Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Why I'm hoping for $6.00/gallon gasoline

Gas prices are high. And while we don't typically see drivers rending their shirts and screaming up at heaven, cursing prices at the pump, most of us recognize it costs us almost twice as much to fill up our automobile now than three years earlier. So what's the deal? Is this outrageous price gouging? Are we running out of oil? Do we need government intervention? Again, answers are (in no particular order), no, no, and no. Let me attempt a meager explanation to the crude oil conundrum.

As you probably guessed, there are a few factors at play. But the underlying theme is that we are experiencing very basic economic theories here. What follows is an amalgamation of personal research along with some salient points as explained to me by an energy executive I met with upon contemplation of an investment.

What's behind the price?

Demand has a little something to do with it, I'll explain that in a minute. But approximately 30% of gas prices are determined by taxes and inflation. So, in an environment where both taxes and inflation are increasing, we would expect the price of oil to increase as well. According to the representatives I met, adjusted for inflation and taxes only, the price of a gallon of gas should be approximately $3.13/gallon. But prices are higher than that (based on national averages) and there is clearly more to the picture than inflation and taxes. It's the cost of crude oil, refining capabilities, and demand. Refineries are having a hard time keeping up since the energy infrastructure we are dealing with is thirty years old and was built to accommodate a somewhat lower demand. Producers also deal with increasing environmental compliance. Some crude is also more difficult to reach. Obviously, the easier it is to get from the ground, the cheaper it is. For example, because of the location (in the ground/ocean) of the crude oil in the middle east, it only costs about 15$ to extract a barrel, while in the gulf coast it could cost up to 65$ a barrel. Factors such as the depth and quality of the crude will determine the cost to pump and refine. But a common mistake is to think that the costs of production are solely responsible for the rising prices at the pump. The first step is to realize that inflation and taxes play a critical role. Now, is there price gouging on top of that? Nope.

Bottom-line, we don't have a choice. Or do we?

Price in-elasticity. That's what is at work here. In simple terms, if something is said to be price inelastic, it means that the change in demand will be minimal relative to price changes. If something in price elastic, then demand will change more drastically relative to price. What determines whether something is elastic or inelastic? Substitutes. For example, if you're going to the store to buy Ketchup you will notice there are roughly a dozen brands to choose from. And, for most of us, the Ketchup tastes the same. If Heinze decides to increase the price of their ketchup, most rational shoppers will simply choose another brand, maybe the generic label, because it is cheaper. In this example, Ketchup is price elastic, rather, the demand for their ketchup is very sensitive to price fluctuations due to the prevalence of substitutes. In contrast, let's take, um, gas as an example. If gas prices increase, where can we go for alternative fuel in the short term? Nowhere. There are no substitutes in the short term. If gas prices increase 20 cents between today and tomorrow, I can't go out and buy an alternative fuel. Then why don't gas stations simply jack the price way up? Because they also have to worry about the long run. Although I can't do anything about a gas substitute right now, I can over the course of a year or two. I can figure out how to take the bus, ride my bike, or buy an alternatively powered automobile. But for now, I'm stuck.

What about our shrinking oil supply?

Now that we understand a little about demand, let's briefly talk about supply. Is there a problem? Yes, but probably not the one you are thinking. Most pundits report we are "running out of oil!" or "We only have 30 years of oil supply left!" Well, this is technically, but not actually, true. Going back to the costs of production, it makes sense to drill where you know oil already is. Looking for more oil costs money. And you can rightfully assume that oil has been discovered long before drilling takes place. So even though the supply we are working with now is certainly finite, that does not mean we are talking about all the crude oil on the face of the earth. If I carried the pundits mentality of a shrinking oil supply to my own life it would be like me walking into my kitchen, examining all the food I have available, and then exclaiming "Holy crap! I only have 14 days of food left!" See the problem? I am going to buy more food and oil companies will drill in new reserves once the current lot is substantially depleted.

Now the truth to the supply argument comes from the uncertainty of demand. Oil companies try and forecast the demand years out in order to determine what they need to pump today (it takes roughly eight years to get oil from ground up). What they totally missed fifteen years ago was the demand for oil in China and India today. Whereas five years ago the industry could say "based on our current supply, we have 45 years of oil in reserves," today they are saying "if this current consumption keeps up, we only have 30 years of oil." But remember, we are only using developed oil fields. There's plenty more untapped elsewhere. So the majority of the huge spike has to do with anticipation of future demand (i.e. China and India in ten years).

The final problem comes from the control of the supply. Yes, it would make things a lot easier if we stopped threatening to nuke Iran. And you can be sure a major reason we are still in Iraq is oil. And Hugo Chavez (in Venezuela) hates our guts. By the way, what do I think of Hugo Chaves? Most experts agree he is a very astute populist politician. Here, I differ from the experts, I just think he's exceedingly stupid. In fact, he's an idiot! I don't know how you run a national deficit with the kind of oil money he's bringing in. Wait, yes I do. That leads me to my next point.

Government Intervention

Hugo Chavez, because he runs a socialist regime, has implemented price ceilings on many goods and services in order to make goods more cost effective for his constituents. What's wrong with that? Again, incentives. If I'm a corn producer why would I sell my goods to Venezuela, or any other state/country, if there is a ceiling on the price? I'm simply going to sell to whomever can give me the higher price (which may be another country). There goes your supply and you've increased demand by keeping prices artificially low. Consequently, you see long lines, shortages, and riots. While Hugo is waiving the Venezuelan flag, farmers are giving him the finger.

This is why price ceilings are not the answer to gas prices in the U.S. The free market needs to be able to do its job. What about in emergencies, like hurricanes? Again, the market should be allowed to do its job. In the Gulf states, during hurricane Katrina, many gas stations, for fear of impending lawsuits from price gouging, refused to raise prices even though there was huge demand. The result? Thousands of motorists stranded on the highway in the path of the hurricane. Recognize the ripple effect if the opposite happened. What if the gas station owner increased prices to $50/gallon or even $1,000/ gallon? "That's just price gouging," you say? How can an owner be accused of gouging if he can justify that his price meets the demand? That's rational economics. But, hear me out. Say the price, overnight moves to $200/gallon at news that a hurrican will hit land in two days. Then many would simply not be able to afford to fill up and leave town. Then they are incentivized to take extra precautions at home, or go to a fascility (like a stadium, school, etc.) or find any other alternative solution, which would decrease interstate traffic. But more important would be the long term impact if every consumer expected prices at the pump to climb due to emergencies. In short, consumers would come up with alternative plans, or any plan, and that would be a step in the right direction.

Look on the brighter side

The recent ascent of oil prices is finally making an economic case for alternatives. Before, it wasn't cost effective to produce alternative fuels, without governement subsidies. Now, we have an economic incentive to produce cars and other equipment that run on alternative fuels because they are becoming a more viable substitue for oil. For those "green" fans out there, the worst thing that can happen is for oil to fall back down to $50 a barrel. I say keep going up. I'm already reviewing how I'm going to adjust. Does this mean Ethanol will take off? No. Why? Because we eat corn. Anytime you try and create energy from part of the food chain someone is going to complain, probably, those that don't have food (as an aside, it's hard to make a compelling case for turning corn into fuel when there are massive food shortages in parts of the world. Maybe this shortage is the last straw we need to convince government that corn subsidies are a bad idea). No, corn-ethanol is not the answer.

Instead of imposing price controls, the government should make it easier for companies to refine oil (i.e. by lessening regulatory requirements, excise taxes on crude, and drilling requirements). That is, unless their constituents are asking for alternative solutions. In my estimation, this is the real issue. Cheaper gas prices create an economic argument against alternative fuels.

An incentive for innovation, that's what $5 or $6/gallon gas prices will do.

Monday, April 14, 2008

How a couple with no money and a home can sink Bear Stearns

Raise your hand if you don't quite understand the whole financial crisis/recession/subprime writedowns/housing bubble/Bear Stearns bail out/insert any other financial term from the Wall Street Journal over the last quarter.

Since this is my first official post I thought I would cover a topic most are at least hearing about. The question some might ask is how subprime loans can bring down Bear Stearns. So I'll share my understanding of recent events (when I say "my understanding" it is because I've become acutely aware that even those in the closest circles on Wall Street don't really have any idea). Who's to blame? Where did it start? How bad is it? Are we in a recession? Well, if you only have thirty seconds, the answers are; us, late '90's, really bad, and "yes." If you have 15 minutes, read on.


Some of us don't remember, but the housing market was a mess in the early '90's. By the late 90's many investors, both domestic and foreign, thought Real Estate was still a bargain. In the U.S. there was plenty of liquidity from the beginning of the internet boom and foreign investors were enjoying higher commodity prices and, yes, even rising oil prices. All this extra money needed a place to be and U.S. Real Estate was relatively cheap. During the dot.com bust the Fed, recognizing that the fragile Real Estate market could not endure another recession drastically cut interest rates.

Problem #1 Incentives

Since Real Estate was fairly cheap and debt was easy to acquire, it became more competitive. It went from using regional banks as lenders to introducing national and international competition. Loans became more "creative." The Fed also enacted several regulations to make it easier for Banks to make loans to low and middle-income families. By 2003 the "subprime" market was in full swing. "Subprime" refers to loans where lenders require little to no documentation, or where the credit score is below 660. This was also the birth of the infamous 3/1 or 5/1 arm, where the borrower pays interest only for either 3 or 5 years, then the rate increases after that. At the same time, the mortgage business essentially "split," meaning, the company that originated the loan was not the end owner of the loan. It is a basic principle of economics that people or businesses do what they are incentivized to do. If the loan originator was not on the hook for the actual performance of the loan, then what incentive did they have to make quality loans? But this is exactly what happened. For example, you approach a mortgage broker for a loan, they complete the underwriting and grant you the loan. If you read the language in the loan docs you will see that they have the right to sell your loan to a third party. So they do and did, they sold them to banks. It is no surprise, when loan officers work on commission, and their company isn't on the hook for the performance of the loan, that many loans were just plain fraudulent. What does this have to do with Bear Stearns? I'm getting there.

Problem #2 Magic

Let's use Citigroup as an example. Citigroup purchases thousands of these subprime mortgages from various originators across the country. These subprime loans pay more because they have higher interest rates (because there is greater risk) . Citigroup realizes that if they keep all these loans on their books, they have to keep money in reserves. Rather, the Federal Government mandates they keep a certain percentage of cash on hand in the event of default, so the bank remains solvent. Well, Citigroup's finest gather in a room to figure out how to efficiently manage this obligation. Their conclusion is that they can package these loans together, say 1,000 at a time, and sell them in bulk. Whenever you sell "debt," like residential mortgages, you must have them rated by a rating agency (Standard and Poors, Moody's, etc.) as to the safety of the packages. Since Citigroup is smart, they recognize if they simply package all the subprime loans together they will receive a lower "rating" (AAA is the highest, then AA, and so one to CCC, which is junk). So Citigroup bundles subprime and conforming (high quality) loans together. This is called "magic," I mean, a CDO (collateralized debt obligation). These CDO's are also able to achieve a AAA rating. What?! If they are subprime how do they get AAA rated?! Remember, this is a new type of "borrower," they don't have a track record since it didn't emerge in earnest until 2003 (and there are also high quality loans bundled in the CDO).

Problem #3 Greed at Home and Abroad

Back to the international markets for a minute. Interest rates determine the extent of foreign investment that flows to a certain country. For example, if I'm the U.K. I can invest my money locally, or in an international institution. I'm going to invest wherever the interest rate is highest. So, if interest rates in the U.S. are 3% but they are 3.5% in Japan, then I might invest in Japan (assuming the same relative risk). And governments usually invest in the safest instruments. In the U.S., those are government treasury bills...and now, CDO's. Yes, CDO's were AAA rated and paying 6% (on average). Somebody (and by "somebody" I mean, Bernake, Greenspan, and thousands of PhD's on Wall Street) should have called "Bull Sh#@%" There is no free lunch! How can two securities, rated AAA have different returns (3% vs. 6%)?

Problem #4 Tremors

Enter Bear Stearns, stage right. Bear Stearns, and several other investment banks, purchase billions of dollars in CDO's because of their attractive risk/reward tradeoff from banks like Citigroup. Since, in our example, Citigroup sold the loans they are off the hook, right? Wrong! In order to attract buyers Citigroup also sold insurance policies against potential defaults within the CDO. They are essentially guaranteeing liquidity. So they are very much still on the hook. Housing prices in the U.S. have never declined. Banks figured the appreciation in the underlying homes would offset any negligible defaults in the CDO's. Especially with housing values increasing at a 50% clip in some markets. Now we have the end owner, Bear Stearns, and the seller/insurance provider Citigroup, on the line for the mortgages. Back to the homeowner.

Housing values increased beyond what would be considered a financially healthy rate. Interest rates were low, debt was cheap, interest-only payments were easy, and originators weren't asking any questions. Demand exceeded supply for a couple of years. As housing values increased, home owners took out second mortgages to capitalize on the value of their home. With the second mortgages borrowers bought cars, purchased other homes, remodeled, and basically pumped a lot of money into the economy. Supply eventually exceeded demand as the Fed started raising interest rates. Housing prices started to "revert" back to the mean. Here's an example:

I buy a home in 2003 for $150k, no money down, with an interest only loan for three years, my payment is $800/mo. The value of my home over the next three years goes from $150k to $250k (Arizona, Nevada, California, Florida, New Mexico, Texas, etc.). During that time, I take out a second loan to purchase a T.V., two cars, a family trip, and to remodel a room, life is good. Since my three years interest only term is up, my payment turns in to principle and interest, $1200/mo. So I try to refinance. But instead of owing $150K, because of my second I owe $230k. And, because easy loans are no longer available, and my housing prices has fallen from 250 to 230K in six months, I can't get a loan for 100% of the value of the home. I can't make the monthly payment so I default.

This played out at the start of 2007 in certain markets and slowly, as these interest only loans came due, made it's way across the country.

Bloody Hell!

Mortgages started to default, Bear Stearns, and others, got the "willies." The rating agencies came back to the investment banks and essentially said, "That bundle of loans we rated AAA is really rated CCC, you have to write the value of the loans down." That's why you see all the banks writing down billions of dollars worth of loans. And they have no idea how bad it really is. The insurance providers are also getting kicked in the teeth because the defaults are much higher than forecasted. Making matters worse, banks like Bear Stearns purchased these CDO's with borrowed money. Now lenders aren't lending and they want their money back. No buyers, no lenders, out of luck.

JPMorgan Bailout

Bear Stearns was going to declare bankruptcy. That would have been devastating to our economy. Experts are pretty unanimous in their opinion that something of that magnitude could have started a Depression. Shareholders moaned when JPMorgan offered $2/share, which, in my opinion, was $2 more that what it was worth. Then JPMorgan offered to increase the share price to $10, just to help the shareholders. The additional $8/share came, in part, from the Federal Government! The Fed hasn't intervened to this extent since the Great Depression! This was huge! Here's the caveat; JPMorgan stands ahead of the Fed in Seniority. Meaning, if Bear Stearns doesn't get its act together and declares bankruptcy, JPMorgan will collect first and then the Fed (i.e. taxpayers). But, that is the lesser of two evils. If Bear Stearns would have declared Bankruptcy there would have been massive global panic. Everyone should send a personal thank you to Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan for his generous offer.

Not Over Yet

This is a long post. Banks did the same thing with credit card debt, auto loans and home equity lines of credit that they did with mortgages. These haven't hit the market yet. Logic is, if someone defaults on their mortgage, they will probably soon default on their auto loans and credit cards. If someone loses a job, which happens in a recession, then they will probably default on their auto loan or credit card. When, not if, this hits our economy it could plunge it into a deep recession. The answer must come from a correction in the housing market. The fed is on the right track with some of the adjustments they've made in addition to the interest rate cuts. However, this is really the fault of every American. We turn anything into an ATM that we can. We don't save and we demand cheap credit. Lowering interest rates is only a band-aid.

...More thoughts later

Friday, April 11, 2008

Why did I choose a Toad?

First things first. Many of you might be asking, "Why does he call himself a Toad?" Jessica gave me that name when we were first married because of how I sounded when I sang. I know, kind of emasculating. But, I thought that was preferred to being compared to Josh Groban. Now THAT is emasculating!

Welcome to my Blog!

With my wife's help, I've begun my own blog.

Working for a $7 billion pension fund has plenty of benefits. I get access to the top money managers and portfolio strategies used on Wall Street (which is exiting for me). I have regular communications with money managers at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan, to name a few. I've learned a great deal and I think this has been very helpful for our family. But then I was thinking (rather, my wife was making fun of me for not knowing how to blog) that I could share my views and ideas with friends and family in a more efficient way--that I could spread the wealth (disclaimer: by "wealth" I am referring to ideas, not actual money). So, on this blog I plan to explain financial events, strategies, and ideas with the intent to bring everyone up-to-speed on the financial world around us and what Wall Street is really saying. I figure at least this way you won't have to read what we in the business call "Financial Pornography." Feel free to ask questions or ask advice.

These are my three sons.
Pretty cute.