Tag Archives: World

Agriculture will be the most pressing issue of our time

Below is a great TED talk that brings some awareness to what seems will be the most pressing issue of our time (in 10-30 years) as it is the prime contributor to our rapid resource depletion and increased risk of cataclysmic climate change.

I feel that economics is best for sorting out this problem. How best to get others to eat less in the more developed nations when high food costs prohibit people’s decision to over-consume. The same could be said of high costs of oil and decreased driving habits. Many pricing distortions that the modern economies experience directly impact the relatively cheap pricing of food; specifically water, fuel, and choice of production. (corn subsidies)

Although as much as economics has a benefit, there is a cost. Producers will be focused on maximizing gains by irrationally increasing output. (a la tragedy of the commons) This will drive already poorly productive agricultural producers to expand their output into valuable biodiversity resources such as the rain-forest.

The best solution IMO, would be to end the developed worlds price distortions in combination with aggressive conservation policies for the developing world that would limit our total % of land used for agriculture and offer appropriate support to help current fertile land gains to reach 90-100% of its maximum productive capacity.

The two should limit over-consumption while also promoting increased productivity.

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More on the positives of the European Crisis

Via Mark Thoma, a more well written thorough (fact backed) perspective on the net positives for the European crisis: here.

Bottom Line:  The European crisis, by keeping US interest rates in check and oil prices low, may do more to help the US recovery than hurt it.  In the process, however, we would expect the flip side of the resulting capital inflows into the US to emerge – namely, a rising external imbalance.  Arguably, this simply shifts the ultimate adjustment to sometime in the future.  Again.

Same ideas, but I published first!

Seeing the Positives from the European Debacle

What happened in the stock market two weeks ago was scary: the Dow dropped 1,000 points in a matter of minutes.  Greece was on the brink of defaulting on it’s debt; a country I might add, that has it’s currency denominated in Euros.   Investors were worried that if Greece went down, it might drag down the Euro with it.  Luckily, the EU finally pushed politics aside and realized that in order to keep the EU from causing a European Lehman chain reaction, they had to bail out Greece.  If Greece went, so the saying goes, the rest of Portugal, Italy and Spain would go with it.  As the bail out was announced, U.S. stocks surged.  But the damage was done.

Stocks are still up since a year ago, but a lot of that equity was lost.  Some say it was a much needed market correction.  In a way, I agree.  Investors started to feel that they were being left out of the party (considering that stocks rallied considerably since March 2009) and wanted to get into the action, driving up valuations.    The market correction has left some worried that the lost momentum from the stock market and the teetering European situation means that the U.S. is going to lose steam in it’s recovery.  But it won’t; it will only make our recovery stronger.  There are several positive indications that Europe’s struggle is in America’s benefit.

  1. A stronger dollar against the Euro should help bring in an influx of investment.  While a weaker dollar sent investors over seas, most wealth generated outside of the U.S. will start seeking to invest here.*
  2. The Fed funds rate is still around 0% to .25%.  Inflation hawks are going to have to start rethinking their position as deflationary pressures continue to rear its ugly head.  Mean trimmed CPI is on a downward trend, and with energy and commodity prices pointing lower, it will only continue to send overall prices downward.   This type of environment will keep the Fed from raising rates, making borrowing cheap.  With mortgage rates continuing to be low, buying a house is still attractive.
  3. The potential benefit for having low interest rates is that foreign investors looking for returns will look towards equity markets.  This means more potential growth for U.S. companies and the stock market.
  4. The stock market wasn’t the only thing that experienced slides.  So did commodity prices, especially oil.  Oil was moving up to around $90 a barrel until the market correction happened.  Now, oil prices are down to $75 a barrel.   Any increase in gas prices is taxing on consumers, but so far, gas prices have stagnated and won’t be increasing any longer.  The cost of inputs are now lower across the board thanks to declines in commodity prices, providing cushy margins for companies that lowers the pressure to raise prices, resulting in an absence of pain for the consumer.

As you can see, there is upside to the European situation.  I agree that it is still a gloomy situation for Europe in general.  Greece (and the like) face long-term structural issues that will make resolving their situation an incredibly hard task and I won’t be surprised if in 6 months Greece begins to default on its debt again.  But will it really drag down the EU? The rest of the countries such as Portugal, Spain and Italy should benefit from a lower Euro, helping wages that outpace productivity come to parity.  So should Germany and the rest of Europe, as a lower Euro will stimulate exports.  What needed to happen was a devaluation of the Euro  to a value more inline of what it is worth.  Yes, it is unfortunate that these irresponsible countries are essentially a drag on the EU, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. will have to suffer for it.

While the EU is a major trading partner to the U.S., I doubt there will be significant drops in demand for U.S. goods. There are more, higher growth areas for the U.S. to consider.  In terms of the U.S. recovery, if exports were the upside to the U.S. downturn, then U.S. exports to Europe is going to be the downside to the U.S. recovery.  But there is going to be a recovery nonetheless.

*And in minutes, this pops into my RSS reader: China boosts holdings of US Treasury debt by 2 pct

World Bank Opens New Public Data Initiative

At data.worldbank.org, access to all the world bank’s data is now available for free.  Included are easy to use ways for accessing and presenting the data, as well as giving you tools to analyze the data for every country, anytime.  For those who are proponents for open data sets, this is a big moment.  See the youtube video for an overview of the program:

Latest IMF World Economic Growth Predictions

The End of Cheap Coal

One of the reasons why the push for Cap and Trade was a good idea was it would not only internalize the cost of carbon emissions, but it would also raise the price of energy created from coal.   With higher prices for kilowatt per hour from coal energy, cleaner energy sources would become competitive.  Currently, cleaner energy sources can barely compete with coal, with exceptions of course.  But if legislation wasn’t going to push up the price of burning coal, then in the long-term, rising international demand would.  That time is now.

In 2009, China has ceased to export coal and has now began to import it.  According to the financial times, in 1993 the same happened to oil.  China’s oil imports exceeded what was being imported and the consequence was a climb in the average oil price, all too well known thanks to oil spiking at $150 a barrel in 2008.  China had been using more oil than it could produce in order to fuel its large amount of economic growth, and oil wasn’t the only commodity.

China isn’t the only player.  India as well as the emerging markets have offered its heavy share of the demand, tipping trade balances toward imports and helping to drive up commodity prices for oil and building materials.   The same is expected for coal.

This is good news for America, which contains the largest coal reserves in the world.  This is also good news for the coal industry, as it will be able to profit from an uptick in prices.

This is not so good for the coal power industry, especially in America.  While the coal industry will benefit in developing nations who have already increased the capacity to burn coal for energy and produce steel from coke, the developed world already faces pressures for pursuing greener technologies instead of burning coal.  And the coal power industry should be scared: the only thing keeping them from not succumbing to the powers of green energy is price, which is now soon to change.  With coal prices higher translating into higher per kilowatt hour energy costs that begin to be on par with greener technologies, the coal power industry will have a tough fight.

Green technologies already have the leg up of being green and renewable.  Obama’s recent moves to push for nuclear energy, which would already be competitive given Obama’s plan, and the ARRA’s subsidizing of renewable resources like wind and solar significantly put the government against the coal power industry.

The government’s backing of renewable energy certainly distorts what the market wants when providing energy, but a needed distortion nonetheless.  The only hope for the coal industry is to level the playing field by either removing green energy subsidies (not likely) or becoming green it self.  The industry’s only hope is going for clean coal. And now, it doesn’t have the luxury of waiting anymore.

Before one says that clean coal isn’t viable, I disagree.  It is possible, given recent developments in innvoation.  I blogged recently about Thomas Friedman’s catch about clean coal:

If you combine CO2 with seawater, or any kind of briny water, you produce CaCO3, calcium carbonate. That is not only the stuff of corals. It is also the same white, pasty goop that appears on your shower head from hard (calcium-rich) water. At its demonstration plant near Santa Cruz, Calif., Calera has developed a process that takes CO2 emissions from a coal- or gas-fired power plant and sprays seawater into it and naturally converts most of the CO2 into calcium carbonate, which is then spray-dried into cement or shaped into little pellets that can be used as concrete aggregates for building walls or highways — instead of letting the CO2 emissions go into the atmosphere and produce climate change.

If this can scale, it would eliminate the need for expensive carbon-sequestration facilities planned to be built alongside coal-fired power plants — and it might actually make the heretofore specious notion of “clean coal” a possibility.

With coal prices expected to rise, you can bet this will scale. With clean coal on the horizon, subsidizing greener technologies won’t be needed anymore or vice versa, coal won’t be dirty anymore. Either way, whether a Cap and Trade bill , favorable legislation towards green technologies or the sheer power of the market was going to force it, switching towards less CO2 intensive energy was inevitable. Now, about those mountain tops…

Don’t dismiss the average oil price

From Environmental Economics:

Globalisation and the Environment: Peak Oil Man discovers economics!

“Peak Oil” and the peak oilers associated with this idea are a strange bunch. It is interesting to note that the daddy of peak oil has suddenly realised that “economics” might have something to say on this matter.

Economics is sometimes a little more subtle than supply and demand. Behaviour is the key.

Peak Oil Man Shifts Focus To Peak Price, Demand [World Environment News]

The economic shock of global recession has led a prime exponent of the theory conventional oil output has peaked to shift his view of the consequences, but he still thinks the world has to go green.

Retired petroleum geologist Colin Campbell, who worked for major oil companies as well as smaller firms, has long been associated with the belief the world’s oil supplies are dwindling.

He does not waver from that and dismisses the argument of the so-called optimists that technology will manage to keep eking out more and more oil to keep pace with rising demand.

What has changed is his opinion of the price impact and implications for fuel consumption after the spike of July 2008 to nearly $150 a barrel was followed by world economic recession, a deep drop in fuel use and a crash in oil futures to just above $30 in December 2008.

“I have changed my point of view about future prices,” said Campbell, who used to think the peak in conventional oil production, which he believes happened in 2005, would lead to a relentless price surge.

Oil prices may get too high to the point where it puts a strain on the economy and may push it towards recession, depressing prices of oil towards decade lows, but one shouldn’t dismiss the average price of oil over the last century, which has significantly increased. If there was something that Campbell underestimated about peak oil it is that as the average price of oil rises, the allocation of consumption towards cost effective substitutes helps depress average oil prices lower. Campbell is underestimating capitalism’s flexibility. But, he is right that the average price will still continue to rise. We will know when oil has reached it’s highest price when the market mechanism allocates more consumers toward cheaper alternatives.