Things That Make You Go Hmmm…
John Mauldin's Outside the Box

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I love Grant Williams and his writing in his letter Things That Make You Go Hmmm... And this week's Outside the Box is the first section from his recent post, where he starts with a brief history of Gadhafi and ends up giving us a tutorial on oil pricing. This may be "inside baseball" (too much detail) for some of you; but these details are important, as the very ground of oil pricing is shifting away from the traditional sources. What will the mainstream media do? Wonder when they will shift, which will result in a LOT higher costs for most of the world. Besides, this is a fun read, and Grant is a great writer.

And quickly, this note From Dennis Gartman: "Finally... and we shall cover this at some greater length tomorrow... S&P has said over the weekend through one of its senior spokespeople in Europe that if a EUR-bond is underwritten it shall have the rating of the lowest rated constituent country involved and thus will have coupon far, far above that of Germany, or France or Belgium et al. A EUR-bond would thus have the credit rating of Greece!"

I may have to write about Europe again this week, as there is just so much going on. The key to watch is the German Constitutional Court decision, due Wednesday. If they rule against the euro, all h#$% will break loose. And they could, although I expect a more moderate outcome, as they realize the entire future of the euro project is riding on their ruling. Do they want to get blamed for imploding the euro?

This week's OTB comes at the end of Labor Day, when all my kids and various friends (some 30-odd) have shown up for food and grilling. I think I am a fair to middling writer and analyst, but I am a brilliant cook (none of this humble analyst stuff in the kitchen!), as all who get to sample my culinary offerings agree. Definitely not low-calorie offerings. Cooking is an all-morning and day affair. Partner Steve Blumenthal of CMG came down Monday morning for some needed businesses meetings, and it may be the first time we met in the kitchen while his partner was cooking. I had to attend to the serious stuff! Butternut squash/carrot soup must cook for 6-8 hours. Mushrooms, veggies, meat, grilling seasoning. They all take time and great attention to detail.

And Steve and Billy Peters (of Baton Rouge) took me to the LSU-Oregon game this Saturday evening in Cowboys Stadium with 87,000 fans, most of whom were from LSU. I have never seen such a rabid (the correct word) crowd. It may be something like English football crowds. I attend professional events all the time, but nothing prepared me for the volume of noise.

Have a great week. The house is starting to smell awesome, and my kitchen calls.

Your my ears are stilling ringing analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

Things That Make You Go Hmmm...

"Formula for success: rise early, work hard, strike oil"


"China gets their oil from Libya. Why isn't China involved? They're going out spending billions of dollars a day on trying to take over the world economically. And we're spending billions and billions and billions of dollars on policing the world. Why isn't China involved with Libya?...we don't get oil from Libya, China does."

– Donald Trump

Pythagorean theorem: 24 words
Lord's prayer: 66 words
Archimedes' Principle: 67 words
Ten Commandments: 179 words
Gettysburg address: 286 words
US Declaration of Independence: 1,300 words
US Constitution with all 27 Amendments: 7,818 words
EU regulations on the sale of cabbage: 26,911 words

– Europe's Problems Summed Up

(Thanks Cyril)

On September 1st, 1969, a 27 year-old army captain and son of a Bedouin farmer who had been born in a tent in the Libyan desert in 1942 staged a bloodless coup when King Idris I travelled to a Turkish Spa to receive treatment on an injured leg.

The army captain, one Muammar al-Qaddafi, had graduated from the University of Libya a mere six years earlier and the Libyan military academy in 1965, but somehow he forced himself to the forefront of a group of Arab nationalist insurgents and, once the monarchy had been abolished and Idris banished to first Greece and finally Egypt, he took his place at the head of the newly-formed Libyan government.

And there he would stay – for almost exactly forty two years.

The History Channel takes up the story:

Blending Islamic orthodoxy, revolutionary socialism, and Arab nationalism, Qaddafi established a fervently anti-Western dictatorship in Libya. In 1970, he removed U.S. and British military bases and expelled Italian and Jewish Libyans. In 1973, he took control of foreign-owned oil fields. He reinstated traditional Islamic laws, such as prohibition of alcoholic beverages and gambling, but liberated women and launched social programs that improved the standard of living in Libya. As part of his stated ambition to unite the Arab world, he sought closer relations with his Arab neighbors, especially Egypt. However, when Egypt and then other Arab nations began a peace process with Israel, Libya became increasingly isolated.

It all sounds rather idyllic, doesn't it? Liberating women, improving the standard of living and attempting to unite the Arab world. Let's see Wikipedia's take on the aftermath of Gaddafi's arrival at the helm of the world's 17th-largest oil producer:

After seizing power, Gaddafi proceeded to eliminate any opposition and severely restricted lives of ordinary Libyans. Gaddafi's ideology was termed the Third International Theory and it was described in the Green Book. Gaddafi and his relatives took over much of the economy. Gaddafi started several wars, had a role in others, and spent on acquiring both chemical and nuclear weapons. More covertly, he directed the country's revenues to sponsor terror and other political activities around the world. The United Nations called Libya under Gaddafi a pariah state.

Gaddafi was unpredictable, radical and a force to be reckoned with by the West and his combative stance towards Western oil companies was rewarded with the kind of concessions that would alter the balance of power between OPEC and its biggest customers:

(Wikipedia): In The Age of Oil, historians considered Gaddafi's success in 1970 to be the "decisive spark that set off an unprecedented chain reaction" in oil-producing nations. Libya continued a winning streak against the oil companies throughout the 1970s energy crisis; Later that year, the Shah of Iran raised his demands to match those of Gaddafi. OPEC nations began a game of "leap frogging" to win further concessions from the oil companies after following Gaddafi's lead.

Gaddafi and the Shah of Iran both argued for quadrupling the cost of oil in 1975.


'The oil price' is something of an interesting animal.

Since 1970, the oil price, which had nominally traded in the tightest of ranges since the late 1800s, has experienced enormous volatility with twin inflation-adjusted spikes almost 30 years apart finally being breached earlier this year when Brent hit a high of $126.65 on April 8th of this year.

Back in 2008, when 'the oil price' was hitting record high after record high – peaking at $145.29 in July of that fateful year – 'the oil price' being referred to was West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the light, sweet crude delivered into the facility at Cushing, Oklahoma which holds, at various times, between 5 and 10% of US crude inventory. That same 'oil price' now trades almost 40% lower at $88. Except...

The rumblings began in earnest in 2007 with the release of a Lehman Brothers report which argued that WTI was no longer the benchmark for 'the oil price' due to the fact that it was highly localized and, with the tendency for inventory spikes in what is, with all due respect to any Cushing-based readers, well..... before I get myself into any trouble, I will let an aerial map of Cushing, OK (below) do all the heavy lifting for me.


Any questions? Good. Let's press on.

In October of 2009, WTI was dealt another hammer blow by Saudi Arabia:

(FT): Saudi Arabia yesterday decided to drop the widely used West Texas Intermediate oil contract as the benchmark for pricing its oil, dealing a serious blow to the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The decision by the world's biggest oil exporter could encourage other producers to abandon the benchmark and threatens the dominance of the world's most heavily traded oil futures contract...The move reveals the growing discontent of Riyadh and its US refinery customers with WTI after the price of the benchmark became separated from the global oil market this year.

The surge in oil inventories in Cushing, Oklahoma, where WTI is delivered into America's pipeline system, depressed the value of the WTI against other global benchmarks, throwing the global oil market into disarray.

Argus Sour Crude, 2010 – Present


Saudi Arabia moved to a new index developed by Argus in London; the Argus Sour Crude Index. This was assembled to track the price in the physical market of a basket of US Gulf Coast crudes, including Mars, Poseidon and Southern Green Canyon:

(FT): ...Argus said the change in policy reflected the "increased importance of the US Gulf coast sour crude market, in which both production and trading activity was rising sharply".

Paul Horsnell, head of commodities research at Barclays Capital in London, said Saudi Arabia's decision was likely to reflect a "wider discontent" from its customers in the US about WTI performance.

Edward Morse, chief economist at LCM Commodities in New York, said: "It is a recognition by large players that WTI sometimes does not reflect the true value of crude oil in the waterborne market."

Saudi Arabia has priced its oil using WTI since 1994.

And so it was that 'the oil price' gradually became less about the little town in Oklahoma with a population of 9,596 and more about the real world price: and that meant Brent.

Brent Crude, 2006 – Present

Brent Crude vs. WTI, 2007 – 2011 (% change)


It is notable that when people talk about oil having hit its 'highs' of $140 back in 2008 and now trading almost 40% lower they are referring to the price of WTI, which has tumbled back into the $80s, but both Argus Sour Crude (left, top) and the more ubiquitous Brent Crude (left, middle) contracts are still trading within shouting distance of their lifetime highs. The bottom chart shows how Brent and WTI have disconnected from an almost perfect correlation EXACTLY at the time QE2 was announced back in August of 2010 - not that Quantitative Easing is in ANY way responsible for an increase in the price of commodities of course. I want to make that QUITE clear....

Naturally, it is useful when one is in the business of managing an economy and attempting to control inflation while simultaneously printing as much money as one can get away with, to be able to point to a falling oil price as evidence that the dreaded spectre of inflation is not an immediate concern and the weakness in WTI has afforded the US government and their Central Bank sidekicks the luxury of being able to do that, but the stubbornly high price of Brent is becoming something of an irritant.

Back in June when the IEA announced they were releasing 60 million barrels of oil from OECD inventories due to the high price of crude, it was suggested that the main reason for such an action was the loss of oil production that accompanied the beginning of the popular uprising against Colonel Gaddafi and a look at a chart of world oil production (below) shows just how severe a drop-off in price the unrest in Libya caused. What is even more interesting, however, is the chart that follows, which shows Saudi oil production levels at the time of the virtual shutdown of Libyan oilfields with the March data for both countries' output circled. Clearly, Saudi Arabia was either unwilling or unable to plug the Libyan output gap:



At the time, Reuters reported on the Saudi response to the supply disruption and it appeared as though they were opening up the spigots:

Saudi Arabia has increased its oil production to more than 9 million barrels per day (bpd) to compensate for disruption to Libyan output, an industry source familiar with the kingdom's production told Reuters on Friday.

"We have started producing over 9 million barrels per day (bpd). We have a lot of production capacity," the source said, but said he could not say when the change had taken place.

But clearly, from the graph (above, right), the 'change' had taken place gradually over the preceding six months - the Saudi response to Libyan production dropping off the proverbial cliff could hardly be labelled 'shock and awe'.

The Oil Drum leaned distinctly in the direction of 'unwilling' as the reason for the less-than-dramatic response:

Back in 2006, when [Saudi] production started to gradually decline from 9.5mbd even as global oil prices were in the worst spike since the 1970s, I was an advocate of the view that the decline was largely involuntary: they'd never produced more than 9.5mbd, they'd underinvested for decades, and some of their big fields were getting very tired (particular northern Ghawar and Abqaiq) and they were starting a big rash of new projects and ramping up their rig counts at the same time.

I see current events differently. The reduction in late 2008 was clearly voluntary to support prices in the face of the great recession. There's no new projects announced, and the rig count hasn't taken off. So my take is that the failure to increase production to compensate for Libya is deliberate. We can only speculate, but my guess is that, having watched how the west has helped to ease Mubarak and Ben-Ali out of power and is intervening in Libya to the same end, the Saudi regime is in no mood to care about our desire for more oil. Instead, they are very much in the mood to build as large a war chest as possible with which to appease their own population, strengthen their defense measures, etc.

So, instead of Saudi production increasing to compensate for Libya, total world production decreased, and oil prices went up sharply to enforce the necessary conservation on the world's oil consumers.

The debate about Peak Oil has been raging since the fateful day in 1956 when M. King Hubbert presented to the American Petroleum Institute his theory that oil production would follow a bell curve and, at an unspecified stage in the future, enter a terminal decline, but that debate is too multi-faceted for these pages so we will simply use a couple of charts (which would coincidentally appear to support Dr. Hubbert's thesis) in order to flesh out the remainder of our discussion for today.

First up, a list of the world's biggest oilfields:


The list of the 18 largest 'supergiant' oilfields (left) highlights one of the biggest challenges facing the oil industry to date in that the average age of these fields is exactly 60 years old. Moreover, the most recent discovery was made 35 years ago when the Cantarell Complex (highlighted) was found by a fisherman named Rudesindo Cantarell 80 km off the coast of Mexico in the Bay of Campeche.

Cantarell complained that oil seepage was ruining his fishing nets and the good folks at PEMEX (Mexico's national oil company) kindly investigated the problem for him - only to find the motherlode.

In 2004, however, PEMEX suddenly announced that production from Cantarell was forecast to steeply decline from 2006 - at a rate of 14% per year.

By 2008, the annual rate of decline had reached 36% and by 2009 it hit 38%.

In graphical form, the fall from grace of the Cantarell supergiant is even more amazing:


Clearly, in oil we have a commodity the world cannot live without which is the subject of great debate as to whether its future supply is sustainable. The largest concentration of this commodity resides underneath the most combustible region on the planet, the guardians of that oil are very secretive about their production rates and have a vested interest in maximising profits from the sale of their only asset, the evidence that is in the public domain (such as that surrounding Cantarell along with Great Britain's experience with North Sea Oil) would seem to suggest that once the decline stage is reached it will be rapid and.... what was the other thing?

Oh yes, the institution in charge of producing the colourful pieces of paper which can be swapped for that commodity are committed to producing as many of them as they can get away with before anybody notices.

As stock markets plummeted in August, one thing that was noticeable was the resilience of both 'the oil price' (in the shape of Brent Crude, of course) and that of copper - two bellwether indicators of any slowdown in growth that can be relied upon to flash signals when a recession is nigh.

To be sure, the data reported in August was dreadful. In the US we saw a slew of appalling regional manufacturing reports, (the Philly Fed and Empire numbers could genuinely be described as 'shockers'), shattered consumer confidence numbers and rising inflation all topped off with a big fat goose egg in the NFP report last Friday, while in Europe, as the periphery continued to confirm just how week their economies continue to be, the real shocks came from the region's perennial powerhouse economy, Germany.

German private investment and consumption were down, government spending rose, GDP was below forecast and the PPI number was alarmingly elevated on both a month-on-month and year-on-year basis and the ZEW survey (Germany's barometer for economic growth expectations) had its biggest fall since July 2006. On balance, it looks for all the world as though the two largest and most powerful regions on Earth are about to head into synchronised recessions - the only possibility that this turns out NOT to be the case would seem to be that they are both already IN recessions.

So why doesn't 'the oil price' reflect this likelihood? Simple:

1. China has a LOT of paper money and is happy to swap it for hard assets that it knows will ultimately be far more beneficial in the long run as Western governments continue to debase their currencies.

2. Western governments continue to debase their currencies.

But it isn't just 'the oil price' that has shown remarkable resilience into the teeth of what looks like another severe recession. Throughout August, sitting out here in Asia, it was plain to see that there was a firm hand bidding for copper in the Shanghai market and, realistically, nobody in the region was in any doubt as to exactly who that firm hand belonged to. Consequently, copper - that great barometer of both economic activity and inflationary pressure - held up surprisingly well given the poor economic backdrop and the 'risk off' episodes that littered the first half of the month.

Shanghai Copper

Brent Crude


The signs are clear: Inflation is not only the preferred option to soothe the pain of a world drowning in debt, but (semantics about which 'oil price' to use aside) pretty much the only bullet left in the guns of central bankers and, until somebody stamps a 'sell-by date' on such things as copper, oil or our old friends gold and silver, the Chinese will continue to swap their paper for hard assets and, realistically, the price is of secondary importance to them.

Ben Bernanke's 'disappointing' speech at Jackson Hole was received poorly by markets that have become used to a generous helping of stimulus from the Fed Head whenever things looked bleak but subsequently, with a non-farm payrolls report that showed the US economy produced precisely zero jobs last month, further wobbles in stock markets that are focusing ever-more intently on the debacle that is Europe and the remarkably pro-stimulus words of two Fed officials, it has become even clearer that, come the Fed's extended two-day meeting in late September, QE3 (or whatever it ends up euphemistically being labelled) is pretty much a done deal.

Add to that the increasing likelihood that the ECB begin to monetize their own problems via Eurobonds and rate cuts (ECB mandates and approval by the citizens of Europe be damned at this point in the game) and the odds on seeing a meaningful retreat in 'the oil price' - even in the face of a global recession - are becoming thinner by the day.

The surprising relative strength in 'the oil price' is signaling that the familiar paradigm of slowing growth being accompanied by a falling oil price to help equilibrium be reached at which point growth can begin again is just another casualty of central bank interference in markets via unprecedented monetary printing experiments. The inevitable inflation that results from massive money-printing operations is a concern to many, and, while it is seemingly not apparent in Western government numbers, it is out there. Believe me. It is out there in the price of oil, and copper it can be seen in the price of gold and silver and it is in the price of such vital things as Thai Hom Mali rice which has risen 26% this year and looks set to rise a further 25% NEXT MONTH ALONE according to the Bangkok Post. If you want to see what problems inflation can cause, keep an eye on the price of rice here in Asia. The fact that the US CPI appears benign, means very little. The less obvious signs are far more important.

Of course, the other thing to consider is the new man at the head of the Libyan government when it is finally established. We don't know who he is. We don't know how he thinks. But surely, the new leader of the world's 17th-largest oil producer HAS to offer more stability to both the world in general and 'the oil price' in particular than Muammar al-Qaddafi.



John Mauldin is president of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC, a registered investment advisor. All material presented herein is believed to be reliable but we cannot attest to its accuracy. Investment recommendations may change and readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions.

Opinions expressed in these reports may change without prior notice. John Mauldin and/or the staffs at Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC and InvestorsInsight Publishing, Inc. (InvestorsInsight) may or may not have investments in any funds, programs or companies cited above.


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Posted 09-06-2011 12:15 PM by John Mauldin