The oil drenched Black Swan

SUBHEAD: Events unforeseen and uncontrollable will trigger waves of other unforeseen and uncontrollable consequences.

By Charles Hughs Smith on 1 December 2014 for Of Two Minds -

Image above: Black Swan at Lake Rotoiti, New Zealand. Photo by Robyn Carter. From (

Given the presumed 17% expansion of the global economy since 2009, the tiny increases in production could not possibly flood the world in oil unless demand has cratered.

The term Black Swan shows up in all sorts of discussions, but what does it actually mean? Though the term has roots stretching back to the 16th century, today it refers to author Nassim Taleb's meaning as defined in his books, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets and The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable:

"First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme 'impact'. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable."

Simply put, black swans are undirected and unpredicted. The Wikipedia entry lists three criteria based on Taleb's work:
  1. The event is a surprise (to the observer).
  2. The event has a major effect.
  3. After the first recorded instance of the event, it is rationalized by hindsight, as if it could have been expected; that is, the relevant data were available but unaccounted for in risk mitigation programs.
It is my contention that the recent free-fall in the price of oil qualifies as a financial Black Swan. Let's go through the criteria:

1. How many analysts/pundits predicted the 37% decline in the price of oil, from $105/barrel in July to $66/barrel at the end of November? Perhaps somebody predicted a 37% drop in oil in the span of five months, but if so, I haven't run across their prediction.

For context, here is a chart of crude oil from 2010 to the present. Note that price has crashed through the support that held through the many crises of the past four years. The conclusion that this reflects a global decline in demand that characterizes recessions is undeniable.

I think we can fairly conclude that this free-fall in the price of oil qualifies as an outlier outside the realm of regular expectations, unpredicted and unpredictable.

Why was it unpredictable? In the past, oil spikes tipped the global economy into recession. This is visible in this chart of oil since 2002; the 100+% spike in oil from $70+/barrel to $140+/barrel in a matter of months helped push the global economy into recession.

The mechanism is common-sense: every additional dollar that must be spent on energy is taken away from spending on other goods and services. As consumption tanks, over-extended borrowers and lenders implode, "risk-on" borrowing and speculation dry up and the economy slides into recession.

But the current global recession did not result from an oil spike. Indeed, oil prices have been trading in a narrow band for several years, as we can see in this chart from the Energy Information Agency (EIA) of the U.S. government.

Given the official denial that the global economy is recessionary, it is not surprising that the free-fall in oil surprised the official class of analysts and pundits. Since declaring the global economy is in recession is sacrilege, it was impossible for conventional analysts/pundits to foresee a 37% drop in oil in a few months.

As for the drop in oil having a major impact: we have barely begun to feel the full consequences. But even the initial impact--the domino-like collapse of the commodity complex--qualifies.

I will address the financial impacts tomorrow, but rest assured these may well dwarf the collapse of the commodity complex.

As for concocting explanations and rationalizations after the fact, consider the shaky factual foundations of the current raft of rationalizations. The primary explanation for the free-fall in oil is rising production has created a temporary oversupply of oil: the world is awash in crude oil because producers have jacked up production so much.

Even the most cursory review of the data finds little support for this rationalization. According to the EIA, the average global crude oil production (including OPEC and all non-OPEC) per year is as follows:
2008: 74.0 million barrels per day (MBD)
2009: 72.7 MBD
2010: 74.4 MBD
2011: 74.5 MBD
2012: 75.9 MBD
2013: 76.0 MBD
2014: 76.9 MBD
The EIA estimates the global economy expanded by an average of 2.7% every year in this time frame. Thus we can estimate in a back-of-the-envelope fashion that oil consumption and production might rise in parallel with the global economy.

In the six years from 2009 to 2014, oil production rose 3.9%, from 74 MBD to 76.9 MBD. Meanwhile, cumulative global growth at 2.7% annually added 17.3% to the global economy in the same six-year period. What is remarkable is not the extremely modest expansion of oil production but how this modest growth apparently enabled a much larger expansion of the global economy. ( Other sources set the growth of global GDP in excess of 20% over this time frame.)

Global petroleum and other liquids reflects a similar modest expansion: from 89.1 MBD in 2012 to 91.4 MBD in 2014.

Given the presumed 17% to 20+% expansion of the global economy since 2009, the small increases in production could not possibly flood the world in oil unless demand has cratered. The "we're pumping so much oil" rationalizations for the 37% free-fall in oil don't hold up.

That leaves a sharp drop in demand and the rats fleeing the sinking ship exit from "risk-on" trades as the only explanations left. We will discuss these later in the week.

Those who doubt the eventual impact of this free-fall drop in oil prices might want to review The Smith Uncertainty Principle (yes, it's my work):
"Every sustained action has more than one consequence. Some consequences will appear positive for a time before revealing their destructive nature. Some will be foreseeable, some will not. Some will be controllable, some will not. Those that are unforeseen and uncontrollable will trigger waves of other unforeseen and uncontrollable consequences."
I call your attention to the last line, which I see as being most relevant to the full impact of oil's free-fall.


All the analysts chortling over the "equivalent of a tax break" for consumers are about to be buried by an avalanche of defaults and crushing losses as the chickens of financializing oil come home to roost.

The pundits crowing about the stimulus effect of lower oil prices on consumers are missing the real story, which is the financialization of oil. Financialization is another word that is often bandied about without the benefit of a definition.

Here is my definition:
Financialization is the mass commodification of debt and debt-based financial instruments collaterized by previously low-risk assets, a pyramiding of risk and speculative gains that is only possible in a massive expansion of low-cost credit and leverage.
That is a mouthful, so let's break it into bite-sized chunks.

Home mortgages are a good example of how financialization increases financial profits by jacking up risk and distributing it to suckers who don't recognize the potential for collapse and staggering losses.

In the good old days, home mortgages were safe and dull: banks and savings and loans issued the mortgages and kept the loans on their books, earning a stable return for the 30 years of the mortgage's term.

Then the financialization machine appeared on the horizon and revolutionized the home mortgage business to increase profits. The first step was to generate entire new families of mortgages with higher profit margins than conventional mortgages. These included no-down payment mortgages (liar loans), no-interest-for-the-first-few-years mortgages, adjustable-rate mortgages, home equity lines of credit, and so on.

This broadening of options and risks greatly expanded the pool of people who qualified for a mortgage. In the old days, only those with sterling credit qualified for a home mortgage. In the financialized realm, almost anyone with a pulse could qualify for one exotic mortgage or another.

The interest rate, risk and profit margins were all much higher for the originators. What's not to like? Well, the risk of default is a problem. Defaults trigger losses.

Financialization's solution: package the risk in safe-looking securities and offload the risk onto suckers and marks. Securitizing mortgages enabled loan originators to skim the origination fees and profits up front and then offload the risk of default and loss onto buyers of the mortgage securities.

Securitization was tailor-made for hiding risk deep inside apparently low-risk pools of mortgages and rigging the tranches to maximize profits for the packagers at the expense of the unwary buyers, who bought high-risk securities under the false premise that they were "safe home mortgages."

The con worked because home mortgages were traditionally safe. Financialization did several things to the home mortgage market:
  1. Collateralized previous low-risk assets into high-risk, high-profit financial instruments
  2. Commoditized this expansion of debt and leverage by securitizing the exotic mortgages
  3. Built an inverted pyramid of leveraged speculative debt on the low-risk home mortgage
  4. Used the Federal Reserve's vast expansion of liquidity and credit to originate trillions of dollars in new debt and leveraged financial instruments.
Consider a house purchased with a liar-loan, no-down payment mortgage. Since the buyer didn't even put any cash down or verify stable income, there is literally no collateral at all to back up the mortgage. The slightest decline in the value of the home will immediately generate a loss of capital.

Now pile on derivatives, CDOs, etc. on the inverted pyramid of risk piled on the non-existent collateral, and you have the perfect recipe for financial collapse.

Like home mortgages, oil has been viewed as a "safe" asset. The financialization of the oil sector has followed a slightly different script but the results are the same:

A weak foundation of collateral is supporting a mountain of leveraged, high-risk debt and derivatives. Oil in the ground has been treated as collateral for trillions of dollars in junk bonds, loans and derivatives of all this new debt.

The 35% decline in the price of oil has reduced the underlying collateral supporting all this debt by 35%. Loans that were deemed low-risk when oil was $100/barrel are no longer low-risk with oil below $70/barrel (dead-cat bounces notwithstanding).

Financialization is always based on the presumption that risk can be cancelled out by hedging bets made with counterparties. This sounds appealing, but as I have noted many times, risk cannot be disappeared, it can only be masked or transferred to others.

Relying on counterparties to pay out cannot make risk vanish; it only masks the risk of default by transferring the risk to counterparties, who then transfer it to still other counterparties, and so on.

This illusory vanishing act hasn't made risk disappear: rather, it has set up a line of dominoes waiting for one domino to topple. This one domino will proceed to take down the entire line of financial dominoes.

The 35% drop in the price of oil is the first domino. All the supposedly safe, low-risk loans and bets placed on oil, made with the supreme confidence that oil would continue to trade in a band around $100/barrel, are now revealed as high-risk.

In the heyday of mortgage financialization, exotic mortgages were tranched into securities that were designed to fail, to the benefit of the originators, not the buyers.These financial instruments were sold with the implicit understanding that they were only low-risk if the housing bubble continued to expand.

Once home prices fell and the collateral was impaired, it only made financial sense for borrowers to default and counterparties to refuse to pay until their bets were made whole by another counterparty.

The failure of one counterparty will topple the entire line of counterparty dominoes. The first domino in the oil sector has fallen, and the long line of financialized dominoes is starting to topple.

Everyone who bought a supposedly low-risk bond, loan or derivative based on oil in the ground is about to discover the low risk was illusory. All those who hedged the risk with a counterparty bet are about to discover that a counterparty failure ten dominoes down the line has destroyed their hedge, and the loss is theirs to absorb.

All the analysts chortling over the "equivalent of a tax break" for consumers are about to be buried by an avalanche of defaults and crushing losses as the chickens of financializing oil come home to roost.


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