April 25, 2015

More Drilling, More Earthquakes

From the Associated Press:

. . . A series of government and academic studies over the past few years — including at least two reports released this week alone — has added to the body of evidence implicating the U.S. drilling boom that has created a bounty of jobs and tax revenue over the past decade or so.

On Thursday, the U.S. Geological Survey released the first comprehensive maps pinpointing more than a dozen areas in the central and eastern U.S. that have been jolted by quakes that the researchers said were triggered by drilling. The report said man-made quakes tied to industry operations have been on the rise.

Scientists have mainly attributed the spike to the injection of wastewater deep underground, a practice they say can activate dormant faults. Only a few cases of shaking have been blamed on fracking, in which large volumes of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into rock formations to crack them open and free oil or gas.

"The picture is very clear" that wastewater injection can cause faults to move, said USGS geophysicist William Ellsworth.

Until recently, Oklahoma — one of the biggest energy-producing states — had been cautious about linking the spate of quakes to drilling. But the Oklahoma Geological Survey acknowledged earlier this week that it is "very likely" that recent seismic activity was caused by the injection of wastewater into disposal wells.

Earthquake activity in Oklahoma in 2013 was 70 times greater than it was before 2008, state geologists reported. Oklahoma historically recorded an average of 1.5 quakes of magnitude 3 or greater each year. It is now seeing an average of 2.5 such quakes each day, according to geologists.

Angela Spotts, who lives outside Stillwater, Oklahoma, in an area with a number of wastewater disposal wells, said the shaking has damaged her brick home. She pointed to the cracked interior and exterior walls, and windows and kitchen cabinets that are separating from the structure.

"There's been no doubt in my mind what's causing them," Spotts said. "Sadly, it's really taken a long time for people to come around. Our lives are being placed at risk. Our homes are being broken."

Yet another study, this one published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, connected a swarm of small quakes west of Fort Worth, Texas, to nearby natural gas wells and wastewater disposal.

The American Petroleum Institute said the industry is working with scientists and regulators "to better understand the issue and work toward collaborative solutions."

The Environmental Protection Agency said there no plans for new regulations as a result of the USGS study.

"We knew there would be challenges there, but they can be overcome," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Thursday at an energy conference in Houston.

For decades, earthquakes were an afterthought in the central and eastern U.S., which worried more about tornadoes, floods and hurricanes. Since 2009, quakes have sharply increased, and in some surprising places.

The ground has been trembling in regions that were once seismically stable, including parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas.

The largest jolt linked to wastewater injection — a magnitude-5.6 that hit Prague, Oklahoma, in 2011 — damaged 200 buildings and shook a college football stadium.

The uptick in Oklahoma quakes has prompted state regulators to require a seismic review of all proposed disposal wells. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, has ordered dozens of disposal wells to stop operating or change the way they are run because of concerns they might be triggering earthquakes, said spokesman Matt Skinner.

"There are far more steps that will be taken," Skinner said. 

Last year, regulators in Colorado ordered an operator to temporarily stop injecting wastewater after the job was believed to be linked to several small quakes.

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Alicia Chang, Scientists Convinced of Tie Between Earthquakes and Drilling, AP, April 23, 2015. For a scientific study with neat graphics (h/t/Desdemona), see Causal Factors for Seismicity near Azle, Texas, Nature Communications, April 21, 2015:

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Update, May 17, 2015:  It's good to learn that the oil and gas industry takes this problem seriously and wants to find out more. On the industry reaction, see Benjamin Elgin, "Oil CEO Wanted University Quake Scientists Dismissed: Dean's Email," Bloomberg Business, May 15, 2015

April 23, 2015

New Global Temperature Records

The following temperature map from Bloomberg shows the hottest start to a year on record. "Results from the world's top monitoring agencies vary slightly. NOAA and the Japan Meteorological Agency both had March as the hottest month on record. NASA had it as the third-hottest. All three agencies agree that the past three months have been the hottest start to a year."

Tom Randall and Blacki Migliozzi, Global Temperature Records Just Got Crushed Again, BloombergBusiness, April 17, 2015. The piece also includes an illuminating animation recording monthly temperature measures for about 135 years. This is a screenshot of the most recent image from March 2015.

April 22, 2015

The Triumph (Crisis) of American Capitalism

This chart, put together by Andrew Smithers, shows the contrasting rewards to capital and labor over several generations. The blue line (left scale) is profits before depreciation, interest, and tax, as a percentage of output. The red line (right scale) represents employment costs as a percentage of output. After a fairly stable set of relations in the post-World War II period, reflecting the New Deal consensus, a yawning gap emerges in the 21st century. This is not your mother and father's capitalism, it would seem, but a system of political economy very different in salient respects.

The chart helps explain the relative out-performance of US equities as against world stock markets, noted in a previous post. The piece appeared in 2012, so the data is a bit old, but the disparity has probably gotten larger in the last few years. Smithers was bearish on the stock market in 2012 and, assuming mean reversion, believed shares to capital would recede and shares to labor would increase. Since publication on December 26, 2012, the U.S. stock market is up 54%.

The chart appears in an NPR report introduced by Paul Solman, consisting of an interview between Jon Shayne and Smithers, a noted student of financial history.

ANDREW SMITHERS: All output is for somebody’s benefit, either those who work for the firm (the labor share) or those who provide the capital (the profit share). Labor’s share has never been lower or the profit share higher. These shares of course add up to 100 percent, before the government has taxed both labor and capital.

JON SHAYNE: What do you think has caused labor’s share to fall below its average to a new historical low, and capital’s share to rise to the higher highest peak ever?

ANDREW SMITHERS: The change in the way company managements are remunerated has been dramatic in this century. Salaries have ceased to be the main source of income to senior management, with bonuses and options taking over. There has been major change in management incentives and it should not cause surprise, though it evidently has to most economists, that management behavior has changed. The current incentives discourage investment and encourage high profit margins.

This is dangerous for companies’ long-term prospects as it increases their risk of losing market share and reduces their ability to reduce costs. It is very damaging for the economy, but it maximizes the income of managements. Senior management positions change frequently, so if management wish to get rich, they have to get rich quickly. I am not alone in this diagnosis. A recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York comes to the same conclusion from a theoretical analysis as I have come from data analysis.

JON SHAYNE: How do bonuses today encourage profitability above investment? I guess you mean that they are tied to changes in earnings per share, or return on capital, rather than to the growth of companies’ output?

ANDREW SMITHERS: Yes, the current way in which managements are rewarded is perverse from an economic viewpoint. Adam Smith pointed out that some characteristics of human beings such as greed, which are often unpleasant at a personal level, can nonetheless bring social benefits. But this is not necessarily the case under current remuneration systems; greed is increasingly the cause of harm rather than help to the economy.

JON SHAYNE: On the graph, do we know how much of labor’s share represents what managers earn? If their share has gone up over the decades, through stock options and the like, which I believe is the case, then the average worker is getting even a bit less than it looks, correct?  

ANDREW SMITHERS: Yes, there have been two major changes. First, the share of output which goes to all employees has fallen to its lowest recorded level. Second, the proportion of total remuneration that goes to the higher paid has shot up. Both of these changes have been bad from the viewpoint of the average worker. The result is that current management reward systems are producing both economic damage and social disquiet. . . .

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Paul Solman, Capital Wins, Labor Loses, But Andrew Smithers Says It Can't Go On," PBS Newshour, December 26, 2012

April 18, 2015

The Most Important Chart in Finance

The following chart shows a ratio between the SPX (the S&P 500 US stock index) and the MS World Index (an international equity index that excludes the U.S. market). It shows the dramatic disparity between the U.S. and foreign equity markets since the financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession. As the separate price indices in the two panels below show, the world index is barely above the level it reached in 2000, whereas the S&P 500 long ago surmounted the twin peaks of 2000 and 2008. The chart supports the general conclusion that international stocks are a better bargain than domestic stocks.

The ratio turned on or about January 1, 2015, and has barely looked back since.

Apart from the overall disparity in valuations suggested by the chart, there are additional reasons for thinking the ratio line will continue trending lower. One is the collapse in oil prices, which disproportionately benefits big oil importers (Europe, Japan, China, India). Another is the turn of world central banks to quantitative easing. QE may or may not be healthy for the overall economy, but it has undoubtedly been very, very good for U.S. equity investors. The U.S. Federal Reserve purchased $3.75 trillion of debt in its various QE programs. Observers called it the "Bernanke put," meaning that the Fed had put a floor under the stock market, but it might more justly be thought of as the "Bernanke call." The effect was to send U.S. equities into the stratosphere. The end of the U.S. program and its embrace by others (especially the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank) is another spur to relative outperformance by the world index as against U.S. equities.

The headwinds facing U.S. equities, after so steep a climb from the pits in March 2009, are also suggested by the following chart, prepared by Absolute Strategy Research, and unveiled in a recent interview conducted by John Authers of the FT with Ian Harnett of ASR. (This is a screen shot from that interview.)

The Activity Surprise Indicator gathers all the economic numbers published daily and measures them against expectations. With the exception of the labor market numbers, says Harnett, disappointments have proliferated at a rate not seen since 2011 (the time of the last big correction in the U.S. stock market). The driving force has been the collapse in the oil price (penalizing the energy sector) and the rise in the dollar (the latter impairing the earnings of U.S. based multinationals.)

Authers, "US earnings season--correction ahead?" Financial Times Video, April 13, 2015


Here's another look at the disparity between U.S. and world equity indexes. EFA is the etf for the EAFE index, which covers developed markets in Europe and Asia. EEM is the etf for the stocks of emerging nations. The first chart shows the SPY:EFA ratio, the second the SPY:EEM ratio.

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Update, 4/26/15: Underlining the disparity in valuations as between U.S. and international markets is the following statistic from Barron's: "Even when smoothing out the most recent bull market—which the Shiller CAPE (cyclically adjusted price/earnings) ratio does by averaging 10 years’ worth of earnings and adjusting for inflation—U.S. stocks seem pricey. The S&P 500’s CAPE ratio is 27, well above its median of 16. The rest of the developed world, meanwhile, averages a CAPE ratio of 17, below its median of 22.5, according to Research Affiliates." Chris Dieterich, International-Focus ETFs Beat U.S. Counterparts, Barron's, April 24, 2015. 

For a thorough examination of issues associated with global stock market valuations, see numerous entries in the excellent blog Philosophical Economics, especially this one from August 2014.

Here's another look at an index of economic surprises, this one compiled by Bloomberg (Matthew Boesler, "The U.S. Economy Hasn't Disappointed Analysts This Much Since the Great Recession," April 23, 2015, Bloomberg Business)

April 16, 2015

OPEC Revenues on Roller-Coaster

A new report from the Energy Information Administration shows net oil export revenues for OPEC over the last 45 years. The graph excludes Iran, noting difficulties in estimating Iran's earnings. Oddly, the EIA seems not to include Iranian data for the entire 45-year period; they would have done better to make an estimate for the last few years than to eliminate Iran from the whole series.

Despite this omission, the graph speaks volumes. It shows the return of the energy crisis in the last decade, outdoing even the first great go round in the 1970s. It gives a vivid picture of the explosion in energy prices from $10 a barrel in 1998 to $145 a barrel in the summer of 2008--inducing shocks that played a significant role in precipitating the Great Recession. The figure also shows how volatile the energy sector has been over the last ten years. Two spectacular rises, two spectacular falls, all in less than a decade.

OPEC oil revenues also have played a key role in shaping the US current account balance, especially in the last decade. The following graph from the Council of Economic Advisors (November 2014) shows that the current account balance had two great lurches downward in the 1980s and 1990s. Then it fell yet further the following decade, driven especially by the increasing price of oil.

After 2010, the current account balance would have headed back down were it not for the shale revolution in America, which added 4.5 million barrels per day of new production in four short years. Now, with the price of oil falling by fifty percent over the last six months, there have been corresponding improvements to the US current account. But though the effect of the price collapse on the US balance of payments has been dramatic, its effect on US oil production remains very uncertain. Most forecasts foretell a stoppage of growth, not a decline of production. We shall see.

April 14, 2015

Cities by the Sea

From the February 2015 National Geographic, a graphic showing potential costs to coastal cities from rising sea levels.

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Gideon Mendel, "Drowning World," National Geographic, February 2015, 126-27.

California in Your Future

So it used to be said. Whatever happened in California would later happen in the United States. What happened in the United States would then happen in the world. As a Coloradan, I should like to say: Say it ain't so. 

These graphics from Bloomberg gave the incredible scale of California's epic drought and heat wave. The first shows temperatures well outside the range of recent experience: 

The next chart shows a drought measure called the SPEI, which takes account of both rainfall and heat. In weather charts, as in stock charts, it's generally not good to be on the bottom right of the panel. That means you're toast. 

The drought is also conveyed in a series of moving figures from 2011 to 2015: here is a snapshot of the last in the sequence:

Explains Bloomberg:
More than 44 percent of the state is now in “exceptional drought” (crimson). It’s a distinction marked by crop and pasture losses and water shortages that fall within the top two percentiles. California has seen droughts before with less rainfall, but it's the heat that sets this one apart. Higher temperatures increase evaporation from the soil and help deplete reservoirs and groundwater. The reservoirs are already almost half empty this year, and gone is the snowpack that would normally replenish lakes and farmlands well into June.  
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Tom Randall, California's New Era of Heat Destroys All Previous Records, Bloomberg Business, April 10, 2015

Higher Mileage

This graphic from Bloomberg shows improving efficiency in the US car and truck market. 

Another shows change in global oil intensity and China demand growth:

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Peter Waldman, "Saudi Arabia's Plan to Extend the Age of Oil," Bloomberg, April 12, 2015

Climate Change and Brain-Eating Parasites

Joe Romm of Climate Progress details the impact of climate change on global health:

It’s a myth there are no big winners from climate change besides fossil fuel companies.

According to one study, global warming is doubling bark beetle mating, triggering up to 60 times as many beetles attacking trees every year. The decline in creatures with shells thanks to ocean acidification “could trigger an explosion in jellyfish populations.” And climate change has helped dengue fever, which spread to 28 U.S. states back in 2009.

Of course, invasive plants will become “even more dominant in the landscape.” And who doesn’t love ratsnakes?

Let’s also not forget brain-eating parasites, which are expected to thrive as U.S. lakes heat up. That parasite — the amoeba, Naegleria fowleri — feasts on human brains like a tiny zombie. As one Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expert warned several years ago: “This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better. In future decades, as temperatures rise, we’d expect to see more cases.”

But this is just a taste of things to come, as two parasite experts explain in a recent article, “Evolution in action: climate change, biodiversity dynamics and emerging infectious disease [EID].” That article is part of a special April issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B., whose theme is “Climate change and vector-borne diseases of humans.”

“The appearance of infectious diseases in new places and new hosts, such as West Nile virus and Ebola, is a predictable result of climate change,” as the news release explains. The article examines our “current EID crisis.”

Coauthor Daniel R. Brooks explains: “It’s not that there’s going to be one ‘Andromeda Strain’ that will wipe everybody out on the planet,” he said, referring to the deadly fictional pathogen. But he warns: “There are going to be a lot of localized outbreaks that put a lot of pressure on our medical and veterinary health systems. There won’t be enough money to keep up with all of it. It will be the death of a thousand cuts.”

Many tropical diseases are tropical because their insect or animal host prefer warmer climates. A 2015 report on neglected tropical diseases by the World Health Organization (WHO) pointed out that “climate variability and long-term climate changes in temperature, rainfall and relative humidity are expected to increase the distribution and incidence of at least a subset of these diseases.” For instance, WHO notes, “dengue has already re-emerged in countries in which it had been absent for the greater part of the last century.”

The Congressionally-mandated 2014 National Climate Assessmentconcurs: “Large-scale changes in the environment due to climate change and extreme weather events are increasing the risk of the emergence or reemergence of health threats that are currently uncommon in the United States, such as dengue fever.”

“Some of the neglected tropical diseases are no longer strictly tropical,” said Dr. Dirk Engels, the director WHO’s Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases, in a statement.
Certainly there have been major advances in the fight against many tropical diseases, but those are primarily due to medical advances and investments in public health. Such investments remain a top priority in a warming world. But the kind of extreme climate change humanity faces on our current path of unrestricted carbon pollution makes the job harder for all those focused on public health around the world.

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The following is from the introduction to the academic study Romm mentions, “Climate change and vector-borne diseases of humans.”

This theme issue arose out of our perception that while it is widely recognized that an important impact of climate change on human health is likely to be via effects on vector-borne disease (VBD) transmission, the complexity of the biological and non-biological susceptibility modifying pathways by which such effects arise and combine to influence transmission is less well understood. This has made reliable appraisals of the potential effects of climate change and variability on VBDs complicated and represents a serious problem in developing more robust tools to assess the risk of climate change affecting VBDs in populations residing under different social and geographic contexts. This issue thus aims to provide not only an up-to-date synthesis of current knowledge of, and key research in, the impact of various individual components of climate change (biological, non-biological, evolutionary and economic factors), but also, crucially, to reveal and highlight the need (and potential means) to address the effects of multiple factor interactions, nonlinearities and human reflexivity if we are to develop and establish a more rigorous agenda for future research, including the provision of useful informatics for informed public health policy-making, in this important area of climate change studies.

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April 1, 2015

Sinopec: Peak Diesel in China Coming Soon

A new report from Bloomberg conveys surprising forecasts from Sinopec, whose chairman predicts a peak in diesel and gas consumption in China:

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China’s biggest oil refiner is signaling the nation is headed to its peak in diesel and gasoline consumption far sooner than most Western energy companies and analysts are forecasting.

If correct, the projections by China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., or Sinopec, a state-controlled enterprise with public shareholders in Hong Kong, pose a big challenge to the world’s largest oil companies. They’re counting on demand from China and other developing countries to keep their businesses growing as energy consumption falls in more advanced economies.

“Plenty of people are talking about the peak in Chinese coal, but not many are talking about the peak in Chinese diesel demand, or Chinese oil generally,” said Mark C. Lewis, an analyst at Kepler Cheuvreux in Paris who has written on how oil companies should broaden their activities to produce all forms of energy. “It is shocking.”

Sinopec has offered a view of the country that should serve as a reality check to any oil bull. For diesel, the fuel that most closely tracks economic growth, the peak in China’s demand is just two years away, in 2017, according to Sinopec Chairman Fu Chengyu, who gave his outlook on a little reported March 23 conference call. The high point in gasoline sales is likely to come in about a decade, he said, and the company is already preparing for the day when selling fuel is what he called a “non-core” activity.

That forecast, from a company whose 30,000 gas stations and 23,000 convenience stores arguably give it a better view on the market than anyone else, runs counter to the narrative heard regularly from oil drillers from the U.S. and Europe that Chinese demand for their product will increase for decades to come.

Rising Forecasts

“From 2010 to 2040, transportation energy needs in OECD32 countries are projected to fall about 10 percent while in the rest of the world these needs are expected to double,” Exxon Mobil Corp. said in a December report on its view of the future. “China and India will together account for about half of the global increase.”

Exxon expects most of that growth to be driven by commercial transportation for heavy-duty vehicles, specifically ships, trucks, planes and trains that run on diesel and similar fuels.

BP Plc’s latest public projection for China, released in February, sounds a similar note. “Energy consumed in transport grows by 98 percent. Oil remains the dominant fuel but loses market share, dropping from 90 percent to 83 percent in 2035.”

The oil companies aren’t alone in their view. The International Energy Agency in Paris, the adviser to 29 governments including the U.S., forecasts China’s oil demand is most likely to increase at least through 2040.

Slowdown Signs

But signs of China’s energy slowdown are already evident. Diesel demand declined last year, and growth in crude oil consumption has shriveled. Crude use is projected to rise about 3 percent this year, less than half the rate of the total economy.

Also, China’s political leadership is trying to wean the economy off debt-fueled property investment and old-line smokestack industries, shifting toward services and domestic-consumption led growth.

Sinopec itself is already planning for the time when its primary business isn’t selling fuels but consumer goods at its shops and filling stations that blanket the nation.

“In the future, fuels will become a non-core business of Sinopec,” Fu said on the conference call. “Petroleum or oil and gas will continue to be a major energy source in the future, but they won’t be the only source, more emphasis will be put on our new energy and alternative energies.”

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Timothy Coulter, “China’s Fuel Demand to Peak Sooner ThanOil Giants Expect,” BloombergBusiness, April 1, 2015