What happened to all the speculators driving up oil prices?

Speculators were an easy target for the Congress that wanted to show the people that they are doing something about the oil prices.  A simple explanation of demand and supply was not enough, it was too complex for most to comprehend.

Every story needs a villain, a damsel in distress and a knight in shining armor.  Arguably, the speculator are the real knights but they are not up for reelection nor are they good at pitching their side. So the lawmakers took the opportunity to pitch the plausible story of oil speculators driving up prices.

But as the demand fell due to consumers adjusting their behavior, the oil prices fell back 13% from its highs.  The Nightly Business Report’s Suzanne Pratt said this nicely:

PRATT: So what happened to all the speculators that were supposedly driving up prices and ignoring fundamentals? Today, futures regulators said an inter-agency task force has found that supply-demand fundamentals are the best explanation for the recent run-up in oil prices, not excessive speculation, as some lawmakers believe. Many economists and analysts agree that fundamentals, mostly strong demand from India and China, have been the primary price driver, as well as stagnant supplies. But those fundamentals may be changing. Economist Carey Leahy says investors are waking up to the idea that slowing U.S. growth and other global factors could result in a big drop in demand.

Of course there is enough room in this for lawmakers to tell a different story, the mere mention of curbing speculation was enough to slay the dragon.

NYTimes Reports Increase in Online Shopping

Greg Manikw, the author of my favorite Macroeconomics book, writes in his blog a series on Cross-Price Elasticity of Demand.

The New York Times reports that shoppers are doing more online shopping than driving to the stores. While the demand for the products has not shifted to their substitutions, the channels through which people buy has.

Online shopping is gaining at a time when simply filling up a gas tank to head to the mall can seem like a spending spree.

A number of retailers — including Gap, Victoria’s Secret and J. C. Penney — are experiencing double-digit sales growth at their shopping Web sites, creating a surprising bright spot during an otherwise gloomy time for sales in brick-and-mortar stores.

Down the line this means drop in incentives to the employees who work in the shops and it is bound to cause shift in their consuming patterns.

If I can make predictions about other economic and consumer behavior changes we should expect in the future, these are in my short list:

1. People brown-bagging lunch
2. Product unbundling in restaurants. No more free bread, chips-salsa or worse no more free napkins or water.
3. 4 day work week, with 10 hours a day
4. US Mail stopping Saturday delivery
5. Newspapers adding a higher delivery surcharge, causing a shift to their online version.

The Problem With Increasing Oil Supply Now

There is bound to be a bigger push on the Congress and the President to do something about the high oil prices. On an election year, the candidates wanting to show they care, get in the fray with their own recommendations like Gas Tax Holiday.

A common theme across all these plans is they either seek to increase supply or reduce total price.The supply increase is recommended through, more drilling in existing fields, open up new fields in protected areas, stop adding to strategic reserve.The price control methods are just that, seeking to introduce price control, windfall taxes and eliminate taxes.

The problem is the shock is demand induced and not a supply shock. The demand is global is nature and not limited to US. When the prices rose first, it was a shock. Now people, across the world, come to expect the higher prices are here to stay and are changing their behavior like using public transit, using cattle for plowing the field (India), or working from home one day a week.

Not everyone is doing this but enough to put a dent on the demand. If the lawmakers choose to address this demand side problem by increasing supply, the demand will only increase to absorb the added supply. The price of crude is at its market clearing price and not spiralling out of control because people can make behavioral adjustments.

Adding new supply will negate these and will keep the prices at their current levels or higher and not push them any further down.

GM Sowed Its Own Seeds Of Failure

(draft version, will be edited continuously)

On Wednesday July 2nd 2008 GM shares hit the levels seen only in the 1950s. Almost six decades of value creation wiped out, serving as a counterexample for the buy and hold thesis of investment. GM is losing money on every vehicle it makes and with current high gas prices there are no takers for its gas guzzlng SUVs. It is an easy answer to blame it a on the oil price shock. Oil price shock is not the root cause of the problem, it only hastened GM’s problems.

To look at the root cause we need to go all the way back to start of its growth phase, the 1950s, (the levels to which GM’s stock has now fallen). By then GM had successfully eliminated the cheap substitution to its automobiles, Electric Trolleys, and started selling more autombiles to Americans. Historian Stephen Goddard describes in his book, Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in American Century, how GM teamed up with Firestone the tire maker and, ironically, the Oil companies (Philips Petroleum and Standard Oil), systematically elimiated trolleys in towns across the USA.

Goddard writes,

Trolleys considered artifacts today pervaded all aspects of american life at the turn of the century.

There were trolley cars for commuting, trolley cars to carry the mail and trolley car to hire for parties.

This posed two kinds of problems to GM, Firestone and the Oil companies. First they acted as the substitution for automobiles, a cheap and comfortable one indeed. Second the trolleys ran on tracks and the tracks in the middle of the road did not serve well for driving automobiles. Goddard describes how the foursome formed a shell company to systematically buy the local trolley franchises, just to shut them down, blaming it on incompetency.

GM’s growth took off. It was a successful strategy, illegal but successful atleast over the next 50 years. But the problem is the strategy was based on the assumption that Oil will remain cheap and ignored the secondary costs like pollution. In any other case, a strategy that delivers 50 years of growth would be considered extremely effective. But the strategy is flawed on two fronts. First, the macroeconomic factors take longer than 50 years, GM’s strategy failed to look ahead that long. Second, and arguably the core reason, GM’s Marketing Myopia.

Ted Levitt wrote in his seminal work, how companies sow their own seeds failure by narrowly defining their strategy. For example, Kodak look at itself in the business of photo films and missed on the digital photography growth. Instead Kodak should have looked at itself in the business of “memory capture”. Then it would not have mattered whether it was selling films or digital cameras.

GM’s Marketing Myopia is obvious in the hinsight. While it executed the strategy that correctly identified trolleys as its “true competition”, it failed to define correctly the business GM is in. GM looked at itself in the business of selling automobiles and not in the transportation business. GM continued to commit to a strategy that made bigger, faster, powerful and luxurious automobiles, forgetting to look at the “purpose these automobiles served”.

People did not want muscle cars, they wanted thrill. People did not want automobiles, they wanted a safe, easy and comfortable way to go to places. People did not want SUVs, they wanted to make a statement and chose big SUVs as the medium.

The other big US car maker, Ford, isn’t doing better than GM. Ford suffers from the same two factors that GM suffers from. When Ford started, it was not suffering from Marketing Myopia. Henry Ford purportedly said, “if I listened to people I would have made faster horses”. Whether those were the exact words or not, it was a proof point that he realized that what people really wanted was a way to travel from Point-A to Point-B.

As we stand now, at the beginning of the third quarter of 2008, facing increasing Oil prices and the effects on the environment, GM is facing what appears to be a certain failure. It is not easy now for GM to lose its myopia. It has committed all its resources towards automobiles and cannot rally recast itself to make the new transportation means. GM is doing more of the same, with its plan to make more mini-cars than SUVs. Again, the strategy is myopic, reactive to Oil price crisis than solving the real needs of people.

If GM survives for another fifty years, it will be because it recast itself to be in “the business of connecting people to their economic, physical and emotional needs” and not because it made smaller fuel-efficient cars.

In fifty years, we may not even travel from point A to point B, but this topic requires its own article.