Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the
round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently -- they're
not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify
them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change
things... they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the
crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that
they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Steve Jobs
US computer engineer & industrialist (1955 - 2011)

Monday, December 8, 2014

In NL the Budget Man Cometh

Danny Williams ' big spin was Newfoundland and Labrador would become Master of its own house. Remember that? He created Nalcor for that purpose. His government acted as if this was somehow possible. It wasn't then, and it isn't now.

There is no better modern example of how every economy in the world is dependent on each other than the world-wide economic war happening right now. It's a war the US thinks it's winning, yet it's a war the US has already lost. Hand-in-hand with Saudi Arabia, the US is flooding the market with oil to devastate economies that depend on its revenue. Russia just happens to be the number one oil producer in the world. The aim is of course to drain Russia, Iran and Venezuela of budget revenue, and ultimately ruin the new Eurasian/BRIC alliance while in its infancy.

The problem with the strategy is the intended victims, Russia and China, have historically proven they can withstand any adversity. The 25 million Russians killed while bleeding the German army white during WW II is one example. Ditto for Napoleon. Etc. The Chinese sent 250 million people back to their villages without jobs or income after the last big world economic collapse in 2008. Not even a bead of sweat creased their brow. These are tough populations, used to adversity, and determined. Our side not so much. In a game of mutually assured economic destruction, as is being played out now world-wide, the only sure bet is the populations of Europe and North America are far less willing or able to withstand economic hardship than our fellow human beings on the other side.

Where its all leading for oil is fairly predictable. Putin hinted as much when he recently commented that ISIS was surviving by selling oil on the international black market for $30 a barrel. I take that comment, in the context it was made, as a direct challenge to the Western powers attempting to empty his coffers: "Russia is prepared to see oil fall as low as $30 a barrel in an international game of chicken". Let's say that's true,  what are the ramifications of that strategy for us?

Oil accounts for 33% of all revenue in our provincial budget each year. We are now fully dependent on oil revenue for our standard of living - government and the population. We have borrowed. We are in debt to our eyeballs. An oil  recession in this province would be far more dangerous here than most places. The government has spent every cent of oil revenue in the last 9 years, except the $2 billion or so that is needed for the Muskrat Falls down payment required by the federal loan guarantee. They borrowed a billion dollars last year on top of that to pay bills. This year the deficit looks to be about $600 million or so. That will have to be borrowed as well. That means our gross debt, the money we actually owe, is almost $1.5 billion higher than when Williams was elected , and the oil money started coming in.

But what will it mean going forward? If oil settles at $60 a barrel, as many economists are predicting, our annual budget will lose about $1.25 billion. That is catastrophic for the provincial economy. That is recession. The reason is that this province relies heavily on government spending to drive the economy. Some examples are Muskrat Falls, hospitals, etc. Without that expenditure, the private companies that relied on it die on the vine. Have no illusion, they will die on the vine. That means much higher unemployment numbers, serious drops in real estate values, and all that spirals from that as usual.

It means massive cuts in government spending on programs and people. It means recession. Now, if Russia carries out its implied intention to ride the oil wave down to $30 a barrel, the consequences are much different. A $30 per barrel drop means Newfoundland and Labrador loses over $2 billion in oil revenue per year. That means depression. That means default on large loans - like the federal loan guarantee on Muskrat Falls. That means Hebron is cancelled. It means an end to all oil exploration, and the end for the many local companies living off servicing the oil industry. It means massive unemployment in the private sector and the public sector. At least in the range of 25%.

Now, you might think this is an exaggeration, but remember that the provincial GDP increases of the last decade have been almost solely based on oil revenue. The economy and society have inflated along with the boom. Personal debt has increased with the expressed idea that oil would keep going up. Government debt ditto. Therefore, the dramatic shock of oil deflation has even more severe consequences than would normally be expected. If you want a really good example, look to the oil bust in Alberta in the 1980's. That was Alberta's first big bust. They were like us. They spent like it would never end. It ended, and when it did people walked away from their houses... Alberta was devastated, and it had a government savings account - the Heritage Fund. We don't have one of those.

At $30 a barrel the refinery at Come-by-Chance is almost certain to close. Ditto for the Hebron development. Those two projects alone would have a massive financial effect in central Newfoundland. Muskrat Falls also comes into focus. Selling power at a loss for the sake of it may be trumped by common financial sense, and that project may be abandoned. As bad as its financial are now, financial arrangements still have not been made with the Nunatukavut or Nunatsiavut governments, which can be expected to be at least $1 billion extra. Then there is the prospect of Hydro-Quebec winning its lawsuit over the water management agreement. That one you can take to the bank. In 2010, the provincial department of Natural Resources estimated such a loss in court would result in billions of dollars in damages being awarded by the courts. It also stated that CF(L)Co would be bankrupted. These are the facts.

There is no bright side to the economic war being waged by the big powers in the world. Not even for them. It's the kind of "battle to the last man" that by necessity means no one else survives. We are and will remain casualties of the "greater good". We are also casualties of a foolish and irresponsible spending policy of the Williams' regime. We are also casualties of our own acquiescence to the Williams' vision.  The problem, and it's a very serious problem, is Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are not being informed of the reasons for it all. It's put down to "lower oil prices" and that's about the extent of the explanation by government. They say only two things are certain: death; and taxes. Add a third: ignorance is no excuse.  

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