Events are moving faster than brains now. Isn’t it marvelous that gasoline at the pump is a buck cheaper than it was a year ago? A lot of short-sighted idiots are celebrating, unaware that the low oil price is destroying the capacity to deliver future oil at any price. The shale oil wells in North Dakota and Texas, the Tar Sand operations of Alberta, and the deep-water rigs here and abroad just don’t pencil-out economically at $45-a-barrel. So the shale oil wells that are up-and-running will produce for a year and there will be no new ones drilled when they peter out — which is at least 50 percent the first year and all gone after four years.
Anyway, the financial structure of the shale play was suicidal from the get-go. You finance the drilling and fracking with high-yield “junk bonds,” that is, money borrowed from “investors.” You drill like mad and you produce a lot of oil, but even at $105-a-barrel you can’t make profit, meaning you can’t really pay back the investors who loaned you all that money, a lot of it obtained via Too Big To Fail bank carry-trades, levered-up on ”margin,” which allowed said investors to pretend they were risking more money than they had. And then all those levered-up investments — i.e. bets — get hedged in a ghostly underworld of unregulated derivatives contracts that pretend to act as insurance against bad bets with funny money, but in reality can never pay out because the money is not there (and never was.) And then come the margin calls. Uh Oh….
In short, enjoy the $2.50-a-gallon fill-ups while you can, grasshoppers, because when the current crop of fast-depleting shale oil wells dries up, that will be all she wrote. When all those bonds held up on their skyhook derivative hedges go south, there will be no more financing available for the entire shale oil project. No more high-yield bonds will be issued because the previous issues defaulted. Very few new wells (if any) will be drilled. American oil production will not return to its secondary highs (after the 1970 all-time high) of 2014-15. The wish of American energy independence will be steaming over the horizon on the garbage barge of broken promises. And all, that, of course, is only one part of the story, because there is the social and political fallout to follow.
The table is set for the banquet of consequences. The next chapter in the oil story is more likely to be scarcity rather than just a boomerang back to higher prices. The tipping point for that will come with the inevitable destabilizing of Saudi Arabia, which I believe will happen this year when King Abdullah ibn Abdilaziz, 91, son of Ibn Saud, departs his intensive care throne for the glorious Jannah of virgins and feasts. Speaking of feasts, just imagine how the Islamic State (or ISIS) must be licking its chops at the prospect of sweeping over an Arabia no longer defined as Saudi! The Saudis are so spooked that they announced plans last week for a kind of super Berlin-type wall to be constructed along the northern border with Iraq. But that brings to mind a laughable Maginot Line scenario in which the masked invaders just make an end run around the darn thing. In any case, Saudi Arabia will already be disintegrating internally as competing clans and princes vie for control. And then, what will the US do? Rush in there shock-and-awe style? Bust up the joint? That’ll make things better, won’t it? (See American Sniper.)
Meanwhile, there will be plenty to contend with state-side. The next time there is a pratfall in the stock and bond markets and the TBTF banks — and there is sure to be — the rescue tricks are liable to be a whole lot more severe than the TARP, ZIRP, and QE hijinks of 2008-2015. Next time around, the federals are going to have to confiscate stuff, break promises, take away things, and rough some people up. The question is how much of this abuse will the public take? I take a certain comfort knowing how heavily armed America is. And not just the lunatic fringe. The thought of Hillary and Jeb out there beating the bushes for big money makes me laugh. They are so not going happen. Just wait. For now, take this MLK holiday break to reflect on the fragility of our own country, and gird your loins for the week to come.