Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Culture Matters – Oil Curse Edition

The concept of the so-called Oil Curse is that countries that have an abundance of oil tend to be basket cases – undemocratic, kleptocratic, and poorly developed.  The Oil Curse is a special case of of what is sometimes called the Resource Curse.

Of course, not every country rich in oil has suffered from the Oil Curse.  Norway is a prime example of a nation that has benefited greatly from finding oil, but it is almost the exception that proves the rule.

On the other hand, if you think about it more broadly, there are plenty of other exceptions.  The big one is England.  Historians seem to think one of the reasons that the Industrial Revolution began there is because England had plenty of easily accessible coal and iron.  Which is to say, England struck oil, or at least the 18th century version of it.  Similarly, the oil boom that began in Titusville, PA around 1860 did great things for the US economy.

So what causes oil to be a curse for some countries but a boon to others?  One explanation commonly brought up is exploitation, particularly by Western oil companies.  I am no historian, but I don’t think this is right.  Many of the Oil Curse countries chose to go it alone, though some did so after expropriating the initial investments made by foreigners.

I think countries that appear to fall prey to the Oil Curse or any other Resource Curse don’t actually do so.  Instead, they are basket cases before the discovery of whatever resource, and they remain basket cases after.  On the other hand, countries that have functional economies that encourage innovation tend to find stumbling upon a resource to be a blessing.

Put another way…  having a culture that is conducive toward positive outcomes matters a lot.  And it seems to me that England on the verge of the Industrial Revolution, the US before 1860, and Norway before it stumbled on oil have a lot, culturally in common.  And the cultural traits those three cases have in common don’t seem to be shared by Oil Curse countries.

As I keep pointing out, the data shows that culture is a strong determinant of economic outcomes..

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The oil industry is undergoing a major structural change.

Lifted from comments from this post US to be leading producer of oil is Spencer England’s comment about structural change in the oil markets. Obvious to some but bears repeating for a lot of us, as we discuss environmental issues or gasoline prices in the media more than structural economic impacts:

Spencer says:

The development of fracking and the tar sands means that the oil industry is undergoing a major structural change.

Use to be that one of the thing that made the oil industry very unique was that virtually all their costs were sunk or fixed costs and variable costs were relatively insignificant. Under this cost structure if prices fall it still pays to produce oil when prices fell as long as revenues covered the variable costs. So falling prices did not lead to falling output.

But now the marginal supply of oil is from tar sands or fracking where variable costs are very high. Moreover, the marginal costs of bringing in new oil from these sources is now in the $80 to $100 range.

So now, when prices fall, at the margin some producers will withdraw from the market and output will fall.

This is creating a fairly solid floor, the price for oil at about $80 — where oil bottomed last year and again this year.

Very few people are incorporating this structural change in the oil market into their analysis.


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US to be leading producer of oil?? What does that mean?

Lifted from a note on energy from Reader rjs comes a link filled narrative on oil and production issues for oil.  He deals with one aspect of drilling for “energy independence”.

From reader rjs:

Saudi America?

The release of this year’s edition of the World Energy Outlook from the IEA (International Energy Agency) received quite a bit of media attention over this several weeks, mostly for its forecast that the US will overtake Saudi Arabia to become the world’s largest oil producer by around 2020. That such would happen shouldn’t be much of surprise to anyone who’s followed world oil production for any length of time; the Saudis, Russia and the US have been the world’s leading producers for at least 40 years.

 Just compare historical production for the US, for Russia, and for Saudi Arabia).  Our problem has always been that we’ve consumed more than twice our production, while the Saudis, with their smaller population and domestic usage, have been the world’s leading exporter and the one country seen as having reserves ample enough to backstop the markets. Apparently the IEA feels that even with enhanced recovery methods, the Saudi’s cant squeeze much more out of their declining Ghawar oil field, which supplies 60% of their production, and for the next few decades US production will increase due to our unconventional recovery techniques, notably fracking.

But we should note is that even if this temporary switch in world production leaders were to come to pass (and there are plenty of skeptics), this near energy independence will not lower our costs of gasoline for several reasons. The most obvious reason self sufficiency in energy wont lower prices is that crude oil is fungible and prices are determined by worldwide demand & supply. Moreover, the IEA figures include natural gas liquids in our expected production, which by 2011 had come to account for 28% our total unconventional production, & you cant produce gasoline from natural gas liquids. The other reason that domestic oil will of necessity stay high priced is the amount of continued investment that is needed to produce oil from shale.

The adjacent graph, which comes from a report from the N.Dakota Dept of Resources (pdf), shows the production over time from a typical well in the Bakken shale, which is now the most productive field in the US. What you see here is that unlike conventional oil wells, where you might drill one well that produces decently for 40 years, the typical bakken well production falls by over 80% in just two years, because after the initial oil flow from the pulverized rock, the flow slows to a trickle.

So to continue to produce oil from the bakken, or any other shale formation, you have to drill more & more wells, smash more bedrock, truck in millions of gallons more of water & chemicals, all of which is an ongoing capital drain. And even though we are expanding our capacity to tap shale oil considerably, the seven fold increase in oil drilling rigs in the US since 2009 has only produced about a 20% increase in oil production

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The Effect of Oil Prices on Oil Drilling in the U.S.

by Mike Kimel

The Effect of Oil Prices on Oil Drilling in the U.S.

Oil markets have changed dramatically in the past couple of decades or so. Except for a few years following the second Oil Embargo – prices got as high as $60 (in 2005 $) a barrel in 1981 – real prices have tended to be below $25 a barrel through about 1999. Conversely, 2003 prices have been higher than that – in some years quite a bit higher. Now, there are all sorts of explanations for this big change we’ve observed over the past few years, ranging from Peak Oil to the war in Iraq to the rise of the BRICs to market manipulation, but that’s the point of this post…

Instead, I want to look at the relationship between the price of oil and the number of oil rigs, and how that relationship has changed over the last couple of decades or so. Oil rigs, of course, are the machines that dig oil wells; once a well is completed and has begun production, the rigs are removed and either go into storage or move on to drilling another well. Data on the number of oil rigs in operation in the United States used in this post comes from Baker Hughes. Regular readers know I normally do not use data from private sources, but Baker Hughes data are as close to “official” as possible, as the figures you’ll find the Dep’t of Energy’s website on rigs originate with Baker Hughes. Rig count data comes out weekly and begins in mid-1987. I’ve taken annual averages beginning in 1988. Price data are annual averages from Table 5.18 of the 2010 Annual Energy Review put out by the Department of Energy. That data runs through 2009.

Now, a few details. Some time toward the end of the last millennium and the first few years of this one, there was a revolution in the drilling of oil (and natural gas). Two new technologies, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal and/or directional drilling, changed everything. Hydraulic fracturing is the fine art of pumping sand and water mixed with small amounts of some fairly toxic chemicals at high pressure to break apart some types of rock formations (usually shale) in which oil (or gas) is trapped. And the other thing available now are rigs that don’t just drill straight down, but instead can drill sideways once they reach the desired depth.

There is no fine line we can point to and say: this is the point when these two technologies became widespread. Instead, based in part on the numbers, I’m just going to say that until about 1998, those technologies were rarely used in the US, but after 2002 they were in widespread use. So… let me put up two graphs. The first one shows the relationship between the rig count and the price of oil from 1988 to 1998, and the second shows the same relationship between 2002 and 2009.

Figure 1

Figure 2.

(A few comments to the statistically oriented… yes, I know that a single equation regression is nothing more than a correlation, but this was for illustrative purposes. And before you mention autocorrelation, take a look at the graph again and think of exactly what would change if I did correct for it.)

So what does all this mean? A few comments:

1. The relationship between prices and rig count exists because as world prices rise, U.S. producers have an incentive to drill more.
2. In the first period, for every dollar increase in the price of a barrel of oil, on average 25 rigs were added in the U.S. In the second period, for every dollar increase in the price of a barrel of oil, on average only 3.5 rigs were added.
3. Part of the difference noted in 2. is just due to the fact that rigs are so much more efficient today than they were a decade and a half ago.
4. Another part of the difference noted in 2. is that there are only so many resources available to install new rigs in the U.S.
5. Yet another explanation for the difference in 2. may be price volatility; given price fluctuate so much these days, prices today aren’t as indicative of prices in six months or a year as they used to be.
6. Drilling for oil is a capital-intensive and risky operation. The relationship observed in comment 2. might be even greater were it not for the low interest rates prevalent in the second period.
7. The fit is much better (i.e., the relationship between price and rigs is much tighter, as there are fewer points far off the line) in the second period.
8. Do 2. and 7. indicate that perhaps oil drillers are becoming “more professional”?
9. Should this serve as a bit of an automatic stabilizer on price volatility? In other words, do the volatile oil prices reduce volatility in oil output, which in turn might reduce price volatility?
10. One other thought, only semi-related, and I’m not sure how it fits. In the oil market, you can get a lot of price volatility with even a small change in output. If world output falls by, say 1%, there are a lot of users without that many good substitutes (at present) willing to bid up the price on the marginal unit.

And one last thought…. does any of this say anything, one way or the other, about the notion of Peak Oil?

A few notes. First, full disclosure – I am not authorized to speak on its behalf, nor do I necessarily see the big picture, but I believe the company I work for would benefit from increased regulation of hydraullic fraccing. Second, the idea of looking for a relationship between prices and the means of production of a similar commodity came from Craig Truesdell. I’ve found Craig’s insight seems to provide useful intuition in a lot of markets.

Cross-posted at the Presimetrics blog.

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Oil prices and consumer spending.

With the recent surge in oil prices I thought it would be useful to look at the potential impact with one set of data I watch. It is energy as a share of personal consumption expenditures or consumer spending. In the 1970s energy consumption rose from about 6% to 9% of spending, or about 50%. In the early 2000s energy rose from about 4% to 7% of consumer spending before it collapsed. As of December energy’s share of consumer spending was already back to 6% of spending, about the level it peaked at in the last cycle before the financial panic generated a drop in other consumer spending. If you look at energy consumption this way it appears that oil consumption was already at the point where futher oil price increases would rapidly impact consumer spending on other items.

One area where higher oil prices clearly impacts consumer spending is autos, as consumer spending on new and used autos and energy have a very strong negative correlation. If rising oil prices generate a drop in real income or standard of living one of the easiest way to compensate is to delay buying a new,or used car. What would have been new monthly auto payments can be used to sustain consumption of other items. In this chart you can clearly see that this happened in both the 1970s and the 2000s. You can also see that spending on energy and autos accounted for about 10% of consumer spending in the 1990s and 2000s.

But the chart also shows that auto consumption was only about 3.5% of consumer spending at the end of 2010 as compared to a 5% to 5.5% norm in the 1990s and 2000s economic expansions. So the consumer does not really have the option to cut back on auto consumption like they did in the previous examples of oil price spikes. These charts suggest that if oil prices remain high or expand well past $100 we are quite likely to see consumer spending suffer across the board. Note that this chart of spending is based on nominal dollars.

Also note that Brent crude is already about $120 while West Texas Intermediate — the US base price — has only increased to about $100. This apparently is due to excess supplies in the Midwest because of a new oil pipeline from Canada. Such a divergence can only last so long, so that if oil supplies are interrupted for very long you can expect West Texas Intermediate to close on the Brent price fairly rapidly.

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The UK faces a serious inflation issue if oil pops!

Bond markets are pricing in rate hikes this year by the ECB and the BoE. Both are inflation targeters, so which one should react first to a possible spike in oil prices? What’s your answer?

(1) Neither. As FX appreciation and fiscal austerity pass through to domestic prices, the core will drag down the headline. If they hike, stagflation will result.

(2) The ECB, because it is the most hawkish of all central banks, in my view. The ECB mandates a rigid targeting scheme compared to that of the BoE. Since the January 2005, the BoE has successfully targeted inflation slightly under 2% just 27% of the time, while ECB has done so 61% of the time.

(3) The UK. The January 2011 UK inflation rate was 4% Y/Y (3.2% in November on a harmonized basis) and near-double that in the Eurozone, 2.4% according to the flash estimate.

Furthermore, the UK story is not one of just energy and food. The chart below illustrates the diffusion of price inflation across the components of the harmonized HICP (data at Eurostat), and the legend lists the period average for each economy. Diffusion levels above 50 indicate that a larger share of component prices are growing at an annual rate above 2% that below 2%. The diffusion a measure of the breadth of price pressures…

…and is UK inflation broad-based! In contrast, inflation in the Eurozone is focused in the commodity and energy space. Now, I’m not suggesting that the BoE hike – in fact I would recommend the opposite, or at least stay on hold – but I’m sure that the BoE has its vision acutely focused on developments in the Middle East.

If I had to choose an economy that would be derailed by the price spikes in the commodity space, it would be the UK. But I choose (1).

Rebecca Wilder

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Was I Wrong? Is Oil Trading Primarily a Speculative Market

How else to explain a 20% drop in prices since The Destruction of the Gulf of Mexico?

Oil fell below $70 Monday, reaching a low of $69.27 before rebounding slightly…The turnaround has been sudden — oil hit an 18-month high of $87.15 a barrel during trading on May 3.

The plunge in oil extended to the New York Stock Exchange, where shares of major energy companies were lower.

Is oil the derivatives of hard commodities: the place where liquidity is based on speculation, not fundamentals?

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Why I Don’t Do Market Timing

Starting in September, my income, such as it were, is basically in C$.

Stephen Gordon explains, with graphics, why that has been such a bad trade.

The scariest part:

The 2002-2008 expansion provided significant real income gains, and more than half of those gains were due to the improvement in Canada’s terms of trade.

So there really isn’t an infrastructure in place to benefit from autonomy.

Right now, Stephen Harper should be in consideration for the title of the Luckiest Man on Earth.

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