Drilling More will Lower Oil Prices and Lower the Price at the Pump but it won’t Win Votes on the Left

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 6th, 2012

Week in Review

Global warming alarmists and environmentalists have a friend in President Obama.  They represent a large swathe of the voting electorate.  Including some very high profile names in the entertainment industry.  Whose expertise in energy policy is nonexistent but persuasive nonetheless.  Because of an unwritten law in society.  If you sound and look good you are a de facto expert on the subject.  Which comes in very handy in making bad policy popular.  As demonstrated by the high price at the pump (see The 3 biggest benefits of producing more oil by Shawn Tully posted 5/3/2012 on Fortune CNNMoney).

President Obama argues that a campaign to substantially raise domestic crude oil production would provide miniscule benefits in lower prices and enhanced growth…

In fact, tapping the potential gusher within reach would enrich our future in three ways. First, despite the President’s declarations to the contrary, the extra output could be large enough to lower world prices by several dollars a barrel, chiefly through exploiting the enormous promise of shale oil. Second, adding to capacity would provide a sort of catastrophic insurance policy by cushioning shocks in supply that are especially damaging in the kind of tight, vulnerable market we’re experiencing today. And third, raising production means lowering our oil imports, and hence greatly improving our balance of trade. By pure GDP math, shrinking “net imports” would lift America’s growth trajectory…

Tight capacity means that almost all wells are pumping full tilt. To bring on more oil, producers that could react quickly may choose not to. A country like Saudi Arabia would need to spend lots of money uncapping old wells, and upgrading old fields, investments it’s now unwilling to make, in part from fears these high prices are temporary.

That leaves oil-hungry consumers to bid for the fixed number of barrels entering the market each day. In effect, someone commuting by car in London outbids a Chicago driver for scarce gasoline, and the Chicago driver saves by taking the train. That bidding is now driving the price far above the cost for the producer drilling the world’s most expensive oil, creating what’s called in economics a “scarcity premium.” And it’s why Exxon Mobil (XOM) and other oil giants are generating such huge profits.

How did the market reach this bind? From 2003 to 2008, demand for oil rose sharply, driven primarily by rapid industrialization in China and India. “The oil rich nations matched the rise in demand by producing more until around 2006,” says Lutz Kilian, professor of economics at the University of Michigan. “Then, production went flat, and even when demand started increasing again after the recovery began, production didn’t keep up…”

Well, there you have it.  Oil is expensive because demand is greater than supply.  So to reduce the cost of oil all we have to do is bring up supply to match or exceed demand.  And down goes the price of gasoline.  Elementary, really.  So why aren’t we doing this already? 

Because of the global warming alarmists and environmentalists who simply hate fossil fuels.  And the current president is appealing to these demographics for campaign funding.  And votes.  Neither of which he will win if he stops attacking Big Oil.  So he continues to attack Big Oil.  Buying campaign funding and votes.  All paid for by everyday Americans at the pump.  Who are cutting back everywhere in their lives to afford the high cost of gasoline the president is using as vehicle to reelection.

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High Gas Prices don’t Hurt as much because we have a Democrat President?

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 24th, 2012

Week in Review

Gas prices are getting to where they were under George W. Bush.  Or higher.  And the media, the political opposition and Hugo Chavez painted George W. Bush as the antichrist for those high prices.  Chavez literally (he said he smelled sulfur at the podium whenever he spoke after Bush).  Bush and Dick Cheney were co-antichrists as they purposely made gas expensive so they and their friends in Big Oil could profit from our misery at the gas pump.  But now it’s a different story (see Rising gas prices aren’t as bad as you think by Steve Hargreaves posted 3/21/2012 on CNN Money).

But despite rhetoric, high gas prices aren’t hurting as much as they used to.

Because, of course, the Democrats are in charge now.

This isn’t to say high gas prices don’t hurt — they do, especially for people living paycheck-to-paycheck or those that drive a lot.

But for the average American household, which has an income of over $62,000 a year, the increase in gas prices represents a relatively small portion of total spending.

Here’s where the Obama administration-friendly media is doing back-flips to report a recovering economy.  Though it’s a jobless recovery.  We’re putting people back to work without putting them back to work.  Somehow.  Because the official unemployment rate (U-3) is falling.  It fell below 9% in 2011.  And it’s still below 9%.  Recently tumbling all the way down to 8.3%.  But you can’t use the U-3 rate when you’re talking about average households earning $62,000 a year.  For no one earns $62,000 a year unless they’re working full-time.  So you have to look at the unemployment rate that counts all the people who can’t find a full-time job.  The U-6 unemployment rate.  Which currently stands at 14.9% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  A rate that is ABOVE the lowest unemployment rate during the Great Depression.  So, no, the average American household is not earning $62,000 at the moment.  Unless those working part-time jobs are working 2-3 part-time jobs to make up for the lost income of those who have simply given up looking for a full-time job because they can’t find one (people the U-3 rate excludes in its count of the unemployed).

“It seems like people are still getting out there and opening up their pocketbooks,” said Beth Ann Bovino, deputy chief economist at Standard and Poor’s.

Bovino thinks prices would have to reach between $4.50 and $5 a gallon to really see an impact in spending.

Part of the reason Americans are coping with higher gas prices is that oil makes up a smaller percentage of overall energy use, she said.

Oil made up 48% of the nation’s energy consumption in 1971, S&P noted in a recent report. Now, thanks to a shift to cheaper natural gas and coal, oil accounts for just 40%.

If gas prices were $4.50 and $5 a gallon while Bush was still in office there would be no calm rationale given.  The people would have gotten the pitchforks out.  Burned Bush and Chaney in effigy.  Ridiculed them on late-night comedy TV.  And in the mainstream media.  For not doing anything to lower prices.  And for purposely raising prices so they, Bush and Chaney, could reap profits along with their friends in Big Oil.  But President Obama gets a pass.  For with him the line is that there’s nothing the president can do about gasoline prices.

They go back to 1971 to find something positive to say.  That in about 40 years we reduced our consumption of oil from 48% to 40%.  But what was the change between 2008 and 2012?  Have we reduced our energy consumption so much that when it takes over $50 to fill the average American fuel tank that we can whistle a happy tune?  Because though these prices are high they are at least not $4.50 to $5.00 high?  And that we must be consuming less oil someplace else?  Funny, for that’s not what these high prices are saying.  They say we’re consuming so much oil that our demand is outpacing supply.  Which causes prices to rise.  Even the president has said we must break our addiction to foreign oil.  That is not a lessening demand no matter how you look at it.

The price of oil is rising because our demand for it is outpacing our supply of it.  Increasing the price at the pump.  Forcing us to cut back elsewhere to put more of our paycheck into the gas tank.  And unless you like giving up things in life you enjoy and would prefer to have but can’t because of the price at the pump then these high prices hurt.  They hurt the economy.  And the family budget.  And saying otherwise is insulting to those who are giving up the things they enjoy to put more of their paycheck into the gas tank.

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BP agrees to $7.8 Billion Deal for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig Spill

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 4th, 2012

Week in Review

It was the end of the world.  The apocalypse.  Brought on by Big Oil.  And our addiction to that silky rich and seductive crude oil.  A new Black Death.  Only blacker.  And stickier. 

We had finally done it to ourselves.  We ruined our pristine Gulf coast.  And the fragile ecosystem in the water.  And on the land.  But there is one small consolation.  BP is paying billions in a settlement.  Lucky for us that they were so profitable to be able to pay for both the regulatory and compliance costs of their industry.  And these big lawsuits.  So we win.  Until we pump gas, that is.  Where they will no doubt pass on the cost of this very large settlement (see ‘Deal reached’ over BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill posted 3/3/2012 on the BBC News US and Canada).

BP says it has reached a $7.8bn (£4.9bn) deal with the largest group of plaintiffs suing the company over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill.

It will benefit some 100,000 fishermen, local residents and clean-up workers whose livelihoods or health suffered…

The rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, killing 11 workers and leaking four million barrels of oil.

BP says it expects the money to come from a $20bn (£12.6bn) compensation fund it had previously set aside.

“From the beginning, BP stepped up to meet our obligations to the communities in the Gulf Coast region, and we’ve worked hard to deliver on that commitment for nearly two years,” BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley said…

BP has so far paid out $7.5bn in clean-up costs and compensation.

US President Barack Obama called the spill “the worst environmental disaster the nation has ever faced”.

But was it the worst environmental disaster we ever faced?  If most evidence of that disaster can disappear in about a year’s time, perhaps.  But you’d think if it was the worst disaster of all time some of it would stick around a bit longer than that.  But it didn’t.  Which kind of lowers the bar for ‘worst of all time’ disasters, doesn’t it?  Here’s a follow-up published last April.  And it turns out that Deepwater Horizon was less worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster (see BP oil spill: Dramatic recovery of Gulf of Mexico one year on by Philip Sherwell posted 4/10/2011 on The Telegraph).

The Sunday Telegraph accompanied an assessment team scouring low-lying fingers of mud and marsh grasses along a 20 mile stretch of bayou where the river pours into the sea, the nearest point on land to the disaster site.

The phragamites reeds surveyed by the team leader Ivor van Heerden and scientists from the parish, state and federal governments took a direct hit last year.

But last week they found not even residual traces as the captain negotiated through the marshes on a flatbed airboat designed for swamps.

New shoots were bursting out of the reeds, wading birds were nesting, molluscs clung to the stems and the air was thick with greenflies.

And further along the Gulf coast, the white sand beaches of the panhandle that were soiled by tar balls last summer look back to their pristine best, packed in recent weeks by college students enjoying the raucous annual institution of spring break.
“The spill was a disaster, but it was not the catastrophe that many people were portraying,” said Mr van Heerden, a marine scientist who once headed the Louisiana coastal restoration programme for the state’s fragile eco-system of wetlands.

It was his intervention last July that first challenged the assumed wisdom in America that the spill was an apocalyptic environmental catastrophe.

“A lot of people, and that includes politicians and journalists, did not want to hear the message that it was really not that bad,” he said…

Swaths of the Gulf were closed to fishing and over the next six months, nearly 7,000 dead animals were collected from the area – mostly birds but also 700 sea turtles and 100 dolphins – although in many cases the cause of death has not been determined.

But volume can be a misleading measure of a spill’s impact. In 1989 the Exxon Valdez tanker lost just five per cent of the oil that escaped into Gulf last year, but damage to the Alaskan coastline, wildlife and environment was much more devastating.

“This was no Exxon Valdez, not even close,” said Ed Owens, a British marine geologist and oil spill veteran who developed the industry standard for clean-up and monitoring after he worked on the chaotic response to that disaster…

Although the longer-term damage inflicted on the wildlife, marshes and waters of the Gulf is still being assessed, the fishing grounds and oyster beds are open again.

But traditional fishing communities on the slivers of land that poke into the sea south of New Orleans are still reeling from the impact, economically and mentally.

At a roadside seafood stand that his mother opened 32 years ago, Sean Maise has discounted the juicy four-inch long jumbo shrimps in his iceboxes to $3.50 a pound in an effort to woo custom. “It’s bad, real bad,” he lamented…

“We have probably the most rigorous testing in the world here and there has not been a single case of contaminated seafood found since the spill,” he said. “Nobody’s got sick from eating Louisiana seafood, but still people are nervous.”

This doesn’t sound like the worst disaster of all time.  Unless you want to include the devastation of the oil industry, then, yes, it ranks pretty high on the ‘worse’ scale.  But if you’re talking about spring break beaches and delectable seafood, then no.  Even though the people are scared to eat it despite the testing proving that it’s perfectly safe to eat.  Within a year things got back to pretty much normal.  Which kind of makes a mockery of the label ‘worst environmental disaster the nation has ever faced.’  And the economic destruction of the Gulf oil industry.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion was s disaster.  It killed eleven oil workers.  And then destroyed the livelihood of all their coworkers.  And reduced the amount of US crude oil in the domestic pipeline.  Raising the price at the pump.  This is the disaster.  The beaches and water are fine.  Just ask the college students enjoying spring break on the beaches.  In the water.  And eating the seafood.

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FT106: “You can’t have high paying jobs with generous benefits and low consumer prices.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 24th, 2012

Fundamental Truth

To give Workers High Wages and Generous Benefits a Business has to sell their Goods at High Prices 

The problem with politics is that voters don’t understand economics.  And they demonstrate this by demanding mutually exclusive things all of the time.  Where having one thing makes it impossible to have the other thing.  Like that old saying that goes like this.  You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.   You can have cake.  Or you can eat cake.  But you can’t have cake after eating it.  Because once you eat your cake it is gone.  And there is nothing to have.  These things, then, are mutually exclusive.  You can have one or the other.  But you can’t have both.

Now let’s transfer this train of thought to economics.  And to its most fundamental element.  The demand curve.  Which represents people in the economy.  Consumers.  And the stuff that they buy.  And at what prices they will buy the stuff that they buy.  Let’s take large flat-screen televisions.  The big ones.  Over 60 inches in size.  If they cost the price of a luxury car few consumers will buy them.  But if they only cost the price of a pack of gum consumers will buy them until they have one for every room in their house.  And consumers will buy various amounts at the prices in between.  But in general this one truth holds true.  People will buy more televisions as their prices fall.  And they will buy fewer televisions as their prices rise.  When we show this graphically by plotting how many televisions they sell at various prices we get a demand curve.

Well, you think, why can’t we just sell televisions at the price of a pack of gum?  More people will have televisions.  That’s good.  Because people just love watching television.  And television makers will make more televisions.  Creating more jobs.  And jobs are good.  Everyone says so.  So why not just sell televisions for the price of a pack of gum.  Well, I suppose if we pay the people who make these televisions a wage and benefit package closer to the price of a pack of gum, we could.  But who wants to work for a paycheck that can only buy a pack of gum?  Which brings us back to wanting mutually exclusive things.  To give workers high wages and generous benefits we have to sell goods at high prices.  Which is mutually exclusive to the low prices consumers demand.

Big Oil’s Exxon Mobil was not as profitable as GE and Apple in 2010

Yes, you can’t have low consumer prices and high pay and generous benefits.  Because, per the demand curve, higher prices mean fewer things sold.   And fewer things sold mean lower sales revenue.  And sales revenue pays for everything in a business.  Including wages and benefits.  Which means lower sales revenue means less money available to pay wages and benefits.  And any company that tries to pay high wages and provide generous benefits has to do one of two things.  Have a product they can sell a lot of at high prices.  Or go bankrupt.  Two of the Big Three Detroit automakers tried to do the former and failed.  So they went bankrupt.  And the government bailed them out.

So to pay employees well these companies need to be profitable.  Unlike the Big Three.  And to be profitable you have to have sales revenue large enough AND prices high enough to generate profits.  Profits so large that they can provide high wages and generous benefits.  Unlike the Big Three.  Because they couldn’t sell enough cars at high enough prices to pay those high union wages and generous union benefits.  But some companies have been profitable.  Including one corporation liberal Democrats love to hate.  Exxon Mobil (a member of a group liberal Democrats derisively call Big Oil).  One company that the current liberal Democrat administration loves and partners with in green energy technology.  General Electric.  And one corporation liberal Democrats just love period.  Until Steve Jobs died, at least.  Apple. 

In the fourth quarter of 2010, the profits for Exxon Mobil, GE and Apple were, respectively, $9.25 billion, $4.46 billion and $4.31 billion.  The first thing that jumps out at you is that Big Oil is making twice as much money as the corporations liberal Democrats love.  Which is why they hate them.  And why they love to bitch about high prices at the gas pump.  While at the same time they are rejoicing about those high prices.  Because those high gasoline prices help push their green energy agenda.  But these profit numbers are misleading.  Because they don’t factor in the cost of producing those profits.  And the most common way we do that is by dividing these profits by the sales revenue that generated them.  Giving us net profit margin.  When we do this for Exxon Mobil, GE and Apple we find their net profit margins on those profits were, respectively, 8.79%, 10.8% and 21.2%.  Of the three Big Oil is the least profitable.  And Apple is the most profitable.  In fact, nearly 2.5 times more profitable than Exxon Mobil.  But no one is demanding that the government step in and lower the price of Apple’s products.  Unlike they do with Big Oil.

The Government’s Regulatory and Compliance Costs increase the Price of Gasoline at the Pump

So why is Big Oil less profitable than those other businesses?  Well, for one, you can’t drill for American oil in China.  Like GE and Apple can build products in China.  And by working in the United States Big Oil is subject to massive regulatory and compliance costs.  And government regulates few things more than the oil industry.  The permitting process alone just to drill an exploratory well can take years for approval.  And millions of dollars.  It wasn’t like this when gas was cheap in America.  Before all of this regulation.  In the days when John D. Rockefeller was refining petroleum no one was complaining about high prices.  In fact, his competition complained about his low prices.  Prices they couldn’t match.  Asking for the government to investigate them for antitrust violations.  Which they did.  And busted up Standard Oil.  So they could sell their products at higher prices.  But when you can manufacture goods in China you can escape all of these regulatory and compliance costs.  And governmental insanity of protecting consumers by raising consumer prices.

Some may counter that the net profit percentage isn’t the important number.  But the dollar amount of their profits.  The same people who say we shouldn’t look at the dollar amount rich people pay in taxes.  But what they pay as a percentage of their income.  Which is an example of a double standard.  Determining how much profit is too much by one standard for Big Oil (dollars).  But determining by another standard how much rich people should pay in taxes (percentage).  It doesn’t make good sense.  But it makes good politics.  Especially when you have nothing but class warfare to rely on to win an election.

The attack on Big Oil is also irrational.  For Big Oil can do one thing that even GE and Apple can’t do.  Provide high wages and generous benefits to American workers.  Because American oil deposits can only be extracted in America.  By American workers.  If only government will cease their attack on Big Oil.  And allow people to drive gas guzzlers if they want to.  Let them fill up those tanks.  Increase the demand for gasoline.  If they did and we got rid of the anti-gasoline policies Big Oil will go after that oil and bring it to market to meet that demand.  Making it inexpensive and plentiful just like John D. Rockefeller did.  Before government stepped in to ‘protect’ consumers.  And added so many regulatory and compliance costs that has since jacked up the price at the pump so much that it is eating away an ever larger share of a family’s budget.  And ultimately reducing their standard of living.  Without even getting any high paying jobs with generous benefits in the bargain.  And if you ask me that’s a pretty sad job of protecting consumers.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #63: “There is no such thing as a monopoly in free market capitalism.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 26th, 2011

There is always Competition

Once upon a time, back in my youth, I sat in a seminar on venture capital.  I learned that venture capitalists are very wise.  And very careful about where they invest their money.  For them it’s not so much as making a return on an investment.  They could do that easier by just buying stocks and bonds.  No, the venture capitalist wants more.  They’re often people who went from rags to riches on a great idea.  And they want to recapture that feeling.  By taking big risks with their money.  On something that could be the next big thing.  And if you got the next big thing, they have that important seed capital you need.  But you have to sell them first.  Really sell them.

All these years later, I still remember this one example about a small startup company that had the next big thing in security systems.  Or so they thought.  Theirs took advantage of the latest in technology.  Motion sensors.  Glass-break sensors.  Sound sensors.  You name it.  If anything happened that shouldn’t be happening, the system would detect it.  But it did more.  It made noises. Flashed lights.  To scare off would be thieves.  Because thieves like to break into quiet, empty places.  Not places where lights went on and off.  And sounds moved around.  It was a pretty impressive system.  And costly.  It would set a business owner back quite a bit to install such a system.  But it would be worth it.  They knew they could sell it.  And, best of all, they would have a monopoly.  For no one else had anything close to what their system could do.  This was brand new.  And there was no competition.

 The venture capitalist smiled and thanked them for their presentation.  But he would not invest.  For they did have competition.  He said there is always competition.  They just failed to identify it.  They were sure there wasn’t.  They did their homework.  No security company out there had a system remotely close to theirs.  Then the venture capitalist smiled and said politely, “Perhaps not.  But I could buy a dog to do the same for less.”

High Gas Prices keep Gas Available

There is always competition in a free market.  If there is a market sector that is making high profits, other businesses will try to enter that sector.  To get a share of those high profits.  And when they do, there’s competition.  And prices come down.  That’s why gasoline prices are so close to each other at gas stations in the same geographical location.  One could raise their selling price by a dollar.  But if they did, their customers would just go to their competitors.  That’s what competition does.  Keeps prices down.  And makes people figure out how to sell the same thing for less.  Because if they can, they gain customers.  While their competitors lose customers.

Even oil companies feel the heat of competition.  High gas prices may hurt the wallet at the gas pump, but they are an incentive to them.  When the demand of oil grows greater than its supply, prices soar.  Why?  Because oil is becoming a more scarce commodity.  And the scarcer a commodity is the higher its price.  Simple supply and demand of economics.  These higher oil prices allow the oil companies to go after oil in the ground that was before too costly to bring to market.  Deep water drilling is more expensive than conventional drilling.  It simply wasn’t cost feasible before.  As was extracting oil from oil sands.  But high oil prices allow this extraction.  Bringing more oil to market.  Which ultimately will reduce the price of gasoline.  Or at least reducing the increase in the price of gas.  Simply by increasing the supply of oil to more closely meet the demand.  More importantly, even though prices may go up, gasoline will be available.  Unlike it was during the 1973 Oil Crisis.  Where OPEC cut oil deliveries to the U.S.  Instead of letting market prices rise to match the supply to the demand, the Nixon administration implemented price controls and rationing.  It seemed the kind thing to do for the consumer.  But by selling below the market price a lot of gas stations simply ran out of gasoline.  Resulting in further rationing.  Long lines at gas stations.  And scenes of people pushing their out-of-gas cars to the gas pump.

So, yes, even high gas prices can be a good thing.  It’s simply the market setting the price to make sure gas is available to buy.  We may not like the price.  And think the oil companies are gouging us at the pump.  But they’re not.  Even when they have record profits.  Though it is tempting to hate them after they post some of those record profits.  They sound huge.  And unfair.  But are they any bigger than other corporate profits?  Not really.  Oil companies have huge revenues.  So their profits are huge.  But as a percentage of sales revenue, they’re actually not that huge.  Here are some examples of net profit averaged over five years.  Chevron (8.22%).  BP (4.94%).  ExxonMobil (8.79%).  And how does that compare to other corporations?  Here are some from various sectors.  Home Depot (4.86%).  Sony (0.82%).  General Electric (9.93%).  Apple (17.60%).  Microsoft (28.20%).  If you look at net profit, the oil companies aren’t really making more profits than other corporations.  (For source of net profit information see YCharts.)

The Federal Government is a Monopoly

Of course, when gas prices go up we tend to feel that more than other commodities.  Because we use a lot of gas in our daily lives.  Which leaves us less money in the wallet to buy those other commodities.  Which are more expensive because of the higher energy costs to bring these other commodities to market.  Few things affect prices like energy.  And oil is the big player in the energy market because it is the energy of choice in transportation.  Ships, planes, trains and trucks all use oil-based fuels.  And no matter how green we get this isn’t going to change.  Because there is no other portable fuel with such a large energy content available.  And won’t be in the conceivable future.  You just aren’t going to replace any of these with electric versions.  And that’s just not in the U.S.  It’s in all of the advanced and emerging economies in the world.

This is why oil prices are going up.  It’s not the greed of a small cartel of oil producers.  It’s the exploding demand.  And the high oil prices are allowing these companies to bring oil to market that was simply impossible a decade or two go.  And there’s more oil out there.  But we have to get it out of the ground.  And we need to be doing this some 5 years before we need it.  Because it takes about 5 years to bring new oil onto the market.  And they would be drilling exploratory wells like there is no tomorrow in the U.S.  If it wasn’t for the hurdles they have to jump through to get a permit from the government.  An oil company can spend 5 years or more in the permitting process.  They can spend millions of dollars in the process.  And yet the government can still deny them the permit.  Without any compensation for their investment to date.

This isn’t unique to any one oil company.  They all go through this.  It is very difficult indeed to start drilling a new well in the U.S.  Which means it costs more to drill a well in the U.S.  So some oil companies eventually give up and go elsewhere to look for oil.  Taking with them good oil jobs.  Which reduces domestic oil supplies.  Making us more dependent on foreign sources of oil.  Which increases the cost of oil-based fuels in the U.S.   But it’s not any oil cartel doing this.  Although it is a monopoly.  It’s the federal government.  The oil companies will still go out there and find oil and bring it to market.  It’s what they do.  They just don’t do it here.  Because the U.S. government just makes it too difficult to do this in the U.S.

Getting Oil out of the Ground is not Easy

Only the power of government can interfere with the free market.  Because it takes legislative authority to restrict the free market.  Create cartels.  And monopolies.  It’s not one big oil company keeping the others out of the U.S. market.  It’s federal regulation keeping all of the oil companies out of the U.S. market.  And this is what is increasing the price at the gas pump.  And in commodity prices across the board.  Because the high oil prices are just begging for them to come in and find oil and bring it to market.  Even in sources once considered too costly (oil sands, deep wells, arctic climates, etc.). 

And just like every business has competition, so do markets.  Getting oil out of the ground is not easy.  It is a very costly and speculative industry.  And as oil becomes more costly to bring to market, fewer are able to do it.  You need deep pockets.  And deep experience.  Those who can and do so at a profit are in great demand.  So if they can’t drill in the U.S. they can drill someplace else.  And do.  Because of the big U.S. monopoly, the federal government, has shut them out of the U.S. market. 

But as people look forward to the summer driving season, they will curse Big Oil.  Not the federal government.  Even though the former fights to bring oil to market.  While the latter fights against it.

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The Rules of Supply and Demand Apply to Gasoline, Too

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 18th, 2010

What’s the Difference Between Underwear and Gasoline?

Go through your wife’s or girlfriend’s underwear drawer.  What do you see?  What kind of underwear does she have?  Silk?  Nylon?  Satin?  Cotton?  Chances are you’re not going to see only one type.  There’ll be a little variety.  If you don’t see her get dressed, can you tell what she’s wearing?  Probably not.  The underwear she’s wearing will have no impact on her life.  Whatever she does on any given day will probably be the same regardless of her choice of underwear on that day.

All right, now think about what kind of fuel she puts into her car.  What are her choices?  At best, maybe two.  Far fewer than her underwear choices.  Chances are that she’ll be running her car on gasoline.  If it’s a late model car and she’s a hardcore environmentalist she may be using E85 (an alcohol-based fuel made from food).  However, if she finds herself having to refuel in a bad part of town late at night she’ll probably be switching back to gasoline pretty darn quick.  You see, you just can’t drive as far on a tank of E85 as you can on gasoline.  For when it comes to fuel, gasoline is king.  It packs a lot of energy per gallon.  It’ll let most people refuel on the weekend at that safe gas station close to home.

So what’s the difference between underwear and gasoline?  Choice.  If the price of gasoline goes up, we have but two choices.  Pay more.  Or drive less.  If the price of cotton goes up, we can pay more or wear less cotton.  And when there’s other fabric available (silk, nylon, satin, etc.), wearing less cotton is a whole lot easier.  And that choice will never put anyone in danger.  Like stopping to refuel in a bad part of town late at night.

Market Forces Driving Market Prices

Well, cotton prices are going up (see Flashback to 1870 as Cotton Hits Peak in the Wall Street Journal on line by Adam Cancryn and Carolyn Cui).  Floods in Pakistan and heavy rains in China have significantly reduced the supply of cotton.  And when supply goes down, what happens to prices?  They go up.  How much?

The sudden surge in prices—cotton has risen as much as 56% in three months—has alarmed manufacturers and retailers, who worry they may be forced to pass on higher costs to recession-weary consumers.

Ouch.  56%.  Even gasoline doesn’t go up that much in three months.  But will we, the consumers, absorb that increase? 

For the apparel industry, rising prices have upended roughly two decades of cheap cotton. Consumers have become used to relatively low prices, making it hard for garment producers to pass on the rising costs, especially as the economy struggles to recover.

Probably not.  Why?  Because we have fabric choices.  Wearing something other than cotton is no big deal.  It’s easy to do.  And life will go on just as it did when we were wearing cotton.  We won’t notice the difference.  Which is why it’s hard to pass these price increases on to us.  It’s not the same with gasoline.  With gasoline, we don’t have other choices.  Maybe E85.  But we’ll have to buy more of that to drive just as far so we might as well pay the higher gasoline prices.  At least our wife/girlfriend won’t have to stop to refuel in questionable parts of town.  But cotton isn’t gasoline.  People will buy other fabrics if cotton prices go up.  So manufacturers will look at ways to keep from passing on these costs

The most at risk are discount retailers that compete on price and sell large quantities of cotton-based basic items, such as T-shirts. But clothing manufacturers of all price levels may be forced to decide between absorbing the costs or passing them on. Some say they also are exploring different materials, including synthetic blends.

Because consumers have clothing choices, clothing manufacturers will switch to less expensive fabrics to offer what the consumer will choose.  Gasoline producers can’t do this.  There’s only gasoline.  Sure, there’s E85.  But E85 is not gasoline.  When you choose E85, you get less.  It’s not the same with fabric.  There may be a difference in the feel of cotton and a synthetic blend, but you’re not going to incur additional costs with a synthetic blend (i.e., you won’t have to buy more of the synthetic blend clothing for the same amount of ‘wear-time’ of the cotton).  So the consumer won’t just whistle a happy tune and pay these higher prices.   

Compounding this problem of supply pressure on prices is the demand pressure.

Meanwhile, demand from Chinese cotton mills has shown no signs of slowing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said China bought 267,700 running bales of U.S. upland cotton last week, more than half of the total bales exported and more than the country usually takes.

The clothing manufacturers may be suffering, but, surely, the cotton farmers must be loving this.  Just like Big Oil must love those high oil prices, right?  Sure.  As long as someone is buying at these prices. 

However, the lofty prices are making some cotton farmers worry.

“I hope it won’t go too high. If you can’t put it into clothes and clothes become too expensive, prices will come down,” Mr. Wilkins said.

And that’s the problem.  As prices go up, we buy less.  When we have choices, we just won’t pay high prices.  And in free-market capitalism, there are always choices.

Drill Baby Drill – If You Want Affordable Gasoline

There are no other fuels to compete with gasoline like there is with fabrics.  But we still have a choice.  We just drive less.  That’s a choice.  Before the great recession resulting from the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, gasoline had peaked around $4/gallon.  It doesn’t cost that much now.  Prices came down because a lot of people bought less $4/gallon gasoline than they did $2.75/gallon gasoline.  But that price will go up again.  Not because of Big Oil’s price fixing (if they could fix prices gasoline would not have come down from those $4/gallon prices).  But for the same reason cotton prices are going up.  Exploding demand in China. 

Until there is a viable alternative to gasoline, gasoline prices will always be more volatile than clothing prices.  But the laws of supply and demand will have similar affects on each.  A reduction in supply (a poor cotton harvest or a lack of new oil drilling) will raise prices.  An increase in demand (hungry Chinese cotton mills or a growing Chinese middle class buying and driving cars) will increase prices.  Both of these together will really increase prices.  It’s not Big Oil.  It’s not Big Cotton.  It’s simple economics.

How do you make these prices go down?  Well, with little control over the Chinese economy, our only choice is to increase supply.  And when it comes to gasoline, that means we need to drill more.  The more oil we pull from the ground the more we can refine.  It’s just simple economics.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #20: “It is never a consumer that complains about ‘predatory’ pricing.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 29th, 2010

LOW PRICES.  GOD help me, I do hate them so.  I hate them with every fiber of my body.

Who says this?  Do you?  I don’t.  Of all the times I’ve spent shopping, I have never heard anyone bitch about low prices.  I’ve heard people bitch about high prices.  But never about low prices.  When gas approached $3/gallon, people bitched about that being too high and drove 10 miles to find ‘cheap’ gas to save a few pennies per gallon.  Let it approach $4/gallon and they’ll want Congress to take action.  To attack Big Oil.  To seize their oil and their profits and give us cheap gasoline in return.  But when gas was cheap, no one ever bitched about it being ‘too’ cheap.  It just doesn’t happen that way.  People bitch about high prices.  Not low prices.

So who bitches about low prices?  Competitors.  There’s a saying that competition makes everything better.  And it does.  It lowers prices.  And raises quality.  And who is looking for lower prices and higher quality?  Consumers.  Who isn’t?  Competitors.  Especially competitors with political connections.

WHEN THE BIG 3 were putting out crap in the 1970s, they did so because they could.  I mean, who else were you going to buy a car from?  So what if your car breaks down and the fenders and quarter panels rust away?  That just means you gotta buy another car sooner rather than later.  A pretty sweet deal.  Especially when there are only three places to go to buy a car.  And each of the Big 3 is selling the same crap.

Then the Japanese had to go and ruin a good thing.  They started selling cars in America.  These cars were smaller than your typical American car.  But there were other differences.  They didn’t rust like the American cars.  They didn’t break down as much.  And the imports were cheaper than the American cars.  Lower price and higher quality.  More bang for the buck.  Exactly what consumers were demanding.

So what was the response of the Big 3?  Did they rise to the level of their new competitors and deliver what the consumer wanted?  No.  They ran to government for help.  For protection.  And they got it.  Voluntary Export Restraints (VER).  The government negotiated with the Japanese to ‘voluntarily’ limit the number of cars they exported to the United States.  Or else.  So they did.  To avoid worse protectionist policies.  Problem solved.  Competition was limited.  And the Big 3 were very profitable in the short run.  Everyone lived happily ever after.  Until the Japanese refused to play nice.

The problem was what the Big 3 did with those profits.  Or, rather, what they didn’t do with them.  They didn’t reinvest them to raise themselves up to the level of the Japanese.  Protected, they saw no incentive to change.  Not when you have Big Government on your side.  And how did that work for them?  Not good. 

So look, the Japanese said, the Americans like our cars.  If the American manufacturers won’t give them what they want, we will.  While honoring the VER.  We won’t export more cars.  We’ll just build bigger and better cars to export.  And they did.  The Big 3 were no longer up against inexpensive, higher quality subcompacts on the fringe of their market share.  Now their mid-size and large-size cars had competition.  And this wasn’t on the fringe of their market share.  This was their bread and butter.  What to do?  Build better cars and give Americans more bang for their buck?  Or run to government again?  What do you think?

The Big 3 assaulted the Japanese under the guise of ‘fair trade’.  The cry went out that unless the Japanese opened up their markets to American imports (in particular auto parts), we should restrict Japanese imports.  To protect American jobs.  To protect the American worker.  To protect the children.  This was code for please make the Japanese cars more unattractive to purchasers so they will settle for the more costly and lower quality cars we’re making.  (Let’s not forget the reason Americans were buying the Japanese cars in the first place).

The Japanese response?  They took it up a notch.  They entered the luxury markets.  They launched Acura, Lexus and Infiniti.  They competed against Cadillac and Lincoln.  And well.  The quality was so good they even affected the European luxury imports.  More attacks followed.  Americans were losing their jobs.  Soon there would be no more American manufacturing left in the country.  So the Japanese built plants in America.  And Americans were now building the Japanese cars.  The Japanese actually created American jobs.

SON OF A BITCH!  So much for the loss of American jobs.  The Japanese threw a wrench in that argument.  So now the argument became about the loss of ‘high paying’ American jobs.  For the Japanese plants were non-union.  Didn’t matter that their workers were making better pay and benefits than many in their region.  No.  What mattered was that they were building a better product.  And they didn’t want THESE jobs in America.  But if they couldn’t get rid of these new workers, they should at least unionize them so their cars cost more.  To make them a little less appealing to the American consumer.  So far they have been unsuccessful in this endeavor.  The workers are happy as they are.

Well, these cars just weren’t going away.  So the Americans surrendered car manufacturing to the Japanese.  They couldn’t beat them.  (Of course, it’s hard to do that when you don’t even try).  They, instead, focused on the higher profit truck and SUV markets.  Then the Japanese entered those markets.  And at every level they competed with the Americans, the Japanese gave more bang for the buck.  And the consumers responded.  With their hard-earned wages.  It just wasn’t fair.  The Japanese kept giving the American consumer a better product.  No matter what political action the Big 3 took or demanded.

And there’s the problem.  They sought their answers from government.  Instead of making a better car.  They wanted to stop the Japanese from giving the American consumer what they wanted so they could force Americans to pay more for less.  All the while the economy was forcing the majority of consumers to get by on less (the majority of consumers do not have the wage and benefit package the ‘select’ few had in the Big 3). 

Fast forward to 2008 and we see the ultimate consequence of their actions.  Bankruptcy.  GM and Chrysler had to grovel for a federal bailout and in the process become Washington’s bitch.  Ford survived on her own.  As did the Japanese.  You can bitch all you want about costs, but if you have the revenue you can pay your costs.  And the Americans just couldn’t sell enough cars to maintain the revenue they needed for their cost structure.  By refusing to address the core problem (they weren’t making cars Americans wanted to buy), they only made their competition stronger and more entrenched in the U.S. market.

IT’S ALL POLITICS.  Political cronyism.  And crony capitalism.  It all comes down to political spoils and patronage.  That’s what happens when politics enter capitalism.  Big Business partners with Big Government and they enter into relationships.  You scratch my back and I’ll scratch your back.  But when government protects a business for political expediency, the industry suffers in the long run.  As the U.S. automobile industry has.  Ditto for the U.S. textile industry.  And the U.S. steel industry.

So what goes wrong?  When you protect an industry you insulate it from market forces.  You can build crap.  The problem is, consumers don’t buy crap.  So, for awhile, politics intervene and makes the crap more favorable.  Whether it’s predatory pricing, monopolistic pricing or collusion, business can’t win.  Big Government is there.  If your prices are too low, government will intervene.  If prices are too high, government will intervene.  If prices are too similar, government will intervene.  To make things ‘fair’.  And by fair they mean to reward those who play the game and to punish those who don’t.  And the spoils go to those large voting blocs they need.  And in return for their votes, they can count on patronage.  Government jobs.  Political positions.  Favorable legislation and regulation.  If you got the vote out, you were rewarded quite nicely. 

And consumers be damned. .

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LESSONS LEARNED #19: “Philosophical debates can be effective but character assassination is more expedient, especially when no one agrees with your philosophy.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 24th, 2010

THOMAS JEFFERSON HATED Alexander Hamilton.  So much so he hired Philip Freneau as a translator in his State Department in George Washington’s administration.  You see, Jefferson did not like confrontation.  So he needed a way to slander Hamilton, his policies and the Washington administration without getting his own hands dirty.  And that was what Freneau was supposed to do with the money he earned while working in the State Department.  Publish a newspaper (National Gazette) and attack Hamilton, his policies and the Washington administration.  Papers then were partisan.  More so than today.  Then, lies and libel were tools of the trade.  And they knew how to dig up the dirt.  Or make it up. 

Another scandalmonger, James Callender, was slinging dirt for Jefferson.  And he hit pay dirt.  Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds of Philadelphia had a lucrative business.  They were blackmailing Alexander Hamilton.  Mr. Reynolds had his wife seduce Hamilton.  Which she did.  And did well.  They had an affair.  And Mr. Reynolds then blackmailed him.  Jefferson pounced.  Or, rather, Callender did.  To keep Jefferson’s hands clean.  Hamilton, Callender said, was using his position at the Treasury Department for personal gain.  He was using public funds to pay the blackmailer.  They found no proof of this.  And they did look for it.  Hard.  But when they came up empty, Jefferson said that it just proved what a good thief Hamilton was.  He was so good that he didn’t leave any traces of his treachery behind.

Of course, when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.  And Jefferson’s association with Callender would come back and bite him in the ass.  In a big way.  Upset because Jefferson didn’t appropriately compensate him for all his loyal dirt slinging (he wanted the postmaster’s job in Richmond), he publicized the Sally Hemings rumors.  And after breaking the true story of the Hamilton affair, many would believe this scoop.  That Jefferson was having an affair with one of his slaves.  It was a dark cloud that would forever hang over Jefferson.  And his legacy.

Hamilton admitted to his affair.  Jefferson admitted to no affair.  Hamilton would never hold public office again and would later die in a duel with Jefferson’s one-time toady, Aaron Burr.  This duel resulted because Hamilton was doing whatever he could to keep the amoral and unscrupulous Burr from public office (in this case, it was the governorship of New York).  When the election of 1800 resulted in a tie between Jefferson and Burr, Hamilton urged the House to vote for Jefferson, his archenemy.   Despite what had appeared in the press, Hamilton did have morals and scruples.  Unlike some.  Speaking of which, Jefferson would go on to serve 2 terms as president.  And all of that angst about Hamiltonian policies?  They all went out the window with the Louisiana Purchase (which was unconstitutional, Big Government and Big Finance).

RONALD REAGAN WAS routinely called old, senile and out of touch by the entertainment community, the media and his political foes.  But he bested Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, something Jimmy Carter never did.  He said ‘no’ at Reykjavik because he told the American people that he wouldn’t give up the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).  He knew the Soviet Union was bleeding.  Communism was a farce.  It inhibited human capital.  And impoverished her people.  SDI may have been science fiction in the 1980s, but capitalism wasn’t.  It could do it all.  Including SDI.  The Soviet Union was on the ropes and Reagan would give no quarter.  The days of living in fear of the mushroom cloud were over.  And capitalism would deliver the knockout punch.

Reaganomics, of course, made this all possible.  Supply-side economics.  Which follows the Austrian school.  Say’s Law.  ‘Supply creates demand’.  You don’t stimulate the economy by taxing one group of people so another group can spend.  You stimulate it by creating incentives for risk takers to take risks.  And when they do, they create jobs.  And wealth.

Tax and spend is a failed Keynesian, zero-sum economic policy.  When you take from the earners and give to the non-earners, we just transfer purchasing power.  We don’t create it.  For some to spend more, others must spend less.  Hence, zero-sum.  The net some of goods and services people are purchasing remains the same.  Different people are just doing the purchasing.

When Apple invented the Macintosh personal computer (PC), few were demanding a PC with a graphical user interface (GUI).  But Apple was innovative.  They created something they thought the people would want.  And they did.  They took a risk.  And the Macintosh with its mouse and GUI took off.  Apple manufacturing increased and added jobs.  Retail outlets for the Macintosh expanded and created jobs.  Software firms hired more engineers to write code.  And other firms hired more people to engineer and manufacture PC accessories.  There was a net increase in jobs and wealth.  Just as Say’s Law predicts.  Supply-side economics works.

Of course, the Left hates Reagan and attacked Reaganomics with a vengeance.  They attacked Reagan for being pro-rich.  For not caring about the poor.  And they revised history.  They say the only thing the Reagan tax cuts gave us were record deficits.  Of course, what those tax cuts gave us were record tax receipts.  The government never collected more money.  The House of Representatives (who spends the money), awash in cash, just spent that money faster than the treasury collected it.  The record shows Reaganomics worked.  Lower tax rates spurred economic activity.  More activity generated more jobs and more personal wealth.  Which resulted in more people paying more taxes.  More people paying taxes at a lower rate equaled more tax revenue in the aggregate.  It works.  And it works every time people try it. 

Because Reaganomics worked and showed the Left’s policies were failures, they had to attack Reagan.  To discredit him.  They had to destroy the man.  Except when they’re running for elected office.  Then they strive to show how much more Reagan-like they are than their conservative opponents.  Because they know Reaganomics worked.  And they know that we know Reaganomics worked.

GEORGE W. BUSH was routinely called an ‘idiot’ by the entertainment community, the media and his political foes.  Yet this ‘idiot’ seems to have outwitted the elite of the liberal Left time and time again.  I mean, if their policies were winning, they would be no reason to have attacked Bush in the first place.  The Left hated him with such vitriol that they said he blew up the Twin Towers on 9/11 as a justification for invading Iraq for her oil.  It was Big Oil’s lust for profit, after all, that was driving this Texan’s Big Oil policies.  And taking Iraq’s oil would increase Big Oil’s sales and give her even more obscene profits.

If Bush was an idiot, he must have been an idiot genius to come up with a plan like that.  Then again, gasoline prices crept to $4/gallon following the Iraq War.  Had all that oil gone on the market according to plan, that wouldn’t have happened.  Unless the plan was to keep that oil OFF of the market, thus, by rules of supply and demand, the price of oil (and the gasoline we make from it) would go up thus enriching Big Oil through higher prices resulting from a lower sales volume.  My god, what evil genius.  For an idiot.  Of course, gas taxes, numerous summer gas blends (required by the government’s environmental policies), an aging and over-taxed pipeline infrastructure and insufficient refinery capacity (the government’s environmental policies make it too punishing even to consider building a new refinery) to meet increasing demand (soaring in India and China) had nothing to do with the rise in gas prices.

IS THE POLITICAL Left evil?  Probably not.  Just amoral.  They have an agenda.  They survive on political spoils and patronage.  Old time politics.  Enrich themselves through cronyism.  If tribute is paid they’ll extend favorable treatment.  If tribute is not paid, they will release their wrath via hostile regulation, litigation, Congressional investigation and punitive taxation.  Just like they did to Big Tobacco (and, no, it wasn’t about our health.  They could have just made tobacco illegal.  But they didn’t.  Why?  It just brings in way too much money to the government.  Via sin taxes.  And federal lawsuits.  And with it being addictive, it’s a frickin cash piñata for them.)

They know few agree with their philosophy.  But they don’t care.  It’s not about national prosperity.  It’s about power.  And they want it.  That’s why they can’t debate the issues.  They know they can’t win.  So they attack the messenger.  Not the message.  If you don’t believe that, you can ask Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin and just about any other Republican.  Well, you can’t ask Lincoln or Reagan.  But you can guess what they would say.

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