300,000 homes and half a million cars have been destroyed by Hurricane Harvey. And in terms of business, it is often forgotten that Houston is home to more Fortune 500 companies than any other metro area than New York. The damage will take years to repair, as families have to regroup and re-establish their lives – as I describe in my new feature article for ICIS Chemical Business, and in the above video interview with ICB Deputy Editor, Will Beacham.
The hurricanes are also likely to have a longer-term impact on the chemicals industry. Regulatory concerns may well be increased, given the prominent reporting of the potential for toxic run-off from the two dozen Superfund sites in the area. There will also be increased pressure on the industry to rethink its basic business model and increase the priority given to sustainability.
Even before the hurricanes, consumer concern was mounting over the impact of plastic waste on the oceans and the environment. Now, the devastation they have caused will likely turbo-charge the move towards renewables and the circular economy. Fear is a strong motivator, and millions will take another look at climate change.
This development will, of course, create opportunities as well as challenges for farsighted companies. It is never easy to move away from a “business as usual” mind-set. But the increased need to adopt key elements of the circular economy agenda creates an opportunity to develop major new sources of revenue and profit for the future.
In a decade’s time, therefore, we will not simply remember today’s devastation. We will likely also recognise that it marked the moment when sustainability stopped being simply an item in the Annual Report, and instead opened the door to a new era for the industry and those who work and invest in it.
Please click here to download the feature article for ICIS Chemical Business, and click here to view the video interview.
Its been a long time since oil market supply/demand was based on physical barrels rather than financial flows:
First there was the subprime period, when the Fed artificially boosted demand and caused Brent to hit $147/bbl
Then there was QE, where central banks gave free cash to commodity hedge funds and led Brent to hit $127/bbl
In 2015, as the chart highlights for WTI, the funds tried again to push prices higher, but could only hit $63/bbl
Then, this year, the funds lined up to support the OPEC/Russia quota deal which took prices to $55/bbl
As the Wall Street Journal reported:
“Dozens of hedge-fund managers and oil traders attended a series of closed-door meetings in recent months with OPEC leaders—the first of their kind, according to Ed Morse, Citigroup Inc.’s global head of commodities research, who helped organize some of the events.”
These developments destroyed the market’s key role of price discovery:
Price discovery is the process by which buyer and seller agree a price at which one will sell and the other will buy
But subprime/QE encouraged this basic truth to be forgotten, as commodities became a new asset class
Investment banks saw the opportunity to sell new and highly profitable services to sleepy pension funds
They ignored the obvious truth that oil, or copper or any other commodity are worthless on their own
There was never any logic for commodities to become a separate new asset class. A share in a company has some value even if the management are useless and their products don’t work properly. Similarly bonds pay interest at regular intervals. But oil does nothing except sit in a tank, unless someone turns it into a product.
The impact of all this paper trading was enormous. Last year, for example, it averaged a record 1.1 million contracts/ day just in WTI futures on the CME. Total paper trading in WTI/Brent was more than 10x actual physical production. Inevitably, this massive buying power kept prices high, even though the last time that supplies were really at risk was in 2008, when there was a threat of war with Iran.
Finally, however, the commodity funds are now leaving. Even Andy Hall, the trader known as “God” for his ability to control the futures market, is winding up his flagship hedge fund as he:
“Complained that it was nearly impossible to trade oil based on fundamental trends in supply and demand, which are now too uncertain.”
Hall seemed unaware that his statement exactly described the role of price discovery. Markets are not there to provide guaranteed profits for commodity funds. Their role via price discovery is to help buyers and sellers balance physical supply and demand, and make the right decisions on capital spend. By artificially pushing prices higher, the funds have effectively led to $bns of unnecessary new capital investment taking place.
NOW MARKETS WILL HAVE TO PICK UP THE PIECES
The problem today is that markets – which means suppliers and consumers – will now have to pick up the pieces as the funds depart. And it seems likely to be a difficult period, given the length of time in which financial players have ruled, and the distortions they have created.
Major changes are already underway in the physical market, with worries over air quality and climate change leading France, the UK, India and now China to announce plans to ban sales of fossil-fuelled cars. Transport is the biggest single source of demand for oil, and so it is clear we are now close to reaching “peak gasoline/diesel demand“.
OPEC obviously stands to be a major loser. Over the past year, the young and inexperienced Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chose to link up with the funds. His aim was keep prices artificially high via an output quota deal between OPEC and Russia. But history confirms that such pacts have never worked. This time is no different as the second chart from the International Energy Agency shows, with OPEC compliance already down to 75%.
Consumers will also pay, as they have to pick up the bill for the investments made when people imagined oil prices would always be $100/bbl. And consumers, along with OPEC populations, will also end up suffering if the shock of lower oil prices creates further geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East.
As always, “events” will also play their part. As anyone involved with oil markets knows, there seems to be an unwritten rule that says:
If the market is short of product, producing plants will suddenly have force majeures and stop supplying
If the market has surplus product, demand will suddenly reduce for some equally unexpected reason
The rule certainly seems to be working today, as the catastrophe of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Jose creates devastation across the Caribbean and the southern USA.
Not only is this reducing short-term demand for oil, but it will also turbo-charge the move towards renewables. Mllions of Americans are now going to want to see fossil fuel use reduced, as worries about the impact of climate change grow.
“By Monday, the third straight day of flooding, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey had left much of the region underwater, and the city of Houston looked like a sea dotted by small islands. ’This event is unprecedented,’ the National Weather Service tweeted. ‘All impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced.’”
This summary from the New York Times gives some idea of the immensity of the storm that struck large parts of Texas/Louisiana last week, including the 4th largest city in the US. And this was before the second stage of the storm.
I worked in Houston for 2 years, living alongside the Buffalo Bayou which flooded so spectacularly last week. The photo above from the Houston Chronicle shows the area around our former home on Saturday, still surrounded by water. Today, as the rest of America celebrates the Labor Day holiday, the devastated areas in Texas and Louisiana will be starting to count the cost of rebuilding their lives and starting out anew:
Some parts of the Houston economy will recover remarkably quickly. It is a place where people aim to get things done, and don’t just sit around waiting for others to do the heavy lifting
But as Texas Governor Abbott has warned, Harvey is “one of the largest disasters America has ever faced. We need to recognize it will be a new normal, a new and different normal for this entire region.”
The key issue is that the Houston metro area alone is larger in size than the economies of Sweden or Poland. And as Harris County Flood Control District meteorologist Jeff Lindner tweeted:
“An estimated 70% of the 1,800-square-mile county (2700 sq km), which includes Houston, was covered with 1½ feet (46cm) of water”
Already the costs are mounting. Abbott’s current estimate is that Federal funding needs alone will be “far in excess of $125bn“, easily topping the costs of 2005′s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. And, of course, that does not include the cost, and pain, suffered by the majority of homeowners – who have no flood insurance – or the one-third of auto owners who don’t have comprehensive insurance. They will likely receive nothing towards the costs of cleaning up.
SOME PARTS OF THE ECONOMY HAVE THE POTENTIAL FOR A QUICK RECOVERY
Companies owning the large refineries and petrochemical plants in the affected region have all invested in the maximum amount of flood protection following Katrina, when some were offline for 18 months
Oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico are used to hurricanes and are already coming back – Reuters reports that only around 6% of production is still offline, down from a peak of 25% at the height of the storm
It is hard currently to estimate the impact on shale oil/gas output in the Eagle Ford basin, but the Oil & Gas Journal reports that 300 – 500 kb/d of oil production is shut-in, and 3bcf/d of gas production
ExxonMobil is now restarting the country’s second-biggest refinery at Baytown, and Phillips 66 and Valero are also restarting some operations, whilst ICIS reports that a number of major petrochemical plants are now being inspected in the expectation that they can soon be restarted
Encouragingly also, it seems that insurance companies are planning to speed up inspections of flooded properties by using drone technology, which should help to process claims more quickly. Loss adjusters using drones can inspect 3 homes an hour, compared to the hour taken to inspect on roof manually. But even Farmers Insurance, one of the top Texas insurers, only has 7 drones available – and has already received over 14000 claims.
RECOVERY FOR MOST PEOPLE AND BUSINESSES WILL TAKE MUCH LONGER
For the 45 or more people who have died in the floods, there will be no recovery.
Among the living, 1 million people have been displaced and up to 500k cars destroyed. 481k people have so far requested housing assistance and 25% of Houston’s schools have suffered severe or extensive flood damage.
These alarming statistics highlight why clean-up after Harvey will take a long time. Basic services such as water and sewage are massively contaminated, with residents being told to boil water in many areas. The “hundreds of thousands of people across the 38 Texas counties affected by Harvey” using their own wells are particularly at risk.
And as the New York Times adds:
“Flooded sewers are stoking fears of cholera, typhoid and other infectious diseases. Runoff from the city’s sprawling petroleum and chemicals complex contains any number of hazardous compounds. Lead, arsenic and other toxic and carcinogenic elements may be leaching from some two dozen Superfund sites in the Houston area”
FEW IN HOUSTON HAVE FLOOD INSURANCE
Then there is the issue that, as the chart from the New York Times shows, most of those affected by Harvey don’t have home insurance policies that cover flood damage. Similarly, a survey in April by insurer Aon found that:
“Less than one-sixth of homes in Harris County, Texas, whose county seat is Houston, currently have active National Flood Insurance Program policies. The county has about 1.8 million housing units.”
As the Associated Press adds:
“Experts say another reason for lack of coverage in the Houston area was that the last big storm, Tropical Storm Allison, was 16 years ago. As a result, people had stopped worrying and decided to use money they would have spent for insurance premiums on other items.”
Even those with insurance will get hit by the low levels of coverage – just $250k for a house and $100k for contents. Businesses carrying insurance also face problems, according to the Wall Street Journal, as they depend on the same Federal insurance scheme, which:
“Was primarily designed for homeowners and has had few updates since the 1970s. Standard protections for small businesses, including costs of business interruption and significant disaster preparation, aren’t covered, and maximum payouts for damages haven’t risen since 1994.
The maximum coverage for business property is $500k, and the same cap applies to equipment and other contents, far below many businesses’ needs. And even those with insurance find it difficult to claim, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York after Hurricane Sandy in 2012:
“More than half of small businesses in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that had flood insurance and suffered damages received no insurance payout. Another 31% recouped only some of their losses.”
Auto insurance is a similar story. Only those with comprehensive auto insurance are likely to be covered for their loss – and even then, people will still suffer deductions for depreciation. According to the Insurance Council of Texas:
“15% of motorists have no car insurance, and of those who do, (only) 75% have comprehensive insurance. That leaves a lot of car owners without any protection.”
In other words, around 1/3rd of car owners probably have no insurance cover against which to claim for flood damage.
HARVEY’S IMPACT WILL BE LONG-TERM
It is clearly too early, with flood waters still rising in some areas, to be definitive about the implications of Hurricane Harvey for Houston and the affected areas in Texas and Louisiana.
Of course there are supply shortages today, and the task of replacement will created new demand for housing and autos. But over the medium to longer term, 3 key impacts seem likely to occur:
It will take time for the supply of oil, gas, gasoline and other refinery products, petrochemicals and polymers to fully recover. There will inevitably also be some short-term shortages in some value chains. But within 1 – 3 months, most if not all of the major plants will probably be back online
It will take a lot longer for most people affected by Harvey to recover their losses. Some may never be able to do this, especially if they have no insurance to cover their flooded house or car. And those working in the gig economy have little fall-back when their employers have no need for their services
The US economy will also be impacted, as Slate magazine warned a week ago, even before the full magnitude of the catastrophe became apparent:
“For the U.S. economy to lose Houston for a couple of weeks is a human disaster—and an economic disaster, too….Given that supply chains rely on a huge number of shipments making their connections with precision, the disruption to the region’s shipping, trucking, and rail infrastructure will have far-reaching effects.”