Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Call it dumb, call it clever, ah, but you can give odds forever

Last night I put on my Guys and Dolls DVD, the 1955 movie adaptation with Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Jean Simmons. Perhaps my favorite song is the one named after the title:

Call it dumb, call it clever
Ah, but you can give odds forever
That the guy's only doing it for some doll
Some doll, some doll
The guy's only doing it for some doll

(On an aside, my only gripe about the DVD is that its audio doesn't seem to have been digitally remastered very well, if at all. It's not hiss, but a slight distortion if you listen closely. Most people won't notice it, though, especially since the movie's simply wonderful with rich visuals.)

The outstanding New York Times columnist John Tierney isn't ascertaining the probability of a guy being smitten by a doll, but I'd say his new bet has really good odds for him. From his latest Times column:
I don't share Matthew Simmons's angst, but I admire his style. He is that rare doomsayer who puts his money where his doom is.

After reading his prediction, quoted Sunday in the cover story of The New York Times Magazine, that oil prices will soar into the triple digits, I called to ask if he'd back his prophecy with cash. Without a second's hesitation, he agreed to bet me $5,000.

His only concern seemed to be that he was fleecing me. Mr. Simmons, the head of a Houston investment bank specializing in the energy industry, patiently explained to me why Saudi Arabia's oil production would falter much sooner than expected. That's the thesis of his new book, "Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy."

I didn't try to argue with him about Saudi Arabia, because I know next to nothing about oil production there or anywhere else. I'm just following the advice of a mentor and friend, the economist Julian Simon: if you find anyone willing to bet that natural resource prices are going up, take him for all you can....

I proposed to [Simmons] a bet using what Julian considered the best measure of a resource's value: how it compares with the average worker's wage. I offered to bet that the price of oil would not rise faster than the average wage, meaning that future workers would be able to afford oil more easily than they could today.

Mr. Simmons said he favored a simpler wager, based on his expectation that the price of oil, now about $65 per barrel, would more than triple during the next five years. He said he'd bet that the price in 2010, when adjusted for inflation so it's stated in 2005 dollars, would be at least $200 per barrel.

Remembering a tip from Julian, I suggested that we use the average price for the whole year of 2010 instead of the price on any particular date - that way, neither of us would be vulnerable to a sudden short-term swing as the market reacted to some unexpected news. Mr. Simmons agreed, and we sealed the deal by e-mail.
In Guys and Dolls, Nathan Detroit (played wonderfully by Sinatra) tried to sucker Sky Masterson (played just as wonderfully by Brando). Masterson replied,
On the day when I left home to make my way in the world, my daddy took me to one side. "Son," my daddy says to me, "I am sorry I am not able to bankroll you to a large start, but not having the necessary lettuce to get you rolling, instead I'm going to stake you to some very valuable advice. One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you're going to wind up with an ear full of cider."
After reflecting on the bet's conditions, I wonder if Simmons cried out as Masterson later did: "Daddy, I got cider in my ear!"

Simmons should have taken Tierney's original bet, I think. I would have hesitated to bet that oil prices wouldn't rise faster than wages, depending on China and India's increasing consumption. OPEC is now investing heavily in trying to find new oil fields, and it's in the interest of U.S. firms to build more refineries. As I pointed out about Malthus' philosophical descendants (which apparently include Simmons), OPEC and oil companies don't want high prices. Oil producers, refiners and sellers don't have true market power (let alone a monopoly), because above a certain price, petroleum will be no more competitive than its substitutes. So everyone involved in producing, refining and selling oil must keep working hard to maintain a steady, high and affordable supply. Combine that with what Don Luskin told us last year about the world's proven oil reserves constantly increasing, and there's no need to worry about the world running out of oil. So don't pay attention to absurd New York Times magazine covers like this:

New York Times magazine cover, 8/22/05

China has been getting into the oil-exploration gig, and not just with Albertan tar-sands. A somewhat underreported bit of news is that China's largest state-owned oil company has bid $4.18 billion for Canadian-owned PetroKazakhstan. Of course Beijing knows that China is consuming a continually larger share of global oil output, and of course they want to help increase the output to keep oil affordable for them. They're not thinking of benefiting anyone but themselves, yet any increase in oil production that they stimulate will benefit the U.S. and everyone else who uses oil. What could more perfectly fulfill what is perhaps Adam Smith's most famous quote?
...he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.
It goes without saying that Beijing believes that China will get more than $4.18 billion worth out of the deal. Meanwhile, should PetroKazakhstan's shareholders approve, they'll have decided their invested resources are better used elsewhere. Isn't voluntary trade beautiful in how it facilitates the shift of resources to those who can (or at least believe so) use them most efficiently?

I really like Tierney. In stark contrast to the Three Stooges (three separate links there) at the Times, he writes sensibly and with a great deal of thought. I've praised him for criticizing the Kelo decision, which he did using an example from the real world, and sans the usual talking points. I wholeheartedly agree with Don Luskin, who blogged last May, "Oh my God, did the New York Times ever make a mistake when it put John Tierney on the op-ed page. This guy is a gem, a real truth-teller."

It's amazing the Times has kept him this long when he opposes so much of its agenda. Speaking of which, check out this column by op-ed contributor Chris Harris, who goes against the Times (especially Krugman's) new mantra of "housing bubble."

My favorite part by far: "As an expert in the field - I've spent my entire life living in or behind homes..."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog post!!!

There's a great posting by James Hamilton here:

The PR of [peak oil]

Wednesday, August 24, 2005 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger TKC said...

I can see oil at $100/barrel. We cut and run out of Iraq. The ME collapses into a cesspool of terrorism so horrific that oil can't be exported anymore. The rest of world can't make up lost supply so prices skyrocket. It could happen.

Otherwise I'll wager an ice cold lager that we see $40/barrel before $100.

There is the other problem of $100/barrel of oil that Perry discusses. Who is going to buy it at that price? I would think that cheaper alternatives would be crawling out of the woodwork at such a high price. Hell, they're practically crawling out of the woodwork at $65. If gasoline was down around $1.50/gallon do you think we'd be seeing so many hybrids on the roads and in the works?

"Don't Panic." Douglas Adam's words to live by.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005 5:47:00 PM  
Blogger TKC said...

Here is an interesting link on the topic.

Hat tip to Clayton Cramer's blog.

Thursday, August 25, 2005 3:42:00 PM  

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