Should We Fear—Or Cheer—Plunging Oil Prices?

Chances are, you’re celebrating today’s lower gas prices.  AAA reports that the national average price of gas is $2.48 today, the lowest since December 2009.  The result: an estimated $70 billion in direct savings for U.S. consumers over the next 12 months.  At previous prices, the average American was spending about $2,600 a year on gasoline, so the 20% price decline would result in $520 more to save or spend.

It gets better.  Even though gas prices (and, therefore, the cost of driving) have plummeted, the Internal Revenue Service is raising the standard mileage rates that people can deduct on their tax return for business travel, from 56 cents in 2014 to 57.5 cents per business mile driven next year.

Only the investment markets seem to think that cycling an extra $70 billion into the U.S. economy is a bad thing.  This past week, large cap stocks, represented by the S&P 500 index, saw their prices fall by 3.5%—their biggest drop since May 2012. Why?  The only possible explanation is that rapid Wall Street traders believe that lower oil prices will harm the economies of America’s trading partners, and therefore impact the U.S. economy indirectly.

So let’s take a closer look.  While U.S. consumers are cheering the decline in oil prices, and non-energy producing nations like Japan and countries in the Eurozone are seeing a boost in their economies, who’s NOT celebrating?

As it turns out, some of the biggest losers are American domestic shale oil producers, who basically break even when oil prices are at their current $50-$60 a barrel levels.  Any further drop in prices would slow down domestic energy production, and probably create a floor that would keep prices from falling much further.

Another big loser is the socialist government in Venezuela (remember Hugo Chavez?), which needs oil prices above $162 a barrel to pay for all of its social programs.  You can also sympathize with Iran, which reportedly needs oil prices to move up to $135 barrel to stay in the black, due to continuing sanctions from the world community over its nuclear program, and the high cost of supporting Hezbollah and its own military ventures in the Middle East.

The biggest loser is probably Russia, which requires oil prices of at least $100 a barrel for its budget to withstand international sanctions and finance its own military adventures against neighboring nations.  Economists are projecting that Russia will fall into a steep recession next year, when GDP could decline as much as 6%.  The nation is experiencing what economists call “capital outflows” of $125 billion a year—a fancy way of saying that wealthy Russians are taking money out of Russian banks and either investing abroad or putting their rubles in banks located in more stable foreign jurisdictions.  And in the process, they are exchanging their rubles for local currency, as a way to protect against the recent free-fall in Russia’s currency.  Bloomberg News recently published the below graphic which many Americans will find entertaining, but which is probably not happy news for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Fear or Cheer Plunging Oil Prices

It’s interesting that the markets seem to be worrying about low oil prices when the economies with the most to lose are not only less than minor trading partners, but actual political enemies of U.S. interests. Cheaper oil will eventually be regarded as a plus for our economic—and political—interests, but the downturn suggests that Wall Street traders are hair-trigger ready to be spooked by anything they regard as unusual.

If you would like to discuss your current portfolio or any financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.


Relative Prosperity

You might have read that the U.S. investment markets are jittery on the news that Japan has experienced two consecutive quarters of economic decline—the official definition of a recession.  But if you turn the news around, it offers us a reminder that, however much we complain about slow-growth recovery from 2008, Americans are actually part of one of the most robust economies in the world.

The statistics tell an interesting story.  The U.S. economy is growing at a rate of about 2.95% for the year, which is (as the complainers correctly point out) slightly below its long-term pace.  But this doesn’t look so bad compared to the 2.16% growth average for the G7 nations in aggregate, and our growth numbers are well ahead of the European Union, whose economies are expanding at an anemic 1.28% rate this year.

Look deeper and our story looks even better.  The current recession is Japan’s fourth in six years, despite long-term stimulus efforts that make the Fed’s QE program look like a purchase at the candy store.  Europe is rumored to be teetering on the edge of recession, which would be its second since the 2008 meltdown.  The published GDP figures coming out of China (which are very unreliable due to heavy government editing) could drop to about half the long-term rate this year, and Brazil entered recession territory last summer.

But what about the 5.8% unemployment rate in the U.S.?  That’s better than the 10% rate at the end of 2008, but it’s not good—right?  Compared with the rest of the world, America’s jobs picture looks downright rosy.  The list, below, shows that only 13 countries have lower jobless rates than the American economy, and some of those (Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia) may be giving out numbers that their leaders want to hear.  Yes, it would be nice if the long, sustained GDP growth we’ve enjoyed these last six years were faster, and we all hope that the unemployment rate continues dropping.  But compared with just about everywhere else, life in the U.S.—on the economic front, at least—is pretty good

Global unemployment rates

Malaysia (2.7%)
Switzerland (3.1%)
South Korea (3.5%)
Japan (3.6%)
Norway (3.7%)
Taiwan (3.9%)
Denmark (4.0%)
Brazil (4.9%)
Russia (4.9%)
Germany (5.0%)
Mexico (5.1%)
India (5.2%)
Saudi Arabia (5.5%)
Indonesia (5.9%)
Pakistan (6.0%)
United Kingdom (6.0%)
Australia (6.2%)
Israel (6.5%)
Canada (6.5%)
Chile (6.6%)
Philippines (6.7%)
Venezuela (7.0%)
Czech Republic (7.1%)
Argentina (7.5%)
Sweden (7.5%)
Netherlands (8.0%)
Austria (8.1%)
Colombia (8.4%)
Finland (8.5%)
Belgium (8.5%)
Iran (9.5%)
Turkey (10.1%)
France (10.2%)
Ireland (11.0%)
Poland (11.3%)
Egypt (12.3%)
Italy (12.6%)
Portugal (13.1%)
Iraq (15.1%)
Spain (23.7%)
Nigeria (23.9%)
South Africa (25.4%)
Greece (25.9%)

If you would like to discuss your current portfolio/asset allocation or any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.


The Pandemic That Isn’t

Omigosh!  There are cases of Ebola in the United States!  Someone with Ebola has flown on a domestic airplane!  Schools are closing in Texas!  Let’s show photos of healthcare workers in Hazmat suits who look like they’re dressed for the Moon, and report on anyone who might have been exposed, whether or not they’ve come down with the virus!

If you want to sell newspapers or catch eyeballs on cable news, nothing works like fear, and the Ebola virus has proven to be a great way to play games with our collective startle reflex.  Get ready for more breathless coverage, like the time when it made headlines when somebody sneezed on an aircraft.

There’s only one thing wrong about this: Ebola is not likely to become a health crisis, much less a global pandemic.  In other words: it’s okay to calm down.

To date, four people in the U.S. and one Spanish nurse have contracted the deadly disease since its outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, three West-African nations which which have, so far, experienced 1,000, 2,000 and 3,500 cases respectively.  Ebola has spread as far as it has in those countries for a variety of reasons not present in the U.S. and Europe: dysfunctional health systems, people living in close proximity in slums with hygiene that would appall most Americans, a lack of trust in authorities, and years of armed civil strife.  Remember, these are countries where there is a one in ten chance of catching cholera, and a higher incidence of malaria.

The thing to remember is, Ebola is not an air-borne disease.  You don’t catch it by sitting next to somebody on the plane, which is why no cases were reported as a result of that now-famous flight to Atlanta–or, for that matter, on that flight taken by the first patient who eventually succumbed to the disease in Dallas.  You catch Ebola through close contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is in the advanced stages of the disease, when the patient is vomiting and plagued by diarrhea.  That’s why the only transmissions in the U.S. so far have been healthcare workers in close contact with the patients.

Other countries, with far less medical resources, have already faced Ebola and kept it from spreading to the general population.  Senegal reported a single Ebola patient, who apparently never transmitted the disease to anyone thanks to local healthcare officials who immediately identified 74 people who had close contact with the patient.  These people were monitored twice daily, and when five developed influenza-like symptoms, they were tested repeatedly.  None had contracted the virus, but if they had, their isolation and monitoring meant that others would not have been infected.

There was a similar story in Nigeria, where an airline passenger collapsed on the tarmac, and the two co-workers who helped him into a cab to the hospital also contracted the virus.  Nigerian authorities identified everyone who had come in contact with the sick people.  In all, roughly 900 individuals were exposed, and they were identified and monitored.  Eighteen of them contracted Ebola, and the plague ended there–in a country whose healthcare system is far from perfect, where one in five deaths is due to malaria, one of only three countries in the world where polio is still endemic.

The lesson here is that, unless you work in a hospital and have had close personal contact with an Ebola patient, there is virtually a zero chance you will contract the disease.  It is even more unlikely that Ebola will grow into a national or global pandemic.  It is an undeniable tragedy in West Africa, which could have been prevented if pharmaceutical companies had been following up on promising treatments in their laboratories.  The U.S. Ebola scare has belatedly changed their priorities, but chances are the vaccine and the cure will actually be needed elsewhere.

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