Some videos come pretty easy, and today’s video is one of them. I really like it when new ways of looking at stuff pop into my head. The more I think about it though, there are other aspects to this I should have included. The shift in the oil market here is pretty extraordinary. It’s actually the birth of a sort of “Super OPEC”. It’s also an OPEC that’s a lot more dangerous for its members. With a US president in charge, especially a US president listening to Texas oilmen, military operations become a potent tool of market making.
The world, and the US, used to have a minimal investment in the stability of petro-states. In the long term, these places should be happier without US supported perma-leaders, but the short term looks increasingly grim. As oil demand peaks, the ballooning US petroleum industry will need to be protected. The US can do this by knocking off competitors one by one. This could be an underappreciated aspect of Libya’s permanent oil crisis since 2011. Petro-states on each side of the conflict have no incentive to get their proxies on the same page and producing more. Venezuela is being knocked out. So is Iran. Destabilizing Iraq would be very easy. Saudi Arabia is super shaky. A broader war in the Middle East would be horrible, but it would be pretty great for the new head of OPEC… The US president.
It’s not really the focus of today’s video, which I wanted to keep light, but it really is fucking outrageous what the Defense Department is trying to pull off with its new National Defense Strategy. The Pentagon continues to use terrorism as a blank check for assassinations, kidnappings, and hyper-militarization in dozens of countries all over the world. The Pentagon has used it to scare the US public for decades now. They want to keep doing all of these things. But now that terrorism is fading, they want to perform a magic trick, keep all their money and toys, and continue with business as usual.
And they’re getting away with it. Washington, DC is super absorbed with talking about how much it hates Donald Trump, but is acting with surprising unity. Trump has started a trade war with China. The Department of Justice is pursuing cases against Chinese businesses with unprecedented and shocking vigor. The recently vacating “adults in the room” at the Defense Department were obsessed with China too. Every media group lightly poo poos Trump’s treatment of China… and then jumps on the bandwagon to talk about how scary and sinister China is. It’s outrageous really. Sigh.
Well at least we’re attempting to hold them accountable. Spill your glass for the War on Terror. It was a terribly wasteful and pointless way to spend a couple trillion dollars and a couple million lives.
I often talk about the oil price on this channel. That’s what I do with today’s video. But I don’t think I talk about what incredibly good news the death of the oil market is. For the environmentalists this is a bit of a mixed bag, but I think on balance very good. The whole “peak oil” thing has turned out to not be a problem. 30 years ago it was mostly the US, Japan and Europe that were intensively using other people’s petroleum resources. We’ve more than tripled the number of people, and probably more than tripled the amount of consumption. And we’ve all survived. That’s pretty damn cool. The downside of course is that we’re producing more and more carbon. Cheaper oil prices are not a good thing for those worried about global warming in the short term. Oil is cheaper, more of it gets consumed, and more carbon gets dumped into the atmosphere. But it can actually be a good thing in the long term.
Lower oil prices provide the same sort of good news to environmentalists that it does to geopolitics nerds. Bad people have less power. If oil is permanently cheaper, that provides less money to all the people who used to use oil wealth to steer the world. As I keep pointing out, lower oil prices are leading to a collapse in terrorism. It will also lead to a collapse in oil industry influence in the United States and other countries across the world. We can already see it happening. The fact that electric cars have been allowed to go this far is an indicator of how much power the oil industry has already lost. The days when oil execs could confidently march into the government’s most powerful positions almost certainly ended with Rex Tillerson. The Oil industry’s global warming skeptics are still churning out their reports, but they look laughable to everybody now, including the oil executives who pay for them. The oil industry’s decline in prestige will cede the climate change conversation to the scientists and their friends in the environmental lobby almost entirely. Good news all around!
So why am I the only guy talking about this? In today’s video I connect a bunch of dots to point out that Saudi Arabia’s investment program isn’t going to help them out of their current mess. In fact that investment program is more than a bit nuts. Funds that are desperately needed to reinvent the country are being sent to some of silicon valley’s riskiest money pits. It’s possible that these investments will make some money eventually, but it isn’t what I’d call likely.
The truth is that all of this information is out there. Today’s video wouldn’t be possible without some great financial journalism done by folks at Bloomberg and the Financial Times. The FT’s “Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund Scrambles For Resources” in particular was very useful. But this stuff is often behind paywalls, and only read by nerds like myself. This information is all out there, and it’s being acted on by serious investors. That’s why that magical city, NEOM, isn’t going anywhere, and its German CEO has already been shuffled off to another job. That’s why the Saudi-Blackstone infrastructure fund announced at the Saudi-Trump orb fest last year can’t find any other investors. The broader situation really is dire, far beyond the headline grabbing problems with Tesla and Uber.
This is a slow motion catastrophe. But it hasn’t made much of an impact on the broader consciousness yet. That’s because the Saudi PR machine is still working in high gear. Bloomberg, FT, and occasionally the New York Times will follow up on all these projects and their failings, in articles that are only read by a few tens of thousands of people. But when a new project is announced it’s in ALL the outlets, with videos, puff pieces, and endless social media placements. The more disturbing facts are all out there, and I’m proud that I got to bring them to you with today’s video.
Full disclosure: I own some Tesla stock and I’m actually pretty bullish on the company’s long-term chances. If Elon Musk can get his head on straight that is. That doesn’t mean it’s a good investment for Saudi Arabia…
Over the past year Saudi Arabia has experienced a perfect storm of factors in its favor. Asset prices in the US economy and elsewhere have gone nuts. Saudi Arabia is a country that owns a lot of stock, land and everything else, so that’s been very helpful. On the oil market front, the most important front there is for Saudi Arabia, they’ve had unprecedented cooperation on the OPEC production slow-down, and a series of competitors have given up millions of barrels a day in production due to sundry wars and dictatorships.
If Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plans for the future were ever going to work, 2017 would have been the year for it. But as this video shows, some of the key metrics that illustrate the hole Saudi Arabia is in haven’t changed much at all. As I said in last year’s video, and as I repeat in today’s video… Saudi Arabia is still finished.
Back when I started doing this channel full time, I put out a series called “Notes From The Golden Age“. Today’s video, on the defeat of OPEC, is a long delayed addition to the series. In the six minutes of the video itself, I just laid out the facts as I understand them: The fact that OPEC did its level best to raise the price of oil, and they failed. If you want to hear more about why that is, and hear some discussion of the revolution in petroleum affairs we’ve experienced over the past five years, you could do worse than this video here.
Put briefly, oil doesn’t cost what it used to. The origin of this development is probably OPEC itself. That cartel drastically reduced the oil on the market on a couple occasions in the 1970s, driving the price through the roof. Much has, quite rightly, been made of the Shale revolution in the United States. A range of technological advances has made oil extraction easier, cheaper, and viable in places that it wasn’t before. This revolution has made US production competitive with Saudi Arabia again, and caused the plummet in prices that started in mid 2014. But the Shale revolution is only the most dramatic cause.
The plummet in oil prices is the result of a range of reactions to OPEC’s obscene market power. An under-heralded one is energy efficiency. We have finally reached a point where economic growth is decoupling from growth in petrochemical use. Some of this is renewables, but more of it is the very, very unsexy business of making cars and air conditioning units run more efficiently. Another reaction to OPEC was the broadening of the search for petroleum. Coupled with Technological advances, a staggering range of countries now produce significant amounts of oil and gas. OPEC has been beaten. They largely did it to themselves.
My roommates went to Coachella this weekend. When they got back I made them talk about Saudi Arabia. They were pretty beat, but it’s still a more useful conversation than you would ever get on Fox News or CNN. The talk is a bit rambling, but it’s super useful. It gave us a chance to enlarge on some of the issues brought up by the videos. It also brings in some of the issues covered by the “Everybody’s Lying About Islam” essay that may not get covered in the videos.
The most important issue that the talk covers is my personal attitude towards Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabians. It’s important to emphasize that as angry as I am about the US-Saudi relationship, I bear no ill will towards Saudi Arabians. The whole country, even its leadership is caught in a trap. It’s not a trap that’s entirely of their own making. Find out more by reading the essay…
People are good at ignoring the obvious. Saudi Arabia is finished. The 2014 crash in the price of oil has left the ruling family in an impossible position. Since 2014 the country has been burning through around $100 Billion of dollar reserves a year. At that pace, the current regime has got about 4 years left before they can’t meet their obligations. The almost 100 billion in debt (up by a factor of 4 since 2014) that the country is now carrying will accelerate this issue. This problem has been noted of course, but most financial publications have been quick to swallow the Saudi line on the issue.
The problem has been identified, and Saudi Arabia is supposedly taking bold steps to address it. What few are talking about is how inadequate these steps are. This video covers the farcical “Vision 2030” idea that is supposedly going to turn Saudi Arabia into a new Dubai.
What I didn’t get into, because the video was already too long, was the illusion of a Saudi Aramco IPO. Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, is supposedly a multi-trillion dollar company. Selling off the proposed 5-10% of the company would give the Saudi royal family a few more years of runway. It’s not going to work. It may very well go forward, but they are not going to get the money they want. Also, the investment is something that everybody will be excited to look into, but dramatically fewer will want to actually buy.
Aramco is a state-run black box at the moment. Getting money from outside investors would require a high degree of disclosure and re-organization that they are unlikely to be interested in doing. The country is also faced with a couple of Catch-22s. First, driving up the valuation of the company requires driving up the cost of oil. To do this Saudi Arabia has to restrict its supply, which means it would lose market share, and have less funds to deal with its many issues. Second, if they don’t get Aramco up to Western corporate standards, they’ll have to rely on local investors. Those investors have plenty of money, but as the country gets shakier, they will become less interested in investing in Aramco. A great indication of the shakiness of Saudi Arabia would be the country’s needing to rely on local investors to fund the Aramco IPO.
These issues leave me convinced that by 2030 Saudi Arabia will be a completely different country. Unfortunately US policy seems to be that the Saudi money spinner will go on forever. The new administration has been doubling down on the brutal Saudi adventure in Yemen, and seems to want to escalate with Iran. This is crazy.