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