The Price of Oil Remains Stubbornly Above $100 a Barrel


After a one-day reprieve from total meltdown in the financial markets, news media cheerleaders for the most reckless gang of bankers in world history declared the crisis over on Good Friday (with the markets safely closed). Whew, that’s a relief. Problem solved. And just in time for baseball season, too, so none of the Banker Boyz have to sell their sky box leases.

What is meant by “meltdown,” by the way, since the word is used so promiscuously by myself and others. I’d define it as the shock of recognition that many big institutions are worse than flat broke and are therefore powerless to conduct normal operations. By “worse than flat broke” I mean they are so deep in hock that all the accountants who ever lived, in the life of this universe and several others like it, using the fastest parallel processing computers ever built, could not keep up with their compounding accelerating losses (now approaching the speed of light).

The current vacation from reality on Wall Street may last a few more days, or even a couple weeks, but it seems as though a whole flock of black swan events is circling the sky over Financial-land and is about to blot out the sun. By black swan, I refer to the concept popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his recent book of that name, namely unexpected events of great power that tend to change the course of history.

For the moment, with the crisis “contained,” and the Boyz getting ready to air out their Hampton villas for the coming season, we are once again primed to be blindsided by potent random events that nobody saw coming. The trouble is, there are enough potent potential fiascos already visible on the horizon.

The mortgage fiasco is still just gathering steam as it moves from the non-payment stage to the default and repossession level on the grand scale. Even the political wish to bail out feckless mortgage holders will stumble on the mammoth clerical task of administrating the process, especially since we’ve barely begun to sort out who actually holds the mortgages after they’ve been minced into a fine mirepoix of securities off-loaded onto countless dupe “investors” ranging from municipal funds in obscure corners of foreign nations to countless public employee retirement plans.

No matter how the authorities try to “nationalize” the sucking chest wound of bad mortgages, the body of finance will flat-line — and the American public will get stuck with the bill from the intensive care unit. Those who, for some weird reason, continue to pay their way and meet their obligations, will be none too pleased to pay for misdeeds of the deadbeats and their banker-lenders. This portends a taxpayer rebellion, which may translate into a voter rebellion.

It’s too bad the current presidential candidates have been unable to address the unfolding economic nightmare. Their collective silence on the matter suggests that they don’t have a clue what to say about it. As the nightmare plays out and black swans flock in to blot out the sun, and the hedge funds come a’tumbling down, and more big banks blunder into black holes, and businesses big and small across the land shutter up their operations, and the unemployment rolls swell, and families are thrown out of their houses even when bailouts are supposed to be saving them (but the bureaucracy can’t get the paperwork done in time) — well now, they are going to be one pissed off bunch of people. What will they do at the conventions? Our outside the conventions?

In the deeper background of all this is the all-important oil story that nobody in politics or the media wants to pay attention to. Notice that in the fervid unloading of assets this past week, as investors dumped their positions in the commodities markets, the price of oil remained stubbornly above $100-a-barrel when it was all over on Thursday afternoon. Well, maybe they’ll ratchet down a little further this week, but the trend line will prove to continue remorselessly upward in the months ahead.

Peak oil is for real. The supply can’t keep up with global demand, even if it dips in the USA. And more portentous sub-plots develop in the story every month. Export rates are falling at a steeper rate than depletion rates. The exporting nations are not only buying more cars and running more air-conditioners, they also need to use more energy to lift the oil they’ve got out of the ground.

Another sub-plot is the fact that the equipment used world-wide to drill for oil and recover oil and move oil around the planet — all that equipment is now so old and rusty that it can barely do the job, and it is going to start failing altogether unless investments are made to replace it, which nobody is making.

By the way, Americans blame the familiar private oil companies for all the trouble with oil in their lives — Exxon-Mobil, Shell, et al — but they don’t seem to know that oil nationalism is in the driver’s seat now. The old private “majors” are only producing five percent of the world’s oil. The rest is coming from the national companies — Aramco, Petrobras, Pemex, et blah blah — and the very operations of the oil markets are entering a phase of radical instability as they move away from auctioning their stuff on the futures markets and start making long-term favored customer contracts instead.

The bottom line is that high prices for oil is hardly the only thing America has to worry about. Pretty soon the US will have to worry about getting the oil at any price — meaning, we’re in for shortages and supply disruptions sooner rather than later.

Also unbeknownst to most of America, the financial markets reflect all this instability around the basic resource of oil because industrial economies like ours are set up in such a way that they can’t run without cheap and reliable supplies of the stuff. So the least little twitter in the reality-based world of peak oil means that everything to do with money and capital investment will naturally go crazy, since our expectations for increased wealth — i.e. “growth” — are predicated on the activities driven by oil.

It will be interesting to see what new machinations are unveiled this week. Whatever else this catastrophe is, it’s a good show from the cheap seats.

James Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler
(born 1948) is an American author, social critic, and blogger who is perhaps best known for his book The Geography of Nowhere, a history of suburbia and urban development in the United States. He is prominently featured in the peak oil documentary, The End of Suburbia, widely circulated on the internet. In his most recent book, The Long Emergency (2005), he argues that declining oil production is likely to result in the end of industrialized society and force Americans to live in localized, agrarian communities.
James Howard Kunstler

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