Oil: A Bubble Waiting to Pop or Just Resting?

July 8th, 2011
in contributors

by Guest Author Andrew Butter

On 22nd June, Brent closed at $113. Then IEA made their move; the price dropped, and by 26th June it closed at $104 which was 8% down on the 22nd. Today it’s up to $114, back to square one; that’s hardly “Mission Accomplished”.

Not quite sure what they were thinking, forget about the “allies”, America’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve is 720 million barrels, that’s 75-days pumping at current production for Saudi Arabia (9.5 mbpd). The 30 million barrel U.S. release is just over 3 days of Saudi production.  Another 30 million barrels was released from reserves of other countries.

Follow up:

Of course it makes sense for America to pop a bubble in oil, if there is a bubble. The higher the price of oil the more she has to borrow from aliens to pay for it, and the less the few remaining companies in USA that haven’t been out-sourced can sell what they make to aliens and so the country can get hold of foreign exchange to buy oil from aliens, without borrowing; because if oil prices go up the aliens spend more money on oil, and less on Caterpillar engines etc.

Reverse Manipulation

America has every right to do a bit of “reverse manipulation” of markets, if she suspects that the markets are being manipulated against her interests, or for some reason that no one quite understands, they are in disequilibrium.

60 million barrels does nothing. America may have the biggest and most expensive military in the world, but when it comes to oil, she has about as much power as a cow on a feed-lot waiting passively for lunch, before milking time.

If speculation or some other thing disrupting the market is the reason for the oil spike, 60 million barrels is not enough to wage a conventional war, but it’s enough to wage a guerilla war; which is something America must by now have learned a thing or two about from the insurgents (still) planting road-side bombs in Iraq, and the 25,000 Taliban facing 250,000 conventional troops. 10:1 is pretty much standard in such situations, imagine if America could leverage 270 million barrels to pack the punch of 2.7 billion?

But there are a few ground rules, (a) you don’t tell anyone when you are going to buy or sell, before you do, just as you don’t advertize where or when you are going to plant a road-side bomb, (b) you don’t announce when you are going to run away with your tail between your legs shouting out “Mission Accomplished”, over your shoulder.

A 2011 Oil Bubble?

So was 2011 a bubble, and if so did it pop, or partially pop, and either way, what happens next?


Interesting that the run up from oil at $90 to oil at $127 pretty much mirrors the run up in 2008, interesting also that then, like now, the big run up was from New-Year to Mid-Year.

But on 1st May 2011 the lines diverged; Brent dropped 12% in a week. Perhaps that had something to do with the article I published the day before saying (a) oil was a bubble (b) it was about to pop?

Could it be possible that one obscure article read by 2,772 people had more impact on oil prices than collective pronouncements by OPEC, Saudi Arabia, the IEA, and Goldman Sachs, put together? Perhaps I’m psychic…or perhaps the model that predicted that, works better than the model Goldman Sachs is using?

Either way, that’s the past, what interesting is where is oil going, and if it is a bubble, what’s driving the bubble? If it’s a bubble, is it the same thing that drove it in 2008, or is it something different?

Parasite Economics

There are three variables; first…what is the price of oil, at which the world economy, particularly America’s economy, will start to suffer if it is exceeded? That’s called the conundrum of Parasite Economics.

Successful parasites make sure that the value they bring is more than the harm they cause to their hosts. That applies whether the parasites are little birds picking the teeth of crocodiles, bacteria in the human intestine, farmers milking a cow, or oil producers; no one wins if the cow gets sick, or heaven forbid, drops down dead.

Talk to anyone who knows about nature, whether they are a bird-watcher, a trout fisherman, or a virologist, they will tell you that the natural world is all about equilibrium.

Sometimes the equilibrium is disrupted, by a volcano, or by man; sometimes the equilibrium is permanently disrupted, as in the population of cod off Newfoundland, and sometimes equilibrium returns, like the ozone layer, and life as we know it trundles on, and so in the words of John Maudlin, “we will muddle through”.

You won’t find the words “Parasite Economics” in an Econ-101 textbook, which is the universal primer for a popular but much discredited pseudo-science of how to shoot yourself in the foot 101 times, and still expect a different outcome, next-time. Parasite Economics says the equilibrium now for the price of oil of $90, which is also in the range of what the Saudi’s say it is now ($80 to $100 depending on their mood).

See: Crude Oil Price Ten Year Forecast to 2020

So if that price is maintained, plus or minus 15%, world economic growth will not be constrained by oil prices. That would be “nice”, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. The US housing bubble proved one thing, which is that “nice” and “muddle through” are not given, bad things can happen.

The Cost of New Oil

The second variable is how much would it cost to bring in new oil? Like for example if Israel bombed Iran, and then Iran rocketed Saudi Arabia and then America nuked Iran, but then the survivors closed down the Straights of Hormuz for a couple of years by deploying upgraded Sunburn anti-ship missiles to cut oil-tankers in half, built with plans stolen from China

Which are as hard to detect and just as lethal as the new-version roadside bombs being slipped across the border that can rip a HUMVEE in half (literally). As three poor souls from the security company, OLIVE, found out just the other day; and no you won’t read about that in the newspapers, only “good news” is allowed out of Iraq these days.

How much would it cost to replace that oil?

Sure the “Bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb Iran” option sung along with “Barbara Anne” is “worst-case”, some might call it a “Black Swan Event”, but who would have thought, ten-years ago, that America would spend $4.7 trillion of borrowed money, chasing phantoms round dusty mountainsides?

The CEO of Exxon recently testified to Congress, that the price at which deepwater oil is profitable is about $75. That price is more than something of academic interest, because there is no denying that the rate of consumption of oil now-days, far exceeds the rate at which it is being discovered and brought to market, and who knows how much deepwater oil there is…and then…deep-space oil?

And, of course, Market Manipulation

The third variable is manipulation of the market-place.

Most people would agree that the ascent of oil prices to $140 in 2008 (Brent – average over a week) was a bubble. Certainly what happened next had all the characteristics of a bubble bursting; the price went down to $45 (average over a week) and the square-root of $140 x $45 is $80 which according to the science of BubbleomiX defines the fundamental or intrinsic price, or what International Valuation Standards calls the other than market price, in bursting bubbles.

Bubbles and Ducks

If it walks like a bubble, and it quacks like a bubble, well it probably is a bubble, and significantly, all through the spike the Saudis were saying; “this is a bubble, the correct price (then) was $75 to $85”, and then, as predicted, that was the price it came back to, except by then the “fundamental” had moved up a bit, now they are saying it’s $80 to $100 depending on their mood.

Perhaps it’s time to take the Saudi’s seriously and given the power that they have to influence the direction of the world economy, rather than to blow up things with precision guided cluster bombs, perhaps they would be a more sensible choice for a Permanent Seat on the UN Security Council than UK or France?

Either way, buy that logic and oil is a bubble and it’s going to pop, although calling the top of a bubble is a mug’s game, particularly if you are not sure about what’s causing the bubble.


What’s irritating; is that no one can figure out why there was a bubble in 2008, and if 2011 is a bubble, why there was a bubble in 2011.

It’s easy to blame “God’s Workers” the “speculators” and more recently the “hyperinflationary-money-printing” of Ben Bernanke. But blame is one thing, a smoking gun is something else; so far no one found one, and it’s not for lack of trying

A recent analysis by the Bank of Canada looked at commodity speculators, and came to the conclusion that the 2008 spike was nothing to do with them; meanwhile the SEC has a case against a so-called perpetrator of the spike, they will probably loose.

The commodity futures market is a very old market that started off helping farmers to pass on some of the year-to-year risks of farming, these day’s airlines use it to hedge the risk of price spikes, it’s relatively transparent and it serves a useful economic purpose.

Did that market “cause” the spike?  I doubt it, not that I am an expert on that market, but I figure that if it caused the spike, someone would have found a smoking gun by now.

Illusionary Dollars

And insofar as all those “hyperinflationary” dollars Helicopter-Ben printed, that the Econ-101 students have been hyperventilating about for the past two years. Well first of all Ben can’t just “print” dollar, to do that he has to put up some collateral with the Federal Reserve Agent (a government employee), that could be US-Treasuries or the cleverly designed lookalikes that Ben calls “Troubled” and everyone else calls “Toxic”.

Second, that money didn’t get out into the economy; it just sat in bank vaults as part of the charade of the “regulation” of fractional reserve banking based on calculation of capital adequacy using Voodoo Valuation standards to “value” the assets.

So, if 2008 was a bubble in oil, and 2011 is a bubble too, what was the cause?


Well just because you don’t have an explanation for why something happened, doesn’t mean you can’t make predictions. My six-year old nice can predict with astounding accuracy where the sun will come up tomorrow morning; and she has an explanation for why that happens. Personally I don’t buy the explanation, but there is no disputing the accuracy of her predictions.


Remember the housing bubble in USA. That started when the politicians decided it would be good if more Americans owned their own homes and the Students of Econ-101 came up with a brilliant model that showed that could be achieved if the price of house went up through the roof.

Don’t ask me how they figured that out, like I said, there are 101 ways to shoot yourself in the foot, personally I’m not interested in any of them.

So they put in all sorts of subsidies for home ownership, tax breaks on mortgage payments, tax breaks on capital gains, and they gave a wink and a nod to Fannie & Freddie to make money available for that noble cause, at less than the real cost of money. And all the while, all the Students could say about the insanity of those policies was…err…”our genius model may be detecting a bit of froth”.

I have two points; the first is that countries subsidize oil consumption. In USA they gives tax-breaks to oil companies, and the tax returns on oil consumption do not cover the cost of having to borrow money from aliens, to pay for it. But USA is not the only one, India, Philippines, China, UAE, all have implicit and explicit subsidies to hide the real cost of oil from the consumer, and to pay for that from money gathered elsewhere.

Efficient Markets

It’s impossible to understand cause an effect when the Students of Econ-101 get into gear, tweaking this or that with this or that that incentives; but a market can only be efficient, if the real intrinsic or fundamental cost is reflected in the price; in the market for oil and it’s products. Instead the “market” is controlled by the same idiotic philosophies that gave us “inflation targeting”, and “affordability”.

My second point is that although the commodities futures market might be relatively transparent, the spot market is not where the real price of oil is worked out.

Remember how God’s Workers used to value Toxic Assets, they had “markets” for them which were almost completely moribund and had hardly any transactions; most of the buying and selling was done direct, outside the markets. But the “index” of the carefully constructed and often manipulated “markets”; were used as a way of valuing the garbage, and in the end, the insanity of that unraveled.

The market for oil is not in the place where the price of Brent or WTI is traded, it’s in contracts typically between state-owned corporations in Philippines, India, China etc, and either producers, or traders with links into the producers. That’s not a transparent market.

Asymmetry of Information

Bubbles happen when there is asymmetry of information between buyers and sellers, that’s how Toxic Assets got over-valued, allowing the housing bubble to go stratospheric.

And that’s the most likely cause of the 2008 bubble in oil, and what looks like the bubble of 2011. The “loss” of 1.5 million barrels of oil from Libya ought to have had no more than a 3% effect on oil prices, and in any case the Saudi’s said they would make up the difference; but mysteriously no one wanted to buy.

The problem was that the people who used to rely on Libya, had to go to the spot market to buy oil, so the spot market went up. But then that price hike got passed along to all the contracts that are based on the spot market, and that got reflected in new contracts.  The “index” said the “fundamental” had gone up, and everyone believed that, but the index was wrong.

If this thesis is correct, 2011 was another bubble, and the proof of that will be if oil prices measured on the Brent index, go down to $70 or so, before the end of the year.

And then, well third-time lucky?

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About the Author

Andrew Butter started off in construction in UAE and Saudi Arabia; after the invasion of Kuwait opened Dryland Consultants in partnership with an economist doing primary and secondary research and building econometric models, clients included Bechtel, Unilever, BP, Honda, Emirates Airlines, and Dubai Government.
Split up with partner in 1995 and re-started the firm as ABMC mainly doing strategy, business plans, and valuations of businesses and commercial real estate, initially as a subcontractor for Cushman & Wakefield and later for Moore Stephens. Set up a capability to manage real estate development in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 2000, typically advised / directed from bare-land to tendering the main construction contract.
Put the unit on ice in 2007 in anticipation of the popping of the Dubai bubble,defensive investment strategies relating to the credit crunch; spent most of 2008 trying to figure out how bubbles work, writing a book called BubbleOmics. Andrew has an MA Cambridge University (Natural Science), and Diploma (Fine Art) Leeds Art College.



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  1. Jeff Miller Email says :

    The size of the US SPR is over 720 million barrels, not 270 million as you claim.

    It may be entertaining to do a lot of breezy criticism of US Middle East policy, and I might even agree with some of it, but it does not really help us understand the current pricing.

    The IEA could not do a surprise or stealth sale of reserves for many reasons, not the least of which is the inability to keep secrets. The stated policy was to replace lost supply. Some might see the threat of further action.

    Whether it has an impact or not has yet to be determined.

    I would be more interested in your argument if you took the time to learn something about economics before dismissing it. On oil pricing, you might read James Hamilton's work, often published on this site. Once you do, you will better understand the value of economic analysis.

    Similarly, why do I have to read your viewpoint on toxic assets in order to understand your conclusions on oil? Whatever the private deals are, what makes you think that these are not reflected in the public market? It would be unlikely to trade at prices much different from those available, and any deals can also easily be hedged. Bringing in a straw man does not prove your point.

  2. Admin (Member) Email says :

    Jeff - - -

    The numbers in the second paragraph have been corrected.

    John Lounsbury

  3. Kathryn Email says :

    Andrew: Though I'm a great fan of John Mauldin, all of us owe the genius of Yale's Charles Lindbloom for the study of "muddling through" - 1959, I believe. http://www.polsci.chula.ac.th/pitch/planningtheory2009/lindblom.pdf

    Still doing so, still valid. As are all your great bubble articles.

  4. Andrew Butter says :

    The 720 was a typo in my head, thank you for pointing it out; my point is still that 30 million barrels is not a lot.

    The reference to toxic assets is that market was similar to the oil market in that the "price" was determined on a small sub-markets that were somehow remote to the majority of transactions which were "over-the -counter".

    Those market failed to value securitized debt correctly, my point is that it is possible that WTI and Brent which are spot markets do not always value oil correctly.

    My irritation with Econ-101 is that mainstream economics failed to warn of the financial crisis and probably contributed to it. I believe that there are plenty of mainstream economists (for example the faculty of LSE who wrote an apology to the Queen of England), who will acknowledge that their theories had a "flaw".

  5. Andrew Butter says :

    Further response to Jeff Miller:

    With regard to the practicality of the SPR being managed "discretely" I don't see any reason why a reputable third-party trading company could not be appointed to manage it, after all the Federal Reserve is a private entity.

    Their mandate could be to "pop" oil bubbles before they happen and make sure that America does not pay too much for oil.

    With regard to the practicality, my thesis is that demand for "spot" oil went up because the refiners who had contracts with Libya that were not filled, had to go elsewhere.

    A smart policy would have been to find the refiners who were temporarily inconvenienced, offer them a deal they could not refuse, to stop them buying spot.

    With regard to US Middle East policy, the connection with oil, is that much of the policy revolves around securing reliable partners to supply America with oil.

  6. admin (Member) Email says :

    I picked this from The Big Picture ( http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2011/07/brace-yourself/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+TheBigPicture+%28The+Big+Picture%29 ) yesterday:

    The day before the IEA’s announcement, researchers at Strategic Energy Research and Capital produced the following insight:

    “According to the IEA STEO release on Absolute OECD Storage, comparative inventory, as we calculate, is already in deficit at -19 million barrels. If we are to believe the IEA, for the balance of 2011…comparative inventory (of Brent to WTI) will decline further to a deficit of -85 million barrels, with the largest net decline occurring next month. As we can see, in U.S. Dollars, this should increase the price of Brent relative to WTI, and it has. The interesting aspect of the OECD trend in comparison to the U.S. is that the markets are both responding to respective available supply as reflected in Absolute Inventories calculated into Comparative Inventory (i.e., the market is rational, at least to us). The OECD is net short, that is a fact, and that includes the U.S. barrels, while the U.S. separately is still in surplus. So we are not surprised to see the Brent-WTI spread widen, as so many are fixated on lately. From our seat, the regional market gears are working smoothly. The globe is still short to the tune of 1.0-1.5 million barrels per day and no new meaningful supply will be added before 2015, as we forecast it.”

    steven hansen

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