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Jeff Rubin
Jeff Rubin

Energy

A coming world that's 'a whole lot smaller' Add to ...

Until two months ago, Jeff Rubin was the audacious chief economist and chief strategist at CIBC World Markets, a high-profile pulpit from which he preached his unconventional and occasionally controversial views on economic matters for nearly two decades.

His blunt talk and bold predictions didn't always win him friends, but his penchant for being right, more often than not, had won him international respect - and made him CIBC's most public star.

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But when he informed his employer that he had already written and was about to publish Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller- a new book on the socioeconomic ramifications of rising energy prices, which hits bookstores today - he says his bosses weren't happy, with either the surprise or the subject matter.

CIBC declined to discuss its concerns with the book or Mr. Rubin's departure.

"I never asked for permission and they never gave it," Mr. Rubin said in a recent interview. "I had a choice. I could continue doing a job that I thought I had been reasonably successful at for the past 20 years, or I could publish my book. For me, it was a no-brainer," he said.



People have to realize that this is not a shock, it's a permanent set of conditions that we have to adapt to. Jeff Rubin


So what was so important that walking away from a two-decade career at CIBC was a "no-brainer"?

Only his prophecy of how ever-higher energy costs will fundamentally change the way each and every one of us live our day-to-day lives - from where we work to what we eat to where we lay down our heads at night, and everything in between.

Mr. Rubin has taken his long-standing forecast that inevitably declining production and rising demand will send oil prices inexorably higher - over $200 (U.S.) a barrel by 2012 or earlier, just for a start - and imagines how the world will have to change to adjust to such a reality.

"This book is not about how to make money. It's [about]how you change your life," he said. "What car you drive next, where you live, what are the industries where you're likely to get a job, what are the industries where you're likely to lose a job. Where are you likely to go on your next vacation, where are you likely never to go on a vacation again. What kind of changes are you going to make to your diet. Those kind of things."

By Mr. Rubin's own account, his deep interest in the big-picture oil puzzle had increasingly moved him away from the typical day-to-day research of an investment bank.

"I think the kinds of things that I was working on, and where our research had gone in the past couple of years, maybe an investment bank wasn't the best platform for that kind of research or those kinds of messages," he said.



I think, ironically, it's going to be a return to the past ... in terms of the re-emergence of local economies. Jeff Rubin


Like many oil crisis prophets, Mr. Rubin is a disciple of "peak oil" theory - the concept that world oil production is near its peak, and is destined to a long, slow decline, as existing low-cost oil fields dry up and new supplies become harder and more expensive to unlock.

Less than 10 years ago, the theory was so little known and held in so little regard that, when Mr. Rubin gave a speech to Calgary's Petroleum Club explaining it, he was met with a mixture of disbelieving stares and dismissive guffaws. That was before $140-a-barrel oil awakened the world to the peak oil threat.

"People have to realize that this is not a shock, it's a permanent set of conditions that we have to adapt to," he said. "I think that's a lot easier sell than when I first started articulating this message eight, ten years ago."

But unlike many previous peak oil books, which typically don't get much past "we're in big trouble," Mr. Rubin's conclusions are refreshingly optimistic. His world of the oil-starved future, at least for Western societies, looks a lot like the bygone years of our fond memory, where people work and vacation nearer to home, eat locally grown foods and buy locally produced goods, and suburban sprawl is replaced by revitalized cities.

"I think it will really restructure the economy in ways that people haven't even begun to imagine," he said. "But I think, ironically, it's going to be a return to the past ... in terms of the re-emergence of local economies."

Indeed, the book's title is derived from this central argument - that expensive fuel will force a reversal of globalization, as long-distance trade becomes increasingly expensive and impractical. The only alternative may be a relentless cycle of economic shocks triggered by oil price surges.

"Chances are, we're going to bang our head on this oil constraint very soon in an economic recovery, unless certain things change. And I don't think we're going to have to wait five years to test that Rubin hypothesis. I think in the next six to 12 months you're going to see that," he said.

"There's a lot of historical context to suggest that we can change, that things have evolved in response to economic signals," he said. "But in order to change ... we're going to have to rearrange a whole lot more things than perhaps we recognize."

A shrinking of global trade suggests massive disruptions for an export-driven economy such as Canada's. Yet, paradoxically, Mr. Rubin sees this as just the medicine to revive Canada's dying manufacturing sector. He believes soaring transportation costs, combined with an eventual imposition by governments of costs on greenhouse gas emissions, will wipe out Asia's huge competitive advantage on labour costs and revitalize manufacturing of goods closer to home.

"Those manufacturing jobs left when all that mattered was the labour cost differential. But that was in a world of $20 oil, zero [cost of]emissions," he said. "In a world of $150 oil, $40-$50-a-tonne emissions, the market will bring those jobs back."

This is the sort of big-thinking economics that has filled bestseller lists in recent years, and Mr. Rubin and his publisher, Random House, expect the book to garner attention on a global scale. He doesn't see returning to the world of investment banking, but at 54, he isn't ready to retire, either. He hinted that this book might not be his last on the subject.

"There are a lot of areas you could go with this that I don't really think I've exhausted, by any stretch of the imagination. But I only really wrote this in four months.

"I've got time."

*****

Rubin in focus

BORN Aug. 25, 1954, Toronto.

LIVES East-central Toronto neighbourhood of Riverdale.

FAMILY Married to Deborah Lamb, former reporter for CBC's Venture. (They met when she interviewed him for a story in 1990 on the recession.) Son Jack, 14, and daughter Margot, 12.

EDUCATION Graduate degree in economics from McGill University; undergraduate degree in economics from University of Toronto.

CAREER After seven years with Ontario's Ministry Of Treasury And Economics, joined CIBC in 1988 as senior economist. Named chief economist of CIBC World Markets in 1992. Added title of chief strategist in 2003.

WINNING CALLS Predicted the bursting of the Toronto housing market in 1989. Predicted in 2000 that oil would top $50 (U.S.) a barrel by 2005. Predicted in 2005 that oil would top $100 a barrel within two years.

ACCOLADES Ranked as Canada's top economist 10 times by Brendan Wood International.

CURRENT CAR 2000 Audi (he likes the stick shift).

NEXT CAR Probably a hybrid (no stick shift).

*****

Quoted

A selection of quotations from a recent interview with former CIBC World Markets chief economist and chief strategist Jeff Rubin, talking about his hew book, Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller.

(On the threat of more oil-driven recessions to come)

"That will all depend on how quickly we move away from oil consumption. Otherwise ... peak oil becomes peak GDP, which is a pretty pessimistic and linear way of thinking. Nevertheless, the only way that's not going to happen is if we change the relationship between oil and GDP."

(On public policy to adjust to prohibitive fuel costs)

"What we need now is something equivalent to the U.S. Highway Act in 1956, when all of a sudden the U.S. decided to build an immense road infrastructure. ... We need to do the equivalent in public transit. ... Detroit's problems are now permanent and structural, they're not cyclical. There will be no recovery in auto sales."

(On policies to impose costs on greenhouse gas emissions)

"The big loser on this is not going to be Canadian oil sands. It's going to be Chinese steel and manufactured exports that are being powered by coal plants."

(On the impact of soaring fuel costs on the flying of people and goods around the world)

"I think we not only will lose sushi, we'll lose airlines. And we'll certainly close airports that we've recently built. Whether we're talking about Toronto's mausoleum to the past stage of energy, the new terminal, or we're talking about the Heathrow terminal, air traffic is just not going to be sustainable in this world to the extent that we've now come to accept."

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