FT138: “High gas prices mean high food prices.” —Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 5th, 2012

Fundamental Truth

We use Diesel Fuel in our Ships, Trains and Trucks to move Food from the Farm to the Grocery Store

People don’t like high gas prices.  When the price at the pump goes up more of our paycheck goes into the gas tank.  Or, more precisely, in everyone’s gas tanks.  For even if you don’t drive a car when gas prices go up you’re putting more of your paycheck into the gas tanks of others.  Thanks to oil being the lifeblood of our economy.  And unless you’re completely self-sufficient (growing your own food, making your own clothes, etc.) everything you buy consumed some petroleum oil somewhere before reaching you.

Gas prices go up for a variety of reasons.  The purely economic reason is the market forces of supply and demand.  When gas prices rise it’s because demand for gasoline is greater than the supply of gasoline.  Which means our refineries aren’t producing enough gasoline to meet demand.  And the purely economic reason for that is that they are not refining enough crude oil.  Meaning the low supply of gasoline is due to the low supply of crude oil.  Which brings us to how high gasoline prices consume more of our paychecks even if we don’t drive.  The reason being that we just don’t make gasoline out of crude oil.  We also make diesel fuel.

Diesel fuel is a remarkable refined product.  It just has so much energy in it.  And we can compress an air-fuel mixture of it to a very small volume.  Put the two together and you get a long and powerful power stroke.  Making the diesel engine the engine of choice for our heavy moving.  We use it in the ships that cross the ocean.  In the trains that cross our continents.  And in the trucks that bring everything to where we can buy them.  To the grocery stores.  The department stores.  To the restaurants.  Everything in the economy that we don’t make for ourselves travels on diesel fuel.  Which is why when gas prices go up diesel fuel prices go up.  Because of the low supply of oil going to our refineries to refine these products.

Oil is at a Disadvantage when it comes to Inflation because you just can’t Hide the Affects of Inflation in the Price of Oil

And there are other things that raise the price of gasoline.  That aren’t purely economical.  But more political.  Such as restrictions on domestic oil drilling.  Which reduces domestic supplies of crude oil.  Political opposition to new pipelines.  Which reduces Canadian supplies of crude oil.  Special ‘summer’ blends of gasoline to reduce emissions that tax a refinery’s production capacity.  As well as our pipeline distribution network.  Higher gasoline taxes.  To pay for roads and bridges.  And to battle emissions.  The ethanol mandate to use corn for fuel instead of food.  Again, to battle emissions.  All of which makes it more difficult to bring more crude oil to our refineries.  And more difficult for our refineries to make gasoline.  Which all go to adding costs into the system.  Raising the price at the pump.  Consuming more of our paychecks.  No matter who is buying it.

Then there is another factor increasing the price at the pump.  Inflation.  When the government tries to stimulate economic activity by lowering interest rates they do that by expanding the money supply.  So money is cheaper to borrow because there is so much more of it to borrow.  Hence the lower interest rates.  However, expanding the money supply also causes inflation.  And devalues the dollar.  As more dollars are now chasing the same amount of goods and services in the economy.  So it takes more of them to buy the same things they once did.  One of the harder hit commodities is oil.  Because we price oil on the world market in U.S. dollars.  So when you devalue the dollar it takes more of them to buy the same amount of oil they once bought.

Oil is at a particular disadvantage when it comes to inflation.  Because you just can’t hide the affects of inflation in the price of oil.  Or the gas we make from it.  Unlike you can with laundry detergent, potato chips, cereal, candy bars, toilet paper, etc.  Where the manufacturer can reduce the packaging or portion size.  Allowing them not to raise prices to reflect the full impact inflation.  They still increase the unit price to reflect the rise in the general price level.  But by selling smaller quantities and portions their prices still look affordable.  This is a privilege the oil industry just doesn’t have.  They price crude oil by a fixed quantity (barrel).  And sell gasoline by a fixed quantity (gallon).  So they have no choice but to reflect the full impact of inflation in these prices.  Which is why there is more anger about high gas prices than almost any other commodity.

Perhaps we can lay the Greatest Blame for the Current Economic Malaise on the Government’s Inflationary Monetary Policies

Current gas prices are hitting record highs.  And this during the worse economic recovery following the worst recession since the Great Depression.  Gas prices and the unemployment rate are typically inversely related to each other.  When there is high unemployment people are buying less gasoline.  This excess gasoline supply results in lower gas prices.  When there is low unemployment people are buying more gasoline.  This excess demand for gasoline results in higher gas prices.  These are the normal affects of supply and demand.  So the current high gas prices have little to do to with normal economic forces.  Which leaves government policies to explain why gas prices are so high.

Environmental concerns have greatly increased regulatory policy.  Increasing regulatory compliance costs.  Which has greatly discouraged the building of new refineries.  And making it very difficult to build new pipelines.  Which tax current pipeline and refinery capacities.  A problem mitigated only with their restriction on domestic oil production.  The current administration has pretty much shut down oil exploration and production on all federal lands.  Reducing crude oil supplies to refineries.  These environmental policies would send gas prices soaring if the economy was booming.  But the economy is not booming.  In fact the U-6 unemployment rate (which counts everyone who can’t find a full time job) held steady at 14.7% in September.  So an overheated economy is not the reason we have high gas prices.  But the high gas prices may be part of the reason we have such high unemployment.

Perhaps we can lay the greatest blame for the current economic malaise on the government’s inflationary monetary policies.  Inflation increases prices.  Especially those things sold in fixed quantities priced in dollars.  Like oil.  And gasoline.  The price inflation in refined oil products is like a virus that spreads throughout the economy.  Because everyone uses energy.  Especially the food industry.  From the farmers driving their tractor to work their fields.  To the trucks that take grain to rail terminals.  To the trains that transport this grain to food processing plants.  To the trucks that deliver these food products to our grocery stores.  From the moment farmers first turn over their soil in spring to the truck backing into to a grocery store’s loading dock to consumers bringing home groceries in their car to put food on the table fuel is consumed everywhere.  Which is why when gasoline prices go up food prices go up.  Because we refine gasoline from the same crude oil we refine diesel fuel from.  Oil.  Creating a direct link between our energy policy and the price of food.

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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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FT110: “You can’t blame our dependence on foreign oil for high gas prices AND say that producing more domestic oil won’t lower gas prices.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 23rd, 2012

Fundamental Truth

The Combination of Low Demand and High Supply caused Oil Prices to Fall over 70% by 1986

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a cartel.  Made up currently of Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela.  Their purpose is to set oil quotas for their oil-producing members.  To limit the amount of oil they bring to market.  To reduce supply.  And increase oil prices.  At least that’s the idea.  It’s been hard to keep the individual OPEC members from cheating, though.  And a lot do.  Often selling more than their quota.  Because when oil prices are high selling a few percentages above their quota can be very profitable.  Unless everyone else does so as well.  Which they usually do.  For their choice is either not to cheat and not share in any of those ‘excess’ profits (beyond their agreed to quota).  Or cheat, too.  Thereby increasing supply.  And lowering oil prices.  Not something any oil producer wants to do.  But it’s the only way to share in any of those ‘excess’ profits.

But that’s not the only problem OPEC has.  There are a lot of oil producers who aren’t members of OPEC.  Who can bring oil to market in any quantity they choose.  Especially when they see the high price OPEC is charging.  OPEC’s high price allows non-OPEC suppliers to sell a lot of oil at a slightly lower price and reap huge profits.  Which puts pressure on the OPEC target price.  Forcing them to lower their target price.  For if they don’t lower their price they will lose oil sales to those non-OPEC producers.  Which is exactly what happened in the late Seventies.  While OPEC was cutting back on production (to raise prices) the non-OPEC nations were increasing production.  And taking over market share with their lower prices.  Causing OPEC to reverse policy and increase production during the mid-Eighties.  Giving us the 1980s oil glut.

Of course, this rise in non-OPEC production was a direct result of the 1973 Oil Crisis.  Many of the OPEC members are Muslim nations.  Who don’t like the state of Israel.  In response to the West’s support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War (1973) OPEC announced an oil embargo on those nations who helped Israel.  Giving us the 1973 oil crisis.  Where this sudden reduction in supply caused the price of oil to soar.  Making the oil business a very profitable business.  Causing those non-OPEC producers to enter the market.  Then the Iranian Revolution (1979) disrupted Iranian crude production.  Keeping Iranian oil off the market.  This reduction in demand caused oil prices to rise.  Then Jimmy Carter broke off diplomatic relations with the Iranian state.  And boycotted their oil when it returned to the market.  Further encouraging the non-OPEC producers to bring more oil to market.  Meanwhile U.S. demand fell because of those high prices.  And our switch to smaller, 4-cyclinder, front wheel drive cars.  Saying goodbye to our beloved muscle cars of the Sixties and Seventies.  And the V-8 engine.  The combination of low demand and high supply caused oil prices to fall over 70% by 1986.  Giving us the oil glut of the 1980s.  When gasoline was cheap.  Enticing the V-8 engine back into the market.

Improved Fuel Economy AND Increased Oil Supplies can Reduce the Price at the Pump

So, yes, Virginia.  The amount of oil entering the market matters.  The more of it there is the cheaper it will be.  As history has shown.  When less oil entered the market prices rose.  When more oil entered the market prices fell.  And anything that can affect the supply of oil making it to market will affect the price of oil.  (And everything downstream of oil.  Jet fuel.  Diesel.  And gasoline.)  Wars.  Regional instability.  And governmental regulation. 

So what are things that will bring more oil to market?  Well there’s the obvious.  You drill for more oil.  This is so obvious but a lot of people refuse to accept this economic principle.  As supply increases prices fall.  The 1980s oil glut proved this.  Even John Maynard Keynes has graphs showing this in his Keynesian economics.  The economics of choice for governments everywhere.   Yet there are Keynesian politicians who avert their eyes to this economic principle.  So there’s that.  More drilling.  You can also make the permitting process easier to drill for oil.  You can open up federal lands currently closed to drilling.  And once you find oil you bring it to market.  As quickly as you can.  And few things are quicker than pipelines.  From the oil fields.  To the oil refineries.  (And then jet fuel, diesel and gasoline pipelines from the refineries to dispensing centers).  So before oil fields are ready to produce you start building pipelines from those fields to the refineries.  Or you build new refineries.

Improving fuel economy did help reduce our demand for imported oil in the Eighties.  As well as lowered the price for that imported oil.  But it wasn’t fuel economy alone.  The non-OPEC nations were increasing production from the mid-Seventies through the mid-Eighties.  Without that oil flooding the market oil prices wouldn’t have fallen 70%.  And they won’t fall again if we ONLY try to reduce our demand for foreign oil.  For reducing demand is marginal at best in reducing oil prices. 

Only if we Drill and Build Pipelines can we Reduce the Price at the Pump

For there are no electric airplanes.  The cost to electrify all railroad tracks is too prohibitive to consider.  The capital costs to build that electrical infrastructure.  The maintenance costs to maintain it.  And the electricity costs from the increased demand for electrical power while supply remains the same.  Or falls.  Because excessive regulation inhibits the building of new power plants.  And speeds up the shutdown of older plants.  Especially coal-fired because they pollute too much.  And hydro power.  Because of the environmental impact of dams.  Severely straining our electric grids.  And moving into electric cars will stress our electric grids even further.  Leading to brown outs.  And rolling blackouts.   Or worse.  Causing wires to overheat and sag, coming into contact with trees.  Shorting out.  Causing cascading blackouts as power plants disconnect from the grid to prevent damage from the resulting current surges.  Like they did in the Northeast Blackout of 2003.

You can’t replace oil with electricity.  In some cases there is just no electric equivalent.  Such as the airplane.  Or the cost of moving from oil to electricity is just prohibitive.  Such as updating the nation’s electrical infrastructure to meet an exploding demand.  Which leaves oil.  We need it.  And will keep using it.  Because there is no better alternative.  Yet.  So we need to produce it.  And do everything we can to help bring that oil to market.  Not fight against it.  And it all starts with drilling. 

We must drill.  Bring that oil up from under the ground.  Put it into a pipeline.  And pump it to a refinery.  If we do this enough we will be less dependent on foreign oil.  And have more control over the price at the pump.

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High Gas Prices may be Keeping some of Us in Recession, but the Rich and our Elected Leaders are doing Okay

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 27th, 2011

The Oil Supply determines Gasoline Prices

President Obama will release approximately 30 million barrels of oil from the U.S. Strategic Reserve to try and bring down gasoline prices for this summer driving season.  Because the high cost of gasoline is leaving consumers with little disposable income.  Or a reason to reelect him in 2012 (see U.S. Consumer Spending Stalled in May by The Associated Press posted 6/27/2011 on The New York Times).

Americans in May spent at the weakest pace in 20 months, a sign that gas prices are taking a toll on the economy, according to a government report Monday.

Recessions don’t reelect presidents.  Because people don’t like recessions.  People have little money to spend on the ‘luxuries’ (dinner out, movies, vacation, etc.) in life.  And barely have enough to pay for the necessities of life.  So the high price of gasoline does not make a happy constituent.  And if you need a happy constituent to reelect you, the smart money is bet on making the constituency happy.  By bringing down gasoline prices.  Which we know how to do.  President Obama has shown us.  You simply Increase the amount of oil in the market. 

So far, drawing down the Strategic Reserve is the only thing his administration has down to increase the supply of oil.  He stopped drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  And new drilling permits have not exactly been flying out of Washington.  But there’s still hope.  Thanks to our good friends to the north.  Who have some of the largest oil reserves in the world.  And only need a way to get it to the American refineries.  Which Obama can make happen.  By saying ‘yes’ to an oil pipeline (see China eyes Canada oil, US’s energy nest egg by Rob Gilles, Associated Press, posted 6/26/2011 on Yahoo! News).

In the northern reaches of Alberta lies a vast reserve of oil that the U.S. views as a pillar of its future energy needs.

China, with a growing appetite for oil that may one day surpass that of the U.S., is ready to spend the dollars for a big piece of it.

The oil sands of this Canadian province are so big that they will be able to serve both of the world’s largest economies as production expands in the coming years. But that will mean building at least two pipelines, one south to the Texas Gulf Coast and another west toward the Pacific, and that in turn means fresh environmental battles on top of those already raging over the costly and energy-intensive method of extracting oil from sand.

Uh-oh.  Environmental battles.  You know what that means?  No relief at the pump.  Not from this administration that set green energy as the cornerstone of its economic recovery.  I mean, lowering the price of gasoline so people don’t remember the vacation that wasn’t come election time is one thing.  But making gasoline cheap and plentiful?  In an administration with Steven (somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe) Chu as Energy Secretary?  Not going to happen.

Critics dislike the whole concept of oil sands, because extracting the oil requires huge amounts of energy and water, increases greenhouse gas emissions and threatens rivers and forests. Keystone XL, the pipeline that would bring Alberta oil to Texas Gulf Coast refineries to serve the U.S. market, compounds the issue…

Environmental groups want [President Obama] to reject it, seeing it as a test of Obama’s will to fight climate change.

The Chinese may likely get their pipeline.  But the environmentalists will be pressuring Obama to just say ‘no’.  So get used to those high prices.  They’ll probably be around for a long time to come.  At least until 2012.

The Rich get Richer, We get Poorer and Senators get Bigger Offices

People are getting richer than ever before.  Even during the Great Recession.  Some feel it’s not fair.  Especially those who hate corporate America (see The rich aren’t like you and me by Michael Winship posted 6/27/2011 on Salon).

The annual wealth report by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini finds that the assets of these so-called “high net worth individuals” reached $42.7 trillion in 2010, a rise of nearly ten percent from the previous year at a time when, as The Guardian observed, “austerity budgets were implemented by many governments in the developed world…”

Ernest Hemingway claimed that when F. Scott Fitzgerald once said to him, “The rich are different from you and me,” he archly replied, “Yes, they have more money.” Whether it’s true or not, the Hemingway in the story got it wrong. The rich not only have more money, they have more power, more clout — and more to hide.

Interestingly, this hasn’t changed during the Obama administration.  In fact, crony capitalism has never been better.  Bailouts for friends on Wall Street.  GE with a booming green energy business thanks to Obama’s green energy initiatives (and who are NOT, by the way, paying any income taxes).  Automotive bailouts that favored the UAW over actual stakeholders.  Oh, it’s good to be king.  And part of the ruling elite.  Now it’s time to reward them for a job…done (see Senators Stay Put in Hideaways by Daniel Newhauser posted 6/27/2011 on Roll Call).

A number of long-serving Senators are sitting out this year’s draw for coveted hideaways…

It’s a Senate tradition that is a cross between “Trading Spaces” and the NBA draft. Every two years, after some of the longest-serving lawmakers retire or pass away, the remaining Senators start the process of shuffling spaces, seeking to enhance their status with a coveted secret office.

The Great Recession lingers on because of high gasoline prices caused by government policies that hinder bringing more oil to market.  George W. Bush and Dick Cheney never did anything like this to drive up the price of oil.  And they were oilmen.  Who would have profited handsomely from high oil prices.  As the Democrats and the mainstream media pointed out endlessly as gasoline prices entered $4/gallon territory.  No such accusations now.  Just silence.  As the Obama policies leave a swath of destruction across the fruited plain.  Congress could do something about this.  But there is more important business to attend to.  Namely, showing other senators who has a bigger office.

Four of the 10 longest-serving sitting Senators decided it was time for an upgrade, including Hatch, who snagged the legendary space once occupied by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Levin, who moved into the impressive hideaway of former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

Hatch said his elegant new third-floor office, with a fireplace, large windows and high arched ceilings, is a significant upgrade, especially because it is just paces from the Senate floor.

And a nicer office.  Elegant?  Fireplace?  High arched ceilings?  What is this?  Imperial Rome?  Some get so upset when the rich get richer but when the people’s representatives, our servants, live just as good as the rich there is barely a whisper of disapproval.

Leahy, meanwhile, said he was in no hurry to move.

“Why would I want to give up mine?” he asked. “I’ve got the most beautiful view probably in the whole Capitol.”

An avid photographer, the second-most-senior Senator, brandishing a professional-grade digital camera, scrolled to a freshly snapped photo to prove his case.

“Recognize that guy?” he asked Wednesday, pointing to a man clad in familiar orange-tinted sunglasses, his arm casually resting on a balcony ledge looking out on a spectacular view of the Washington Monument. “It’s Bono.”

The seven-term Senator is the proud inhabitant of a first-floor hideaway, formerly the stomping grounds of the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). With a fireplace, built-in bookshelves, a private bathroom and a balcony, it is a rare gem among the Capitol’s hidden offices, and certainly enough to impress even a rock star.

This is your U.S. Senate.  Taking care of the people’s business.  Totally insulated from the Great Recession.  While taking the time to swoon over celebrities.  From the balcony of a gem of a hidden office.  It would appear that the rich are not the only ones who have more money, more power, more clout — and more to hide.

Out of Touch with American People

The Left attacked Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as being out of touch with the American people.  Tax breaks for the rich.  And spending cuts for the poor.  That neither saw the suffering masses their policies created.  Well, President Obama is addressing this income disparity.  By making everyone poorer.  Except, of course, his cronies who are generous with the campaign cash donations.

The high cost of gasoline is hurting Americans and keeping the Great Recession alive and well.  And we can blame Barack Obama now for the high cost of gasoline.  By restricting the supply of oil to the market.  Because more oil means lower gas prices.  (Obama proved he knows this by drawing down the Strategic Reserve to do just that.)  His administration placed a moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  His administration is making it difficult to get drilling permits.  And now his administration may say ‘no’ to that pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the Texas Gulf Coast.  Or delay saying ‘yes’ for as long as possible to appease the environmentalists.  Meanwhile, the Chinese will move ahead and do whatever it takes to get that Canadian oil.  Because without oil a modern economy will grind to a halt.  And no amount of windmills or solar panels will change that. 

The Chinese know this.  And they’ll probably get that Canadian oil while the Obama administration is still dithering over the environmental impact of the proposed pipeline.  Completely indifferent to the plight of struggling American families.  And quite happy to sit by and watch the price of gasoline get to European levels.  To advance their green energy policies.  So they can reward their most generous cronies.

And it was Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush who were out of touch with American people?

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Can’t see the Fiscal Forest for the Monetary Trees

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 24th, 2011

He won’t Drill but he will Draw from the Strategic Reserve

The Great Recession lingers on.  As high oil prices hit consumers hard.  Gas prices are back to $4/gallon territory.  Leaving consumers with less disposable income.  Home values are declining in a deflationary spiral.  Wages are stagnant.  Unemployment is high.  And there’s inflation in food and consumer goods.  All driven by the high price of oil.  And all that quantitative easing (QE) that has depreciated the U.S. dollar (which we buy and sell oil with in the global market).

The demand for oil is soaring.  And yet President Obama put a moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  In fact, the U.S. isn’t drilling anywhere.  Which has forced the U.S. to import more foreign oil.  Because of this squeeze on supply.  Economics 101 tells you when demand increases supply should increase to meet that growing demand.  When it doesn’t, prices rise.  Like they are.  And the QE just compounded that problem.  When the dollar is worth less it takes more of them to buy the same amount of oil it used to.  Which means higher prices at the pump.  From demand outpacing supply.  And a weaker dollar.

The president’s solution to the high gas prices?  Blame the oil companies.  Because their profits were too high.  It had nothing to do with his policies that restricted the supply of oil on the market.  Of course, with an election coming up and gasoline prices too close to $4/gallon, he’s changed his position on that (see Loss of Libya oil bigger disruption than Katrina: IEA by Simon Falush and Zaida Espana posted 6/24/2011 on Reuters).

On Thursday, the International Energy Agency which represents the major oil consumers agreed to release 60 million barrels from emergency stockpiles, sending crude prices tumbling.

Imagine that.  Increase supply.  And prices fall.  For awhile, at least.  Because once these 60 million barrels are gone, the prices will just go back up where they were.  Unless there is a real increase in supply.  Like more drilling in the Gulf.  The Atlantic.  The Pacific.  In Alaska.  We know it works.  Increase supply.  And prices fall.  So why not just increase supply with more drilling?  Instead of drawing down our strategic reserves (America’s share being 30 million of the 60 million barrels).  Which, incidentally, we’ll have to replace.

Energy Policy Driven by the 2012 Election

Even the White House is all but admitting this move is purely political (see The wrong reason for depleting the strategic oil reserve posted 6/23/2011 on The Washington Post).

So on Thursday Obama administration spokesman Jay Carney argued that oil demand is likely to rise over the summer. In other words: It’s vacation season, and the White House is worried about high prices through the summer driving months.

Therein, perhaps, is a political emergency, at least in the White House view: President Obama’s reelection prospects will be harmed if national discontent over high gasoline prices continues. The oil release could be seen as a way for the president to take credit for gas prices that are falling anyway, or as an indirect, pre-election stimulus.

Personally, the president doesn’t have a problem with the high cost of gasoline.  His administration wants it high.  The higher the better.  They’d like to see it European high (see Times Tough for Energy Overhaul by Neil King Jr. and Stephen Power posted 12/12/2008 on The Wall Street Journal).

In a sign of one major internal difference, Mr. Chu [who became Obama’s Energy Secretary] has called for gradually ramping up gasoline taxes over 15 years to coax consumers into buying more-efficient cars and living in neighborhoods closer to work.

“Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe,” Mr. Chu, who directs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in September.

To make the more expensive green energy less expensive in comparison.  And an easier sell to the American people.  Pleasing his liberal base.  But there’s an election coming.  And high gas prices don’t help you win elections.  Especially during record long-term unemployment.  Even though it goes against every fiber in his body to act to bring down the cost of gasoline, he will.  If it’ll help his reelection chances.  It’s not like he’s going to lose his liberal base.  Who else are they going to vote for?  The conservative?  Not likely.  They’re always going to vote for the most liberal candidate in the race.  And that will still be him.  Despite encouraging more oil consumption.

The Fed doesn’t know why the Economy is in the Toilet

The president needs to get the price down at the pump.  Where people really feel the full weight of his economic policies.  Because the economy isn’t going to get better anytime soon (see Serial disappointment posted 6/23/2011 on The Economist).

THE Fed attracted attention this week for downgrading its forecast not just for this year, but for 2012, as well. More striking is how often it does this. As my nearby chart shows [follow the above link to see chart], the Federal Open Market Committee has repeatedly ratcheted down its forecasts of out-year growth. The latest downward revision is particularly large, and in keeping with the pattern: when the current year disappoints, they take a bit out of the next, as well.

There’s been a steady downward progression of economic projections.  Despite the stimulus.  And the quantitative easing.  Nothing has worked.  When the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, was asked why the economy was not responding to the government’s actions his reply was rather Jeff Spicoli: I don’t know.  And he’s supposed to be an expert in this field.

Mr Bernanke does not need lessons about the painful deleveraging that follows crises. His pioneering work with Mark Gertler on the Great Depression introduced the “financial accelerator”, the mechanism by which collapsing net worth crushes the real economy. This concept has been rechristened the “balance sheet recession” by Richard Koo. Stephen Gordon admits he is new to the term and notes (with some nice charts contrasting America with Canada) “it’s not pretty”. (HT to Mark Thoma). Yet until now Mr Bernanke seemed to think America had learned enough from both the 1930s and Japan to avoid either experience. Reminded by a reporter for Yomiuri Shimbun that he used to castigate Japan for its lost decade, Mr Bernanke ruefully replied, “I’m a little bit more sympathetic to central bankers now than I was 10 years ago”…

Mr Koo has argued that quantitative easing cannot help in a balance sheet recession; only fiscal policy can. Does Mr Bernanke secretly agree? He may believe as strongly as he did a decade ago that sufficiently aggressive monetary policy can prevent deflation, but not that it can create enough demand to restore full employment. This does not rule out QE3; it only means it will be pursued with less hope about the results than a year ago.

The Great Depression (during the 1930s) is a complex topic.  And monetary policy played a big role in making a bad situation worse.  In particular, the numerous bank runs and failures can be blamed on the Federal Reserve.  Starving the banks for capital when they most needed it.  But there was a whole lot more going on.  And it wasn’t the stock market crash that caused it.  World War I (1914-1918) is probably more to blame.  That war was so devastating that it took the combatants a decade to recover from it.  And during that time America exploded in economic activity and fed the world with manufactured goods and food.  We call it the Roaring Twenties.  But eventually European manufacturing and farming came back.  Those lucrative export markets went away.  And America had excess capacity.  Which had to go away.  (A similar boom and bust happened in the U.S. following World War II.)  Then all the other stuff started happening.  Including the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Kicking off a trade war.  It was all too much.

Japan’s lost decade (the 1990s) followed their roaring Eighties.  When the government partnered with business.  And interest rates were low.  The economy boomed.  Into a great big bubble.  That popped.  Because they stimulated the economy beyond market demand. 

The lesson one needs to take away from both of these deflationary spirals is that large government interventions into the private market caused most of their woes.  So the best way to fix these problems is by reducing the government’s intervention into the private market.  Because only the private market knows how to match supply to demand.  And when they do, we have business cycles.  That give us only recessions.  Not depressions.

Like a Dog having Puppies

The market is demanding more oil.  But the U.S. is not meeting that demand.  So gasoline prices are up.  To lower those prices we need to bring more oil onto the market.  And you don’t do that by shutting down the oil business.

We have high unemployment.  And excess capacity.  That’s not a monetary policy problem (interest rates).  It’s a fiscal policy problem (tax and regulation).  No one is going to borrow money to add jobs to build more stuff when no one is buying.  But if you cut taxes and reduce regulations to make running a business highly profitable, people will build businesses here.  Create jobs.  And hire people.  Even if they have to ship everything they make halfway around the world to find someone who is buying. 

Running the economy is not rocket science.  Because it runs itself.  Like a dog having puppies.  Everything will be fine.  If greedy politicians just keep their hands out of it.  But they don’t.  And they love printing money.  Because they love to spend.  But the problem is that they can’t see the fiscal forest for the monetary trees.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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