Investment opportunities in the energy markets always bounce between questions of available supply and prospects for demand.
These days many commentators in the U.S. are viewing excess domestic shale gas and tight oil as a factor in restraining energy prices. Meanwhile, their colleagues in Western Europe forecast continuing economic malaise, translating into a similar result.
Both put forward the position that there is a surplus of oil and gas in a weak global economy, thereby reducing concerns over either supply or price.
I have questioned those premises before here in Money Morning. And I agree that there's no crisis situation emerging any time soon. The prices may not remain as low as some believe, but supply isn't going to be an issue in North America or in the European Union.
But the same can't be said about other parts of the world. And it's this wave of unrest that may have repercussions across the entire energy sector.
Russia: The Greatest Threat to the Energy Markets
As Yogi Berra aptly put it, It's deja vu all over again.
The Soviet gulag state is coming back and this time it could wreak havoc on the world's energy markets.
I began my energy career in Russia. Back then it was part of a sprawling Soviet Union. For the past 23 years there have been 15 independent countries in its place.
But these days it sure feels like the Beatles song from the late 1960s, "Back in the USSR."
You see, many governments aren't able to work out how to plot the global energy sector because it becomes too wrapped up in local political machinations.
And the bigger the energy producer, the bigger the impact is on the global picture.
Three Hidden Water Costs That Promise to Boost Energy Prices
This may sound funny, but water availability is becoming an issue in energy generation. And it may start to impact prices.
The issue here is not the environmental impact of water usage. That is quite a different debate.
What I'm talking about today is the water supply/demand issue.
Because water is plentiful in those areas of the U.S. where shale gas and tight oil drilling is most concentrated, the price of the water itself is very low.
But there are three other costs involved with the usage of water, and those are beginning to cause some serious concerns.
Here's what I mean...
The Next Big Change in the Energy Markets
Thoughts are again turning to the next big change in the energy landscape.
As it unfolds, I have been working on how to exploit this trend and will be rolling out my recommendations when I appear at the MoneyShow in Las Vegas next Tuesday and Wednesday.
Of course, before I sketch my new approach to the Caesar's Palace audience, I'll outline it here first. You can expect more on this in coming Money Morning editions.
Today, I want to extend on Saturday's discussion and set the stage for the revisions I will be begin sketching out in my next article.
This is once again about hedging.
Investing in Clean Energy Stocks Just Got More Risky
Despite its promising future, clean energy stocks have proved to be an investing minefield.
Even China-based clean energy stocks are no longer a safe haven. Yesterday (Monday) Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd. (NYSE ADR: STP) defaulted on its debt.
Heavy losses caused by plummeting prices for solar panels - which fell 73% from 2010 to 2012 - left Suntech unable to make the payment on a $541 million bond that was due Friday.
The news caused Suntech stock, already down 80% over the past year, to slip another 10%.
While numerous U.S. renewable energy companies have faltered, most notably the 2011 bankruptcy of solar panel maker Solyndra, Suntech is the first Chinese clean energy company that could go under.
What's new is a reluctance on the part of the Chinese government to keep pouring subsidies into money-losing companies.
Buy Signal: Top Hedge Funds Are Moving Into Energy
There is an easy way to find out where the market thinks a particular sector is heading: Check out the movement of futures contracts held by top hedge fund managers.
These days the signal is clear and pointing in one direction. It's in energy.
Reports have recently surfaced that hedge funds are moving into commodities in general, and energy commodities in particular. What's more these moves are more bullish than at any time since midsummer.
The reason is the same one that we have been discussing for several months. Demand is coming back more quickly than anticipated.
Energy spikes usually start that way. Indicators of market resurgence seem to rush onto the scene, catch analysts by surprise, and the acceleration begins.
But this time, those who survey the market should have seen it coming. After all, the indicators and benchmarks have been there. I have been laying them out here in Money Morning for weeks.
Two elements have emerged over the past several days that finally require the pundits to catch up with us.
First, it is becoming impossible to ignore what is happening in the U.S. and China. Both markets are moving up, with that direction intensifying of late.
In the U.S., forward economic indicators are developing into a bull market signal. This has augmented the run we have experienced of late, largely due to the combination of an oversold condition, no bad news (Congress and the White House may at last be learning how to play nice in the sandbox), and money moving back in.
But it's the second factor that everybody will be talking about this week.
Four Timely Moves For The Next Three Crises
As I wrote last Thursday, the aftermath of the fiscal cliff deal requires some restructuring of energy sector holdings.
We are currently in a brief period between crises. Nothing was resolved in the eleventh (and a half) hour compromise.
The truth is there are still three huge fights on the horizon - revisiting the sequestration (automatic spending cuts) portion of the fiscal cliff, spending versus taxation in the budget, and raising the debt ceiling.
All will hit by early March.
So the reprieve gained on New Year's Eve will be brief.
The spike after the accord was huge. Unfortunately, as we witnessed late last week, the market rally has no legs. VIX (volatility) has been abnormally low, but that will be drifting up, to accelerate as we get closer to the next round of legislative paralysis.
We cannot predict how protracted this next round will be, but early indications are hardly encouraging.
That's why investors need to be more defensive and identify energy components that are more likely to withstand the gridlock and even profit from it.
Overall, you should divide the energy sector into four segments:
- Processors/Distributors; and,
Here's what you need to know...
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The Path to Energy Independence is More Rocky Than It Seems
You might have seen yesterday's headline in the Wall Street Journal: "U.S. Redraws World Oil Map."
As the article explains, U.S. oil production is now on pace to surpass Saudi Arabia by 2020. This would make the United States world's largest oil producer. We're already the second-largest natural gas producer, according to 2010 EIA estimates.
It's all thanks to the U.S. shale boom that has unlocked billions of barrels of oil and trillions of feet of natural gas from the Appalachian Mountains to the Pacific Coast, from the Bakken in North Dakota to the shale fields of southern Texas.
But all of this fracking has caused some serious economic and environmental problems.
And while I greatly advocate increased drilling and domestic production, we still must address a wide-range of problems now plaguing the shale oil and gas sectors.
After all - with apologies to Voltaire and Spiderman - with such great fortune comes greater responsibility.
That's why I am in the third day of what has become a very interesting conference here in Pittsburgh. It was convened to set the agenda moving forward to deal with the almost invisible aspects of shale oil and gas drilling.
In fact, for the first time, the conference's primary focus will be on the negatives caused by the drilling.
We also have questions surrounding the amount of water required to frack these formations (the process needs a lot of water to break open rock and release hydrocarbons), as well as the ongoing public health fears from the chemicals used.
Now, we are seeing parallel economic problems as well.
In the Marcellus basin, researchers are now recording some of these shortcomings and placing them in four basic categories.
The real concern is that these four problems - in infrastructure, labor, local inflation, and the environment - will remain well after the drilling (and the revenue) has moved on.
So before you decide to declare "energy independence", take a look at some of the downside that may come along with it.
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State of the Union: How to Profit From President Obama's New Clean Energy Challenge
In last week's State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama issued a national challenge: Take the 11.5% of the U.S. electricity that emanates from clean-energy sources and boost it to 80% by 2035.
As with any game-changing direction - landing a man on the moon in a decade, bringing an end to the Cold War, curing cancer, or weaning our economy off of coal and crude oil - leaders such as President Obama provide the enticement.
But the market has to figure out how to get it done.
U.S. Clean Energy Investment Puts Upward Pressure on Rising Food Prices
In U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday, he highlighted clean energy investment as a key component of America's future, one that will be reflected in his budget proposal for fiscal 2012.
"With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015," the president said in his speech to members of Congress. "[I]nstead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's."
This commitment to clean energy investment increases the importance of biofuels like ethanol, made from corn and other agricultural products. About 40% of U.S. corn is used to make ethanol, and increased ethanol production leads to higher corn and food prices.