On Oil and Energy into 2023

This post, the second in a series on the energy sector, was first published at Exante Data’s Money: Inside and Out.

In an earlier post we recalled the recovery of the energy sector in 2022. Here we look ahead to prospects for the oil market in 2023. In particular: 

  • Will we see more of the same, upside for energy stocks? 
  • Or will the energy sector subside again? Or mostly flatline? 

In previous times, we could offer some answers to these questions by focusing on market supply and demand for oil and gas products. Today, these market forces are made more complicated by factors that are not solely economic, but also political and geopolitical. 

Let us consider the key variables and some scenarios.

Key Factors to Watch in 2023

  1. Inventories

Inventories of crude oil and of some oil products now stand near historic lows in the US. This decline was exacerbated by the Biden administration’s sale of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) at a rate of about one million barrels per day. These sales have depleted the SPR from a total of over 600 million barrels in March to less than 400 million today, the lowest level since the early 1980s when the SPR was being filled. 

However, oil sales from the SPR are expected to stop this month and to eventually reverse when the SPR is replenished. The administration has vowed to rebuild the reserve by buying back when oil is near $70 per barrel. This new buying could create sustained demand for crude in 2023. Although the purchases will not be at the same rate as the drawdowns, the fact remains that one million barrels per week will soon be taken out of the supply and a portion of that will be added to the demand. 

Net, net inventory levels and the dynamic surrounding SPR replenishments must be considered directionally POSITIVE for the price of oil.

The market is not as tight for products downstream. There appears to be no real shortage in refined products on a global scale. US refining is holding steady and is producing more now than in the middle of 2022 because some refineries have returned from service turnarounds to normal operations. And China exports of refined products have risen in recent months after the government loosened export restrictions. Having said all that, there were sporadic tightenings in the market on a local basis such as we saw with gasoline and diesel in some US regions in the spring and summer. Further, as the Chinese economy reopens, the global products market could get tighter as the country redirects its production from exports back to domestic usage.

  1. Ukraine war and Russian shipments Continue Reading at Money: Inside and Out (paywall) >>>

Note: This post is not investment advice. Please do your own work and discuss with professional advisors before committing capital.

The Great Energy Recovery of 2022

This post, the first in a series on the energy sector, was first published at Exante Data’s Money: Inside and Out.

The energy sector outperformed in the past year, and not only because of Russia-Ukraine.

“By the fall of __, it was clear that a nation’s prosperity, even its very survival, depended on securing a safe, abundant supply of cheap oil.” 

When Albert Marrin penned this sentence in his book Black Gold: The Story of Oil in Our Lives, he was looking back nearly a century and referring to the fall of 1918. But we can agree now, looking at the wreckage suffered by the European economy and at severe disruptions elsewhere, that it applies just as well to the fall of 2022. The six months since the start of the Ukraine war have shown like no other recent period that the global economy in the 21st Century is still very much predicated, as it was in the 20th Century, on the story of oil (and natural gas), of nations searching for it, competing for it, trading it or withholding it.

This realization is not quite what we expected. 

On the contrary, rich economies had been for over a decade moving slowly but methodically to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. As a result of climate change concerns, investors were pouring money into renewables and curtailing fresh outlays to oil, gas and coal projects. Natural gas was previously seen as the cleaner source of energy but it was now deemed as only marginally better than oil. There was a spreading consensus in some quarters that fossil fuels were on their way out, sooner or later but preferably sooner.

University endowments and other large institutions were scrubbing their portfolios free of fossil fuel holdings and were doing so with fanfare and as proof (in their view) of good responsible citizenship and of adherence to ESG standards. Their timing was good because, starting in late 2014, a surge in shale oil production in the United States depressed the price of oil and with it the price of energy stocks. From late 2014 to early 2020, the mere avoidance or diminution of fossil fuel holdings allowed many endowments and funds to deliver significant outperformance vs. the major equity indices. Their returns were further boosted by their generous allocations to the technology sector where stocks rose smartly year after year.

Consider that from its peak in June 2014 to the end of 2019, the XLE energy ETF declined by 40% while, during the same period, the XLK technology ETF rose by 142% and the S&P 500 by 92%. It is easy to see how many “clean” or “green” funds outperformed the S&P 500 in 2014-19, in particular if they overweighted the technology sector.

But linear assumptions are often shredded by reality. So then the pandemic came.

The stock market and all sectors crashed. 

At the bottom of the panic, short-duration oil futures were briefly priced below zero as financial traders were desperate to get them off their books and to avoid taking physical delivery. Imagine in an extreme scenario a London fund manager being visited by an oil delivery truck at his Kensington townhouse. Luckily this did not come to pass. Continue Reading at Money: Inside and Out (paywall) >>>

Note: This post is not investment advice. Please do your own work and discuss with professional advisors before committing capital.

Twitter Punished

The following opinion first appeared in The Wednesday Briefs 110 – 6 April 2022. Access to The Wednesday Briefs is free but requires a password. Subscribe to populyst for access.

Tesla does not advertise in the media. That is true if you ignore the free advertising that Elon Musk gets by tweeting daily on Twitter. Musk in addition to everything else is a cult leader not only of the Tesla cult but also of the cult of Musk. In fact, the cult of Musk is the primary reason why Tesla is valued more highly than all other automakers combined. Musk sells electric vehicles and space rockets, but he sells first and foremost the public persona of Elon Musk. His purchase of 9.2% of Twitter therefore can be seen as an integral extension of his efforts.

Twitter has become vital to Musk, as vital as it had become to President Trump. Both Musk and Trump have (or had, in Trump’s case) tens of millions of followers and were able to reach them every day at a cost of exactly zero. We noted in the past the absurdity of this “free lunch” anomaly and have long argued that Twitter should invoice certain categories of users, not only in order to generate revenues but also in order to enforce a code of conduct.

We included this graph in The Wednesday Briefs 073 and 046. The x-axis refers to a user’s frequency of tweeting. And the-y axis to whether Twitter is indispensable to him. In our view, Twitter should charge users who fall in the green box, as well as some of the more prominent bloggers (the chart is from 2017 when there were few prominent bloggers; that bubble should extend to the right).

However, Twitter has remained free to all users, bypassing normal market forces and their necessary disciplining effects. Now as tends to occur with all free services, it has been ambushed by reality on two fronts: rogue users and low revenues.

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How to Tax a Billionaire (or Not)

Our institutions created centibillionaires and are now trying to contain them.

In Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, a group of high-achieving industrialists have had enough with being exploited (in their view) by “parasitic” collectivists and “second-handers”. They withdraw to a perfect community Galt’s Gulch aka Atlantis where they can live in peace and prosperity with each other, far away from the do-nothing (in their view) populace and according to their own laws and beliefs.

Because Rand mercifully never wrote a sequel (the original has more words than either War and Peace or Les Misérables), it is not clear whether these supermen and women lived happily ever after or whether, after enjoying the initial high of sticking it to humanity, their infinite egos led them to devour each other to oblivion and Galt’s Gulch disappeared Roanoke-like with no explanation left for posterity. That is, no explanation other than the obvious which is that a healthy society requires a fuller range of social strata and cultures, not only a super-stratum and a monoculture, in order to survive and to prosper.

No escape to Galt’s Gulch is currently offered to today’s billionaires who have so far opted to remain in the real world though they contend daily with insults and attacks from many quarters. It is necessary to say “so far” because some have been toying with otherworldly escapes, be they monetary via cryptocurrencies or interplanetary via emigration to planet Mars. Cryptos would free them from the gravity of central banks. And space from the gravity of Earth. After all, in our culture, “to leave it all behind” is nearly synonymous with high quality living. And to disrupt, to reject the dominant paradigm, are seen as ways to create new wealth.

Bernie vs. Billionaires

While still among us on earth however, even the ultra rich deserve… empathy. Or at least some recognition for their achievements. Their defining characteristic, shorn of all social and economic artifice, remains their humanity, not their wealth. Yet it is assumed by the angry-egalitarian political complex that it is fine to insult and harass a billionaire, as if their humanity was inversely proportional to their wealth. Starting with Bernie Sanders for example, some members of Congress have stated plainly that “billionaires should not exist”.

Because there are among the people mob inciters who amplify their message through social media, this slogan could be interpreted as incendiary, or as unsafely ambiguous. Does ‘billionaires should not exist’ mean that we should tax them until they are no longer billionaires? That would entail taking away 99% of some billionaires’ wealth. Or does it mean that we should limit their growth plans when their wealth hits the $999 million mark? Or force them to give away their wealth to charity? Or something else?

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You Are What You Risk, With Michele Wucker, 19 April 2021

“For some people, risk is scary and dangerous, and means peril and loss. For others, it means risk assets and they have to pile on because they just see the upside. But risk is actually value-neutral. It is important to be aware of the bias that you bring to things. Do you see both sides and do you weigh them? Or are you likely to overweigh the downside or overweigh the upside?” ________ Michele Wucker

We all have an ambivalent attitude towards risk. In 1850, a young Emily Dickinson wrote to her friend Abiah Root “the shore is safer, Abiah, but I love to buffet the sea. I can count the bitter wrecks here in these pleasant waters, and hear the murmuring winds, but oh, I love the danger!”

In her new book You Are What You Risk, author and strategist Michele Wucker codifies this ambivalence to risk. In this podcast with Sami, Michele explains the concepts of “risk fingerprint” and “personal risk portfolio”, among others.

Topics include:

  • 0:00 Introduction of Michele Wucker
  • 2:13 Thesis of ‘You Are What You Risk’
  • 5:20 Attitude towards risk: innate vs. acquired through experience
  • 10:40 Taking a risk vs. following a path; Risk and entrepreneurship
  • 14:10 About each person’s risk fingerprint
  • 19:45 Taking risk as the only woman in the room
  • 24:40 “Risk is value-neutral”
  • 33:00 Matching risk fingerprints in interactions; Measuring risk
  • 38:20 The personal risk portfolio
  • 42:25 Remembering the onset of the pandemic as a gray rhino

TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:

(photo of Michele Wucker by Hal Shipman)

The Boom in Certainty

Sinclair Lewis called it “the sedate pomposity of the commercialist”. Now it has spread to many parts of society, not always in its sedate form.

Back in our final days as architecture students in Austin, our class had a farewell gathering with a professor who had been a valued mentor to several of us. As was habitual on such occasions, the professor was discussing with us the work of various architects when the subject of a newly-constructed building came up.

“I hate that building”, one classmate said flatly.

After an awkward silence, the professor mocked: “you mean, strongly dislike?” Off guard, the offending party protested that his use of the word was innocuous then and there. The professor conceded as much but explained that it was a visceral word, the kind of word that forestalls further discussion and that hardens the speaker’s and listener’s opinions. It is difficult to walk back or to change your mind from “hate”, and easier to do so from “dislike” or even from “strongly dislike”, he argued. His advice was to leave in one’s words an open path for retreat, in essence to never burn one’s rhetorical bridges.

This led to another discussion about certainty and about people who speak with certainty. The professor said that he had a reflexive dislike for certainty and that he felt a profound distrust towards people who speak with certainty. There is very little that is certain in life, he said, even among things of which we are convinced at a given point in time. Opinions change, science changes, research advances. New discoveries change our beliefs. Knowledge doesn’t just flow or evolve gradually like a river; it shifts laterally and sometimes suddenly like an earthquake.

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