MacroScope

A question of energy

After two days in The Hague, Barack Obama moves on to Brussels for an EU/U.S. summit with Ukraine still casting the longest shadow.

Europe’s energy dependence on Russia is likely to top the agenda with the EU pressing for U.S. help in that regard while the standoff with Russia could give new impetus to talks over the world’s largest free trade deal.

Russia provides around one third of the EU’s oil and gas and 40 percent of the gas is shipped through Ukraine. EU leaders dedicated part of a summit to the issue last week and German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported asking Obama to relax restrictions on exports of U.S. gas.

Last night, Britain’s David Cameron said energy independence and the adoption of technologies like shale gas fracking should shoot to the top of Europe’s political agenda.

EU leaders Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy will promise to remove all tariffs on bilateral trade, according to a draft statement seen by Reuters.

New face at the ECB

The European Central Bank held a steady course at its first policy meeting of the year but flagged up the twin threats of rising short-term money market rates and the possibility of a “worsening” outlook for inflation – i.e. deflation.

The former presumably could warrant a further splurge of cheap liquidity for the bank, the latter a rate cut. But only if deflation really takes hold could QE even be considered.
Sabine Lautenschlaeger, the Bundesbank number two poised to take Joerg Asmussen’s seat on the executive board, breaks cover today, testifying to a European Parliament committee. A regulation specialist, little is known about her monetary policy stance though one presumes she tends to the hawkish.

Iran and the EU announced on Sunday that a deal between Tehran and six major powers intended to pave the way to a solution to a long standoff over its nuclear ambitions will come into force on Jan. 20. Thereafter, negotiations will begin on a final settlement. Brent crude has fallen in response. It’s early days but if oil falls significantly this year, that will factor into fears about deflation taking hold in Europe.

Dr. Doom goes to Beverly Hills

When it comes to predicting a dark future, Nouriel Roubini – the NYU economist who earned the moniker Dr. Doom after he correctly predicted the financial crisis – is not about to let anyone get in his way.

Even if it’s his host. And even, or maybe especially, when there are 500 witnesses.

That’s precisely what happened Wednesday morning, when Michael Milken – the former junk-bond king – shared the stage with Roubini at Milken’s Global Conference. What was billed as an interview in one of the Beverly Hilton’s grand ballrooms had the feel of a pitched battle.

What’s behind the spike in oil prices?

It’s easy to blame tensions with Iran for all of the recent spike in petroleum prices. But there are other catalysts for the market’s sudden surge. For one thing, U.S. economic data have been consistently surprising to the upside while the European situation appears loosely under control, both factors that suggest the global economy may yet coast along through 2012 without faltering.

Then there are the actual hits to supply taken due to geopolitical events around the world, says Marc Chandler at Brown Brothers Harriman, which in just two months have helped push Brent crude prices more than $20 higher to a 10-month high above $125 a barrel:

There has been a genuine supply shock. Between Sudan, Yemen and Syria, nearly 750k barrels per day (bpd) have been taken out of production due to political instability. On top of this Libyan oil output is about 600k bpd below pre-civil war levels.

Four yardsticks for sovereign wealth funds

Sovereign wealth funds, a $3 trillion industry managing windfall revenues for future generations, arguably need a set of benchmarks different from those used by other private investors as they are state-owned. Andrew Ang, an associate at U.S. National Bureau of Economics and a professor at Columbia Business School, proposes the following four benchmarks in a recent paper distributed to SWFs.

ECONOMY CHINA MEASURES

The Benchmark of Legitimacy. Whatever the source of wealth, the SWF exists to transfer the benefits of that wealth from the present to the future. Without this benchmark, the money in the SWF is at risk of being immediately depleted. A necessary condition to maintain legitimacy is to have well-developed legal institutions in place.

The Benchmark of Integrated Policy and Liabilities. A critical part of this benchmark is detailing how and under what conditions the money can be distributed from the fund. Clear, yet flexible, spending rules must be set to meet well-defined liabilities.

Sovereign wealth fund and a remote island

Little Diomede, a remote U.S. island in the Bering straits only 2.5 miles from Russia, has 129 people living in a traditional Ingalikmiut Eskimo village.

 On an island surrounded by rocky slopes and harsh storms with the sea frozen for half a year, employment is limited to the city and school whereas seasonal mining, construction and commercial fishing positions have been on the decline.

Little Diomede villagerberings are part of tens of thousands of qualified Alaskans who receive dividends from regional wealth fund Alaska Permanent Fund.

Big ambition for Equatorial Guinea

This week has seen a rush of key policymakers and business executives from Africa flocking to London. Apart from Sierra Leone, oil and gas executives have been discussing the outlook for Equatorial Guinea, a small central African state rich in oil.

Equatorial Guinea made a relatively rare foray into the global news earlier this month for a presidential pardon of  former British army officer Simon Mann, who was serving a 34-year prison sentence in the country for his role in a failed coup d’etat in 2004.

Gabriel Obiang Lima, vice minister of mines, industry and energy, was in London to talk about his ambition for the country. “Our aim is not to be the Kuwait of the region. It’s to be the Singapore of the region,” he told dozens of business executives in a conference in London on Wednesday.

Running out of resources

Oil prices are more than double the December-February troughs and commodity prices generally are going up as the market cheers signs of an economic recovery.

Jeremy Grantham, chairman of U.S.-based money monager GMO, warns that the world is running out of resources in the long run yet is not correctly pricing the fact.

“We are simply running out of everything at a dangerous rate… As we move through our remarkable and irreplaceable hydrocarbon reserves, the price will, of course, rise remorselessly to ration supplies. We need, it seems, the shock of a Pearl Harbor to really gear up and make sacrifices,” he says.

Oil, the U.S. dollar, and those green shoots

This sounds awfully familiar. Oil prices have risen sharply from a March trough, while the U.S. dollar has fallen 10 percent against a basket of currencies. A bad 2008 flashback? Not quite.   

Riccardo Barbieri, head of international economics at Banc of America Securities-Merrill Lynch, says oil merits close watching to make sure it does not rise too far, too fast. For now, it does not pose an imminent threat to U.S. or global economic recovery.

 ”Our economists around the world feel that as long as oil prices did not rise significantly above $80 per barrel, that would not prevent an economic recovery in the second half of the year,” he wrote in a note to clients. “A further rise in oil prices would act as a tax on importing nations, and we would worry in particular about the U.S. consumer.”