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Coronavirus may be the straw that breaks the back of oil fracking



Consumers have some good news at the service station. Prices at the pump for gasoline and diesel are down about 6% since the beginning of the year. For that they can thank the coronavirus (now called Covid-19) outbreak—although it comes at the heavy cost of almost 47,000 people ill and 1,369 dead so far according to the Feb. 14 statistics from the World Health Organization.

At $2.42 regular and $2.91 diesel, these aren’t the lowest prices ever, but they are a big change from the respective $2.90 and $3.17 in the first week of May 2019 and a respectable drop from the $2.58 and $3.08 of the first week in January.

The continuing drop from the 2010s is owed in large part to expanding oil supplies, largely through the controversial method known as hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, a talking point in the 2020 presidential campaign. High-pressure water and chemicals pumped deep underground crack shale rock open, releasing trapped oil for extraction.

“People don’t understand how important the oil shale business has been for the global oil markets,” said Adam Rozencwajg, managing partner of natural resources investment advisor G&R Associates. “In the last ten years, world oil consumption has gone up by about 13 million barrels a day. Close to 75% of that oil came from U.S. shale.”

But the most recent drop in gas prices is a result—at least in big part—of the reduced economic activity in China due to Covid-19. Economic activity and consumption of oil in China are down significantly. The International Energy Agency has cut its demand outlook by 30% in response. Prices are dropping like a stone and have already reached the point where new fracking is barely profitable, if at all.

Environmentalists might applaud, but the cheers could be muted in a few years. The fracking business has already been on shaky legs, and current conditions remind some of what eventually led to triple-digit barrel prices a decade back.

Oil and gas tumble

There’s been a sharp drop of oil prices since the year’s opening. “Brent crude and other oil indicators are down about 20% in the last 30 days, so it’s significant,” said Max Krangle, director of energy market research firm NRGExpert. “Unofficial Chinese government sources have said [national] demand is down about 20%, or 3 million barrels a day, which is a significant decline.”

Although getting reliable data out of China can at times be challenging, Krangle said “it’s not difficult to substantiate these numbers given the quarantine and the panic we’ve seen.”

The graph below shows how West Texas intermediate (WTI) and Brent per-barrel crude oil prices—the major benchmarks for the commodities—have changed since the beginning of 2010.

How much the steep drop at the end of the graph is due to China’s lower consumption because of Covid-19 is hard to say, according to Krangle. As Bill Ebanks, managing director in the energy practice of consulting firm AlixPartners notes, “an unseasonably warm winter” reducing the need for artificial heating is another factor.

According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), China is the second largest consumer of oil after the U.S.

Big reductions in China’s consumption noticeably affect world markets. “We’d say the oil market was pretty much balanced [before] the virus,” said Leigh Goehring, also a managing partner at G&R Associates. “But since the virus has started, you can definitely see the market has shifted into surplus.”

With surplus comes the falling prices that have been evident. U.S. fracking activity feels a major impact from the slide because the production process is inherently expensive.

The costly aspect of fracking is the capital investment needed in the initial drilling. Not only can wells extend downward thousands of feet, but also horizontally out at the bottom similar distances. Companies must cart in water and chemicals to pump into the ground so oil flows up. And there’s been constant new drilling: “These wells decline very quickly in their production,” Ebanks said.

Market prices put a cap on the profit any oil or gas well can make and govern whether exploration and production is economically viable. “After the U.S. attacked Iran, [oil] prices spiked up to about $65,” said Jace Jarboe, a futures and options broker with Daniels Trading. “We’re about $15 off those highs.”

For fracking, “the drop between $65 and $50 is the difference between being profitable and being unprofitable,” Ebanks said. “We’re seeing large write-offs by Shell, Exxon, and others, recognizing that the value of their reserves wasn’t what people thought they were.”

There’s an additional complication. Smaller companies, many of which had borrowed too much and were over leveraged, are getting hit even harder. “Access to capital has been shut off,” Ebanks said. “Banks aren’t lending, and there are no [monetary] infusions to be had.”

If the fracking market had been in good shape before, this might be only a painful interlude. Unfortunately, conditions were already deteriorating.

Goehring and Rozencwajg of G&R Associates said that the fracking oil rig count was down 25% year over year even before the outbreak and that shale growth between 2018 and 2019 had slowed by 55%. This year might see growth near zero.

“We believe that the great shale oil revolution in America is in the process of coming to a close,” said Goehring, who finds the current conditions echoing those of 20 years ago, when a massive shock reduced production and oil prices rose from $11 a barrell to $144 between January 1999 and June 2008.

“For oil investors, you’re probably being given another opportunity,” Goehring said. “The world will want to grow again, and the world will be looking for oil. It was coming from shale, and it won’t be coming from shale in the next upcoming decade.”

And for those whose involvement with oil is more on the consumption end, if oil prices do start racing up again in the next few years, maybe it’s time to start looking at electric vehicles and solar-powered heating.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—Bernard Arnault was briefly the world’s richest man. Then coronavirus struck
Miracle” cancer treatments could be a blessing for investors too
—BlackRock is donating $589 million to bolster financial inclusion
—Inflation is at historic lows, so why do things seem so expensive?
—WATCH: Biggest investing opportunities and risks for 2020

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Reeling World Economy Slammed by Dangerous Disinflationary Shock



(Bloomberg) — The sinking global economy is suffering through a colossal disinflationary shock that could briefly push it into dangerous deflation territory for the first time in decades.With many national economies all but shutting down in an effort to contain the coronavirus, prices on everything from oil and copper to hotel rooms and restaurant take-out are tumbling.“A powerful disinflationary tide is now rising,” said Joseph Lupton, global economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co.That’s worrying because it could lengthen what may be the deepest recession since the Great Depression. Ebbing pricing power makes it harder for companies that piled on debt in the good times to meet their obligations. This could prompt them to make additional cuts in payrolls and investment or even default on their debts and go bankrupt.While weak or falling prices may seem like an unalloyed good for consumers, a widespread deflationary price decline can be deleterious for the whole economy. Households hold off buying in anticipation of ever lower prices, and companies postpone investments because they see limited profit opportunities.Even after the coronavirus crisis eases, the scars from the shutdown — elevated unemployment, shattered consumer and company confidence, and staggered returns to work — may keep price pressures in check, prompting central banks to hold interest rates at rock-bottom levels for a protracted period.“They’re at zero for at least the next two years,” Ethan Harris, head of global economic research for Bank of America Corp., said of the Federal Reserve.Monetary LargessFurther down the road, though, there’s a chance that all the monetary largess — coupled with a massive outpouring of government debt to pay for measures to fight the virus — could spawn a build-up in price pressures.“It’s possible that the response to this over the longer term could have an inflationary consequence,” former New York Federal Reserve Bank of New York President Bill Dudley told an April 2 webinar organized by Princeton University. “But in the near term, it’s very definitely on the disinflationary/deflationary side.”Lupton and his fellow JPMorgan economists forecast that their global consumer-price index will temporarily fall below its year-ago level sometime around the middle of 2020, the first time that’s happened in many decades.Much of that is due to plunging oil prices. Even with their rebound last week on reports of potential production cutbacks, they’re still down about 55% since Jan. 1.But other prices are also slipping, including for services. They have long been resistant to the downward tug that prices for internationally traded goods have been subject to, but now service-sector businesses are being slammed by the shutdowns. Lupton sees worldwide core inflation — excluding food and energy costs — falling below 1% and says there’s a risk it could stay there.Disinflationary Force“The overwhelming disinflationary force is quite large,” Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton in Chicago, told Bloomberg Radio on April 3.While industrial countries — with the exception of Japan — avoided falling into deflation in the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis, they’re entering this one with inflation already at depressed levels.Perhaps the world’s biggest source of deflation right now is China, where producer prices registered a 0.4% decline in February compared with a year ago after rising 0.1% in January. That’s a drag on the price of goods being shipped overseas from the world’s biggest trading nation.But China isn’t the only country in pain.Chain restaurants across Japan have rolled out discount plans for takeout menus, including Yoshinoya Co., which serves bowls of beef on rice and is running a 15%-off campaign.Read more: Deflation a Real Risk for Japan, Former BOJ Economy Chief SaysThe British Retail Consortium reported on April 1 that shop prices fell 0.8% in March, the biggest decline since May 2018, following a 0.6% February drop.And in the U.S., domestic air fares plunged by an average of 14% between March 4 and March 7, according to booking site Average revenue per hotel room plummeted 80% during the March 22-28 week from year-ago levels, hospitality-data firm STR reported.“In terms of our business, COVID-19 is like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” Marriott International Inc. Chief Executive Officer Arne Sorenson said in March 19 video. “For a company that’s 92 years old, that’s borne witness to the Great Depression, World War II and many other economic and global crises, that’s saying something.”Investors seem to be looking for a long period of very low inflation, according to trading in inflation-protected securities, although some analysts caution the readings may be distorted by a dash for cash.Even before the crisis, monetary-policy makers were worried inflation was too low for the good of their economies. Now they have even more reason for concern.“Deflation cannot be ruled out, but I refuse to make an estimate,” European Central Bank Governing Council member Robert Holzman said. “If deflation is due to a slump in the real economy, it will be difficult to solve this through monetary-policy instruments alone.”Some economists think it’s inflation, not deflation, that’s the problem.“What will then happen as the lock down gets lifted and recovery ensues, following a period of massive fiscal and monetary expansion?” London School of Economics Emeritus Professor Charles Goodhart and Talking Heads Macroeconomics founder Manoj Pradhan wrote for VOX on March 27. “The answer, as in the aftermath of wars, will be a surge in inflation, quite likely more than 5% and even in the order of 10% in 2021.Former chief White House economist Jason Furman said faster inflation should be welcomed, not worried about.“I don’t think we should be afraid of getting inflation,” Furman, who is now a professor at Harvard University, told Bloomberg Radio on April 2. “If we get inflation that would be good. That would be a good sign that we have adequate demand.”For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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The first American small-batch whiskey made specifically for French consumers



When Ashley Donahey began thinking about a future producing her own bourbon whiskey, she was still gainfully employed at the State Department as an adviser to the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues. Two Worlds Whiskey, the brand she launched this month, was still years away, but in some respects its creation was an inevitability. The former diplomat’s passion for bourbon stemmed from her Kentucky upbringing in a family whose heritage is at once intimately tied to the American Revolution and to the early days of whiskey distilling.

In 1777, the Marquis de Lafayette set sail for America to assist the American rebels in their fight for liberty. Donahey’s fifth great grandfather, William Downard, was among the rebels in Pennsylvania who went on to become victorious, thanks in part to France and the commitment of Lafayette. After moving to Kentucky after the war, Downard began distilling whiskey just as two French brothers, Jean and Louis Tarascon, had begun making a novel style of whiskey, one aged in charred oak barrels following the centuries-old tradition of aging cognac. A swift sensation among the French cognac aficionados living farther down the Ohio River in New Orleans, the new style earned the name bourbon whiskey as a nod to the French House of Bourbon—or so the legend holds.

Ashley Donahey, founder of Two Worlds Whiskey
Jesse Morgan

While it might be considered the ultimate homegrown American spirit,
bourbon’s origins are inextricably connected to France. Similarly, so were
Donahey’s family ties. During World War II, her grandfather fought along the
Normandy coast all the way to Cherbourg, where he remained until liberation. As
traumatic as wartime was, he looked back on his time living in France with
great fondness.

Growing up with such family memories was significant in leading Donahey down an academic and professional path—first studying French linguistics, then working in global diplomacy and business—that would permanently anchor her to France.

As for her hometown spirit, that affection stayed with Donahey throughout her career in Washington and became the foundation of a germinating idea. With even greater urgency following the radical shift in the U.S. administration in 2017, the idea became the catalyst for a total career change.

Two Worlds Whiskey is touted as the first “luxury” American whiskey crafted exclusively for France.
Jesse Morgan

That’s when she left behind a steady six-figure salary, moved to France (the No. 1 consumer of whiskey per capita), and enrolled in INSEEC business school to acquire the skills to launch a brand of her own. By 2018, Donahey was working as a brand ambassador for La Maison du Whiskey in Paris, traveling across France running tastings for bartenders, shop owners, and whiskey lovers. That’s when the startling realization hit: The French are well versed in whiskeys from Japan, Scotland, and Ireland, but they are virtually unaware of their country’s historic contributions to the creation and popularization of American whiskey.

“If they had any experience with bourbon, it was with entry-level mass market brands,” Donahey explains. “But they certainly didn’t know about the French ties nor did they have access to the best bottles.”

Donahey knew then that her brand would seek to reinforce the historic alliance between the U.S. and its first ally, France, and offer flavor profiles tailored to the sophisticated French palate.

Named for Lafayette, the “hero of two worlds,” Two Worlds Whiskey will produce several ranges, crafted with the help of The Spirits Group, a woman-run distilling consultancy in Louisville. La Victoire, the kickoff range launched with a preorder crowdfunding campaign, is a small-batch bourbon made from barrels of straight bourbon whiskey distilled and aged in the United States and bottled in Cognac. L’Alliance, the second range, also named for one of the three ships Lafayette sailed to reach America, will be distilled and aged in the U.S. but finished in France through secondary maturation in French wine or spirits casks.

From left: Donahey with chief barrel officer Monica Wolf and master blender Ashley Barnes.
Jesse Morgan

But it’s the third range, L’Hermione, that Donahey says makes her project completely novel. “It involves importing American whiskey distillate and doing the primary maturation in France, in French oak barrels, made by French coopers, in the South of France where the climate is similar to that of Kentucky,” she explains. “When it happens, it will be the very first French-American whiskey.”

That last range, the most ambitious arm of the project, will require
building an aging cellar in Provence and, as a result, bringing on outside
investors (thus far, the operation has been self-financed). For now, Donahey,
who is based in Paris, is working on selling the first 2,107 bottles of the
first batch—in a pandemic.

“Within 72 hours, I went from hosting a sold-out launch party at a prestigious venue in Paris, with guests flying in as far as Kentucky and Kenya, to hosting an impromptu Facebook Live in my living room,” Donahey says. “But I am grateful that I was still able to launch digitally and allow my supporters to reserve their bottles from the safety of their homes. I think everyone needs something to look forward to right now.”

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—Diary of a lockdown: What it feels like in 17 cities during the coronavirus
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—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEOs
Italian winemakers grapple with the coronavirus lockdown
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Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.

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Food companies have 7 days to remove cargo from ports



CARGO owners, which include major food companies, now have seven days to withdraw reefers from Manila’s congested ports before these are forfeited in favor of the government. 

Joint Administrative Order No. 20-01 dated April 2 expedites the release of refrigerated containers and dry vans that have piled up in Manila ports amid the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ). 

The order, published in a newspaper on Sunday, included a list of  companies whose cargoes remain at the Manila ports. 

Under the order, cargo not withdrawn within the given timeframe will be considered abandoned or forfeited, and disposed of by the Bureau of Customs.

The order said that a list of reefer containers pending at ports, including the name of the consignee, will be published in government websites, social media, and leading newspapers to inform the public of the immediate need to withdraw the reefers.

“The public shall be informed that non-withdrawal within seven (7) days shall result to abandonment.”

Fastfood companies Jollibee Foods Corp. and Golden Arches Development Corp. (McDonalds Philippines) are included in the list.

Food and beverage companies San Miguel Foods, Inc.; Procter & Gamble Philippines, Inc.; The Purefoods Hormel Co., Inc.; Century Pacific Food, Inc.; Monde Nissin Corp.; Prime Pacific Foods Corp.; and Universal Robina Corp. also have cargo pending at Manila ports.

The Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) can impose penalties for refrigerated and chilled cargo that are not removed from the ports.

Within 24 hours after a decree of abandonment and forfeiture has been issued on these containers, the Bureau of Customs (BoC) will decide how these items will be disposed off. Goods that are fit for consumption will be donated to the Office of Civil Defense, once approved by the Finance secretary.

The PPA had earlier warned that cargo congestion at Manila ports may cause the terminals to shut down, and may lead to a shortage in food and other supplies.

The order was released in order to “ensure the availability of essential goods, in particular food and medicine, by adopting measures as may reasonably be necessary to facilitate and/or minimize disruption to the supply chain.”

The list also includes dozens of containers for fishery companies, including the Royale Fishing Corp., Silver Sea Star Fishing, and Maria Fe Fishing Corp.

Rustan Coffee Corp. (Starbucks Coffee Philippines), Foodsphere, Inc.; Fonterra Brands Philippines, Inc.; Happy Hunting Ground Farms Corp., and Consolidated Dairy and Frozen Food are also in the list, among many others.

Non-food companies like Glaxosmithkline Philippines, Inc.; Universal Power Solutions, Inc.; Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. also have cargo pending at the ports.

The order was signed by the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Finance, the Bureau of Customs, and the Philippine Ports Authority. — Jenina P. Ibanez

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