We Forget All Too Fast Just How Quickly It Can Hit The Fan

Currently there is probably no other great divide in opinions than the current state of oil and all it entails. (well maybe gold but that’s for another column)

I believe there’s not only two sides to this story but there is also a very legitimate concern for the two-sided sword that can be wielded – by both sides. And again, in my opinion, both have very valid reasons for optimism as well as concern. I don’t believe they are mutually exclusive.

Today we have what many would call an oil boon in not only the U.S. but Canada as well. Together the current debate falls along two fronts. First: Is there really as much there as they believe there is? And second: If so can it be extracted at a price bearable to both producers as well as consumers?

There seems a real split right down the middle and both sides make very good arguments. Who’s right and who’s wrong is yet to be seen. However, what does not need to be borne out any longer is the fact that the OPEC cartel believes there’s a real cause for concern. And that is a very positive byproduct to come forth from this whole debate.

Currently as oil prices plummet the outcry over whether it’s an immediate “tax break” to consumers is also flaring up with just as much furor. The “they’ll spend it during the holidays” vs “they’ll use it to pay down debt” is just as fiery as well as debatable.

Again, no one truly knows until after the fact, and we’ll see it in the numbers. Yet, just like the scenario above, what one doesn’t need to wait for is the fact that maybe – just maybe – we have a card in our back-pocket for once that we can use within our price tolerances where we aren’t held for ransom or extortionist prices on a whim by others.

However, when I made the claim earlier about a two-sided coin as well as a double-edged sword it was truly intentional as the example. For if there is one outcome based on a two-sided coin, as one side wins while the other means losing. The ability to be cut with both sides of the same blade one should infer, one way or another – you’re going to get cut. It’s just a degree of how bad that needs to be calculated and guarded against.

What we don’t know or can’t see in as far as “what’s there under the sands” we can more than make up for in true clarity what’s on the financial books. i.e., The high yield bonds funding it all.

There one doesn’t need “guesstimates.” We know. And it’s amazingly precarious, if not outright dangerous to the markets as a whole. This just might be an area the term “unforeseen consequences” gets seen all to clearly.

Not only do many not remember the early 80’s when U.S. oil producers went haywire, but they seem to have forgotten just how quickly in the sheer speed of panic, bankruptcies, and more that took place in the southern regions of the U.S. and Texas in-particular.

Personally I had family in Texas. At the time I was like so many trying to find my place in the business world and was living and had grown up in New England. I was about 19 or so. I had been working in clubs and doing other odd jobs (yes I was a manager/bartender at 19. I started cleaning coolers at about 16 for at the time the legal age was 18 and really wasn’t a big thing) and I was really in need of a change. I was desperate for what many would deem “good work at good wages” where I no longer needed to keep the hours of a vampire.

In a casual conversion with family the door was opened to me as to move to Texas and work for my Uncle who owned a business primarily focused on the oil business. i.e., welders, riggers, etc. The promises of a real change and all it entailed finally moved me past the point of inertia to finally saying, “Screw it, Why not.” And I made the arrangement to leave just weeks later. (the operative word there is “weeks.” Keep that in mind)

As I was sorting out my affairs and getting ready to go I had numerous conversions with my Aunt. She was “delighted” I was making the move. Things were going to be “so exciting” for me she would say. They were doing great, they just bought another building, hired more people, and they were expanding so fast I was “coming just at the right time” to get my feet wet and lean the business and move up in it as I progressed. For: “There’s real money to be made down here” was the over-riding meme. And it was sincerely stated as well as thought. So, I packed my things and off I went.

When I arrived it appeared to be everything they expressed it to be. However, within a few weeks of my arriving you could sense a shift in the air. The phones at the office went from ringing almost on cue to near dead silence.

The building which held space for all the service equipment, trailers, welding trucks, work-over rigging et al that I knew he owned (but had never seen for they were out in the fields working) near overnight appeared in the building crowding out most of the once wide open areas of work space. Now one had to squeeze through spaces between trucks and equipment just to get from one side or the other.

Within about 8 weeks of my arrival my Uncle’s business went from all the appearances of wealthy oil business owner to a near solo operation on the brink of bankruptcy daily.

So bad did it get, so fast, that I was asked to find employment elsewhere if I was to stay. They themselves along with everyone else in the “oil business” at that time were in the same straits. And it wasn’t getting better. As a matter of fact, is was growing exponentially worse for many of them by the day, let alone week.

In an effort to find work for the first time in my life I stood outside an oil refinery with hundreds (yes hundreds) of other people in the same straights I was, filling out employment applications about every 1/2 hour as they would call looking for a person to fill a certain position.

Over a loudspeaker you would hear: “Accepting now for 3 welding positions” and anyone who ever seen a welder let alone worked with one would rush to the office trailer and fill out an application listing anything remotely to do with a welder hoping (and some praying) it would be enough to get to the next step – a 10 minute interview for a yay – nay vote.

No applications were reused. Need a welder – fill out an app. Need a janitor – fill out another. Rinse repeat every single time – even for the same position if it came up more than once during the day.

There were husband and wife welding teams, same for electricians, cooks, you name, for everyone suddenly was unemployed and they would take anything. I did this for a week – 8 hours a day, it was one of the most demoralizing times in my life. And just in-case one forgot – less than just 90 days prior, it seemed like Dallas was the new OZ. Now 90 days later I was feeling like I was a pariah both to myself as well as my relatives.

In desperation I took work at a local meat factory. I got lucky (lucky is a relative term) and was hired as a meat cutter and worked on “the line.” It’s pretty much what you see when they role some sort of B footage on a news reel or documentary where people all in white standing on a line abreast pull pieces of beef off the center, cut, trim, and move onto the next. It was by far, too this day, the most grueling, repetitive, strenuous work I have ever done. And I’ve done some very strenuous manual labor for work throughout my career.

So little were the opportunities for anything else in employment (where just weeks prior most businesses couldn’t find any help and would pay “premium” wages) I decided I had enough of “the line” and found a bar-tending job at a local biker bar. (I grew up in biker bars so it was really was more like what I knew)

Finally, within less than 4 months since arriving I was called into a meeting with my Aunt and Uncle and was informed I needed to move out and find my own place to live. (they had a beautiful huge ranch styled home where they gave me for all intents and purposes my own apt.) The reason why I had to leave? They were going to lose it. They were just about to lose their business, and it wasn’t long for the house would be next. There was no way they were going to able to keep themselves afloat if things kept up the way it was going and this was my only “heads up” on just how bad things had turned. I was stunned.

Reluctantly I took the news as best I could and made plans to be gone in a week back to New England. I had nothing to go back to however, there surely was even less for me there.

It was a lesson I never forgot, and it’s why many times I rail against the flippant attitudes of “It’s different this time.” Yes it just might be, but with the precarious ways the Federal Reserve has injected its financial meddling into the markets and the resulting wonton ways  yield chasing has adulterated risk in the high yield space. What we better hope (and possibly pray) is that if it is indeed “different this time”

That “different” doesn’t end up meaning worse.

© 2014 Mark St.Cyr