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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Matt Simmons Sees Oil Shock Resulting From Credit Crunch

Prominent energy investment banker, Matt Simmons, President of Houston-based energy investment banking firm Simmons & Co., and author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, recently stated that the global financial crisis and collapse of oil prices have stalled investment in oil exploration and production, which could soon lead to shortages and sharp spikes in the price of oil.

Simmons argues that the underlying rate of decline in the world's aging "elephant" oil fields is as much as 20% a year and that much more investment in drilling and exploration is necessary to offset the decline. He does not add that all the recent discoveries are very small relative to these major fields that have supplied us for the past 50 years, and that, while we were producing much more oil than we used 50 years ago, in that we were using, in the U.S. only 5 million barrels a day in the 50s, while the really large discoveries were still being made. Now, we are using 20 million barrels a day, and world wide demand is increasing, while the largest fields are in steep decline and new discoveries are relative small, usually about 5 to 15 billion barrels potential at the most.

Yet drilling and other investments are likely to remain stalled as long as oil is below $70 a barrel. We're ignoring the overhanging energy crunch because the sharp decrease in demand, due to a steep contraction in the global economy, has dampened demand. However, developing countries such as China are rapidly expanding their demand. China is taking advantage of their solid financial posture and everyone else's extreme weakness to get a lock on a major portion of the world's oil production for the future.

The current financial crises has pushed the energy situation off the radar, but, thanks in no small part to the weakness of our currency, oil is now beginning to ratchet back up. Simmons predicts that we could be seeing price spikes "3, 6, no more than 9 months" from now, and it looks like oil is on track to hit $70 a barrel by the end of summer, if current price action is any indication.

The Toyota Hybrid MR-2

While GM is in Washington trying to beg another $100 Billion or so in "loans" and other handouts, Toyota and other Asian automakers are fighting the slump in auto sales in another way: by designing cars that people really want to buy and that are appropriate for new conditions....like an elegantly styled hybrid roadster that gets 60 MPG and has sports car acceleration, for less than $30,000.

Even a dedicated non-car owner and anti-auto activist could love this car. I salivated when I read about this thing.

At this point, the beauty pictured here, the Toyota MR2 Hybrid, is only speculation. However, it looks as though the company has the specifics pretty well nailed down and that the car is well beyond the concept stage, and could be rolled out in a couple of years. Toyota is considering reviving their old MR-2 as a "green" sports roadster that is based on the Prius technology, has an automatic transmission, will get up to 60 MPG (50MPG in the U.S.), and will go from 0-60 MPH in 7 seconds. A Toyota executive said that the targeted price point would be about $24,000.

We'll see if this car gets built. But there's no reason why it shouldn't be, given the proven ability of the Asian carmakers to put out exceptionally economic cars that are also beautiful and a joy to drive.

We have to wonder why General Motors or another American car maker is not building a car like this? Or the beautiful Honda Civic Hybrid? Instead, GM decided to kill the lovely EV1, its exciting electric car, after a half-hearted 3-year experiment during which they marketed the car on a very provisional basis in only two states. What might have transpired if the company had put as much effort and money into developing this car into a dependable vehicle, and marketing it across the country, as the company did with the dangerously overpowered muscle cars of the 60s or the gas-guzzling, overweight SUVs of the past two decades?

GM deserves to die merely for pushing that famous offense against basic decency, the Hummer, and so do the politicians who protected vehicles like this from being subject to the fuel mileage standards applicable to most cars marketed in this country. And if you're concerned about the loss of jobs and domestic manufacturing, consider that Toyota, Honda and other "foriegn" automakers are probably building more vehicles on our soil and employing more American workers at good wages than the old domestic manufacturers.

I still don't believe that widespread auto ownership will survive the ride down the other side of the peak of oil production, but a car like this is a great way to ride down the slope.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fantasizing Growth: The 2016 Olympics

Used to be a woman living here in Rogers Park who you might remember if you live in the vicinity of the block bounded by Pratt, Sheridan, Farwell, and Lakewood.

She was an older lady somewhere in her sixties; an extremely small, delicate,thin white woman with reddish hair, who was usually dressed in shabby clothes and who I saw often at the 7-11 at Pratt & Sheridan. She was an immensely likeable woman, always friendly, and baked absolutely delectable sweets, which she offered to people who she talked to. She lived in the small, decrepit blond brick apartment building on Farwell close to Lakewood, right next to the alley.

Well, I had always assumed she was poor, based on her appearance and place of residence, and was really surprised when, on our last meeting a couple of years ago, she told me she was moving out of the neighborhood to Skokie, because she'd bought a house there. Wow, I thought, this lady has the wherewithal to buy a house? I immediately assumed that there was a sleazy mortgage broker mixed up in the deal somewhere, for she told me the house cost about $350,000, so I asked her what kind of financing she got.

"I didn't get any," she replied in a factual manner. "I paid cash."

I almost choked. She paid cash, I thought numbly, and suddenly I felt overwhelmed with shame for my own carelessness, extravagance, and wastefulness; in general, for my misspent life. This woman had simply done what I and most other Americans just can't find it in themselves to do, which is stop spending and put money away and forget about what other people think of you and your old clothes and decrepit furniture.

Actually, Rogers Park has a lot of residents like this, but you don't know who they are because they tend to hide. Not only do they not walk around bragging about their means and position, but they often look very unfashionable, to say the least. And they don't give a damn what we think of their appearance, because they have enough money socked away that they don't need to worry about what anyone thinks of them, but instead, would rather no one noticed them at all.

Now, I have people in my personal circle of acquaintances of another sort, people who have made over $200,000 a year for years past and still don't have a dime saved, can't afford to retire, and have tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt, oftentimes delinquent. They live in large houses and pricey condos in prime neighborhoods,wear Rolex watches and Bruno Magli shoes,and always have lavish cars and boats, as well as every electronic gadget ever invented, but they are swimming in so much debt that all that needs to happen is for their commissions to slump for a month, and they're buried- and you'd better believe those commissions are slumping these days.

And sometimes they don't even need a drop in their incomes- a number of years back, I prospected a United Airlines captain who was then pulling about $250,000 a year, and he told me he wouldn't be doing any investing because he and his wife were doing a Chapter 7, on over $343,000 worth of unsecured debt. That's debt over and above the house and car loans, which are secured (sort of), for things like Disneyland and jewelry and furniture and clothes and gameboxes and whetever else you can think of to shoot this kind of money on over a short span of time.

You can't help but dwell on these two very different types of people and how the second sort has set the tone in our culture for the past 60 years and has helped sink this country into a world of trouble, especially when you consider our national commitment of over $7 Trillion in all towards bailing out the financial and housing industries, and Daley's obsession with winning the bid for the Olympics and the rapidly escalating taxes in Chicago, and increasing costs of doing business here. Has anyone told this guy that we are in the deepest economic pit since the 30s and that there's more to a city than monuments and sports venues?

We can now see that our local leaders, along with municipal authorities everywhere else, bought eagerly into the Ponzi mentality of the past decade, and were clearly basing their projections of future tax revenues on double-digit yearly increases in home values and on a economy that would surely keep expanding forever. Now that a massive shift has occurred, it is clear that revenues not only won't meet the projections that were used to justify lavish projects, but will fall substantially short and will also continue to drop as we enter a period of unavoidable economic contraction. That contraction won't be halted by printing trillions of more dollars, as Obama and Geithner are doing now- the additional government debt, in a time of falling incomes, will not only prolong the misery, it will endanger us all the more as the U.S. Treasury lurches toward insolvency. The yearly deficit is now $1.75 Trillion, over half the budget of $3 Trillion, for an overhang of public debt larger than has ever existed in any country in history, and which, judging by history, is unsustainable. And it is already affecting us, for the deterioration in our currency is driving oil prices back into the $50/barrel range, before the driving season even begins. If you think that we are not in danger of defaulting on our soveriegn debt, read history, and read about what happens to the economies and the citizens of countries that go into default. Read about Weimer Germany and Argentina, read about the whellbarrows of money to buy bread and the millions of people booted out of the middle class and plunged into desperate poverty as a result of their leaders' economic ignorance and financial malfeasance.

The 2016 Olympics is only one of the many Vanity projects Daley has his heart set on and is determined to ram down our throats at whatever the cost, which he and his people are being less than forthright about. There is also the Block 37 El Superstation Boondogle; at the latest writing, the station has lurched way over budget and sucked up over $300 Million, and is now stalled and left to rot in its incomplete state. This is money that could have been used to rebuild the decrepit Red Line and could also have gone toward expanding the system with service we really need, such as a circular connecting rail line, and lines that run east and west on the city's congested north side, to relieve the horrendous congestion on Belmont, Fullerton, and Chicago Avenues, so that life without a car might be possible at some point for the unaffluent denizens of the city's outer neighborhoods.

Our police department is steeply underfunded and undermanned, what consideration might be sufficient to kill our Olympic bid in any case, especially if considered alongside our decrepit and inadeqaute public transportation.

It's sad, scary, and somehow unbelievable, that one of the nation's richest and most successful cities should have so much difficulty meeting its basic needs and paying its bills, and it's so typically American that we could be in such a difficulty and still be arranging to lay out tens of billions of dollars we really don't begin to have for vanity projects whose costs to the public will result in profits only for a few crony "entrepreneurs", while disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of people and running up at least $20 billion in costs to the public, if not much more, if the $44 Billion Bejing games are any indication. Anyone who thinks that costs will be capped at $2 Billion or less, and will be paid mostly by private donors, is naive and credulous in the extreme.

But Americans as a whole tend to be extremely credulous and naive, which is why we are in the mess we are in to begin with. We have had it so sweet and easy for so long that we tend to think that we have a God-given entitlement to things like 20% a year appreciation on our houses, and that there's no bottom to the well of public money. Life for the past 60 years for Western countries in general and the U.S. in particular has been one long debt-and-oil fueled bacchanalia; an incredible feast of technological advances , material surplus, and easy credit; and it has gulled us into incredible complacency while humoring us in our fantasies of perpetual world dominance and our overweaning sense of entitlement.

Well, pinning our future on "growth" triggered by the expenditure of billions of borrowed dollars on glitzy projects with high glamor quotients but limited scope and utility, isn't any wiser for a city, or a country, than it does for an individual citizen who's already losing his job and in up to his eyeballs in debt, to borrow twice his yearly income to buy a Mercedes on the premise that driving an impressive auto will help him score more clients or get a better job. The Olympics is a costly and disruptive indulgence for which the usual justifications, trotted out for every public gift of hundreds of millions of dollars to privately owned sports venues, will no longer serve, and so are numerous other projects that Daley has on his plate; and our numerous bailouts of failing industries and escalating public spending sufficient to double the federal deficit will most likely only produce results on a national level comparable with what a major debt-spending binge does to an individual who's already on the ropes financially.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Inappropriate Technology of the Year:The Terrafugia

At last, a Sci-Fi fantasy beloved of every pre-adolescent boy growing up in the 40s and 50s, has been brought to life- a true flying car, the Terrafugia Transition, made by Terrafugia of New York. Follow the title link above to view a photo of the vehicle, which is a two-seater automobile with wings that fold neatly in when the car is to take the street.

The price tag is $194,000- cheaper than a Porsche 911 that can't quite fly, but surely is better-looking.

Oil may be ratcheting back up over $50 a barrel and beyond, and we may be in the deepest economic pit since the 1930s, but we still have all the techno-nerds nurtured on Sci-Fi comic books busily at work devising appropriate automotive technologies for the era of energy scarcity.

My first thought upon reading about this ludicrous vehicle was: Air Control Nightmare. I mean, can you seriously imagine 200 million of these things flying around at low altitudes over the country? Or high altitudes? Can you imagine the drunk down the street who you've seen falling out of his car with a glass in his hand in the early AM, flying over your house in his aircar? Don't commercial air pilots and controllers have enough to deal with, what with planes taking off and landing on one-minute spaces at most major airhubs, and an already ample population of moron amateur pilots in small, private aircraft getting underfoot constantly?

My second thought was, thank the Gods for the Real Estate Bust, else millions of gadget-crazed idiots in every outer burb in the country would be getting HELOC loans against their houses to buy these things.

Some tech people need to get their heads out of the 50s Sci-Fi comic books and apply their abilities to designing something like new nuclear power generators that make use of nuclear waste, or perhaps, how to harness the ocean waves. There has to be a better application for their brains than thinking of yet another way to waste more energy that much faster.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Preferred Stocks

I usually don't like to recommend investments here, but I just couldn't pass on these great Preferred Stocks:

http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/preferred-stocks.jpg

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Edgewater Development Corporation Presents the Edgwater Environmental Plan:Community Meeting March 12, 2009

Edgewater Environmental Plan

March 12, 2009 Community Meeting:

Discussion & Input on Edgewater Environmental Plan


Moderated by Harry Osterman
Location: Emanuel Congregation; 5959 N. Sheridan Road
Time: 7:00 p.m.


Due to Global Climate Change it is critical to manage our energy usage and the other large impacts we have on our environment. How can we do this as a community? Please join us to help develop our environmental plan, and your impact will be felt by generations to come!

Agenda - Community Input:

  • Turn Edgewater into the model green community within Chicago
  • Presentations on 10 Plan Elements by Subject
  • What Can We All Do Next
  • Break Out Discussions

Click Here For More Information

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Edgewater Community Council/EDC

March 5, 2009 at 7:00 p.m.
Broadway Armory Park
5917 N Broadway
2nd Floor Ballroom
Parking lot next to Armory at corner of Thorndale/Broadway

Agenda:

1. Incidental Liquor License - Abyssinia Restaurant, 5842 N Broadway, Abraham, Owner. Local block club is EPIC, which has approved the request.

2. Introduction of "New Concept" ALDI store for The Clarovista (previously called "The Granville") at Broadway/Granville. Bill Platt, building owner, with representatives from ALDI and CB Richard Ellis. Local block club is NEBA.

The purpose of the Planning & Development meeting is for the community to hear presentations on proposals for new developments & new businesses, zoning change requests, special permit requests, and community planning issues. The presentations are followed by informative discussions with input from individuals with skills and knowledge relevant to the topics.

This is an open public meeting. Come and get informed!

China Snapping Up Energy Resources

Other, more solvent, nations are taking advantage of America's current financial crisis and lack of liquidity, as well as the current slump in oil and gas prices, to snap up energy resources all over the world at fire sale prices. A recent article in Terra Express (title link) states:

" Resource-hungry China has seized upon the financial crisis to sign billions of dollars in deals in a buying spree that is set to pick up pace and reshape the global economic landscape, analysts say.

From Calgary to Caracas, China has hammered out an unprecedented series of agreements over the past month as plummeting energy and commodity prices have left once mighty producers over-extended and short on funds.

I hope our leaders are taking notice of this development. I believe that Obama is aware of our predicament regarding energy security, but the financial crisis and economic morass have stolen attention from almost all other matters, including energy; while the temporary drop in energy prices has lulled us into complacency regarding the fossil fuel situation.

Our oil-dependent lifestyle and financial mismanagement have placed us at an incredible disadvantage in procuring the oil imports we need to fuel our car-centric lifestyle. In the meantime, worldwide oil production has dropped, and drilling and recovery projects in Calgary and everywhere else have been canceled because they cannot be profitable at the current prices of oil and gas. What this all means is that we will get caught in a massive supply crunch, which will overtake us very quickly, while more countries compete for smaller supplies of indispensable fossil fuels. Chinese leaders know what is coming and are making provisions accordingly, using the wealth this country has handed it to acquire a steep advantage over other nations in the contest for what remains of the planet's fossil fuel supplies.

We need to get very scared, very fast, and start making provisions for ourselves, against the time when we have only 90%, or 70%, or less, of the fuel available that we have now. Right now, we're doing next to nothing, either as a nation, or as individuals. We are still allocating more money to the construction of highways, airports, and sports venues than we are to rail or public transit, and we are still encouraging the construction of suburban sprawl. Team Obama has done good, on one hand, by steeply reducing the subsidies to oil-dependent agribusiness, but offsets it by throwing money at our failing auto makers and at ever more highways and airport expansions.