel efficiency has improved by 20%, and the combination of that shift and a weak economy of late has pushed gasoline demand to its lowest level in a decade. At the same time, US oil production is at its highest level in a decade. Deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico and horizontal fracs in the Bakken shale have turned America's domestic oil production scene around. After 20 years of declining production, US crude output rates started to climb in 2008 and have increased every year since. With production up and demand down, the basics of supply and demand indicate that oil prices should be falling. Americans should be paying less at the pump. Instead, the average US price at the pump reached US$3.80 per gallon on March 5, after 27 consecutive days of gains. That's 26.7¢ above the old record for March 5, set last year. The price of gasoline has climbed 32¢ or 9.3% since February 1; analysts expect prices to continue rising, reaching a national average of something like US$4.25 per gallon. What gives? Is it all about Iran? Are speculators manipulating the market? Do any politicians have good ideas on how to "fix" the high cost of gasoline? And is there relief on the horizon?
Being an intrinsically destabilizing force, financialization led to the global financial crisis of 2008. Central banks went into panic mode, printing and injecting trillions of dollars of new infectious material into the global economy in the hopes of sparking a new even grander cycle of financialization. But you can't create a new cycle of plague when the hosts are either dead or already infected. The world has run out of sectors that can be financialized; that plague has already killed or infected every corner of the global economy. Ironically, all the central banks' attempts to reinflate the speculative leverage-debt bubble are only hastening the disease's decline and collapse. The global markets are cheering today because the plague-riddled corpse of Greek debt has been turned into a grotesque marionette that is being made to "dance" by the European Central Bank before an audience that has been told to applaud loudly, even though the ghastly, bizarre spectacle is transparently phony. Greek debt is already dead; it can't be reinfected and killed again, and neither can the debts of Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy et al. Housing is also already dead, though the still-warm body is still twitching in certain markets around the world.
The rally for what could be World War III is in full swing. The truth amounts to very little on the eve of war. Iraq and the lies surrounding weapons of mass destruction proved this lesson almost a decade ago. Unfortunately for the people of America, Israel, and Iran, the political class and power wielders of their respective governments refuse to learn. Their desire is for more authority and prestige; no matter how many bodies it costs. With the administration now seeking to provide assistance to the opposition forces in Syria, intervention and war with Iran is only an eventuality at this point.
As the global warming debate increases in its intensity we find both sides deeply entrenched, hurling accusations and lies at one another in an attempt to gain the upper hand. This divide within the scientific community has left the public wondering who can be trusted to provide them with accurate information and answers. The IPCC, the onetime unquestioned champion of climate change, has had its credibility questioned over the years, firstly with the climategate scandal, then with a number of high profile resignations, and now with the new “Gleickgate” scandal (1) (2) – One has to wonder where climate science goes from here?
We have a "let's pretend" economy: let's pretend the unemployment rate actually reflects the number of people with full-time jobs and the number of people seeking jobs, let's pretend the Federal government borrowing 10% of the GDP every year is sustainable without any consequences, let's pretend the stock market actually reflects the economy rather than Federal Reserve monetary intervention, and so on. We also have a "let's pretend" education/student-loan game running: let's pretend college is "worth" the investment, and let's pretend student loans are about education. There are three dirty little secrets buried under the education/student-loan complex's high-gloss sheen: 1. Student loans have little to do with education and everything to do with creating a new profit center for subprime-type lenders guaranteed by the Savior State. 2. A college diploma's value in the real world of getting a job and earning a good salary in a post-financialization economy has been grossly oversold. 3. Many people are taking out student loans just to live; the loans are essentially a form of "State funding" a.k.a. welfare that must be paid back. We've got a lot of charts that reflect reality rather than hype, so let's get started. Despite all the bleating rationalizations issued by the Education Complex, higher education costs have outstripped the rest of the economy's cost structure. Funny how nobody ever asks if there is any real competitive pressure in the Education Complex; there isn't, and why should there be when students can borrow $30,000 a year?
The most profitable business of the future will be producing Space Available and For Lease signs. Betting on the intelligence of the American consumer has been a losing bet for decades. They will continue to swipe that credit card at the local 7-11 to buy those Funions, jalapeno cheese stuffed pretzels with a side of cheese dipping sauce, cartons of smokes, and 32 ounce Big Gulps of Mountain Dew until the message on the credit card machine comes back DENIED. There will be crescendo of consequences as these stores are closed down. The rotting hulks of thousands of Sears and Kmarts will slowly decay; blighting the suburban landscape and beckoning criminals and the homeless. Retailers will be forced to lay-off hundreds of thousands of workers. Property taxes paid to local governments will dry up, resulting in worsening budget deficits. Sales taxes paid to state governments will plummet, forcing more government cutbacks and higher taxes. Mall owners and real estate developers will see their rental income dissipate. They will then proceed to default on their loans. Bankers will be stuck with billions in loan losses, at least until they are able to shift them to the American taxpayer – again.
Welcome to the Crazy House, a rotting McMansion ruled by power-drunk megalomaniacs suffering from delusions of invulnerability and god-like powers. Why are we here, you ask? Because the drunks who run the household make it so darned easy: just keep quiet, listen politely to their ravings, and you get subsidized meals, free rent, a houseful of techno-gadgetry and nonstop entertainment--and that's not even counting the amusement value of their delusional, sloppy-drunk ramblings out by the rust-stained pool.
Central banks are printing money all over the world. New names have been given to what is really an age old phenomenon. Desperate governments have traditionally debased their currencies when they have no other way of financing their deficits. So far the world’s central banks have been “lucky”. Thanks to the prior global bubble ending in 2008 and the realization that the so-called advanced countries are reaching the end of their borrowing capacity, the world is in a massive deleveraging mode which tends to be deflationary. For the moment the central banks can get away with printing all the money they want without massive increases in consumer price indexes. The public doesn’t connect increases in prices of commodities like gold or oil with the current bout of money printing. But if history is any guide, this money printing will matter and the age of deflation and deleveraging will be followed by an age of inflation.The coming battles over solving the problems of the bankrupt American government will not be pretty. It will be a bit more difficult for an American president to preach patriotism to the affluent in these circumstances. Although, if there is a war with Iran, he might try.
Is Apple going to $1,000 per share and dragging the market higher with it? Sometimes one chart tells us more than a thicket of charts. Every analyst and punter seeks an "edge" by plotting and comparing innumerable indicators, ratios, correlations and data points. Sometimes all this complexity pays dividends, but if it did so consistently then 90% of hedge funds and mutual funds wouldn't be underperforming index funds. Sometimes a single chart says it all.
I recall the early days of the Greek crisis when everyone asked why Greece was so important because it is such a small country. I responded that they had a total of $1.1 trillion in debt (sovereign, municipal, corporate, bank and derivatives) and I remember the blank stares. Now, if the newest bailout goes through, they will have more than $1.3 trillion in debt and while they could not pay the initial amount they certainly cannot pay any larger amounts so that it can clearly be stated that what is going on is the central banks of Europe and the ECB/EU lending money to Greece only as a conduit to pay back their own banking institutions. If you object to my math here recall that as the private sector involvement reduces the notational amount of sovereign debt but that the Greek banks are also going to be lent money so that the decrease in sovereign debt which excludes the ECB/EIB and IMF debt is not the headline bandied about in the press. So we have the hard date of March 9 when either the threshold for the exchange is met or not, the imposition of the CAC clause or not, the next “Question” to the ISDA if the CAC is triggered asking if there has been a credit event to trigger the CDS contracts, the possible consequences of a CDS trigger, the decision on the bailout funds by the EU and finally the March 20 hard date when Greece must make its bond payments or default. Regardless of your opinion, it may now be stated precisely, that there is a lot of risk on the table and on that basis alone I would assume a quite defensive position until this all gets played out. The risk/reward ratio is now strongly slanted towards Risk.
The pyramid is the strongest structure known to Man. The weakest structure is the inverted pyramid. There is an economic theory called the Exter Pyramid to describe the financial system. It is an inverted pyramid ranking assets by risk. Gold, the safest asset, holds its place at the tip of the pyramid. Riskier assets, such as cash, deposits, bonds, stocks, real estate, non-monetary commodities, etc., take their respective place above gold. When the pyramid gets top-heavy, it has to re-adjust itself by reducing the value of the riskier assets and increasing the value of gold and other less risky assets. Although finding the true value of the total Exter Pyramid for a country is extremely difficult, we can use readily available data from a few asset classes to understand a basic structure.America's basic Exter Pyramid was worth USD 28.4 trillion (CNY 178.92 trillion), including gold. China's basic Exter Pyramid was worth CNY 126.1 trillion (USD 20.02 trillion) including gold. (In the charts above, gold was shown as a negative number for visual effect. The value of gold is based on the official holdings at that time multiplied by the current market price.) If you factor in GDP, the closeness of those numbers seems very odd.
Warren Buffett loves to bash gold — claiming that stocks are inherently superior, because they produce a return, whereas gold just sits. Trouble is, stocks (and all paper assets) are subject to counter-party risk, whereas physical gold isn’t. Gold doesn’t overcompensate its CEOs, it doesn’t leverage its productive capital in toxic derivatives, it doesn’t cause industrial disasters like Deepwater Horizon, its value isn’t dependent on central banking, or securitisation, or American imperialism, or the machinations of the military-industrial complex. It just sits, retaining its purchasing power.
As Americans, we live in two worlds; the world of mainstream fantasy, and the world of day-to-day reality right outside our front doors. One disappears the moment we shut off our television. The other, does not… When dealing with the economy, it is the foundation blocks that remain when the proverbial house of cards flutters away in the wind, and these basic roots are what we should be most concerned about. While much of what we see in terms of economic news is awash in a sticky gray cloud of disinformation and uneducated opinion, there are still certain constants that we can always rely on to give us a sense of our general financial environment. Two of these constants are supply and demand. Central banks like the private Federal Reserve may have the ability to flood markets with fiat liquidity to skew indexes and stocks, and our government certainly has the ability to interpret employment numbers in such a way as to paint the rosiest picture possible, but ultimately, these entities cannot artificially manipulate the public into a state of demand when they are, for all intents and purposes, dead broke.
Natural gas prices are depressed and expected to remain so for the short to medium term, so investing in natural gas options or a natural gas exchange-traded fund is not likely to bring home the big bucks anytime soon. Domestic natural gas equities are an even riskier idea - most producers are scaling back production and selling assets as they hunker down in preparation for a tough few years. In this case, the way to profit is by understanding how natural gas' changing role is impacting North America's energy machine as a whole. Cheap natural gas is prompting utilities to switch from coal to gas where possible. The confluence of cheap natural gas and a risky global economy has droves of investors turning their backs on green energy, the sector that was such a market darling only a few years ago. Farther down the road, North Americans are debating - and in places implementing - a range of strategies to take advantage of the continent's newfound abundance of natural gas, from natural-gas-powered transport trucks to exportation of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Isaac Newton showed us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That is why every downside force in the energy sector creates upside opportunities elsewhere. The challenge is finding them. It takes an understanding of the entire global energy machine to figure out what areas are benefitting from the changing landscape.
One way to gauge the real economy is to look at charts of the GDP, wages, household debt and the price of oil; another way is to correlate all of these on one chart. The following chart (courtesy of frequent contributor B.C.) plots these four metrics thusly: GDP/(wages/household debt)/price of oil. What pops out of the chart is what happens when oil spikes higher or declines. In 1973, the first oil shock sent the economy off a cliff. Conversely, when oil fell to $12/barrel in the late 1990s while wages were rising strongly, the plotline peaked, reflecting a strong economy. In 2008, oil spiked to $140/barrel in 2008, household debt reached record heights and wages began stagnating, and the economy fell into a sharp recession. When oil plummeted back to $40/barrel in early 2009, the plotline spiked up. When oil prices and household debt are high while wages stagnate or decline, the economy sinks to recessionary levels....The current plotline is hovering just above the recessionary levels of late 2008. Does this reflect a strong economy, or one that is weak? If oil keeps climbing, what will that do to a visibly weak economy?