Many of the great declines in the stock market over the past 30 years have been related to oil (United States Oil (USO)). This week we have seen the major indices plummet on geopolitical chaos throughout North Africa, especially the large oil-producing Libya, as investors returned to gold (SPDR Gold Shares (GLD)), silver (iShares Silver Trust (SLV)), and oil. As the market reached record overbought territory, any excuse could begin a significant pullback in equities (SPDR S&P 500 (SPY)).
Investors are monitoring key assets in Egypt (Market Vectors Egypt Index (EGPT)). If either the Suez Canal or Sumed Pipeline come under attack, then we will see a major oil spike, possibly worse than in the late 1970s. Already Iran has taken advantage of the chaos and passed into the Mediterranean, further escalating potential conflicts between Israel (iShares MSCI Israel Cap Invest Mkt Index (EIS)) and the Iranian Allies of Hezbollah and Syria who want to take back control of the Golan Heights. This Middle Eastern instability may have deeper consequences and I don’t believe it will end anytime soon. In fact, it may even eventually spread to Saudi Arabia where the royal family maintains weak control and extremists are gaining popularity. In late January in an article entitled, Will Gold, Oil Prices Soar on Revolts in Tunisia, Egypt? I wrote about the domino effect hypothesis, stating that chaos would not be contained in Tunisia and Egypt. This spread of chaos, causing volatile power vacuums, could have a significant impact on gold and oil, especially now that the domino hypothesis is being confirmed.
At the end of January investors returned to precious metals. Gold has been on sale every six months. A January phenomenon occurs when mutual funds and institutional investors reposition their holdings, sometimes allowing investors to buy a sector on sale. At the end of January, gold and silver found support as geopolitical conditions worsened. The recent Libyan crisis has caused oil to jump which in turn has caused a decline in equities.
As much as the financial crisis and record government spending has helped gold soar to record highs, terrorism and war have been major drivers of the price since September 11, 2001. The Middle East possesses approximately 65% of the world’s oil reserves, and Egypt in particular has two key assets which effect the global oil trade: the Suez Canal and the Sumed Pipeline. Many analysts did not expect Libya to fall into civil war. Reports are showing that oil exports are being curtailed, sending oil into new 52-week highs.
The “Sputnik” moment which President Obama spoke about in his State of the Union address may come faster than expected out of necessity. Washington is actively pursuing supply of North American heavy rare earth assets to fast-track into production as top-secret defense technologies depend on it. Sanctions on China from the WTO will not be enough to meet the growing demand. Even China, which produces over 97% of the rare earths, has expressed interest in heavy rare earth assets globally. Hyundai, the latest company on the electric-car scene, recently commented that it was pursuing a rare earth supply as well.
Economies are growing and demand has increased since the last major Iranian Revolution in 1979 when oil spiked higher. An oil spike now could be much more detrimental 32 years later. The world is more dependent on fossil fuels and many nations are struggling with slow growth and huge debt burdens. An oil spike could cause a major setback for the global economic recovery unless governments initiate major alternative energy and clean energy programs. I believe these current events will create a more significant push into clean energy, non carbon energy. A few commodity sectors may benefit including uranium (Global X Uranium ETF (URA)), lithium (Global X Lithium ETF (LIT)) and rare earths (Market Vectors Rare Earth/Str Metals ETF (REMX)).
President Obama has released this year’s budget and it was shocking. Many analysts were surprised by the huge amount of capital allocated to clean, alternative energy in order to spur innovation and job growth. In the recent budget, a $7500 tax credit will be given to car buyers who purchase an electric car. Obama has a goal of putting 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. Many analysts are predicting about a 10% increase in cars sold due to this legislation. However, tensions are escalating as Iran sticks out its tongue at Israel by passing through the Suez Canal. Oil prices could spike as turmoil spreads through North Africa and the Middle East. Legislators are sending a message that they want to wean themselves off of Middle Eastern oil and look into clean and independent energy.
Investors should expose themselves to the potential supply-demand constraints and rise in oil prices by purchasing developers with major assets in these clean energy mineral sectors or by diversifying into these newly created ETFS, such as REMX or LIT, which track these sectors. As oil spikes, these clean energy commodities should receive a renewed interest by legislators and investors who believe in clean energy power generation.
By Jeb Handwerger