Friday, December 19, 2008

Five years undone

Readers of Bill Booner’s daily missive will recognize a term that he widely used during last five years or so. He used to call the boom as a ‘crack boom.’ A boom in which nothing useful was created but everything was merely an illusion. Just like an eastern scripture says, ‘all that is visible is illusory.’ There was illusion of wealth and prosperity.Of achievement and triumph. Of mastering the business cycle by artificial setting of interest rates by a committee.

And now with oil falling below $35, we have undone almost 4.5 years of speculative and artificial demand of a product that would have made Alberta and Canada the Energy superpower of the world. Demand that was fostered by free credit, rampant speculation and excessive greed. Demand that disappeared as soon as the Hummers were repossessed, the McMansions foreclosed and factories closed down in China.

Too bad, that in one stroke OPEC agreed to reduce the oil production by the entire projected supply of the Oil Sands (by 2020).

This morning sitting in my office with a windchill of -35 outside, I am just wondering how could so many people around the world have been so naïve. The naiveté varied across cultures, continents and locales, based on some sort of fundamental underlying belief that ‘we are different.’ The 'weather in California', 'oil sands in Alberta', ‘Olympics in Vancouver’, ‘Microsoft/Boeing Economy of Seattle’, ‘BRIC magic of Mumbai’, ‘Manufacturing prowess of China’, ‘Financial juggernaut of London’….the list is endless. Every city had its own way of overpowering reason and common sense.

And now, we have to confront reality.

The consequences won’t be pretty. As most of Canada and several parts of the US go through a major cold weather streak, I can’t help but think what would have happened to natural gas prices if this were year 2005 or 2007. But then, until the ‘master thieves of universe’ started placing massive bets in the commodity markets on 50 to 1 leveraged funds, periods of massive spikes and volatility in prices were few and far between. Peak oil was merely an interesting theory and not a call to action for the doomsday crowd. Yet, a good majority of people who believed in a housing bubble did not believe there was a commodity bubble. Or bubble in oil and gas.

The entire Alberta Government and the oil and gas chieftains of Calgary or Houston did not believe that oil prices will fall again. But time and again, the unbridled optimism of investors and market participants is undone by Mr Market. This time is no different. Many on this blog ridiculed me for being a pessimist and believer in gloom and doom. Reflecting on this, I think I had been too optimistic for I did not know the extent of corruption, fraud and deceit in the underlying financial economy.

The reality of Alberta’s economy is that it is entirely dependent on the Energy sector. Once the energy sector slows down, as it is now, everything else will follow. Foreclosures, lay offs, bankruptcies will all rise leading to the prairie land version of rust belt. At least until the next wave of liquidity lifts the sunken boats of commodities. And the coming months and years will illustrate how inane the claims of diversified Alberta economy were.And perhaps for next few decades people will think numerous times before spending half a million dollars on a tiny shoe box.

Happy holidays to everyone.

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