Thursday, January 8, 2015

Wall Street's Next Bubble - Fracking

Ken O’Brien

The last big financial crisis  was brought about by the sudden collapse of the housing bubble. Synthetic derivatives based on inflated home values and unscrupulous mortgage practices suddenly collapsed leaving investors holding worthless paper that threatened the foundations of world financial markets.

History appears to be repeating itself. However, this time the target is the world energy market.

Collapsing crude oil prices due to oversupply are reaching critical levels. They threaten Wall Street banks, investors and a dozen countries. 

Foremost among these are Russia, Iran and Venezuela, where revenue losses have caused severe financial degradation, and economies are about to implode

While Americans are today enjoying $2 per gallon gasoline, Wall Street's analysts are predicting an imminent energy market collapse. This will bring financial institutions to their knees once again, and taxpayers are being set up for another mandatory bailout. 

At the heart of these shifts in the entire energy sector is the recent expansion of the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) industry. This boom cycle began in earnest when Congress and the Bush administration passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which exempted the new horizontal drilling technology from the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. 

By tapping considerable quantities of new oil and gas resources from shale deposits, the fracking boom promised US energy independence. This in turn upended the world's prevailing paradigms around renewable energy and peak oil expectations. Environmentalists fought against the huge Keystone pipeline infrastructure that would deliver the fossil fuels to foreign markets, fearing that exploiting these resources would undermine the struggle for the curbing of carbon emissions.

Fracking also threatened the dominance of Russia and Saudi Arabia as the fossil fuel suppliers of Europe when it became evident that the United States would soon become a net exporter. In the United States, fracking was hyped on Wall Street as a get-rich-quick opportunity, attracting massive capital input, and creating an investment bubble. Bloomberg reported this year that the number of bonds issued by oil and gas companies has grown by a factor of nine since 2004.

"There's a lot of Kool-Aid that's being drunk now by investors," Tim Gramatovich, chief investment officer and founder of Peritus Asset Management LLC, told Bloomberg in an April 2014 article. "People lose their discipline. They stop doing the math. They stop doing the accounting," he continued. "They're just dreaming the dream, and that's what's happening with the shale boom."

When gas fracking first popped onto the scene, grandiose claims were made that the United States had 100 years of gas supply in shale, or 2,560 trillion cubic feet. And Wall Street rode that initial estimate. The only downside (beside the environmental disaster left by this toxic industry) was that, like the housing bubble which depended on ever-growing home values to maintain profitability, shale gas wells had to deliver consistent or growing production and profitability to pay back heavy debt interest loans on well driller companies: $3 to $9 million per well. Fracking wells require not just drilling, but also huge injections of energy, water, sand and chemicals to fracture the rocks that hold the oil and gas deposits.

But in fact, no statistical evidence confirmed the hyped claims of a 100-year shale gas supply. In 2011, a study downsized this estimate from 2,560 trillion cubic feet to 750 trillion cubic feet, and by 2013, the US Geological Survey refined that down to 481 trillion cubic feet - less than a 19-year supply based on 2013 rates of production. Nevertheless, huge amounts of capital poured into increasingly marginal operations, and the fracking market was flooded with junk bonds and derivatives as investors piled in.

Meanwhile oil fracking, which is separate from gas fracking, also needed huge injections of capital, but more importantly, oil frackers needed oil prices to stay at $85 a barrel or higher on average to break even. Many of the shale oil wells that have sucked up a huge amount of investment have also turned out to have short lives and their operators required continued infusions of capital to drill new wells to keep afloat, even as prices tumbled due to the glut they themselves created. The Bakken, one of the largest oil fracking plays, is a typical example. It grew exponentially after environmental protections were removed. But since 2008, Bakken has required increasingly larger numbers of wells just to maintain level production and service debt. The industry, already in trouble in 2013, has now endured plunging revenues through a year of oil selling at $60 to $70 per barrel, on average, instead of $90 to $100.




Everyone had expected that in 2014 the Saudis would move to limit supply and maintain stable oil prices by cutting back production, as OPEC has done for decades. But an unexpected shockwave hit the industry in November 2014: The Saudis laid down the gauntlet and announced their intention to continue full production and let oil prices drop.

For the Saudis, this serves two purposes: First, it undermines the expansion of US shale oil by forcing prices down so low that many of the wells have to be shut down or lose money. Second, it punishes their enemy, Iran, whose oil export-based economy has been savaged by the lower prices. The Saudis are sitting pat, with a trillion-dollar war chest savings account accumulated over a decade of $100 per barrel oil. Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi has publicly admitted that the Saudis will wait as long as needed to retain market share, even if prices plunge further.

Falling oil prices will place a huge stress on the world's junk bond market as energy companies now account for 15 percent of the outstanding issuance in the non-investment grade bond market. The plunge in the prices of crude could trigger a "volatility shock large enough to trigger the next wave of defaults," according to Deutsche Bank.

This explains why the Obama administration - with complicity of both congressional Democrats and Republicans - managed in the wee hours of the morning to slip a loophole into the supposedly "must-pass" cliff-hanger omnibus budget bill. This toxic Trojan horse, passed in December 2014, now includes a minor footnote provision that might cause taxpayers to pick up the tab on more than a trillion dollars (yes, trillion) if the energy market bubble implodes, which it must if oil stays at half the price it fetched just six months ago.

After last minute, heavy lobbying on the budget bill by Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and an army of 3,000 Wall Street lobbyists, it appears that once again sufficient insecurity and fear had been spread among the political class regarding destabilization of the financial markets (or withdrawal of campaign financing). They allowed a last minute amendment that killed Dodd-Frank protections, and allowed US taxpayers to be shaken down to cover Wall Street's shale gambling debacle.

The heavy-handed move by the financial industry has outraged progressives and libertarians alike. It seems that these Wall Street criminals, like junkies attached to their drugs of choice, just could not resist the high of easy cash from Ponzi scheme market bubbles, and so they have stuck it to the US public once again: Preposterously huge bonuses, Porsches, pricey call girls, and million-dollar Manhattan condos were at stake. So hey, why should they kick the habit? After all, not a single one of those con artists went to jail last time.

Wall Street is now flooded with fracking industry derivatives contracts that protect the profits of oil producers from dramatic swings in the marketplace. Derivatives are essentially insurance policies taken out by the oil industry to guard against fluctuations in the cost of fossil fuel supplies. Dramatic swings rarely happen, but when they do they can be absolutely crippling.

Derivatives taken out to ensure prices don't go down are now creating billions in losses for those who sold such bets on the market; someone is going to have to absorb massive losses created by the sudden drop in oil on the other end of those insurance contracts. In many cases, it is the big Wall Street banks, and if the price of oil does not rebound substantially they could be facing colossal losses.

The big Wall Street banks did not expect plunging home prices to implode the mortgage-backed securities market in 2008, but their current models also did not have $60 oil prices included in projections. The huge losses may send a shock wave into the entire financial industry. It has been
estimated that the six largest "too-big-to-fail" banks control $3.9 trillion in commodity derivatives contracts, those same gambling instruments that brought us the 2008 housing collapse. And a very large chunk of that amount is made up of oil derivatives. Combined with the huge flood of shale junk bonds on the market, the derivatives could initiate a bubble burst that could turn into a financial market implosion.

Though shale derivatives were not specifically mentioned by the Wall Street lobbyists as they pressured their allies in Congress and the White House, it is becoming increasingly clear that the too-big-to-fail banks were beginning to panic as dark clouds gathered on the horizon in the shale derivatives trade.

Most bank customers and voters don't know that Congress has already written into finance regulations that, in the case of insolvency, financial institutions could grab the assets of depositors and "bail-in" - which means they can save themselves from their losses in gambling operations at their investment divisions by grabbing cash assets of depositors, even those that are FDIC guaranteed, and legally convert them to bank stocks. That means that in the event of another market crash, Chase and Citi could take their depositors' cash in savings accounts or CDs, and give the customers back a bank stock certificate (of questionable value) instead.

There are also those who scratch their heads and ask, "Why did the banks push for a deletion of the Dodd-Frank provision now, instead of waiting for the friendlier Republican-controlled Congress to pass this legislation?" The only answer that seems to make sense, and explain their urgency, is that the collapse is imminent.

Having learned their lesson well from the last bailout, and knowing that they will have a much harder time coming to Congress hat-in-hand after a collapse, the too-big-to-fail banks probably decided not to wait, pushing their minions in the Beltway to inoculate them as soon as possible from the potential market explosion.

In the meantime, they were probably dumping their own stocks on unsuspecting investors. Based on year-end reports for March 31, 2014, for 127 major oil companies, cash input for the fracking industry was $677 billion, while revenues from operations only totaled $568 billion - a difference of almost $110 billion. And this was before the price of oil started dropping six months ago. 

In three out of seven major fracking fields in North America, companies are already reporting losses, with closures particularly acute in Canada. It's not clear whether economists fully appreciate what's about to transpire. This decline in rig count is just the beginning. Perhaps the end will come as early as this winter or spring, as fiscal reports for 2014's fourth quarter are published, operations shut down, crews are laid off, and many unprofitable oil and gas rigs are mothballed.

2 comments:

  1. Great statistics plus great research from the left.. The housing bubble was a direct result of Dodd Frank. The gov..forcing banks to make loans to unqualified buyers and no money down loans who walked away from their debt.. The drop in oil prices is another gov. interference in private industry to damage Russia.. However the American consumer is now reaping the benefits of lower gas prices and home heating oil..If gov. keeps it claws out of private industry a free market would correct itself under volatile circumstances. (all in a nutshell.)

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    Replies
    1. Dodd-Frank didn't even exist at the time of the housing collapse. The drop in oil prices is due more than anything else to the failure of Saudi Arabia to continue to support prices by cutting supply - they have over a $trillion in the bank.

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