The Automatic Earth
by Raul Ilargi Meijer
We should be glad the price of oil has fallen the way it has (losing another 6% today as we write this). Not because it makes the gas in our cars a bit cheaper, that’s nothing compared to the other service the price slump provides. That is, it allows us to see how the economy is really doing, without the multilayered veil of propaganda, spin, fixed data and bailouts and handouts for the banking system.
It shows us the huge extent to which consumer spending is falling, how much poorer people have become as stock markets set records. It also shows us how desperate producing nations have become, who have seen a third of their often principal source of revenue fall away in a few months’ time. Nigeria was first in line to devalue its currency, others will follow suit.
OPEC today decided not to cut production, but whatever decision they would have come to, nothing would have made one iota of difference. The fact that prices only started falling again after the decision was made public shows you how senseless financial markets have become, dumbed down by easy money for which no working neurons are required.
OPEC has become a theater piece, and the real world out there is getting colder. Oil producing nations can’t afford to cut their output in some vague attempt, with very uncertain outcome, to raise prices. The only way to make up for their losses is to increase production when and where they can. And some can’t even do that.
Saudi Arabia increased production in 1986 to bring down prices. All it has to do today to achieve the same thing is to not cut production. But the Saudi’s have lost a lot of clout, along with OPEC, it’s not 1986 anymore. That is due to an extent to American shale oil, but the global financial crisis is a much more important factor.
We are only now truly even just beginning to see how hard that crisis has already hit the Chinese export miracle, and its demand for resources, a major reason behind the oil crash. The US this year imported less oil from OPEC members than it has in 30 years, while Americans drive far less miles per capita and shale has its debt-financed temporary jump. Now, all oil producers, not just shale drillers, turn into Red Queens, trying ever harder just to make up for losses.
The American shale industry, meanwhile, is a driverless truck, with brakes missing and fueled by on cheap speculative capital. The main question underlying US shale is no longer about what’s feasible to drill today, it’s about what can still be financed tomorrow. And the press are really only now waking up to the Ponzi character of the industry.
In a pretty solid piece last week, the Financial Times’ John Dizard concluded with:
Even long-time energy industry people cannot remember an overinvestment cycle lasting as long as the one in unconventional US resources. It is not just the hydrocarbon engineers who have created this bubble; there are the financial engineers who came up with new ways to pay for it.
While Reuters on November 10 (h/t Yves at NC) talked about giant equity fund KKR’s shale troubles:
KKR, which led the acquisition of oil and gas producer Samson for $7.2 billion in 2011 and has already sold almost half its acreage to cope with lower energy prices, plans to sell its North Dakota Bakken oil deposit worth less than $500 million as part of an ongoing downsizing plan.
Samson’s bonds are trading around 70 cents on the dollar, indicating that KKR and its partners’ equity in the company would probably be wiped out were the whole company to be sold now. Samson’s financial woes underscore how private equity’s love affair with North America’s shale revolution comes with risks. The stakes are especially high for KKR, which saw a $45 billion bet on natural gas prices go sour when Texas power utility Energy Future Holdings filed for bankruptcy this year.
And today, Tracy Alloway at FT mentions major banks and their energy-related losses:
Banks including Barclays and Wells Fargo are facing potentially heavy losses on an $850 million loan made to two oil and gas companies, in a sign of how the dramatic slide in the price of oil is beginning to reverberate through the wider economy. [..] if Barclays and Wells attempted to syndicate the $850m loan now, it could go for as little as 60 cents on the dollar.
That’s just one loan. At 60 cents on the dollar, a $340 million loss. Who knows how many similar, and bigger, loans are out there? Put together, these stories slowly seeping out of the juncture of energy and finance gives the good and willing listener an inkling of an idea of the losses being incurred throughout the global economy, and by the large financiers. There’s a bloodbath brewing in the shadows. Countries can see their revenues cut by a third and move on, perhaps with new leaders, but many companies can’t lose that much income and keep on going, certainly not when they’re heavily leveraged.
The Saudi’s refuse to cut output and say: let America cut. But American oil producers can’t cut even if they would want to, it would blow their debt laden enterprises out of the water, and out of existence. Besides, that energy independence thing plays a big role of course. But with prices continuing to fall, much of that industry will go belly up because credit gets withdrawn.
The amount of money lost in the ‘overinvestment cycle’ will be stupendous, and you don’t need to ask who’s going to end up paying. Pointing to past oil bubbles risks missing the point that the kind of leverage and cheap credit heaped upon shale oil and gas, as Dizard also says, is unprecedented. As Wolf Richter wrote earlier this year, the industry has bled over $100 billion in losses for three years running.
Not because they weren’t selling, but because the costs were – and are – so formidable. There’s more debt going into the ground then there’s oil coming out. Shale was a losing proposition even at $100. But that remained hidden behind the wagers backed by 0.5% loans that fed the land speculation it was based on from the start. WTI fell below $70 today. You can let your 3-year old do the math from there.
I wonder how many people will scratch their heads as they’re filling up their tanks this week and wonder how much of a mixed blessing that cheap gas is. They should. They should ask themselves how and why and how much the plummeting gas price is a reflection of the real state of the global economy, and what that says about their futures.