Tag: supply and demand

On the Oil-Gold Ratio: Why Oil’s Going Higher

A big story to come out of the last G-20 summit was that the Russians and Saudis were talking oil (read: an oil cooperation agreement). With that, everyone asked, again, where are oil prices headed? To answer that question, one has to have a model – a way of thinking about the problem. In this case, my starting point is Roy W. Jastram’s classic study, The Golden Constant: The English and American Experience 1560-2007. In that work, Jastram finds that gold maintains its purchasing power over long periods of time, with the prices of other commodities adapting to the price of gold. 

Taking a lead from Jastram, let’s use the price of gold as a long-term benchmark for the price of oil. The idea being that, if the price of oil changes dramatically, the oil-gold price ratio will change and move away from its long-term value. Forces will then be set in motion to shift supply of and demand for oil.  In consequence, the price of oil will change and the long-term oil-gold price ratio will be reestablished. Via this process, the oil-gold ratio will revert, with changes in the price of oil doing most of the work.

For example, if the price of oil slumps, the oil-gold price ratio will collapse. In consequence, exploration for and development of oil reserves will become less attractive and marginal production will become uneconomic. In addition to the forces squeezing the supply side of the market, low prices will give the demand side a boost. These supply-demand dynamics will, over time, move oil prices and the oil-gold price ratio up. This is what’s behind the old adage, there is nothing like low prices to cure low prices.

How’s that Housing Stimulus Working Out for You?

Yesterday Case-Shiller released their monthly housing price index.  Surprise, it fell by 4.2% in the first quarter of 2011.  I’ve been predicting a decline of about 6% over the course of 2011 (might need to adjust that).  Of course, this should come as no surprise.  We’ve spent the last couple of years trying to re-create the bubble, with little success.  While there’s been a home-buyer tax credit, the largest stimulus has been extremely cheap credit on the part of the Federal Reserve.  The problem with all these subsidies is they ignore the fact that eventually the housing market will come back to fundamentals.  And those fundamentals are demographics and income.  You cannot over long periods of time sustain house price increases without increases in incomes.  Loose credit only gets you so far.  Prices have already fallen enough to pretty much wipe out the entire value of the home-buyer tax credit.

Even worse than putting off the inevitable correction, subsidies that maintain prices above construction costs result in additional supply being added to an already glutted market.  While housing starts are near historic lows - they are still positive.  And worse, they are higher in the very markets in which we don’t want more building.  That permitting activity is twice as high in Phoenix as in San Diego, despite being of similar size, illustrates the perverse incentives of trying to re-inflate the bubble via demand subsides.  In supply-constrained markets you simply maintain prices at unaffordable levels - San Diego is still 54% above its 2000 price level - while in easy-to-build markets you add to the glut - prices in Phoenix are now back to 2000 levels. 

House prices were always going to find their “true” bottom. The question was simply: did we want to get there right away, or drag out the process? Washington chose the course of dragging out the process, at considerable cost.  I believe dragging out the process has only further spooked potential buyers.  Any buyer today has to suspect that further price declines are possible.  We need to get to the point where the only direction is up.  We aren’t there yet.  Policymakers continue to ignore the basics of supply and demand.  Unfortunately the rest of us pay the price for their doing so.