Category Archives: Agriculture
I hope I’m not biting off more than I can chew with this post, but it is important and interesting. Gas prices are going down – 8% since the end of June, and maybe further as we continue into the fall. And that is certainly good news. American consumers will spend less on gasoline, which means more money left over to spur other sectors of the economy and to retire debt and save.
A lot of times big news outlets only focus on a few determinants of gas prices when they talk about the economics of gas and oil, but it is a vast and complicated market that is not homogeneous worldwide or within the United States.
66% of the price of a gallon of gasoline is determined by the price of oil. Big news outlets like to talk about a few themes when they talk about the price of oil: rising consumption in emerging markets, such as China, and rising production in the US, coming from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale. In addition, they cover the price of oil. The most commonly cited price of oil are West Texas Intermediate (WTI) contracts traded on the NY Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX). However, unlike stocks and bonds which can be traded and transferred digitally, ultimately, for every oil contract, someone has to take delivery of the physical commodity. And due to the realities of geography, climate, and geopolitics, it isn’t possible to charge the same amount all over the world.
When we talk about gasoline, the buyers of the crude oil that we care about are the refineries. The US has refineries on all of our coasts: the East Coast, the West Coast, and the Gulf Coast. But all of these regions are sourcing oil from different parts of the world. Increasing levels of the North Dakota oil are heading East. The Gulf is importing high quality overseas oil, so that leaves the West Coast importing more expensive oversea oil, which is more expensive to refine.
One man that is embroiled in what very well may be the world’s most important logistical system is everyone’s favorite octogenarian, Warren Buffett. A large part of his conglomerate’s business is rail shipping, which includes North Dakotan oil. However, given capacity constraints, he has to balance oil shipments with grain shipments. When he is taking on too much oil the agriculture industry and food security experts get in a fuss (Warren even had a private talking-to with the Agriculture Secretary last week), and when he is shipping grains instead of black gold, every who cares about gas prices is up in a huff.
Ever since the Arab oil embargo the United States government has banned the export of US crude oil. Therefore, despite the rising domestic US oil production, it only has a muted effect on international oil prices. So all the refineries importing foreign oil, especially those on the West Coast and the Gulf Coast (since most of the good stuff from North Dakota is heading to the East Coast), are still beholden to international geopolitics. The good news is that international prices are down 16% since the end of June (US prices are only down 11% in the same time period).
Ukraine! Gaza! ISIS! Syria! Libya! Ebola! Egypt! How is it that international prices are down? The fact of the matter is that many of these conflicts have not adversely effected oil extraction and shipping to enough extent to disrupt prices. But I personally feel like there is still a lot of possibility for a shock event to push prices higher. For instance, the capital of Yemen, Sana’a has recently resembled a battlefield. Who knows how this could affect prices if there is an unexpected outcome. Even more so, if Ebola spreads through Nigeria and other West African countries that are large oil exporters there could be widespread export disruptions, driving up prices. That’s not to mention if Russian sanctions over Ukraine spill over into the energy sector, if ISIS expands its territory and the world blacklists its oil, or the Libyan conflict turns into a more disruptive civil war.
Right now the cheapest gasoline can be found in the South, and the most expensive in the Northwest. State gasoline taxes also play a huge role in the final price at the pump, but this is purely a political phenomenon, not an economical one. Next time you fill up or hear or read a news story on oil or gas try to remember that the economics of the issue is a lot more complicated than the story may lead you to believe, and that prices may not stay this low forever.
This is part three of a four-part series of posts on the Economics of Oil. Other posts:
El Niño has been gathering some attention in the United States and in Nicaragua, where I am currently living and serving as a US Peace Corps Volunteer. Basically, El Niño is when a wide band of surface water in the Pacific Ocean off northwestern South America heats up, altering weather patterns worldwide. I guess at this point I want to emphasize that whether or not this is a good or bad thing is completely subjective. It depends on your stake in the climate. For house insurers in coastal areas, it is definitely a good thing. For farmers in Nicaragua, not so much. However, from an economic point-of-view, the effects of El Niño, I believe, can be objectively discussed and predicted.
First of all, we’re not in El Niño yet. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has to declare an El Niño based on observed conditions, and they haven’t been observed yet. However, many climatologists are predicting an El Niño to be declared later this year, and the effects of the oceanic temperatures are already being felt. Last week the federal Climate Prediction Center released a monthly report giving an El Niño event a two-in-three chance of developing.
If you live in a hurricane zone, you can breathe a sigh of relief. The weather patterns sparked by El Niño typically subdue hurricane forces in the Atlantic, leading to a below average hurricane season. The polar vortex probably won’t be back this winter. And California may have some wet months ahead to quench its drought (but with storms come mudslides in California). However, unless this El Niño is intense, which is looking increasingly unlikely, it probably will not bring enough rain to completely alleviate the drought conditions.
On the other hand, if you’re in the Pacific hurricane zone (Mexico and Central America – which means me, in Nicaragua) get your go-bag ready. El Niño can make for more and stronger Pacific storms. The Midwest also better dust the cobwebs out its storm cellars. There is a correlation between tornadic activity and El Niño.
So what does this all mean for economic activity in the latter part of this year and 2015?
Crop yields and livestock production will probably drop in 2015 as a result of the changes in weather patterns, which will drive up prices and put a minor dent in GDP. Adverse effects on crops in Southeast Asia could also drive up prices on foodstuffs like palm oil, which is already feeling the pinch from Ebola. However, more significantly, the warmer weather through the winter could be a boon for consumer spending (no one goes out and does stuff or buys stuff when it’s snowing, as we saw this last winter, but during mild winters GDP usually gets a healthy boost). Ironically, Japan is monitoring for the opposite effect. The coming seasons could be unseasonably mild and wet, dampening consumer spending.
Agricultural production is a relatively small portion of the US economic output, so the effects of El Niño could be quite muted in America (of course the wildcard is freak storms, severe droughts, or other unanticipated effects that have dynamic effects of the economy). However, in many countries around the world – in fact, in most countries around the world, agriculture is a much larger component of economic output. Nicaraguan farmers are already struggling with a slow rainy season, and hot weather in the mountains could be contributing to the spread of “coffee rust,” a disease that affects coffee plants and is spreading through Nicaragua and other parts of Central America. Since agriculture is such a large part of the Nicaraguan economy, the impacts of El Niño could be far more serious down here. Plus, American farmers have crop insurance at their disposal to insulate themselves from the effects of a poor harvest. Most Nicaraguan farmers have no such recourses and their personal well-being and that of their families’ could be seriously harmed by adverse El Niño effects.