You are energy efficient!

If you listen to extreme environmentalists, you’d think the entire human race was oblivious to the fact that many of the resources we use are non-renewable, and that our fate is to irresponsibly destroy the planet.

Well I have some good news. According to the U.S. Energy Information Adminstration’s (EIA) most recent Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS), U.S. homes built in 2000 and later consume only 2% more energy on average than homes built prior to 2000, despite being on average 30% larger.

I recall the brouhaha created when in 1972 (yes, I’m that old) when the Club of Rome (a distinguished think-tank) published a study called Limits to Growth. Many folks have since criticized the work, and still others have tried to defend it (by re-interpreting the study “using modern language” or some other sleight of hand). The prediction was that humanity’s pursuit of constant growth and consumption of resources (energy, food, trees etc.) would use up the planet within 100 years. Yes, Limits to Growth did suggest that if mankind undertook to minimize greed, control population growth and take advantage of technology that things might not turn out so bad, but it was unequivocally pessimistic about this possibility. Quite a stir was caused by the publication.

We had another panic more recently: The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) suggested regular conventional oil reached an all time peak in 2005. The ‘theory’ was that we’ve used up half of the oil the earth has to offer, and so it’s all downhill from now on.

So how can it be that suddenly the U.S. is expected to be almost energy self-sufficient?

“The United States, which currently imports around 20 per cent of its total energy needs, becomes all but self-sufficient in net terms — a dramatic reversal of the trend seen in most other energy-importing countries,” the Paris-based International Energy Agency said in its World Energy Outlook released Monday Nov. 12, 2012.

What these ‘studies’ and occasional panics fail to take into account is the greatest innovation ever – CAPITALISM! Shortages and surpluses are corrected by economics. The laws of supply and demand and the unencumbered adjustments in pricing ensure that there are very few limits to growth. We’ve come to appreciate over the years that a ‘price’ isn’t necessarily a dollar amount. Increasingly some things are just too expensive if they also cause irreparable harm to the environment. When one non-renewable resources becomes just too expensive, we find substitutes (biofuel, gas, nuclear, clean coal and hydroelectric).

I’ve read that recent polls show falling support for capitalism all over the world. This is sad when you consider the alternatives. Was it better when no system existed? I visited Africa several years ago and learned that some areas had long ago been cleared of all indigenous tree varieties. In a primitive society everything belongs to everyone, and everyone managed to destroy every tree. A quick study of the former Soviet Union should make it clear that communism inflicted serious environmental damage and scarcity. The population of China only stopped starving once a more capitalist system was tolerated.

So fret not my friends. You are energy efficient, and no doubt one day your home will consume no fossil fuels at all. You will no doubt substitute an electric vehicle for your hybrid. Personally, I pray there will be enough oil and gasoline left, no matter how expensive, so that I can still ride my Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

 

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Is it the 1950’s again? The financial war is over!

There is a plethora of articles and blogs out there desperately trying to find a period comparable to now, in order to get some understanding of what markets might have in store for us over the next several years.  After three decades in the investment business, the only thing I can say with certainty is that such comparisons just don’t work.

George Santayana (December 16, 1863 – September 26, 1952) the philosopher and man of letters, is often quoted: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

It’s true people will make the same mistakes over and again, but history never actually repeats itself.  Trying to forecast the future is absurd, and so it must be even more ridiculous to expect that the future will be similar to some time period long ago.  Nevertheless, it’s winter and all my friends are on vacation so I’ve nothing else to do.

Post-War Reconstruction: In my simple mind, we’ve just fought a global war against financial corruption.  The weapon of mass destruction?  The ‘derivative!’ These things managed to infiltrate the entire global banking system and almost brought it crumbling down.  Like most wars, it’s difficult to put a pin into when things flipped from a crisis to all out war, but let’s say the seeds were planted when the U.S. Senate tried to introduce a bill in 2005 to forbid Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation) from holding mortgage-backed securities (pretend capital) in their portfolios. That first cannonball missed the mark when the bill failed to pass.  By 2007 the two government sponsored entities were responsible for 90% of all U.S. mortgages, and the fly in the ointment was the use of ‘derviatives’ instead of real capital to hedge their interest-rate risk.   Banks did the same thing but much more aggressively. What followed is a long story we’ve been living for years.

Paul Volcker once said, “I wish someone would give me one shred of neutral evidence that financial innovation has led to economic growth — one shred of evidence.”  Well, we’ve plenty of evidence now that financial innovation led only to the mass destruction of wealth.

When the foundation fell out from under us (value of the derviatives dropped) we went to war in earnest.  The list of casualties like Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (announced September 15, 2008 it was bankrupt) just kept getting longer.

I believe the war ended six years after that failed 2005 Senate bill – in the summer of 2011. You can disagree, but your opinion is as meaningless as this whole exercize. (Laughing out loud.)

Way back when World War II (1939 – 1945) ended, governments around the globe began to print money and spend to rebuild the wealth that had been destroyed.  Isn’t this precisely what we’ve been doing since our financial crisis decimated wealth on a global scale?

So maybe some of what happened in the 1950’s post-war period will happen again?

In 1949 there was a brief struggle with the threat of deflation (and again in 1954) but for most of the decade inflation remained steady between 0% to 3%. We too saw the threat of deflation briefly in 2009.  However since then inflation has been fairly steady:  1.5% (December to December) in 2010 and 3.2% in 2011 in the U.S.  Although T-bills are currently paying a negative real rate of return (yields are below the inflation rate) there will come a time soon when investors insist on earning something or they just won’t hold them.  Short term rates will climb as they did throughout the 1950’s.

Prediction #1:  T-Bills will begin to rise until their returns cover the rate of inflation (see chart).

What happened in the stock market back then?  Government spending to rebuild infrastructure and create jobs had a significant impact, because arguably the 1950’s was one of the best if not the best decade for making money in the stock market.  Unfortunately, we only have reliable data for the Dow Jones Industrial Average dating back that far (okay, there might be more data out there but I’m surely not going to go looking for it). 

At the end of 1949 the Dow was at 200.13 and by the end of 1959 it had climbed to 679.36.  Excluding dividends that equates to a (IRR) return of about 13% per year for a decade.  As always lots of volatility had to be endured in stocks, but in the long run the reward was not shabby!  On the other hand, in Treasury bonds you might have averaged a 2% return, but suffered an actual loss in 5 out of the 10 years.

Prediction #2: Global growth fueled by government initiatives will translate into healthy returns on average in stock markets for several years to come.

Are we doomed to repeat history?  Although the 1950’s turned out okay, a wild ride was to come during the following couple of decades.  Easy money and inflation would eventually get the better of us and although there were some very good years for investors in the stock market (and those invested in shorter term T-bills for sure), inflation mayhem was on its way.

All we can hope for is that today’s policy makers have studied their history.  If we allow inflation to get out of control, interest rates will skyrocket like they did through the 60’s and 70’s. Younger folks today will have to suffer rising interest rates (mortgages, car loans) of the sort that created havoc for decision-makers and choked economic growth to a standstill for us older generations back in the day.

It’s true that if we don’t learn from history, we can and will make the same mistakes over again.  But I also said history does not repeat itself.  Although we somehow managed to eventually wrestle the inflation bogieman under control before, this does not mean we will be so lucky next time around.  And it’s a wealthier more technologically advanced world we live in now….which means we’ve so much more to lose if we really screw things up.

Prediction #3:  If governments don’t slow down their spending, bond investors will really get burned.

My instincts tell me that 2013 will be a happy New Year.  And bear in mind that if none, any or all of these predictions come true it will be an unadulterated fluke.

 

 

 

 

Malvin Spooner.