The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is like a bleeding wound that can't be stanched, threatening to drain the economic life of the region. For the folks who live in its wake, two words that frequently come to mind--besides anger and sadness--are uncertainty and moratorium.
Specifically, they worry about the potential economic impact from the Obama administration's proposed six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling projects in more than 500 feet of water. That measure was rejected by a U.S. District Court judge in June, but the government is appealing that decision.
"When I ask people down there what they're most concerned about, they say the uncertainty of the drilling moratorium more than the immediate impact of the oil spill," says Jude Boudreaux, director of financial planning at Bellingrath Wealth Management in New Orleans.
Boudreaux grew up in Lockport, a town of 2,600 people roughly an hour south of New Orleans, and still has family and friends there. He says folks on the bayou aren't sure what to do because there's still too much uncertainty regarding the drilling moratorium, the $20 billion oil-spill fund created to compensate Gulf Coast oil victims, and the ultimate environmental damage and its potential impact on the region's fishing industry and way of life.
"I don't know what good advice I can give anybody down there," Boudreaux says. "There's nothing really profound I can tell people until we really know what'll happen from a settlement standpoint. At least with [Hurricane] Katrina there was a lot of pro bono work to be done to help people file for claims. With flood insurance, there was a playbook."
Boudreaux cites the $20 billion compensation fund as an example of the prevailing uncertainty caused by the oil spill. "My concern is that a lot of people down there do a lot of cash business and might not have receipts to prove past sales numbers," he says. "A lot of business is done on handshakes and trust on the bayou."
Boudreaux says the millionaire-next-door syndrome applies to a number of people in southern Louisiana thanks to the regional economy's twin pillars--oil and gas, and fishing. "There might be second or third generation family businesses and they run a couple of boats. It might not look like much because they aren't showy about their money. There is some substantial wealth down there, but it's a different kind of world. The concern is whether those jobs and a way of life will go away."
John Sirois, a financial planner with Raymond James in Houma, La., worries that the drilling moratorium would slam the finances of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, along with local governments in the region. Houma is home to a lot of oil and gas drilling-related operations, from large players such as BP, Schlumberger and Halliburton to numerous small- to mid-sized local companies that furnish goods and services to the offshore industry.
Sirois says one of his clients, who owns a pipeline company, told him he's worried because some of his customers are getting behind in their payments and he has about $60 million in overhead to service.
Recently, Sirois got a call from a client referral--a "high-end" BP employee--who wasn't planning to retire for another few years but is now concerned that his pension would be affected if the company files for bankruptcy. He's meeting with Sirois to discuss his options, including early retirement.
The pension lump sum or annual pension will be greater if he retires later, Sirois says, but the flip side is there's no guarantee the pension will be there in a few years.
"We've heard horror stories about the airline and other industries where pensions were decimated," Sirois says.
Ultimately, the oil spill's impact could be broad. According to a Wall Street Journal article, it's estimated there will be 16,500 fewer jobs in the fourth quarter along the five Gulf states due to the spill.
The Gulf of Mexico Alliance, a partnership of the five Gulf Coast states, says the region contributes $3 billion annually to the U.S. economy. That includes more than 40% of the nation's domestically-produced crude oil and natural gas, as well as roughly 70% of U.S.-caught shrimp and oysters.
In addition, the Mississippi basin provides food, shelter and breeding grounds for about 40% of North America's duck, geese, swan, and eagle populations, according to the alliance. And it's also the winter home for much of the continent's waterfowl.
Brad Fortier, a financial planner affiliated with LPL Financial Inc. in New Orleans, says the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster reaffirms the point that the nation's reliance on oil has a price. "We in southern Louisiana know it as much as anyone, and that price is drilling risks and the potential impact on our wetlands," he says.
Fortier, an avid fisherman, worries that the oil spill could mean paradise lost for the thriving sportsman's culture along the coast. He also believes it's a macro event whose effects are being felt beyond the shoreline and marshes.
"New Orleans is a tourist-based economy that's vulnerable to events like this," Fortier says.
From a financial planning perspective, Fortier says the oil spill provides an opportunity to reassess the inevitability of risk in life. After Katrina, he says he learned that many of his clients didn't have flood insurance. "I assumed my clients had some of those insurance needs met by other experts they work with," he says.
Fortier says one of the lessons from the Gulf oil spill is that some of his clients could use business interruption insurance.