Is global trade about to collapse? Where are oil prices headed?
By James Stafford
web posted August 13, 2012
As markets continue to yo-yo and commentators deliver mixed forecasts, investors are faced with some tough decisions and have a number of important questions that need answering. On a daily basis we are asked what’s happening with oil prices alongside questions on China’s slowdown, which commodities or instruments will provide safety in the current environment, will the Euro-zone split in the future and what impact the presidential election is going to have on the economy and markets? James Stafford sits with award winning economic commentator Mike “Mish” Shedlock for some answers.
Stafford: With oil prices now in the high 80's and news out of Europe getting worse every day, do you expect prices to stay in this range, or do you see them dropping in the short term?
Mish: There are two conflicting forces here. One of them is oil prices over the long-term and the other is oil prices over the short-term.
Even in the short-term you will find there are conflicting forces at play. For example, stress in the Middle-East puts an upward pressure on oil prices. However, economic problems in Europe, a slow-down in Asia and a slow-down in the United States put downward pressure on oil prices. New orders are falling at a staggering rate across the board in Asia, China, Japan, Europe, and the United States which also puts further downward pressure on oil prices.
Long-term, forces such as peak oil and population growth in China are putting pressures to the upside.
One needs to balance all of those factors out when they are about ready to give a prediction on oil prices. My opinion is that over the short to mid-term, oil prices will go down. Long-term, energy is a good place to invest.
Stafford: If your prediction is correct and oil prices do go down – what sort of impact do you see this having on the U.S. economy, if any?
Mish: That's an interesting question. However, the question puts the cart before the horse.
Looking at prices in a vacuum is a mistake. One also has to look at why prices are doing what they're doing. For example, falling oil prices that happen when supply shocks are alleviated are a positive thing. Falling oil prices because of falling demand is another. You seldom see this kind of distinction in mainstream media.
Right now, oil prices are primarily falling because of falling demand, and that is in spite of geopolitical tensions. That is not a healthy sign for the economy.
Stafford: As we have seen with the recent oil workers strike in Norway and subsequent rise in oil prices. Geopolitical risks always remain to keep the markets off balance. Apart from Iran are there any other geopolitical risks you think people should be aware of?
Mish: A key geopolitical risk in the long-term is that China cannot continue at its expected rate of growth. For years, the mantra has been "China, China, China," and many thought China could maintain its 8% to 10% per year growth going forward. That's not going to happen.
I agree with Michael Pettis at China Financial Markets, that China is more likely to see 2% growth than 8% or even 6% growth over the next decade.
2% growth is a shocking reduction, even from the lowered expectations that we've seen regarding China. The implication is commodity prices, especially base metals, are going to be under extreme pressure because of China stockpiles. For further discussion please see "China Rebalancing Has Begun"; What are the Global Implications?
Stafford: What are your longer term projections for oil prices – say 3-5 years out?
Mish: I think it's a fool’s game to make such projections. Most of the projections on the price of gold, silver and oil are ridiculous. They are designed to sell newsletters. The bigger the hype, the greater the sales. On occasion, I will make a call. For example, when crude hit $140+ in the summer of 2008, and others called for $200, I said oil prices would drop to the $45.00 - $50.00 range or so. Oil went to $35.
Moreover, those predicting $200.00 never bothered to think what that would do to the global economy. We saw the same thing in natural gas. People were predicting $25. Look at prices now, at roughly $3.00 NG fell all the way to $2.20, lower than even this staunch deflationist thought.
I'm not willing to go out on the same limb and predict energy prices three years in advance. The reason is we really don't know for sure how central bankers are going to respond. China is particularly important. If there's universal printing of money everywhere, I would expect a lot of that to flow back into prices of gold, perhaps of silver, and perhaps energy, but we really don't know what they're going to do. We don't know when or how the Euro Zone is going to break up. I think it will, but how is as important as when.
In the US, we don't know the results of tax hikes following the 2012 election. Heck, we don't even know who the next president in the United States is going to be. Will it be Republican? Will it be Democrat? Numerous political and economic forces are pulling and tugging in different ways.
I don't believe there's anyone out there that can predict, with any kind of accuracy, what oil prices are going to do. Which is why I believe trying to predict oil prices in the midst of all of these possibilities is a fool's game.
Stafford: What are your views on inflation and hyperinflation.
Mish: Hyperinflation is a complete collapse in currency. It is a political event that kicks off hyperinflation, not a monetary one. Hyperinflation talk hit an extreme when oil prices hit $140. Such talk was silly then, and it is still silly now.
Hyperinflationists in general fail to understand the role of collapsing demand for credit. The total credit market is over $54 trillion. Base money supply is $2.6 trillion and excess reserves are about $1.5 trillion. Seems to me we had huge expansion in credit and Bernanke is struggling to reignite demand. I suggest he will not succeed.
The idea the US$ will suddenly go to zero is ridiculous. The US is the world’s largest holder of gold reserves, and that alone would stop it. Also note that Bernanke, as misguided as his policies are, is still beholden to the banking system. As such he has no desire for it to collapse.
As far as inflation goes, I am still widely misunderstood. I view inflation as an increase in money supply and credit, with credit marked to market. Deflation is the opposite. If one insists that inflation is about prices, then we are in a state of inflation with 10-year treasury rates below 1.5%.
For those who woodenly view inflation in terms of prices, well, prices may or may not rise. Price have generally risen, but credit is the key behind housing prices, family formation, hiring, and in fact everything driving the economy. So, where is credit going? Demographics and student debt suggests nowhere. Indeed, credit has gone nowhere in spite of heroic efforts by Bernanke.
Stafford: You just mentioned that we don’t know who the next president is going to be and sticking to this topic how big an impact do you see energy prices having on this year's presidential elections?
Mish: I don’t think energy prices are what's on people's minds. What's on people's minds right now are jobs. Oil prices have kind of stabilized and in the very short-term they are likely to stay stable unless there are some dramatic results in the Mid-East or a dramatic slowdown in the US economy. Both are possible, but a major US slowdown is arguably more likely. Regardless, I think energy prices are going to be a minor election issue.
Stafford: The message on peak oil seems to be confused. Many are adamant that peak oil is the largest threat to ever face humanity, whilst others believe that with new technologies and new fields being found, peak oil is a myth and we are actually swimming in oil. What are your thoughts?
Mish: The idea that we're swimming in oil is preposterous. Moreover, abiotic oil is a ridiculous pipe-dream. That said, the idea that the global economy is going to come grinding to a halt in the next year or two because of oil is also preposterous (discounting a geopolitical Mid-East shutdown). In general, I would side with the peak oil folks, noting that a global recession will likely pressure prices more than anyone thinks, barring a breakout of war or supply disruptions in the Mid-East.
Long-term, 8% growth in China is mathematically not going to happen. People really need to get a grip on exponential math and the implications thereof. If China does attempt to grow at 8-10% as some people have predicted, there's going to be an oil war of some kind between the United States and China because there's simply not enough oil.
For a good discussion on the limits of exponential growth, please see Calpers Pension Plan Reports 1% Return; Stunning "What If" Charts at Various Compound Annualized Rates-of-Return Going Forward
Stafford: Shale gas has been generating a great deal of headlines recently. Do you believe it could be the solution to America’s energy challenges? We are also seeing developments in oil & gas extraction technologies. Have we been oversold on such possibilities?
Mish: I think we're oversold on everything. We're oversold on the idea of cheap energy, of free energy, of green energy, of clean energy. We're oversold on the stock market. We're oversold on what Obama can deliver. We're oversold on what Mitt Romney can deliver. We're oversold in so many areas, I can't even mention them.
In regards to new technologies, how much water will it take to extract these reserves in the midst of these droughts? What are we going to do with the contamination, how do we get rid of the waste byproducts? These kinds of projects look good on paper, but are they truly scalable in practice?
I hope I am wrong.
Stafford: What is the role of government in alternative energy sources?
Mish: The role of government should be to get the hell out of the way and let the free market work. If peak oil really is a problem (and I think it is), the free market will come up with a solution if left alone.
Instead, the government is trying to pick winners. Look at the results. President Obama backed solar panel manufacturer Solyndra and the DOE loan guarantee scheme blew sky high.
Our ethanol program is a total disaster. By government mandate, corn has been diverted to ethanol production smack in the midst of a drought. Corn is not an efficient way to produce ethanol, even if there was not a drought.
Governments seldom back winners. Instead, government bureaucrats back companies that contribute to their campaigns. This is worse than it looks because such activities deprives companies with real solutions a chance at funding.
We need to get government out of the energy business completely and let the free market work.
Stafford: Sticking with the renewable energy theme, do you see them making a meaningful contribution to global energy production over the next 10 years?
Mish: Adding to my previous answer, government subsidies of unviable products and unviable ideas gets in the way of the free market actually producing viable products and viable ideas. Simply put, the more government interferes, the less likely we are going to see advances in the actual direction of a true solution.
Stafford: In regards to presidential elections, how do you think energy will fare under Obama and under Romney? Which sectors will benefit, and which will suffer?
Mish: Mitt Romney has declared that if he’s elected he is going to label China a currency manipulator and increase tariffs on China across the board. That's something that I believe he might be able to do by mandate. If he's elected and he does follow through, I think the result will be a global trade war the likes of which we have not seen since the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act compounded problems during the Great Depression. Simply put, I think that global trade will collapse if Romney wins and he follows through on his campaign promises.
Unfortunately, campaign rhetoric now is heating up to the point where President Obama and Mitt Romney are trying to outdo each other on who's going to do more to China. Thus, we may very well see a global trade war regardless of who wins.
As an aside, Mitt Romney is pledging to increase military spending. Given Romney’s statements on Iran, it's more likely he would start a war with Iran than Obama. Note that the U.S. military is one of the biggest users of petroleum worldwide and oil price shocks could be devastating.
None of this is any good for the world economy at all. I believe that Romney will do what he says. I believe he's more likely to start wars than Obama, but that doesn't make Obama any good. This is the worst slate of candidates in U.S. history running for president, and I'm writing in Ron Paul.
Stafford: As the global economy slows, where do you see the best investment opportunities available to investors?
Mish: At this point, the best thing to do is wait for better opportunities. I am talking my book, but something like 70-80% cash (or hedged equities) and 20-30% gold seems reasonable. I'm telling people, "Get out of the stock market. Get out of commodities except gold and perhaps a bit of silver."
A global slowdown is underway. Actually, I made a Case for US and Global Recession Right Here, Right Now.
Although nothing is certain, central bankers worldwide are highly likely to pump up money supply hoping to counteract the slowdown. If so, I think gold is going to be one of big beneficiaries. Silver may be a huge beneficiary, and I like it here. However, silver is also an industrial commodity, so gold is safer.
Bear in mind, I may seem like a broken record on this thesis given cash and gold has been my call for the last year and a half or so.
In spite of calling the global economy exceptionally well, I've simply been wrong about U.S. equities. They have risen far more than I thought, but I still caution that risk is high.
I'm going to repeat my general message here, that another slow-down, and another big downturn in the stock market is highly likely. Equities are quite overvalued at this point, cash is not trash, and staying liquid now, with a percentage in gold, is a good idea.
Stafford: I was hoping you could tell us your thoughts on the Euro. You mentioned previously, that you think the E.U. will split in the future, why do you think this will occur, and what will the economic and political implications be?
Mish: I think it's pretty clear that the euro's going to split because no currency union in history has ever survived without there being a corresponding fiscal union in place. Right now we're in a situation where Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel says that "There should be no fiscal union until there's a political union." Francois Hollande said, "There should be no political union until there's a banking union," and the German Supreme Court will not allow a political union or a fiscal union, nor a banking union without a German referendum.”
I did a post on this, and it's called, "It's Just Impossible."
If politicians could not get agreements when times were good, how are they going to get these agreements now, when they're bickering over every little thing, including the amount of the ESM, whether or not the bailout of Spain should be via the ESM or the EFSF, and whether or not the Spanish government should be backstopping this loan.
They can't get an agreement on anything, and the German Constitutional Court is hanging like a Sword of Damocles over the entire thing.
For these reasons, the Euro is going to bust up. What happens to the price of the Euro depends on how it busts up. If the breakup is piecemeal and disorderly, it means one thing. If it's orderly and prepared in advance with Germany leaving and the northern states leaving, it's a completely different scenario. Any point along that line is possible, but piecemeal seems more likely. How disorderly remains to be seen.
For example, if Germany exits the Euro and goes on the deutschmark, the value of the deutschmark will soar, whilst the value of the Euro will decline.
Instead, if we see a break-up by Spain leaving, by Greece leaving, by Italy leaving, and the bulk of what's left is Germany and the northern States, then the value of the Euro can soar. Those are the two conflicting possibilities here. The market has not decided which one of those is more likely.
Meanwhile, the Euro is in a low 1.20 range to the U.S. dollar. A breakout or a breakdown might be a signal that the market is expecting one of those possibilities over the other.
We are in uncharted territory and everyone is guessing.
Short-term I am neutral on the US dollar at this level because the euro is a bit oversold, the idea of a Greek exit is no longer unfathomable, and the Fed is likely to initiate QE3 at some point. This is a change from my previous US dollar bullish stance.
Stafford: We mentioned China earlier, and I was wondering what you think the future holds for China, both politically and economically.
Mish: A regime change in China is coming up. The current regime has been focused on growth. However, I think the next Chinese government already understands that the growth at any cost of the current regime is not sustainable. If so, we're going to see a major shift away from an export-driven production model dependent on investment on roads, on bridges, and more production, to a consumption-driven model. That shift will be one of the major forces in the global economy.
If I'm correct on this, then it's going to be a painful adjustment, regardless of what China does. For example, a Chinese slow-down towards consumption would increase the value of the renminbi, would decrease their exports, would help the balance of trade between China and the United States and Europe, and would put intense pressure on commodity prices. In turn, asset prices and currencies of the commodity producing countries, like Australia, Brazil, and Canada will come under heavy pressure.
Stafford: Mark Faber is not a fan of the Federal Reserve, blaming them for the current US economic situation. He said, “Usually under a gold standard you have a bubble under one sector of the economy but you don’t have it across the board globally and that’s really what the Federal Reserve has done over the last couple of years.” Do you agree? Is the Fed to blame? And what can be done to avoid this in the future?
Mish: I agree with part of it, if not most of it. However, the idea that the gold standard itself causes bubbles is fallacious. The gold standard does not cause huge bubbles. The real culprit is fractional reserve lending. Historically, problems happened when banks lent out more money than there was gold backing it up.
The gold standard did one thing for sure. It limited trade imbalances. Once Nixon took the United States off the gold standard, the U.S. trade deficit soared (along with the exportation of manufacturing jobs).
To fix the problems of the U.S. losing jobs to China, to South Korea, to India, and other places, we need to put a gold standard back in place, not enact tariffs.
Stafford: Mish, thank you for your time this has been a very enjoyable and enlightening conversation for us.
For those of you who haven’t seen Mish’s superb blog and daily economic commentary we strongly recommend you visit his site: http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com. You can also do a Google search for Mish.
James Stafford is the editor of Oilprice.com where this interview originally appeared.