You gotta love the mainstream media. For months now the drumbeat has been about how the economic recovery in the U.S. is picking up steam, even though the only two indicators which are in agreement with that assertion are stocks and jobs, both of with are being relentless manipulated by the Federal Reserve and the Bureau of
You would think that someone would quickly spot the inherent contradiction here. After all, every recession since the 1970s has been preceded by a spike in oil and gas prices. But, surprisingly, you would be wrong about that, as shown by an article which appeared over the weekend on MSNBC.com. The title, "8 Reasons Why Gas Will Hit $5 a Gallon This Year," seems straightforward enough, but let's take a closer look at their supposed "expert" analysis. Here are the reasons from the article listed in order, followed by my commentary:
1. Strait of HormuzNo argument there. Tensions involving this key oil transportation checkpoint are certainly putting speculative upward pressure on prices. Let's move on.
About 20 percent of the crude oil produced in the world is shipped through the Strait of Hormuz, and Iran has threatened to shut down shipping traffic through the Strait. At its narrowest, the passage is 30 miles wide, so there is a realistic case that a conflict could close it. Iran has already been isolated as a trade partner by U.S. and EU sanctions. The regime in the country has made a number of threats about what it might do if its “national interests” were threatened. If Iran follows through with its threats, the period the passage is closed could be very brief if the U.S. Navy, which has a carrier group in the region, moves to reopen the lane. But it is not clear that the American government would make that decision without the open support of allies or the United Nations. A closure of the passage, or any escalation that would make a closure more likely, will drive oil prices higher -- and by extension, gasoline prices.
2. IranNot sure I agree with this one. The sanctions against Iran are laughably self-defeating given that China and India have shown no inclination to join the embargo against Iranian oil, and as long as Persian oil is being bought somewhere, there should not be any corresponding increase in world oil prices as that just means those two countries will buy less elsewhere.
Iran contributes to a second problem in terms of global oil supply well beyond that of its ability to interrupt supply. Because of the embargo against the nation due to nuclear weapons violations, the U.S. has pressured large oil importers such as Japan to act to isolate Iran by cutting their imports. This puts Japan in a position in which it has to tap even tighter global supply. Japan apparently has agreed to cut its Iranian crude imports by 20 percent. But as the world’s third largest oil importer, Japan indeed will have to get its oil somewhere other than Iran -- which will put more pressure on current production.
3. Refiners raising pricesCan't quibble with this one in light of the recent refinery shut downs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which certainly wouldn't have happened if they were turning big profits.
Most of the oil refined on the east coast of the U.S. is Brent crude, a type of oil produced from the North Sea. The price of Brent -- more than $124 a barrel -- is almost $16 higher than the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude, the amount most people read about in the media. But because Brent has replaced WTI as the global price benchmark, U.S. refiners set prices for gasoline and other products as if Brent were the only grade of crude used. That allows refiners with access to cheaper WTI to make larger profits.
However, when the prices converge, as happened in the final two months of 2011, WTI refiners lose their edge -- and their hefty profits. “Refiners were losing money in November and December. You can only lose money for so long,” John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, recently said. Many large refineries are owned by public companies that do not have much appetite for posting ongoing losses. To avoid losses, refiners will have to increase gasoline prices.
4. Other geopolitical risksThis segment went on to mention Venezuela and other unstable Middle Eastern countries, but I've left that part out for brevity's sake. Again, no argument here.
Iran does not present the only geopolitical challenge to oil production. In Nigeria, which is the 14th largest producer of oil in the world, Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram has continued to attack Christian areas of the country. The Nigerian Army has reacted by attacking Islamists. Militants have continued to attack pipelines, apparently in a move to disrupt the government.
5. The EU may save itselfAlso edited down for brevity's sake. Can the EU muddle through for another year? Well, it pretty much muddled all the way through last year, so it certainly is possible.
For now, Greece has been bailed out again -- a move that should buoy confidence in the region and encourage demand for oil. Even with the Greek bailout, however, the eurozone is not out of the woods as nations continue to implement austerity measures to protect against the risk of default on sovereign debt.
But here is where things suddenly begin to go completely off track and way out into la-la land:
6. U.S. economic recoveryEven if you buy the recovery propaganda, how can any rational observer of the economy not realize what will happen to the American consumer well before gas prices hit $5.00 a gallon? Is 2008 really that far in the past that it has been completely forgotten? That year, gas prices topped out in July at a national average of $4.11, and the shock to the system was so traumatic that it helped trigger a deflationary crash across the financial sector. By January of 2009, gas prices bottomed out at $1.61 (figures courtesy of the chart above from Gas Buddy.com). Yet we're supposed to believe that prices shooting towards $5.00 wouldn't cause an even worse economic shock this time around?
An improved U.S. economy means higher oil prices. U.S. GDP, employment and even housing have all staged unexpected improvements in recent months. Many economists now peg a 2012 GDP increase at more than 2 percent. The new White House budget assumes growth of 3 percent by 2013. An average of more than 100,000 jobs has been created in each of the past six months. And an extension of payroll tax cuts through the end of this year may further aid the employment recovery. An extension of unemployment benefits means that hundreds of thousands of American who would have no income, will have at least enough to consume basic goods and services. The argument that Americans now drive less is not a powerful one for gas and oil demand when a healthy economy also means more consumption of oil for business, petrochemicals and jet fuel. Demand for oil-based products across the entire economy will pick up with any recovery.
But wait, it gets even more absurd:
7. SummerRight here we see the blind spot of every economic commentator who uses the raw jobs figures to back up the claim of economic recovery. Are there more jobs now than there were a year ago? Undoubtedly. Are most of those newly created jobs the kind of stable, good paying positions which would allow their holders to take a couple of weeks off this summer and take the family out for a long driving vacation? Unlikely. It seems like many of those who get paid to write articles like this one in the mainstream media think that everyone who has a job is as comfortable and well off as they are.
In the U.S., summer vacation driving has historically boosted demand for gasoline. Over the past three or so years, however, that boost has been small, if present at all. In 2011, U.S. traffic volume decreased year-over-year in every month except January and February. But that was last year. So long as the U.S. economy continues to improve, more drivers will be on the road this summer.
8. Supply riskAgain, edited down for brevity. Maybe Saudi Arabia has that spare capacity. Maybe it doesn't. No one outside the desert kingdom really knows for sure. But at least the article ends on a more sensible note.
In December 2011, OPEC members produced nearly 31 million barrels a day, cutting the cartel’s spare capacity capability from 3.18 million barrels per day to 2.85 million. Saudi Arabia accounts for 2.15 million of those daily barrels of spare capacity.
To sum up, there are a lot of very good reasons to believe that oil and gas prices are going to rise higher in the coming months, but reasons six and seven listed above are absolutely laughable in their absurdity. The fact that they were included in an otherwise relatively astute analysis shows just how powerful the propaganda spewed forth by the Hologram really is.
What will happen if gas prices hit a nationwide average of $5.00 a gallon this summer? Personally, I think that absent a war with Iran we're not going to find out. Because while the economic free fall we experienced in late 2008 and early 2009 was halted by the enormous increase in federal deficit spending and the loose monetary policies of the Federal Reserve, the economy is far too fragile withstand prices surging to that level. Almost certainly, another financial market crash will short circuit the rise in gas prices well before they reach those lofty heights, at least for this year.
Bonus: "Putting out the fire with gasoline"