Oil: Will the Malthusian View Carry the Day?
John Mauldin's Outside the Box

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Introduction

Today's "Outside the Box" will be one of the more controversial pieces that I have sent out over the past year. My long-term readers are well aware of my views on oil and energy, yet despite my beliefs, I find it valuable to read thoughts from those who have different views. These challenging view points come from my good friend, the very intelligent and always thought-provoking Charles Gave.

Charles is one of the co-founders of GaveKal, a global investment research and management firm that provides an array of financial services worldwide. They are best known for their study of monetary policy, fiscal policies, secular trends, technical analysis and asset class valuations which they use to form a unique perspective on the relationship between the financial markets and the global economy. In his article, "Oil: Will the Malthusian View Carry the Day?" Charles postulates that the price of oil could fall over the next several years. He defends his position with some teaching on the dynamics of energy, a review of historical cycles, and some thoughts on alternatives. I agree that there will be large energy substations, for which he makes a solid case, but I disagree with his conclusion that the price of oil will permanently drop. I think that the growth of the world GDP and thus the need for energy and oil will offset the energy substitution he outlines.

Charles goes on further to describe a commodity of which has been far less volatile than oil and has never had a down month since 2001 and one in which he thinks has great potential in the future. (I won't spill the beans on what it is just yet.)

My aim is that you will broaden your understanding and gain insight as a result of reading a contrarian's perspective. Enjoy this week's Outside the Box.

John Mauldin, Editor

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Oil: Will the Malthusian View Carry the Day?

By Charles Gave

There is no doubt that we have been on the wrong side of the great oil bull market. And a number of clients have (rightly) taken us to task for this mistake. After all, oil was one of the more important calls for money managers in the past year. Managers overweight energy (and energy-producing countries such as Russia or Norway) did very well until this spring; managers underweight energy by and large under-performed.

Then in May and June, a number of energy stocks suffered fairly dramatic drops. This came as a surprise to many since oil prices themselves did not drop much. Given that energy stocks make money hand over fist at US$40/bl, why should they fall when oil was at US$70/bl (an increasing number of irritated clients would ask us)? By mid-August, following the Israeli retaliation against Hezbollah and the BP Alaska pipeline problem, oil was making new highs of US$78/bl... but oil service stocks were still down -18% from their mid-May highs. How did this make sense? Was it just that everyone and their dog was long energy stocks/short the commodity and investors just got squeezed? Was it the short-term liquidity squeeze we had discussed in our research - and thus an opportunity to buy more? Or was something bigger afoot?

It is amazing the difference a short amount of time can make in this business. A few years ago, we could count on one hand clients who, in our regular visits, wanted to talk about energy. In our latest round-the-world journey to meet clients, it felt that oil was the only thing clients wanted to talk about, with a passion that we had not witnessed since the tech-boom days.

Needless to say, given our recent track record on oil, we would do our best to steer the conversation elsewhere... but more often than not, the conversations would end with our clients telling us that we simply "did not get it". The following pages are thus an attempt to lay out what we think we "get" about oil... Or at the very least, what the past 35 years taught us about this very important topic (incidentally, Charles left his cushy investment banking job to start Cecogest in 1973, a few weeks before the Kippur War and first oil shock; not the best of timing!)

***

1- Energy Sources

We need energy to move, heat, or cool ourselves, and our goods. We also need energy to build, store, or destroy, stuff. This energy can come from either:
  1. Products that we can store and move around (oil, coal, natural gas...) or,
  2. From electricity
In the case of electricity, the technology to store it (namely batteries) is still not very efficient. Moreover, while electricity can, to a certain extent, be moved within a country, it cannot be moved from one continent to the next. Electricity cannot be efficiently stockpiled and it has a limited reach. The main 'storable' and 'movable' sources of energy are thus oil and coal.

2- Energy Uses

Energy usages are very variable. They depend on weather, seasonality, time of the day, or of the week, holidays, etc... A perfect system of delivery for energy thus implies a stable source, delivering a constant rate of energy production, supplemented by sources to meet the peak, or specific ad hoc, demands.

In France, the "constant source" is delivered by nuclear power. The 'ad hoc' production is delivered by hydroelectricity and natural gas, coal or oil-fired power plants working at the margin. Given the above, it stands to reason that we should use the "movable" energy to move around, and the rest of the time, we should use electricity. In reality, however, it has not been so. A lot of the "movable" energy (oil, coal, natural gas...) has been used to generate electricity for industry, or heating, or air conditioning...

3- The Importance of Marginal Costs

The reason behind this apparent anomaly has to do with:
  • Marginal costs of production
  • Time delays between investments and production
Until recently, both of these factors favored oil. Indeed, once an oil field is in production, the marginal cash cost of extracting an additional barrel of oil is very low. And the delays between a significant change in the price of energy and new production coming on stream can be extremely long (for example, building a nuclear power plant can take up to ten years).

The temptation is thus great not to invest in other forms of energy as long as there is excess capacity in oil. This, needless to say, leads, with a remarkable regularity, to periods of booms and busts in energy production.

4- The Boom and Bust Energy Cycles

In the 1970s, oil rose from US$3/bl to US$30/bl in a little under eight years. At the time, the World learnt, at a very high cost (three recessions in the US) that the producers of the marginal supply of oil were not reliable. Following the Kippur War, we saw an embargo against the US and the Netherlands. We then witnessed a revolution in Iran, the emergence of a global terrorism threat (TWA flight hijackings, Munich Olympic games, Iran US embassy hostages... ).

Given the uncertainty, and the rapid rise in prices, the world went through a massive push towards energy independence (e.g.: French nuclear program), and energy market deregulation (freeing of energy prices in the US). In time, these moves led to a collapse in the price of oil. After oil prices fell, and with a lag, we started to witness the end of the substitution efforts. By the late 1990s, GM was mass-marketing Humvees (though Toyota was working hard on hybrids).

Unfortunately, over the past few years, the world has had to learn lessons of the 1970s all over again. Empowered by higher oil prices, countries such as Venezuela and Russia which, just a few years ago were considered reliable suppliers have now moved into the camp of the unreliable suppliers (Iran, Nigeria, Iraq...). Terrorism, mostly financed out of oil money, is raging everywhere. Israel is at war again against a well-armed (oil financed) enemy...

These geo-political consequences, were, we have to admit, one of the main reasons we turned very bearish on oil a few years ago. Politically and strategically, we believed that the Western World simply could not live with the consequences of expensive oil. And we still believe that, under the double pressure of technology and politics, oil prices will come back down and prove the Malthusians wrong.

5- Prices, Technology & Transportable Energy

Few things concentrate the mind as much as the ability to make money. Today, the price of oil is so much above its long-term equilibrium (see graph below) and so far above its average cost of extraction, that few investors aren't trying to capture the excess rent provided, at these levels, by oil prices. The race is on.

This "excess rent" has now been in place for a few years - or at least long enough for most people to believe that the "excess rent" is a structural phenomenon which is here to stay. And it might. Though, looking at History, it is uncanny how regularly "excess rents" tend to disappear, mostly through the application of new processes, or new technologies.

Let us start by reviewing some of the technologies which might impact 'transportable energy' (and thus oil, the Middle-East, Russia, Venezuela etc...).


1- The return of king coal: In WWII, the Germans (who were long coal and short oil) refined processes to make gasoline out of coal. This old process has been perfected and is now a source of energy in South Africa. Why is this important? Because there is more coal in North America or Australia than there is oil in the Middle East. The problems in using coal have historically been a) ecological issues (which can be solved with some money) and b) costs (using/moving coal is not as economic as low oil prices).

2- The exploitation of tar sands or bituminous coals in Canada, the US, and yes, Venezuela. Here, once again, the technology exists and the extraction costs are roughly US$30/bl. The production build-time is roughly around three to four years. The big hang-up is the shortage of technicians. Such shortage problems can however be solved after a few years (time of schooling/training) or, by enticing retired technicians to come back.

3- The emergence of new technologies to recover more oil out of old and decaying oil fields. With the price of oil where it is, it makes a lot of sense to invest substantially to try and optimize the output from any individual well. In the past 25 years, we have seen the average extraction at existing wells climb, thanks to technology, from 25% of known reserves to 40% of reserves. Norway has set a target of 65% to 70% recovery for a good part of its reserves and is already achieving that in some fields. Where do the improvements come from? Technological progress!

Promising technologies include digitalization, whereby numerous fiber optic temperature and pressure sensors are placed underground in a field and connected to the surface. Data from sensors is sent to operations centers and fed into computerized optimization models. The combination of real-time, belowground data and sophisticated modeling then allows engineers to optimize ongoing pumping and future drilling schedules and thus capture a larger percentage of the oil that's in the field.

Yet another promising technology is the use of microbes to boost oil extraction (here we must disclose an interest for Louis and Charles both own a stake in a company called Titan Oil Recovery (www.titanoilrecovery.com) a firm dedicated to this very process).

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4- The possibility to produce oil/ethanol out of agricultural products. On this very topic, the best summary we have read of the issues at hand was produced recently by our friend Mark Anderson, the editor of the SNS newsletter. We lift his work below shamelessly: "Ethanol is a liquid fuel, currently produced from corn... Now here's the rub: there is a debate about whether it actually takes more energy to create a gallon of ethanol than the energy contained in a gallon of ethanol. According to Report No. 814 from the Office of the Chief Economist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, corn ethanol contains 1.34 times the energy required to manufacture it.

It is clear that the manufacture of ethanol from corn is not very energy-efficient, and through its production process, ethanol's cost is strongly linked to international energy costs.

The wholesale price of a gallon of ethanol was recently in excess of $5, but has now fallen to less than $4. Last year, the price of ethanol was $1.30 per gallon. The escalation in price reflects an increase in demand as gasoline refiners began adding ethanol into their fuel products.

GM proudly claims that it has at least 1.9 million vehicles on the road that can use E-85 (gasoline with 15% ethanol content). But are consumers actually going to buy significant quantities of E-85 in place of gasoline with a high ethanol price?

Fortunately, there are a number of ethanol refineries under construction and due to come on-line in the next 18 months. With an increase in supply, we can expect a reduction in price, bringing the pump price of ethanol more in line with the pump price of gasoline. With the price of ethanol more competitive with gasoline, we should have no problem eventually reducing our dependency on gasoline. Except for one little fact....

Even if the cost of a gallon of ethanol production were equal to that of a gallon of gasoline, the energy content of a gallon of ethanol is less than that of a gallon of gasoline. The effect is to reduce the "gas mileage" of a car operating on ethanol by about 66%, which means that about 33% more ethanol than gasoline is required to drive a fixed distance. Therefore, to be economically competitive with gasoline, the pump price of ethanol actually must be no more than two thirds the price of gasoline.

The US government, at the urging of corn producers, provides a subsidy for refining ethanol of $.51 per gallon ($21.42/bl). Conversely, a gallon of gasoline is not subsidized at all. Guess why all the ethanol refineries are being built. With the incentives in place, the ethanol refiners are making tidy profits from each gallon sold. To make matters worse, we are physically limited by how much corn-based ethanol we can produce by the amount of land that can be converted to growing corn, which is aggravated by the fact that only the grain is used to create ethanol.

There are, however, alternative methodologies for creating ethanol. The simplest near term solution would be to use sugar cane in place of corn as the feed stock. This simplifies the refining process and requires less energy. Unfortunately, the U.S. government imposes a tariff on sugar cane to improve the competitive position of corn syrup (yup -- the same special-interest group that is behind the corn-ethanol subsidies). This tariff acts as a disincentive to make ethanol from sugar cane. This must have been an oversight in our comprehensive national energy policy.

There are longer-term solutions. In a period of about five years, we could be producing ethanol in quantity from cellulose. Cellulose is found in a variety of plant material, including the stalks of the corn plant. The process for production of ethanol from cellulose does not require large amounts of hydrocarbons and is, therefore, much less expensive. If the federal government continues to provide large subsidies for corn-derived ethanol, however, we are in effect providing a disincentive to make capital investment in cellulose technology. The corn lobby will fight tooth and nail, but in the end, democracy, just like the free market, has a way of doing what is right and sensible (usually, after trying out all other options). In this case, that would see cellulose derived ethanol become widely available in the marketplace.

Would this lead to energy independence? No, but it is a significant stride in the right direction. There is no silver-bullet solution to our addiction to foreign energy. Multiple emerging renewable energy technologies -- including solar and wind power, along with ethanol derived from cellulose -- will have to contribute to the solution over a period of time."

While ethanol might not be the solution (though it seems to have worked for Brazil which is now energy independent thanks in part to ethanol), and while the US government is amazingly clumsy in its attempt to promote this alternative fuel, undeniably, interest is growing to find alternative sources of energy.

6- Prices & Substitution

High energy costs are not impacting just oil. We have witnessed a stupendous rise in the price of all forms of energy through the substitution effect. And here technology is also making huge leaps. Let us, again, go through a few examples:

* Nuclear power. There are two main problems with nuclear plants. The first is that building a plant takes a long time (though the Chinese are definitely not wasting any time on that issue). The second issue is the disposal of the nuclear waste. But this is where the exciting news lies: we have recently read reports highlighting that the volume of the waste in the new French reactors is a tenth of what it was in the old reactors. This implies that the amount of space needed to store the waste is much smaller, and the arguments of the anti-nuclear green lobby further reduced.

* Production of energy at the individual and local levels: everywhere we go, especially in Europe (where the price of energy, on top of being very high, is also heavily taxed), we find new and interesting forms of energy production: in Scandinavia geothermal energy (one drills in the rocks, and gets the heat coming from below); in France, a massive movement towards heating pumps (exchanging heat between a source of water and the atmosphere - in fact, after a brutally hot summer in Provence, I am biting the bullet and having such a system installed in my Avignon house); in Denmark, there are quite a lot of wind turbines; in Spain, you can see solar panels on a growing number of roofs. All these systems enjoy huge tax breaks, and, once they are put in, they are here to stay; markets lost for oil, for ever.

By themselves, none of the above factors is sufficient. And the rate of substitution from oil to these new sources of energy is excruciatingly slow. For example, if one had the bad luck of installing an oil boiler in one's house three years ago, one is not going to change now. The capital costs are simply too high. But taken together they are significant and will change for ever the demand for oil or natural gas used to heat or cool houses, factories, or office buildings.

The first conclusion that one has to reach is that the use of oil (and natural gas) outside transportation is thus going to go down structurally. Oil will increasingly be used for what it should, namely 'movable energy' and transportation. But even there, big changes could be unfolding.

To illustrate what we mean, let us make an arbitrary, and somewhat questionable distinction between short-haul transportation (less than 300 kilometers) and long haul transportation (though, to be fair, the distinction is not completely unrealistic as, with the rise in disposable incomes, a growing number of families have every day "small cars" for the regular commutes and "larger cars" for the long distance road-trips).

A lot of oil is used in short-haul transportation (commuting). The hope here lies in the fact that the technology in batteries is changing fast. Next year, in the US, the first electric car with a range of more than 300 kilometers (a two seater, very exciting sport car) is going to be produced in California. Granted, it will be very expensive (over US$80,000), but all inventive new products are, at first, very expensive. With time, and greater production, prices collapse.

The emergence of the electric car will be a huge bonus for the nuclear power industry, the cars recharging at night, when the demand for power is the lowest, hereby guaranteeing an optimum use of the power grid infrastructure. Within a little more than a decade, one could see the use of oil for short-distance commuting absolutely plummets. Needless to say, forward-looking tax systems will favor these cars. Already, in London, the £8-£10 congestion charge one has to pay to enter Central London is waived for owners of "alternative fuel vehicles" such as Toyota Prius hybrid cars - the side effect being that Toyota can not keep up with the demand for right-hand drive hybrids and so Hong Kong gets shafted.

The long haul will remain the undisputed domain for oil, whether for trucks, cars, boats or planes. But here also, technology is going to bring about quite a few changes on the demand side of the equation. One only needs to think of the hybrid car, or the growing dominance of the diesel engine, or the fuel-efficient Boeing Dreamliner, or of the substitution of gas-guzzling SUVs (for example, I traded in my Avignon Range Rover for a far less chic new Diesel Citroen. The Citroen literally uses a fifth of my old gas-guzzler... and will most likely break down a lot less too). Given these improvements, one can make the case that the demand for oil for long haul transportation from mature markets such as the US or Europe will, at best, stagnate in volume for the foreseeable future.

But of course, there is more to oil than a simple supply and demand equation for God, in His infinite wisdom, put oil reserves under the control of some of the more unsavory characters out there (or did they become unsavory because of oil? After all, oil has been a curse to most countries endowed with it).

7- Oil & Politics

The fact that oil is mostly controlled by unreliable lunatics (Iran, Venezuela, Russia, Iraq...) should lead the non-lunatic parts of the World to invest - regardless of the costs involved - to achieve energy independence (this is what France did in the 1970s and 1980s with its nuclear program, though few countries decided to follow this path). This process will likely involve massive wastes of capital (but then, that is the price of independence). It will also push oil-producing nations towards political irrelevance. This movement will take place in three steps.

In the first step, the lunatics have a field day.

In the world today, there are massive possibilities to explore for oil, and there is certainly no shortage of oil discoveries to be made. However, almost everywhere there is a chance to find oil, the underground has been nationalized. As a result, the oil companies that have the technology can not drill, while the countries that have the oil do not have the technology, nor the will to look for it.

Most of the existing oil-producing countries have done the analysis that there is much more in it for them if they do not develop their capacities since, as a result, oil prices shoot upwards. Being usually totally uneducated (e.g.: Chavez), these leaders believe in the Malthusian legend that there will not be enough oil for everyone and that its price can thus only go higher. In their (very limited) minds they believe that their strategy has no downside. They will be disappointed in the not so distant future, when the market reasserts itself.

With oil at US$70/bl, Iran gets roughly US$70bn per annum in oil exports. Half of that money goes to domestic subsidies (food, oil, transportation, etc...). The rest goes to the mad mullahs' pet projects, such as developing nuclear weapons, sending weapons to Hezbollah, subsidizing terrorism... If and when the oil price goes down to US$35/bl, our mad mullahs will no longer have any money to buy rockets to lob into Israel's coastal towns. At US$20/bl, they will no longer have the money to feed their rapidly growing and young population; we could then have a revolution in Iran.

If the US administration is thus serious about regime change (and we hope that they are, for there is little to like in the current Iranian regime), then the way to achieve it is to trade in the Humvees, boost electric cars, put on a sweater in the winter, and build nuclear power plants. Unfortunately, our reader might say, this is hardly happening. Our conspiracy-theory inclined clients might also point out that such a course of action is unlikely to become national policy in the US as long as the president hails from Texas and the Veep from Halliburton... But the interesting fact here is that, while it might not be happening in the rich United States (where spending on energy as a percentage of disposable income remains tolerable, even after the past few years' increases), it could be starting to happen in other markets such as China, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, India...

In every past energy cycle, whenever capacity of production was reached, oil producing nations, rather than let our companies drill (or drill themselves) to increase production, instead tried to extract from their customers the maximum amount in the shortest time period possible. On top of it, oil-producing nations would usually try to capture unearned and undue political advantage. The local governments call that 'using the oil weapon'. The Arab nations did it in the 1970s. Venezuela, Iran and Russia are doing it today. And one can get away with using the 'oil weapon' for a while, but not for a long while. Because we then move to our second step: the return of market forces.

8- The Market Strikes Back

Usually, when the price of something rises, its supply goes up, and its demand goes down. Now contrary to what most Malthusians out there believe, the same is true for energy. The problem, as mentioned above, is that the time for reaction can be excruciatingly slow. However, when the movement starts, it is almost impossible to stop. To achieve a change in the balance of supply and demand of energy, oil-consuming nations can use two tactics:
  1. Increase the price of oil through taxes (or through the end of subsidies as Thailand and Indonesia both did last summer), in order to accelerate the adjustment. An added bonus is that you (i.e.: the government) get to capture some of the excess rent (European nations have historically done just that).

  2. Subsidize as much as possible the energy produced domestically, or produced from alternative, "politically friendly" sources (nuclear, ethanol.... The first action reduces the demand; the second increases the supply and the substitution. As a result, the imbalance between demand (too high) and supply (too low) comes into a different, and friendlier price-equilibrium. The price of the marginal energy (oil) stabilizes, sometimes nervously (1980-1982 in the previous cycle). But once the stability is there, the slide is not far behind for the demand keeps falling and the supply keeps increasing. Pretty soon the 'swing producer', namely Saudi Arabia, has to reduce production to maintain prices. We then move to phase 3, or the return of the marginal cost of production.
9- The Return to the Marginal Cost of Production

In the last, long, down cycle, Saudi Arabia fought a valiant fight to prevent oil prices from falling too much. The kingdom reduced its production from around 8m barrels per day to less than 3m barrels per day. This policy made them measurably weaker (Saudi Arabia nearly went bankrupt in the late 1990s), and made Iraq and Iran relatively stronger.

This reminiscence from the late 1980s and 1990s raises an important question: given Iran's growing pretension of asserting itself as the main power in the Middle- East, in the next oil down cycle, will Saudi Arabia tighten its belt to ensure the survival of the regime in Tehran? Or will Saudi Arabia decide to hang loose and let Iran (which the Saudi leadership probably considers its greatest threat) crash and burn? And if there is no "swing producer" to adjust production lower, then won't the return to the mean be particularly fast?

10- Conclusion

The points made above could arguably have been made a year ago. So our "down to earth" clients might very well wonder what will make oil prices fall in the coming year since all these good arguments definitely did not work over the past year. The differences today compared to a year ago are that:
  • Oil prices started rising above their long term trend nearly three years ago.
  • The substitution effect should thus soon start kicking in.

  • The 'oil as a weapon' really started to come into force in the past 18 months.
  • According to OECD leading indicators, global growth is no longer in an ascending phase.
For all of the above reasons, we continue to believe that the structural decline of oil will happen sometime in the coming quarters. After the 1970s/early 1980s boom and bust, it took twenty-five years for oil to recapture its previous highs.

Once the coming bust gets underway, oil may never recapture the highs it makes (made?) in the current cycle, if for no other reason that, twenty years ago, there was no credible alternative for short-haul transportation, heating, air conditioning, etc... (Remember Chernobyl, Three Mile Island...). Today, and even more tomorrow, credible alternatives will be in place.

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Our 19th century world was dominated by coal. Our 20th century was dominated by oil. It is our firm belief that the 21st century will not be dominated by oil. It will be dominated by electricity; and oil will become a marginal energy. This simple truth might help explain why, since 2001, uranium has not had a single down month, and since 2003, uranium has never traded down for even a single day, regardless of what was happening to oil prices.


As oil becomes irrelevant, one should probably expect serious political turmoil, and revolutions, in Venezuela, Russia, Iran... Which, of course, would be a shame and could not happen to a nicer bunch of people.

Conclusion

Your looking forward to the future of energy analyst,


John F. Mauldin
johnmauldin@investorsinsight.com

Disclaimer

John Mauldin is president of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC, a registered investment advisor. All material presented herein is believed to be reliable but we cannot attest to its accuracy. Investment recommendations may change and readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions.

Opinions expressed in these reports may change without prior notice. John Mauldin and/or the staffs at Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC and InvestorsInsight Publishing, Inc. (InvestorsInsight) may or may not have investments in any funds, programs or companies cited above.

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Posted 09-25-2006 6:46 PM by John Mauldin
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