Category Archives: Geopolitics

… Economic Development

… Bitcoin Mining

This is part three of a four-part series of posts on the Economics of Oil. Previous posts:

Oil PumpThe Economics of Gas Prices

The Economics of International Oil Price Conspiracies

The Economics of Airfare

 

BitcoinFirst off, at this point you are probably wondering what similarities Bitcoins have to oil. I suppose that the main hypothesis of this post is that Bitcoins are nothing more than a plain old commodity, just like oil, and they are subject to the same market forces. In fact, at this moment “Bitcoin miners” are struggling with the same issues that shale oil producers in North Dakota and oil sands extractors in Alberta, Canada are struggling with.

Bitcoins are a digital currency. They do not exist in any physical form, and there is no central monetary authority, like the United States Federal Reserve or the European Central Bank, that can issue new Bitcoins. The currency was established in 2009 on a system of computers. The computers maintain a running log of every Bitcoin transaction (basically a big long list of debits and credits) known as the “Blockchain.” The computers interact with each other to clear transactions and verify that their registries on the Blockchain are legitimate. Every time a user successfully verifies a block of transactions (which is a complicated computing algorithm that needs to be “solved”) the transactions are processed and that user receives a pre-determined number of newly minted Bitcoins for her efforts.

The designers of Bitcoin programmed the software so that the algorithms that need to be solved to verify the Blockchain and win yourself new Bitcoins get solved about every ten minutes. As more computers are added to the system, the algorithms are programmed to get more difficult. And with more and more user-systems vying for the new Bitcoins, more and more powerful computer systems are needed to be the first system to successfully verify the Blockchain and win the digi-cash. Basically, mining Bitcoins is deliberately designed to get progressively more difficult over time. Cloud computing companies are literally selling use of their systems to Bitcoin miners. Massive amounts of capital are being put into configuring powerful computer systems. And this comes with its own costs and externalities. A lot of electricity is needed to cool super-computing systems, and if the electricity is generated through non-renewable means then there is the additional cost of the pollution that is generated.

A Bitcoin mining operation

A Bitcoin mining operation

The similarity between Bitcoins and oil, I contend, is not because Bitcoins are “mined” in this digital sense. Rather, it is because we allocate capital to Bitcoin mining in much the same way we allocate capital to oil extraction. Bitcoins have absolutely no intrinsic value. They only have value as expressed in terms of other currencies (such as US Dollars or Euros). So, ostensibly, Bitcoins have exchange rates and have an ever changing value to them. Yes, certain companies do accept Bitcoins in lieu of traditions currencies, but prices are still expressed in the traditional currency and then converted into Bitcoins based on the prevailing exchange rate. This is what drives Bitcoin miners to devote their computing power to Bitcoin mining. They can then sell their Bitcoins for other currencies and use that money in the traditional sense.

Bitcoin Price Chart

The value of a Bitcoin, expressed in US Dollars

 

So when the exchange rate, or rather the value of Bitcoins goes down, there is less incentive for Bitcoin miners to devote their computing power to Bitcoin mining because they could be using their super computers for more lucrative endeavors. And mining Bitcoins is an expense endeavor. It requires ever more sophisticated computer equipment as well as vast amounts of electricity to cool the computers. And this is just like oil. It costs money to get oil out of the ground and into barrels, just like it costs money to mine Bitcoins. And if the price of oil falls below what it costs a company to extract oil, that company will shutter rigs until the price of oil climbs back up. All the same, if the value of Bitcoins drops below what it costs to mine them, the digital mining company will flip the switch to ‘off.’

Another interesting attribute about Bitcoins is that every four years, since the currency’s establishment in 2009, the number of Bitcoins that can be mined by a new block verification halves. So from 2009 through the end of 2012 the number was 50, now it is 25, and in 2017 it will be 12.5. By 2030 the number of Bitcoins will be limited to around 21 million. To me, this raises an interesting question. If Bitcoin only works because the people mining the coins for a profit are also verifying the Blockchain, once there are no more Bitcoin to mine, won’t everyone spending massive amounts of money on super-computing capabilities just stop bothering, making it impossible to verify transactions and trade Bitcoins, essentially destroying the currency? There needs to be an expectation that the value of a Bitcoin will be perpetually increasing, otherwise the entire system will cease to function.

And that is precisely what is happening right now in the United States oil extraction business (well, not a total destruction of value, but the drop in the price of oil is certainly concussing the current system). The number of oil rigs in the United States, as reported by Baker Hughes, peaked in October at 1,609 rigs. It has since fallen to 1,421 rigs. This basically indicates that exploration for new oil, which accounts for an enormous initial investment, is dropping off; however, United States domestic production is still surging. US crude production added 60,000 barrels a day last week, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). That puts the United States at 9.19 million barrels a day. However, as the price continues to fall and companies alter their exploration and investment plans, we very well may see domestic production peak.

An abundance of oil was discovered in North Dakota that was relatively cheap to extract, given the price of oil. So producers flocked to western North Dakota (a place where even geese wouldn’t flock to) and started to drill baby, drill. Over the same time period, emerging economies, such as China, and developed economies, such as those of Europe and Japan, slowed down. The demand for oil decreased, but the supply was steadily increasing. This has precipitated a large drop in the price of oil. Normally, we would expect Saudi Arabia to cuts its own production of the black gold to stabilize the price, but as I previous wrote, I believe they are not doing that this time around for political reasons. But it doesn’t hurt that this “price war” could help drive the Bakken Shalers out of business. Whereas Saudi Arabia only spends between $5 and $6 to get a barrel out of the ground, in North Dakota it costs maybe $42 on average to extract it out of the ground and get a 10% return on capital. The lower oil goes, the more it hurts American and Canadian producers, whereas Saudi Arabia has $900 billion of cash reserves on hand to ride out any prolonged dip in the price of oil.

Crude Prices

As a result of the flooded market and Saudi Arabia’s decision, the price of oil has dropped below the point at which it is profitable to continue to pump it out of the ground in the Bakken Shale fields of North Dakota. North Dakota, which has undoubtedly had the best performing economy in the country, even throughout the Recession (home prices in North Dakota actually went up through the Recession, whereas in most of the rest of the country they were plummeting), may finally see its wings melt. Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Louisiana, Alaska, and parts of Canada, may also see employment losses. The Federal Reserve Bank of Texas has estimated that there may be 140,000 job losses in Texas alone in 2015 as a result of the drop in the price of oil. Policy makers and regulators are also bracing for some troubles ahead for certain banks, housing markets, and even state budgets that rely on oil revenues.

Fill Up at the PumpHowever, over all, the drop in the price of oil will be good for the American economy. By saving at the pump Americans will be able to pad their savings accounts as well as go out and buy other things that will spur the economy. The Keystone Pipeline, which has been in the headlines for years now, might wind up being a moot point after all. The Pipeline was intended to bring crude oil from the oil sands of northern Alberta, Canada, to the US Gulf Coast. But oil sands extraction is costly and may drop in the future now that the price of oil is so much lower. If the pipeline ever gets built nothing may ever run through it.

As for Bitcoins, the only possible positive outcome of the boom (or is it a bubble?) that I see is that computing power might become exchange traded. First, companies became exchange traded on stock markets. And since then commodities and even more obscure assets like shipping contracts (Baltic Dry index) have become traded on exchanges. I don’t see any reason why computing power couldn’t become exchange traded in the future. Cloud computing companies are already offering their services over the internet to global markets; if there is enough volume in the market all that is needed is for the contracts to be standardized so that they could be traded freely between suppliers, consumers, and even speculators.

In the case of Bitcoin, I fear that by creating this digital currency and beginning to accept payments denominated by it, we are simply letting people with immense computing power at their disposal generate wealth for themselves. In addition, they are diverting their computing power from other uses that might be better for society, such as genomic coding, and in the process driving up the price for computer processing for the rest of us.

Sources:

http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2011/06/virtual-currency

http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/04/economist-explains-how-does-bitcoin-work

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2015-01-14/gravy-train-derails-for-oil-patch-workers-laid-off-in-downturn.html

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2015-01-15/oil-advances-as-opec-forecasts-slower-growth-in-u-s-supply.html

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/bitcoin-price-plunges-prompting-concerns-about-mining-activity-2015-01-14-121034915

http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2014/12/economist-explains-4

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/opec-is-wrong-to-think-it-can-outlast-us-on-oil-prices-2014-12-02

… Oil

Having now written four articles on oil, its price, and the consequences that has for everyday uses of oil, such as gasoline and airfare, I have decided to turn these into a series of posts I am calling the Economics of Oil.

Fill Up at the PumpPart 1:

The Economics of Gas Prices

 

 

Oil PumpPart 2:

The Economics of International Oil Price Conspiracies

 

 

airplanePart 3:

The Economics of Airfare

 

 

Bitcoin MiningPart 4: 

The Economics of Bitcoing Mining*

 

 

As always, comments are welcome and encouraged, even if you disagree with me on any point.

*And yes, you will see just how much similarity Bitcoin mining has to oil

… International Oil Price Conspiracies

Last September I posted an article on gas prices (to which someone had a very thoughtful Reddit response), why prices were falling, and how to account for price discrepancies within the United States. Since then, the international price of oil has kept falling and falling. Earlier this week the price even punctured the $50 a barrel mark.

Crude Prices

This precipitous fall in the price of oil has caused conspiracy theorist to claim that the United States is secretly engineering markets to put pressure on our international enemies such as Venezuela, Russia, and Iran. Do I think that the United States is doing this? Yes, absolutely. But do I think this is a conspiracy? Hardly.

Exhibit A is the recent appointment of Department of the Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David S. Cohen, to the Number Two spot at the CIA (Deputy Director). The White House is not hiding anything about this guy. They say he administered anti-terrorism funding programs, particularly against ISIS, as well as sanctions against Iran and now Russia. Economic espionage is official government policy, and it does not seem to me that they are trying to hide that at all from anyone.

Oil producing countries, particularly the members of OPEC, have been using the price and quantity of oil as a foreign policy tool for decades. Exhibits B & C, the 1967 & 1973 Oil Embargoes, where Arab countries used their leverage in the energy market to place political pressure on the United States. The United States, too, has used oil as a political tool in the past. Many historians claim that Pearl Harbor was the result of Japan’s hand being forced by an Allied embargo on oil reaching Japan.

To return to the economic, not political, side of things, the market for oil is an oligopoly. There are a few large suppliers, and there are significant barriers to entry (primarily being that certain countries simply do not have the natural resource underneath them in the ground). More specifically, the market for oil resembles a Dominant Firm Oligopoly, with Saudi Arabia being the dominant firm. As the world’s largest producer of oil (13% of world production), it commands a great deal of pricing power – power that smaller “firms,” such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Nigeria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Qatar cannot match. So theoretically, Saudi Arabia could sell its oil at a lower price, and the other countries would have to lower their posted price, or else their clients would turn to Saudi Arabia, which has plenty of oil to supply if it wants to.

And that is exactly what Saudi Arabia is accused of doing, through an arrangement made with the United States (many people point to a meeting Secretary of State John Kerry had in Saudi Arabia back in September). The conspiracy theorists claim that Saudi Arabia is selling its oil at a lower-than-market rate by keeping productions levels too high relative to international demand in order to drive down the price of oil internationally, in an effort to put pressure on the governments of Iran, Syria, Russia, and Venezuela. These countries all conveniently happen to be enemies of the United States and Saudi Arabia, and they are all also conveniently highly-dependent on oil prices for government revenue and social pacification.

Saudi Arabia, from a purely economic point of view, has an incentive to cut production, which would send prices higher. Higher prices mean higher profits, which is better for their economy. Other oil producing nations feel the same way. However, the stars may have aligned this time for the US and Saudi Arabia to strike a deal and keep prices down. The US gets the assist of pressure on its enemies; and not just Russian and Iran. At the meeting between Kerry and the Saudis in September, the Saudis agreed to join the US coalition against the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, may have bought itself support in its fight against the Assad regime in Syria, and the low prices will put pressure on producers in the United States and Canada, where it costs a lot more money to get the stuff out of the ground than it does in Saudi Arabia. Everyone at the table (a table set for two) gives a little and takes a little.

So do I think that the United States and Saudi Arabia are at least in part engineering the fall in oil prices for their own political motives? Yes, absolutely. But do I think that this is a conspiracy? Absolutely not. This is just business as usual for the United States, where an economist is going to be our Number Two Spy.

This is part three of a four-part series of posts on the Economics of Oil. Other posts:

The Economics of Gas Prices

The Economics of Airfare

The Economics of Bitcoin Mining

… the Inter-Oceanic Canal

Ometepe Island, in Lake Nicaragua

Ometepe Island, in Lake Nicaragua

Today marks the day that Nicaragua and her Chinese backers are breaking ground on the grand inter-oceanic canal that in five years will bisect the Central American isthmus and allow super-tankers too large for the Panama Canal to make the Pacific-Atlantic journey with ease.

Except it is never going to happen.

The history of Nicaragua is basically the history of failed canal attempts, and the foreign manipulation and betrayal, as well as the domestic anguish and languish that this brings. This is no less than the 72nd official proposal for a Nicaraguan canal. This won’t even be the first time that construction has begun. The first plans for a canal across Nicaragua were hatched by the conquistadors way back in the 1500’s, and Cornelius Vanderbilt nearly secured the financing he needed to construct the canal before the Civil War scuttled his attempts. But he did manage to incite a war and build a railroad through Nicaragua in the meantime.

Anyone who looks at a map of Central America may be puzzled by the proposal for a canal through Nicaragua. Costa Rica and Panama are far less wide. Nicaragua is the largest country, by area, in Central America. However, Nicaragua also has the largest lake in the region, Lake Nicaragua. At its closest, it is only 17 km from the Pacific Ocean. And Lake Nicaragua drains all the way to to the Caribbean Sea by way of the Rio San Juan (San Juan, or Saint John River). The vast majority of Nicaragua is an Atlantic, not a Pacific watershed. The Rio San Juan is rocky, shallow, and fraught with rapids at spots, but that has not stopped pirates from sneaking all the way up the river, as well as steam ships from being towed up the river. It is the most logical path for a successful canal through Central America.

As treacherous as the terrain of the river, the geopolitics of the river are far more rocky. The Rio San Juan is the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. However, it is the only riparian border in the world that is wholly owned by one country – in this case Nicaragua. And that has created endless problems and disputes with Costa Rica. So many, in fact, that the proposed route of the canal is completely bypassing the river and being cut straight through the interior of Nicaragua (and even so Costa Rica still has watershed issues that they claim Nicaragua is not responding to, in regards to the canal).

I don’t see why this time around should be any different from the 71 other attempts.

The main, insurmountable obstacle this time is the estimated price of the canal. Panama started with a good ‘ole American-made canal. Let’s say a Ford. And they have made a series of upgrades through the years. Let’s say right now they have a nice BMW model. To compete with Panama, Nicaragua is trying to acquire a Buggati. A $50 billion Bugatti, super-wide, super-deep, complete with access roads and highways, two deep-water ports, an airport, electric generation, pipelines, free-trade zones, a railroad, and a number of other necessary supply and infrastructure projects! They estimate it will take 50,000 workers and only take five years to complete.

So how is Nicaragua going to secure investors willing to provide nearly 4.5x its annual GDP ($11.26 billion, 2013 estimate, according to the World Bank)? I’ve put together a small list of possible backers and will go through my thoughts on each:

  • China
  • Nordic Sovereign Wealth Funds
  • Middle Eastern Sovereign Wealth Funds
  • Malaysian Sovereign Wealth Fund
  • Big Banks, the Backers of the Many Engineering Marvels of the Past
  • Venezuela and ALBA

China

If you ask a Nicaraguan where the money is going to come from they always say “China.” I don’t think so. Sure, the main investor at this point is a Chinese telecom mogul. And he is a multi-billionaire. But no one in the world has $50 billion to throw around, and our man in China is quick to point out that he has absolutely no backing from the Chinese government with regards to the canal. No one believes him, but it makes it very unlikely that he can muster $50 billion from his own domestic sources. Besides, between 2010 and 2012 China invested $101 billion, in total, in the entire continent of Africa (source: Business Insider). To think that they would even put half of that into one small country is irrational.

Nordic Sovereign Wealth Funds

I’ll make this one easy. Nordic countries, primarily Norway, have a lot of oil money that they are saving. But they are not going to invest it in Nicaragua. These countries have already pulled back on diplomatic channels and foreign aid to Nicaragua because of transparency concerns. They’re not going to pull a 180 and start pumping billions into a project fraught with questions and uncertainty.

Malaysian Sovereign Wealth Fund

Same story as Norway. They’re saving their oil money, and they’re not going to give it to Nicaragua. Unfortunately, this year, Malaysian Airlines, owned partially by the fund, had a rough one, losing two 777’s in their tragic entirety. The fund had to bail out the airline.  The price of oil is tumbling, which is probably helping to prop up Malaysian Airlines, on the one hand, but it is stunting the funds cash flow, on the other hand. I doubt they will be announcing a non-stop to Managua from KL anytime soon.

Middle East Sovereign Wealth Funds

And that leaves the Arabs. This is where I see the miracle coming from, if it comes from anywhere. Everyone knows that the Arabs have lots of oil wealth. And they’re known for the audacious. For one, Dubai. For seconds, it was the Arabs who bailed out some of the banks and hedge funds in the early days of the Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis, long before Lehman Brothers became all too well known. So maybe, just maybe, a jet-setting Chinese man and Ortega’s outdated mustache can convince the right mix of petrocrats to throw in a good chunk of the $50 billion and really get the show on the road.

The Big Banks

No way Josue. Big banks in America, Europe, and elsewhere, are under immense pressure to demonstrate the viability of their investments. American regulators would pounce on any bankers working on this less-than transparent project, and European banks are already very bearish on shipping, since Northern European banks with shipping exposure were under extra scrutiny during the recently completed European banking stress tests, since global shipping has been very weak since the global recession.

Venezuela and ALBA

For years Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela was the standard-bearer for Latin-American Leftist opposition to America. When Chavez died last year his followers all started pounding their chest to become his heir. This included Correa in Ecuador, Ortega here in Nicaragua, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and of course Maduro in Venezuela. For years Venezuela, and its leftist sphere of influence, the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA in Spanish), have been financing cheap oil for member states as well as other social development projects. However, this all comes from Venezuelan stability and a steady stream of oil dollars into her state coffers. But with oil prices tumbling and Venezuela simmering in social unrest, it’s another no way Josue.

It is serenely ironic that the same trends, the rise of US oil and gas production, are giving rise to the need for an American super-canal, while at the same time driving the nail into the coffin of possible financing options, by driving down the price of oil.

The Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute has a nice map showing the size of sovereign wealth funds around the world. Click on the map for the link:

Red circles represent oil wealth, and blue circles represent other wealth (often mineral)

Red circles represent oil wealth, and blue circles represent other wealth (often mineral)

So it is never going to happen. But that does not mean I do not want it to happen. No one doubts that Nicaragua is starved for development. It is tied for being the second-poorest country in the Americas. Haiti takes the unfortunate crown, with Bolivia tied for second with Nicaragua.

The largest concern, after the obvious financing issues, is environmental. First and foremost, there is a 20-foot tide differential between the east and west coasts. And plans for the canal have not addressed this engineering obstacle yet. But furthermore, the canal will drive through protected wetlands, productive agricultural communities, and protected indigenous communities on the Caribbean coast. This is all not to mention that the route will go straight through and require the dredging of Lake Nicaragua, which is the largest source of freshwater in Central America. It is already an extremely fragile freshwater ecosystem due to agricultural and other pollutants streaming into the lake. Everyone from locals to parties interested in the fledgling tourism industry are in extreme opposition to the canal.

But lastly, I doubt that Nicaraguans will reap the benefits of the canal, which is how Ortega is selling the whole scheme to his people. The Chinese development corporation has a 50-year concession on profits, with another 50-year option to extend. Ortega is promising 250,000 jobs that will be born as a result of the canal, plus the need for 50,000 laborers on the construction. But of course I have my doubts. The canal will drive through some of the most sparsely populated and least developed departments of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people will have to relocate in order to realize those 250,000 jobs, which will lead to a lot of social strains on the country. Plus, given the under-education of the Nicaraguan people, the best-paying of the 50,000 construction jobs will mostly go to foreigners, not Nicaraguans. And I think it also bears mentioning that the highest HIV rates in Nicaragua are often in mobile populations, much like the worker camps will be. Has anyone put any thought into the epidemiological and public health effects of this project?

Nicaragua and the Chinese development company hired McKinsey to conduct a feasibility study. Officials refuse to release the results, but they are quick to point out the stellar economic projections. In 2013 GDP growth paced along at 4.6%. Official projections for the canal show that in the first year of construction GDP growth will skyrocket to above 14% and stay there for the foreseeable future. I just finished reading Confessions of an Economic Hitman. I hated the book. It was poorly written and not believable. But I can’t fail to mention that the author emphasized that the main tool of an economic hitman is inflated growth projections. It is guaranteed that the construction of a canal would attract a ton of foreign direct investment in Nicaragua, but sustained rates above 10% are preposterous and only part of the Chinese boondoggle to attract investment in the first place.

If the project ever truly gets off the drawing board (the groundbreaking today is ceremonial, nothing more) I will be in opposition. I fear that Nicaragua will bear many negative externalities while reaping few benefits.

… the Lima Climate Change Conference

IMG_4416

Lima, January 2009

Today is the last day of the Lima Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru. I’ve become fairly convinced that climate change is the most important issue confronting human beings, so I figured I would follow-up on my post a week ago with a wrap-up of the summit.

It seems that the end result of the summit is a commitment by each of the 195 countries in attendance to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The kicker is that each country will draw up its own commitments. There is no grand total that needs to be reached or higher benchmarks for developed countries to hit. Each country will have until March to submit its plan.

The problem with this is a classic in economics, the Prisoners’ Dilemma:

Two members of a gang are arrested for committing a crime together and are held separately from one another. They are going to be sent to jail for one year for their crime. However, they are both offered a deal. They can testify at the trial of their accomplice, betraying her, with the following possible outcomes:

  • If they both betray each other, they will both serve two years in jail
  • If only one betrays the other, the one convicted of the crime will serve three years, while the betrayer will be set free and not serve jail time
  • If neither of them betray the other they will serve the one year

Rationally, you would expect that neither of them betray each other. By cooperating they effectively minimize their likely jail time. However, given the fear that the other will betray you while you remain quiet, most people in this situation would themselves betray, setting them both up for two years in jail. This is the dilemma. Rationally, we should take one action, but behaviorally we are likely to take another which is not the ideal choice.

In the case of international climate change, the countries of the world are our prisoners. And since each country has to draw up their own greenhouse gas reduction commitments, they can either “cooperate” by reducing proportionally to their share of emissions and warming, or they can “betray,” letting the other countries do all of the heavy lifting. Rationally, all countries should cooperate, but behaviorally we expect them to betray each other, dooming the international climate change treaty to ineffectiveness.

Again, I feel like the key to success is a money transfer from developed to lesser developed countries (LDC’s). Of course, the money transfer would be under the condition that LDC’s do their proportional part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the money being used to offset the change in their growth trajectories by converting to more expensive technologies. The problem is, the amount of money to transfer is hard to pin down. In 2009 at the climate accords in Copenhagen developed countries committed $100 billion annually, starting in 2020, to offsetting transfers. However, the United Nations Environmental Program is now estimating that costs may rise to $300 billion a year.

Since each country is now going to be drawing up its own commitments to emission reduction, pinpointing a global, annual transfer amount is all but impossible. If LDC’s fall into the prisoners’ dilemma $300 billion will not be necessary, but they could use the developed world’s refusal to give $300 billion as a reason for not cutting their emissions enough in the first place. On the contrary, if LDC’s are convinced to cut their emissions proportionally, they may want more than $300 billion, which developed countries may not be able to muster.

To me, the clearest way out of this dilemma is to concretely pinpoint how much money will need to be transferred if the global emission reduction benchmark is reached. This will give developed countries leverage in negotiations and can convince LDC’s to cooperate.

… an International Climate Change Treaty

This post is apologetically months and months overdue, but I am glad that I am now completing it and posting it because I am passionate about this subject, and with all eyes on Lima now and Paris next year, it remains vitally important.

Back in October 2010 I wrote a writing sample for a job application called, “The Economics of International Climate Change.” I didn’t get the job, not even an interview, but ironically, I had to drive past the Company every day for my job at Ernst & Young in Tysons Corner that I did wind up taking. Given the attention on climate change in New York this week, I have resurrected the writing sample from the bowels of my external hard drive (an indispensable item for a Peace Corps Volunteer, I assure you) and re-tooled it here for this blog.

Western world leaders have placed great emphasis on climate change. Their contention: if the current accumulation of greenhouses gasses is not allayed then climate change is sure to wreak havoc upon vulnerable populations around the world. However, stemming the accumulation of greenhouse gasses requires a trade off with economic output that many people around the world are not willing to part with. This opposition is led by emerging nations, particularly India, Brazil, and China.

Technically, there is a rather simple solution to preventing climate change. Once environmental scientists reach consensus on what the acceptable level of greenhouse gasses like carbon in the atmosphere is (a consensus which surveys of the relevant literature reveals has been quite elusive) then governments must simply charge a price – either by taxing emitters or issuing tradable emission permits – so that the quantity of emissions is reduced to levels scientists deem appropriate. The economics of this solution is elegant in its simplicity. Sources of greenhouses gasses (electric generation, automobiles, etc.) will “pay the price” until it is cheaper for them to abate the deleterious emission than paying the tax or buying permits. They can achieve this abatement by either decreasing output or producing their products in a way that emits less greenhouse gas. These methods will increase the price of the products, so demand will re-equilibrate to a lower quantity, ensuring that the markets remain efficient while still preventing the advance of climate change.

Clearly the citizens of the world will have to pay for this protection of the environment. High gas mileage vehicles, alternative energy, and other abatement methods are costly for an economy. The institution of a comprehensive international environmental treaty would certainly decrease global output for years to come. Herein lays the heart of the opposition to such an arrangement. Low-income countries which are rapidly expanding their economies towards prosperity would have to languish in poverty for years to come, while high-income countries already enjoy relative prosperity even though they caused the overwhelming majority of greenhouse gas accumulation.

On one hand, the appeal to fairness by countries led by China seems valid [and given recent developments, no one can argue that China is not at least pretending to search for a solution]. Every person in the world has the right to economic prosperity, so countries that already enjoy high standards of living should bear the burden of global environmental stewardship while the rest of the world catches up. But there is something unsatisfying about this approach. It is arguable that knowingly damaging the environment is just morally wrong, so emerging market countries do not have any legitimate base to pollute their way to prosperity no matter the prosperity of others. It is simply unfortunate that developed countries did not know about the harms of greenhouse gas during the Industrial Revolution, because then they would have altered their behavior decades ago and prevented this crisis in the first place.

Despite these fundamental ethical dilemmas, a solution to the international deadlock on a climate change treaty is still feasible from an economic point of view. It would be prohibitively expensive for developed countries to abate all of the environmentally required greenhouse gasses on their own. It is in the economic best interest of the developed world to recruit the support of emerging nations. Therefore, developed nations should offer transfer assistance to developing nations in exchange for abating emissions. Developing nations should be willing to accept aid which exceeds their economic costs of reducing emissions, while developed nations should be willing to pay to the developing world anything less than the cost they would have to bare in order to assuage climate change all on their own. Coming to the terms of this agreement will surely take intense deliberation between nations, but there is nothing fundamentally barring its fruition.

Just to make you feel like I posted this article back when all eyes were on the UN in New York, here are some great pictures I gathered from the climate march that was held concurrently in Manhattan:

Just to take things from 2010 pseudo-academic Eric to nearly 2015 blogger Eric, I want to really quickly boil down my point here. If we want to strike an international global climate change treaty the rich countries will need to pay the poor countries. Just like water, countries take the path of least resistance to prosperity. We did back during the Industrial Revolution, not knowing the harms of the chemicals we were emitting. Now developing countries are doing it to, but they can’t afford to stop. They are poor, and their people need economic growth to achieve quality of life. So the only way to get their leaders to agree to enforce greenhouse gas emission limits is by compensating them for the economic growth that we are asking them to deliberately pare down. How is this deliberate, you may ask? If they want their prosperity to not follow the path of least resistance, they are going to have to go slower and use more expensive technologies.

 

… Ebola Screening

Sorry that I have not posted in a while. I have been a bit busy and I recently came down with the flu. It is only fitting that this article is about disease. I’ve also got a climate change post in the works. I wanted to post it a few weeks ago when all eyes were on New York, so I guess I’ll just have to post it with a back-date now.

Two aspects of the Ebola case in Dallas bother me a lot. The first is that the patient went to the hospital with symptoms, told the hospital he had recently been in West Africa, and nevertheless he was turned away. I can’t know for sure, but I assume that the patient is uninsured, and the admitting nurse, who is instructed to turn away patients who are unlikely to be able to pay their hospital bills, simply saw the hospital’s finances as a greater danger than Ebola.

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Because of this episode, the White House is considering establishing States-side Ebola screening in airports. However, people seem to be at a miss on how to implement this. They say that there are just too many airports and too few West African passengers. That’s the second aspect that bothers me a lot. It is fairly easy to identify which airports have the highest rate of passengers coming from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Here’s how:

I assume that the FAA has a database of all passengers coming and going from the US. If not Homeland Security, the airlines, or probably the NSA does. Gather this data and discard all trips that do not originate in West Africa. Then count up all the trips by the airport that they terminate in and convert this into a percentage. And there you have a crude estimate of the most likely entry points for Ebola into the United States of America. I’m assuming that JFK will be high on the list. Maybe Chicago, LA or San Francisco, and maybe Dallas and Miami will be high on the list as well.

Now that will only cover some of the possible passengers who could carry the virus. People could travel to an infected country on a different ticket, and then later come back to the United States. For instance, last year my friend went to West Africa for work, and on the way home he spent a few days in London. I assume that his Africa-London ticket and his London-US tickets were different.  These would be harder to track because I don’t know if there is reliable data available on these trips. Maybe Homeland Security, the NSA, the FBI, or the CIA tracks these trips, but I think it would be difficult for even an economist at the CDC with security clearance to obtain this information. However, on landing cards for the US you are asked, “Countries Visited on this trip prior to US arrival.” Of course these are not digital, but it is possible that Homeland Security has some stats they can share. I won’t dive into how to process these stats, since we have no idea what form they could take.

Landing Card

Lastly, another way to capture the elusive passengers who visited West Africa on non-US terminal tickets is through a random sampling method. First, collect a list of all possible one-stop destinations from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. I think that one stop is reasonable. There are very few non-stop flights from West Africa in general, but I think that two-stop flights may be casting the net a bit too wide. From this list, eliminate any flights that terminate in the US (those are already covered by the supposed-FAA data) and any flights that do not terminate in an airport with flights direct to the United States. From the FAA data, randomly select passengers departing from these airports to see what airports they are arriving to in the US. The random sampling could even be weighted, giving higher preference to more likely airports, such as those in Europe, and lower preference to less convenient flights, such as East Asia. Simply add this sampled data to the FAA-obtained data and you have a more complete, albeit less-than-perfect, picture.

The last obstacle is time-frame. Peoples’ flight patterns and behaviors have changed since many airlines have cancelled flights to West Africa. So this data should probably only be collected over a six month period or so. Otherwise we would be setting up screening centers in airports that are no longer seeing passengers coming from West Africa.

If these data are properly parsed and analyzed, the government would have a list of the most likely ports of entry for Ebola. With this information they could set up screening centers in a cost effective manner that interrupts and inconveniences air travel as little as possible.

… Gas Prices

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.

gaspump66% 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.

ISIS

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:

The Economics of International Oil Price Conspiracies

The Economics of Airfare

The Economics of Bitcoin Mining

 

Sources:

http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-09-17/u-dot-s-dot-gas-price-falling-fast-time-for-the-return-of-the-3-gallon#r=rss

http://www.eia.gov/petroleum/gasdiesel/

http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-08-20/public-data-sheds-light-on-secret-rail-movements-of-crude-oil

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/09/16/world/middleeast/how-isis-works.html?ref=world&_r=0

 

… Ebola

I first had the idea for this article about a year ago when MERS was popping up, but I didn’t write it. Then a few months ago, when Ebola was just beginning to rear its head, I resurrected the idea, but I didn’t follow through. I wish I had written this earlier, but nonetheless, I’m taking her home this time.

From a public health point of view, 2014 has seen an alarming number of epidemics spreading around the world. MERS is emanating from Arabia and infecting travelers worldwide. One of the most feared diseases of modern times, Ebola, is experiencing its worst outbreak in history. And the infamous Plague has appeared in Colorado and China, alarming public health workers. That’s not to mention the spread of Chikungunya (chik-en-gun-ye) in the US and Latin America, and terrifying protocol breaches at infectious disease laboratories in the US. In addition to the devastating human impact that the spread of infectious disease has, there are also acute economic impacts that are interesting to explore.

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The last time that there was an epidemic of worldwide proportions was 2003, when SARS ripped across Asia and spread to others regions of the world, including Canada. The epicenter of the epidemic was Hong Kong. Due to fear of the virus spreading, people tended to avoid the public sphere. As a result, consumption plummeted. Certain retail establishment, such as restaurants and movie theaters, saw traffic decline by more than 50% during the spring of 2003. Overall, Hong Kong retail sales were 6.1% down year-over-year in March, and a whopping 15.2% in April, before fully recovering by July. In addition, travel and tourism were severely stunted during the outbreak and for a period following it. In total, Hong Kong saw 63% fewer visitors during the outbreak, and during the height of the scare air traffic fell by 77%. SARS eventually infected 8,422 people, resulting in 916 deaths. This equates to a mortality rate of 10.9%. Most remarkably, due to the public health response to the virus, all victims were identified and isolated, and SARS has been completely eradicated from the human race. There has not been a single reported case since the outbreak in 2003 was contained. It is the only disease in the history of the world that humans have achieved 100% eradication.

Ebola, on the other hand, has a much higher mortality rate. In some previous outbreaks it has reached 90%. So far in 2014 it has not infected as many people as the SARS outbreak, probably because the West African countries it is spreading through are less densely populated and have fewer interconnected socio-economic communities than East Asia. However, it is taking serious tolls on the under-developed economies. Consumption, like in Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Taiwan, and Canada, during SARS, has plummeted. Even though the virus is not spread through the air, no one wants to risk catching the disease from an infected person at the market. Plus mines, which are one of the economic engines of growth in Africa, are shuttering to prevent the spread of the disease through workers. And globally, prices for agricultural commodities such as cocoa and palm oil are increasing in anticipation of an under-productive harvest in West Africa. Lastly, foreign airlines are cancelling flights to the three infected countries – Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. And the latest news from West Africa now has the disease spreading into Senegal as well, although it seems to be contained in Nigeria.

These short-term impacts fail to mention the more dire impact on human capital. With the loss of life there is an immense loss of economic productivity for years to come. In addition, this Ebola outbreak is acutely affecting health care workers who are caring for patients. Health care workers, especially doctors, are extremely productive members of economic communities, and the affected countries will have to reinvest millions in medical education for years to come to recuperate the losses they are experiencing as their best doctors and nurses succumb. In addition, with attention being placed on Ebola, other virulent diseases are being neglected, so mortality rates are rising generally across West Africa, further sapping human capital.

The last time there was a widespread, nearly uncontrollable worldwide pandemic was 1918, when Spanish Influenza spread across the entire world and killed 40 million people worldwide, including 0.8% of the population of the United States of America. Evidence from the pandemic is hard to come by, but the main effect, similar to SARS, was a vast reduction in retail sales – the face to face interactions that often drive economic activity. However, globalization had not swept the world by 1918. Commercial air travel did not exist, and World War I was still being fought, severely limiting international travel and economic cooperation. If another global pandemic were to arise, the economic effects could be far more severe.

Although there has never been an international pandemic during the era of globalization of international air travel, we can use the experience of the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (EH-ya-fi-AHT-la-yo-coot) on Iceland. Due to the emission of ash particles into the atmosphere, air travel across Europe was all but shut down for a week in 2010, stranding millions, stunting professional services-based economic activity, and shuttering the tourism industry for a short time. In the UK alone, 456.5 GBP was shaved off of GDP, an equivalent of 0.02% of annual GDP. This translates to more than 10,000 jobs. The impact was much larger on the airline and hospitality industries (British losses exceeded 700 million GBP), but domestic consumption, in the form of retail sales, was not affected. In fact, the stranded customers likely boosted retail sales by having to eat and sleep for an extra week.e25_23048757

If an infectious epidemic were to spread globally, forcing governments to close borders and ground air travel, the British and European volcanic experience could be magnified hundreds-fold. Tourism and business travel would evaporate. Plus, most forms of human economic interaction, mainly shopping and entertainment would dry up before our eyes. Shops would close, lay-offs would be massive, and most effected economies would dive head-first into recession, if not depression. Interestingly, cyber commerce may experience a boon, with consumers preferring to shop from the safety of their home computers. That is, as long as telecommunications were still properly functioning and not suffering from the loss of workers, and delivery services, such as FedEx, UPS, and the US Postal Service, were still carrying out package deliveries.

I truly hope that the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa is contained and eradicated, because the pain that victims and their families are suffering must be awful and the fear that the populations are living in absolutely stifling. And I also hope that societies around the world take this as an opportunity to optimize their public health initiatives, if only to prevent undue harm to economies, developing and developed, from epidemics and pandemics.

Sources:

http://www.hiebs.hku.hk/working_paper_updates/pdf/wp1084.pdf

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-08-21/ebola-sickens-economies-of-west-africa.html

http://www.stlouisfed.org/community_development/assets/pdf/pandemic_flu_report.pdf

http://www.visitbritain.org/Images/Volcano%20Economic%20Impact%20Study%20-%20Oxford%20Economics_tcm29-15226.pdf

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