Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

EC looking for GE concessions to approve Alstom acquisition

May 12, 2015


The New York Times also reports on the potential anti-trust issues and GE’s readiness to make some accommodations for EC concerns. However my take away from the NYT article is that GE is warning the EC that Alstom and the European Union have more to lose than GE has if the deal does not go through:

In now dealing with the European Commission’s antitrust office, Mr. Immelt has not forgotten the harsh experience of his predecessor, Jack Welch. In 2001, Mr. Welch failed to win approval for a proposed $42 billion takeover of Honeywell International after objections were raised by Mario Monti, the European antitrust commissioner at the time.

Mr. Immelt was worried enough last week that he met with Ms. Vestager in Brussels, where he also gave an address at the American Chamber of Commerce highlighting Europe’s economic potential. In that address, Mr. Immelt said young Europeans were “awesome” and “amazing,” but he emphasized that Europe needed investment to gain competitiveness and beat unemployment.

Speaking to reporters later, Mr. Immelt said his meeting with Ms. Vestager was “very constructive” and he described her as “a good leader.” G.E., he said, was engaged in “a process” with Brussels, and would “take the process where it goes.”

If G.E. is unable to convince Ms. Vestager of the merits of its case, the next step could be a so-called statement of objections, as soon as next month — formal charges that would outline the commission’s specific antitrust concerns. G.E. and Alstom could avoid that step by offering remedies sooner, perhaps proposing to sell parts of the gas turbine business in Europe.

My expectation was that the European Commision would look for some concessions from GE and would only grant a conditional approval for the acquisition of Alstom’s power and grid businesses.

The EC concerns seemed to be focused on Heavy Duty Gas Turbines (HDGT), and I wrote:

Will the EC approve GE’s acquisition of Alstom’s power business?

…. In any event,  I expect that the deal will go through, but I will not be surprised to see an approval conditional on some assurances from GE regarding R & D centres, R & D jobs and/or R & D budgets in Europe. I think it highly unlikely – and a little meaningless – if the EC were to ask for divestment of Alstom’s HDGT business to a third party (if any such exists). The bottom line is, I think, that Alstom’s HDGT technology has come to a dead-end and can not be developed any further in their own hands. While the business can continue in a diminishing way for some years, Alstom technology has no long-term value except to another party which has access to high temperature cooling technology. To have Alstom continue with the HDGT business as an unwilling and reluctant player does no one any service at all.

This Reuters report today suggests that my expectation may be close to the mark. However it also seems that if the EC demands too much in the way of concessions, GE might walk away. Clearly GE are already getting a little irritated at the protracted nature of the EC approval process. The failure of the deal is not something that Alstom or the EU would look forward to.

The EC decision may also be delayed somewhat beyond August 6th.


General Electric Co said on Monday for the first time it would be willing to consider concessions in order to win European approval to acquire the power equipment unit of France’s Alstom. “We are willing to explore remedies to get this deal done even though again we believe in the merits of the deal,” Steve Bolze, president and CEO of GE Power & Water, the conglomerate’s biggest industrial unit, told Reuters in an interview. Any concessions would have to “preserve the deal economics and our strategic value,” he said. …

… EU regulators typically prefer merging companies to sell overlapping assets or make it easy for rivals to enter the market. GE’s gas turbine competitors include Siemens AG and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.

…GE already altered the deal to win the French government’s backing during last year’s two-month battle, in which it fended off Siemens and Mitsubishi. In the interview, Bolze acknowledged the “protracted process” for Alstom, and said GE was focused on “how to move … forward as it makes sense.”

In GE’s first-quarter conference call last month, Chief Executive Jeff Immelt backed the deal’s fit for GE, but said if it “ever would become unattractive, we wouldn’t do it.”

…. GE, which is undergoing an overhaul involving the exit of most of its finance assets, has said it expected synergies from the Alstom deal to add between 6 to 9 cents in earnings per share in 2016. But some analysts have told Reuters they doubt GE’s stock would take a big hit should the deal collapse, with the idea that GE could make up those earnings with stock buybacks or other deals. ……. 

…… EC spokesman Ricardo Cardoso said regulators are waiting for data from the companies before a setting a new deadline to act. The previous deadline was Aug. 6.

The EC will need to be very precise in demanding concessions from GE while ensuring that the deal does go through. Divesting parts of the HDGT business to unknown (and probably non-existent) buyers is probably a lose-lose solution. I expect that GE’s walk-away point will be reached if earnings from the service of Alstom’s fleet of gas turbines is removed from the mix. In fact any conditions set by the EC which dilute future revenues could prove fatal for the deal going through. Assurances about keeping R & D located in Europe and assurances about jobs and even about R & D budgets could be absorbed by a robust business plan. But no business plan can survive if something as fundamental as the revenue stream is adversely affected. And it is the volume of that revenue stream – and not just the margin from those revenues – which is crucial.

Will the EC approve GE’s acquisition of Alstom’s power business?

May 3, 2015


Bloomberg: General Electric Co.’s Jeffrey Immelt is set to meet with the European Union’s antitrust chief Tuesday as the U.S. company seeks approval for its acquisition of Alstom SA’s energy business.

The session in Brussels between GE’s chief executive officer and Margrethe Vestager is part of regulators’ “ongoing merger review,” Lucia Caudet, a European Commission spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

On February 23rd this year the European Commission announced that its preliminary investigation into the proposed acquisition of Alstom’s power businesses by GE had highlighted Heavy Duty Gas Turbines (HDGTs) as a potential area of concern. Therefore an in-depth investigation would be carried out. This investigation was due to have been completed by 8th July but has been extended – apparently at GE’s request – till August 6th.

The European Commission has opened an in-depth investigation to assess whether General Electric’s (GE) proposed acquisition of the Thermal Power, Renewable Power & Grid businesses of Alstom is in line with the EU Merger Regulation. The Commission’s preliminary investigation indicates potential competition concerns in the market for heavy-duty gas turbines which are mainly used in gas-fired power plants.

Since GE already has HDGTs  in direct competition with Alstom’s GT24 and GT26 engines and even with Alstom’s GT11N2 and GT13E2 engines, I expect that the Alstom range of machines will have to be discontinued. (It would be quite irrational for GE to continue to offer Alstom’s portfolio except for a very restricted time period or for some very particular application. It is not much appreciated by a buyer either when a supplier appears so confused as to offer different machines for the same purpose). The discontinuation of some engines is “no big deal”. But, as I have written previously, it would be a shame if the line of technology for HDGTs within Alstom – which carried forward the lines of technology emanating from BBC, GEC, Asea and ABB (including sequential combustion technology) – were to be entirely lost.

I would summarise the EC’s potential areas of concern as being:

  1. If the European HDGT market can be said to be distinct from the global market, then the number of HDGT suppliers would effectively reduce in Europe from three to two.
  2. Reduced competition in Europe could lead to supplier(s) having greater than 40% market share and could lead to an increase in prices.
  3. GE together with Alstom could have greater than 50% market share and not only in Europe.
  4. In Europe, fundamental R & D on combustion, emissions and materials and innovation regarding HDGTs would be hurt, and
  5. Competition in the HDGT service business would be impacted since Alstom currently is an alternate supplier of service to older GE HDGTs (since Alstom was a GE licencee prior to 1999).

The market for HDGTs is characterised by high technological and financial barriers to entry, leading to a concentrated market with only four globally active competitors: GE, Alstom, Siemens and Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS). The fifth player, Ansaldo, appears to be a niche player with a more limited geographic reach. The margins in the market for HDGTs appear to be higher than those of neighbouring markets for power generation equipment such as steam turbines. 

The HDGTs market worldwide is divided into two frequency regions, namely those operating at 50 Hz and those at 60 Hz. All thecountries in the European Economic Area (EEA) operate at 50 Hz frequency.

Since MHPS seems to be less active in the EEA than in the rest of the world, the transaction would bring together the activities of two of the three main competitors in the EEA.The transaction would eliminate Alstom from the market, leaving European customers without an important competitor of GE and Siemens. Indeed, in the market for the sale of new 50 Hz frequency HDGTs, the merged entity would reach high market shares in the range of around 50 %, both in the EEA and at worldwide level excluding China.

Furthermore, the transaction might significantly reduce R&D and customer choice in the HDGT industry. After the merger there is a risk that GE would discontinue the production of certain Alstom HDGT models and that advanced HDGT technology developed by Alstom would not be brought to the market.

Finally, in the market for the servicing of General Electric’s mature technology HDGT frames, the transaction eliminates competition by Alstom’s subsidiary Power System Manufacturing.

Overall, the Commission is at this stage concerned that the transaction may lead to an increase in prices, a reduction in customer choice and a reduction of R&D in the HDGT industry, leading to less innovation.

I note that GE have taken on a very-high powered lawyer to help in dealing with anti-trust issues,

Sharis Pozen, a former acting assistant U.S. attorney general for antitrust who joined Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in July 2012, left the firm this month to become vice president for global competition and antitrust at General Electric. Pozen is the latest high-profile Am Law 100 partner to join the in-house legal ranks of the Fairfield, Conn.-based conglomerate, which has tapped Skadden to advise on its pending $17 billion buy of the energy unit of French engineering giant Alstom.

However, my own opinion is that these potential EC concerns are not sufficient to disallow the proposed acquisition. I believe the market concerns are more theoretical than real.

1. While the EC tends to look at market share rather than market size, the EU market currently (before the advent of shale gas in Europe) is so small that it cannot be considered a market distinct from the global market. No HDGT manufacturer could survive on the strength of the European market alone. A simple test question is very revealing. Could Alstom’s HDGT business be sold as an independent stand-alone business to anybody else with only Europe as the designated market? The answer is a resounding NO and, I think, should eliminate any consideration of the European market as being distinct from the global market.

In fact, even with a global market available, the Alstom HDGT business is of little value to any manufacturer who does not already have high temperature cooling technology and who does not already have a heavy rotating machinery manufacturing background. And I don’t see any such parties around.

2. It should be remembered also that Mitsubishi (formerly MHI now Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems – MHPS) is absent from Europe as a matter of their own choice – not because they cannot. It is part of the remains of the old “unofficial” arrangement where the Japanese didn’t come into Europe and the Europeans didn’t enter Japan. This “arrangement” for steam turbines, gas turbines, boilers and generators held quite well through till the 1980s but broke down in the 1990s. Note that the Japanese gas turbine market had a special relationship with the US manufacturers with TEPCO providing GE with a protected “home” market for 60 Hz gas turbines. The Westinghouse relationship with MHI for gas turbines was effectively taken over by MHI. The Siemens equity engagement with Furukawa to create Fuji Electric (Fu- for Furukawa and Ji for Siemens in japanese, jiimensu) was ended after WW 2. The ABB (later Alstom) JV for gas turbines with Kawasaki which I headed for a time was only set up in the 1990s and was eventually discontinued.

To enter a new market for HDGTs, it must either be a growing market or it must have a large fleet of existing machines which can be served. Europe provides neither for MHPS at the present time. If shale gas takes off in Europe and the gas turbine market starts to grow (which I predict will happen), it will not take very long for MHPS to enter.  For MHPS the market size and growth for new equipment must be sufficient to justify the cost of setting up the necessary service network. There is no guarantee either that Alstom – without GE – could continue with a product range rapidly becoming uncompetitive against the “J” class machines, without access to high temperature cooling technology. The Ansaldo/Shanghai Electric tie-up is still in its infancy and – in the event of market growth in Europe – would surely become a significant 4th player. (Even a 5th global player could emerge as a consequence of a particularly strong market growth and my guess would be that it could be Doosan or BHEL, Harbin or from Russia). But as far as the EC is concerned, the key point should be that if the market grows there will be certainly three, probably four and eventually five players. And if the market does not grow then the objection is moot.

3. The risk of one player having 50% (or greater than 40%) market share is not to be trivialised but, in my opinion, is not a real threat. When the market (in Europe) has been as low as it has been and only one or two machines are sold in a year it is a quirk of arithmetic that one player may have a 100% market share in one year or that two may have 50% each. Customers are very well aware of the dangers of having only 2 suppliers. The fact is that if the market were large enough, MHPS and Ansaldo and others would be strongly encouraged to quote by the European buyers. We would probably then have a global market share split of GE/Alstom – 30%, Siemens – 30%, MHPS -20, other (Ansaldo, BHEL, Russians, new players ….) – 20%. When a market is small, market share is misleading and meaningless. In a strong market some of the manufacturers of small gas turbines would also try and follow their customers into larger sizes – a “Honda” strategy.

4. R & D is where I began my career and safeguarding innovation is rather special for me. There is a valid point regarding R&D and innovation and I think it would be perfectly justified for the EC to give approval conditional on some kind of assurance from GE that R &D centres (and possibly R & D jobs and budgets) in Europe would be maintained for some period of time. I don’t believe that innovation can be mandated, but I do see a potential benefit for GE – in time – in absorbing and – even adopting – some sequential combustion elements in their mid-range (rather than their largest) engines (see diagrams below). But that is a call for GE to take in about a decade from now. (It is probably just wishful thinking on my part).

Alstom (as BBC) developed the sequential combustion cycle in 1948 and (as ABB) the GT24 and GT26 engines in the 1990s, when GE moved beyond the “F” class machines to their “FA” machines. The choice was a forced one for ABB, and they had to follow the sequential combustion path because they did not have access to the high temperature blade cooling technology which was available to their competitors. All their attempts to acquire such technology from Russia failed. A technology agreement with Rolls Royce gave no technology ownership and had very strict limitations. Sequential combustion eventually converted a weakness into a virtue and allowed ABB (later Alstom) to maintain efficiency and compete with “G” class machines even though they were effectively limited to an “F” class inlet temperature as a maximum. If ABB had not developed the GT24 and the GT26 – in spite of all their early challenges – Alstom would not have acquired ABB’s power generation business after their GE licence was terminated. (In fact the challenges were so large that ABB had to compensate Alstom through the acquisition price for the power business for all the problems that had to be fixed by Alstom in the field).

Taking a very cynical view, ABB had reached the end of their road with GT development when they divested to Alstom. Alstom in their turn made devlopments that ABB could not but have also reached the end of their road for development of sequential combustion technology – again because of a lack of high temperature cooling technology – and wish now to divest to GE.

GT cycles - conventional and sequential combustion

GT cycles – conventional and sequential combustion

Now as GE, Siemens and Mitsubishi have moved on to even higher inlet temperatures, the “G” class has gone on to become the “J” class. (The “H” class was Mitsubishi attempting to use steam cooling for the turbine blades which didn’t really catch on and “I” has been passed over for the designation of turbine class). Alstom, with its limitations on temperature have successfully squeezed the sequential combustion technology to approach a “G+” performance with temperatures slightly lower than a “G” class from the others. But Alstom now also has reached its temperature limits and, I suspect, it was the lack of a way forward for their machines to compete with “J” class machines which has been part of their decision to get out of power generation.

But I like the concept of sequential combustion which is elegant and fundamentally sound and I look forward to the day when maybe it can be applied together with the high temperatures that GE knows how to handle. Then maybe we will someday see an “M” class gas turbine with 1600ºC and sequential combustion?

M Class GT?

M Class GT?

It can be argued therefore that the acquisition is what may actually keep R & D alive instead of it coming to a stop in the cul-de-sac in which it is stuck with Alstom.

And without R & D and high temperatures and new competitive “J” class products, Alstom’s days as a cutting-edge HDGT supplier would have been limited anyway.

5. The older GE machines  are still serviced by GE licencees and former licencees around the world – including in this case by Alstom (for GE machines prior to 1999). This Alstom does by means of a special subsidiary set up for the purpose. This unit – Power Systems Manufacturing – specialises in formerly licenced GE machines and also acts as a “pirate” for Siemens and Mitsubishi machines.

PSM’s product line includes … parts for GE Frame 6B, 7E/EA, 9E and 7FA machines, the Siemens/Westinghouse 501F (SGT6-5000F) engine and the Mitsubishi 501F engine.

Siemens also has such a subsidiary unit – Turbo Care – to service – where they can – the machines of competitors. This used to be a separate Siemens entity but has now been approved by the EC as a JV with the Wood Group. The “pirate” service business is important to each manufacturer – for intelligence and competition purposes – but the volume is quite small. No customer would select a “pirate” rather than the OEM, except for older machines past their prime or perhaps to teach the OEM “a lesson”. The “pirate” business is just not possible on relatively new machines and really only applies to machines installed more than about 10 years previously – when all liabilities and potential liabilities of the OEM have fallen away. No GT owner would take the risk of resorting to a “pirate” for a relatively new machine. A customer would usually resort to “pirates” only when all investment costs have been fully written off and he is no longer looking for – or particularly needs – any performance or availability guarantees. Even design and manufacturing warranties to be provided are strictly limited since the “pirate” has to rely on reverse engineering.  “Pirates” only come into the picture when the perceived risk levels are low.

The EC concern that if PSM is merged into GE, that some competition for the older GE machines will disappear is not correct I think, because for these older machines the competition for service business is far more with other “pirates” than with the OEM. And there are plenty of “pirates” around.

In the long run I judge that this acquisition is good for the customer, may even be good for R & D and even good for Siemens (and also for Mitsubishi). I imagine that any objections from Siemens are more for the sake of form (and because there is no love lost between Patrick Kron and Siemens).

In any event,  I expect that the deal will go through, but I will not be surprised to see an approval conditional on some assurances from GE regarding R & D centres, R & D jobs and/or R & D budgets in Europe. I think it highly unlikely – and a little meaningless – if the EC were to ask for divestment of Alstom’s HDGT business to a third party (if any such exists). The bottom line is, I think, that Alstom’s HDGT technology has come to a dead-end and can not be developed any further in their own hands. While the business can continue in a diminishing way for some years, Alstom technology has no long-term value except to another party which has access to high temperature cooling technology. To have Alstom continue with the HDGT business as an unwilling and reluctant player does no one any service at all.

US is not amused at the rise of AIIB as rival to World Bank

March 20, 2015

The US is not amused.

The list of countries signing up to the Chinese-led initiative which would rival the World Bank is growing as Japan and Australia have now indicated that they too will join. In the last week the UK, Germany, Italy, France and Luxembourg indicated that they too would sign up to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in spite of dire warnings from across the Atlantic. South Korea is also expected to sign up now that the UK and Japan have.

(Reuters)Japan signaled cautious approval of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) on Friday and said for the first time that, if conditions were met, it could join the institution that the United States has warned against.

Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey said there was “a lot of merit” in the bank and the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported that Canberra could formally decide to sign up when the full cabinet meets on Monday.

Japan, Australia and the South Korea, all major U.S. allies, are the notable regional absentees from the AIIB. The United States, worried about China’s growing diplomatic clout, has questioned whether the AIIB will have sufficient standards of governance and environmental and social safeguards.

The US  (US Treasury department and the US Congress) was not amused in October last year when “India along with 20 other countries today signed an agreement to become founding members of the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to aid the infrastructure development in the Asian region and reduce the dependence on Western-dominated World Bank and IMF.”  The authorised capital of AIIB is to be USD 100 billion and the initial subscribed capital is expected to be around USD 50 billion. The paid-in ratio will be 20 per cent. The AIIB is to be headquartered in Beijing and it is hoped that it will be operational by the end of 2015.

It was the US opposition to allowing any reform of voting rights at the International Monetary Fund which had irritated and annoyed China and other Asian countries which had led to the Chinese initiative. The proposed – relatively mild – reforms for the IMF were agreed at a G20 meeting in 2010 and have been ratified by all European countries. But the US has not yet ratified these changes. It has not been prepared to permit any weakening of its dominance in the World Bank and the IMF.  The founding members of the AIIB members in October 2014 were China, India, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Qatar, Oman, the Philippines, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Mongolia and Myanmar.

The US has followed a strategy of criticising the possible environmental and social irresponsibility of the new institution which is intended to focus on transport, energy and telecommunications infrastructure. The US has also raised doubts about the transparency and governance of the proposed new institution and warning other countries not to join. But what was a relatively minor and mainly regional matter has been blown-up by the US opposition. The US strategy of “bad-mouthing” the AIIB seems to have back-fired. Some of the support now coming from countries traditionally seen as US followers can be considered a direct reaction to the bad-willed US opposition. 

From all accounts, the Obama administration has expended serious energy trying to dissuade its allies from joining ……. With the defection of the UK, however, it appears likely that Washington’s carefully constructed coalition will gradually unravel—both Australia and South Korea are apparently reconsidering their earlier reluctance to join the bank and could well use the UK’s decision as political cover for deciding to join the bank.

The European countries (and Japan and South Korea) have realised that their companies must have the chance of bidding for future AIIB infrastructure projects. For at least the next two decades – and maybe longer – there has to be a massive infrastructure investment in Asia. The US will eventually have to join the AIIB or to step aside and to let it proceed. US companies hoping to bid for Asian infrastructure projects would prefer that the US join. But now the US administration has the additional task to do some “face-saving” while it backs away from its ill-considered strategy of opposition.


Who do you write your CV for?

January 20, 2015

The Independent today carries an article pointing out that for entry level positions the screener/employer spends 8.8 seconds on average on the first assessment of a CV.

It is my experience that far too often CV’s are written to satisfy the ego of the author rather than to suit the employment process that is being entered into. If done properly the CV can even be a tool to first ensure selection for interview and then to steer the interview process towards the strengths of the aspirant. In fact the first page must be written primarily to get past a screener and be called for an interview. Thereafter the entire CV can help to steer the subsequent process.

Writing Your CV

How to use your CV to “control” the subsequent interview

…… The process must start not with the applicant’s credentials and his capabilities but with the capabilities and experience being sought. Every CV – before being written – must consider that it has to be directed at two classes of readers and has two principal objectives:

  1. First it must lead a “screener” to select the applicant for a subsequent interview.
  2. Second it must encourage the interviewer – either before the interview or even during the interview – to travel down preferred paths leading to a conclusion in favour of the applicant.

A screener who is selecting candidates to be called for interview may spend less than a minute on looking at a CV. He rarely gets past the first page.


Young people may spend hours preparing their CV for employers to pore over, but research shows that just 8.8 seconds is spent studying any one person’s curriculum vitae in a process that has become “Tinderised”.

According to the UK’s youth programme, National Citizen Service, the pressure on employers to get through hundreds of CVs for entry level jobs has doubled, leading to less time being spent on prospective employees’ initial applications.

The average number of applications to these roles over the past two years leaped from 46 in 2013 to 93 today, and out of the 500 employers surveyed, one in 10 larger businesses, who staff more than 250 people, say they are seeing more than 400 applications for entry level jobs advertised.

Iran prepares to resist Saudi Arabia even with $25 oil price

January 19, 2015

Iran needs $72 per barrel for its budget. That Iran (along with oil shale production) is one of the targets of Saudi Arabia’s oil price strategy seems very clear. They have the lowest cost of extraction and with their accumulated reserves they could probably withstand 5 -8 years with a price lower than $50. However their strategy will be completely nullified if there is growth in demand (for example with an economic recovery in China) before they have brought the shale oil producers and Iran to their knees. The question now is how low the price can go?

Light crude price February 2015

Light crude price February 2015

The Iranians are girding their loins for a battle and are adjusting their budgets to be able to withstand a longer period with relatively low prices. Iran probably wants to avoid precipitating a further fall but I suspect that just mentioning their worst fears – in the present atmosphere – will only ensure that those fears come true. It would seem, from the almost belligerent Iranian stance, that prices will now almost certainly drop to around $25 per barrel within the next 6 -12 months.


Iran sees no sign of a shift within OPEC toward action to support oil prices, its oil minister said, adding its oil industry could ride out a further price slump to $25 a barrel.

The comments are a further sign that despite lobbying by Iranand Venezuela, there is little chance of collective action by the 12-member OPEC to prop up prices – entrenching the reluctance of individual members to curb their own supplies.

In remarks posted on the Iranian oil ministry’s website SHANA, Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh called for increased cooperation between members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. ……. 

Oil has plunged by more than half since June 2014 to below $50 a barrel on Monday, pressured by a global glut and OPEC’s refusal at its last meeting in November to cut its output. ……. 

OPEC decided against a production cut despite misgivings from non-Gulf members such as Iran and Venezuela, after top producer Saudi Arabia argued the group needed to defend market share against U.S. shale oil and other competing sources. ……… 

Zanganeh said Iran had no plans to cut its own oil production and that it had no further meetings with Saudi Arabia – Iran’s main political rival in the Gulf – since the OPEC meeting.

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said countries behind the price fall would regret their decision and warned that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait would suffer alongside Iran from the price drop.

Zanganeh said Iran’s budget should be based on oil at $72 per barrel, but Iran could withstand lower oil prices. “Even if the oil price goes down to $25 a barrel, the oil industry will not be threatened,” the Fars news agency quoted him as saying.

Oil wars: US crude drops below $50 as Saudi Arabia drops prices to protect market share

January 6, 2015

Some stock markets are spooked as oil prices continue to slide, but bringing oil price back to a cost-based price is a good thing in the long term. For too long – almost 45 years – oil producers and their governments have fleeced the consumer. Oil prices have had no relationship to cost of production but have been governed by artificially controlling its scarcity (by the OPEC cartel) and pricing it at the level of unacceptable pain for the consumer. Predatory governments have assisted by taxing oil products as far as they can even for the necessities of living (gasoline, diesel, LPG, fertilisers, pesticides…). If the present oil wars bring the price to the consumer in line with the cost of production – and there is no shortage of oil available to be produced – then it is a fundamentally sound, and long overdue, removal of one of the great, artificial distortions of the market place.

History will show the OPEC cartel to have held back development for 4 decades and to have been an evil thing.

Even if Saudi Arabia is engaged in a multi-pronged war – against shale oil, against Russia, against Iran – the root cause of the drop is that there is no longer a monopoly that the OPEC cartel enjoys. And the the way being shown by US shale oil is available to many more countries. In the short term it may well affect stock markets as these fetters are removed but in the long term this is an inexorable driver of growth – especially for the developing countries and their hard pressed consumers.

Remarkably many oil producers are now even increasing production in a time of a glut and cutting prices to win market share. They are being short-sighted. As the Opec cartel collapses, and it becomes a buyer’s market it will be oil price which governs and even then only for short term supply contracts. It will no longer be possible for the cartel oil producers to extort long-term contracts at high prices from developing countries who have no alternatives.


2015 not 2014 — via Financial Post

 Financial PostU.S crude crashed below US$50 a barrel while benchmark Brent crude tumbled under US$53 after data showed Russian oil output at post-Soviet era highs and Iraqi oil exports at near 35-year peaks.

Meanwhile, the outright price for Canadian heavy crude fell below US$35 a barrel. ……. The drop in WTI pushed the pushed the price of Canadian heavy crude to US$34.64 per barrel, a level that could make producing crude from the oilsands unprofitable for most operators in the world’s third-largest crude reserve.

Many of the region’s operators have already slashed capital spending and slowed work on new projects in order to cope with the price crash, though production from the region has not yet been affected.

…… Top crude exporter Saudi Arabia revealed it had made deep cuts to its monthly oil prices for European buyers , the sixth time in a row since June when it had slashed prices, corresponding with the rout in crude futures markets over the period. Analysts read the latest cut as reflecting Saudi Arabia’s deepening defence of its market share for crude. The OPEC kingpin also trimmed its prices for U.S. refiners for a sixth straight month, while raising rates for Asia.

…… Some traders seem certain that U.S. crude will be trading in the US$40 region later in the week if weekly oil inventory numbers for the United States on Wednesday show another supply build. ……. 

Russia’s oil output hit a post-Soviet high last year, averaging 10.58 million barrels per day (bpd), up 0.7% thanks to small non-state producers, Energy Ministry data showed. Iraq’s oil exports were at their highest since 1980 in December, an oil ministry spokesman said, with record sales from the country’s southern terminals.

The Russian and Iraqi data overshadowed reports of drops in Libya’s oil output due to conflict. Libya’s oil output has fallen to around 380,000 bpd after the closure of the OPEC producer’s biggest oil port Es Sider, along with another oil port Ras Lanuf.

The sooner oil price drops to less than $40 per barrel, the sooner the oil price can stabilise for 12 – 18 months. Then, as the price works its way through the economies of the consumer countries, the markets could see a year or two of stable, sustainable growth.

US increases outsourcing of its war in Iraq to private mercenaries

December 25, 2014

Mercenaries have been called the second oldest profession in the world. Some claim that they are just a special sub-set of the oldest profession since they sell their bodies and their skills. But the idea that mercenaries are only those fighting under a foreign flag has never really made sense to me. Any volunteer army is essentially a mercenary army using my definition of a mercenary being any one who sells military services.

Mercenaries were in common use by the time of the Romans 2,000 years ago. They were used by Hannibal and even by Alexander. They were in use in the Egypt of 5,000 years ago. We know little of the times earlier than the first civilizations some 6,000 years ago. But it is likely that some form of paid military specialists derived from those individuals who had specialised as hunters. They were probably in use from the time that human societies created the first settlements and where individuals had started specialising. That probably takes us back to times before the first cities and perhaps even to the time of semi-permanent, seasonal settlements (earlier than 12,000 years ago). Hunters became guards and then in due course became specialised soldiers.

From the Auxiliaries of the Romans or the Seljuks a thousand years later, mercenaries have always been around. Gallowglasses and the Irish Wild Geese operated – for pay – all over Europe. The Viking traditions lived on with the Varangians who operated around the Black Sea. The business of soldiering was very lucrative – especially for the survivors. Criminal piracy was converted to the legal and profitable trade of privateering. Europe was filled with military entrepreneurs with mercenary regiments available to the highest bidder. Even the national armies and navies of various countries were available for hire. The Swedish Foreign Legion consisted mainly of Poles, The Turks employed Swedish elite troops and the Swiss Guard took care of the Popes. The Dutch had their Foreign Legion, the British had the Gurkhas and the French had their Foreign Legion in Africa. American pilots flew in the  Lafayette Escadrille and American volunteers joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Chennault’s Flying Tigers were American pilots flying in the Chinese Air Force. The Spanish had their Foreign Legion and the International Brigade fought in Spain.

In the last 50-60 years, the business of soldiering has become an industry in its own right. Mercenaries – of any nationality – are now known as “private contractors” or “defence contractors”. Governments are increasingly outsourcing the business of war. As with all outsourcing, the temporary hiring of military resources minimises the liability and cost that comes with the maintaining of permanent resources. Moreover it adds a layer of deniability when things go wrong and does not deprive the employer of any credit if things go well.

The US has been using private contractors in a big way for some 4 decades now. After all, private contractor presence does not count as “boots on the ground”. The war in Iraq is now being conducted for the US to a large extent by private contractors.


The U.S. government is preparing to boost the number of private contractors in Iraq as part of President Barack Obama’s growing effort to beat back Islamic State militants threatening the Baghdad government, a senior U.S. official said.

How many contractors will deploy to Iraq – beyond the roughly 1,800 now working there for the U.S. State Department – will depend in part, the official said, on how widely dispersed U.S. troops advising Iraqi security forces are, and how far they are from U.S. diplomatic facilities.

Still, the preparations to increase the number of contractors – who can be responsible for everything from security to vehicle repair and food service – underscores Obama’s growing commitment in Iraq. When U.S. troops and diplomats venture into war zones, contractors tend to follow, doing jobs once handled by the military itself. 

“It is certain that there will have to be some number of contractors brought in for additional support,” said the senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

After Islamic State seized large swaths ofIraqi territory and the major city of Mosul in June, Obama ordered U.S. troops back to Iraq. Last month, he authorized roughly doubling the number of troops, who will be in non-combat roles, to 3,100, but is keen not to let the troop commitment grow too much.

There are now about 1,750 U.S. troops in Iraq, and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week ordered deployment of an additional 1,300.

The U.S. military’s reliance on civilians was on display during Hagel’s trip to Baghdad this month, when he and his delegation were flown over the Iraqi capital in helicopters operated by State Department contractors.

……… the State Department boosted from 39 to 57 the number of personnel protecting the U.S. consulate in Erbil that came under threat from Islamic State forces during its June offensive.

That team is provided by Triple Canopy, part of the Constellis Group conglomerate, which is the State Department’s largest security contractor. Constellis did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

The presence of contractors in Iraq, particularly private security firms, has been controversial since a series of violent incidents during the U.S. occupation, culminating in the September 2007 killing of 14 unarmed Iraqis by guards from Blackwater security firm.

Three former guards were convicted in October of voluntary manslaughter charges and a fourth of murder in the case, which prompted reforms in U.S. government oversight of contractors. …….. 

Is Saudi Arabia prepared to let oil price drop to $20?

December 20, 2014

Saudi Arabia seems to fighting two battles; one against oil shale and one against the Iran-Russia combination. In the long term both are doomed to failure. At best all that Saudi Arabia can hope for is that

  1. the smaller shale oil producers find it uneconomic to continue production, and
  2. Iran and Russia’s oil production is severely curtailed.

But any such result is bound to be temporary. It may force the reduction of investment in shale oil but Russia and Iran will need to produce more to keep their revenues up. It is unlikely to lead to the permanent impairment of oil production from shale or in Iran and Russia. It may allow Saudi Arabia to take control of pricing for a while but the OPEC monopoly has already gone. And the limited monopoly they can win, can only continue as long as oil price stays too low to make it economic for the shale and tar sands alternatives. The reestablished monopoly will only apply as long as oil stays cheap.

It becomes intriguing now as to whether Saudi Arabia has the nerve to allow prices to drop to as low as $20 per barrel and for how long? The long term benefits to Saudi Arabia are not quite so clear for me. Having a monopoly which does not allow prices to rise seems somewhat useless. Certainly their cost of extraction is so low (less than $5 per barrel) that they could continue making profits, but they would need to keep the price low for many years to see off the competition – and the competition would come back if prices rose again.

Anatole Kaletsky considers this question at his Reuters blog:

…… Low oil prices will last long enough for one of two events to happen. The first possibility, the one most traders and analysts seem to expect, is that Saudi Arabia will re-establish OPEC’s monopoly power once it achieves the true geopolitical or economic objectives that spurred it to trigger the slump. The second possibility, one I wrote about two weeks ago, is that the global oil market will move toward normal competitive conditions in which prices are set by the marginal production costs, rather than Saudi or OPEC monopoly power. This may seem like a far-fetched scenario, but it is more or less how the oil market worked for two decades from 1986 to 2004. ….

….. The key question is whether the present price of around $55 will prove closer to the floor or the ceiling of this new range. The history of inflation-adjusted oil prices, deflated by the U.S. Consumer Price Index, offers some intriguing hints. The 40 years since OPEC first flexed its muscles in 1974 can be divided into three distinct periods. From 1974 to 1985, West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, fluctuated between $48 and $120 in today’s money. From 1986 to 2004, the price ranged from $21 to $48 (apart from two brief aberrations during the 1998 Russian crisis and the 1991 war in Iraq). And from 2005 until this year, oil has again traded in its 1974 to 1985 range of roughly $50 to $120, apart from two very brief spikes in the 2008-09 financial crisis.

What makes these three periods significant is that the trading range of the past 10 years was very similar to the 1974-85 first decade of OPEC domination, but the 19 years from 1986 to 2004 represented a totally different regime. It seems plausible that the difference between these two regimes can be explained by the breakdown of OPEC power in 1985 and the shift from monopolistic to competitive pricing for the next 20 years, followed by the restoration of monopoly pricing in 2005 as OPEC took advantage of surging Chinese demand. ….

……. There are several reasons to expect a new trading range as low as $20 to $50, as in the period from 1986 to 2004. Technological and environmental pressures are reducing long-term oil demand and threatening to turn much of the high-cost oil outside the Middle East into a “stranded asset” similar to the earth’s vast unwanted coal reserves. Additional pressures for low oil prices in the long term include the possible lifting of sanctions on Iran and Russia and the ending of civil wars in Iraq and Libya, which between them would release additional oil reserves bigger than Saudi Arabia’s on to the world markets.

The U.S. shale revolution is perhaps the strongest argument for a return to competitive pricing instead of the OPEC-dominated monopoly regimes of 1974-85 and 2005-14. Although shale oil is relatively costly, production can be turned on and off much more easily – and cheaply – than from conventional oilfields. This means that shale prospectors should now be the “swing producers” in global oil markets instead of the Saudis. In a truly competitive market, the Saudis and other low-cost producers would always be pumping at maximum output, while shale shuts off when demand is weak and ramps up when demand is strong. This competitive logic suggests that marginal costs of U.S. shale oil, generally estimated at $40 to $50, should in the future be a ceiling for global oil prices, not a floor. …

…… So which of these arguments will prove right: The bearish case for a $20 to $50 trading-range based on competitive market pricing? Or the bullish one for $50 to $120 based on resumed OPEC dominance?

Whether market pressures dominate or whether the cartel reestablishes control, we seem to be in for a long period of prices around $40 – 50 per barrel. At this price bio-diesel would need hefty subsidies to survive. Assuming that gas prices continue their link to oil prices, gas becomes the dominating choice as fuel for power generation. Renewable energy will need even greater subsidies which are already being cut back. Not all of this price reduction will be passed on to the transport industry. The pass through of the price cut will be greater in the US than in Europe or Asia. But any pass through is itself a stimulus for consumer spending.

For the stagnating world economy low oil prices can only be a good thing.

Guardians of Peace -1 Sony + Hollywood – 0

December 18, 2014

Well Sony and the US theatre owners caved in and the release of The Interview has been cancelled for now and put off indefinitely. It will not even be released as a Video on Demand. There is a wave of indignant voices about the attack on “free speech”.

By all accounts the film itself was of little artistic merit. It is apparently the imbecilic, tasteless but clever form of humour that teenagers and tabloids love. But I am no longer a teenager and I am bored by the tabloids. So I feel no great sense of loss with the cancellation of the release. It is not a movie that I would have watched anyway.

HuffPo: Sony Pictures will not release “The Interview” on Christmas Day, and the studio has “no further release plans” for the film, this according to a studio spokesperson. It had been speculated that Sony would consider releasing the film either via on-demand services or in theaters at a later date.

Sony announced “The Interview” will not come out as planned in a statement:

In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release. We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.

Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.  

Sony’s decision caps a whirlwind day, which saw the nation’s five biggest theater chains cancel plans to screen “The Interview.” Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, Cinemark, Cineplex Entertainment and Carmike Cinemas pulled the comedy following a terror threat made Tuesday by hackers who had attacked Sony Pictures.

The indignation is not about the film but about the “spineless caving-in to terrorism”. I am not so sure about that. Big Entertainment, with Sony as a leading light, has been quite ruthless in bullying and killing any move when their music revenues have been threatened by smaller and more innovative players. They have lobbied and obtained extensions of copyright protection to quite unjustifiably long periods. They have brought their clout to bear and cracked down viciously on “piracy” in films and music. Even where the so-called piracy has been quite trivial. Nothing wrong with any of that of course. Any enterprise is justified in protecting its market. But they have relied too much on on their “power” and size. They have used the threat of legal action to terrorise the small entrepreneur who has no possibility of bearing the cost of defending against their big legal guns.

So when a group of hackers brings one of the Entertainment Giants to its knees – mainly because they were complacent and thought thought they were invincible – I may not be moved to cheer but I am inclined to smile quietly. I have a tiny bit of sympathy for the makers of the film but none for Sony. And if the hackers – Guardians of Peace – are really an off-shoot of the North Korean government, it is even more remarkable.

Less than $60 – but where’s the bottom for oil price

December 12, 2014

I reckon the bottom is about 6 months away and probably less than $40 per barrel before there is some recovery. If the price does not fall that much, or if it recovers faster, then Saudi Arabia will have lost its battle against shale oil. In any event, shale oil is here to stay and all Saudi Arabia can hope for is to restrict new and small oil shale wells. Even a steep fall to around $40, held for a period of only 6 – 12 months, will not be enough to put all shale oil producers out of business and win the battle against shale oil.

oil price bottom


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