America’s energy independence was an illusion created by cheap debt. All that’s left to tally is the damage.
Ever since the oil shocks of the 1970s, the idea of energy independence, which in its grandest incarnation meant freedom from the world’s oil-rich trouble spots, has been a dream for Democrats and Republicans alike. It once seemed utterly unattainable — until the advent of fracking, which unleashed a torrent of oil. By early 2019, America was the world’s largest producer of crude oil, surpassing both Saudi Arabia and Russia. And President Trump reveled in the rhetoric: We hadn’t merely achieved independence, his administration said, but rather “energy dominance.”
Then came Covid-19, and, on March 8, the sudden and vicious end to the truce between Saudi Arabia and Russia, under which both countries limited production to prop up prices. On March 9, the price of oil plunged by almost a third, its steepest one-day drop in almost 30 years.
As a result, the stocks that make up the S.&P. 500 energy sector fell 20 percent, marking the sector’s largest drop on record. There were rumblings that shale companies would seek a federal lifeline. Whiting Petroleum, whose stock once traded for $150 a share, filed for bankruptcy. Tens of thousands of Texans are being laid off in the Permian Basin and other parts of the state, and the whole industry is bracing for worse.
On the surface, it appears that two unforeseeable and random shocks are threatening our dream.
In reality, the dream was always an illusion, and its collapse was already underway. That’s because oil fracking has never been financially viable. America’s energy independence was built on an industry that is the very definition of dependent — dependent on investors to keeping pouring billions upon billions in capital into money-losing companies to fund their drilling. Investors were willing to do this only as long as oil prices, which are not under America’s control, were high — and when they believed that one day, profits would materialize.
Even before the coronavirus crisis, the spigot was drying up. Now, it has been shut off.
The industry’s lack of profits wasn’t exactly a secret. In early 2015, the hedge fund manager David Einhorn announced at an investment conference that he had looked at the financial statements of 16 publicly traded shale producers and found that from 2006 to 2014, they spent $80 billion more than they received from selling oil. The basic reason is that the amount of oil coming out of a fracked well declines steeply after the first year — more than 50 percent in year two. To keep growing, companies have to keep plowing billions back into the ground.
The industry’s boosters argue that technological gains, such as drilling ever bigger wells, and clustering wells more tightly together to reduce the cost of moving equipment, eventually would lead to a gusher of profits. Fracking, they said, was just manufacturing, in which process and human intelligence could reduce costs and conquer geology.
Actually, no. The key issue is the “parent child problem.” When wells are clustered tightly together, with so-called child wells drilled around the parent, the wells interfere with one another, resulting in less oil, not more. (This may not surprise anyone who is attempting to be productive while working in close quarters with their children.)
The promised profits haven’t materialized. In the first half of 2019, when oil was around $55 a barrel, only a few top-tier companies were profitable. “By now, it should be abundantly clear that the current shale oil business model does not work — even for the very best companies in the industry,” the investment firm SailingStone Capital Partners explained in a recent note.
Policymakers who wanted to tout energy independence disregarded all this, even as investors were starting to lose patience. As early as 2018, some investors had begun to tell companies that they wanted to see free cash flow, and that they were tired of compensation models that rewarded executives with rich paydays for increasing production, but failed to take profits into account. As a result, fracking stocks badly underperformed the market.
But with super-low interest rates, investors in search of yield were still willing to buy debt. Over the past 10 years, the entire energy industry has issued over $400 billion in high-yield debt. “They subprimed the American energy ecosystem,” says a longtime energy market observer.
Even as the public equity and debt markets grew cautious, drilling continued. That’s because one big source of funding didn’t dry up: private equity. And why not? Private equity financiers typically get a 2 percent management fee on funds they can raise, so they are incentivized to take all the money that pension funds, desperate for returns to shore up their promises to retirees, have been willing to give them.
In the Haynesville and the Utica Shales, two major natural gas plays, over half of the drilling is being done by private equity-backed companies; in the oil-rich Permian Basin, it’s about a quarter of the drilling. From 2015 through 2019, private equity firms raised almost $80 billion in funds focused mostly on shale production, according to Barclays.
Until the capital markets began to get suspicious, private equity investors could flip companies they had funded to larger, public companies, making a profitable exit regardless of whether or not the underlying business was making money.
That, too, is ending, as investors in such funds have become disillusioned.
You can see how all of this is playing out by looking at Occidental Petroleum. In 2019, Oxy, as it’s known, topped a competing bid from Chevron and paid $38 billion to take over Anadarko Petroleum, which is one of the major shale companies. Since that time, Oxy’s stock has plummeted almost 80 percent in part due to fears that the Anadarko acquisition is going to prove so wildly unprofitable that it sinks the company.
On March 10, the company announced that it would slash its dividend for the first time since the early 1990s, when Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait sent oil prices plummeting.
Occidental is just one piece of the puzzle. In April, the Energy Information Administration cut its forecast for U.S. oil production, estimating that it will fall both this year and next — suggesting that the days of huge growth in production from shale are over.
On March 10, Scott Sheffield, the chief executive of Pioneer Natural Resources, a major driller in the Permian Basin, told Bloomberg that U.S. oil output could fall by more than two million barrels per day by next year if prices remain where they are today.
“This is late ’80s bad,” a close observer of the industry says.
After the United States engaged in a high-stakes negotiation with Russia and Saudi Arabia to curtail production, a tentative deal was struck on Thursday. Certainly, President Trump, who has staked so much on the American shale industry, wants to save it. “We really need Trump to do something or he’s going to lose all the energy states in this election,” Mr. Sheffield told CNBC in late March.
A deal, and higher oil prices, might help the industry. But they won’t fix its fundamental problem with profitability. Energy independence was a fever dream, fed by cheap debt and frothy capital markets.
All that’s left to tally is the environmental and financial damage. In the five years ending in April, there were 215 bankruptcies for oil and gas companies, involving $130 billion in debt, according to the law firm Haynes and Boone. Moody’s, the rating agency, said that in the third quarter of 2019, 91 percent of defaulted U.S. corporate debt was due to oil and gas companies. And North American oil and gas drillers have almost $100 billion of debt that is set to mature in the next four years.
It’s still unclear where most of this debt is held. Some of it has been packaged into so-called collateralized loan obligations, pieces of which are held by hedge funds. Some of it may be on bank balance sheets. Investors in the equity of these companies have already seen the value of their holdings decimated. Pension funds that have poured money into private equity firms may take a hit soon, too. All we know for sure is that fracking company executives and private equity financiers have made a fortune by touting the myth of energy independence — and they won’t be the ones who have to pick up the pieces.
Romney’s main complaint in the piece is that Donald Trump is a mercurial and divisive leader. That’s true, of course. But beneath the personal slights, Romney has a policy critique of Trump. He seems genuinely angry that Trump might pull American troops out of the Syrian civil war. Romney doesn’t explain how staying in Syria would benefit America. He doesn’t appear to consider that a relevant question. More policing in the Middle East is always better. We know that. Virtually everyone in Washington agrees.
Corporate tax cuts are also popular in Washington, and Romney is strongly on board with those, too. His piece throws a rare compliment to Trump for cutting the corporate rate a year ago.
That’s not surprising. Romney spent the bulk of his business career at a firm called Bain Capital. Bain Capital all but invented what is now a familiar business strategy:
- Take over an existing company for a short period of time,
- cut costs by firing employees,
- run up the debt,
- extract the wealth, and
- move on, sometimes
- leaving retirees without their earned pensions.
Romney became fantastically rich doing this.
Meanwhile, a remarkable number of the companies are now bankrupt or extinct. This is the private equity model. Our ruling class sees nothing wrong with it. It’s how they run the country.
Mitt Romney refers to unwavering support for a finance-based economy and an internationalist foreign policy as the “mainstream Republican” view. And he’s right about that. For generations, Republicans have considered it their duty to make the world safe for banking, while simultaneously prosecuting ever more foreign wars. Modern Democrats generally support those goals enthusiastically.
There are signs, however, that most people do not support this, and not just in America. In countries around the world — France, Brazil, Sweden, the Philippines, Germany, and many others — voters are suddenly backing candidates and ideas that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. These are not isolated events. What you’re watching is entire populations revolting against leaders who refuse to improve their lives.
Something like this has been in happening in our country for three years. Donald Trump rode a surge of popular discontent all the way to the White House. Does he understand the political revolution that he harnessed? Can he reverse the economic and cultural trends that are destroying America? Those are open questions.
But they’re less relevant than we think. At some point, Donald Trump will be gone. The rest of us will be gone, too. The country will remain. What kind of country will be it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live? These are the only questions that matter.
The answer used to be obvious. The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.
The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy:
Above all, deep relationships with other people. Those are the things that you want for your children. They’re what our leaders should want for us, and would want if they cared.
But our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.
One of the biggest lies our leaders tell us that you can separate economics from everything else that matters. Economics is a topic for public debate. Family and faith and culture, meanwhile, those are personal matters. Both parties believe this.
Members of our educated upper-middle-classes are now the backbone of the Democratic Party who usually describe themselves as fiscally responsible and socially moderate. In other words, functionally libertarian. They don’t care how you live, as long as the bills are paid and the markets function. Somehow, they don’t see a connection between people’s personal lives and the health of our economy, or for that matter, the country’s ability to pay its bills. As far as they’re concerned, these are two totally separate categories.
Social conservatives, meanwhile, come to the debate from the opposite perspective, and yet reach a strikingly similar conclusion. The real problem, you’ll hear them say, is that the American family is collapsing. Nothing can be fixed before we fix that. Yet, like the libertarians they claim to oppose, many social conservatives also consider markets sacrosanct. The idea that families are being crushed by market forces seems never to occur to them. They refuse to consider it. Questioning markets feels like apostasy.
Both sides miss the obvious point: Culture and economics are inseparably intertwined. Certain economic systems allow families to thrive. Thriving families make market economies possible. You can’t separate the two. It used to be possible to deny this. Not anymore. The evidence is now overwhelming. How do we know? Consider the inner cities.
Thirty years ago, conservatives looked at Detroit or Newark and many other places and were horrified by what they saw. Conventional families had all but disappeared in poor neighborhoods. The majority of children were born out of wedlock. Single mothers were the rule. Crime and drugs and disorder became universal.
What caused this nightmare? Liberals didn’t even want to acknowledge the question. They were benefiting from the disaster, in the form of reliable votes. Conservatives, though, had a ready explanation for inner-city dysfunction and it made sense: big government. Decades of badly-designed social programs had driven fathers from the home and created what conservatives called a “culture of poverty” that trapped people in generational decline.
There was truth in this. But it wasn’t the whole story. How do we know? Because virtually the same thing has happened decades later to an entirely different population. In many ways, rural America now looks a lot like Detroit.
This is striking because rural Americans wouldn’t seem to have much in common with anyone from the inner city. These groups have different cultures, different traditions and political beliefs. Usually they have different skin colors. Rural people are white conservatives, mostly.
Yet, the pathologies of modern rural America are familiar to anyone who visited downtown Baltimore in the 1980s: Stunning out of wedlock birthrates. High male unemployment. A terrifying drug epidemic. Two different worlds. Similar outcomes. How did this happen? You’d think our ruling class would be interested in knowing the answer. But mostly they’re not. They don’t have to be interested. It’s easier to import foreign labor to take the place of native-born Americans who are slipping behind.
But Republicans now represent rural voters. They ought to be interested. Here’s a big part of the answer: male wages declined. Manufacturing, a male-dominated industry, all but disappeared over the course of a generation. All that remained in many places were the schools and the hospitals, both traditional employers of women. In many places, women suddenly made more than men.
Now, before you applaud this as a victory for feminism, consider the effects. Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t. Over big populations, this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow — more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.
This isn’t speculation. This is not propaganda from the evangelicals. It’s social science. We know it’s true. Rich people know it best of all. That’s why they get married before they have kids. That model works. But increasingly, marriage is a luxury only the affluent in America can afford.
And yet, and here’s the bewildering and infuriating part, those very same affluent married people, the ones making virtually all the decisions in our society, are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them get and stay married. Rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy.
This is negligence on a massive scale. Both parties ignore the crisis in marriage. Our mindless cultural leaders act like it’s still 1961, and the biggest problem American families face is that sexism is preventing millions of housewives from becoming investment bankers or Facebook executives.
For our ruling class, more investment banking is always the answer. They teach us it’s more virtuous to devote your life to some soulless corporation than it is to raise your own kids.
Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote an entire book about this. Sandberg explained that our first duty is to shareholders, above our own children. No surprise there. Sandberg herself is one of America’s biggest shareholders. Propaganda like this has made her rich.
What’s remarkable is how the rest of us responded to it. We didn’t question why Sandberg was saying this. We didn’t laugh in her face at the pure absurdity of it. Our corporate media celebrated Sandberg as the leader of a liberation movement. Her book became a bestseller: “Lean In.” As if putting a corporation first is empowerment. It is not. It is bondage. Republicans should say so.
They should also speak out against the ugliest parts of our financial system. Not all commerce is good. Why is it defensible to loan people money they can’t possibly repay? Or charge them interest that impoverishes them? Payday loan outlets in poor neighborhoods collect 400 percent annual interest.
We’re OK with that? We shouldn’t be. Libertarians tell us that’s how markets work — consenting adults making voluntary decisions about how to live their lives. OK. But it’s also disgusting. If you care about America, you ought to oppose the exploitation of Americans, whether it’s happening in the inner city or on Wall Street.
And by the way, if you really loved your fellow Americans, as our leaders should, if it would break your heart to see them high all the time. Which they are. A huge number of our kids, especially our boys, are smoking weed constantly. You may not realize that, because new technology has made it odorless. But it’s everywhere.
And that’s not an accident. Once our leaders understood they could get rich from marijuana, marijuana became ubiquitous. In many places, tax-hungry politicians have legalized or decriminalized it. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner now lobbies for the marijuana industry. His fellow Republicans seem fine with that. “Oh, but it’s better for you than alcohol,” they tell us.
Maybe. Who cares? Talk about missing the point. Try having dinner with a 19-year-old who’s been smoking weed. The life is gone. Passive, flat, trapped in their own heads. Do you want that for your kids? Of course not. Then why are our leaders pushing it on us? You know the reason. Because they don’t care about us.
When you care about people, you do your best to treat them fairly. Our leaders don’t even try. They hand out jobs and contracts and scholarships and slots at prestigious universities based purely on how we look. There’s nothing less fair than that, though our tax code comes close.
Under our current system, an American who works for a salary pays about twice the tax rate as someone who’s living off inherited money and doesn’t work at all. We tax capital at half of what we tax labor. It’s a sweet deal if you work in finance, as many of our rich people do.
In 2010, for example, Mitt Romney made about $22 million dollars in investment income. He paid an effective federal tax rate of 14 percent. For normal upper-middle-class wage earners, the federal tax rate is nearly 40 percent. No wonder Mitt Romney supports the status quo. But for everyone else, it’s infuriating.
Our leaders rarely mention any of this. They tell us our multi-tiered tax code is based on the principles of the free market. Please. It’s based on laws that the Congress passed, laws that companies lobbied for in order to increase their economic advantage. It worked well for those people. They did increase their economic advantage. But for everyone else, it came at a big cost. Unfairness is profoundly divisive. When you favor one child over another, your kids don’t hate you. They hate each other.
That happens in countries, too. It’s happening in ours, probably by design. Divided countries are easier to rule. And nothing divides us like the perception that some people are getting special treatment. In our country, some people definitely are getting special treatment. Republicans should oppose that with everything they have.
What kind of country do you want to live in? A fair country. A decent country. A cohesive country. A country whose leaders don’t accelerate the forces of change purely for their own profit and amusement. A country you might recognize when you’re old.
A country that listens to young people who don’t live in Brooklyn. A country where you can make a solid living outside of the big cities. A country where Lewiston, Maine seems almost as important as the west side of Los Angeles. A country where environmentalism means getting outside and picking up the trash. A clean, orderly, stable country that respects itself. And above all, a country where normal people with an average education who grew up in no place special can get married, and have happy kids, and repeat unto the generations. A country that actually cares about families, the building block of everything.