Ayungin Shoal lies 105 nautical miles from the Philippines. There’s little to commend the spot, apart from its plentiful fish and safe harbor — except that Ayungin sits at the southwestern edge of an area called Reed Bank, which is rumored to contain vast reserves of oil and natural gas. And also that it is home to a World War II-era ship called the Sierra Madre, which the Philippine government ran aground on the reef in 1999 and has since maintained as a kind of post-apocalyptic military garrison, the small detachment of Filipino troops stationed there struggling to survive extreme mental and physical desolation. Of all places, the scorched shell of the Sierra Madre has become an unlikely battleground in a geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and, to some extent, the rest of the world. … It was hard to imagine how such a forsaken place could become a flash point in a geopolitical power struggle. … To understand how Ayungin (known to the Western world as Second Thomas Shoal) could become contested ground is to confront, in miniature, both the rise of China and the potential future of U.S. foreign policy. It is also to enter into a morass of competing historical, territorial and even moral claims in an area where defining what is true or fair may be no easier than it has proved to be in the Middle East. … The Spratly Islands sprawl over roughly 160,000 square miles in the waters of the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and China — all of whom claim part of the islands. Since the 18th century, navigators have referred to the Spratlys as “Dangerous Ground” — a term that captures not only the treacherous nature of the area but also the mess that is the current political situation in the South China Sea. … Why the fuss over “Dangerous Ground”? Natural resources are a big piece of it. According to current U.S. estimates, the seabed beneath the Spratlys may hold up to 5.4 billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. On top of which, about half of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage and nearly one third of its crude oil pass through these waters each year. They also contain some of the richest fisheries in the world. … What China has done with Mischief, Scarborough and now with Ayungin is what the journalist Robert Haddick described, writing in Foreign Policy, as “salami slicing” or “the slow accumulation of actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which add up over time to a major strategic change.”
In the 1970s, geologists discovered crystalline natural gas—methane hydrate, in the jargon—beneath the seafloor. Stored mostly in broad, shallow layers on continental margins, methane hydrate exists in immense quantities; by some estimates, it is twice as abundant as all other fossil fuels combined. Despite its plenitude, gas hydrate was long subject to petroleum-industry skepticism. These deposits—water molecules laced into frigid cages that trap “guest molecules” of natural gas—are strikingly unlike conventional energy reserves. Ice you can set on fire! Who could take it seriously? But as petroleum prices soared, undersea-drilling technology improved, and geological surveys accumulated, interest rose around the world. The U.S. Department of Energy has been funding a methane-hydrate research program since 1982.
The biggest exporter has let prices plummet—delaying the day when climate concerns, efficiency, and fuel switching break the world’s dependence on crude. ... Naimi and other Saudi leaders have worried for years that climate change and high crude prices will boost energy efficiency, encourage renewables, and accelerate a switch to alternative fuels such as natural gas, especially in the emerging markets that they count on for growth. They see how demand for the commodity that’s created the kingdom’s enormous wealth—and is still abundant beneath the desert sands—may be nearing its peak. This isn’t something the petroleum minister discusses in depth in public, given global concern about carbon emissions and efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. But Naimi acknowledges the trend. “Demand will peak way ahead of supply,” he told reporters in Qatar three years ago. If growth in oil consumption flattens out too soon, the transition could be wrenching for Saudi Arabia, which gets almost half its gross domestic product from oil exports. ... Last week, in a speech in Riyadh, Naimi said Saudi Arabia would stand “firmly and resolutely” with others who oppose any attempt to marginalize oil consumption. “There are those who are trying to reach international agreements to limit the use of fossil fuel, and that will damage the interests of oil producers in the long-term,” he said. ... The peak that has the Saudis more worried is peak demand.
To say Batista overreached would be to seriously undersell what has happened in the 18 months since that self-regarding presstravaganza of hubris and magical thinking. In what is shaping up to be one of the largest personal and financial collapses in history—if not the largest—Batista may be nearing bankruptcy. On Oct. 1, OGX missed a $45 million interest payment on bond debt it had racked up during its rise. Batista has sold his planes and his helicopter, and creditors are arguing over the remains of his companies. He’s no longer on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index and has become the butt of jokes in Brazil. One suggests that Pope Francis plans to return to Brazil soon and will again be visiting the poor, including Batista. … Brazil’s securities regulator has started an investigation into Batista and OGX after an investor alleged that Batista dumped 126.7 million OGX shares just before the company scrapped projects and warned that it may stop pumping crude next year. In a July op-ed for Brazil’s Valor Econômico newspaper, Batista said he would honor all of his obligations. In that same article, he put some of the blame on his auditing firm and executives for unreasonably building shareholder expectations. The company has denied it gave faulty advice. Once a staple on the airwaves and in print, Batista has mostly gone silent.
Wind and solar power are even more expensive than is commonly thought ... SUBSIDIES for renewable energy are one of the most contested areas of public policy. Billions are spent nursing the infant solar- and wind-power industries in the hope that they will one day undercut fossil fuels and drastically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere. The idea seems to be working. Photovoltaic panels have halved in price since 2008 and the capital cost of a solar-power plant—of which panels account for slightly under half—fell by 22% in 2010-13. In a few sunny places, solar power is providing electricity to the grid as cheaply as conventional coal- or gas-fired power plants. ... But whereas the cost of a solar panel is easy to calculate, the cost of electricity is harder to assess. It depends not only on the fuel used, but also on the cost of capital (power plants take years to build and last for decades), how much of the time a plant operates, and whether it generates power at times of peak demand. To take account of all this, economists use “levelised costs”—the net present value of all costs (capital and operating) of a generating unit over its life cycle, divided by the number of megawatt-hours of electricity it is expected to supply. ... The trouble, as Paul Joskow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has pointed out, is that levelised costs do not take account of the costs of intermittency.* Wind power is not generated on a calm day, nor solar power at night, so conventional power plants must be kept on standby—but are not included in the levelised cost of renewables. Electricity demand also varies during the day in ways that the supply from wind and solar generation may not match, so even if renewable forms of energy have the same levelised cost as conventional ones, the value of the power they produce may be lower. In short, levelised costs are poor at comparing different forms of power generation. ... the most cost-effective zero-emission technology is nuclear power.
The last decade has seen an extraordinary rise in the importance of a unique class of investor. Generally referred to as “price-insensitive buyers,” these are asset owners for whom the expected returns of the assets they buy are not a primary consideration in their purchase decisions. Such buyers have been the explanation behind a whole series of market price movements that otherwise have not seemed to make sense in a historical context. In today’s world, where prices of all sorts of assets are trading far above historical norms, it is worth recognizing that investors prepared to buy assets without regard to the price of those assets may also find themselves in a position to sell those assets without regard to price as well. This potential is compounded by the reduction in liquidity in markets around the world, which has been driven by tighter regulation of financial institutions, and, paradoxically, a greater desire for liquidity on the part of market participants. Making matters worse, in order to see massive changes in the price of a security, you don’t need the price-insensitive buyer to become a seller. You merely need him to cease being the marginal buyer. If price-insensitive buyers actually become price-insensitive sellers, it becomes possible that price falls could take asset prices significantly below historical norms. This is not to suggest that such an event is inevitable, still less is it an attempt to predict in which assets and when it will occur, but anyone conditioned to think that these investors provide a permanent support for the markets should be aware that the support may at some point be taken away.
A global oil glut has tanked prices and cut profits—so why won’t Shell give up on the north? ... geologists believe that beneath Burger J—70 miles offshore and 800 miles from the Anchorage command center—lie up to 15 billion barrels of oil. An additional 11 billion barrels are thought to be buried due east under the Beaufort Sea. All told, Arctic waters cover about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered petroleum, or enough to supply the U.S. for more than a decade, according to government estimates. ... Surprise lurks in the Chukchi, whose frigid waters north of the Bering Strait span from Alaska to Siberia. Logistical and legal obstacles have repeatedly delayed the Arctic initiative, on which Shell is spending more than $1 billion a year—more than $7 billion so far and counting. The single well in the Chukchi Shell aims to excavate this summer could be the most expensive on earth, and it hasn’t yielded its first barrel of crude. ... Shell’s Scenarios group, an in-house think tank that management points to as an emblem of its open-mindedness, has done extensive work undergirding the company’s support for government policies encouraging development of renewable energy sources, she says. But the Scenarios research also justifies aggressive exploration for more crude. With the global population rising from 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050 and total energy demand nearly doubling ... Most of the world’s “easy oil” has already been pumped or nationalized by resource-rich governments, Pickard says, leaving independent producers such as Shell no choice but to pursue “extreme oil” in dicey places.
With this general framework in mind, here’s how I’ve been thinking about the global macro outlook for a while: It is driven by the interaction among what I call the “three gluts”: the savings glut, the oil glut and the money glut. While the global savings glut is likely the main secular force behind the global environment of low growth, lowflation and low interest rates, both the oil and the money glut should help lift demand growth, inflation and thus interest rates from their current depressed levels over the cyclical horizon. ... Why is it, to simplify further, that everybody wants to save more but nobody wants to invest? ... The oil glut helps to mitigate the depressing impact of the savings glut on consumer demand by shifting income from oil producers, who have a high propensity to save, to consumers, who typically spend most of their income. ... We expect more monetary easing to come, particularly in China and in many commodity-producing countries, so the global money glut, which is already increasing due to heavyweights like the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan executing their asset purchase programs, will swell further.
It has been a year since the guards at a prison camp just below the Arctic Circle told Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon and once the richest man in Russia, to pack his things. They put him on a plane to St. Petersburg; there they handed him a parka and a passport and put him on a flight to Berlin. Since that day of release and exile, Khodorkovsky has been living outside Zurich and travelling to capitals throughout the West, making speeches, accepting awards, and hinting broadly at a return to Russia. He will tell anyone who asks that, after a decade in various prison camps, he would not mind displacing the man who sent him there—Vladimir Putin. ... He is fifty-one now; he’s become stockier since his release, and his graying hair has grown out of the prison buzz cut. He was dressed casually, as always, in jeans and a sweater, and spoke in a quiet, well-mannered voice. Still, as he took questions onstage from a journalist from Le Monde, he displayed none of the modesty of his forebears in dissent. Andrei Sakharov would never have spoken of taking up residence in the Kremlin. “It wouldn’t be interesting for me to be President of the country when the country is developing normally,” Khodorkovsky said. “But if the issue becomes that the country needs to overcome a crisis and undergo constitutional reforms, the main aspect of which is the redistribution of Presidential power to the courts, parliament, and civil society, that part of the job I would be willing to do.” ... When it came to Putin, his remarks were sly, glancing. “It’s hard for me to say that I’m thankful,” he said of his release. “But I am glad.” It was quite the understatement from a man who, once estimated by Forbes to be worth more than fifteen billion dollars, had been reduced to a life of manual labor. In the camps, Khodorkovsky never knew if he would ever be released. And when he finally was, in December, 2013, it was as a public-relations gesture before the Sochi Olympics—when Putin still cared about the West’s opinion of him. ... The way forward, Khodorkovsky said, was to form a horizontal network among like-minded, Western-leaning Russians—Western “adaptants”—which the state could not easily destroy. He was counting on the ten or fifteen per cent of Russians who fit this category. In some cities, like Moscow and St. Petersburg, he believed, it could be as high as a third. This amounted to a “minority within a minority,” he conceded, but in Russia a progressive, or radical, minority has always been the engine of political change.
After selling 7 deals in 7 years for $7 billion, press-shy wildcatter Trevor Rees-Jones is better equipped than anyone to pick through the wreckage of the oil and gas bust. ... With plenty of natural gas to work with, Rees-Jones is looking for oilfields that enjoy the same low-cost advantage as his Marcellus gas operation. ...as the oil bust grinds on, we will learn which oilfields are the best, because they will be the last spots with drilling rigs still operating. And it’s in and around those places where he hopes to find assets to buy. ... There are plenty of sweet spots in North Dakota, Colorado and the Eagle Ford field in Texas. His team has been eyeing some multilayer shale formations in Oklahoma and is developing some conventional (that is, nonshale) fields that had been overlooked in recent years, including one in Florida. But ultimately, he says, “the Permian Basin would be my favorite place. There is just so much oil out there.”
Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country. It’s home to the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex, where billions of gallons of oil and dangerous chemicals are stored. And it’s a sitting duck for the next big hurricane. Why isn’t Texas ready? ... Such a storm would devastate the Houston Ship Channel, shuttering one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Flanked by 10 major refineries — including the nation’s largest — and dozens of chemical manufacturing plants, the Ship Channel is a crucial transportation route for crude oil and other key products, such as plastics and pesticides. A shutdown could lead to a spike in gasoline prices and many consumer goods — everything from car tires to cell phone parts to prescription pills. ... After decades of inaction, they hoped that a plan to build a storm surge protection system could finally move forward. ... Several proposals have been discussed. One, dubbed the “Ike Dike,” calls for massive floodgates at the entrance to Galveston Bay to block storm surge from entering the region. That has since evolved into a more expansive concept called the “coastal spine.” Another proposal, called the “mid-bay” gate, would place a floodgate closer to Houston’s industrial complex. ... The 10 refineries that line the Ship Channel produce about 27 percent of the nation’s gasoline and about 60 percent of its aviation fuel ... Flooding is the most disruptive type of damage an industrial plant can experience from a hurricane. Salty ocean water swiftly corrodes critical metal and electrical components and contaminates nearby freshwater sources used for operations.
As global warming thaws the Arctic, Russia is leading the rush to exploit the region’s resources. In late 2013, on a platform in the Pechora Sea, Gazprom became the first company to produce oil offshore in the Arctic, after jailing 30 Greenpeace protesters and confiscating their ship. On the east side of Yamal a partnership led by another Russian company, Novatek, is building a giant terminal to liquefy gas and export it to East Asia and Europe by ice-breaking tanker—though over time there may be less and less ice to break. ... Russia is not alone. More than a fifth of the world’s conventional oil and gas that has yet to be discovered lies above the Arctic Circle, according to a 2008 estimate by the U.S. Geological Survey, and the region is rich in other minerals too. ... Given the hype on both sides of the argument, what’s striking is how patchy the Arctic rush actually is. Few companies have dipped their toes into Arctic waters, and fewer still are making a profit. Last fall Royal Dutch Shell abruptly abandoned its multiyear, seven-billion-dollar effort to extract oil from the Chukchi Sea off Alaska after drilling a single unpromising hole. Record-low oil prices likely contributed to the decision. So did the astronomical costs of operating in a region where infrastructure is sparse, distances are huge, and the weather remains horrific.
“From the first 12 hours, decisions were issued,” says Prince Mohammed. “In the first 10 days, the entire government was restructured.” He spoke for eight hours over two interviews in Riyadh that provide a rare glimpse of the thinking of a new kind of Middle East potentate—one who tries to emulate Steve Jobs, credits video games with sparking ingenuity, and works 16-hour days in a land with no shortage of sinecures. ... The prince plans an IPO that could sell off “less than 5 percent” of Saudi Aramco, the national oil producer, which will be turned into the world’s biggest industrial conglomerate. The fund will diversify into nonpetroleum assets, hedging the kingdom’s nearly total dependence on oil for revenue.
Over half a century (the company will celebrate its 50th anniversary in August) Vitol has never suffered an annual loss. Profits surged from just $22.9 million in 1995 to a record $2.28 billion in 2009, according to documents reviewed by Bloomberg. At its peak, Vitol’s return on equity, a measure of profitability compared with the money that partners have invested, was a geyserlike 56 percent. Even Wall Street pales in comparison; Goldman Sachs’s best ROE since going public in 1999 is 31 percent. ... Vitol, which trades about 6.5 percent of the world’s oil, fights in a tough arena. It competes with other independents such as Glencore, Trafigura Group, Mercuria Energy Group, Gunvor Group, and Castleton Commodities International. It also grapples for market share against Big Oil’s in-house trading arms, including those of BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, and, increasingly, state-owned Chinese oil companies. ... As for the future, Vitol faces a daunting fact: The best days of oil trading are almost undoubtedly in the rearview mirror. Margins are shrinking as the market becomes ever more transparent and competitors emerge fighting for the same barrels. Even as Vitol sinks more capital into assets such as refineries and terminals, returns are falling. Last year’s ROE was 16 percent—for Vitol, a less-than-stellar number. ... In August 1966, two Dutchmen, Henk Viëtor and Jacques Detiger, invested 10,000 Dutch guilders (about $2,800 at the time) to start a Rotterdam company with the aim of buying and selling refined petroleum products by barge up and down the Rhine. They crunched Viëtor and “oil” to get Vitol. The money was a loan from Vietor’s father and the pair agreed to pay an annual interest rate of 8 percent. ... The modern Vitol began to take shape in 1990, when Detiger and seven other partners sold the company for $100 million to $200 million (the actual figure wasn’t disclosed) to a group of about 40 employees, including Taylor.
In the booming economy of drone technology, North Dakota has been an early and enthusiastic adopter. The Federal Aviation Administration chose it as one of six official drone test sites, and the entire state permits unmanned flights at night and at altitudes of 1,200 feet (as opposed to daylight and up to 200 feet, as per the rest of the nation). The U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard, and border patrol all pilot drones from Grand Forks Air Force Base. Adjacent to that, Northrup Grumman is building a facility as the anchor tenant at the Grand Sky unmanned aerial systems business and aviation park—the nation’s first. And the University of North Dakota launched the nation’s first undergraduate program in drone piloting in 2009. ... as oil prices plummet and production drops off, North Dakota sees drones as its chance to develop a bust-proof tech sector. ... This flat state’s chief selling point as a nascent drone industry, though, might not be what it has, but what it lacks: There are fewer people and things to collide with should your craft, as one airman put it, “come into contact with the ground.”
Today the Glencore CEO believes that the industry is suffering from a glut of commodities on world markets. If mining companies could only get a handle on production, Glasenberg says, prices would inevitably rise. “Mining companies have to wake up and stop increasing supply and look at demand,” he says. “And that is it.” ... When you travel around the Copperbelt in Africa, it quickly becomes clear just how big a player Glencore is. At the tiny Kolwezi airport in the DRC’s southernmost province of Katanga, Glencore paid to rebuild the small runway and put up new buildings in 2011. On the road leading to the Mutanda copper mine, our vehicle rumbles over a new bridge crossing the Lualaba River, funded recently by Glencore at a cost of $10 million. ... For Glencore’s long haul as a public company, Glasenberg must continue to do what investors have demanded over this bruising year: Control spending and cut debt. Meanwhile, it waits for markets to rationalize.
Jeremy has written extensively about the long-term prospects for natural resources,1 but there are advantages to commodity investing beyond potential commodity price appreciation, including diversification and inflation protection. Resource equities are a great way to gain commodity exposure, while also accessing the equity risk premium. Given their somewhat hybrid nature, with one foot in the equity market and the other foot in the commodity market, resource equities display some unusual characteristics; over various timeframes, resource equities may move more with equities or more with commodities and can look more or less risky than the broad market. Perhaps due to their quirky nature, resource equities are generally unloved and possibly misunderstood. However, we believe that resource equities present a compelling investment opportunity, both strategically and tactically, and that long-term investors could benefit from larger allocations to these assets. ... investors are still wary of investing in commodity producers due to the commodity price risk and the always uncertain commodity outlook. Long-term investors willing to tolerate that shorter-term risk should strongly consider whether they have allocated enough to this exciting and unloved segment of the market.
On Sept. 1, in the Siberian port city of Vladivostok, Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed a wide array of issues with Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait. The two-hour interview ranged from islands disputed with Japan to the price of petroleum and the vicissitudes of Gazprom, the immense state-owned enterprise that supplies natural gas not only to his country but to much of Europe. Putin, the longest-ruling Russian leader since Leonid Brezhnev, weighed in on the U.S. election, as well as his relationship with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Here are excerpts from their conversation.
With greater oil reserves than Saudi Arabia, Venezuela should be at least moderately prosperous. Instead, it has the world’s fastest contracting economy, the second highest murder rate, inflation heading towards 1,000% and shortages of food and medicine that have pushed the poorest members of its 30 million population to the edge of a humanitarian abyss. ... It takes just five minutes to cross from the porous border at Pacaraima. Locals say the government in Caracas lifted food import tariffs from Brazil two months ago in a sign both of its desperation to ease shortages and its weakening control over the economy. There is now a steady stream of traders buying sacks of rice, sugar, wheat and spaghetti for resale in Venezuela. ... Life could be made easier if the authorities printed notes with higher denominations than 100 Bolivars, which is worth less than 8p, or 10 cents. But the central bank appears reluctant to make a move that would confirm a level of hyperinflation not seen in Latin America since the crises in Brazil and Argentina in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, locals have to pay for everything in the equivalent of dimes. Even when made of paper, that can be cumbersome and heavy. ... The government’s tendency to subsidise many products below the cost of production is a major reason why the economy is in such a mess. ... Even in the midst of crisis, the government still hands out free or massively discounted homes, cars, DVD players and microwave ovens.
1. Still brooding about his loss of the popular vote, Donald Trump vows to win over those who oppose him by 2020. ...
2. The combination of tax cuts on corporations and individuals, more constructive trade agreements, dismantling regulation of financial and energy companies, and infrastructure tax incentives pushes the 2017 real growth rate above 3% for the U.S. economy. Productivity improves for the first time since 2014.
3. The Standard & Poor’s 500 operating earnings are $130 in 2017 and the index rises to 2500 as investors become convinced the U.S. economy is back on a long-term growth path. ...
4. Macro investors make a killing on currency fluctuations. ...
5. Increased economic growth, inflation moving toward 3%, and renewed demand for capital push interest rates higher across the board. The 10-year U.S. Treasury yield approaches 4%.
6. Populism spreads over Europe affecting the elections in France and Germany. ...
7. Reducing regulations in the energy industry leads to a surge in production in the United States. Iran and Iraq also step up their output. ...
8. Donald Trump realizes he has been all wrong about China. Its currency is overvalued, not undervalued, and depreciates to eight to the dollar. Its economy flourishes on consumer spending on goods produced at home and greater exports. Trump avoids punitive tariffs to prevent a trade war and develops a more cooperative relationship with the world’s second largest economy.
9. Benefiting from stronger growth in China and the United States, real growth in Japan exceeds 2% for the first time in decades and its stock market leads other developed countries in appreciation for the year.
10. The Middle East cools down. ...
The world is about to experience the greatest geopolitical transformation in at least the past three generations. The United States’ need for oil has greatly diminished, and its goals in the Middle East have changed. The United States now views the world wholly in relation to its other interests. Global and local demographics, new outsiders in the area, and a new contest shaping up between Iran and Saudi Arabia contribute to continuing instability in the Middle East. A global energy crisis could soon draw many countries into the Middle East, and a simultaneous political crisis could erode state authorities there, unleashing a new wave of violence and terrorism. ... The United States is transforming into a country with global reach but no global interests. For the 4 billion people on this planet who are utterly dependent on global trade for their well-being, this transformation is possibly the worst outcome imaginable. ... Even if the United States was convinced that its economic and physical security required international engagement, it is about to step out to lunch, and it is going to be a very, very long lunch. Just as the rest of the world needs the United States, it is leaving the building.
This is not a joke, but neither should you worry if you are long oil, as the price will most likely hit (at least) $100 long before it heads south, and that is due to a rising deficit between oil production and new oil discoveries ... I should have said fossil fuels, not oil, in the headline above, but there wasn’t enough room for all those extra characters! In other words, what I meant to say is that fossil fuel (oil, gas and coal) prices will most likely approach $0 over the very long term. ... Just to complicate matters even further, strictly speaking, not even that is correct. What will happen to fossil fuel prices in the future is anybody’s guess, but what almost certainly will happen at some point is that demand for fossil fuels will approach zero. ... The problem in a nutshell is the geological depletion of existing fields and the growth of higher cost, geologically less attractive, fields. ... Tying up so much capital in one industry has become a significant drain on productivity in other parts of the economy. ... This will eventually have a major, and overwhelmingly negative, impact on GDP growth, all other things being equal.