Here we go with the commodities and China again. You come in every morning, morning after morning, and you read about how zinc and iron ore and copper and lead are down 1.2% because of weak China data. You think to yourself, "How hard will oil be hit today? How low will it go?"
Of course, though, you see that Brent crude is higher. While all of these other industrial commodities fall and fall some more on whatever data come out of China, Brent just either stays the same or goes higher.
That's because, as my friend Joe Terranova tweets, oil is controlled by Middle East producers, and the price just will not respond to the real markets.
The spare capacity is all still in the Middle East, and we all have to pay the Middle Eastern piper.
We all know that we've seen remarkable advances in rediscovering oil in the U.S. We are producing about 8 million barrels a day, and are importing about 7.5 million barrels now. That 8-million-barrels figure is an incredible comeback to mid-1990s levels, and an increase of about 3 millions barrels a day in a very short time, courtesy the Bakken, the Eagle Ford the Permian and some lesser fields. That's on top of a doubling in Iraq oil production, from 1.6 million to 3.2 million barrels a day.
Further, despite the fact that China's commodity use has declined across the board, Brent still trades at a ridiculously inflated price. The rest of the world is either helpless to do something about this, or it actually wants higher prices in order to make expensive renewables more economic.
Right now there is only one country on Earth that can do anything about this Middle Eastern price fixing: the U.S. If we had the political will, we could harness our competitive advantage that is natural gas and actually make an energy market in North America that is separate from OPEC. We could make oil into another commodity that's not unlike the pathetic commodities of iron, steel, copper, nickel and lead. We could actually impact price if we felt it were something worth doing. We could simply institute a policy in Washington that says it would be good value judgment to lower the price of fossil fuels, even if it does, for now, make alternative energy less economic.
Last week I had Daniel Oh from Renewable Energy Group (REGI) on "Mad Money," and he talked about how the U.S. government has created mandates that we use renewables like biodiesel as part of our refining feedstock. I have to laugh, because this is the kind of mandate that causes fuel prices to go up in order to make farmers richer.
The Renewable Energy company is an outlier. It actually uses waste that would otherwise be thrown away -- inedible oils and fats. It's a real feel-good story. But we all just accept, cynically accept, the notion that the ethanol portion of the mandate is just a giveaway to farmers. No one thinks there is anything economic about it. Nobody thinks it's about competitive advantage. All it's done is jack up the price of what we eat in return for making gasoline no one likes to use on a scale that really only benefits mostly wealthy agribusiness.
It's just total late-stage capitalism wherein we all surrender our dollars to a rich minority in return for something that wrecks our engines but does nothing to stop the Middle Eastern producers from choking us and making our economies stagnant.
I used to think this would change when Washington recognized the U.S. had enough natural gas to switch to a more nat-gas-based system and defang OPEC. It just seemed so natural, so right, so positive for jobs and domestic security. I now know otherwise. Until the nat gas producers spend hundreds of millions of dollars to get their people elected, we're going nowhere. That's what has to happen. I just wish they were cynical enough or, maybe less cheap, so they could make it happen just like the farmers did. Without the lobby money, though, Brent will stay where it is and only the Middle East sheiks will win.