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Is the U.S. ‘Too Big’ for the Group of Seven?

by John Brian Shannon

Q: Are the concerns of a superpower relevant to the other G7 members? A: Not really.

Maybe it’s time for a superpower group of the U.S., China, the EU, Russia, and The Commonwealth of Nations to form up, instead of the G7 group that has worked very well until now.

Even the sage Moses who lived 3400-years ago, suggested, “Thou shall not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together” and the reason is quite clear to every farmer. Being so dissimilar in size and power, both the ox and the donkey will be miserable the entire time they try to plow forward together and the farmer will spend most of his time ‘arbitrating’ disputes between the two and the plowing enterprise will get little actual plowing done.

It’s unfair to the U.S., it’s unfair to the smaller or weaker members of the G7 club and it’s unfair — even to near-superpowers like Japan and Germany which have far different challenges and causes to ‘plow’ than those of the superpowers.


Shall I list the ways?

If so, this would become a very long blog post indeed!

For just three examples:

  1. Which of the G7 partners have a negative balance of trade of $862.8 billion for 2017? The entire G7 combined doesn’t have a negative balance of trade anywhere approaching that of the United States.
  2. Which of the other G7 members have an inventory of nuclear warheads like the United States which includes 6450 nuclear warheads; 1750 that are retired and awaiting dismantlement, and 3800 that remain part of the U.S. stockpile?
  3. If we’re talking GDP, the U.S. represents 52.8% of the Group of Seven’s GDP, while the next largest country in the group (Japan) represents 13.3% of GDP, with only Germany at 10% remaining as the only other double-digit GDP member of the G7.

Population figures and economic growth indicators may be even more telling than the above indicators of superpower status.


Should the U.S. Join It’s Own 1-Member Club?

That may be a tempting thought for President Donald Trump and certain members of his administration, but there are common concerns among superpowers that only apply to superpowers (and there’s no doubt the U.S. remains the Number One superpower by a significant margin) and it’s those superpowers that must work together to deliver solutions for their large populations.


If we look at a superpower club of 5 members: The United States, China, the EU, The Commonwealth of Nations and Russia, we’re looking at a group that is roughly comparable to each other and have similar challenges.

Let’s look at our three main indicators, just to be certain:

GDP

Big 5 (Nominal) GDP
U.S.A. --------- $20.3 trillion (USD) (Focuseconomics.com)
China ---------- $13.0 trillion (USD) (Focuseconomics.com)
EU ------------- $19.7 trillion (USD) (IMF)
Commonwealth --- $10.4 trillion (USD) (Commonwealth.org)
Russia --------- $1.72 trillion (USD) (IMF/StatisticsTimes.com)

Although there are some disparities in nominal GDP among the five countries, we must remember that China is on an exponential growth curve while The Commonwealth of Nations statistic (provided by commonwealth.org) is from 2017 and their economic group is also growing at a rapid rate ($13 trillion by 2020). Russia is the outlier in this group, however, as we shall see, that country has other (huge) chips on the table when it comes to retaining its superpower status.

Top 10 Countries as ranked by GDP includes G7 countries. Image courtesy of FocusEconomics.com

Top 10 Countries as ranked by GDP — includes G7 countries. Image courtesy of FocusEconomics.com


Nuclear Warheads

Big 5 Nuclear Warheads
U.S.A. --------- 6450 (Federation of American Scientists)
China ----------  270 (Federation of American Scientists)
EU -------------  300 (Federation of American Scientists)
Commonwealth ---  485 (Federation of American Scientists)
Russia --------- 6850 (Federation of American Scientists)

Although nuclear stockpiles vary, the U.S. and Russia were the main protagonists of the Cold War which lasted from 1950 through 1990 which is why they own far more nuclear weapons than all other countries combined. The only EU country to publish their ownership of nuclear weapons is France, with 300 warheads. The Commonwealth of Nations countries that publish ownership of nuclear weapons include the UK, Pakistan and India.

G7 comparison: Estimated Nuclear Warhead Inventories, 2018. Federation of American Scientists

Estimated Nuclear Warhead Inventories, 2018. Federation of American Scientists


Balance of Trade Issues

Big 5 Balance of Trade (in U.S. Dollars)
U.S.A. --------- $-862.8 billion (2017) (Handlesblatt/IMF/WTO)
China ---------- $+98.46 billion (2017) (TradingEconomics.com)
EU ------------- $+44.45 billion (2016) (Statista.com)
Commonwealth --- $-187.5 billion (2015) (Commonwealth.org)
Russia --------- $+115.3 billion (2017) (Statista.com)

GDP and Balance of Trade among the G7 countries in 2017

While balance of trade issues vary wildly between the United States, China, the EU, The Commonwealth of Nations and Russia, very few countries can play in the triple-digit or even high double-digit space occupied by those nations. Especially when analyzed using their (Nominal) and (Purchasing Power Parity) GDP numbers, these are exceptional nations and groupings of nations, which put them in a different category than other countries.


The Big 5 (B5) A Better ‘Fit’ for the United States, China, the EU, The Commonwealth and Russia

There is nothing wrong with small countries and there is nothing wrong with big countries. But small countries have far different challenges than large countries, and everything happens on a truly massive scale for the bigger countries and in country groupings like the EU and The Commonwealth of Nations.

And those differences cause irritations.

Instead of heads of government trying to plow forward with their challenges and issues while ‘yoked’ to dissimilar and dissimilar-sized partners, why not make it easier on everyone and ‘put like with like’ to gain a more comfortable fit?

It’s so obvious this should be done and the latest G7 meeting proves that the problems in that organization are systemic problems and are the sole cause of divisions between the oddly mismatched countries of that group.


The ‘Big 5’ followed by the ‘Next 20’

Every country stuck in a trade or political grouping that doesn’t match it’s particular talents will suffer. Therefore, the Big 5 must form into a group of their own, and the G20 (minus the by-then departed ‘Big 5’ members) must attract ‘the Next 20 nations’ to their refashioned N20 organization.


Helping Every Country and Individual to Become All That They Can and Should Be

In that way, the top 25 countries in the world can finally become all that they can and should be instead of being held back by arbitrary, mismatched, or outdated groupings.

And, isn’t that what it’s really all about?

!!!

 

The Iran Nuclear Deal: Obligation or Opportunity?

by John Brian Shannon

It’s always helpful to look at a country’s actions over the past 200 years to help understand what its intentions may be here and now, and in the future.

The burgeoning but relatively isolated country of Iran hasn’t militarily attacked another country for over 200 years, and it was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that militarily attacked Iran in September 1980 — a conflict that finally ended in August 1988 with 1 million casualties and an economic cost of $680 million to $1 trillion dollars — with no clear winner and no benefit to either country.

After all that blood and treasure, no benefit to either country(!) although via the UN-sponsored peace accord and as a penalty to Iraq for starting the war, Iran gained access to the Shatt al-Arab waterway which runs into the Persian Gulf.

Since 2000, Iran has purportedly financed organizations (some listed as terrorist organizations, and others not) throughout the Middle East and most recently in Syria, Iraq, and perhaps Lebanon, in an attempt to exert some control on the various forces operating around their region. (Every country uses various methods to control what happens in its own region, so no news there)

But nothing captures the world’s attention like the Iran nuclear deal.

U.S. President Donald Trump says the deal is a bad one for the West and shouldn’t have been signed and wants to walk away from the deal, reserving the right to act unilaterally if he feels the country is a danger to the U.S.A. or its Middle East allies.

Last week, France’s President Emmanuel Macron flew to Washington to meet with the U.S. President to convince him to stay in the deal or to embrace a ‘third way’ which means renegotiating some of the agreement to better suit U.S. concerns.

Iran barely signed the previous agreement… so it will be interesting to see how the U.S. can get everything it wants from a renegotiated deal while still obtaining Iran’s signature to a new agreement. A deal isn’t a deal unless both sides sign on the dotted line.


Why Would the U.S. Care About Iran? (and Syria, for that matter)

From a strategic perspective, there isn’t a country in the world that could be less important to the security of the United States than Iran, and the same goes for Syria.

Neither country has the kind of military that could threaten America, nor could they project their power anywhere near the North American continent.

Unless the United States is actively working for Israel — a country which has an irrational fear of Iran (again, Iran hasn’t invaded any other country for over 200 years) and is willing to spend billions or even another trillion dollars to wage another Iraq War-style conflict against Iran, there’s no reason for the U.S. to have any dealings with Iran whatsoever.

Iran is a regional power at best, and will remain so for approximately the next 30-years as it hasn’t the capacity to be anything else.

If the United States is actively working for Saudi Arabia — a country that views Iran as an unwelcome competitor in the race to dominate the region, the same advice applies. Why should the U.S. spend multi-billions and sacrifice thousands of young soldiers to satisfy the Saudi ambition to be the local hegemon?

It’s not like Iran is withholding oil deliveries. On the contrary, Iranian oil is easily obtainable with a phone call — the country is highly motivated to sell every drop of oil due to high spending on social programmes by the Iranian government that are funded by oil revenue.

And Iran’s crude oil is rated either #2 (sweet) or #3 (semi-sweet) which means it’s in high demand around the world. Global oil producers have already pumped all of their #2 sweet crude out of the ground years ago; only Iran and Venezuela have significant reserves of sweet crude in the 21st-century.

As for oil refineries, they need Iran’s (or Venezuela’s) #2 sweet crude oil to blend with the oil supplied by their producers which is almost always #4 (sour) or #4.75 (very sour) like the Canadian oil sands product.

Most refineries won’t accept sour crude oil unless there is plenty of #2 or #3 sweet crude blended into the sour crude. It’s just too toxic to refine ‘sour’ as it requires a much more stringent maintenance protocol, meaning the refinery needs to shut down and go into ‘maintenance mode’ more often. That downtime represents a significant loss of revenue for oil refineries.

Therefore, as long as Iran continues to ship huge quantities of sweet crude, the United States should be facilitating that oil business instead of trying to curtail it.


The EU View of Iran is a Mature View

Say what you want about the Europeans, but they don’t allow themselves to be used by countries like Israel that have an irrational fear of Iran and want to use the United States and the EU to keep the Iranians ‘down’ and in their ‘proper’ place and thereby become the regional superpower, or countries like Saudi Arabia that want to use the United States and the EU to keep the Iranians ‘down’ and in their ‘proper’ place and thereby become the regional superpower.

To oversimplify the EU view; As long as Iran’s sweet crude continues to flow (it is) and as long as Iran isn’t actively invading any other country (it isn’t) then there’s no reason to use some imagined breach of the Iranian nuclear deal to launch another trillion dollar war in the Middle East. And, as always, the EU continues to refuse to allow itself to be used by regional powers such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In the final analysis, the EU’s position on the Iranian nuclear deal is the most enlightened of all and it is the view the United States should support.

Crude Oil or Value-Added Oil Products?

by John Brian Shannon | May 8, 2016

For decades, easy access to crude oil powered the global economy and this is especially true in developed nations where the huge investment pool allowed governments and industry to capitalize on cheap energy costs. Cheap and easily available crude oil was a very necessary building block for the Western economies.

But the world is changing and although we aren’t yet at the end of the ‘Age of Oil’ we’re starting to see that day from afar.

We’ve come from $2 per barrel of crude oil (less than the cost of production at the time) to $125 per barrel and every price in between. On the supply side, we’ve seen the world’s largest oil consumer (the U.S.) increase domestic production from 10% of its demand to meet almost 100% of its demand — an unprecedented change in the global oil industry.

Due to that farsighted U.S. policy, the world became mired in its own crude oil glut and correspondingly, crude oil prices fell in recent months, only now rebounding after visiting the $26 per barrel netherworld. As of this writing, crude oil is hovering around the mid-$40 range and looks set to end 2016 in the low $50’s assuming the geopolitical paradigm remains stable.

Crude oil refining: Motiva Enterprises refinery, Port Arthur, Texas

Cheap crude oil was a necessary building block in building the world economy. Saudi Aramco through its wholly owned Saudi Refining Inc. subsidiary and Royal Dutch Shell plc. announce they’ve signed a non-binding Letter of Intent to divide the assets of Motiva Enterprises LLC. The Motiva joint venture was formed in 1998 and has operated as a 50/50 refining and marketing joint venture between the parties since 2002. Photo caption and image courtesy of; Motiva Enterprises refinery, Port Arthur, Texas

How to Change the Oil Industry into a ‘Win-Win’ Proposition

Like many industries, the oil industry has evolved over decades of time and from humble beginnings. Had it been planned the oil industry wouldn’t have its present structure and there wouldn’t have been a need for a ‘crude oil price’ — as refining crude oil into finished products would’ve been the norm.

Evolution of the World’s Largest Oil Producer

For decades the Saudis pumped and sold oil to the Allied Powers for less than the cost of production as their contribution to the massive Western effort against Nazi Germany and later against the West’s Cold War competitor, the Soviet bloc nations.

Until the Arab Oil Embargo in 1974, the only money the Saudis made from oil was where they competed against every other oil speculator in the commodity market. They certainly didn’t make anything on the extraction of the black stuff.

The Speculators in a Supply/Demand World

From the time each supertanker left port in Saudi Arabia until the moment they tied up at an oil refinery in the United States, speculators made huge sums or lost huge sums of money playing the crude oil supply/demand equation as each supertanker made its way from a Saudi port to an American port.

After some initial horrendous errors, the Saudis learned how to play the markets as well as New York’s best oil speculators, and in that way many individual investors and Saudi Aramco (the largest oil company in the world by a significant margin) saw some amount of wealth created from their resource.

Prior to the Arab Oil Embargo the Saudis didn’t make anything on the extraction side, but made it on the margins (speculating) by making educated guesses about the daily oil supply/demand equation of the United States. That’s no way to run a railway!

The Rise of OPEC

By 1974 the Saudis and the other OPEC nations had had enough and via the Arab Oil Embargo were able to get a reasonable price for their crude oil and not be forced to rely on notoriously unreliable oil price speculation to finance 80% of their economy.

Since 1974, the Saudis (along with every other oil producer, including the United States) have been making money on (1) the extraction side, and (2) on speculation, and (3) on the refining side of the oil business.

Too many middlemen! You can plainly see that where there are three steps with each having its own profit, there should’ve only been one.

Had the oil business been planned-out from the beginning, we would’ve seen Vertical Integration — where one oil company owns its own oilfields and extracts its own oil, refines their own oil into useful products, and only then offers those value-added fuel products as commodities in the world marketplace.

What we have now is a paradigm where gross total demand sets the wellhead price on crude oil (which has a profit attached to it) and the speculating of oil-in-transit (which is where big profit gets attached) and then more profit is attached by an oil refinery — which are usually owned by a third party. No wonder they call it black gold!

In a suddenly very competitive oil world, how to cut ‘fat’ and add profit?

By creating vertically integrated oil companies where only one company extracts the crude oil, transports it to a refinery, refines it into useful products, and then sells those products as commodities, we cut out the middlemen while raising profits for oil companies and lowering costs for consumers. Perhaps by a significant margin.

How to ‘Win-Win’ in the 21st-century oil industry: Don’t ever sell crude oil!

Sell finished petroleum products exclusively

Saudi Aramco is transferring to a Vertically Integrated business model — buying-out it’s partner Royal Dutch Shell in a multi-billion dollar deal at it’s massive Port Arthur, Texas oil refinery (the largest in the U.S.) which can process 600,000 barrels per day.

Saudi Arabia is already the largest single oil producer in the world (presently pumping just under 11 million bpd, but with the ability to pump 12.5 million bpd) and have been in the crude oil business longer than any other country, and own more supertankers than any other organization, business, or country, and are now purchasing oil refineries to complete the vertical integration of their business model.

This will allow the Saudis to lower their concern about wellhead price, and the speculation factor, and concentrate on supporting their best player — which is the refining stage. That is where the entire oil industry is going, some faster than others.

By concentrating on end products, Aramco and others will create new thrust towards the Vertically Integrated business model where resource extraction and transport are geared towards supporting their star player, their own oil refineries — wherever they may be located in the world. Profit at each step of the way will no longer be necessary nor desirable, cutting costs throughout their supply chain and adding profit to their value chain.

In a perfect world the Vertically Integrated business model will sweep past the existing ‘multiple middleman’ business model over the next decade and leave it in the dustbin of history.

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BONUS GRAPHIC

Average annual OPEC crude oil price from 1960 to 2016 (in U.S. dollars per barrel)

OPEC crude oil price from 1960 through 2016.

OPEC crude oil price from 1960 through 2016.