What the $&%! is happening to the price of oil?

It may come as no surprise that oil prices are plunging.  40 dollar oil would have been almost unbelievable even as recent as 2014.  The benefit to consumers is obvious: lower prices at the pump lead to more savings for consumers.  However, those low prices are decimating the oil & gas industry.  Layoffs at U.S. energy sector companies totaled over 100,000 in 2016 compared to just over 14,000 in 2014 and a similar range back to 2010.  Additionally, oil and gas companies made up 50% of worldwide corporate defaults in 2016.

Most people are aware of the global supply glut that has made prices plunge, but what other factors have driven such unprecedented low oil prices?  The issue turns out to be symptomatic of the “malinvestment” described by the Austrians for many years.  That is, at historically rock-bottom interest rates determined by a centralized maestro, investments are inevitably allocated to the wrong sectors of the economy, driven by misaligned pricing signals.  In the case of the oil & gas sector, low interest rates drove investors to yield-bearing projects, such as shale oil discovery.  While the technology in this sector has improved tremendously, these projects are without a doubt some of the most financially risky endeavors.  Junk bonds in this sector yield above 11-12%, but are typically rated below BBB-. In fact, just last year 10 of the largest US energy companies were downgraded, with companies like Marathon Oil and Hess earning a BBB- rating.

The hemorrhaging of the industry won’t stop anytime soon.  Rock-bottom prices will continue to send the weakest companies into default.  Rising interest rates will make the cost of borrowing more expensive, tightening the credit market for wildly ambitious oil companies.  Depending on the stage in the bull market’s life cycle, prices will probably begin to re-stabilize in the short-term if rig counts begin to fall precipitously, signalling a decline in supply.

Rig Count
Total U.S. rig counts are up 123% over the same time last year

U.S. horizontal gas rig counts are up an astounding 143% y.o.y., likely indicative of the preparation oil companies have made to make shale oil profitable at $50 per barrel:

“Torgrim Reitan, Statoil’s head of United States operations, said in an interview that the company’s push for the lower break-even price is largely due to internal improvements that should stick regardless of any price hikes from service providers.

“Our business clearly makes sense in a $50 (per barrel) environment,” Reitan said Monday on the sidelines of the CERAWeek conference, the world’s largest gathering of energy executives. “It is remarkable to see how the whole industry has responded positively to the new price reality.”

Statoil, which produces shale oil and natural gas in North Dakota’s Bakken, the Eagle Ford of Texas and the Marcellus of Pennsylvania, moved its U.S. operational staff to Austin, Texas, last year, a step Reitan said has helped push down costs.

The company’s U.S. shale oil break-even price stood at $66 per barrel at the end of 2016, a 35 percent improvement from the prior year. That should drop to $50 by 2018, he said.” (source: Reuters; Statoil sees U.S. shale profitable within two years at $50 oil; March 6, 17)

Despite incredible strides in the way of efficiency and extraction innovation, the unexpected plunge to $42 oil is unlikely to keep these companies profitable.  As rig counts continue to increase, we will continue to see oil prices slide until another wave of  corporate defaults and layoffs starts to sweep in.

Automation Isn’t Wrecking the Economy, Federal Monetary Incompetence Is…

Recently I’ve been reading a number of articles surrounding technology and the impending takeover of our jobs by machines.  It’s a concept that has existed for many years and is a natural fear for many humans.

Fortunately (and also unfortunately), the concept is just not true.  I can’t even begin to think of what it would take to replace many of our jobs.  Any job involving strategic insight, engineering, and satisfying customers requires significant human input.  Enhancing machine capabilities still requires the human input while improving what can be extracted from information.  Okay, so let’s take another, more basic career: steel worker.  China employs almost 12 million people in the coal and steel manufacturing sectors alone.  At the height of the 2000’s economic bull market in America (2006-2008) a mere 2.5 million people were employed simply in the manufacturing industry in the entirety of the United States.  Now, China IS making a push to cut steel jobs, but this is due to an overcapacity or glut of steel, not automation.  The point I’m trying to make is that automation is not something we should be worried about.

-Our fears should be focused on the absolute chaos and ineptitude that has taken over the global financial system, not technology and automation-

Automation has been happening since the beginning of time, which is probably the reason people still had jobs once things like the printing press were invented to replace scribes and automobiles were invented to replace horse-drawn carriages.  The misconception that automation is stealing our jobs avoids the all-too-important topics of monetary inflation and outsourcing due to excessive government regulation, both of which have caused the plight of a hollowed-out middle class and rusty, empty factories in the United States.

I’m not alone in this educated belief.  Peter Thiel, noted Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur, believes the same thing.  Government is the cause of our woes.  Dollar inflation has turned healthy economic theories on their back and led us to vilify capitalism as workers chug along trying to afford increasing prices in real estate, food, stocks, and college tuition.  The Federal Reserve and US government selfishly print money and run up the national debt, respectively, that flood the global market with dollar-denominated liabilities to pay for increased consumer spending.  The government believes it can prevent recessions from ever occurring by forcing US consumers to spend money.  The funny thing is that government actually creates these recessions in the first place through over-speculation and spending!  As a farmer prods his sheep to move, so does the US government prod it’s citizens into spending and avoiding savings.  This is not only happening in America, but in nearly every nation around the world.

-Innovative deflation made us kings-

Innovative deflation is the core and essence of capitalism.  The period of growth in America from the late 1790’s to about 1913 was the most successful and wealthy era in modern history.  During this era, goods were cheap, wages were high, and there was no monetary inflation.  There was no income tax and virtually no regulation on businesses (although we now realize that some regulations are healthy).  A little known fact is that Standard Oil was so successful in providing cheap oil to consumers, that it was making competitors angry at the lack of potential business.  Thus, out of jealousy and spite, crony capitalism and lobbied monopolies were born.

Entrepreneurs find ways to make goods cheaper for consumers while increasing profits that allow for more entrepreneurial investment.  This is the beautiful cycle of capitalism that has been nearly thrown in the trashcan by global central bankers.  If this is not true, tell me why computers have become so affordable that they cost less nowadays than many driver’s license registrations?  Computers and electronic technology have managed to avoid inflationary pressure because of the fact that companies have been so effective at reducing prices in spite of inflation.  The idea of capitalism is to make life easier to the point where work is more productive than ever, less laborious than ever, and goods are cheaper than ever.

-How should we react to technological changes?-

While technological changes don’t evaporate the need for human labor, they will shift human labor.  Look back to history when people were employed in positions that are utterly useless nowadays.  When was the last time you saw someone employed as a carriage wheel manufacturer?  Aside from your local Amish family or Queen Elizabeth’s carriage manufacturer, this career is utterly unnecessary.  We train people to be flexible with changes in technology.  This is a constant throughout human history.

 

I was Wrong…

I was wrong about oil & gas innovation:

I will come out cleanly and admit it: I was wrong.  I remember two or three years ago I was writing about how high gas prices are the new norm.  While this may be the general trend over a VERY long time span, I believe the level of ingenuity and innovation in the oil sector recently is astounding.  In response to a global supply glut, shale oil drillers have responded accordingly by tightening their operations.  What we thought of as an industry that required 90 or 100 dollar/barrel prices to survive, is now learning how to be profitable at 50 to 60 dollars/barrel.  A mixture of both newer generation rigs and maximizing efficiency on many different fronts has allowed this industry to stay afloat in an era of excess global supply.  The shale oil drillers in America have made their message clear that they plan to compete with the low-cost Saudis and Kuwaitis.

Please read an article here for further information:

https://next.ft.com/content/f363e688-dbe4-11e5-9ba8-3abc1e7247e4

Am I still right about the renewable energy movement?

My optimism about renewable energy has been muffled in recent years because I believe that sustained, profitable growth for these companies will be very difficult.  However, do I want to throw myself into the same boat as oil & gas?  For being part of the so-called “energy revolution,” renewable sources are *mostly* shamelessly unprofitable and dependent on non-renewable grid structures and sustenance.  Many solar companies are growing, but not profiting.  Now, the one exception that I know of is First Solar, a company that has posted solid profits over the last three years and has continued to drive lower cost structure through polycrystalline solar panel production.  Polycrystalline cells are inferior to monocrystalline cells, but have lower production costs.  Despite that, First Solar is an outlier in the industry.

Regardless of what happens to both sectors, I honestly need to stay humble about the level of innovation that has revolutionized these industries.

A Libertarian Response to Pollution, Pt. 2

I was watching a video last night on Vice TV, which is the YouTube channel of the media outlet known as Vice Media.  The video had something to do with a “petcoke” plant in Chicago where people were protesting over the massive mountains of petcoke soot building up in the area.  Understandably they were pissed as hell.  Apparently this stuff has the consistency of fine dirt but is sticky at the same time, meaning it blows all over the place and seriously disturbs surrounding communities.

It brought me to thinking a great deal about Milton Friedman.  Friedman acknowledges the handful of scenarios where a governing body is necessary, among them is the need for an environmental agency that simply administers cap and trade permits.  The reason this is necessary is because the environmental externality associated with certain forms of pollution is often too difficult to pinpoint to any one, particular firm.  While class-action lawsuits have traditionally been used to handle such matters, we are familiar with just how difficult it can be to fight a team of corporate lawyers.  The burden of proof is on the victims and they must prove that XYZ company is directly responsible for so-and-so’s lung cancer.  Despite this, we all know that certain pollutants cause major health issues and can also damage private property value.  This creates the distinct need for an active market of cap and trade permits under a government body.

Cap and trade permits can be used for virtually anything because they simply determine the acceptable limit of pollutants that can be released into the air, water, or earth.  The government body simply sets the limit for the year and firms go about trading permits with one another and creating a supply and demand market for releasing pollutants.  It may also be useful to create a limit on the amount of permits that any particular firm can purchase.  This way the most powerful company in the region can’t simply buy out all of the permits for the year.  Cap and trade could easily be administered for carbon dioxide and methane emissions, waste water, biological hazards, and would also take care of this petcoke issue in Chicago.  Clearly the firm found it most useful and cheap to simply dock their petcoke in Chicago, but a permit limit for Chicago would have prevented this from happening on the scale that it did.  The firm can then find the most cost-effective way to work around that issue, but no matter where they look they will have to purchase pollutant permits along the way.

Tesla’s Model 3 is practically turning into a welfare program

Tesla’s Model 3 is practically turning into a welfare program.  The company is banking on a slew of federal and state subsidies to decrease the cost of it’s model 3 from $35,000 to around $9,500 for the most qualified customers in California.  The lifetime value created per customer does not exceed the amount being used per customer for subsidies, meaning it’s a net drain on taxpayers.  According to an analyst from Seeking Alpha, the company is trying to apply subsidies for those below 300% of the poverty line.  Seriously, this company is starting to annoy me.  I like Space X because the company is actually making NASA more efficient and high-tech; however, Tesla I just can’t agree with.  Toyota and Honda would drive Tesla out of business with their hybrid automobiles but Tesla is being propped up by a Keynesian government aggressively trying to “combat” carbon emissions.

If consumers are, at the very least, duped into taking the subsidy bait, they will back out at the thought of their car spontaneously exploding or blowing up their house due to the potentially lethal battery running the car.  Electric vehicles have been around since gas-powered vehicles and I’m pretty sure there’s a reason society has overwhelmingly chosen gas-powered vehicles over the past hundred years…  If you want to support the environment, buy yourself a hybrid vehicle, a technology that has phased out subsidies and will save you more money in the long-run.  Better yet, forced-induction vehicles are now becoming the norm for many companies because they’re equally as powerful and have way more gas efficiency than their naturally-aspirated forefathers.

The Gates Foundation and Contraceptives

The world’s population is growing way too fast, but here’s the thing: population growth in Europe, China, Japan, and America has virtually come to a standstill or even reversed (well, the reversal needs to be addressed as well and that post is for another day).  The areas where we need effective birth control are also the poorest nations on the planet.  Allowing people to plan offspring prevents problems related to nutrition and sanitation and clearly raises living standards for families that use contraception.

I was thrilled to hear that the Gates Foundation will be administering a massive contraception effort in 69 impoverished countries with a drug called “Depo-Provera.”  This drug costs 1 dollar per shot and will be produced by companies like Pfizer through Gates Foundation funds.  The drug will be available at little to no cost and requires almost no technical expertise in administering the shot.

There are countless examples of countries that have stopped skyrocketing birth rates through simply contraception efforts by the government.  Bangladesh, a poor Muslim nation next to India, recently dropped birth rates from around 7 children per woman down to about 2.2 (!!!!) through a government effort to provide free contraceptives.  The way they did this was by allowing women to spread the drug themselves, apparently, meaning it spread quickly and women trusted one another that it would be safe.

As much as I want government to stay away from progress, I am happy to pay a tiny chunk of change to help nations deal with their booming populations.  Paying that small amount upfront could prevent the hassle of dealing with poverty on the back-end through expensive volunteer work efforts (shipping in food, sanitation supplies, etc., etc.) and knowing that millions upon millions of people won’t be starved, aimless souls walking around the planet.

 

 

What Are the Boundaries of a “Clean” Energy Portfolio?

I really like this article because it shows everything I’ve been discussing for quite some time now…  This is a top performing clean energy portfolio; however, the fund managers really press the boundaries of clean… and for a good reason.  The nuclear and natural gas stocks here are the top performing stocks.  Wind is at the very bottom, followed by solar.  Maybe we should set aside our ostracizing sense of environmentalism and give a little more leeway, because the best forms of clean energy at the moment are being vilified for relatively small issues.  Check out the film “Pandora’s Promise” for more information on the unfair vilification of the nuclear energy industry.

http://www.thestreet.com/story/11457902/1/the-best-clean-energy-etfs-arent-the-cleanest.html

I have one word for you, Benjamin: water…

Desalination looks like an attractive technology worth investing in.  Of course I’m not one for picking stocks, but this is similar to the famous line from The Graduate: “I have one word for you.  Plastics.”  I’m not saying I couldn’t be wrong, but having a good intuition about humankind’s necessity for resources allows you to focus in on a certain technology.  Let’s get the facts clear and on the table:

1. Population is growing in some of the hottest and driest areas of the world.  I doubt this will continue forever as population growth tends to tail off as nations grow more modern and advanced; however, as long as population is growing, demand for water will rise.

Population growth by country

2. Incomes are rising in these same regions due to economic growth.  This means standards of living are rising and consumers have more demand for reliable water sources.

GDP growth by country

3. Climate change is making regions even hotter and drier.  Climate is rising across the planet and global temperatures are up to record highs on average.  CO2 concentrations are rising as evidenced by the Mauna Loa Observatory’s readings.  This is common scientific knowledge that greenhouse gases trap IR radiation in the atmosphere and re-emit it within the atmosphere, leading to rising temperatures.

Climate change

For now, I will probably invest a small, disposable amount in water stocks.  As I approach my full-time job following graduation, I will think much more seriously about investing a larger stake in water stocks.  I don’t think it’s a “gamble” of sorts.  One of the sins of investing is using forecasting as a central argument for investing.  However, that is not the same thing is investing based on facts.  These three graphs are all you need to know to be wise about the future of water.

The State of Solar Power in 2015

Overall outlook: the state of solar power in 2015 is mixed by particular company and varies heavily by location; however, the overall trend is solid and continues upward in terms of growth.  Growth will not be nearly as fast as other industries like oil or natural gas, but installations are rising every year at a steady pace.  Companies are merging and vertically integrating.  The main players in the utility market are companies like SunEdison and SunPower, while companies such as SolarCity, Sunrun, and Vivint are dominating the residential market.

Correlation with oil prices?: It must be pointed out that solar fundamentals do not show correlation with oil prices, and in fact show slight signs of negative correlation with oil prices.

On-par with natural gas prices!: Utility-scale PPA prices decline steadily with natural gas prices and this trend has been occurring for about 5 years.  Solar prices were around $190/MWh in 2009 and a NGA contract was around $175/MWh.  In 2014 a solar PPA was around $50/MWh and a NGA contract was around that same area; however, much more volatile.

Raw material costs dropping!: Average global multicrystalline solar module prices in ($/watt) were around $1.30 in 2011 and as of the beginning of 2015 were around $.70.

Specific growth markets: Growth markets include: the Americas, India, Latin America, and South America, while China and Japan are large, but not growing.  Solar has succeeded in places like India due to relatively unpaved electricity access coupled with an extremely high amount of sunlight (shorter payback period) and an eager government that actively spots opportunities for solar development.

Microfinance in poorer nations: While average incomes in India are quite low, the government has set up microfinancing solutions that allow entire villages to pay for solar installations.  While ordinary lending institutions wouldn’t be willing to lend out to poor farmers with no history of credit, microfinance creates scenarios where payback is possible although not terribly profitable.  However, once installations occur, farmers benefit from and are thankful for tremendously improved productivity.  Solar water pump installations, for instance, allow farmers to extract water without the hassle of dealing with costly diesel pumps that require constant fill-ups.

Where solar is NOT doing well: Solar isn’t doing well in areas with low levels of sunlight and/or governments that don’t support policies like net metering.  Places like Arizona have tons of sunlight but energy prices are also relatively cheap there due to a large number of coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants.  Additionally, the government in Arizona is not very supportive of solar energy installations, with very few incentives to help solar companies succeed.  Places like Germany are bad for solar, but the government there has dumped tremendous amounts of money into subsidizing the technology.

Kick start is often necessary: Solar markets blossom when energy policies create incentives for installation.  Due to the fact that solar requires time to pay off, PPA’s are often preferred and net metering has to be set up in some proportion in order to manage the flow of solar during the daytime and fuel source energy in the nighttime.  Rebates are not necessary for profit on solar systems; however, they do generate momentum due to the fact that solar is, and continues to be an ALTERNATIVE energy source run against mainstay utility companies.  Because consumers are not forced to take roof-top solar power, rebates help kickstart the industry and have also helped to speed up the drop in costs across the supply chain.

Energy Efficient vs. Hybrid vs. Electric: How to Evaluate the Alternatives

Elon-Musk_2650478b
Elon Musk smugly laughing at you for buying a Tesla

I took three of the most efficient cars I could find from each category and compared the costs and underlying costs.

Mercedes CLA250: low-end Mercedes model with high MPG

Base Price: $31,500

MPG: (26 city * .50) + (38 highway * .50) = 32 mpg

Fuel Cost on 15,000 miles per year for 10 years at $3.00/gallon: (15,000/32) * $3.00 * 10 = $14,062.50

Total 10-year cost (excluding maintenance): $45,562.50

0-60 mph acceleration: 6.9 seconds

Acura ILX (Hybrid): middle-of-the-road Japanese luxury hybrid

Base Price: $28,000

MPG: (24 city * .50) + (35 highway * .50) = 29.5 mpg

Fuel Cost on 15,000 miles per year for 10 years at $3.00/gallon: (15,000/29.5) * $3.00 * 10 = $15,254

hybrid credits: none

Total (excluding maintenance): $43,254

0-60 mph acceleration: 6.3 seconds

Tesla Model S Electric: Tesla mid-line electric car

Price: $71,070 – average of $11,070 in incentives: $60,000

Fuel Cost on 15,000 miles per year for 10 years at a rate of half charging on Tesla supercharge network and half at home at $0.03/mile: (.5 * 0) + (7,500 * $0.03) * 10 = $2,250

Total (excluding maintenance): $62,250

0-60 mph acceleration: 5.9 seconds

So there it is.  All three of these cars are pretty comparable, mid-range luxury sports cars with a nice 0-60 acceleration of 6-7 seconds.  1st place is clearly the Acura ILX, which has the lowest cost of them all, and you’ll shell out almost $20,000 less than you would for the Tesla.  Mercedes has a really good value as well, although it is a bit slower than the other two, and I feel like a lot of the cost goes towards the brand itself.  Having a Mercedes is a bit sexier than having an Acura.  However, it’s still a great value.

A couple things to note here:

  • Gasoline costs are low and the cost rises a bit for both the gasoline and hybrid when you jack up the price to $4.00/gallon.  However, it’s not very significant and the Model S can’t compare to either of them.
  • Tesla takes advantage of some $10,000+ in subsidies.  People often forget that taxpayer dollars are going towards your neighbor’s sleek Tesla Model S.
  • Tesla is planning to make a $30,000 model in the coming years.  It’s going to be less powerful than this model and probably hits 0-60 in 8-ish seconds.
  • Battery costs are “expected to drop by 30%” when Tesla opens its’ $5 billion giga-thingy plant.  Tesla won’t disclose the cost to produce one of its’ batteries, but analysts estimate it costs about 30% of the total cost of the car.  Okay, so let’s do the math.  For that base model Tesla S it would be $21,000 for the battery and 30% of that would be roughly $6,400.  Well, given this EXTREMELY ambitious goal, that would bring the cost of our Tesla Model S down to just under $56,000.  Not even close.  Oh wait, then we add all of those taxpayers dollars back into the picture, and yeah…
  • The range on a battery-powered car is limited.  Just like your laptop battery that lasts for a very limited number of years, a battery-powered car starts losing it’s charge capacity after 100,000 miles or so.  Our calculation is out to 150,000 miles and there’s a good probability you will need an entirely new battery by then.
  • Electric vehicles take a charge from the power grid.  A power grid is comprised of coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants.  So that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being more environmentally-friendly.  A number of sources have taken the liberty of calculating a “readjusted” mpg for your electric car by factoring in the sources of fuel that your state uses to power the grid.

I think a big takeaway here is that no matter how sexy and ambitious the electric-powered dream is, it’s not really that remarkable.  There’s no miraculous material that Elon Musk is using to power his automobiles.  He works with the same exact materials that everyone on the planet works with.  The electric-powered dream may be here in 50-100 years if gas prices skyrocket, but the material inputs are just so damned scarce.  It’s hard to imagine a highway full of Teslas in my lifetime.