Saturday, January 14, 2012

VIDEO: The Hidden Beauty of Pollination

The video above is "Hidden Beauty of Pollination," taken from this TED Talk by Louie Schwartzberg that gets a standing ovation.  

A New World Energy Map is Emerging. Exhibit A: Natural Gas Glut in America Fuels An Export Debate

Natural gas futures contracts for February closed at $2.67 (per million BTUs) in trading Friday on the NYMEX (see chart above).  That's the lowest closing price since March of 2002, almost ten years ago, and that's not adjusted for inflation.  In real terms, it's the lowest price since 1999.  As VangeIV and some others have pointed out in the comments section, $2.67 is likely far below the actual cost of producing natural gas for most companies.

As this Houston Chronicle article points out, natural gas is selling for as much as $12 per million BTUs in Europe (see chart) and as high as $18 in some Asian markets (that's "off the chart" above!).  Andrew Ware, a spokesman for Houston-based Cheniere Energy, is quoted in the article saying  "We have so much natural gas coming up that we don't know what to do with it."

Well, it seems like a natural solution to our "glut" would be to export America's cheap, abundant American natural gas to Europe and Asia and allow U.S. companies to take advantage of the huge price difference, but that's generating some controversy as the article points out:

"Debate is brewing over whether to keep the nation's glut of natural gas at home for cheap energy or export it at five times the price, possibly creating jobs and boosting the domestic economy. Businesses that purchase natural gas for industrial and residential use have rallied against proposals to liquefy and export the fossil fuel to Asian and European nations willing to pay much higher prices.

Nine companies have sought federal approval to export about 10 billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas per day, which would boost prices for U.S. customers. Cheniere Energy's Sabine Pass LNG plant in Louisiana already has won approval to ship out more than 2 billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas a day.

There's little doubt that exports will cause the price of natural gas to rise. The debate is whether the rise in gross domestic product and gas field employment might offset the negative effects of higher domestic energy prices."

MP: It's quite an interesting development that the U.S. now has such an abundant supply of domestic natural gas thanks to the shale revolution that we're now having a debate on whether American companies should be allowed to export gas. 

The debate over natural gas exports is more evidence that a new world energy map is emerging, and it is centered not on the Middle East but on the Western Hemisphere as Daniel Yergin pointed out recently in the Washington Post.

Very few people predicted the historic "game-changing" domestic energy developments that have emerged in 2010 and 2011.  And Yergin provides some insight on why that is - "The transformation is happening not as part of some grand design or major policy effort, but almost accidentally. This shift was not planned — it is a product of a series of unrelated initiatives and technological breakthroughs."

HT: Jim Curtis

U.S. Shale Oil Revolution Has Only Just Begun

From Robert Campbell, Reuters market analyst:

"If independent U.S. oil producers are right, last year was only a taste of the transformation that is coming to America’s oilpatch. Some optimists are already forecasting huge increases by 2015, perhaps taking U.S. oil production up by some two million barrels per day to 8 million bpd by then.

Both the expertise of the industry and huge amounts of investment capital are already moving into less established shale plays hoping to replicate the success that has already materialized in North Dakota and Texas, which put these places on oil traders’ lips as the unprecedented slump in West Texas Intermediate crude oil prices compared to globally-traded grades.

Well, get ready to learn a few more names.

Perhaps you have heard of the Utica Shale in Ohio now, where Total has just splashed out more than $2 billion on a prospect that is still in its infancy — production is essentially nil today— but which promoters say could be the next Eagle Ford shale. But have you heard of Colorado’s Niobrara shale, California’s Monterey Shale, Oklahoma’s Mississippi Lime Shale, the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale in central Louisiana or the Lower Smackover Shale that stretches from Northern Louisiana into Arkansas?

Every single one of those places, and others throughout the United States, are currently being combed over by cash-rich independent oil companies hoping to find the next big oil play."

Friday, January 13, 2012

Petroleum, Fuel Lead U.S. Exports in November

 Top 15 U.S. November Exports   Millions 
1Petroleum products $5,032
2Fuel oil$4,780
3Pharmaceutical preparations$4,356
4Industrial machines, other$3,881
7Civilian aircraft$3,260
8Telecommunications equipment$3,048
9Electric apparatus$2,929
10Plastic materials$2,839
11Medicinal equipment$2,718
12Nonmonetary gold$2,638
13Computer accessories$2,595
14Industrial engines$2,405
15Engines-civilian aircraft$2,386

Source: BEA

According to today's BEA report on international trade in goods and services for November, the top two U.S. export categories were: 1) petroleum products ($5 billion) and 2) fuel oil ($4.78 billion), see chart above of the top 15 November exports. On a year-to-date basis through November, those same categories are the top two exports for 2011.  

See previous CD post here about how the U.S. will be a net exporter of petroleum products in 2011 for the first time in 60 years.

Six Big Results of $3.53 Natural Gas in 2012

The U.S. Energy Information Administration is forecasting $3.53 for the average annual spot price of natural gas in 2012 (see chart above), which will be almost 12% lower than the average price this year of $4 per million BTUs. In the first few weeks of this year, the spot price of gas has been below $3 (data here). 

What are the six big results of $3.53 natural gas in 2012? According to energy expert John Hanger:

1. "Still lower natural gas bills for consumers, with a residential consumer saving probably another $45 on top of the $500 per year the gas price drop from 2008 has already provided.

2. Still lower electricity bills for those consumers in competitive electricity markets where natural gas pricing importantly impacts electricity prices. All other things being equal, another 50 cent decline in gas prices could reduce electricity bills by about 0.5 cents per kilowatt-hour and save electricity consumers about $50 during 2012. This $50 saving would be added to $500 per year in electricity costs that lower natural gas prices have already provided.

3. Lower natural gas bills and electricity bills will again prevent a broad energy shock, even though oil prices are at record levels for a full year and would go much higher if conflict with Iran erupts.

4. Another decline in the number of producing shallow, traditional gas wells in Pennsylvania will take place. 

5. Gas will continue to displace coal in electricity generation. Power plants that can run on either coal or gas will use gas. More decisions will be made to convert coal plants to gas. Gas's electricity generation market share will rise and coal's fall to below 43%, into the 42% zone.

6. More natural gas displacing coal and oil will cut carbon emissions and other pollutants like soot and mercury. US carbon emissions will likely fall in 2012, in significant part due to natural gas.

John Hanger's Bottom Line: The 2012 pricing may well be the new floor on gas pricing. It is really hard to see how prices can go any lower, given that gas demand is rising, more drilling rigs are moving to oil, and prices are so low that more marginal wells are being shut in. EIA itself is forecasting an increase in gas prices for 2013 to $4.14, up but sill low.

Finally, perhaps another year of record gas supplies and establishing a new floor on gas prices will mean that the ridiculous smear that shale gas is a "Ponzi Scheme" and those that spread it will be ridiculed by one and all in 2012. I am not counting on that one, but another year of low, low natural gas prices looks almost guaranteed."

HT: Robert Kuehl 

The Energy Treasures Beneath Our Feet

From an editorial by Pete Jermann, a self-employed craftsman and home-schooling father from Olean, New York (full article here, shorter version here):

"To look on the treasures beneath our feet as a threat to our comfort rather than a contribution we can make to a more vibrant world economy, one that multiplies wealth rather than redistributes a static wealth, is simply selfish.

When we accept no risk in our own backyards, we have no right to expect it of those whose backyards have provided us with the gas we use to heat our homes, the electricity we use to drive our appliances, and the fuel we use to go to and fro.  In all fairness, if we are not willing to accept this risk, we should turn out our lights, turn off our home entertainment centers, turn off our heat and learn how to scratch a basic existence out of our own backyards.

The Marcellus Shale and many other resources in this country can be mined responsibly, but none of it can be done completely without risk.  There is neither progress nor freedom without risk.  It is foolhardy to think that a life without risk is even possible.  It is foolish to think that risk always favors the do-nothing position.  The risk of doing nothing is the risk of poverty and stagnation.  I think history will show that to be the greater risk. 

The perfect world will be found in neither poverty nor prosperity.  But one is better than the other.  Prosperity will always be messy.  There will always be accidents waiting to happen and unforeseen consequences.  However, history shows — particularly the history of the United States — that more people live better lives when they are willing to take those risks and deal with the consequences as they occur."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mortgage Rates Fall to New Historic Lows and Help Boost Nov. Miami-Area Home Sales to 5-Year High

Mortgage rates fell again this week, and 30-year fixed rates (3.89%), 15-year fixed-rates (3.16%) and one-year ARMs (2.76%) are all at their lowest levels in history (see chart above).

Related:  "Miami-area homes sold at the fastest pace for a November in five years as lower prices and mortgage rates continued to drive robust demand from investors and vacation-home buyers - both foreign and domestic."

MP: It's a sign that market forces are working - lower prices and lower mortgages rates stimulate demand for home sales in Miami.

U.S. Life Expectancy Reaches New High of 78.7 Yrs.

Life expectancy in the U.S. increased to a new all-time high of 78.7 years in 2010, according to data released yesterday by the government.  The chart above shows the significant correlation between real GDP per capita and life expectancy in the U.S. from 1929 to 2010.

For a longer interactive graphic from Gapminder that covers the period from 1800 to 2010 showing the relationship between U.S. life expectancy and real GDP per capita, go here.

Personal Bankruptcy Filings Decline 11.6% in 2011

"Fitch Ratings says personal bankruptcy filings declined for the first time in four years in 2011, as economic conditions improved marginally during most of the year and consumers reigned in borrowing and paid down existing debt. According to National Bankruptcy Research Center figures, U.S. personal bankruptcy filings declined 11.6% from 2010. The results bettered Fitch's more moderate 5% decline forecast for the year. Actual filings fell 176,892 from 1,530,078 in 2010 to 1,353,186 in 2011.

The results helped drive the rapidly improving collateral performance in consumer Asset-Backed Securities (ABS) sectors throughout 2011. Notably credit card chargeoffs, which are directly affected by bankruptcy filings, fell significantly throughout the year, declining more than 37% from year-end 2010 to year-end 2011 (see chart above). Bankruptcy filings typically comprise 20%-30% of credit card chargeoffs while contractual defaults make up the rest.  Lower consumer bankruptcies have a less profound, but still important, effect on auto ABS, given the utility and importance of the car to the borrower. Nonetheless, lower filings do have a positive effect on default frequencies, all else being equal."

MP: The chart above was featured on this recent CD post, and shows that for consumer credit cards, the delinquency rate in Q3 2011 fell for the 9th consecutive quarter to 3.47%, which was the lowest level since a 3.46% reading in the first quarter of 1995, more than 16 years ago (see blue line in chart).  This downward trend in credit card delinquencies to a 16-year low helps explain the significant decline in personal bankruptcy filings last year. 

HT: Robert Kuehl

A Most Incredible End to a College Football Game

The video above shows a last-minute touchdown after 15 separate lateral passes, and the announcer hyperventilates that "it might be the most sensational, incredible ending in all of Division 3 football."

HT: William Heasley

Markets in Everything: Smart Contact Lenses

PITTSBURGH (CBS) — "Forty-million Americans wear contact lenses. In the not so distant future, contacts may do a lot more than just help you see. What if the lenses could look inside of you to diagnose, monitor and even treat disease? Sound far-fetched? Well, it may not be too far away.

The new generation of contact lenses is being called “smart lenses,” and they are packed with circuits, sensors and wireless technology – all designed to keep an eye on your health.“There’s a possibility to develop a really, really important new tool for medicine,” said Babak Parviz, PH.D., the developer of the Smart Lens."

 HT: Warren Smith

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Recommended: FRED Add-In for Microsoft Excel

I use the Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) from the St. Louis Federal Reserve on almost a daily basis and for those of you that also access these data on a regular basis, you might be interested in the free "FRED Add-In for Microsoft Excel" available here.

 According to the St. Louis Fed, 

"This Add-In is free software that will significantly reduce the amount of time spent collecting and organizing macroeconomic data. The FRED add-in provides free access to over 30,000 data series from various sources (e.g., BEA, BLS, Census, and OECD) directly through Microsoft Excel.

Key Features:
  • One-click instant download of economic time series.
  • Browse the most popular data and search the FRED database.
  • Quick and easy data frequency conversion and growth rate calculations.
  • Instantly refresh and update spreadsheets with newly released data.
  • Create graphs with NBER recession shading and an auto update feature."
MP: I just downloaded the FRED Add-In and tried it out, and it works great. It does save time by accessing FRED data directly in Excel, compared to going to the FRED website, downloading datasets in Excel format and then opening those datasets in Excel.  To help get started you can review the 5-minute tutorial video on the Fed's website

Dynamic Market Pricing Reduces Congestion on the 520 Bridge, With Maybe Some Help from an App?

In early December, a CD post featured a Seattle-based company called Seabalt Solutions, which developed an app called Toll Avoider to help drivers avoid the new dynamically-priced tolls on the Highway 520 bridge that started in late December. 

After just a few weeks following the implementation of the bridge tolls, the Seattle Times is reporting that:

"New tolls on the Highway 520 bridge have reduced traffic so much that drivers are commonly traveling at 65 mph, maybe three times as fast as they're used to. Bryan Bucklin, of Seattle, estimates that his former 35- to 40-minute ride from Microsoft to Montlake is now as short as 15 minutes.

Motorists are diverting to other roads, chiefly the toll-free Interstate 90 bridge."
MP: Maybe the mobile app, in addition to the dynamic pricing, is contributing to the reduction in traffic on the 520 bridge?
HT: Greg Mankiw

Salaries for New Ph.D.s in Economics

Greg Mankiw links to the study "Survey of the Labor Market for New Ph.D. Hires in Economics, 2011-12," which reports the following results:

1. Eighty-two economics departments reported 516 new Ph.D.s who sought employment for the 2010-11 academic year. Of these job seekers, 457 (88.6 percent) were successful.

2. Among the successful job seekers, 62.4 percent found employment in academic institutions as compared to 62.8 percent in the 2009-10 year.

3. Respondents to the current survey report a mean actual salary for the 2010-11 academic year of $87,596 or 6.6 percent below what was expected.  

4. For Ph.D. granting institutions, the mean actual salary in 2010-11 was $98,542, compared to an average of $115,000 for the Top 30 economics departments, and an average of $75,612 for bachelor and masters degree-granting institutions.  

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

North Dakota Sets More Oil Production Records in November; Above 500k Daily Barrels for First Time

The "Economic Miracle State" of North Dakota pumped another record amount of oil during the month of November at a daily rate of 509,754 barrels, which was 43% above last year's output, and the first time that the state's daily production exceeded 500,000 barrels (see chart above, data here).  Oil production in the Peace Garden State has more than doubled from 246,000 barrels per day two years ago, and North Dakota is now producing enough oil to completely displace the imports of crude oil from Colombia (364,000 bpd) or Iraq (422,000 bpd). 

Other highlights of the November production report: 

1. The number of wells producing oil in the state increased to 6,060, which sets a new record, and exceeds 6,000 wells for the first time ever.

2. The amount of oil produced per well also reached a record high of 84 barrels per day in November, which is 50% higher than the 55 barrels per day two years ago, and probably reflects both increasing productivity from fracking technology and drilling in more productive areas.  

3. The combination of a record number of wells producing oil at record-setting productivity levels has put North Dakota on a trajectory to surpass both California (539,000 barrels per day) and Alaska (555,000 bpd) this year to become the No. 2 oil-producing state in the U.S.  At the current pace of record-setting monthly gains, North Dakota's oil production is currently on track to break the 600,000 barrels per day level by next March, break the 700,000 level by next August, and exceed 800,000 barrels per day by the end of this year.  At that point, North Dakota oil could be enough to displace either Venezuela's or Nigeria's imports.  

4. North Dakota's oil production has now surpassed OPEC-member Ecuador's daily production of 485,000 barrels.    

As a result of the ongoing oil boom in the Bakken area, North Dakota continues to lead the nation with the lowest state unemployment rate at 3.4% for November, more than 5 full percentage points below the nation's average 8.7% rate for November.  There are nine North Dakota counties with jobless rates at or below 2% for November, and Williams County, which is at the center of the Bakken oil boom, boasts the lowest county jobless rate in the country at 0.9%.

Bottom Line: The ongoing record-setting oil production in North Dakota continues to make it the most economically successful state in the country, with record levels of employment and income growth, increasing tax revenues, the lowest foreclosure rate in the country, a strong real estate market, and jaw-dropping jobless rates in many counties of the Bakken region below 2%.

Markets in Everything: Wi-Fi Quadricoptor Drone

Engadget -- "The new Parrot Drone touts much improved 720p HD video-recording capability, a revamped app with updated flight controls and features, along with revised hardware and reinforced hulls. We recently spent a few minutes with the smartphone-controlled UAV, so check out the quick video overview above." 

HT: Sprewell

Economics Blogs: "Dim Sum for the Mind"

From a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a panel discussion on economics blogs at the American Economic Association meetings that were held last week in Chicago:

"In an age of sophisticated social media and rapidly evolving technologies, blogs would seem to be about as sexy as a pair of sensible shoes. Yet as simple as they may be, blogs have also proven to be valuable to economists debating principles and policy, and to faculty looking to breathe life into the teaching of their discipline, speakers said here on Saturday.

"The virtue of blogs is that they're living, real-time, and they respond to what's happening in the real world," said Steven D. Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago who is co-author of the book Freakonomics and of a blog of the same name. He was one of several scholars who joined a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association on the topic of using blogs to teach undergraduate economics.

The role of economics blogs started changing noticeably around 2008, said Alex Tabarrok, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University. Before then, blogs were expected to be clever and entertaining, and little else."

Markets in Everything: CSA for Local Art

Michigan Radio -- "An arts advocacy group is stealing an investment idea from the agriculture world in an effort to get more folks to buy local art. A statewide arts advocacy group wants to serve up some fresh, local art. To do so, the group is copying an investment model popular in the agricultural world.
Lots of farms in Michigan participate in Community Supported Agriculture. Folks can buy a CSA share in a farm. In return, the shareholder gets a weekly crate of fresh farm produce.
Now ArtServe Michigan is launching a CSA for art in metro Detroit, based on a successful program in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Cezanne Charles is with ArtServe. She said during the 3 month "growing season," which begins in April, shareholders will receive nine pieces of art from nine local artists: "This can be anything from...original small paintings, to the idea of doing like a limited edition 7-inch vinyl, to doing a short chap book of poetry or literary work," Charles said. Charles said 50 shares will be available March 5, and each share costs $350."

Monday, January 09, 2012

Let the Market Decide: Kodak and Post Office

Thomas Sowell on why the market should decide on the fate of the Post Office, just as it has decided the fate of Kodak, Montgomery Wards, Studebaker, Eastern Airlines, etc.  

"Just as Kodak's technology made older modes of photography obsolete more than a hundred years ago, so the new technology of the digital age has left Kodak behind. Great names of companies in other fields have likewise vanished as new technology brought new rivals to the forefront, or else made the whole product obsolete, as happened with typewriters, slide rules and other products now remembered only by an older generation.

That is what happens in a market economy, and we all benefit from it as consumer Unfortunately, that is not what happens in government. The post office is a classic example.

Post offices were once even more important than Eastman Kodak, and for a longer time, as the mail provided vital communications linking people and organizations across thousands of miles. But, today, technology has moved even further beyond the post office than it has beyond Eastman Kodak.

The difference is that, although the Postal Service is technically a private business, its income doesn't cover all its costs — and taxpayers are on the hook for the difference. Moreover, the government makes it illegal for anyone else to put anything into your mail box, even though you bought the mail box and it is your property. That means you don't have the option to have some other private company deliver your mail."

Welcome to the U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance

Business Insider -- "Investment Bank Jeffries' Chief Equity Strategist Sean Darby predicts a U.S. industrial renaissance "through a combination of higher wage inflation overseas, a weaker U.S. dollar and better productivity gains."

The most important factor in U.S. competitiveness may be a decline in Chinese competitiveness:
The labor comparative gap that China has had has disappeared because the total costs of production for certain products have moved towards US costs. This is particular where labor costs are a smaller proportion of the total costs. Although readers may be feel that it is an exaggeration to claim that ‘off-shoring’ will immediately be reversed back to ‘on-shoring’, perhaps it is better to suggest that the ‘hollowing out’ of US manufacturing has reached its nadir. The worst of the transition is behind the US all other factors of production being equal. The important driver will be speed of productivity gains between the two countries that encourages CEOs to open and close plants in one or the other, not just the labour cost.
Industries like agriculture, coal and mining, oil, aerospace and autos have already shown better growth than people realize (see chart above).

Jefferies is bullish on the U.S. economy too, expecting 2.5% GDP growth next year, strong enough to save the world from a Europe-led Armageddon. Last year Jefferies had the most accurate equity team on Wall Street."

MP: The chart above shows that over the most recent four-quarter period from 2010 Q3 to 2011 Q3, the U.S. manufacturing sector grew at 4.37%, or three times the 1.46% growth rate of the overall economy (real GDP), demonstrating that American manufacturing is at the forefront of the economic recovery. 

HT: Robert Kuehl

Phoenix Home Sales Up By 9%, Prices Are Stable

DQ News -- "The number of homes that resold in the Phoenix area rose above a year earlier for the twelfth month in a row in November as activity increased across the price spectrum. A variety of median sale price measures trended higher month-to-month, and the region’s overall median sale price fell year-over-year by less than 1 percent – the smallest dip since the median began to erode consistently in summer 2010.  

A total of 7,766 new and resale Phoenix area houses and condos sold in November, which was up 9.0% from a year earlier but down by 3.5% from October.  Phoenix-area sales usually drop between October and November, with that decline averaging 7.1% since 1994. 

The median price paid in November for all new and resale houses and condos sold in the Phoenix region was $127,000. That was up 5.8% from October but down 0.4% from a year earlier. November’s median was the highest since November 2010, when it was $127,500. Also, the year-over-year decline in the median was the lowest since the median began to drop consistently in July 2010."

MP: It's not a great report, but the Phoenix-area real estate market is starting to show some signs of a gradual recovery.  Home sales increased by 9% in November over last year, led by especially strong sales gains for new homes (32.6%) and condos (10.4%).  Median home prices have stabilized at around $127,000 for the last year as the market seems to have found a price bottom.

Update: Even more recent data on Phoenix home sales through the month of December confirm that a real estate recovery is taking place there (and also see first comment below):

"The number of Phoenix-area home sales in 2011 climbed to their highest level since the housing market’s peak in 2006. Foreclosures fell to their lowest level since 2008. And the number of Phoenix-area homes listed for sale has dropped to a figure not seen since 2005, indicating demand is finally exceeding supply. This is a complete turnaround from 2007, when the housing crash started and cheap foreclosure homes flooded the market while buyers were few."

Quote of the Day: The Glory of the Market vs. the Compulsory Monopoly of Bureaucratic Government

"The essence and the glory of the free market is that individual firms and businesses, competing on the market, provide an ever-changing orchestration of efficient and progressive goods and services: continually improving products and markets, advancing technology, cutting costs, and meeting changing consumer demands as swiftly and as efficiently as possible.

The libertarian economist can try to offer a few guidelines on how markets might develop where they are now prevented or re­stricted from developing; but he can do little more than point the way toward freedom, to call for government to get out of the way of the productive and ever-inventive energies of the public as expressed in voluntary market activity. No one can predict the number of firms, the size of each firm, the pricing policies, etc., of any future market in any service or commodity. We just know—by economic theory and by historical insight—that such a free market will do the job infinitely better than the compulsory monopoly of bureaucratic government."

~Murray Rothbard in "For a New Liberty"

HT: Dennis Gartman in today's The Gartman Letter

Markets in Everything: Beer for Dogs

What’s in Bowser Beer? (yes, it's really for dogs!)
USDA beef or chicken.
Malt barley (full of B-vitamins) –just like in your beer.
Glucosamine for joint health. 

What’s NOT in Bowser Beer:
Alcohol or carbonation.
Hops,which can be toxic to dogs.
Commercial broth,which contains loads of salt, fat, MSG, onions and meat of unknown origin.

Serving Suggestions:
Straight out of the bottle
Pour it over dry kibble
Flavor the water bowl
Pour over crushed ice for a cold, crunchy treat

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Markets in Everything: Dynamic Pricing for Sports

Travel-related industries such as hotels, rental cars, and airlines have employed dynamic pricing techniques for years.  Thanks to growing acceptance by sports teams and their fans, dynamic ticket pricing now represents the future of ticket pricing for both professional and collegiate sports, read about it here.  

HT: Larry G.