Archive for the 'business' Category

More good news

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Foreign Policy:

Disease fighters reckon the contagious potential of an outbreak in terms of its RO, or reproduction number. (RO = 1 means that each infected person is statistically likely to infect one more person, so the epidemic will neither grow, nor shrink in size. RO = 0 signifies that the disease cannot be passed from person to person. Any RO above 1 connotes an expanding epidemic.) Christian Althaus of the University of Bern in Switzerland just released a grim new calculation of the RO for this epidemic that finds that when the outbreak began in Guinea, it was RO = 1.5, so each person infected one and a half other people, for a moderate rate of epidemic growth. But by early July, the RO in Sierra Leone was a hideous 2.53, so the epidemic was more than doubling in size with each round of transmission. Today in Liberia, the virus is spreading so rapidly that no RO has been computed. Back in the spring, however, when matters were conceivably controllable, Liberia’s then-small rural outbreak was 1.59.

HT: BC

Downsize

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

Radically.

Sadly, we’ve become a nation of idiots

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

A leading contender for president: “Climate change is the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face.” BTW, she’s hardly the only idiot. Take it away, George.

The magic bean that almost destroyed the earth

Friday, September 5th, 2014

WSJ:

When the climate scientist and geologist Bob Carter of James Cook University in Australia wrote an article in 2006 saying that there had been no global warming since 1998 according to the most widely used measure of average global air temperatures, there was an outcry. A year later, when David Whitehouse of the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London made the same point, the environmentalist and journalist Mark Lynas said in the New Statesman that Mr. Whitehouse was “wrong, completely wrong,” and was “deliberately, or otherwise, misleading the public.”

We know now that it was Mr. Lynas who was wrong. Two years before Mr. Whitehouse’s article, climate scientists were already admitting in emails among themselves that there had been no warming since the late 1990s. “The scientific community would come down on me in no uncertain terms if I said the world had cooled from 1998,” wrote Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia in Britain in 2005. He went on: “Okay it has but it is only seven years of data and it isn’t statistically significant.”

If the pause lasted 15 years, they conceded, then it would be so significant that it would invalidate the climate-change models upon which policy was being built. A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) written in 2008 made this clear: “The simulations rule out (at the 95% level) zero trends for intervals of 15 yr or more.” Well, the pause has now lasted for 16, 19 or 26 years

We put together 2499 blue beans and one magic red bean; we’ll post a picture one of these days. It was the magic bean that was supposed to kill the earth.

Look, of course there are warming and cooling cycles. Ask MIT’s Lindzen. But what you’ve got to get through your thick skull is that it overwhelmingly offends common sense that one bit of CO2 among 2499 others of nitrogen, oxygen, etc., will somehow imperil the planet should it increase its presence a little. Heck, the magic bean is already magic enough, since without it, there’d be no plants and thus no us. Don’t demand that it work overtime!

It’s getting really weird

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Yes, we know, it’s WND, but still…… And Benghazi is back. Then there’s this sad story from a Nigerian daily. Wretchard discusses Ozymandias. Bonus fun: America becomes a country where it takes decades to do something simple, when it used to take mere months. Good luck to us all.

China’s productivity growth slows

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

WSJ:

“China is now at this critical juncture, and maybe has been for several years,” writes Harry X. Wu, a senior advisor to The Conference Board’s China Center and an economics professor at Japan’s Hitotsubashi University. “This explains the ongoing ‘soft fall’ slowdown in economic growth despite the government’s continued stimulus exercises and continuing high-levels of investment and supporting credit expansion.”

Mr. Wu argues in a Conference Board paper that China’s economic ascent may have been less miraculous than it appeared, with total factor productivity – a measure of an economy’s technological dynamism – badly lagging other Asian high-growth economies at a similar stage in their development.

China’s 1% average annual growth in total factor productivity between 1978 and 2012 – a period when average per capita annual incomes rose from $2,000 to $8,000 — compares with 4% annual gains for Japan during its comparable 1950-1970 high-growth period, 3% for Taiwan from 1966-1990 and 2% for South Korea from 1966-1990, he said, when purchasing power in the relative economies is taken into account.

“Our study shows that China’s spectacular growth in the reform period has been mainly investment-driven and quite inefficient,” Mr. Wu wrote.

A big problem, which often complicates efforts to assess the health of China’s economy, is the reliability of Chinese data. Using three measures of productivity, J.P. Morgan economist Haibin Zhu concludes in a research note that China’s total factor productivity grew 1.1% in 2013 from a 3.2% expansion in 2008. Mr. Wu draws on different methodology to argue that total factor productivity turned negative from 2007 to 2012.

China’s cooked books have been a problem for many years. Without explosive growth to cover up the issue, it’s going to be an interesting time shortly.

Cui bono?

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

What’s Russia got going for it? Bad demographics but it is currently the largest oil producer in the world. Russia certainly knows how to act in its own interests, or those of Mr. Putin. Was it a surprise that Putin decided to strongly control the area around its only warm water naval base in moves that seemed to come out of nowhere? Similarly would it be a surprise to find some Russian money in ISIS, another thing that seemed to come out of nowhere? Iran and Qatar versus Saudi Arabia et al should be a good thing for the world’s largest oil producer. (Of course we understand that things cut all kinds of ways in the region; Russia relies on Syria for a large naval maintenance facility, for example.) In any event lowering the power of OPEC and being more of a global lynchpin in oil prices would seem to be an obvious Russian goal.

Hugh Hewitt regularly asks journalists a series of questions to see if they know anything at all. One of the questions is about Alger Hiss, and many times the reporters don’t know much about hisstory. We started wondering the other day: who are the current Russian spies in the US government? You’d be a fool to think that there aren’t quite a few. Along the same line, does Russia even have to funnel money to the nutty environmental groups that oppose vastly increasing US oil production? Many of these come by their anti-Americanism naturally, and think they are intellectually and morally superior to boot. How Putin must laugh at us!

In case you hadn’t noticed

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

The average person is both ill-informed and not too bright, at least if you poll the right campuses and industries where they prattle on about micro-aggressions and so forth. Add that to the college professor class, and oops! the high school history curriculum, and you have a formula for continued degeneration into a fantasy world until things get up close and personal. It’s all so obvious. Appeasement does not work. Unbelievably sad and pathetic and to no avail.

Update: if figures like this are true, this conflict could be a kind of an internecine hundred years’ war, except that with the armaments available today, there seems a pretty high probability that someone will choose to go out with a bang.

The absurd and the serious

Monday, August 25th, 2014

Cause and effect? College am good. The miracle of solar and wind power. On a serious note, Angelo Codevilla considers what it will take to take down ISIS; there’s no way it’s going to happen until things get far worse, which they will.

As predicted, but far worse

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

Eight years ago we took a look at some periods of relative calm, peace and prosperity, and how they often end with a bang, not a whimper. Wretchard has a nice list of today’s bangs. JOM too. Steyn notes nastiness on all sides in Missouri. IHTM has a joke about a massacre which is actually amusing, if such a thing is possible. KW has sober reflections on urban governance, which if anything seem out of place because of their, um, rationality. This isn’t a rational time, L&G, and the thing is, virtually all of the horrible situations referenced in the linked material can get far worse.

China’s restructuring challenges

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

Stratfor:

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is the broadest and deepest effort to purge, reorganize and rectify the Communist Party leadership since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the rise of Deng Xiaoping two years later. It has already probed more than 182,000 officials…

China is in the midst of an economic transformation that is in many ways unprecedented. The core of this transformation is the shift from a growth model heavily reliant on low-cost, low value-added exports and state-led investment into construction to one grounded in a much greater dependence on high value-added industries, services and above all, domestic consumption. China is not the first country to attempt this. Others, including the United States, achieved it long ago. But China has unique constraints: its size, its political system and imperatives, and its profound regional geographic and social and economic imbalances. These constraints are exacerbated by a final and perhaps greatest limit: time. China is attempting to make this transition, one which took smaller and more geographically, socially and politically cohesive countries many decades to achieve, in less than 20 years.

The bulk of this work will take place over the next 10 years at most, and more likely sooner, not because the Xi administration wants it to, but because it must. The global financial crisis in 2007-08 brought China’s decadeslong export boom cycle to a premature close. For the past six years, the Chinese government has kept the economy on life support in the form of massively expanded credit creation, government-directed investment into urban and transport infrastructure development and, most important, real estate construction. In the process, local governments, banks and businesses across China have amassed extraordinary levels of debt. Outstanding credit in China is now equivalent to 251 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, up from 147 percent in 2008. Local governments alone owe more than $3 trillion. It is unknown — deliberately so, most likely — what portion of outstanding debts are nonperforming, but it is likely far higher than the official rate of 1 percent.

Despite claims that China’s investment drive was and is irresponsible — and certainly there are myriad anecdotal cases of gross misallocation of capital — it nonetheless fulfills the essential role of jumpstarting the country’s effort to “rebalance” to a new, more urban and more consumption-based economic model. But the problem, again, is time. China’s real estate sector is slowing. Sales, home prices and market sentiment are falling, even in the face of continued expansion of the overall credit supply. The days of high growth in the housing construction sector are numbered and prices, along with overall activity, are on a downward trend — one that can and will be hedged by continued high levels of investment and credit expansion, but not one that can be stopped for long. Real estate and related construction activity will remain the crucial component of China’s economy for the foreseeable future, but they will no longer be the national economic growth engines they were between 2009 and 2011.

This means that in the next few years, China faces inexorable and potentially very rapid decline in the two sectors that have underpinned economic growth and social and political stability for the past two or more decades: exports and construction. And it does so in an environment of rapidly mounting local government and corporate debt, rising wages and input costs, rising cost of capital and falling return on investment (exacerbated by new environmental controls and efforts to combat corruption) and more. Add to these a surge in the number of workers entering the workforce and beginning to build careers between the late 2010s and early 2020s, the last of China’s great population boom generations, and the contours emerge of an economic correction and employment crisis on a scale not seen in China since Deng came to power.

The solution, it would seem, lies in the Chinese urban consumer class. But here, once more, time is China’s enemy. Chinese household consumption is extraordinarily weak. In 2013, it was equivalent to only 34 percent of gross domestic product, compared to 69-70 percent in the United States, 61 percent in Japan, 57 percent in Germany and 52 percent in South Korea. In fact, it has fallen by two percentage points since 2011, possibly on the back of the anti-corruption campaign, which has curbed spending by officials that appears to have been erroneously counted as private consumption. There is reason to believe that household consumption is somewhat stronger than the statistics let on, but it is not nearly strong enough to pick up the slack from China’s depressed export sector and depressive construction industries. China’s low rates of urbanization relative to advanced industrial economies underscore this fundamental incapacity.

Whatever the Chinese government’s stated reform goals, it is very difficult to see how economic rebalancing toward a consumption- and services-based economy succeeds within the decade. It is very difficult to see how exports recover. And it is very difficult, but slightly less so, to see how the government maintains stable growth through continued investment into housing and infrastructure construction, especially as the real estate market inevitably cools. This leaves us with a central government that either accepts economic recession or persists in keeping the economy alive for the sake of providing jobs but at risk of peril to its reform initiatives, banks and local governments. The latter is ugly and very likely untenable under the current political model, which for three decades has staked its claim to legitimacy in the promise of stable employment, growth and rising material prosperity. The former is absolutely untenable under the current political model.

The pressures stemming from China’s economy — and emanating upward through Chinese society and politics — will remain paramount over the next 5-10 years. The above has described only a very small selection of the internal social and economic constraints facing China’s government today. It completely neglects public anger over pollution, the myriad economic and industrial constraints posed by both pollution and pervasive low-level corruption, the impact of changes in Chinese labor flows and dynamics, rising education levels and much more. It completely neglects the ambivalence with which many ordinary Chinese regard the Communist Party government.

CNN: Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to clean up the tarnished image of the Communist Party, pushing anti-graft campaigns and pledging to target “mosquitoes” — minor officials — as well as “tigers” — top officials…A report by the Ministry of Commerce cited in the English-language China Daily showed 4,000 corrupt officials had fled the country with at least $50 billion between 1978 and 2003.

2003? Just imagine how many expats and how many billions have fled since then. There is structural unrest in China as it seeks to make a very difficult transition. If push comes to shove, how do you quickly create unity and patriotic spirit? How do you spell Crimea in Chinese?

Common core and other absurdities

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

A professor at Cal of all places:

when teaching fractions, the teacher required that students draw pictures of everything: of 6 divided by 8, of 4 divided by 2/7, of 0.8 x 0.4, and so forth. In doing so, the teacher followed the instructions: “Interpret and compute quotients of fractions, and solve word problems involving division of fractions by fractions, e.g., by using visual fraction models and equations to represent the problem. For example, create a story context for 2/3 divided by 3/4 and use a visual fraction model to show the quotient.” Who would draw a picture to divide 2/3 by 3/4?

This requirement of visual models and creating stories is all over the Common Core. The students were constantly told to draw models to answer trivial questions, such as finding 20% of 80 or finding the time for a car to drive 10 miles if it drives 4 miles in 10 minutes, or finding the number of benches one can make from 48 feet of wood if each bench requires 6 feet. A student who gives the correct answer right away (as one should) and doesn’t draw anything loses points.

Here are some more examples of the Common Core’s convoluted and meaningless manipulations of simple concepts: “draw a series of tape diagrams to represent (12 divided by 3) x 3=12, or: rewrite (30 divided by 5) = 6 as a subtraction expression”…

the most astounding statement I have read is the claim that Common Core standards are “internationally benchmarked.” They are not. The Common Core fails any comparison with the standards of high-achieving countries, just as they fail compared to the old California standards. They are lower in the total scope of learned material, in the depth and rigor of the treatment of mathematical subjects, and in the delayed and often inconsistent and incoherent introductions of mathematical concepts and skills.

For California, the adoption of the Common Core standards represents a huge step backward which puts an end to its hard-won standing as having the top math standards in the nation. The Common Core standards will move the U.S. even closer to the bottom in international ranking.

We grew up in an unenlightened time when the nuns gave us all addition and subtraction speed tests in first grade, multiplication and division speed tests to follow shortly. If we had to do the things above, we might have reduced our math SAT score by 800 points or so. In another example of government insanity, Michael Barone laments the acceleration of the regulatory state when Moore’s Law, twitter, yelp and uber all point in precisely the opposite direction.

Today’s reading

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

Alan Dershowitz again. Jon Voight. Questions for journalists. And a writer at The New Yorker, of all places, takes on Rashid Khalidi. What a world. Meanwhile, did you know that the Gaza tunnels were a jobs program? Or that Andrew Jackson was a “genocidal maniac“? Or that if you think illegal immigration is bad now, soon “millions of people are driven north from the parched landscapes of a world degraded by intensifying climate change?” (Must be why they’re sending the kids to Alaska!) Finally, on some station that shows vintage TV, there today was an episode of Flipper from 1966. Almost every minute features something that is unacceptable or illegal now.

Compassion or the opposite?

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

NYT:

black Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed as whites (13.1 percent of blacks versus 6.5 percent of whites, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics). The rate for Hispanics was 9.1 percent. The report also focused on underemployment which includes those who are jobless and not looking or working part-time jobs but desiring full-time work. According to the report, the underemployment rate for black workers was 20.5 percent, compared with 18.4 percent for Hispanic workers

So three disasters minimum: (a) black unemployment unacceptably high; (b) ditto for Hispanics; and (c) the overall US labor force participation rate is at 30 year disastrous lows. A sane and compassionate country would make fixing these things a top priority. What conclusion is therefore to be drawn about an administration that wants millions of new illegal immigrants to compete for these already inadequate job and income resources. Oh, yeah, the current thoughtful administration policy is stop hatin’, as opposed to, for example, consulting with the some of the experts from the US Commission on Civil Rights.

Why not promote them………and other matters

Friday, July 25th, 2014

Jim Fox, the leader of the Mid-Iowa Boy Scout Troop 111:

The scouts and their leaders were on a 21-day trek from Iowa to Alaska – a trip that had been three years in the planning. As their vans were moving through a checkpoint into the United States, one of the scouts snapped a photograph. Agents stopped the van and ordered all the passengers to get out. They told the underage photographer that he had committed a federal crime. It was unclear which agency with the Department of Homeland Security’s CBP agency was involved in the incident. “The agent immediately confiscated his camera, informed him he would be arrested, fined possibly $10,000 and ten years in prison,” Fox told Des Moines television station KCCI. During the search, one of the scouts tried to retrieve a bag from the roof carrier. When he turned around, Fox said an agent had a loaded pistol pointed at the child. “He heard a snap of the holster, turns around, and here’s this agent, both hands on a loaded pistol, pointing at the young man’s head,” Fox told the television station. The scoutmaster wrote a detailed account of the incident on his Facebook page. He said he tried to watch the agents search the van but was ordered to return to his vehicle. An agent followed him and told the youngsters “that the next one to leave the van would be handcuffed and detained.” “The agent in charge informed me of the potential charges against (the) scout and informed me it is a violation of federal law for any American to take a picture of a federal agent or any federal building,” Fox wrote. Fox said he and another member of the troop were interrogated by agents – forced to answer questions about their background. They also wanted to know why the Boy Scouts were hauling “excessive amounts of lighters, matches and knives,” Fox said. After a lengthy delay, the Scouts were released

Too bad they were released, or we’d might recommend that the agents be promoted 1500 miles south to stem this disaster. And in other news, “killing bald and golden eagles remains a felony punishable by a $250,000 fine and prison time…In 2009, the agency first instituted a permit system to allow exemptions from prosecution—for five years—for wind farms and certain other projects that inadvertently harm or kill eagles. Last year, it extended the duration of permits for ‘non-purposeful take of eagles’ to 30 years.”

Final thoughts: Joan Rivers, and in lighter fare, “By Grabthar’s Hammer…what a savings.”

4 years and 2300 words ago

Monday, July 21st, 2014

An analysis in Forbes by a McKinsey specialist in banking and a professor at BU found fault with the Dodd-Frank finance bill, whose anniversary is today. It doesn’t cover the things it needs to cover with clarity and simplicity, and it includes micro-managing of everything from Congolese minerals to Chinese drywall:

Hello Dodd-Frank — the most comprehensive rewrite of financial rules since 1933. This 2,319-page colossus — 10 times the length of Glass-Steagall — took 1.5 years to produce and will cost $30 billion and many more years to implement. Will all this time and treasure make Wall Street safe for Main Street? No.

Dodd-Frank is a full-employment act for regulators that addresses everything but the root causes of the financial collapse. It serves up a dog’s breakfast covering proprietary trading, consumer financial protection, derivatives trading, executive pay, credit card fees, whistle-blowers, minority inclusion and Congolese minerals. Dodd-Frank also mandates 68 new studies of carbon markets, Chinese drywalls, and person-to-person lending, and many other irrelevancies.

None of this deals with the central problem — Wall Street’s ability to hide behind claims of proprietary information to facilitate the production and sale of trillions of dollars in securities whose true values are almost impossible for outsiders to determine…With no way to independently verify, in real time, the precise nature of financial firms’ assets and liabilities, they are all vulnerable to panics by investors, counterparties, and depositors, based on rumors and speculation as well as fact.

The resulting serial collapse of Wall Street behemoths, in turn, led Uncle Sam to step in and issue his own brand of increasingly hard-to-value securities — some $24 trillion (according to Neal Barofsky, Congress’ TARP watchdog) in contingent guarantees to all manner of financial companies. This is a colossal liability, almost twice U.S. gross domestic product. If another massive bank run hit Wall Street–say, next week–Uncle Sam would be forced to print trillions to cover these guarantees. The prospect of getting paid back in watered-down dollars might then lead people to run even faster to the banks, to get their money and buy something tangible before prices skyrocket. Ultimately, Uncle Sam’s guarantees are only worth what they are written on — paper.

So Uncle Sam didn’t lead us out of the woods; he led us deeper into the woods. While he (temporarily) saved Wall Street, he may have gravely endangered Main Street. Meanwhile, many major players on Wall Street have been laughing all the way from their banks.

“Dodd-Frank rulemaking by various agencies has already resulted in more than three million words in the Federal Register, though most of the 387 mandated sets of rules have not even been put forth.” You won’t be surprised to learn that the regs still are not complete.

That mysterious bond market rally explained

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

WSJ:

Investors wrestling with the mysterious U.S. bond rally of 2014 got a clue about where to look: China…The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note has fallen to 2.54%, from 3% at the end of 2013…

The Chinese government boosted its official holdings of Treasury debt maturing in more than a year by $107.21 billion in the first five months of 2014…Japan, the second-largest foreign owner of Treasury bonds, increased its note and bondholdings by $9.56 billion… the Treasury report isn’t a complete picture because it doesn’t account for China’s holdings at third-party custody institutions in other nations, such as the U.K. and Belgium…

China’s foreign-exchange reserves currently approach $4 trillion, the world’s biggest in size. China doesn’t disclose the composition of the reserves, but analysts say most are denominated in U.S. dollars…

“The big picture is that China buying may be helping to keep bond yields lower than they should be ahead of the Fed moving closer to raising rates,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ. “The market could wake up and get quite a shock…if China changes course.” The risk for the U.S. economy, said Mr. Rupkey, is that any slowdown in Chinese purchases could push U.S. bond and mortgage rates higher, which would put “the fragile housing recovery in jeopardy.”

There’s an economic reason for China to be doing this of course. But you do have to wonder if it’s part of another strategy as well. We’ve seen China jab and retreat in Vietnam, and then there’s Japan. Wheels within wheels is our guess.

Then and now

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Within the lifetime and personal memories of many Americans still living, most everyone knew farmers and soldiers. As late as America’s entry into World War I, over 42% of Americans still lived on farms. Your grandparents knew farmers and soldiers. It’s hard not to know a farmer or have spent time on a farm when 4 out of 10 of your countrymen lived their lives in agriculture.

Similarly, everyone knew soldiers not so long ago. WWI drafted 2.8 million Americans, when America only had 50 million men in total. WWII took 10 million draftees, and there were 3.4 million between Korea and Vietnam. One way of looking at Vietnam, for example, is that the draftees were as many as all boys in the United States who turned 18 in 1970 — a pretty large group of Baby Boomers. And none of these figures include the men who enlisted — surprisingly, perhaps, the total number of Vietnam veterans is over 2,500,000. So for a long time in America it has been true that most Americans knew something of farming and the military in a direct personal way.

No longer. As a statistical matter today, there are almost no new soldiers or farmers in America. Annual military recruits amount to 175,000 a year and decreasing in a country of over 300,000,000. And it’s even worse in agriculture. There are lilterally almost no new farmers in America today. At the time of WWII, farming still occupied 18% of the labor force – it’s less than 2% today. Every single year America loses more farmers than it creates. Many (perhaps most?) young Americans probably have not one single friend who becomes a farmer or soldier today. This probably won’t change on the agriculture side; however, with the way things are going in the world, with the chaos and the aggressive military budget cutting, it is possible. perhaps even likely, that things might happen to halt the trend on the military side.

Over at the book nook

Sunday, July 13th, 2014

Here’s a review of The Jet Set by Liz Smith, who thought it was fabulous. Here’s one in the WaPo by Jonathan Yardley, who not only detested the book but said the much-published author, a friend of ours, “can’t write.” Stadiem isn’t the only one belittled by Yardley; so was “Juan Trippe, who constructed Pan Am out of whole cloth and eventually presided over its demise, though he was influential in opening international jet travel to those who sat in what he called ‘tourist class’.” In fact the fascinating and complicated pioneering airline Pan Am existed from 1927 to 1991; Trippe died in 1981. Ah well.

Update. On CBS Sunday Morning in an author roundtable, Lee Child mentioned Jet Set as a book he recently enjoyed; Bill said it produced a notable increase in sales on Amazon. The most dramatic recent example of this of course is when the clever use of the Costco kerfuffle sent America to number one overnight at Amazon.

Revisiting tulipmania

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Once again we return to the grooveyard of forgotten oldies to reproduce a piece, this time from the spring of 2008, when oil was approaching $147 a barrel. If the to-date highly successful maniacs in Iraq can figure a way to cause oil chaos, no doubt they will. So far the speculators are on the sidelines, meaning things will get pretty crazy if they all suddenly rush in on the same side of the trade. Stay tuned.

Back in 2008, Hedge fund operator Mike Masters’ Senate testimony on oil speculation, recommended for our review by Dan Dicker in the piece below, reads as quite an indictment of so-called Index Speculators. By the way, the Index speculators are “Corporate and Government Pension Funds, Sovereign Wealth Funds, University Endowments” and other investors who probably thought that sub-prime was the New, New Thing a few years ago. They are by far the largest participants in commodities trading now, though they were a small fraction of trading only a few years ago:

Commodities prices have increased more in the aggregate over the last five years than at any other time in U.S. history. We have seen commodity price spikes occur in the past as a result of supply crises, such as during the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo…unlike previous episodes, supply is ample…What we are experiencing is a demand shock coming from a new category of participant in the commodities futures markets…Index Speculators…distribute their allocation of dollars across the 25 key commodities futures according to the popular indices: the Standard & Poors – Goldman Sachs Commodity Index and the Dow Jones – AIG Commodity Index…

Demand for futures contracts can only come from two sources: Physical Commodity Consumers and Speculators. Speculators include the Traditional Speculators who have always existed in the market, as well as Index Speculators. Five years ago, Index Speculators were a tiny fraction of the commodities futures markets. Today, in many commodities futures markets, they are the single largest force. The huge growth in their demand has gone virtually undetected by classically-trained economists who almost never analyze demand in futures markets.

Index Speculator demand is distinctly different from Traditional Speculator demand; it arises purely from portfolio allocation decisions. When an Institutional Investor decides to allocate 2% to commodities futures, for example, they come to the market with a set amount of money. They are not concerned with the price per unit; they will buy as many futures contracts as they need, at whatever price is necessary, until all of their money has been “put to work.” Their insensitivity to price multiplies their impact on commodity markets.

Furthermore, commodities futures markets are much smaller than the capital markets, so multi-billion-dollar allocations to commodities markets will have a far greater impact on prices. In 2004, the total value of futures contracts outstanding for all 25 index commodities amounted to only about $180 billion. Compare that with worldwide equity markets which totaled $44 trillion, or over 240 times bigger. That year, Index Speculators poured $25 billion into these markets, an amount equivalent to 14% of the total market…

One particularly troubling aspect of Index Speculator demand is that it actually increases the more prices increase. This explains the accelerating rate at which commodity futures prices (and actual commodity prices) are increasing. Rising prices attract more Index Speculators, whose tendency is to increase their allocation as prices rise. So their profit-motivated demand for futures is the inverse of what you would expect from price-sensitive consumer behavior.

You can see from Chart Two that prices have increased the most dramatically in the first quarter of 2008. We calculate that Index Speculators flooded the markets with $55 billion in just the first 52 trading days of this year. That’s an increase in the dollar value of outstanding futures contracts of more than $1 billion per trading day. Doesn’t it seem likely that an increase in demand of this magnitude in the commodities futures markets could go a long way in explaining the extraordinary commodities price increases in the beginning of 2008?

There is a crucial distinction between Traditional Speculators and Index Speculators: Traditional Speculators provide liquidity by both buying and selling futures. Index Speculators buy futures and then roll their positions by buying calendar spreads. They never sell. Therefore, they consume liquidity and provide zero benefit to the futures markets.

Masters’ recommendations to Congress are fairly sweeping:

Number One:…Congress should modify ERISA regulations to prohibit commodity index replication strategies as unsuitable pension investments because of the damage that they do to the commodities futures markets and to Americans as a whole.

Number Two: Congress should act immediately to close the Swaps Loophole. Speculative position limits must “look-through” the swaps transaction to the ultimate counterparty and hold that counterparty to the speculative position limits. This would curtail Index Speculation and it would force ALL Speculators to face position limits.

Number Three: Congress should further compel the CFTC to reclassify all the positions in the Commercial category of the Commitments of Traders Reports to distinguish those positions that are controlled by “Bona Fide” Physical Hedgers from those controlled by Wall Street banks. The positions of Wall Street banks should be further broken down based on their OTC swaps counter-party into “Bona Fide” Physical Hedgers and Speculators.

There are hundreds of billions of investment dollars poised to enter the commodities futures markets at this very moment. If immediate action is not taken, food and energy prices will rise higher still. This could have catastrophic economic effects on millions of already stressed U.S. consumers. It literally could mean starvation for millions of the world’s poor.

Some prefer a laissez-faire approach to market imbalances such as this. But it was the decoupling of futures markets from delivery acceptance obligations that caused tulipmania after all. Thoughtful regulation of futures markets is not in itself unreasonable, just as it is not in the stock market. Personally, we’d prefer public floggings of the offenders.