Weekend Edition – February 19, 2011

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February 19, 2011 | www.CaseyResearch.com Dear Reader,

Welcome to the weekend edition of Casey’s Daily Dispatch, a compilation of our favorite stories from the week for the time-stressed readers.

Of course, if you want to read all of the Daily Dispatches from the week, you may do so in the archives at CaseyResearch.com.

Elementary, My Dear Watson

By Doug Hornig

I think, therefore I am.

That bedrock concept has been at the center of Western thought since Rene Descartes first set it down in 1637. It attempts, in one all-encompassing line, to establish the existence of individual consciousness, and by extension the physical being of the thinker.

What is less often considered is that the human element was implicit. In the 17th century, no one would have or could have conceived that anything other than a person might engage in such philosophical musings. Animals didn’t “think.” And machines? Forget about it.

Today, Descartes would be in a bit of a quandary. Animals exhibit tool-using and problem-solving behavior that strongly suggests logical thinking, one of the hallmarks formerly believed to distinguish our species from the rest of nature. And if machines don’t think, they do something awfully similar.

Of course, it depends on how you define the term.

The famous Turing Test – as proposed in 1950 by legendary British mathematician, cryptanalyst, and computer pioneer Alan Turing – is still cited when we attempt to delineate just when a machine achieves intelligence.

Let a person have a text chat, Turing said, with both a machine and another person, both of whom are hidden and trying to act human. Then see if the interrogator can tell which respondent is the machine. If the interrogator cannot reliably make the distinction, then the machine may be said to possess intelligence as best we can define it.

So far, machines have always flunked the Turing Test. At first, they couldn’t fool anyone. However, Turing was writing at the very dawn of the computer age, when a huge room full of vacuum tubes couldn’t do what a cell phone can do today.

To check the current state of the art, there’s the annual Loebner Competition, in which the best machines from around the world attempt to convince a panel of interrogators of their humanity. They still can’t do it consistently, but they’re getting better. Here’s an example from a recent competition, wherein an interrogator submitted questions to three respondents, a male, a female, and a machine. All three entities knew that it was fall in England, and the interrogator asked of all three what they thought of the weather that morning. The responses:
“I do tend to like a nice foggy morning, as it adds a certain mystery.”
“Not the best, expecting pirates to come out of the fog.”
“The weather is not nice at the moment, unless you like fog.”
See if you can figure out who’s who. Not exactly a slam-dunk cinch, is it?

(Did you correctly identify: a. machine; b. male human; c. female human?)

Reliably fooling humans is proving beyond a machine’s present capabilities. But how about competing against people? Could a computer, say, play Jeopardy!?

This would seem highly improbable. Not only does success at Jeopardy! depend on an extremely broad knowledge base, but contestants have to deal with puns, allusions, irony, riddles, and other non-logical word plays, as well as make sense of categories that can be a bit abstruse.

Think that’s beyond the reach of a machine? Then you need to meet Watson, who was not only Sherlock Holmes’s devoted sidekick but is a functioning computer personality from IBM. Watson, actually named for the company’s founder, Thomas Watson, plays Jeopardy!. And plays the hell out of it.

Heading up the Watson project is David Ferrucci, IBM’s senior manager for its Semantic Analysis and Integration department. Ferrucci’s team scanned into the machine’s memory vast numbers of databases, along with millions of documents. Reference books, news articles, scholarly papers, tabloid blurbs, whatever. The hard part was recreating what the human goes through in order to get from answer to question. Google is the model for that kind of search, but does it merely by hunting down words or strings of words, and returning every single hit. That won’t work with Jeopardy!, where you have to distill the intended meaning of an answer (with all of its nuances) into the one correct question.

Once the data were in place, Ferrucci gave Watson more than a hundred algorithms to use at the same time, to analyze a question in many different ways, generating hundreds of possible solutions. Another set of algorithms ranks these answers according to plausibility. And then the computer selects the one at the top of the list and hits the buzzer.

Oh, and no Internet connection allowed. That’d be cheating.

Since last summer, Watson has been practicing, taking on humans on a mock-up of the Jeopardy! set and doing well. So well that the producers of the show decided it was time to let “him” go up against some proven competition, right in the evening spotlight.

They chose Monday, February 14. Valentine’s Day. And the following two nights, as well. For competitors they picked the two greatest all-time Jeopardy! champs, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Let the games begin.

(As an added attraction, the practice rounds featured a graphic that shows the three answers Watson has rated as most likely to be correct, and how certain he is of the answer he selects. That’d be a plus in the final showdown, since it would provide something of a window into Watson’s “brain.” But we don’t yet know whether it made it to the show.)

Granted, a perfect simulation of Jeopardy! with a machine playing is impossible. Computers don’t care about winning or losing money; people do. Computers are emotionless; human contestants can freeze up or be driven to greater accomplishment under pressure. And so on.

Still, there’s no question that the coming week’s event is a milestone, comparable to the 1997 chess match that saw IBM’s Big Blue computer defeat Garry Kasparov, the reigning world champion.

Ferrucci and IBM are thinking way beyond Alex Trebek. The potential applications of something like Watson are myriad. Considering the primitive state of present question-answering machines, like the one you get when you call your airline, this is a huge leap forward. It’s not too early to envision the day when a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer – any specialist – will be able to have a conversation in English with a Watson-like machine that has speed-of-light access to all the present and historical knowledge in the field.

But for now, the tapes are made and the results guarded like the Oscars. There’ve been no leaks. To see what happened with Ken, Brad and the machine, you’ll just have to tune in. And to get you in the mood, you can have a quick go at Watson yourself, here.

Whatever the outcome of the match, robotics is exploding in real time. Yet the science is still elementary, dear Watson. Robots are about where the personal computer was thirty years ago, and they are destined to change our lives, probably as much as the PC has, in the next thirty. Casey’s Extraordinary Technology watches robotics carefully and has tucked two of the leading companies in the field into our portfolio. Both have performed admirably since we added them, and there will surely be many more to come.

Canadian Natural Gas Sees a Trade Partner in China

By the Casey Research Energy Team

A $5.4 billion investment by a Chinese company in one of Encana’s massive shale gas properties in northern British Columbia and Alberta is another sign that Canada wants Asia to become a major importer of its natural gas.

Encana is a leader in one of the things the Casey Energy team loves: unconventional natural gas production. Natural gas is a cleaner energy source than oil or coal because it releases less carbon dioxide and fewer pollutants when burned, so it is becoming an important component in global clean-energy plans. And unconventional technologies have already played a major role in the gas scene of late, a trend that we expect to continue with both gas and oil.

The $5.4 billion will buy half of Encana’s Cutbank Ridge shale gas properties, which cover 635,000 acres. The properties currently produce 255 million cubic feet of natural gas per day and contain proven reserves of more than 1 trillion cubic feet. The joint venture also covers about 700 million cubic feet per day of processing capacity, some 2,100 miles of pipelines, and a gas storage facility.

The deal is the largest foreign gas deal to date by a Chinese company. China is hunting around the world for gas reserves to support its plan to triple natural gas usage over the next decade. Chinese firms have pumped about $14 billion into Canadian oil and gas companies over the last two years. On its website, PetroChina says it has been trying for years to work with major Canadian energy companies and expects the Encana deal “to provide a platform for entering the major market in North America.”

For Encana, the deal will let the company accelerate production while keeping a lid on costs. Encana has been struggling with low North American gas prices because, unlike oil, North American gas is not a globally priced commodity. Instead it trades largely only within the continent because transportation limitations keep it here. Natural gas can only be moved via pipelines because of its huge volume; when condensed into liquefied natural gas (LNG), it can be sent via ship, but there are no LNG facilities in North America.

Canada sends the majority of its oil and gas exports to the United States, which means Canadian energy producers depend on U.S. demand for the bulk of their revenues. Relying on one customer is never a good business model, especially when that customer has concerns about one of Canada’s most important energy sources (the oil sands) and about a proposed pipeline expansion.

To diversify its customer base, Canada has been eyeing increasing trade with Asia. Two proposed oil pipelines and one proposed liquefied natural gas facility would all enable Canada to export energy from the west coast straight to Asia. None are permitted yet, and all face significant opposition from environmental groups.

This PetroChina deal, though, adds some fuel to the developers’ fires. It is only sensible to assume that PetroChina’s decision to make such a major investment in Canadian gas, at a time when North American gas prices are low because of a supply glut, was based on a strategic premise: to secure gas supplies for China in the future. In particular the proposal to build a LNG facility in Kitimat likely encouraged the Chinese to move ahead with the deal, which has apparently been in the works for nine months.

Encana’s investors were very happy with the deal, lifting the company’s share price 4.5% in a day to reach $32.02. The lift came despite the company reporting a US$42 million net loss for the fourth quarter.

In the bigger picture, the news is nothing but positive for Canadian natural gas. The advent of fracking has led to major oversupplies of natural gas in the United States. Investment like this can only encourage Canada to develop the infrastructure needed to export gas to Asia, where demand and prices are higher.

The Encana news lifted other companies producing natural gas in B.C. and Alberta, including Encana’s sister company Cenovus. Cenovus was born when Encana spun its conventional oil and gas assets out into a new company. The Casey Energy team recommended buying Cenovus in mid-2010, when the company was trading at $27.40. Including the 98 it gained on the Encana news, Cenovus’ share price now stands at $34.80, which means a 27% gain for our subscribers. Learn more about the gains you can get from top-quality energy stocks here.

The Coming Food Envy

By Kevin Brekke

In 1996, a book titled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington was published. In it, the author argues that the age of ideology had concluded, and that the primary axis of future conflicts in a post-Cold War world will be along cultural and religious lines. The uprisings, skirmishes and wars to come would not be fought over resources such as rice or oil but over differences of ethnicity and faith.

Huntington’s theory, as you would expect, mustered ample critics. Among them was Edward Said who, in his 2001 response The Clash of Ignorance, indicts Huntington for his use of oversimplification and static depictions of whole cultures. Reality, counters Said, is far more complex and dynamic.

A darkly comical sidebar to the debate was the response from the United Nations, its so-called theory of Dialogue Among Civilizations. The “theory” was the basis for a UN resolution naming the year 2001 as the Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations. When all you have is talk, every problem looks like faulty communication. Presumably, the solution to all strife in the world would come about from endless talking by its delegates while bravely enduring long hours in premium-class airline cabins, soldiering through endless caviar-topped buffet luncheons, and suffering unknown numbers of nights at five-star hotels.

The machinations of clueless NGO personnel notwithstanding, it is said that time heals all wounds. It also exposes false assumptions, like Huntington’s speculation, as we were again reminded by yesterday’s news.

“World Bank: Food Prices at Dangerous Levels,” read the Associated Press headline.

I doubt that anyone reading this gives much thought to the possibility of hunger or malnutrition paying them a visit. To Western cultures, the idea is as foreign as a homegrown political revolution or life without air conditioning. Even for a well-seasoned traveler in possession of a dog-eared passport, the plight of the world’s hungry is largely out of sight. As a tourist, you are not likely to encounter the dark underbelly of extreme poverty while taking in the popular attractions.

But leaving home is not mandatory to witness food insecurity among the most unfortunate. As of last month, the number of Americans receiving food stamps reached 43.2 million, 14% of the population, or nearly 1 in 7 people.

The phenomenal rise in the number of people seeking food assistance has so far been the direct result of protracted economic hardship that has befallen many individuals and families. The culprit has been mainly unemployment.

But if the worldwide rise in commodity prices continues, opening the door to food price inflation, the financial and economic crises plaguing the U.S. will soon devolve into a social crisis. It is one thing to be struggling to pay your bills; it is a whole different thing to be struggling while you and your family are hungry or feel deserving of a better diet.

Your neighbor may not like forgoing his cell phone for a landline, or battling with an antenna after canceling cable, all in the name of belt-tightening and a shrinking family budget. But when the smell of your steaks on the backyard grill wafts across his nostrils while he pretends to enjoy another plate of spaghetti and meatless sauce, a new kind of resentment will seep into the collective conscience of a growing slice of anxious Americans…

Food envy. At some point, and it is not far off, the complexity and urgency of food security will become a reality, and a battle in the land of plenty will ensue.

In many ways the battle has already begun. Shoplifting of food, or “shrinkage” as it is known in the retail industry, is on the rise. This is a fact that the food industry avoids talking about and works hard to keep out of the press. Not surprising when you consider that few food items carry a security tag, making them an easy mark.

Profit margins at grocery chains have compressed as retailers attempt to absorb price increases as rising commodity prices pass through to the wholesale level. Inventory shrinkage at grocery stores further pressures margins, and retailers will be forced to pass along their rising costs to the consumer. There is little to no room left for retailers to eat price increases.

Recalling Huntington’s outlook for clashes among civilizations, it looks like his theory is hit and miss on several issues. Conflict between differing groups has occurred since the human population exceeded one – it seems part of the human condition, and no change looks to be imminent. And disagreements over resources and ideology will continue; the idea that one would supplant the other seems nave. So, maybe a more appropriate title for his book would have been to suggest intra- rather than inter-civilization clashes.

The coming rise in food prices will be no less dramatic than for all commodities as the downfall of paper money accelerates. A man can survive without many things, but food is not one of them. And long before his supper table is empty, his envy of those with a diet more aligned with his desires will predictably spur a great cry for “food justice.” Any attempt by government to control, subsidize, or ration the food supply will end in disaster, and if history is a guide, shortages and higher prices. When preparing for future surprises, don’t forget to include higher food bills.

Commodity Prices Begin to Filter Through

By Vedran Vuk

As most readers have probably heard by now, January inflation increased by more than expected at 0.4% from the previous month. Rather than focus on the big number, I investigated a few of the smaller categories in the BLS data, particularly in foods affected by commodity prices. One item immediately jumped out – the fats and oils category. Since last month, seasonally adjusted prices in this category increased by 2.1% – that’s enormous. Since soybeans are a crucial ingredient to vegetable oil, this spike is fairly easy to explain.

Let’s take a look at a few more categories in the data. Remember, the charts below are consumer prices. Coffee is a good start. Since last year, the price has increased by 15.9% from $3.81 per lb of ground coffee to $4.42 per lb. (For some reason, the coffee data had a large gap in 2009; as a result the chart begins in 2010.)

Next, let’s take a look at sugar prices per lb. Since 2007, sugar has risen 25.6% from $0.52 per lb to $0.65 per lb.

The last chart shows soft margarine prices. Again, since vegetable oil is a part of margarine, the price will necessarily be affected by spikes in the soybean market. Since 2007, the price has increased by 50% from $1.15 per lb to $1.72 per lb.

Hedgers are a big reason why consumer prices lag the commodity market. Major companies have already locked in their purchases and prices months ahead in the futures market, so they can delay price increases.

The second factor is the elasticity of the products. That’s a fancy economics term for the change in demand in response to a change in price. When a product is inelastic, demand changes little with a change in price. A good example is coffee. Most coffee drinkers do not alter their consumption based on price fluctuations. Of course, companies have calculated the elasticity of their products. Since inelastic products are less responsive to price, hedging departments pay less attention to covering these costs. For example, coffee prices can be easily passed down to consumers (as a rule of thumb, the more elastic a product, the bigger the hedges). Hence, elasticity can be a good predictor of how quickly consumers will feel the impact of spikes in the commodity markets.

Dirty Jobs

By David Galland

Friend and occasional contributor to our publications, Neil Howe, has done seminal work on cycles of societal change related to the ebb and flow of generations. If you haven’t read his and William Strauss’ book The Fourth Turning, do yourself a favor and get a copy. (I just checked, and it’s available on Kindle).

Or, for the CliffsNotes version, you can download and read an interview I did with Neil last year.

The long and short of things is that Neil believes we are headed in to what he calls a “fourth turning,” a period that is invariably marked by great turmoil and crisis (World Wars I and II, as well as the Great Depression are prototypical fourth turning periods).

One of my favorite examples of the sort of societal shifts Neil talks about is the difference between the 1950s and the 1960s, which you can see in the photos here.

Literally no one saw it coming.

The jury is still out on what exactly will tip the U.S. and global economy over the edge and into another fourth turning – though I suspect the disastrous financial condition of the sovereigns and the implications that has right across the societal spectrum will play a major role.

Another candidate has to do with the outlook for employment in the Western nations – and increasingly, across much of the developing world.

As with any complex system, this topic is multi-faceted.

For instance, think for a minute about the expectations of today’s youth as they look ahead to their futures. Whereas the young used to, almost as a matter of course, follow their parents into a trade – be it farming, or working in the automobile plant – today not many would picture themselves spending a lifetime laboring in what might be termed a “dirty job.”

You know, jobs such as working in an industrial plant, or pulling night shifts cleaning bed pans at hospitals… Illegal immigrants are no longer welcome, and enforcement actions against those who hire them are far more stringent than ever – so we can’t count on them filling the gap.

But the gap is there, and as the baby boomers move past their productive years, it will only get bigger.

And it’s not just the dirty jobs: the young of today will find the idea of working to support the boomers and their predecessors who are on the dole in their dotage reprehensible.

As on many fronts, Japan provides a stark portrait of what’s coming. In 1950 there were ten Japanese workers for every ten Japanese pensioners. Today, the ratio has dropped from 10:10 to just 3:1.

Guess what? As you can see in the chart here, even though the retirement of the baby boomers in the U.S. is only just now getting under way, the worker-to-retiree ratio in the U.S. is right in line with Japan’s.

If you are in your fifties and think you are going to collect on Social Security, you might want to think again.

Staying on the topic of dirty jobs, a meme these days is that the Chinese have hollowed out the manufacturing sector of the United States and other countries of the West.

Yet, as the next chart so clearly shows, while the number of people going in to manufacturing in the U.S. is indeed falling, manufacturing output has remained strong.

In fact, arm waving to the contrary, U.S. manufacturing as a percentage of GDP rang in at 39.4% over the past decade, versus 37.2% in the 1990s, and 34.9% in the 1980s. So, sure, a lot of jobs shipped out overseas, but that’s in no small part because U.S. businesses have gotten so much more efficient at making things with higher margins than, say, flammable sleepwear for children.

If you think about that for a moment, you may find some hope for the future – because while China has made achieved big competitive gains by manipulating its currency, that has to end badly. It always does. And when it does, the streamlined U.S. manufacturing sector will be ready to compete. Alas, it may not employ any more workers (something I’ll address momentarily), but anything that helps to reduce the trade deficit is to be welcomed.

To put the situation in manufacturing in proper context, look at the long-term chart for agricultural production versus employment in the U.S. Again, one can see just how efficient the U.S. has gotten at producing stuff… without employees. There’s no reason to wonder about the future of U.S. manufacturing: the chart for agriculture says it all.

What’s behind these massive structural shifts in employment? Obviously, one factor has to be the exponential advances in technology.

Another could be attributed to the increased availability and ease of accessing media. Media has long been used to convince people to dress and act a certain way, but it has only been in the last 50 years or so that its presence in our lives reached endemic levels. And none of that media today makes a virtue out of long hours toiling under the hot sun, or fixing widgets to gadgets on production lines.

Another reason for the shift away from hands-on work has been the steady encroachment of government into the workplace. All with the best of intentions, naturally – but each new rule, regulation, tax, reporting requirement, workplace safety inspection, and wage mandate makes the hiring of employees something to be avoided at all costs.

I’m reminded of my visit to a huge zinc mine in Sweden, a country that is even further ahead in its workplace mothering. In Sweden, hiring a new employee is almost on a par with proposing marriage – a lifetime commitment, ’til death do you part.

In my young and foolish days I spent six months working in a mine in the United States – and it was a big, messy, crowded place, with large elevators full of dozens of dirty miners being lowered into the depths of the earth to do a very dirty and dangerous job.

Not so the mine in Sweden. Even though it was a regular work day, there were almost no employees in evidence, even in the huge milling facility – a place the size of a decent-sized sports stadium, complete with gigantic machines noisily crushing and grinding rocks. In all the time we spent in the mill, we saw only one employee – a young 30-something who briefly appeared to check a computer screen before disappearing from whence she came. This, too, is the future for American manufacturing.

In contrast to the West, where avoiding employees is Job #1, China’s problem is exactly the reverse – they desperately need jobs for the masses. At this point in time, that means the manufacturing jobs that we in the West no longer want or can perform profitably.

Unfortunately, thanks to a brisk and accelerating inflation in China, Chinese labor costs are on the rise – up over 20% in Beijing his year alone. That makes it increasingly difficult to remain competitive. Quoting a recent report out of Nomura securities:
“For some labor-intensive manufacturers, China’s wage level is no longer attractive. The manufacturing factories will likely be moved to China’s inland provinces or to countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia where labor costs are much lower.”

This is, of course, quite threatening to the myth of China’s economic invincibility, if for no other reason than Chinese manufacturing margins are already noodle-thin at somewhere between 1% and 10%. Case in point: FoxConn, Apple’s “go-to” manufacturing company in China, works on a margin of just 2.5%. Not a lot of wiggle room.

Logically, in order to avoid a wholesale shutdown of its industry, or to require massive government subsidies on a long-term basis, China will have to adopt the same modern, labor-saving manufacturing tools that we in the U.S. are using so effectively. But, trapped between a rock and a hard place, implementing those efficiencies will cost jobs – causing the sort of civil unrest now catching fire in the Middle East.

All fine and well, and good riddance to the political heirs of the murderous Mao, I say. But, here’s the point – none of this tossing the bums out actually creates new jobs.

Not in China and not in the U.S. And while the sprouting flowers of freedom in the Middle East and elsewhere will bring forth more work than is now available, the global trend is solidly on the side of steady adoption of the latest and greatest manufacturing tools.

Conservative projections for the robot industry through 2035 are shown in the following snippet from the November 2010 edition of Casey’s Extraordinary Technology:
The global leader in robotics remains Japan, with America and Germany coming up close behind it. That country’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry estimates that the global robotics market will expand about 10x over the next 25 years, and nearly 60% in just the next five…

Aarkstore Enterprise, a market research firm, estimates that by 2020 the total robotics market, by its definition, will expand to match the automotive industry in gross revenues.

(If you’re interested in diversifying into money-making trends in technology, Casey’s Extraordinary Technology has you covered. We’ve just put the finishing touches on an Investor Update titled, “3 Biotech Stocks to Own in 2011.” The first stock is profiled within the update, including the stock name and buy price, free and at no obligation. Simply click here to get the Investor Update now.)

Which brings us to an interesting paradox: The world need jobs, but the steady progress in technology is slashing the need for human workers to do what jobs remain… and is slashing that need at an almost exponential pace.

The International Federation of Robotics reported a 27% increase in robotic sales in 2010, despite – and probably in no small part because of – ongoing pressure on the global economy.

And who do you think is going to be doing the work of assembling the robots? Humans? Not hardly. Like the promised future of nanotechnology, but on a macro scale, it will be machines making machines that make machines.

Soon people won’t be shaking their fists at the Chinese for stealing our jobs, but at the machines. And the machines won’t take notice.

And then what? Does the government in all of its wisdom begin limiting the use of machines in the workplace? Or will the shift be back towards command economies, where companies are forced to hire and produce based on the dictates of some ruling council?

And that, dear reader, is that for this week. Until next week, thank you for reading and for subscribing to a Casey Research service!

Vedran Vuk
Casey’s Daily Dispatch Editor

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