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Two hundred and twenty five bucks. In April 2008, Jeff Rubin, chief economist at CIBC World Markets, predicted a barrel of oil would cost $225 by 2012. With oil at $118, it was a controversial call.
But Rubin, the best-known bank economist in Canada at the time, was no stranger to risky predictions. In 1989, he announced that the Toronto real estate market was about to crash. It did. In 1992, he said the Canadian economy was about to boom. It didn’t. In 1997, he tangled with manufacturers and fellow economists by declaring that the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement had not improved our productivity. As it happens, last month the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that “Canada’s key long-term challenge is to boost productivity growth”—so chalk that up as a win for the provocative Rubin as well.
But back to oil. These days, it’s trading under $90 a barrel. So not only was Rubin off by a huge margin, he got the direction wrong. And for Rubin, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
In 2009, he famously quit CIBC to publish his first book, Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller. It was a No. 1 bestseller and won the National Business Book Award. Rubin argued peak oil supply and rising prices would push up transportation costs and slam the brakes on globalization. Say goodbye to New Zealand lamb in Canadian fridges. Air travel would also become prohibitively expensive. We’d drive less, shop closer to home and generally live in a smaller world.
You can still get New Zealand lamb, of course, as well as cheap vacation deals in Mexico. But Rubin is undeterred. The End of Growth, his new book, continues his argument that oil is the single most important factor guiding global economic progress, or lack thereof. Because of insatiable energy demand from developing countries, oil will become permanently and prohibitively expensive, Rubin claims. And this will bring our era of cushy First World prosperity to an abrupt end. “Living in the static world will be much different than the world we’ve come to know,” he warns. If there’s a silver lining, expensive oil and no growth should help keep our environment cleaner.
It’s another controversial and arresting point of view from the now 54-year-old provocateur, who has by now fully evolved from corporate economist to public sage. As such, he joins the ranks of such famous Canadian pop experts as demographer David Foot, technology guru Don Tapscott, resource-scarcity worrier Thomas Homer-Dixon and a long list of other self-declared wisemen who make a living telling the nervous masses what the future holds.
Is Rubin right about the supremacy of oil and where the future is headed? His 2008 oil call doesn’t inspire confidence. But then again, for pop experts, being right isn’t nearly as important as getting noticed.
Since the Oracle at Delphi, humans have looked to soothsayers to point the way. While ancient Greek prognosticators were famous for their cryptic suggestions, readers today expect (and are willing to pay for) a substantially clearer message. A certain formula has evolved: Take an expert with established credibility. Reduce the fate of the world to a single, simple concept. Create a suitably grim future to attract plenty of media attention. Then, if possible, add a glimmer of salvation, if only to keep readers’ spirits up enough to buy your next book.
Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 jeremiad, The Population Bomb, was in many ways the first big international pop-expert success, packaging an apocalyptic message for mass consumption. Ehrlich, an entomologist by training, declared we were doomed because too many people were living on too small a planet. He claimed Earth could support only 500 million inhabitants, Britain would cease to exist by 2000 and we’d all become vegetarians out of necessity. None of this came to pass, of course.
David Foot’s mega-selling Boom, Bust & Echo established the Canadian gold standard for the pop expert phenomenon a few decades later. Foot, an economist at the University of Toronto, began with the adage that everyone gets one year older every year. Easy enough to grasp. From there, he built a scary vision of dislocations and changes due to aging baby boomers. The biggest calamity was a looming real estate meltdown. “The real estate boom is over,” Foot and his co-author, Daniel Stoffman, wrote in 1996. Firms that recognized the demographic trends—a shift toward small cities and vacation properties, for example—were poised to reap great rewards. Publicly traded resort operator Intrawest was singled out for attention.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Canadian Business Magazine website: http://www.canadianbusiness.com/article/90818–jeff-rubin-gets-peak-oil-wrong