14 December 2011

A grain of salt #nlpoli

Around this time of year the country’s major banks issue their economic assessments of the current year and their forecasts of the coming one.

Royal Bank issued the most recent one.  Not surprisingly, the bank’s economists are forecasting that the provinces that are most heavily dependent on natural resources will do quite well.  Saskatchewan and Alberta will lead the country in economic growth, with Newfoundland and Labrador in fourth place.

RBC’s forecast for 2012 and 2013 has Newfoundland and Labrador in the same relative position.  Natural resource prices and capital construction are driving things.  Over the next couple of years, new mineral developments will offset declines in oil production, according to RBC.  While their reasons may be slightly different, BMO and Scotiabank’s forecasts are all generally similar to RBC’s view.

There’s nothing surprising about any of that.  Newfoundland and Labrador has enjoyed phenomenal economic growth for most of the last 15 years.  In 2002, for example, the provincial gross domestic product grew 8.2% and in 1998 and 1999, the province led the country in economic growth for two years in a row.

There’s also nothing about the current economic growth that has anything to do with the party currently in power either. Some people would like you to believe otherwise.  A great many people in the province believe otherwise.  But they are wrong.

What you really need to do when looking at these economic projections is go beyond the short-term and the superficial.

Like oil prices.  Current thinking is that oil should be $100 a barrel on average.  In 2011, oil prices operated within a pretty narrow band, so if things stay like that, the world should be fine.


The biggest, and more bullish, tail risk is of heightened turmoil in the Middle East and north Africa and, increasingly, in Russia, the world’s second-largest oil producer. An attack by Israel on Iran, for example, could push oil prices briefly towards $250 a barrel, according to some estimates.

Now with production in this province forecast to drop by 20-odd% from 2011, that might get a few people really excited.  Russia could be Kathy Dunderdale’s best friend, someone quipped.  Oil at $250 a barrel for any length of time would deliver a pretty sweet financial reward into the provincial treasury.  Some people might even use it as an “I told ya” moment to justify Muskrat Falls.

Just consider the cost of living with oil at around $100 a barrel, as it is now.  Look at the cost of living in all sorts of places, including Labrador West where housing prices are already at crisis levels for a great many families.

Now think of what it would be like with prices driven up by the costs of shipping just about all major consumer goods into the province.

Not pretty, eh?

And for those people who imagine the Americans desperate for cheap hydroelectricity at that point, well, the picture is even less rosy for them.

ExxonMobil produced an interesting energy forecast recently that looks at what the energy world might look like out to about 2040. Electricity demand will grow globally.  But in the United States, expect to see more electricity produced by natural gas.  There’s plenty of it and new natural gas plants are much more efficient at producing electricity than existing methods.

As for price, well, take a gander at this forecast of the cost of producing electricity in 2030:


Electricity produced from natural gas will be less than half the cost of Muskrat Falls electricity.

Forget about those export sales, gang.

But just imagine carrying the huge debt from Muskrat Falls, paying the electricity prices in this province because the provincial government forced you to pay for it and trying to cope with all the other increased costs coming because oil is more than double what it is today.

You really need to take all this talk of wonder and glory with just a grain of salt.  Things are good these days, better than they have ever been.  But if we make mistakes today, if we don’t look at the big picture, we can be paying for them tomorrow.

Big time.

- srbp -