Natural Gas Demand Remains Firm

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SL Advisors Talks Markets
Natural Gas Demand Remains Firm
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Midstream energy infrastructure lagged the market sharply following last week’s FOMC meeting with its revised dot plot. The odds of a recession have increased. Although infrastructure businesses have very visible cashflows, enough holders operate on a hair trigger that requires little inducement to sell. It’s doubtful you’ll see any revision to guidance as a result of the last few days.

Increasing demand for US natural gas provides a strong underpinning. NextDecade was the subject of a positive article by RBN Energy (see Jump In The Line, Part 4 – NextDecade Eyes FID On Rio Grande LNG Project With Carbon Capture). They have signed commitments for 75% of the capacity of their first two Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) trains – the name given to the structures that chill and condense methane before its loaded onto specialized LNG tankers.

A Final Investment Decision (FID) to move ahead with construction of the Rio Grande LNG facility in Brownsville, TX is expected before year’s end. Further selling agreements may result in FID on three trains. At its full capacity of five trains, NextDecade’s Rio Grande LNG terminal will ship 3.6 Billion Cubic Feet per Day (BCF/D) of natural gas. Cheniere, the leader, currently ships 5-6 BCF/D. NextDecade also promises to capture 90% of the CO2 expended at Rio Grande, a feature likely to appeal to climate-conscious European buyers. 

US LNG exports will increase, but the results will take several years to show up given the complexity of construction. LNG contracts are typically designed with a liquefaction fee and limited price exposure to natural gas for the LNG operator.

NextDecade’s success contrasts with Tellurian’s struggles to obtain financing for their project. Tellurian’s bullish view on natural gas prices meant they structured agreements such that they retained price risk. Consequently, they have found it hard to attract investors for this riskier business model. Two selling agreements recently lapsed, so Tellurian moved a step farther away from FID.

Meanwhile, some US drillers are prioritizing natural gas production over crude oil. In west Texas, “associated gas” produced along with crude oil, has often been flared – capture and transportation being unprofitable. Today that is reversing, as increased global demand for LNG trickles through the energy sector (see Dregs of US Oil Patch Are More in Demand Than Crude Itself).

Critics of the Federal Reserve are finding more ammunition. Former NY Fed president Bill Dudley believes the Fed is underplaying the pain of inflation fighting. He thinks the unemployment rate (currently 3.6%) will need to rise much higher than the FOMC projected peak of 4.4% in order to meaningfully impact inflation. He notes still very benign long term inflation expectations – ten years of 2.4% based on US treasuries. Dudley fears that the Fed will lose support for its policies when it becomes clear rates must move higher than expected.

We’ve pointed out the weaknesses in Owners’ Equivalent Rent (OER), the statisticians’ measure of the service (shelter) a home provides (see The Fed Is Misreading Housing Inflation). Yesterday the Case Shiller 10-city composite index of home prices recorded a 14.9% annual increase, down from 17.4% the prior month.

Home price index futures (yes, they do exist) present a gloomy outlook for housing. CME Metro Area Housing Index futures imply a 9% drop over the next year. At the depths of the 2008-09 financial crisis the Case Shiller Metro Area Home Price Index (on which the futures are based) registered a –12.8% annual drop in February 2009.

If the market forecast is correct, we’re in for more than just a little softness. Nonetheless Fed chair Jay Powell said at last week’s press conference that he expects shelter inflation to, “remain pretty high for a while.” He knows OER has little to do with home prices.

We continue to think that over the long term 3% inflation is more likely than 2%. Voters long ago ditched any tolerance for pain to reduce the Federal deficit, the outlook for which steadily worsens. There’s no reason to believe that higher unemployment today in search of lower inflation tomorrow will garner widespread support once the newly unemployed realize they’ve been sacrificed for the greater good.

For evidence of today’s demand for pain-free economics, look no further than the president’s student loan forgiveness program which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates will cost $400BN. Even the New York Times seems to have lost some enthusiasm. Critics note that the CBO analysis excluded, “a plan to reduce payments for future borrowers who go on to earn low incomes after college, which outside analysts say could cost hundreds of billions of dollars more.”

You might think that, since the student loan problem is caused by young people borrowing to purchase educations inadequate to subsequently deliver sufficient income for repayment, thoughtful policy might seek to dissuade more of the same.

Apparently all this can be achieved through an executive action by the president. A country where such is possible seems likely to find slow debt monetization with 3-4% inflation preferable to fiscal and monetary discipline. We believe midstream energy infrastructure offers attractive upside in such circumstances.

We have three funds that seek to profit from this environment:

Energy Mutual Fund Energy ETF Inflation Fund

Please see important Legal Disclosures.

 

In Case it’s Not Clear, Rates Are Going Up

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SL Advisors Talks Markets
In Case it’s Not Clear, Rates Are Going Up
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“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything.”

Fed chair Jay Powell did not say this at his press conference on Thursday. It is attributed to American physicist Richard Feynman. But had Powell uttered these words they would not have seemed out of place. Having overseen a largely avoidable spike in inflation by maintaining monetary accommodation for at least a year too long, the FOMC has turned their focus on its resolution. Thus are they laying the groundwork for their next mistake.

The revised dot plot projects a sharp increase in the Fed funds rate – in fact for now the FOMC is ahead of the market in their assessment of the rate cycle peak. The 2024-25 area of the futures curve is 0.50% lower than the latest Summary of Economic Projections (SEP). Fed policy can best be described not as managing a dual mandate that balances employment with price stability, but as attending to whichever of these two objectives is most out of line. Consequently, the warnings of hardship to come as the Fed drives up unemployment so as to soften wage growth and, in turn, inflation.

The SEP doesn’t portend much hardship. It projects unemployment averaging 4.4% in the fourth quarter of next year and 2024, so presumably peaking around that level. Before the pandemic many held full employment to be around 4.5%, so this hardly looks like a forecast of economic misery. PCE inflation, the Fed’s preferred measure and generally lower than CPI, is forecast to reach 2% by 2025.

Prior to the pandemic, the Fed emphasized full employment and tolerated a modest inflation overshoot. It seems reasonable to assume they’ll swing too far the other way now. Because inflation is the Fed’s focus, it’s likely unemployment will miss to the upside.

There’s little to fault so far in the current tightening cycle other than its tardiness. But the FOMC exhibits the weakness of committees in that they’re slow to reach a consensus and because of this they’re slow to reach a new one. Crisp decision making is not a hallmark of Powell’s FOMC.

Fed critics are increasingly numerous and will become more vocal as rates rise. The actionable conclusion from this analysis is to bet that yields on 2024-25 short term interest rate futures will rise towards the blue dots. This FOMC wants to compensate for their inflation mistake by snuffing it out reasonably quickly. Their SEP says as much. The risk, as in most tightening cycles, is that they’ll overshoot and cause a recession. Achieving the benign combination of modestly rising unemployment with declining inflation remains an inordinately optimistic outcome.

Last Sunday we showed how the inflation stats rely on a lagging measure of home prices to calculate shelter inflation (see The Fed Is Misreading Housing Inflation). Owners’ Equivalent Rent (OER), is a survey that asks what homeowners believe they could rent their home for as a way to measure inflation in the cost of shelter, the service that a home provides. Shelter inflation was an important factor in the recent high CPI report. When asked, Chair Powell said, “I think that shelter inflation is going to remain high for some time. We’re looking for it to come down, but it’s not exactly clear when that will happen… So I think on shelter inflation you’ve just got to assume that it’s going to remain pretty high for a while.” Later he referred to the “red hot housing market” adding that, “we probably in the housing market have to go through a correction.”

This acknowledges the problem in using OER. It’s a non-cash item that lags the housing market but constitutes 31% of the CPI. The PCE deflator also uses OER but assigns a lower weight to shelter than does the CPI. It was interesting that Powell expects shelter inflation to remain high – it would seem an odd view to hold unless he’s also aware that OER lags the actual cost of housing.

There are increasing signs of softness in home prices, with rising mortgage rates being the culprit. Data from Zillow shows prices in San Francisco and Los Angeles both dropped 3.4% in the past month. Just as they missed the booming housing market because OER was slow to react, the Fed is likely to assess higher than actual inflation as OER lags on the way down. Mike Cembalest at JPMorgan recently wrote that “housing is imploding.”

I don’t think the Fed knows how to process information about house prices as it relates to inflation.

Another illuminating comment from Powell on the rate cycle was, “…you want to be at a place where real rates are positive across the entire yield curve.” Presumably a positive yield on ten year TIPs would suffice for the long end, but it’s unclear whether this means the Fed funds rate must be higher than current inflation, or simply above near-term inflation expectations.

At some point we’ll find out. For now monetary policy is being led by a group that, while not conceding one large policy error is nonetheless focused on avoiding a second one.

We have three funds that seek to profit from this environment:

Energy Mutual Fund Energy ETF Inflation Fund

Please see important Legal Disclosures.

 

Why Liberal States Pay Up For Energy

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SL Advisors Talks Markets
Why Liberal States Pay Up For Energy
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The northern hemisphere winter is approaching, which means more opportunities for amusement or shock at New England’s masochistic energy policies. Massachusetts and neighboring states have denied themselves access to abundant US natural gas in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania by preventing the construction of new pipelines that would connect them. As with most initiatives embraced by climate extremists, this one rests on the questionable belief that making it harder to use natural gas for power generation will somehow shift demand to renewables.

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) is forecasting a 7.5% increase in the retail price of electricity this year. However, the pain of higher energy prices will not be spread evenly. Eversource Energy, a New England based utility with about four million customers, recently more than doubled rates from 10.67 cents per Kilowatt Hour (KWh) to 22.57 cents per KWh.

The New England Independent System Operator (ISO) reports that last year natural gas represented 46% of the energy used to generate electricity, above the US average of 38%. Liberal politicians in Massachusetts and neighboring states may be hoping that preventing new natural gas pipelines will somehow reduce its consumption, but instead shipments of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) are covering the shortfall. On its website the ISO notes that following the shale revolution, “… natural gas generators became the go-to resource for New England.” Not sharing politicians’ zeal to impede access to reliable energy, the ISO warns, “… we are finding that during severe winter weather, many power plants in New England cannot obtain fuel to generate electricity.”

In August Boston took delivery of its tenth LNG shipment of the year, bringing their seaborne imports to 16 Billion Cubic Feet. They have to compete with strong demand from European buyers, where LNG prices have been as much a 10X the US Henry Hub benchmark, currently around $8 per Million BTUs (MMBTUs). If Boston paid a mere $30 per MMTBU premium, that’s almost $0.5BN more in expense than if they were able to access this supply domestically.

Customers in New England are used to paying more than the US average for electricity. Retail sales of electricity in Massachusetts are around 50 Million Megawatt Hours annually. The average US price is 10.19 cents per KWh. In Massachusetts it’s 18.19 cents.

CO2 emissions have fallen over the past decade across the US to around 5.2 Gigatons (2019), down by 4.4%. Coal to gas switching is the biggest driver. Massachusetts has done a little better, lowering emissions by 7 million tons or about 10%.

If we assume that residents of the Bay state are paying an extra 5 cents per KWh for their electricity to achieve this CO2 reduction, that works out to $2.5BN in added expense. Divided by the 7 million tons of reduced CO2 means Massachusetts is spending $357 per ton.

This is an astronomical amount. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act provides tax credits of $80 per ton for CO2 that is captured and permanently sequestered underground. Exhaust from ethanol production generates high concentrations of CO2, which makes this a likely use for the tax credit. Direct Air Capture, which pulls CO2 out of the ambient air where it exists at around 412 parts per million, will earn a $180 tax credit for its permanent storage underground.

CO2 tax rates in Europe vary widely. France is €45 per ton ($45) and Sweden is the highest at €117.

Surveys tend to reveal that support for public policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions is broad but shallow. Gasoline prices have been rising for most of the Biden administration. Global investment in new oil production remains too low to maintain supply at current prices. E&P companies recognize the impediments to new production represented by environmental extremists and left-wing energy policies. Together they have succeeded in driving pipeline sector free cash flow yields to over 10% because new pipeline construction is much less common. As I often say, if you meet a climate extremist, give them a hug and drive them to their next protest.

The Administration has been emptying out the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in recognition that high prices at the pump have political downside. For the same reason, a US carbon tax has never commanded much support even though it would cause more efficient capital allocation.

But there are clearly some parts of the US with a greater tolerance for higher energy prices if perceived to be in support of emissions reduction. New England’s energy policies present an example of what to avoid for many of us, but utility bills aren’t becoming a political issue.

Annual CO2 emissions in California fell by 12 million tons (2009-19), a 3.3% reduction. Assuming Californians are also paying 5 cents per KWh for this achievement, that works out to a stunning $1,042 per ton, along with an inadequate grid that recently asked Tesla owners to refrain from charging their cars.

Climate extremists could point to both these states as evidence that consumers will accept higher energy prices in support of their policies. Or they may calculate that the very high price per ton of CO2 some consumers are paying will draw unwelcome attention to the results of liberal energy policies.

Both states have found that impeding natural gas consumption leads to unexpected difficulties – either LNG imports to Boston or the risk of power cuts in California. Natural gas is hard to beat. It’s displaced a lot of US coal production, including in Newburgh, IN where a strip mine formerly operated by Peabody Coal is now the bucolic Victoria National Golf Club. The energy transition is good.

We have three funds that seek to profit from this environment:

Energy Mutual Fund Energy ETF Inflation Fund

Please see important Legal Disclosures.

The Fed Is Misreading Housing Inflation

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SL Advisors Talks Markets
The Fed Is Misreading Housing Inflation
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The August CPI report that came out last Tuesday was the catalyst for a sharp market reversal. The headline number was a benign 0.1%, helped by falling gasoline prices. But the “core” number (ex food and energy) came in at 0.6%.

There were several factors, but chief among them because of its high weighting was shelter at 0.7%. which has a 32.3% weighting in the CPI. Food is 13.5% energy is 8.8%. When these two are removed to create the core figure, shelter’s weighting rises to 39.8%.

Within the core CPI number, Shelter is made up of Rent (9.3%) and Owners’ Equivalent Rent (OER, 30.5%), on which we have written before (see Why You Can’t Trust Reported Inflation Numbers). Two thirds of American households own their home. But the economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) want to separate out the service that a home provides (shelter) from its value as an asset.

To estimate OER, BLS statisticians survey homeowners to ask what they think they could rent their home for in the current market. The huge problem with this approach is that few of us give the matter much thought. Homeowners generally know what their home is worth, but you won’t hear cocktail chatter about how the imputed rent on one’s townhouse suddenly shot up.

Home ownership is the prevailing choice of shelter in America. Therefore, OER has a substantial weight in the BLS assessment of living costs, even though uniquely within the CPI it’s not based on cash transactions.

The shortcomings in OER are about to complicate monetary policy.

In theory, if home prices are rising this should cause rents, including the OER, to rise as asset owners seek to maintain their return on investment.

Everyone outside the BLS knows real estate has been hot. Home buyers have regularly been required to pay over the asking price to get a deal done. The S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index (C-S) has reflected this, increasing year-on-year at 18% as of June (the most recent figure available).

There are signs that the tight real estate market is moderating. The C-S index was rising at 20.6% in March and April. By contrast, OER is now rising, although as the long-term chart shows it fluctuates less than home prices.

But what’s really interesting is that OER is a lagging indicator. From 2000-2020 one year returns on C-S and OER have a correlation of only 0.35. Lagging OER improves the fit, and it turns out the 18 month lagged OER has a correlation of 0.75 with C-S.

 

The reason is likely that home owners are slow to convert changes in home prices into revised OER, because OER doesn’t affect them. Nobody pays OER. It takes over a year of rising (falling) home prices to show up as an increase (decrease) in OER. Homeowners have a slow reaction function. Inconveniently for the BLS, most of us just don’t think much about renting out our home.

This highlights a significant weakness in how the Fed assesses inflation. The rise in OER they’re observing today is a delayed reaction to the rapid house price appreciation the rest of us have been watching since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020. Back then, the Fed didn’t see housing inflation because OER didn’t reflect it. Belatedly, it is showing up in the CPI.

Because the history of OER shows it reacts to home prices with a substantial lag, this means the shelter component of CPI is likely to look worse in the months ahead. Its large weight in the core CPI will keep this measure elevated. In this respect, it’s fair to say that the Fed is fighting the last war. In their public comments FOMC members have been very clear that they are looking for a sustained drop in inflation. It was higher than they thought six months ago, if not for the lagged feature of OER.

The fact that inflation expectations remain surprisingly moderate doesn’t appear to be an important consideration.

Core CPI is unlikely to fall substantially while OER is rising. Although the Fed prefers the Personal Consumption Expenditures deflator because of its dynamic category weightings, OER is used there too.

The inverted yield curve for interest rate futures makes more sense when you consider the slow reaction function of OER survey respondents. As long as the Fed uses this measure of housing, they’ll be relying on an echo of the past rather than real time. Based on the historical relationship between C-S and OER, the shelter component of the inflation statistics likely won’t peak for another year. It means the Fed is more likely to make the mistake of maintaining high rates for too long by relying on stale inflation data for shelter.

Only an economist could love OER. It’s about to play an outsized role in monetary policy for all the wrong reasons.

We have three funds that seek to profit from this environment:

Energy Mutual Fund Energy ETF Inflation Fund

Please see important Legal Disclosures.

 

 

Another Pleasant Suprise From Cheniere

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SL Advisors Talks Markets
Another Pleasant Suprise From Cheniere
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On Monday evening Cheniere provided their third revised EBITDA guidance of the year. It’s good that they’re not based in the EU where they would be a target of the planned windfall profits tax. Cheniere has raised guidance by $1.2BN (after 1Q earnings), $1.6BN (after 2Q earnings) and now another $1.2BN pointing to a range of $11.0-11.5BN.

Cheniere now plans to direct around 40% of Distributable Cash Flow (DCF) to shareholder returns, including a 20% dividend hike and an expected 10% growth rate in the future. European LNG demand has helped push margins higher. 2022 is turning out to be an exceptional year and the company is guiding for EBITDA in subsequent years around $7BN, although some analysts believe that is conservative. Their long term “take-or-pay” contracts provide almost 20 years of cash flow visibility. We are long-time investors in Cheniere

The news from Cheniere provided a pleasant distraction from the inflation numbers for energy investors. The core CPI number (ex-food and energy) was sharply higher than expected at 0.6%, well above July’s 0.3% figure. Inflation expectations have remained surprisingly constrained over the past couple of years. Ten year inflation expectations as derived from the treasury market are 2.4%. However, the Fed will worry that stubbornly high inflation will become embedded in consumer expectations. In our opinion savers should plan on a higher inflation rate when assessing their retirement outlook.

The resilience of midstream energy infrastructure compared with the S&P500 reflects the explicit inflation linkage many pipelines offer (usually via the Producer Price Index). We think it’s an excellent component of any equity portfolio.

The US exports around 11 Billion Cubic Feet per Day (BCF/D) of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). This will rise modestly over the next couple of years to around 13 BCF/D, but may increase sharply beyond that depending on which projects can sign enough long term contracts to reach a Final Investment Decision (FID).

There are few pureplay LNG export opportunities available beyond Cheniere. NextDecade (NEXT) and Tellurian (TELL) are both early-stage companies with plans to build facilities over the next few years. Of the two we prefer NEXT for its superior governance, but both companies will likely draw increased interest as investors consider other companies that may emulate Cheniere’s success.

The collapse in Russia’s exports of natural gas (methane) to western Europe highlight the expense involved in transportation. Methane moves by pipeline or LNG tanker. Russia invested billions of roubles in the infrastructure to support Nord Stream 1 and 2. These pipelines have no alternative use. Although China is an obvious alternate buyer, more billions of roubles will be required to build the necessary infrastructure. Moreover, as noted in an FT article, China will be a difficult customer. No country wants to be overly reliant on a neighbor for energy. Fixed infrastructure that straddles national borders, such as pipelines, will increasingly require the near-certainty of stable relations. The post-Ukraine world is one where energy supplies can be leveraged for political gain. Energy security makes imported seaborne natural gas in the form of LNG a more flexible alternative, even if it costs more. Consequently, global demand for LNG is likely to benefit from this type of geopolitical analysis. The US is well positioned to benefit.

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently announced that 24% of US electricity generation came from renewables during 1H22. It’s hard to share their enthusiasm for this milestone, since it comes with unreliability and higher prices (see California and Germany). The EIA noted that both hydro and wind, which are the majority of renewables, provide more output in the first half of the year than the second. In the case of hydro it’s because of melting snowpack. Wind evidently has its own seasonality as well. Over the past twelve months renewables are 16%, up 2% year-on-year.

Although it’s politically correct to celebrate increased use of renewables, the dominant story about US power generation for at least the past decade has been the switch away from coal. Since 2012 natural gas has gone from 28% to 38% of our electricity. Over the same period coal has dropped from 39% to 21%. Hydro and nuclear have each dropped slightly, by 1%, and renewables have increased by 10%.

It’s also interesting to see that electricity demand has barely grown over the past decade, reflecting improving energy efficiency across our economy.

The EIA has noted in the past that most of America’s drop in greenhouse gas emissions is the result of coal to gas switching. Natural gas remains the most interesting story in the energy markets.

We have three funds that seek to profit from this environment:

Energy Mutual Fund Energy ETF Inflation Fund

Please see important Legal Disclosures.

 

 

The Strong Fundamentals Underpinning Pipelines

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The Strong Fundamentals Underpinning Pipelines
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Recently a long-time investor Jeff Waters suggested that it might be interesting to dig a little deeper into the valuation metrics that make midstream energy infrastructure such an attractive sector. It resulted in a podcast interview, which you can access here.

The roughly 2/3rds drop in growth capex since 2018 underpins an improving cash flow story. The components of the American Energy Independence Index (AEITR) have a market-cap weighted Free Cash Flow (FCF) yield of 10%. This is almost 2X the dividend. Longtime MLP investors will recall the common practice whereby MLPs paid out 90% or more of their Distributable Cash Flow. This left very little room for error.

Since 2016 the payout on the MLP-dedicated Alerian MLP ETF (AMLP) is down by half. Corporations have done better because they generally have higher coverage. Today’s pipeline CFO is building in plenty of cushion to protect payouts even in a steep downturn, which is why dividend hikes and buybacks are becoming more common.

JPMorgan just published a slide deck titled, “North America Long + World Short Hydrocarbons = Logistics Tailwinds.” An already positive outlook improved with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. There is no plausible scenario in which Europe restores its reliance on Russian natural gas. The US has ample supplies available at low extraction costs. LNG exports will grow as fast as new facilities can be built.

The table below highlights some of the metrics which illustrate why we believe pipelines still have plenty of upside. For example, the sector’s 9X EV/EBITDA is more than 1.0X below the average since 2019. Returning to the mean would generate at least 15% capital appreciation.

Investment grade Debt:EBITDA leverage of 3.5X continues to trend lower. Five years ago Kinder Morgan argued unsuccessfully to rating agencies that >5X was justified because of their diverse set of businesses. The industry has embraced a more conservative operating model.

It’s also worth remembering the driving force behind increased global energy demand – rising living standards. The chart below is several years old, but still neatly illustrates the close relationship between living standards and energy use. America’s per capita consumption may not be what the world should emulate, but there is no doubt that billions of people want to move up and to the right. This will endure as the dominating force in energy markets for decades to come, overwhelming rich countries’ desire for reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The last couple of years have exposed the inadequacy of extreme green policies followed in the EU and certain US states. Once again Californians are enduring a heatwave with insufficient power capacity.

Carrie Bentley, a former policy official with the California Independent System Operator, said California had allowed too much fossil fuel capacity to be shut down without adequate renewable sources and large-scale back-up batteries. She admitted, “We retired too many gas plants too early.”

A reassessment of extreme climate policies should work to the benefit of natural gas by increasing its substitution for coal burning power plants.

Elizabeth The Great

So said ex-PM Boris Johnson in his moving eulogy to the British House of Commons on Friday. King Charles III referred to “a promise with destiny kept.” I have felt a surprising sadness at Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, similar perhaps to losing a distant but benevolent aunt. Rarely for me, I have a desire to be in England at this time, an emotion I only previously felt when our team played in the European Cup Final last year at Wembley, London. She was a constant during times of change; queen for my entire lifetime and an apolitical figurehead often when one was most needed.

My grandparents tolerated no criticism of the royal family during my childhood. They remembered then-Princess Elizabeth and her parents enduring the German blitz of 1940 alongside other Londoners. Simon Schama, the erudite writer who chronicles major current events from the perspective of history’s great arc, called Elizabeth, “quintessential Britain; not all of it, of course, but more than the head of state — the heart of the matter, the personification of a common, idealised identity.”

Some Americans will question that hereditary leadership should provoke such sentimentality. I’ve never heard any regrets that George III was dumped in 1776.

But to be a British subject is to embrace the Crown. I live joyfully in America but part of me will always be there.

We have three funds that seek to profit from this environment:

Energy Mutual Fund Energy ETF Inflation Fund

Please see important Legal Disclosures.

 

 

Drilling Down on Energy Value with Jeff Waters

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SL Advisors Talks Markets
Drilling Down on Energy Value with Jeff Waters
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Will Energy Price Caps Work?

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SL Advisors Talks Markets
Will Energy Price Caps Work?
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Few should be surprised that Russia has shut off all natural gas to western Europe, on a timing of their choosing not Germany’s. EU countries and the UK are implementing price controls and residential subsidies in various forms to cushion the blow from electricity prices that have risen as much as 10X over the past year. Italy plans to limit apartment thermostats to 66°F this winter.

Newly minted UK PM Liz Truss is considering a £100BN aid package that might reach £135BN ($155BN), around 5% of GDP. European governments are covering most of the increased cost of energy for households and/or waiving taxes, via loans to providers. The shortfall will be made up through future tax revenue and gradually increasing prices.

For many there is no plausible politically feasible alternative. By subsidizing demand, such policies delay the demand destruction that’s necessary to bring European energy markets into balance. It’s difficult to see governments exiting the subsidy business anytime soon. Since natural gas is often the marginal source of power in most European markets, it sets the price of electricity.

This has perversely created windfall profits for renewables businesses, which now face the prospect of a windfall tax across the EU. Ironically, solar and wind power generators are the big winners because their costs haven’t gone up. This ought to create strong incentives to invest in additional renewables capacity, except that’s where the proposed windfall profits tax will fall most heavily. European energy policies are turning into perhaps the biggest public policy failure since World War II. It should be called the Merkel Energy Crisis since Germany’s recently retired chancellor was such a significant architect.

At least Klaus-Dieter Maubach, the CEO of Uniper, Germany’s biggest importer of natural gas, had the honesty to concede that trusting Gazprom to be a reliable supplier and the absence of LNG import infrastructure were both mistakes. In a recent video he noted that wholesale power prices were as much as 20X the level of two years ago. Maubach warned that worse was to come for European customers.

Price caps on Russian crude oil are likely coming, although we think their enforceability will be difficult. Western insurance companies provide coverage on around 90% of seaborne trade, and the G7 plan relies on the threat of withholding such insurance from buyers of Russian crude oil that refuse to comply with whatever price cap G7 imposes.

This seems simplistic. If India wants to buy Russian crude, insurance could be provided by either country. It’s also possible such a move will induce OPEC+ to regard it as interfering with their price setting ability and trim demand. Yesterday they announced a modest reduction of 100K barrels per day.

The bottom line is that western sanctions on Russian energy supplies have so far served to raise prices and enrich Russia.

Markets continue to regard developments as positive for the US energy sector. Long term demand for US LNG seems assured. The enormous price difference between the US Henry Hub natural gas benchmark and both the TTF European and JKM Asian ones is likely to prevail for several years given the time it takes to add LNG export capacity.

This should continue to underpin US companies involved in natural gas infrastructure, such as Cheniere, Williams Companies and Energy Transfer. We also still like NextDecade, which is an early-stage LNG exporter we believe will soon start construction on their Rio Grande, TX facility. LNG exports are still some way off for NextDecade so it’s a more speculative holding than most midstream infrastructure companies. But we think the stock has substantial upside from current levels assuming ultimate success.

The US isn’t totally immune from poor energy policies. California is once again asking residents to curb power consumption during a heatwave. Years of shutting natural gas power plants has increased the state’s dependence on intermittent solar, an energy source poorly aligned with peak residential demand around dinner time. All while China pumps out ever more CO2.

Sell side analysts have been revising down their 3Q earnings forecasts for most sectors over the past couple of months. Energy is the standout exception where the outlook continues to improve. Since the end of 2019 (ie before the pandemic) the American Energy Independence Index (AEITR) has returned 16% pa – solidly ahead of the S&P500 at 9% but still not euphoric.

The components of the AEITR have a market-cap weighted free cash flow yield of 10% and leverage (Debt:EBITDA) of 3.7X. The sector continues to generate growing cashflows with strong balance sheets.

We have three funds that seek to profit from this environment:

Energy Mutual Fund Energy ETF Inflation Fund

Please see important Legal Disclosures.

How Occidental Invests In Lower Taxes

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SL Advisors Talks Markets
How Occidental Invests In Lower Taxes
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Occidental Petroleum (OXY) has a checkered history. In 2019 CEO Vicki Hollub snatched Anadarko away from Chevron (CVX), who already had a signed deal in place. CVX CEO Mike Wirth showed financial discipline that’s rare in such cases and declined to get into a bidding war. Instead, they walked away with a $1BN break-up fee.

Hollub obtained $10BN in financing from Berkshire in the form of preferred shares in order to close the deal. Perhaps Buffett also had doubts about the price OXY was paying, since he chose to avoid the common in favor of a more secure return. Covid soon struck, and the energy sector plummeted. Within a year of OXY’s audacious purchase crude oil was trading at negative prices as demand collapsed under the regime of lockdowns.

By April 2020 OXY’s stock had lost 80% of its value prior to the Anadarko deal. Although the Covid collapse was to blame, CVX had dropped by just over half. It looked as if Vicki Hollub had been outplayed by a competitor with financial discipline and devastatingly unlucky timing.

The energy sector began its slow recovery, but OXY lagged and by October 2020 was making new lows, down 85% from its pre-deal level while CVX was steadily recovering.

Since then, the gap has narrowed. Buffett evidently liked what he’s learned about OXY since he recently obtained regulatory approval to buy up to half of their common stock. Berkshire’s market outperformance this year has drawn quant funds. One investment manager believes Berkshire will eventually buy the whole of OXY, becoming an oil major in its own right.

OXY’s value lies in its reserves of oil and gas. But energy companies have accepted the energy transition and have initiatives aimed at showing they’re going to be part of the solution to CO2 emissions. Recently OXY announced plans to develop the world’s biggest Direct Air Capture (DAC) facility to remove CO2 from the ambient air.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) received a boost in the recent Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The 45Q tax credit starts at $85 per Metric Tonne (MT) for CO2 that is permanently sequestered underground. Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) has long relied on pumping CO2 into mature wells where the pressure has dropped, to force up more oil. The technology is reasonably well understood, and while burying CO2 to produce more fossil fuels doesn’t reflect the spirit of emissions reduction, it can be buried in other secure geological formations. Kinder Morgan has the most extensive CO2 pipeline network in the US because of their EOR business. Several pipeline company executives expressed optimism that they could benefit from the 45Q tax credit.

CCS makes the most sense where CO2 emissions are high – such as the exhaust of coal-burning power plants. But it has its critics. Robert Bryce recently reprised his 2009 criticism of CCS in response to the IRA. He noted that coal burning power plants lose up to 28% of their output when their emissions are being captured. He also warned that pipelines required to move CO2 to its final burial would likely have to be funded by taxpayers. And he estimated that capturing half of the 5.4 billion MTs of CO2 generated in the US annually would mean handling a volume of gas, even compressed to 1,000 pounds per square inch, equivalent to daily global oil production. He warns, “We would need to find an underground location (or locations) able to swallow a volume equal to the contents of 41 oil supertankers each day, 365 days a year.”

In JPMorgan’s 2022 Annual Energy Paper, Michael Cembalest estimated that capturing 15-20% of US CO2 emissions would involve handling a volume of gas exceeding all US production – a more modest estimate than Bryce’s but still staggeringly high.

OXY’s planned DAC facility is seemingly going after an even harder problem. The concentration of CO2 in ambient air (ie not standing downwind of a power plant) is around 412 parts per million. You have to process enormous quantities of air to get much CO2. OXY expects its CCS plant in Ector County, TX to capture 0.5 MT annually with the capability to reach 1 MT. The CO2 will be buried in a formation beneath forest land owned by paper company Weyerhauser. Trees are nature’s carbon capture, but the CO2 is eventually released when the tree dies or burns down.

OXY’s subsidiary 1PointFive (named in reference to the goal of limiting global warming by 1.5° C versus 1850) hopes to have 70 DAC facilities operational globally by 2035. The IRA provides up to $180 per MT tax credit for DAC. Five of the plants planned by 1PointFive in the US operating at 1 million MTs per year would generate $900 million in tax credits, significantly reducing OXY’s tax bill.

Buffett probably expects crude oil demand to remain strong for many years, supported by rising living standards in emerging economies. With enough DAC facilities in place, OXY investors could profit from providing energy the world wants and from mitigating its effects. It’s the kind of two for one deal the Oracle likes.

We have three funds that seek to profit from this environment:

Energy Mutual Fund Energy ETF Inflation Fund

Please see important Legal Disclosures.

From Top Hats To Tightening

SL Advisors Talks Markets
SL Advisors Talks Markets
From Top Hats To Tightening
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The beginning of my career in finance overlapped with the presence of morning suits on the floor of the London Stock Exchange. Mullens & Co, founded in 1786, held the privileged role of “government broker”, meaning they transacted directly with the UK Treasury and were an important intermediary in financing the UK government.  As recently as 1980 when I started work, their brokers still wore top hat and tails, supposedly to ensure their visibility across the exchange floor but also to emphasize status.

Mullens hired from the most exclusive public schools (confusingly for Americans these are actually private) and I recall their people were all snobs, rarely acknowledging my scruffy presence in a mere business suit. In 1986 Mullens was acquired by SG Warburg which was later absorbed by UBS. Sartorial standards in finance have been sliding ever since.

The London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), another anachronistic vestige of old school Britain, is also on its way out after its weaknesses were slickly exploited by derivatives traders 15 or more years ago. It seems odd today, but this benchmark of money market rates was not derived from actual transactions.

Banks indicated where they “would” lend eurodollars (an offshore deposit) to a high quality credit for periods of one month to one year. But such highly rated banks rarely needed to borrow at LIBOR. So it was based on theoretical trades, and most eurodollar business was transacted at rates other than LIBOR.  It was that quintessentially English invention based on unwritten assumptions and reliant on fair play all round.

The enormous growth in the derivatives market and shrinking need for banks to borrow from one another eventually led to far more trading profits relying on the benchmark than were involved in actually setting it. Being unmoored from transactions left LIBOR vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous traders who conspired to obtain favorable settings. There were prosecutions and jail terms for the miscreants, and naturally hefty fines imposed on the banks that employed them.

LIBOR was broken and never recovered, but so integral was it to vast numbers of derivatives trades, US residential mortgages and other contracts that its phase out has been slow. However, it now has less than a year to go and is generally being replaced by the Secure Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR).

A good portion of my career was spent analyzing the eurodollar futures curve for imperfections. To show that your blogger can similarly move on from the 20th century, I have therefore switched to SOFR futures to measure the yield curve and market expectations for Fed policy.

Which brings us at last to Fed chair Powell’s speech at Jackson Hole last Friday. Only two years earlier, the Fed unveiled a newly interpreted mandate which sought full employment while tolerating inflation temporarily above target. It’s fair to say events since then have exceeded expectations. The FOMC’s mandate could more correctly be expressed as addressing whichever of their two metrics has strayed farthest from its optimal level.

Hence, we were warned to expect, “a sustained period of below-trend growth” that will “bring some pain to households.” Those unfortunate enough to find themselves unemployed as a result can claim their sacrifice is for the greater good. They took one for the team. In case it wasn’t already clear, Powell added that “estimates of longer-run neutral are not a place to stop or pause.”

The yield curve is close enough to the “dot plot” from the Summary of Economic Projections that the FOMC and the market are in reasonable alignment. They’ve warned us that the policy rate will be moving higher because, “Our responsibility to deliver price stability is unconditional.” We are reminded that, “The historical record cautions strongly against prematurely loosening policy.”

The expressway to higher rates already offers an exit ramp in the form of persistently modest long-term inflation expectations. The University of Michigan survey expects five year inflation of 3%. Ten year Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPs) yields imply 2.6%.  The Fed retains the faith of investors even if their forecasting record is consistently poor.

Which means rates will go up until they don’t; FOMC officials will be pestered to define “vanquished inflation”; success in bonds will require identifying the inflexion point.

Rarely short of opinions, friends and clients may be pleasantly surprised to find no trade recommendation in this blog post. For once the Fed and the yield curve are in harmony.

Given the market’s serene inflation outlook, prudence surely dictates that investors plan for an upside miss. According to research from Wells Fargo, around half the EBITDA of the pipeline sector reprices its tariffs based on an inflation index, often PPI. With 6% yields amply covered by free cash flow, we believe it remains attractive.

We have three funds that seek to profit from this environment:

Energy Mutual Fund Energy ETF Inflation Fund

Please see important Legal Disclosures.

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