Isn’t it fun to just watch the market numbers roll by from time to time as you go about your day, see Europe markets up 3%+, Dubai 13%, US over 2% (biggest two-day rally since 2011!), and you just know oil must get hit again? Well, it did. WTI down another 3%+. I tells ya, no Plunge Protection is going save this sucker.
And oil is not even the biggest story today. It’s plenty big enough by itself to bring down large swaths of the economy, but in the background there’s an even bigger tale a-waiting. Not entirely unconnected, but by no means the exact same story either. It’s like them tsunami waves as they come rolling in. It’s exactly like that.
That is, in the wake of the oil tsunami, which is a long way away from having finished washing down our shores, there’s the demise of emerging markets. And I’m not talking Putin, he’ll be fine, as he showed again today in his big press-op. It’s the other, smaller, emerging countries that will blow up in spectacular fashion, and then spread their mayhem around. And make no mistake: to be a contender for bigger story than oil going into 2015, you have to be major league large. This one is.
The US dollar will keep rising more or less in and of itself, simply because the Fed has ‘tapered QE’, and much of what happened in global credit markets, especially in emerging markets, was based on cheap and easily available dollars. There’s now $85 billion less of that each month than before the taper took it away in $10 billion monthly increments. The core is simple.
This is not primarily government debt, it’s corporate debt. But it’s still huge, and it has not just kept emerging economies alive since 2008, it’s given them the aura of growth. Which was temporary, and illusionary, all along. Just like in the rest of the world, Japan, EU, US. And, since countries can’t – or won’t – let their major companies fail, down the line it becomes public debt.
One major difference from the last emerging markets blow-up, in the late 20th century, is size: emerging markets today are half the world economy. And they’re about to be blown to smithereens. Sure, oil will play a part. But mostly it will be the greenback. And you know, we can all imagine what happens when you blow up half the global economy …
There is a lot of speculation about the economic health of Russia in the light of tougher sanctions, falling oil prices and tumbling ruble. Concerns are raised whether Russia can afford it’s existence. However, those concerns are paper thin and are presented in more of a mocking spirit, because in most prediction acrobatics, actual revenues of Russian state are not considered at all. Many sources, in their predictions for Russian economy, are repeating the same mistake over and over again. Roughly speaking – assesments are made under the assumption that Russians pay dollars for their borsch. In reality, Russia sells borsch for dollars. This is important point to consider, because Russia pays it’s public sector expenditures (education, healthcare, pensions, police, army etc) in rubles!
As we all knew (those who didn’t got it stamped in the face this year thanks to the good will of liberal media), Russian revenues are based on natural resources. Sales are conducted in FX (except for special agreements, some of which are still pending). So let’s take a look how the purse of Russian state is being filled.
Over the last few weeks, a number of regular readers of The Archdruid Report have asked me what I think about the recent plunge in the price of oil and the apparent end of the fracking bubble. That interest seems to be fairly widespread, and has attracted many of the usual narratives; the blogosphere is full of claims that the Saudis crashed the price of oil to break the US fracking industry, or that Obama got the Saudis to crash the price of oil to punish the Russians, or what have you.
I suspect, for my part, that what’s going on is considerably more important. To start with, oil isn’t the only thing that’s in steep decline. Many other major commodities—coal, iron ore, and copper among them—have registered comparable declines over the course of the last few months. I have no doubt that the Saudi government has its own reasons for keeping their own oil production at full tilt even though the price is crashing, but they don’t control the price of those other commodities, or the pace of commercial shipping—another thing that has dropped steeply in recent months.
What’s going on, rather, is something that a number of us in the peak oil scene have been warning about for a while now. Since most of the world’s economies run on petroleum products, the steep oil prices of the last few years have taken a hefty bite out of all economic activities. The consequences of that were papered over for a while by frantic central bank activities, but they’ve finally begun to come home to roost in what’s politely called “demand destruction”—in less opaque terms, the process by which those who can no longer afford goods or services stop buying them.
That, in turn, reminded me of the last time prolonged demand destruction collided with a boom in high-priced oil production, and sent me chasing after a book I read almost three decades ago. A few days ago, accordingly, the excellent interlibrary loan service we have here in Maryland brought me a hefty 1985 hardback by financial journalist Philip Zweig, with the engaging title Belly Up: The Collapse of the Penn Square Bank. Some of my readers may never have heard of the Penn Square Bank; others may be scratching their heads, trying to figure out why the name sounds vaguely familiar. Those of my readers who belong to either category may want to listen up, because the same story seems to be repeating itself right now on an even larger scale.