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Why I Love/Hate the Oil Companies

The first thing I do when I get up every morning is to curse the oil companies as blood sucking scourges of modern civilization.

I then fall down on my knees and thank God that we have the oil companies.

This is why petroleum engineers are getting $100,000 straight out of college, while English and political science major are going straight on to food stamps.

I recommend (XOM) and other oil majors as part of any long-term portfolio. In my lifetime, the price of oil has gone up from $3 a barrel up to $149.

The reasons for the ascent keep growing, from the entry of China into the global trading system, to the rapid growth of the middle class in emerging nations.? They?re just not making the stuff anymore, and we can?t wait around for more dinosaurs to get squashed.

Big oil companies aren?t in the oil speculation business. As soon as a new supply comes on stream, they hedge off their risk through the futures markets or through long-term supply contracts. You can find the prices they hedge at in the back of any annual report.

This is why the oil crash barely caused the shares of oil majors to move. Exxon Mobil (XOM) shares are now down only 15%, while its principal product is off by an astounding 80% from its 2011 top.

When oil made its big run to $149 a few years ago, I discovered to my amazement that (XOM) had already sold most of their supplies in the $20 range. However, oil companies do make huge killings on what is already in the pipeline.

Working in the oil patch 15 years ago pioneering the ?fracking? process for natural gas, I got to know many people in the industry. I found them to be insular, God fearing people not afraid of hard work.

Perhaps this is because the black gold they are pursuing can blow up and kill them at any time. They are also great with numbers, which is why the oil majors are the best-managed companies in the world.

They are also huge gamblers. I swallow hard when I see the way these guys throw around billions in capital, keeping in mind past disasters, like Dome Petroleum, the Alaskan Pipeline oil spill, Piper Alpha, and more recently, the ill-fated Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico.

But one failure does not slow them down an iota. The ?wildcatting? origins made this a faith-based industry from day one, when praying and dousing wands were the principal determinants of where wells were sunk.

Unfortunately, the oil companies are too good at their job of supplying us with a steady and reliable source of energy. They have one of the oldest and most powerful lobbies in Washington, and as a result, the tax code is riddled with favorite treatment of the oil industry.

While Social Security and Medicare are on the chopping block, the industry basks in the glow of $53 billion a year in tax subsidies.

When I first got into the oil business and sat down with a Houston CPA, the tax breaks were so legion that I couldn?t understand why anyone was not in the oil racket.

Ever wonder why we have had three presidents from Texas over the last 50 years, and are possibly looking at a fourth (Jeb Bush, Rick Perry)?

Three words explain it all: the oil depletion allowance, whereby investors can write off the entire cost of a new well in the first year, while the income is spread over the life of the well.

This also explains why deep-water exploration in the Gulf is far less regulated than California hairdressers.

No surprise then that the industry has emerged in the cross hairs of several presidential candidates, under the ?loopholes? category. Not only do the country?s most profitable companies pay almost nothing in taxes, they are one of the largest users of private jets.

It is an old Washington nostrum that when things start heading south on the domestic front, you beat up the oil companies. It?s the industry that everyone loves to hate.

Cut off the gasoline supply to an environmentalist, and he will be the one who screams the loudest. This has generated recurring cycles of accusatory congressional investigations, windfall profits taxes, and punitive regulations, the most recent flavor we are now seeing.

But imagine what the world would look like if Exxon and its cohorts were German, Saudi, or heaven forbid, Chinese. I bet we wouldn?t have as much oil as we do today, and it wouldn?t be as cheap.

Hate them if you will, but at least these are our oil companies. Try jamming a lump of coal into the gas tank of your Prius and tell me how far you go.

Well, that?s enough ranting for today.

$WTIC 4-15-15
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oilLove Them, Hate Them or Both?

Why We are All Now Oil Traders

After the market closes every night, I usually don a 60 pound backpack and climb the 2,000 foot mountain in my back yard.

To pass the time, I listen to audio books on financial and historical topics, about 200 a year (I?ve really got President Grover Cleveland nailed!). That?s if the howling packs of coyotes don?t bother me too much.

I also engage in mental calisthenics, engaging in complex mathematical calculations. How many grains of sand would you have to pile up to reach from the earth to the moon? How many matchsticks to circle the earth?

For last night?s exercise, I decided to quantify the impact of last year?s oil price crash on the global economy.

The world is currently consuming about 92 million barrels a day of Texas tea, or 33.6 billion barrels a year. In May, 2014 at the $107.50 high, that much oil cost $3.6 trillion. At today?s $32 intraday low you could buy that quantity of oil for a bargain $1 trillion.

Buy a barrel of crude, and you get three for free!

This means that $2.6 trillion has suddenly been taken out of the pockets of oil producers, and put into the pockets of oil consumers, i.e. you and me. Over the medium term, this is fantastic news for oil consumers. But for the short term, things could get very scary.

$2.6 trillion is a lot of money. If you had that amount of hundred dollar bills, it would rise to 250 million inches, 21 million feet, or 3,976 miles, or 1.2% of the way to the moon (another mental exercise). Tip this pile on its side, and you?d have a distance nearly equal to a round trip from San Francisco to New York.

The global financial system cannot move this amount of money around on short notice without causing some pretty severe disruptions. Expect a lot of bodies to float to the surface in 2016.

For a start, there is suddenly a lot less demand for dollars with which to buy oil. This has triggered short covering rallies in the long beleaguered Japanese Yen (FXY) and the Euro (FXE), which are just now backing off of long downtrends.

The fundamentals for these currencies are still dire. But the short-term trend now appears to be an upward one. The yen is tickling a one-year high against the buck as we speak.

The US Federal Reserve certainly sees the oil crash as an enormously deflationary event. The use of energy is so widespread that it feeds into the cost of everything. That firmly takes the chance of any interest rate rise off the table for the rest of 2016. The Treasury bond market (TLT) has figured this out and launched on a monster rally, as have muni bonds (MUB).

Traders are also afraid that the disinflationary disease will spread, so they have been taking down the price of virtually all other hard commodities as well, like coal (KOL), iron ore (BHP), and copper (CU). For more depth on this, see my piece on ?The End of the Commodity Super Cycle? by clicking here.

The precipitous fall in energy investments everywhere will be felt principally in the 15 US states involved in energy production (Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, North Dakota. Etc.). So, the consumers in the other 35 states should be thrilled.

However, the plunge in energy stocks is getting so severe, that it is dragging down everything else with it. ALL shares are effectively oil shares right now. In fact, all asset classes are now moving tic for tic with the price of oil. That effectively makes all of you oil traders.

Throw on top of that the systemic risk presented by the ongoing collapse of the Russian economy. The Ruble has now fallen a staggering 70% in 18 months, and there is panic buying of everything going on in Moscow stores.

The means that the dollar denominated debt owed by local firms has just risen by 300%. Any foreign banks holding this debt are now probably regretting ever watching the film, Dr. Zhivago.

Russian interest rates there were just skyrocketed. The Russian stock market (RSX) is the world?s worst performing bourse. How do you spell ?depression? in the Cyrillic alphabet?

And guess what the new Russian currency is?

IPhone 6.0?s, of which Apple is now totally sold out in Alexander Putin?s domain!

Thankfully, this is more of a European, than an American problem. But nobody likes systemic risks, especially going into New Year trading. It?s a classic case of being careful what you wish for.

Of the $2.6 trillion today, about $650 billion is shifting between American pockets. That amounts to a hefty 3.3% of GDP. Tell me this won?t become a big political issue in the 2016 presidential election.

Money spent on oil is burned. However, money spent by newly enriched consumers has a multiplier effect. Spend a dollar at Walmart, and the company has to hire more workers, who then have more money to spend, and so on.

So a shifting of funds of this magnitude will probably add 1.5% to U.S. economic growth this year.

Ultimately, cheap energy as far as the eye can see is a key element of my ?Golden Age? scenario for the 2020?s (click here for ?Get Ready for the Coming Golden Age?).

But you may have to get there by riding a roller coaster first.

WTIC 1-8-16

USO 1-8-16

TLT 1-8-16

FXY 1-8-16

RSK 1-8-16XOM 1-8-16roller_coaster2Oil at $32?

What?s Really Happening in the Middle East

Long-term observers of financial markets are befuddled, confused, and amazed at their complete lack of interest in the rapidly unfolding events in the Middle East.

It seems that the more horrific the atrocities, the higher stock prices want to climb.

Go figure.

ISIS is in fact accelerating the most important geopolitical event so far in this century, the rapprochement of relations between the U.S. and Iran, which have been in a deep freeze for 40 years.

A serious dialogue has not been held between these two countries since 52 hostages were seized at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held for 444 days.

The Mullahs in Iran can?t help but notice last week?s U.S. air strikes to protect Shiite cities from a Sunni slaughter at the hands of ISIS. Suddenly, our natural enemy in the region has become our natural ally.

The Iranians have even offered to back up our air power with their ground forces, an offer the Obama administration has so far wisely turned down.

Don?t worry about ISIS. Their threat is being wildly overrated by the media.

There is a reason why terrorist groups have never held territory before. That makes them a big fat target for drones, smart bombs, and all the other types of fire that we rain down upon our enemies from above. This may be the first war in history entirely fought by drones on our side. That means it will be cheap, without casualties, and over quickly.

So what will the new treaty and peace between the U.S. and Iran bring us?

So far, Iran has agreed to a freeze on its nuclear enrichment program in exchange for international inspections and the unfreezing of $100 billion of their assets. Secret negotiations are being held intermittently in Geneva, Switzerland (I stopped by to say hello a few weeks ago).

This is unbelievably positive for all asset classes, except energy. This is the cause of the recent collapse of oil prices, which are now 65% off their 2014 high.

The US is now in a tremendously powerful negotiating position. If Iran dumps their nuclear program to our satisfaction, Iran then gets the carrot.

It will rejoin the world economy, unfreeze the rest of its assets and recover $100 billion a year in trade. The country?s banks will be allowed to rejoin U.S. dollar clearing, the $1 trillion a day CHIPS and SWIFT systems, their absence from which has been a deathblow to their international trade.

Its oil exports (USO) can recover from 750,000 barrels a day back to the pre crisis level of 3 million barrels. If it doesn?t then it gets the stick again in six months, resuming their economic freefall.

The geopolitical implications for the U.S. are enormous.? Iran is the last major rogue state hostile to the US in the Middle East, and it is teetering. The final domino of the Arab spring falls squarely at the gates of Tehran.

A friendly, or at least a non-hostile Iran, means we really don?t care what happens in Syria.

Remember that the first real revolution in the region was Iran?s Green Revolution in 2009. That revolt was successfully suppressed with an iron fist by fanatical and pitiless Revolutionary Guards.

The true death toll will never be known, but is thought to be well into the thousands. The antigovernment sentiments that provided the spark never went away and they continue to percolate just under the surface.

At the end of the day, the majority of the Persian population wants to join the relentless tide of globalization. They want to buy iPods and blue jeans, communicate freely through their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, and have the jobs to pay for it all.

Since 1979, when the Shah was deposed, a succession of extremist, ultraconservative governments ruled by a religious minority, have abjectly failed to cater to these desires

If Iran doesn?t do a deal on nukes soon, it?s economy with sink deeper into the morass in which they currently find themselves. The Iranian ?street? will figure out that if they spill enough of their own blood that regime change is possible and the revolution there will reignite.

The Obama administration is now pulling out all the stops to accelerate the process.

The oil embargo former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, organized is steadily tightening the noose, with heating oil and gasoline becoming hard to obtain.

Yes, Russia and China are doing what they can to slow the process. This is what the Ukraine crisis is really all about, an attempt to keep oil prices high, Russia?s biggest earner.

But conducting international trade through the back door is expensive, and prices are rocketing. The unemployment rate is 40%.? The Iranian Rial has collapsed by 50%.

Let?s see how docile these people remain when the air conditioning quits running because of power shortages. Iran is a rotten piece of fruit ready to fall off on its own accord and go splat. The US is doing everything she can to shake the tree.

No military action of any kind is required on America?s part. No shot has been fired. That?s a big deal when the shots cost $10,000 apiece.

The geopolitical payoff of such an event for the U.S. would be almost incalculable. A successful revolution will almost certainly produce a secular, pro-Western regime whose first priority will be to rejoin the international community and use its oil wealth to rebuild an economy now in tatters.

Oil will has completely lost its risk premium, once believed by the oil industry to be $30 a barrel. A looming supply could cause prices to drop to as low as $20 a barrel.

This price drop seen so far amount to a gigantic $2.18 trillion trillion tax cut for not just the US, but the entire global economy as well (92 million barrels a day X 365 days a year X $65).

Almost all funding of terrorist organizations will immediately dry up. I might point out here that this has always been the oil industry?s worst nightmare.

ISIS is a short.

At that point, the US will be without enemies, save for North Korea, and even the Hermit Kingdom could change with a new leader in place. A long Pax Americana will settle over the planet.

The implications for the financial markets will be enormous. The US will reap a peace dividend as large, or larger, than the one we enjoyed after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992.

As you may recall, that black swan caused the Dow Average to soar from 2,000 to 10,000 in less than eight years, also partly fueled by the technology boom.

A collapse in oil imports will cause the U.S. dollar (UUP) to rocket.? An immediate halving of our defense spending to $400 billion or less and burgeoning new tax revenues would cause the budget deficit to collapse.

With the US government gone as a major new borrower, interest rates across the yield curve will fall further. The national debt completely disappears by the 2030?s (as it almost did during the late 1990?s).

A peace dividend will also cause US GDP growth to reaccelerate from 2% to 4%. Risk assets of every description will soar to multiples of their current levels, including stocks, junk bonds, commodities, precious metals, and food.

The Dow will soar to 30,000 and the S&P 500 (SPY) to 3,500, the Euro collapses to parity, gold rockets to $2,300 an ounce, silver flies to $100 an ounce, copper leaps to $6 a pound, and corn recovers $8 a bushel.

Some 2 million of the armed forces will get dumped on the job market as our manpower requirements shrink to peacetime levels. But a strong economy should be able to soak these well-trained and motivated people right up.

We will enter a new Golden Age, not just at home, but for civilization as a whole.

Wait, you ask, what if Iran develops an atomic bomb and holds the US at bay?

Don?t worry. There is no Iranian nuclear device. There is no real Iranian nuclear program large enough to threaten the United States. The entire concept is an invention of Israeli and American intelligence agencies as a means to put pressure on the regime.

According to them, Iran has been within a month of producing a tactical nuclear weapon for the last 30 years. I’m still waiting.

The head of the miniscule effort they have was assassinated by Israeli intelligence two years ago (a magnetic bomb, placed on a moving car, by a team on a motorcycle, nice!).

If Iran had anything substantial in the works, the Israeli planes would have taken off a long time ago.

Even if Iran had one nuclear weapon, would they really want to attack a country with 6,700, the US?

There is no plan to close the Straits of Hormuz, either. The training exercises in small rubber boats we have seen are done for CNN?s benefit, and comprise no credible threat.

I am a firm believer in the wisdom of markets, and that the marketplace becomes aware of major history changing events well before we mere individual mortals do.

The Dow began a 25-year bull market the day after American forces defeated the Japanese in the Battle of Midway in May of 1942, even though the true outcome of that confrontation was kept top secret for years.

If the advent of a new, docile Iran were going to lead to a global multi-decade economic boom and the end of history, how would the stock markets behave now?

They would remain in a long-term bull market, much like we have seen for the past six years. That?s why 10% corrections have been few and far between.

WTIC 8-21-15

 

UUP 8-21-15

SPY 8-21-15

Nuclear Missile - Ayatollan Ali KhameneiThe Problem is That it?s a Hollow Threat

 

MissileAim This One at the Bears

An Iran Peace Deal and Your Portfolio

With the price of oil (USO), (XLE) hitting an eye popping $64 this morning, in the wake of the failed OPEC summit in Vienna, it is clear that something long term, structural, and epochal is going on.

But what is it?

We mere mortals are blind to it, but the financial markets haven?t the slightest doubt. Blame the wisdom of crowds. There is something big going on somewhere.

So I thought it would be a good time to check in with my friend and expert on all things international, David Hale, of David Hale Global Economics.

I have been relying on David as my global macro economist for decades, and I never miss an opportunity to get his updated views.

The challenge is in writing down David?s eye popping, out of consensus ideas fast enough, because he spits them out in such a rapid-fire succession.

Since David is an independent economic advisor to many of the world?s governments, largest banks, and investment firms, I thought his views would be of riveting interest. For my last interview with David, please click here.

On November 21, David was on Capitol Hill testifying in front of congress about the implications of a peace deal with Iran. He was kind enough to pass on to me a transcript of his talk.

The Iran nuclear negotiations broke up last week, extending the deadline for the current round by another seven months, to June 2015.

What David had to say was eye opening. If successful, a deal would have momentous implications for not just the US, but the global economy as well.

All trade with Iran ceased in the wake of the overthrow of the Shah of Iran by fundamentalist religious fanatics led by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. The tortuous yearlong Iran Hostage Crisis followed, and relations with the US went into a deep freeze.

US Secretary of State John Kerry certainly has his work cut out for him today. Iran and America deeply distrust each other and philosophically couldn?t be further apart. They have been fighting proxy wars against each other for three decades, both in the analogue and digital worlds.

Remember Stuxnet?

It also doesn?t engender Iranian trust that the US has decimated a half dozen Arab countries in 30 years, and has more than the means to continue on that path, if it so desires.

Now 35 years later, America and Iran oddly find themselves on the same side of the latest Middle Eastern conflict. Sunni extremist forces lead by ISIL has launched a full-scale invasion of Iraq, capturing about one third of the country, and butchering Shiite opponents along the way in true, barbaric, 14th century fashion.

It has not gone unnoticed in Tehran that steady US air attacks against ISIL have meshed nicely with Iranian ground support to accomplish the same, although ?officially? there has been no cooperation whatsoever.

Not surprisingly, nuclear talks between the two countries, long considered a pipedream and simmering on a distant back burner have suddenly come to life.

If successful, a nuclear deal with Iran would have momentous implications, for not just the US, but the global economy as well.

First and foremost, Iran would be able to increase its oil exports by 1 million barrels a day, and then 1.5 million barrels a day over 2-3 years. The deluge could take the price of Texas tea down to $50-$60 a barrel and keep it there for a while.

Such a collapse, down 56% from the June peak, would amount to a $400 billion annual tax cut for the global economy. It would add 0.2% a year of GDP growth for every $10 price drop.

So the boost that we have seen so far amounts to an impressive 1% growth pop. That is an enormous number, increasing the world?s projected economic activity by a full third.

Major energy importers, like Europe, Japan, China, and India would benefit mightily. The US would prosper as well, as one third of its oil still comes from abroad.

It would be a disaster for high cost energy exporters, including Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, and Canadian tar sands.

Russia, in particular, would get it right between the eyes. Oil and gas account for a whopping 68% of Russian exports and 45% of government revenues. To defend a crashing Ruble, the central bank has embarked on a series of gut wrenching interest rate hikes.

Russia is now looking into the jaws of its own Great Recession. After seeing its economy shrink this year by -0.2%, it could nosedive by at least 5% in 2015.

When they talk about self-sufficiency, they really mean starvation. This is why I have been saying all along that the Ukrainian crisis is going nowhere, except to create buying powers for equity investors.

Venezuela is a basket case, depending on oil for 90% of its exports. Expect hyperinflation, leading to a headline grabbing default on its national debt. Political instability is to follow.

Another big plus for the world economy is the reemergence of Iran as a significant consumer. This is not a small country. It has a population of 78 million and a $369 billion GDP. Sanctions have successfully crippled the economy, shrinking its GDP by -5.8% in 2012 and another -1.9% last year.

The sanctions have not been a one-way street. They have cost the US a not inconsequential $175 billion in sales over the past 17 years. A rebound would lead to a surge of exports of consumer goods (iPhones), and oil drilling equipment to facilitate a long delayed modernization of the industry there.

A major roadblock to peace has been the Revolutionary Guard. Originally an elite group of fighters during the revolution, it has evolved into a modern day Mafia.

It controls the black market, smuggling and a host of other illegal activities, earning billions in illicit profits along the way. It has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. War with America is good business for them.

Iran is now a classic case of where the government hates us, and the people love us.

I have written extensively in the past about the global implications of peace with Iran. For my latest opus, please click the titles: Here Comes the Next Peace Dividend and Why You Should Care About the Iranian Rial Collapse.

To learn more about David Hale and the extensive list of services he offers; please visit the website of David Hale Global Economics, http://www.davidhaleweb.com.

 

WTIC 11-28-14

USO 11-28-14

UNG 11-28-14

XLE 11-28-14

David Hale

Take a Look at Occidental Petroleum (OXY)

There are a lot of belles at the ball, but you can?t dance with all of them.

While a student at UCLA in the early seventies, I took a World Politics course, which required me to pick a country, analyze its economy, and make recommendations for its economic development. I chose Algeria, a country where I had spent the summer of 1968 caravanning among the Bedouins, crawling out of the desert half starved, lice ridden, and half dead.

I concluded that the North African country should immediately nationalize the oil industry, and raise prices from $3/barrel to $10.? I knew that Los Angeles based Occidental Petroleum (OXY) was interested in exploring for oil there, so I sent my paper to the company for review. They called the next day and invited me to their imposing downtown headquarters, then the tallest building in Los Angeles.

I was ushered into the office of Dr. Armand Hammer, one of the great independent oil moguls of the day, a larger than life figure who owned a spectacular impressionist art collection, and who confidently displayed a priceless Faberg? egg on his desk. He said he was impressed with my paper, and then spent two hours grilling me.

Why should oil prices go up? Who did I know there? What did I see? What was the state of their infrastructure? Roads? Bridges? Rail lines? Did I see any oil derricks? Did I see any Russians? I told him everything I knew, including the two weeks in an Algiers jail for taking pictures in the wrong places. His parting advice was to never take my eye off the oil industry, as it is the driver of everything else. I have followed that advice ever since.

When I went back to UCLA, I told a CIA friend of mine that I had just spent the afternoon with the eminent doctor (Marsha, call me!). She told me that he had been a close advisor of Vladimir Lenin after the Russian Revolution, had been a double agent for the Soviets ever since, that the FBI had known this all along, and was currently funneling illegal campaign donations to President Richard Nixon. Shocked, I kicked myself for going into an interview so ill prepared, and had missed a golden opportunity to ask some great questions. I never made that mistake again.

Some 40 years later, while trolling the markets for great buying opportunities set up by the BP oil spill, I stumbled across (OXY) once more (click here for their site). (OXY) has a minimal offshore presence, nothing in deep water, and huge operations in the Middle East and South America. It was the first US oil company to go back into Libya when the sanctions were lifted in 2005. (OXY?s) substantial California production is expected to leap to 45% to 200,000 barrels a day over the next four years. Its horizontal multistage fracturing technology will enable it to dominate California shale. The company has raised its dividend for the tenth year in a row, by 15% to 1.56%. Need I say more?

The clear message that came out of the BP oil spill is that onshore energy resources are now more valuable than offshore ones. I decided to add it to my model portfolio. Energy is one of a tiny handful of industries I am willing to put my money in these days (technology, industrials, and health care are the others).

Oh, and I got an A+ on the paper, and the following year Algeria raised the price of oil to $12.

Faberge Egg

A Faberge Egg

 

OXY 8-22-14

WTIC 8-22-14

How the Ukraine Crisis Will Play Out

I can tell you exactly how the crisis in the Ukraine is going to play out. This has major implications for the global economy, financial markets and your personal portfolio, so listen up!

The key to deciphering this puzzle is oil, far and away Russia?s largest export. At 10 million barrels a day, the country is taking in $360 billion a year in revenues from oil shipments.

You can analyze Russia all day long, and come up with bullish arguments for the country, like the emerging middle class, its huge hoard of basic commodities, and substantial wheat exports. But Texas tea (Russian tea?) overwhelms everything else in its impact on the national accounts.

The bottom line is that Russia is basically a call option on oil. This is why I never buy the Market Vectors ETF Trust (RSX). Look at the charts below for oil, and it is clear that it almost trades tick for tick with the (RSX).

If I?m bullish on oil, I go straight to the end commodity, and not the intermediary, where price earnings multiples are permanently low, corruption is rampant and the rule of law is absent.

And therein lies the problem for Vladimir Putin.

Any chink in the global growth picture flows straight into the price of oil. Slower growth brings lower oil prices and therefore smaller incomes for the Russians. And guess who the principal threat to global growth is? Vladimir Putin and his attempt to take over the Ukraine by force.

So far, crude has dropped by 10% from the May peak of $107.60. That may not sound like a lot. But this is not your father?s Russian oil industry.

Back in the old days, when my friend, Occidental Petroleum?s (OXY) Dr. Armand Hammer and Fred Koch were the only Americans running around the Caucasus, oil there was incredibly cheap. There, technology was 50 years old and labor was virtually free. Slave labor is great for profit margins. If you don?t believe me, just ask Wal-Mart (WMT) and Apple (AAPL).

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union brought many far-reaching, unintended consequences. A big one is that Russia?s dependence on international trade grew tremendously. The country was also able to modernize its oil industry with extensive American assistance.

Russian oil production exploded, as did the cost of production. In my lifetime, expenses have soared from $5 to $70 a barrel. So when oil dips by 10% on the international markets, Russian incomes plunge by 25%. The Russian oil industry has become a highly leveraged affair.

This is why such relatively minor price declines brought apparently desperate actions by the Russian authorities to prop up the economy. They have imposed a 3% emergency VAT, or sales tax. While I was in Europe, four Russian tour companies were driven into bankruptcy by the banking sanctions, stranding some 10,000 tourists on Mediterranean beaches.

Now there is a ban on food imports from Europe, stranding thousands of trucks at the Russian borders. Russia doesn?t grow much food, thanks to their horrendous winters and short growing seasons. Essentially, it?s just wheat and potatoes.

Everything else has to be imported. Some of the lost food can be made up with new imports from emerging, non sanctioning economies, but not much. In the meantime, some 350 McDonald?s franchises in Russia are trying to figure out how to make Big Macs purely from domestic supplies. Good luck to that!

The thing that really struck me speaking to Russians in Europe this summer was Putin?s unbelievably high 85% approval rating (our congress is at 14%!). They trotted out the most incredible conspiracy theories which painted them as the injured party. (The Ukraine was trying to assassinate Putin when it shot down Malaysian Air 17, and then blamed it on Russia).

It almost reminded me of home. The Russians are calling their opponents ?fascists.? This is a people who act like WWII ended last week.

Which leads me to believe that Putin?s popularity is peaking. The sanctions coupled with falling oil revenues are starting to have a severe impact on Russian standards of living. It is a matter of time before this feeds into poor election results for Putin. Nationalism is great, but who wants to live on canned food left over from the Soviet Union (yuck!).

Putin knows this. So to head off the riot, he is going to declare victory in the Ukraine fairly soon, and then take his troops home. This will enable the Ukraine to snuff out the separatists and return to an uneasy peace. We might even luck out and get a written treaty.

If that is a case, you can expect global financial markets to rocket. There would me a massive shift of capital out the risk spectrum, out of bonds and into stocks. This would give the green light for my scenario where S&P 500 adds 10% from last week?s low to end of 2014.

Maybe this is what stocks are trying to tell us by refusing to go down more that 5% this summer and the face of a host of geopolitical disasters.

As for the exact timing for all of this, just watch the price of oil. The lower it goes, the sooner we will get a favorable resolution. The charts are hinting that another $5-$10 break to the downside is imminent.

The last Cold War drove the Soviet Union broke and Putin definitely has no interest in repeating the exercise.

WTIC 8-13-14

USO 8-13-14

McDonalds RussiaNot Until the Sanctions Are Over

 

Buy Solar Stocks on the Dip

Now that the stock market appears destined to soon enter correction territory, I have started searching for industries and companies that I want to buy at the bottom. The solar industry is at the top of that list.

Solar has a been a long time in coming. For decades, it was a niche energy source with very narrow following among scientists, the military, and Greenpeace activists. The problem was that it was just too expensive. It made sense only to those with unlimited budgets (the army), pursuing a political agenda (environmentalists), or when there was no other alternative power source (outer space).

Ironically, what really got the solar bandwagon moving was oil, which saw prices soar to $150 a barrel in 2008. That dramatically raised the breakeven cost of solar. Projects that only existed on paper suddenly made economic sense.

Then, Barack Obama was elected president. One of his first moves was to make available over $100 billion in subsidies for alternative energy projects of every description. All of a sudden, it was off to the races for solar.

This led to the first solar stock market boom in 2009. Some highflyers, like First Solar (FSLR) rose tenfold (it was a favorite ?BUY? recommendation of mine at the time). They were aided by states like sun-drenched California that mandated 20% of power consumption comes from alternative sources, to rise to 30% in the 2020?s.

This created an enormous solar and wind infrastructure throughout the west to meet the state?s voracious needs. Some 29 other states have passed similar laws with varying targets.

I inspected the centerpiece of the state?s solar strategy, flying over the gigantic Ivanpah facility in a wheezing, rented Cessna 172 in the barren, baking, but beautiful Mojave Desert. I brought plenty of extra water bottles and a compass in case I crash-landed and had to walk home.

It all looks like a film set from a science fiction movie, with 347,000 concave mirrors placed in enormous circles focusing light on hot water boilers atop three 460-foot towers. The plant opened in February, 2014 and is generating 377 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 homes in the Los Angeles area.

Planned a decade ago, the technology is now so primitive that it is unlikely to be ever used again. Far more advanced than film, solar is now taking over the world.

Then China came in and spoiled the party. Overproduction by poorly managed and weakly financed Chinese solar firms using inferior technologies quickly glutted the global market, and solar prices crashed by 80% or more. Many companies did not survive, such as the San Francisco Bay Area?s Solyndra, which defaulted on some $536 million in federal government loans (the feds got $143 million back).

This triggered a Darwinian clearing out of the industry, where only the strongest, the most innovative, and the most desperate survived. Technologies and efficiencies improved. The administration extended a helping hand by slapping hefty anti dumping tariffs on Chinese imports. The industry is lobbying for further restrictions. This all set the stage for a solar renaissance.

For the first time in history, solar is now cost competitive with conventional sources of power on a standalone, unsubsidized basis. As a result, the industry is exploding. In 2013, solar accounted for 29% of new power generation capacity in the US, after quasi-green natural gas, at 46%.

The advent of cheap solar roof panels and ?smart? electric meters in 43 states has enabled individuals to get in on the act. Such devices are now a standard feature on most new high-end homes. They genuinely do save money, especially when considering that utilities will bill you up to 50 cents per kilowatt hour for prime time consumption, compared to their average rate of 11 cents. There have been over 200,000 such installations in the past two years, half in the Golden State.

The Department of Energy wants to see solar grow from 1% of total generation today to 27% by 2050. This is creating the basis for a gigantic industry in the future. Hence, my interest as a long-term equity investor.

All of this will require a complete rethinking of the electric utility industry (XLU), which still uses a volume based business model that has remained unchanged for 120 years. The more they sold the more money they made.

The utility industry has mixed feeling about the new solar revolution. They are going to have to evolve from distributors of power for a single, large, capital-intensive source to an intermediary operation that buys and sells power between millions of users and producers. This is easier said than done, as this is the most conservative of American industries. People run to utilities in a bear market for a reason.

Only the other hand, moving towards solar and other alternatives gets them out of the carbon burning business, either through using coal or oil as fuel. There is not a utility in the country that isn?t swamped by lawsuits from well represented consumers claiming that the byproducts from burning these traditional fuels gave them asthma, lung cancer, or worse.

In the end, it won?t be a desire to save the environment, or the expediency to appear politically correct that will convert utilities to solar. It will be hard-nosed business sense.

The buy on the dip list is fairly short. The front-runner in this industry is the aforementioned First Solar (FSLR), which has been an industry leader for two decades. Not only is their US business booming, they have a gigantic project in western China that promises to spin off profits for years to come.

SunPower Corp (SPWR) has the attraction of a $1 billion order backlog. Or you can go generic and buy the Guggenheim Solar ETF (TAN), which tacked on and impressive 270% last year.

I am less enamored with Solar City (SCTY). It is in the business of installing roof panels on homes. It takes advantage of generous government subsidies and the current ultra low cost of financing to keep prices low.

As much as I applaud the long-term vision of founder, Elon Musk, his association with the company has given it a cult like status. That is good for the share prices, but bad for valuations, which are through the roof. A greater dependence on subsidies could hurt them in the future.

Some formidable challenges lie ahead. In 2017 the government?s investment tax credit for solar drops from 30% to 10%. Other state subsidies are expiring as well. If this coincides with a recession that triggers a collapse in the price of oil, we could be in for another great clearing out.

Hopefully, by then, steadily advancing technology will further cut costs by half, making it possible for more firms to survive.

Until then, let the sun shine in!

FSLR 4-15-14

SPWR 4-15-14

WTIC 4-15-14

XLU 4-15-14

SCTY 4-15-14

Solar Energy Chart

Ivanpath Solar Facility

Ivanpath Solar

House - Solar Panels

How Long Will the Run in Master Limited Partnerships Continue?

Boy, that was one hell of a recommendation I made back in 2012, getting readers to buy Master Limited Partnerships (MLP?s).

The share price for my favorite, Linn Energy (LINN), is unchanged from when I urged readers to pick it up. However, they have taken home nearly 25% in dividend payoffs during the same period. Not a bad return in this zero interest rate world.

The origins of the special tax breaks that led to the creation of these most complex of securities are lost in the sands of time. As I recall, they date back to a period when the US was chronically short of oil, and industry desperately needed the big ticket infrastructure to produce and deliver it.

They worked like a charm. Never underestimate the desire of the American investor to avoid paying taxes.

An MLP is a ?pass through? instrument that allows profits to move directly to end investors, thus bypassing corporate double taxation. That set up generates enormous yields that are particularly attractive to individual investors. Some 114 MLP?s now exist, and most can be bought on public exchanges as easily as stocks or exchange traded funds (ETF?s).

It is an old Wall Street nostrum to feed the geese while they are quacking, and investment bankers have done so in spades (see chart below). The number of initial public offering for MLP?s has soared in recent years, from just two in 1985 to a prolific 21 last year.

New issue volumes have become so prodigious that they are disrupting the dynamics of the secondary market. Investors are now unloading their existing MLP?s to make room for the new ones, setting back prices on existing issues. The same disease is also afflicting biotech stocks, where an overly ambitious new issue calendar triggered dramatic falls in the sector.

Will Wall Street kill the gold goose yet again?

MLP?s have benefited enormously from the fracking and horizontal drilling boom now unfolding across the United States. As a result, US energy demand is at a 30 year high, and so is the demand for energy infrastructure.

As I often tell my guests at my Global Strategy Luncheons, the smart play in natural gas, where supplies are burgeoning, is a volume play, and not a price play. MLP?s achieve exactly that.

To qualify for MLP status, a partnership must generate at least 90 percent of its income from what the Internal Revenue Service deems ?qualifying? sources. For many MLPs, these include all manner of activities related to the production, processing or transportation of oil, natural gas, and coal.

Energy MLPs are defined as owning energy infrastructure in the U.S., including pipelines, natural gas, gasoline, oil, storage, terminals, and processing plants. These are all special tax subsidies put into place when oil companies suffered from extremely low oil prices. Once on the books, they lived on forever.

In practice, MLPs pay their investors through quarterly distributions. Typically, the higher the quarterly distributions paid to LP unit holders, the higher the management fee paid to the general partner. The idea is that the GP has an incentive to try to boost distributions through pursuing income-accretive acquisitions and organic growth projects.

Because MLPs are partnerships, they avoid the corporate income tax, on both a state and federal basis. Instead of getting a form 1099-DIV and the end of the year, you receive a form K-1, which your accountant should know how to handle.

Additionally, the limited partner (investor) may also record a pro-rated share of the MLP?s depreciation on his or her own tax forms to reduce liability. This is the primary benefit of MLPs and gives MLPs relatively cheap funding costs.

The tax implications of MLPs for individual investors are complex. The distributions are taxed at the marginal rate of the partner, unlike dividends from qualified stock corporations. On the other hand, there is no advantage to claiming the pro-rated share of the MLP?s depreciation (see above) when held in a tax-deferred account, like an IRA or 401k. To encourage tax-deferred investors, many MLP?s set up corporation holding companies of LP claims which can issue common equity.

The popularity of MLP?s has caused a huge inflow of capital, which has caused yields to crash, from 25% during the dark days of 2009, to an average of 6.7% today. Still, yield starved investors threw money at MLP?s with both hands last year, an eye popping $11.9 billion, according to figures from the tracking firm, Morningstar.

As yields have plunged, risks have risen. In February, Houston based Boardwalk Pipeline Partners (BWP), out of the blue, dramatically cut its payout to investors. A panic ensued, chopping 62% off the value of the shares in the following weeks. No doubt, increased competition for pipelines from railroads was a factor.

To protect yourself you must go to the website and read the prospectus before sending a check to an MLP. Unfortunately, these are so complex that even degrees in securities and tax law might not be enough to help you. What do you do instead? Pray, as seems to be the strategy of most individual investors.

At the end of the day, oil has a big influence on MLP prices. So the antics of Vladimir Putin in the Ukraine are probably a welcome development for MLP holders, as it has helped boost the price of Texas tea from $91 to $105 since the beginning of 2014.

However, get a real recession, and one will be overdue in a couple of years, and the price of oil will collapse once again, causing MLP?s to revisit those subterranean 2009 lows. Mothballed drilling rigs and rusting pipelines don?t produce lease payments or pay dividends. These are the risks you are being paid to take with a double-digit yield.

The lesson here is ?be nimble, or die”.

MLP Chart

WTIC 4-11-14

LINE 4-11-14You Want This One

 

BWP 4-11-14Not This One

 

PipelineHow Long Will the MLP Run Continue?

US Headed Towards Energy Independence

My inbox was clogged with responses to my ?Golden Age? for the 2020?s piece, particularly my forecast that the US was moving towards complete energy independence. This will be the most important change to the global economy for the next 20 years. So I shall go into more depth.

The energy research house, Raymond James, put out an estimate this morning that domestic American oil production (USO) would rise from 5.6 million barrels a day to 9.1 million by 2015. That means its share of total consumption will leap from 28% to 46% of our total 20 million barrels a day habit. These are game changing numbers.

Names like the Eagle Ford, Haynesville, and the Bakken Shale, once obscure references on geological maps, are now a major force in the country?s energy picture. Ten years ago North Dakota was suffering from depopulation. Now, itinerate oil workers must brave -40 degree winter temperatures in their recreational vehicles pursuing their $150,000 a year jobs.

The value of this extra 3.5 million barrels/day works out to $121 billion a year at current prices (3.5 million X 365 X $95). That will drop America?s trade deficit by nearly 25% over the next three years, and almost wipe out our current account deficit. Needless to say, this is a hugely dollar positive development.

This 3.5 million barrels will also offset much of the growth in China?s oil demand for the next three years. Fewer oil exports to the US also vastly expand the standby production capacity of Saudi Arabia.

If you want proof of the impact this will have on the economy, look no further that the coal (KOL), which has been falling in a rising market. Power plant conversion from coal to natural gas (UNG) is accelerating at a dramatic pace. That leaves China as the remaining buyer, and their economy is slowing.

It all makes the current price of oil at $95 look a little rich. As with the last oil spike three years ago, this one is occurring in the face of a supply glut. Cushing, Oklahoma is awash in Texas tea, and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve stashed away in salt domes in Texas and Louisiana is at its maximum capacity of 727 barrels. It is concerns about war with Syria and Iran, fanned by elections in both countries that took prices to $112 in the fall.

My oil industry friends tell me this fear premium has added $30-$40 to the price of crude. This is why I have been advising readers to sell short oil price spikes to $110. The current run up isn?t going to take us to the $150 high that we saw in the last cycle. It is also why I am keeping oil companies with major onshore domestic assets, like Exxon Mobile (XOM) and Occidental Petroleum (OXY), in my long term model portfolio.

WTIC 1-6-14

US Intl Trade in Goods & Services

Current-Acct Balance & its Components

KOL 1-7-14

US-Canada Border Map

Here Comes the Next Peace Dividend

I was amazed to see the Dow Average open up only 60 points this morning, and oil to fall a mere $1.50, given the enormous long term implications of a real nuclear deal with Iran. Over the decades, I have noticed that Wall Street isn?t very good at analyzing international political matters and the implications for their own markets. This appears to be one of those cases.

The news over the weekend about a freeze on Iran?s nuclear enrichment program in exchange for international inspections and the unfreezing of $4 billion of their assets is unbelievably positive for all asset classes, except energy. It came much sooner than expected. It proves that the administration?s preference for economic sanctions over military action has been wildly successful.

The US is now in a tremendously powerful negotiating position. If Iran dumps their nuclear program to our satisfaction it can get the carrot. It will rejoin the world economy, unfreeze the rest of its assets, and recover $100 billion a year in trade. Its oil exports (USO) can recover from 750,000 barrels a day back to the pre crisis level of 3 million barrels. If it doesn?t then it gets the stick again in six months, resuming their economic freefall.

The geopolitical implications for the U.S. are enormous.? Iran is the last major rogue state hostile to the U.S. in the Middle East, and it is teetering. The final domino of the Arab spring falls squarely at the gates of Tehran. A friendly, or at least a non-hostile Iran, means we really don?t care what happens in Syria.

Remember that the first real revolution in the region was Iran?s Green Revolution in 2009. That revolt was successfully suppressed with an iron fist by fanatical and pitiless Revolutionary Guards. The true death toll will never be known, but is thought to be in the thousands. The antigovernment sentiments that provided the spark never went away and they continue to percolate just under the surface.

At the end of the day, the majority of the Persian population wants to join the tide of globalization. They want to buy iPods and blue jeans, communicate freely through their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, and have the jobs to pay for it all. Since 1979, when the Shah was deposed, a succession of extremist, ultraconservative governments ruled by a religious minority, have abjectly failed to cater to these desires

If Iran doesn?t do a deal on nukes soon, it?s economy with sink deeper into the morass in which they currently find themselves. The Iranian ?street? will figure out that if they spill enough of their own blood that regime change is possible and the revolution there will reignite. The Obama administration is now pulling out all the stops to accelerate the process.

The oil embargo former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, organized is steadily tightening the noose, with heating oil and gasoline becoming hard to obtain. Yes, Russia and China are doing what they can to slow the process, but conducting international trade through the back door is expensive, and prices are rocketing. The unemployment rate is 40%.? The Iranian Rial has collapsed by 50%. Iranian banks were kicked out of the SWIFT international settlements system, a deathblow to their trade.

Let?s see how docile these people remain when the air conditioning quits running this summer because of power shortages. Iran is a rotten piece of fruit ready to fall of its own accord and go splat. The US is doing everything she can to shake the tree. No military action of any kind is required on America?s part. No shot has been fired. That?s a big deal when the shots cost $10,000 apiece.

The geopolitical payoff of such an event for the U.S. would be almost incalculable. A successful revolution will almost certainly produce a secular, pro-Western regime whose first priority will be to rejoin the international community and use its oil wealth to rebuild an economy now in tatters.

Oil will lose its risk premium, now believed by the oil industry to be $30 a barrel. A looming supply could cause prices to drop to as low as $30 a barrel. This would amount to a gigantic $1.66 trillion tax cut for not just the U.S., but the entire global economy as well (87 million barrels a day X 365 days a year X $100 dollars a barrel X 50%). Almost all funding of terrorist organizations will immediately dry up. I might point out here that this has always been the oil industry?s worst nightmare. Hezbollah is a short.

At that point, the US will be without enemies, save for North Korea, and even the Hermit Kingdom could change with a new leader in place. A long Pax Americana will settle over the planet.

The implications for the financial markets will be enormous. The U.S. will reap a peace dividend as large, or larger, than the one we enjoyed after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992. As you may recall, that black swan caused the Dow Average to soar from 2,000 to 10,000 in less than eight years, also partly fueled by the technology boom.

A collapse in oil imports will cause the U.S. dollar (UUP) to rocket.? An immediate halving of our defense spending to $400 billion or less and burgeoning new tax revenues would cause the budget deficit to collapse. With the U.S. government gone as a major new borrower, interest rates across the yield curve will fall further.

A peace dividend will also cause U.S. GDP growth to reaccelerate from 2% to 4%. Risk assets of every description will soar to multiples of their current levels, including stocks, junk bonds, commodities, precious metals, and food. The Dow will soar to 30,000 and the S&P 500 (SPY) to 3,500, the Euro collapses to parity, gold rockets to $2,300 an ounce, silver flies to $100 an ounce, copper leaps to $6 a pound, and corn recovers $8 a bushel. The 60-year bull market in bonds ends.

Some 1 million of the armed forces will get dumped on the job market as our manpower requirements shrink to peacetime levels. But a strong economy should be able to soak these well-trained and motivated people right up. We will enter a new Golden Age, not just at home, but for civilization as a whole.

Wait, you ask, what if Iran develops an atomic bomb and holds the U.S. at bay? Don?t worry. There is no Iranian nuclear device. There is no real Iranian nuclear program. The entire concept is an invention of Israeli and American intelligence agencies as a means to put pressure on the regime. According to them, Iran has been within a month or producing a tactical nuclear weapon for the last 30 years.

The head of the miniscule effort they have was assassinated by Israeli intelligence two years ago (a magnetic bomb, placed on a moving car, by a team on a motorcycle, nice!).

If Iran had anything substantial in the works, the Israeli planes would have taken off a long time ago. There is no plan to close the Straits of Hormuz, either. The training exercises in small rubber boats we have seen are done for CNN?s benefit, and comprise no credible threat.

I am a firm believer in the wisdom of markets, and that the marketplace becomes aware of major history changing events well before we mere individual mortals do. The Dow began a 25-year bull market the day after American forces defeated the Japanese in the Battle of Midway in May of 1942, even though the true outcome of that confrontation was kept top secret for years.

If the advent of a new, docile Iran were going to lead to a global multi-decade economic boom and the end of history, how would the stock markets behave now? They would rise virtually every day, led by the technology sector (XLK), industrials (XLI), and the banks (XLF) (C), offering no substantial pullbacks for latecomers to get in.

That is exactly what they have been doing since August. The markets are telling us that a treaty of real substance is a done deal.

UUP 11-25-13

WTIC 11-22-13

Iran Nuclear Missile

MissileAim This One at the Bears