That old, way over-quoted saying, attributed to Keynes, keeps reverberating in my head lately. “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent”.
Almost three years ago, I put out a video mocking Saudi Arabia’s investing strategy, calling it plainly irrational and irresponsible, and destined to end in tears. Well, so far it looks like my prediction is a failure. In fact, this investing strategy may be the most successful thing that MBS has done, staving off financial disaster for his country, and in the process making himself just as valuable to US politicians as Saudi Arabia was back in the 20th century when we needed their oil.
This one was interesting. The fact that I need to produce longer videos kind of ambushed me here. I intended to focus on how the MBS-Khashoggi issue is a side-show to what our true priorities should be, but the need to correct my older video on Saudi investing kind of swallowed my scripting process, drawing in Gamestop and some media critique.
Today’s video hints at something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. We all know China’s great internet firewall as a source of great repression. But China’s maintenance of a separate national internet has also left it weirdly independent of the US tech giants that rule the internet everywhere else.
China has worked hard to co-opt the newest of the Tech behemoths, Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX. General Motors and other foreign car companies battled for decades to build up their competitive position in China. Musk was building a massive factory in China under favorable terms before he sold his millionth (100,000th?) car. China was wise to try to get this guy on their side, but as today’s video explains, it’s unlikely to work out well for them in the long term…
I’d like to make more videos in this vein, thinking through the outside power of tech companies and what it means for geopolitics, but that depends on how this video does. If you like it, share it around…
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…