Gail Tverberg

The Economy is like a Circus

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Published on the Our Finite World on April 17, 2017

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The economy is like a circus. It comes to town, and eventually it leaves town. We get paid in tickets to this circus. As long as the circus stays in town, we can use our tickets. Once the circus leaves town, we are pretty much out of luck.1

The reason the circus stays in town is because the economy stays in sufficient balance that the economy can go on. This is much like the way many other self-organized systems function. For example, our bodies continue to function as long as there are suitable balances in many different areas (oxygen, food, water, air pressure). Ecosystems continue to function as long as there is sufficient rain, adequate temperatures, and enough sunlight.

There are many different views as to what limits we reach in a finite world. Some people think we will “run out” of oil, or of energy products. Some think that the energy return will fall too low, as measured in some manner. I see the adequacy of the energy return as being very much tied to the financial system. Thus, the forecast by US Atlanta Fed GDPNow indicating that first quarter 2017 US GDP growth will only be 0.5% is likely to be a problem, assuming it is correct.

Our economy operates on economies of scale. Once we get too close to shrinking, or actually start shrinking, we reach a point where the economic circus starts to leave town. At some point, we will discover the circus is gone. The economy we thought we had, will have left us. If some people are survivors, they will need to pick up the pieces and start over with an entirely new system.

What the Economy Needs to Do to Keep Functioning

For our economy to continue functioning, a number of variables are important:

 

  • Prices of commodities – Prices cannot be too high for the consumer to afford goods made with them. They also cannot be too low for producers. If prices of oil and other commodities are too low for producers (as they are now), producers need to keep raising debt levels to stay in business. There is a risk that production will stop from lack of adequate new investment, or from the bankruptcy of producers.
  • Wages of non-elite workers – These wages need to be high enough so that workers can afford goods made with commodities, such as cars, homes and computers. These big purchases tend to use commodities even after they are made, adding to “demand” for commodities. If commodity prices such as oil are too low (as they are now), it is likely related to the inadequate wages of non-elite workers.
  • Mandatory payments required of non-elite workers, such as taxes, health care, and education – It is not just wages of non-elite workers that are important. So are required payments, such as payments for taxes, healthcare and education. Clearly, the lower these payments are for non-elite workers, the better the economy functions.
  • Interest rates – Low interest rates are helpful for some parts of the economy, while high interest rates are good for other parts. Low interest rates help create affordable monthly payments for goods such as homes and cars. If interest rates decline, the market prices of assets such as real estate, shares of stock, and bonds tend to rise. These rising values are of great benefit to owners of these assets, since they can sell these assets and use the proceeds to add to current consumption. Conversely, high interest rates are important to pension plans and to others depending on investment income. Banks have a problem if there is not a big enough “spread” between short and long interest rates.
  • Increase in debt – An increase in debt indirectly makes the economy “look” much better. Increasing debt acts to raise wages, since some of this growing debt adds to funds available for wages. The higher wages tend to increase demand for goods, and thus indirectly raise commodity prices. A virtuous circle starts, pushing up economic growth, provided an adequate quantity of very cheap energy products is available (under $20 barrel oil, for example) that can be used to make goods and services. Increased debt works less and less well, as the price of energy products increases.
  • Inflation rates – The higher the inflation rate, the easier it is to repay debt with interest, since most debt is not adjusted for inflation. Also, high inflation rates help keep prices of homes and other buildings from falling as they age, making the use of mortgages more feasible. If the price of a commodity, such as oil or coal, is high and then falls, debt based on the prior high value of the commodity is likely to become a problem.
  • Quantity of energy products affordable by economy – It takes energy products to produce goods and services. If the price of commodities is low, it is possible for buyers to purchase a large quantity of these products, even on a low budget. Current relatively low prices tend to help the economy, even if producers cannot afford to make adequate investment in new production with such low prices. Thus, today’s low energy prices make the economy look good for at a short time. Afterwards, the outlook is less rosy.

Ultimately, the issue at hand in determining whether the “circus will leave town” is whether non-elite workers are able to adequately make a living. We know from biology that the return on the labor of animals must be adequate (animals must be able to get enough food by walking, swimming, or flying) or their populations will collapse. The same thing is true for humans. We also know that prior civilizations that collapsed often had wage disparity problems. When this happened, non-elite workers were no longer able to pay adequate taxes. Their nutrition became poorer. They tended to become more susceptible to epidemics. These were things that pushed the economy toward collapse.

The goods and services that non-elite workers can buy with their wages represent the benefits of our fossil fuel powered energy system, as distributed to the most vulnerable workers in the system. Once these benefits start falling too low, the system can no longer function.

There are some indications that benefits are already too low for the economy to keep functioning in a “normal” manner. A major such indication is the fact that energy prices have remained far too low since mid-2014. It is becoming increasingly clear that there really is no oil price which is both high enough for producers and low enough for consumers. We may be living on “borrowed time,” using an increasing amount of debt to support energy producers.

Thus, world economic growth rates may already be too low to keep the world economy operating. Regulators who consider only the US do not seem to understand the world situation. Because of this, they can easily make moves that make the situation worse, rather than better. For example, they have already started raising interest rates and are planning to sell securities currently held by the Federal Reserve.

A Few Graphs Giving Hints of Our Problem

Economists have not understood what our problems really are, so they have tended to omit some important issues from their analyses. I put together a few graphs that might give a little insight as to what is happening.

Interest Paid by Households 

Interest paid by households is important because this money is transferred to banks, insurance companies, and pension plans. It leaves the households who paid this interest poorer. Buying goods using debt is convenient, but it has a cost involved.

BEA Table 7.11 shows a category called, “Interest Paid by Households.” If we compare this to BEA “Wages and Salaries,” we find the relationship shown in Figure 1. Admittedly this is not an exact comparison; there are some people who are not wage earners who are making interest payments, for example. I have not tried to offset “interest paid by households” against “interest received by households,” because the households benefiting from interest payments are likely very different households from those making interest payments. They are likely richer, and at a later stage in their lives.

 

 

Figure 1. US Household Interest Paid (from BEA Table 7.11 Interest Paid and Received by Sector and Legal Form of Organization) divided by Wages and Salaries from BEA Table 2.11, “Personal Income and its Disposition.”

The pattern might be described as follows:

  • A rapid run-up in interest payments that took place until about 1986
  • A general flattening, with new peak in 2007
  • A rapid fall starting in 2008

It seems to me that the pattern up to 1986 reflects the general run-up in consumer debt levels during this period. The amount of interest paid is also affected by interest rates, such as ten-year treasury rates.

 

 

Figure 2. US Federal Bonds 10 year interest rates. Graph produced by FRED (Federal Reserve Economic Data).

Interest rates started falling in 1981. These higher rates only gradually worked their way into the system because many people had bought houses earlier and were able to keep their existing mortgages at low interest rates. The amount of debt outstanding continued to rise, allowing the total amount of interest paid to continue to rise until 1986.

After 1986, rising debt amounts and falling interest rates came closer to offsetting each other (Figure 1). By 2008, the economy was in a severe recession. In order to help get out of the recession, interest rates were lowered through Quantitative Easing. These lower interest rates, besides helping the economy in general, helped oil prices gradually increase back to the $100+ per barrel price level that they needed to be profitable. Oil prices had temporarily dropped below $40 per barrel in December 2008.

Figure 1 shows that interest payments for several years amounted to about 12% of wages for households. Interest payments are now down to 8% of wages. Even at this level they are significant. They are likely higher than this for those with low wages and high debt. If interest rates rise significantly, the most vulnerable are likely to find their discretionary income reduced.

Rising Healthcare Costs 

Figure 3 shows a comparison of US healthcare costs to GDP and to wages. A huge increase in costs is evident in the 2001-2005 periods, and also in the 2008-2010 period, especially compared to wages.

 

 

Figure 3. US Healthcare costs as a percentage of GDP and as a percentage of wages. Healthcare costs from cms.gov. Wages and salaries and GDP from BEA.

The increase in healthcare costs since 2008 is one of the costs putting pressure on the economy, and leading to a need for lower interest rates.

The Affordable Care Act should be affecting amounts for the latest years, since the ACA started increasing the number of people with insurance starting about 2014.

 

 

Figure 4. Kaiser Family Foundation chart of percentages of non-elderly people without healthcare insurance, from this Source.

A person might wonder why 2014 and 2015 costs didn’t rise more, with so many more people added to the system. Perhaps care that was being given “free” by hospitals is now being charged back to patients. Or perhaps many of the people choosing to purchase coverage through the program were already insured elsewhere in the system, so were not really added to the healthcare system through the Affordable Care Act.

One very recent US healthcare change is the addition of an automatic penalty for not having healthcare insurance. This penalty began for tax year 2016, filed in the beginning of 2017. This provision particularly hurts young people, because rates are structured in such a way that the rates for young people subsidize the rates for older people. Thus, young people often find that buying health insurance is far more expensive than their out of pocket costs for health care would have been, without insurance.

Young people who are affected by this new requirement will find that they need to cut back on other expenditures (such as restaurant visits), if they are meet the requirements of the law–either buy healthcare insurance or pay the mandated penalty. This change will begin to adversely affect the economy in 2016. Bigger impacts are likely in early 2017, when taxes are filed.

Falling Wages Relative to GDP, and Rising Wage Disparity

The path to lower wages as a percentage of GDP has been a bumpy one. The general pattern is that when the economy is booming, wages tend to grow as a percentage of GDP. Recession tends to send wages down as a percentage of GDP. US wages seem to have increased somewhat since 2013, perhaps because the price of oil is down, and the US dollar has risen to a relatively high level. This is part of what allows some people to talk about the “tightening labor market,” and gives them confidence in the economy.

 

 

Figure 5. US wages and salaries divided by US GDP, based on BEA data.

There has been significant growth in wage disparity since about 1980, both in the US and in many other developed countries. Figure 6 shows some data for the US.

 

 

Figure 6. United States Income Distribution_1947-2007 in 2007$. The data source is “Table F-1. Income Limits for Each Fifth and Top 5 Percent of Families (All Races): 1947 to 2007”, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplements. Graph is from Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:United_States_Income_Distribution_1947-2007.svg

As the economy becomes more “complex,” in other words, “specialized,” wage disparity tends to be more of a problem. Work that could previously be done by manual laborers is done by machinery, or is transferred to low wage countries. Many people lose their jobs, and have difficulty finding good-paying replacement jobs. All of this contributes to inadequate wages for non-elite workers.

Role of Inflation and Rising Commodity Prices in the Economy

We rarely stop to think how important inflation is to the economy. For example, if inflation is sufficiently high, it will slightly offset normal depreciation in values of homes and business properties. Thus, home and business property values will tend to slightly rise over time. If banks can count on values of structures rising, rather than falling, over time, lenders can assume that mortgage loans are fairly risk-free, because the lender can count on getting its money back through the sale of the property, if the mortgage-holder defaults.

This same principle holds when energy properties, such as coal mines and oil fields, are financed. As long as energy prices keep rising, there is a good chance loans can be repaid. Once energy prices fall, debt defaults become a problem. Oil exporting countries also find that the taxes they can collect fall significantly. As a result, energy-exporting countries are in a far worse economic position once energy prices fall. Exporters of other commodities, such as metals, have a similar problem if prices fall.

In the last two paragraphs, I mentioned the impact on lenders and governments of rising or falling prices. Owners of properties are also affected by rising or falling prices. If prices rise, these owners can sell their assets, and make a profit. In fact, these owners have often purchased their properties with debt. If the price of the property rises, but the amount of debt is unaffected by inflation, the owner of the property can often get a disproportionate benefit of the price rise. Of course, if the value of a property falls, the property-owner is disproportionately affected by the fall of the price.

We are so used to a rising-price scenario that we have little understanding of how a flat or falling price scenario might work.

To get a little idea of how much inflation has in the past been working through to asset prices in the United States, I looked at some information provided by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis. I compared these amounts to GDP, rather than asset prices, to get an idea of how much impact they have, relative to each current year’s activities (Figure 7). There is about $3 of assets of the types BEA analyzes for every dollar of GDP, so the impact, relative to GDP, is about three times as high it would be, relative to the asset prices themselves.

If this same relationship holds elsewhere, a person can see why a commodity-producing country might have a big problem, if the price of that commodity suddenly falls. There is huge “balance sheet” impact that doesn’t directly affect current GDP as reported (since GDP has to do with current goods and services produced). But it can have a major impact on the country, as it goes forward, because affected loans are much less likely to be repaid. Countries often try to be lenient with lenders, hoping that commodity prices will rise again. But if the drop in prices is permanent, countries must use more and more extreme measures to hide the problem of loans that have a low probability of repayment in a low-priced commodity environment. Eventually, these loans seem likely to default, if prices do not rise sufficiently. China and many commodity-exporting countries seem to be affected by this problem.

 

 

 

Figure 7. Changes to US Fixed Assets, based on BEA Table 5.10, Changes in Net Stocks of Produced Assets.

BEA shows three amounts of interest with respect to US assets (Figure 7):

  1. Inflation – Changes in asset values based on changes in the general price level
  2. Re-evaluation total – Changes to asset prices in particular; includes changes because assets are taken out of service because of disaster or because a business is no longer profitable. Note the spikes related to the housing bubble of the 2003-2006 period and the corresponding dip during the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
  3. Depreciation – Expected amount of new investment needed to offset “consumption of fixed capital.” This rate is quite high, (about 15.7% of GDP recently) because the asset base includes fairly rapidly depreciating assets, such as cars and computers, besides buildings of all types, and intellectual property such as computer programs.

The last year shown is 2015. Inflation (relative to GDP) was only 1.2%, and the re-evaluation total was only 0.3% of GDP. (Calculated as percentages of the assets involved, these inflation rates would be only a third of these amounts.) These low inflation rates make it very difficult to operate a debt-based economy. A shift from inflation to deflation would be a major problem. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get much inflation, if the wages of non-elite workers remain very low.

Conclusion

We have kept our economy expanding through growing debt use and growing energy use. I described this process in my post, What has gone wrong with oil prices, debt, and GDP growth?

Now we seem to be reaching the end of the line. The economy is getting very close to shrinking. When this happens, we are getting close to economic collapse–the economic circus is starting to “leave town.”

People who think our only problem is “running out” and “high oil prices” don’t see the problems the economy is developing right now. These problems are much more subtle, but they can have a devastating effect. The Federal Reserve talks about inflation rates above 2% being too high, but inflation rates below 2% are at least equally problematic. Somehow, the debt system needs to keep operating for the whole system to work.

We are now at the point where the economy is decidedly unstable. Little things can affect it, like the Affordable Care Act requirement that uninsured people buy healthcare insurance, or pay a penalty. Low commodity prices make debt repayment more difficult in countries producing those commodities.

We should not be too surprised if the economic circus starts to leave town. There are simply too many pieces that are now unstable. The US Government is facing a shutdown in the near future, unless its debt ceiling can be raised and funding can be enacted. The world is depending on China for economic growth, but China’s debt is becoming unmanageably high. Japan’s debt is also unreasonably high. Oil exporters are becoming increasingly unstable, with continued low prices. We can find problems in almost every country of the world. It looks like it is only a matter of time, until one of these problems starts a downward spiral.

 

Note:

[1] Thanks to commenter “Lastcall” for this analogy.

 

2017: The Year When the World Economy Starts Coming Apart

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Published on the Our Finite World on January 10, 2017

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Some people would argue that 2016 was the year that the world economy started to come apart, with the passage of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Whether or not the “coming apart” process started in 2016, in my opinion we are going to see many more steps in this direction in 2017. Let me explain a few of the things I see.

[1] Many economies have collapsed in the past. The world economy is very close to the turning point where collapse starts in earnest.  

Figure 1

 

 

 

 

Figure 1

The history of previous civilizations rising and eventually collapsing is well documented.(See, for example, Secular Cycles.)

To start a new cycle, a group of people would find a new way of doing things that allowed more food and energy production (for instance, they might add irrigation, or cut down trees for more land for agriculture). For a while, the economy would expand, but eventually a mismatch would arise between resources and population. Either resources would fall too low (perhaps because of erosion or salt deposits in the soil), or population would rise too high relative to resources, or both.

Even as resources per capita began falling, economies would continue to have overhead expenses, such as the need to pay high-level officials and to fund armies. These overhead costs could not easily be reduced, and might, in fact, grow as the government attempted to work around problems. Collapse occurred because, as resources per capita fell (for example, farms shrank in size), the earnings of workers tended to fall. At the same time, the need for taxes to cover what I am calling overhead expenses tended to grow. Tax rates became too high for workers to earn an adequate living, net of taxes. In some cases, workers succumbed to epidemics because of poor diets. Or governments would collapse, from lack of adequate tax revenue to support them.

Our current economy seems to be following a similar pattern. We first used fossil fuels to allow the population to expand, starting about 1800. Things went fairly well until the 1970s, when oil prices started to spike. Several workarounds (globalization, lower interest rates, and more use of debt) allowed the economy to continue to grow. The period since 1970 might be considered a period of “stagflation.” Now the world economy is growing especially slowly. At the same time, we find ourselves with “overhead” that continues to grow (for example, payments to retirees, and repayment of debt with interest). The pattern of past civilizations suggests that our civilization could also collapse.

Historically, economies have taken many years to collapse; I show a range of 20 to 50 years in Figure 1. We really don’t know if collapse would take that long now. Today, we are dependent on an international financial system, an international trade system, electricity, and the availability of oil to make our vehicles operate. It would seem as if this time collapse could come much more quickly.

With the world economy this close to collapse, some individual countries are even closer to collapse. This is why we can expect to see sharp downturns in the fortunes of some countries. If contagion is not too much of a problem, other countries may continue to do fairly well, even as individual small countries fail.

[2] Figures to be released in 2017 and future years are likely to show that the peak in world coal consumption occurred in 2014. This is important, because it means that countries that depend heavily on coal, such as China and India, can expect to see much slower economic growth, and more financial difficulties.

While reports of international coal production for 2016 are not yet available, news articles and individual country data strongly suggest that world coal production is past its peak. The IEA also reports a substantial drop in coal production for 2016.

Figure 2. World coal consumption. Information through 2015 based on BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data. Estimates for China, US, and India are based on partial year data and news reports. 2016 amount for "other" estimated based on recent trends.

 

 

 

 

Figure 2. World coal consumption. Information through 2015 based on BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data. Estimates for China, US, and India are based on partial year data and news reports. 2016 amount for “other” estimated based on recent trends.

The reason why coal production is dropping is because of low prices, low profitability for producers, and gluts indicating oversupply. Also, comparisons of coal prices with natural gas prices are inducing switching from coal to natural gas. The problem, as we will see later, is that natural gas prices are also artificially low, compared to the cost of production, So the switch is being made to a different type of fossil fuel, also with an unsustainably low price.

Prices for coal in China have recently risen again, thanks to the closing of a large number of unprofitable coal mines, and a mandatory reduction in hours for other coal mines. Even though prices have risen, production may not rise to match the new prices. One article reports:

. . . coal companies are reportedly reluctant to increase output as a majority of the country’s mines are still losing money and it will take time to recoup losses incurred in recent years.

Also, a person can imagine that it might be difficult to obtain financing, if coal prices have only “sort of” recovered.

I wrote last year about the possibility that coal production was peaking. This is one chart I showed, with data through 2015. Coal is the second most utilized fuel in the world. If its production begins declining, it will be difficult to offset the loss of its use with increased use of other types of fuels.

Figure 3. World per capita energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

 

 

 

 

Figure 3. World per capita energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

[3] If we assume that coal supplies will continue to shrink, and other production will grow moderately, we can expect total energy consumption to be approximately flat in 2017. 

Figure 5. World energy consumption forecast, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy data through 2015, and author's estimates for 2016 and 2017.

 

 

 

 

Figure 4. World energy consumption forecast, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy data through 2015, and author’s estimates for 2016 and 2017.

In a way, this is an optimistic assessment, because we know that efforts are underway to reduce oil production, in order to prop up prices. We are, in effect, assuming either that (a) oil prices won’t really rise, so that oil consumption will grow at a rate similar to that in the recent past or (b) while oil prices will rise significantly to help producers, consumers won’t cut back on their consumption in response to the higher prices.

[4] Because world population is rising, the forecast in Figure 4 suggests that per capita energy consumption is likely to shrink. Shrinking energy consumption per capita puts the world (or individual countries in the world) at the risk of recession.

Figure 5 shows indicated per capita energy consumption, based on Figure 4. It is clear that energy consumption per capita has already started shrinking, and is expected to shrink further. The last time that happened was in the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Figure 5. World energy consumption per capita based on energy consumption estimates in Figure 4 and UN 2015 Medium Population Growth Forecast.

 

 

 

 

Figure 5. World energy consumption per capita based on energy consumption estimates in Figure 4 and UN 2015 Medium Population Growth Forecast.

There tends to be a strong correlation between world economic growth and world energy consumption, because energy is required to transform materials into new forms, and to transport goods from one place to another.

In the recent past, the growth in GDP has tended to be a little higher than the growth in the use of energy products. One reason why GDP growth has been a percentage point or two higher than energy consumption growth is because, as economies become richer, citizens can afford to add more services to the mix of goods and services that they purchase (fancier hair cuts and more piano lessons, for example). Production of services tends to use proportionately less energy than creating goods does; as a result, a shift toward a heavier mix of services tends to lead to GDP growth rates that are somewhat higher than the growth in energy consumption.

A second reason why GDP growth has tended to be a little higher than growth in energy consumption is because devices (such as cars, trucks, air conditioners, furnaces, factory machinery) are becoming more efficient. Growth in efficiency occurs if consumers replace old inefficient devices with new more efficient devices. If consumers become less wealthy, they are likely to replace devices less frequently, leading to slower growth in efficiency. Also, as we will discuss later in this  post, recently there has been a tendency for fossil fuel prices to remain artificially low. With low prices, there is little financial incentive to replace an old inefficient device with a new, more efficient device. As a result, new purchases may be bigger, offsetting the benefit of efficiency gains (purchasing an SUV to replace a car, for example).

Thus, we cannot expect that the past pattern of GDP growing a little faster than energy consumption will continue. In fact, it is even possible that the leveraging effect will start working the “wrong” way, as low fossil fuel prices induce more fuel use, not less. Perhaps the safest assumption we can make is that GDP growth and energy consumption growth will be equal. In other words, if world energy consumption growth is 0% (as in Figure 4), world GDP growth will also be 0%. This is not something that world leaders would like at all.

The situation we are encountering today seems to be very similar to the falling resources per capita problem that seemed to push early economies toward collapse in [1]. Figure 5 above suggests that, on average, the paychecks of workers in 2017 will tend to purchase fewer goods and services than they did in 2016 and 2015. If governments need higher taxes to fund rising retiree costs and rising subsidies for “renewables,” the loss in the after-tax purchasing power of workers will be even greater than Figure 5 suggests.

[5] Because many countries are in this precarious position of falling resources per capita, we should expect to see a rise in protectionism, and the addition of new tariffs.

Clearly, governments do not want the problem of falling wages (or rather, falling goods that wages can buy) impacting their countries. So the new game becomes, “Push the problem elsewhere.”

In economic language, the world economy is becoming a “Zero-sum” game. Any gain in the production of goods and services by one country is a loss to another country. Thus, it is in each country’s interest to look out for itself. This is a major change from the shift toward globalization we have experienced in recent years. China, as a major exporter of goods, can expect to be especially affected by this changing view.

[6] China can no longer be expected to pull the world economy forward.

China’s economic growth rate is likely to be lower, for many reasons. One reason is the financial problems of coal mines, and the tendency of coal production to continue to shrink, once it starts shrinking. This happens for many reasons, one of them being the difficulty in obtaining loans for expansion, when prices still seem to be somewhat low, and the outlook for the further increases does not appear to be very good.

Another reason why China’s economic growth rate can be expected to fall is the current overbuilt situation with respect to apartment buildings, shopping malls, factories, and coal mines. As a result, there seems to be little need for new buildings and operations of these types. Another reason for slower economic growth is the growing protectionist stance of trade partners. A fourth reason is the fact that many potential buyers of the goods that China is producing are not doing very well economically (with the US being a major exception). These buyers cannot afford to increase their purchases of imports from China.

With these growing headwinds, it is quite possible that China’s total energy consumption in 2017 will shrink. If this happens, there will be downward pressure on world fossil fuel prices. Oil prices may fall, despite production cuts by OPEC and other countries.

China’s slowing economic growth is likely to make its debt problem harder to solve. We should not be too surprised if debt defaults become a more significant problem, or if the yuan falls relative to other currencies.

India, with its recent recall of high denomination currency, as well as its problems with low coal demand, is not likely to be a great deal of help aiding the world economy to grow, either. India is also a much smaller economy than China.

[7] While Item [2] talked about peak coal, there is a very significant chance that we will be hitting peak oil and peak natural gas in 2017 or 2018, as well.  

If we look at historical prices, we see that the prices of oil, coal and natural gas tend to rise and fall together.

Figure 6. Prices of oil, call and natural gas tend to rise and fall together. Prices based on 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

 

 

 

 

Figure 6. Prices of oil, coal and natural gas tend to rise and fall together. Prices based on 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

The reason that fossil fuel prices tend to rise and fall together is because these prices are tied to “demand” for goods and services in general, such as for new homes, cars, and factories. If wages are rising rapidly, and debt is rising rapidly, it becomes easier for consumers to buy goods such as homes and cars. When this happens, there is more “demand” for the commodities used to make and operate homes and cars. Prices for commodities of many types, including fossil fuels, tend to rise, to enable more production of these items.

Of course, the reverse happens as well. If workers become poorer, or debt levels shrink, it becomes harder to buy homes and cars. In this case, commodity prices, including fossil fuel prices, tend to fall.  Thus, the problem we saw above in [2] for coal would be likely to happen for oil and natural gas, as well, because the prices of all of the fossil fuels tend to move together. In fact, we know that current oil prices are too low for oil producers. This is the reason why OPEC and other oil producers have cut back on production. Thus, the problem with overproduction for oil seems to be similar to the overproduction problem for coal, just a bit delayed in timing.

In fact, we also know that US natural gas prices have been very low for several years, suggesting another similar problem. The United States is the single largest producer of natural gas in the world. Its natural gas production hit a peak in mid 2015, and production has since begun to decline. The decline comes as a response to chronically low prices, which make it unprofitable to extract natural gas. This response sounds similar to China’s attempted solution to low coal prices.

Figure 7. US Natural Gas production based on EIA data.

 

 

 

 

Figure 7. US Natural Gas production based on EIA data.

The problem is fundamentally the fact that consumers cannot afford goods made using fossil fuels of any type, if prices actually rise to the level producers need, which tends to be at least five times the 1999 price level. (Note peak price levels compared to 1999 level on Figure 6.) Wages have not risen by a factor of five since 1999, so paying the prices that fossil fuel producers need for profitability and growing production is out of the question. No amount of added debt can hide this problem. (While this reference is to 1999 prices, the issue really goes back much farther, to prices before the price spikes of the 1970s.)

US natural gas producers also have plans to export natural gas to Europe and elsewhere, as liquefied natural gas (LNG). The hope, of course, is that a large amount of exports will raise US natural gas prices. Also, the hope is that Europeans will be able to afford the high-priced natural gas shipped to them. Unless someone can raise the wages of both Europeans and Americans, I would not count on LNG prices actually rising to the level needed for profitability, and staying at such a high level. Instead, they are likely to bounce up, and quickly drop back again.

[8] Unless oil prices rise very substantially, oil exporters will find themselves exhausting their financial reserves in a very short time (perhaps a year or two). Unfortunately, oil importers cannot withstand higher prices, without going into recession. 

We have a no win situation, no matter what happens. This is true with all fossil fuels, but especially with oil, because of its high cost and thus necessarily high price. If oil prices stay at the same level or go down, oil exporters cannot get enough tax revenue, and oil companies in general cannot obtain enough funds to finance the development of new wells and payment of dividends to shareholders. If oil prices do rise by a very large amount for very long, we are likely headed into another major recession, with many debt defaults.

[9] US interest rates are likely to rise in the next year or two, whether or not this result is intended by the Federal reserve.

This issue here is somewhat obscure. The issue has to do with whether the United States can find foreign buyers for its debt, often called US Treasuries, and the interest rates that the US needs to pay on this debt. If buyers are very plentiful, the interest rates paid by he US government can be quite low; if few buyers are available, interest rates must be higher.

Back when Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters were doing well financially, they often bought US Treasuries, as a way to retain the benefit of their new-found wealth, which they did not want to spend immediately. Similarly, when China was doing well as an exporter, it often bought US Treasuries, as a way retaining the wealth it gained from exports, but didn’t yet need for purchases.

When these countries bought US Treasuries, there were several beneficial results:

  • Interest rates on US Treasuries tended to stay artificially low, because there was a ready market for its debt.
  • The US could afford to import high-priced oil, because the additional debt needed to buy the oil could easily be sold (to Saudi Arabia and other oil producing nations, no less).
  • The US dollar tended to stay lower relative to other currencies, making oil more affordable to other countries than it otherwise might be.
  • Investment in countries outside the US was encouraged, because debt issued by these other countries tended to bear higher interest rates than US debt. Also, relatively low oil prices in these countries (because of the low level of the dollar) tended to make investment profitable in these countries.

The effect of these changes was somewhat similar to the US having its own special Quantitative Easing (QE) program, paid for by some of the counties with trade surpluses, instead of by its central bank. This QE substitute tended to encourage world economic growth, for the reasons mentioned above.

Once the fortunes of the countries that used to buy US Treasuries changes, the pattern of buying of US Treasuries tends to change to selling of US Treasuries. Even not purchasing the same quantity of US Treasuries as in the past becomes an adverse change, if the US has a need to keep issuing US Treasuries as in the past, or if it wants to keep rates low.

Unfortunately, losing this QE substitute tends to reverse the favorable effects noted above. One effect is that the dollar tends to ride higher relative to other currencies, making the US look richer, and other countries poorer. The “catch” is that as the other countries become poorer, it becomes harder for them to repay the debt that they took out earlier, which was denominated in US dollars.

Another problem, as this strange type of QE disappears, is that the interest rates that the US government needs to pay in order to issue new debt start rising. These higher rates tend to affect other rates as well, such as mortgage rates. These higher interest rates act as a drag on the economy, tending to push it toward recession.

Higher interest rates also tend to decrease the value of assets, such as homes, farms, outstanding bonds, and shares of stock. This occurs because fewer buyers can afford to buy these goods, with the new higher interest rates. As a result, stock prices can be expected to fall. Prices of homes and of commercial buildings can also be expected to fall. The value of bonds held by insurance companies and banks becomes lower, if they choose to sell these securities before maturity.

Of course, as interest rates fell after 1981, we received the benefit of falling interest rates, in the form of rising asset prices. No one ever stopped to think about how much of the gains in share prices and property values came from falling interest rates.

Figure 8. Ten year treasury interest rates, based on St. Louis Fed data.

 

 

 

 

Figure 8. Ten year treasury interest rates, based on St. Louis Fed data.

Now, as interest rates rise, we can expect asset prices of many types to start falling, because of lower affordability when monthly payments are based on higher interest rates. This situation presents another “drag” on the economy.

In Conclusion

The situation is indeed very concerning. Many things could set off a crisis:

  • Rising energy prices of any kind (hurting energy importers), or energy prices that don’t rise (leading to financial problems or collapse of exporters)
  • Rising interest rates.
  • Defaulting debt, indirectly the result of slow/negative economic growth and rising interest rates.
  • International organizations with less and less influence, or that fall apart completely.
  • Fast changes in relativities of currencies, leading to defaults on derivatives.
  • Collapsing banks, as debt defaults rise.
  • Falling asset prices (homes, farms, commercial buildings, stocks and bonds) as interest rates rise, leading to many debt defaults.

Things don’t look too bad right now, but the underlying problems are sufficiently severe that we seem to be headed for a crisis far worse than 2008. The timing is not clear. Things could start falling apart badly in 2017, or alternatively, major problems may be delayed until 2018 or 2019. I hope political leaders can find ways to keep problems away as long as possible, perhaps with more rounds of QE. Our fundamental problem is the fact that neither high nor low energy prices are now able to keep the world economy operating as we would like it to operate. Increased debt can’t seem to fix the problem either.

The laws of physics seem to be behind economic growth. From a physics point of view, our economy is a dissipative structure. Such structures form in “open systems.” In such systems, flows of energy allow structures to temporarily self-organize and grow. Other examples of dissipative structures include ecosystems, all plants and animals, stars, and hurricanes. All of these structures constantly “dissipate” energy. They have finite life spans, before they eventually collapse. Often, new dissipative systems form, to replace previous ones that have collapsed.

The one thing that gives me hope is the fact that there seems to be some type of a guiding supernatural force behind the whole system that allows so much growth. Some would say that this supernatural force is “only” the laws of physics (and biology and chemistry). To me, the fact that so many structures can self-organize and grow is miraculous, and perhaps evidence of a guiding force behind the whole universe.

I don’t know precisely what is next, but it seems quite possible that there is a longer-term plan for humans that we are not aware of. Some of the religions of the world may have insights on what this plan might be. It is even possible that there may be divine intervention of some type that allows a change in the path that we seem to be on today.

Overly Simple Energy-Economy Models Give Misleading Answers

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Published on the Our Finite World on July 25, 2016

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Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

Does it make a difference if our models of energy and the economy are overly simple? I would argue that it depends on what we plan to use the models for. If all we want to do is determine approximately how many years in the future energy supplies will turn down, then a simple model is perfectly sufficient. But if we want to determine how we might change the current economy to make it hold up better against the forces it is facing, we need a more complex model that explains the economy’s real problems as we reach limits. We need a model that tells the correct shape of the curve, as well as the approximate timing. I suggest reading my recent post regarding complexity and its effects as background for this post.

The common lay interpretation of simple models is that running out of energy supplies can be expected to be our overwhelming problem in the future. A more complete model suggests that our problems as we approach limits are likely to be quite different: growing wealth disparity, inability to maintain complex infrastructure, and growing debt problems. Energy supplies that look easy to extract will not, in fact, be available because prices will not rise high enough. These problems can be expected to change the shape of the curve of future energy consumption to one with a fairly fast decline, such as the Seneca Cliff.

Figure 5. Seneca Cliff by Ugo Bardi

 

 

Figure 1. Seneca Cliff by Ugo Bardi. This curve is based on writings in the 1st century C.E. by Lucius Anneaus Seneca, “It would be of some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”

It is not intuitive, but complexity-related issues create a situation in which economies need to grow, or they will collapse. See my post, The Physics of Energy and the Economy. The popular idea that we extract 50% of a resource before peak, and 50% after peak will be found not to be true–much of the second 50% will stay in the ground.

Some readers may be interested in a new article that I assisted in writing, relating to the role that price plays in the quantity of oil extracted. The article is called, “An oil production forecast for China considering economic limits.”  This article has been published by the academic journal Energy, and is available as a free download for 50 days.

A Simple Model Works If All We Are Trying to Do Is Make a Rough Estimate of the Date of the Downturn

Are we like the team that Dennis Meadows headed up in the early 1970s, simply trying to make a ballpark estimate of when natural resource limits are going to become a severe problem? (This analysis is the basis of the 1972 book, Limits to Growth.) Or are we like M. King Hubbert, back in 1956, trying to warn citizens about energy problems in the fairly distant future? In the case of Hubbert and Meadows, all that was needed was a fairly simple model, telling roughly when the problem might hit, but not necessarily in what way.

I have criticized Hubbert’s model for being deficient in some major respects: leaving out complexity, leaving out entropy, and assuming a nearly unlimited supply of an alternate fuel. Perhaps these issues were not important, however, if all he was trying to do was warn people of a distant future issue.

Slide 29 from my complexity presentation at the Biophysical Economics Conference. Hubbert's model omitted complexity, entropy.

 

 

Figure 2. Slide 29 from my complexity presentation at the 2016 Biophysical Economics Conference. Hubbert’s model omitted complexity, entropy.

The model underlying the 1972 book, Limits to Growth, was also quite simple. Ugo Bardi has used this image by Magne Myrtveit to represent how the 1972 Limits to Growth model worked. It does not include a financial system or debt.

Figure 2. Image by Magne Myrtveit to summarize the main elements of the world model for Limits to Growth.

 

 

Figure 3. Image by Magne Myrtveit to summarize the main elements of the world model for Limits to Growth.

As such, this model does not reflect the major elements of complexity, which I summarized as follows in a recent post:

Figure 3. Slide 7 from my recent complexity presentation. Basic Elements of Complexity

 

 

Figure 4. Slide 7 from my recent complexity presentation. Basic Elements of Complexity

Thus, the model does not forecast the problems that can be expected to occur with increasingly hierarchical behavior, including the problems that people who are at the bottom of the hierarchy can be expected to have getting enough resources for basic functions of life. These issues are important, because people at the bottom of the hierarchy are very numerous. They need to be fed, clothed, housed, and have transportation to work. All of these things take natural resources, including energy products. If the benefit of available natural resources doesn’t make it all of the way down to the bottom of the hierarchy, death rates spike. This is one of the forces that can be expected to change the shape of the curve.

Slide 17. People at the bottom of a hierarchy are most vulnerable.

 

 

Figure 5. Slide 17 from my complexity presentation. People at the bottom of a hierarchy are most vulnerable.

Dennis Meadows does not claim that the model that his group put together will show anything useful about the “shape” of the collapse. In fact, in an article about a year ago, I cut off part of the well-known Limits to Growth forecast to eliminate the part that is likely not particularly helpful–it just shows what their simple model indicates.

Figure 4. Limits to Growth forecast, truncated shortly after production turns down, since modeled amounts are unreliable after that date.

 

 

Figure 6. Limits to Growth forecast, truncated shortly after production turns down, since modeled amounts are unreliable after that date.

Anthropologist Joseph Tainter’s View of Collapse

If we read what anthropologist Joseph Tainter says in his book, the Collapse of Complex Societies, we find that he doesn’t consider “running out” to be the cause of collapse. Instead, he sees growing complexity to be what leads an economy to collapse. These are two of the points Tainter makes regarding complexity:

  • Increased complexity carries with it increased energy costs per capita. In other words, increased complexity is itself a user of energy, and thus tends to drain away energy availability from other uses. Thus, in my opinion, complexity will make the system fail more quickly than the Hubbert model would suggest–the complexity part of the system will use part of the energy that the Hubbert model assumes will be available to fund the slow down slope of the economy.
  • Increased investment in complexity tends to reach declining marginal returns. For example, the first expressway added to a highway system adds more value than the 1000th one. Eventually, if countries are trying to create economic growth where little exists, governments may use debt to fund the building of expressways with practically no expected users, simply to add job opportunities.

Ugo Bardi quotes Joseph Tainter as saying,

“In ancient societies that I studied, for example the Roman Empire, the great problem that these economies faced was that they eventually would incur very high costs just to maintain the status quo. They would need to invest very high amounts to solve problems that didn’t yield a net positive return; instead these investments simply allowed the economies to maintain the level that they were at. This increasing cost of maintaining the status quo decreased the net benefit of being a complex society.” 

View of Collapse Based on a Modeling Approach 

In the book Secular Cycles, Peter Turchin and Surgey Nefedov approach the problem of what causes civilizations to collapse using a modeling approach. According to their analysis, the kinds of things that caused civilizations to collapse very much corresponded to the symptoms of increasing complexity:

  • Problems tended to develop when the population in an area outgrew its resource base–either the population rose too high, or the resources become degraded, or both. The leaders would adopt a plan, which we might consider adding “complexity,” to solve the problems. Such a plan might include raising taxes to be able to afford a bigger army, and using that army to invade another territory. Or it might involve a plan to build irrigation, so that the current land becomes more productive. A modern approach might be to increase tourism, so that the wealth obtained from tourists can be traded for needed resources such as food.
  • According to Turchin and Nefedov, one problem that arises with the adoption of the new plan is increased wealth disparity. More leaders are needed for the new complex solutions. At the same time, it becomes more difficult for those at the bottom of the hierarchy (such as new workers) to obtain adequate wages. Part of the problem is the underlying problem of too many people for the resources. Thus, for example, there is little need for new farmers, because there are already as many farmers as the land can accommodate. Another part of the problem is that an increasing share of the output of the economy is taken by people in the upper levels of the hierarchy, leaving little for low-ranking workers.
  • Food and other commodity prices may temporarily spike, but there is a limit to what workers can pay. Workers can only afford more, if they take on more debt.
  • Debt levels tend to rise, both because of the failing ability of workers to pay for their basic needs, and because governments need funding for their major projects.
  • Systems tend to collapse because governments cannot tax the workers sufficiently to meet their expanded needs. Also, low-ranking workers become susceptible to epidemics because they cannot obtain adequate nutrition with low wages and high taxes.

How Do We Fix an Overly Simple Model? 

The image shown in Figure 3 in some sense shows only one “layer” of our problem. There is also a financial layer to the system, which includes both debt levels and price levels. There are also some refinements needed to the system regarding who gets the benefit of energy products: Is it the elite of the system, or is it the non-elite workers? If the economy is not growing very quickly, one major problem is that the workers at the bottom of the hierarchy tend to get squeezed out.

Figure 7. Authors' depiction of changes to workers share of output of economy, as costs keep rising for other portions of the economy keep rising.

 

 

Figure 7. Author’s depiction of changes to non-elite workers’ share of the output of economy, as costs for other portions of the economy keep rising. The relative sizes of the various elements may not be correct; the purpose of this chart is to show a general idea, not actual amounts.

Briefly, we have several dynamics at work, pushing the economy toward collapse, rather than the resources simply “running out”:

  1. Debt tends to rise much faster than GDP, especially as increasing quantities of capital goods are added. Added debt tends to reach diminishing returns. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult to repay debt with interest, creating a major problem for the financial system.
  2. The cost of resource extraction tends to rise because of diminishing returns. Wages, especially of non-elite workers, do not rise nearly as quickly. These workers cannot afford to buy nearly as many homes, cars, motorcycles, and other consumer goods. Without this demand for consumer goods made with natural resources, prices of many commodities are likely to fall below the cost of production. Or prices may rise, and then fall back, causing serious debt default problems for commodity producers.
  3. Because of growing complexity of the system, the “overhead” of the system (including educational costs, medical costs, the wages of managers, the cost of government programs, and the cost of resource extraction) tends to increase, leaving less for wages for the many non-elite workers of the world. With lower wages, the non-elite workers can afford less. This dynamic tends to push the system toward collapse as well.

The following is a list of variables that might be added to the overly simple model.

  • Debt. As capital goods are added to work around resource shortages, debt levels will tend to rise quickly, because workers need to be paid before the benefit of capital goods can be obtained. Debt levels also rise for other reasons, such as government spending without corresponding tax revenue, and funding of purchases deemed to have lasting value, such as college educations and investments in research and development.
  • Interest rates are the major approach that politicians have at their disposal to try to influence debt levels. In general, the lower the interest rate, the cheaper it is to buy cars, homes, and factories on credit. Thus, the amount of debt can be expected to rise as politicians lower interest rates.
  • Wages of non-elite workers. Non-elite workers play a dual role: (a) they are the primary creators of the goods and services of the system, and (b) they are the primary buyers of the goods that are made using commodities, such as food, clothing, homes, and transportation services. Thus, their wages tend to determine whether the economy can grow. In general, we would expect wages of workers to rise, if their wages are being supplemented by more and more fossil fuel energy in the form of bigger and better machinery to help the workers produce more goods and services. If the wages of non-elite workers fall too low, we would expect the economy to slow, and commodity prices to fall. To some extent, rising debt (through manipulation of interest rates, or through government spending in excess of tax revenue) can be used to supplement the wages of non-elite workers to allow the economy to continue to grow, even if wages are stagnating.
  • The affordable price level for commodities in the aggregate depends primarily on the wage level of non-elite workers and debt levels. A particular commodity may increase in price, but in the aggregate, the total “package” of costs represented by commodity prices must remain affordable, considering wage and debt levels of workers. If wage levels of non-elite workers are rising, the overall affordable price level of commodities will tend to rise. But if wage levels of non-elite workers are falling, or if debt levels are falling, affordable price levels are likely to fall.
  • The required price level for commodity production in the aggregate to continue to grow at the previous rate. This required price level will depend on many considerations, including: (a) the rising cost of extraction, considering the impacts of depletion, (b) wage levels, (c) tax requirements, and (d) other needs, including payment of interest and dividends, and required funding for new development. Clearly, if the affordable price level falls below the required price level for very long, we can eventually expect total commodity production to start falling, and the economy to contract.
  • The energy needs of the “overhead” of the system. Increasing complexity tends to make the overhead of the system grow much faster than the system as a whole. Energy products of various kinds are needed to support this growing overhead, leaving less for other purposes, such as to increasingly leverage the labor of human workers. Some examples of growing overhead of the system include energy needed (a) to maintain the electric grid, internet, roads, and pipeline systems; (b) to fight growing pollution problems; (c) to support education, healthcare, and financial systems needed to maintain an increasingly complex society; (d) to meet government promises for pensions and unemployment insurance; and (e) to cover the rising energy cost of extracting energy products, water, and metals.
  • Available energy supply based on momentum and previous price levels. A few examples explain this issue. If a large oil project was started ten years ago, it likely will be completed, whether or not the oil is needed now. Oil exporters will continue to pump oil, as long as the price available in the marketplace is above their cost of production, because their governments need at least some tax revenue to keep their economies from collapsing. Wind turbines and solar panels that have been built will continue to produce electricity at irregular intervals, whether or not the electric grid actually needs this electricity. Renewable energy mandates will continue to add more wind turbines and solar panels to the electric grid, whether or not this electricity is needed.
  • Energy that can actually be added to the system, based on what workers can afford, considering wages and debt levels [demand based energy]. Because matching of supply and demand takes place on a short-term basis (minute by minute for electricity), in theory we need a matrix of quantities of commodities of various types that can be purchased at various price levels for short time-periods, given actual wage and debt levels. For example, if more electricity is dumped on the electric grid than is needed, how much impact will a drop in prices have on the quantity of electricity that consumers are willing to buy? The intersections of supply and demand “curves” will determine both the price and quantity of energy added to the system.

The output of the model would be three different estimates of whether we are reaching collapse:

  1. An analysis of whether repayment of debt with interest is reaching limits.
  2. An analysis of whether affordable commodity prices are falling below the level needed for commodity consumption to grow, likely leading to falling future commodity production.
  3. An analysis of whether net energy per capita is falling. This would reflect a calculation of the following amount over time: Net energy per capita calculationIf net energy per capita is falling, the ability to leverage human labor is falling as well. Thus productivity of human workers is likely to stop growing, or perhaps decline. The total amount of goods and services produced is likely to plateau or fall, leading to stagnating or declining economic growth.

The important thing about the added pieces to this model is that they emphasize the one-way nature of the system. The economy needs to grow, or it collapses. The price of energy products cannot rise much at all, because wages of workers don’t rise correspondingly. This means that any energy substitute must be very cheap. The system needs to keep adding debt, especially when capital goods are added. The benefit of this debt reaches diminishing returns. The combination of these diminishing returns with respect to investments made with debt, and the interest that needs to be paid on debt, means that it is very difficult for energy products based on capital goods to “save” the system.

Complexity Adds Unforeseen Problems

One issue that people working solely in the energy sector may not notice is that our current system for setting market-based electricity prices is not working very well, with the addition of feed-in tariffs and other subsidy programs. There is evidence that subsidizing renewable electricity tends to lead to falling wholesale electricity prices. In a sense, if we subsidize electricity prices for one type of electricity producer, we find it also necessary to subsidize electricity prices for other types of electricity producers. (Also in California.)

Figure 8. Residential Electricity Prices in Europe, together with Germany spot wholesale price, from http://pfbach.dk/firma_pfb/references/pfb_towards_50_pct_wind_in_denmark_2016_03_30.pdf

 

 

Figure 8. Residential Electricity Prices in Europe, together with Germany spot wholesale price, from http://pfbach.dk/firma_pfb/references/pfb_towards_50_pct_wind_in_denmark_2016_03_30.pdf

Inadequate prices for electricity producers and a need for ever-rising subsidies for electricity production could, by themselves, cause the system to fail. In a sense, this pricing problem is a complexity-related outcome that economists have overlooked. Their models are also too simple!

Conclusion

It is easy to rely on too-simple models. Perhaps the biggest issue that is missed is that energy prices can’t rise endlessly. Because of this, a large share of natural resources, including oil and other energy products, will be left in the ground. Furthermore, because prices do not rise very high, energy products that are expensive to produce can’t be expected to work, either, no matter how they are disguised. Substitutes that cannot be inexpensively integrated into the electric grid are not likely to work either.

I talked about low-ranking workers being a vulnerable part of the system. It is clear from Joseph Tainter’s comments that another vulnerable part of our current system is the various “connectors” that allow us to have our modern economy. These include the electric grid, roads and bridges, the pipeline systems, the water and sewer systems, the internet, the financial system, and the international trade system. Even government organizations such as the Eurozone might be considered vulnerable connecting systems. The energy cost of maintaining these systems can be expected to continue to rise. Rising costs for these systems are part of what makes it difficult to maintain our current economic system.

The focus on “running out” has led to a focus on finding ways to extend our energy supply with small quantities of high-priced alternatives. This approach doesn’t really get us very far. What we need to keep the economy from collapsing is a growing supply of cheap-to-produce energy and other natural resources. Ideally, these new resources should require little debt, and not cause pollution problems. These requirements are exceedingly difficult to meet in a finite world.

Energy limits: Why we see rising wealth disparity and low prices

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Published on the Our Finite World on July 6, 2016

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Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

Last week, I gave a fairly wide-ranging presentation at the 2016 Biophysical Economics Conference called Complexity: The Connection Between Fossil Fuel EROI, Human Energy EROI, and Debt (pdf). In this post, I discuss the portion of the talk that explains several key issues:

  1. Why we are right now seeing so many problems with respect to wealth disparity and low commodity prices (Answer: World per capita energy consumption is already falling, and the energy/economy system needs to reflect this problem somehow.)
  2. Why the quest for growing technology leads to growing wealth disparity (Answer: The economy must be configured in more of a hierarchical pattern to support growing “complexity.” Growing complexity is the precursor to growing technology.)
  3. Why rising debt is an integral part of the energy/economy system (Answer: We could not pay workers for making long-lasting goods and services without using debt to “pull forward” the hoped-for benefit of these goods and services to the present, using debt and other equivalent approaches.)
  4. Why commodity prices can suddenly fall below the cost of production for a wide range of products (Answer: Prices of commodities depend to a significant extent on debt levels. A major problem is that when commodity prices rise, wages do not rise in a corresponding manner. Rising debt levels can mask the growing lack of affordability for a while, but eventually, debt levels cannot be raised sufficiently, and commodity prices fall too low.)
  5. The Brexit vote may be related to falling energy per capita in the UK. Given that this problem occurs in many countries, it may be increasingly difficult to keep the Eurozone and other similar international organizations together.
  6. My talk also touches on the topic of why a steady state economy is not possible, unless we can live like chimpanzees.

My analysis has as its premise that the economy behaves like other physical systems. It needs energy–and, in fact, growing energy–to operate. If the system does not get the energy it needs, it “rebalances” in a way that may not be to our liking. See my article, “The Physics of Energy and the Economy.”

An outline of my talk is shown as Slide 2, below. I will omit the EROI and Hubbert model portions of the presentation.  

Slide 2

 

Slide 2

Peak World Coal Seems To Be Happening, Right Now

In the view of most of the researchers I was talking to at this conference, oil is likely to be the first problem, not coal. And the issue is likely to be high prices, not low. So peak coal now, as shown in Slide 3, doesn’t seem to make sense. Yet, my analysis of recent data strongly suggests that peak coal is exactly what is happening, right now.

Slide 3. World and China appear to be reaching peak coal.

 

Slide 3. World and China appear to be reaching peak coal.

I will show later in this presentation why peaking coal production does seem to make sense–price levels of all fossil fuels seem to vary together. The extent to which debt levels are growing seems to be a major factor in price levels. When the debt level is not growing rapidly enough, “demand” is not high enough, and prices for all fossil fuels tend to fall simultaneously. A related issue is the extent to which the world economy is growing; if world economic growth is too slow, this will also tend to hold down demand, and thus energy prices.

China’s rate of growth in coal production started falling back in 2012, which is when coal prices started falling. This is before China’s new leadership took over in March 2013. We know that coal production in China is likely to continue falling, because China’s energy bureau is reporting that China plans to close over 1000 coal mines in 2016, because of a “price-sapping supply glut.” See my article, “China: Is peak coal part of its problem?” for additional information.

World Per Capita Energy Consumption Seems To Have Already Started Falling

Slide 4. World per capita energy consumption may have reached a peak

 

Slide 4. World per capita energy consumption may have reached a peak

The reason why I say that world per capita energy consumption may have reached a peak in 2013 is partly because coal consumption appears to have peaked. If coal has peaked, it will be hard to make up the shortfall using other fuels, such as renewables, or even natural gas. Furthermore, recent world figures (shown above) already show a small drop in per capita energy consumption. If world coal production continues to drop, we can expect world per capita energy consumption to continue to drop.

Energy Consumption Trends for a Few Countries

The figure below is not actually in the presentation–I thought I would add it now, to show energy consumption varies for a few economies. The upper chart in the Supplemental Slide shows the trend in per capita energy consumption in UK, Japan, Spain, and Greece. We know that Japan, Spain, and Greece have been experiencing economic problems for several years, something that perhaps should not be too surprising, given their falling energy consumption per capita. The UK shows a similar pattern to these three countries. Such a pattern is likely to lead to rising wage disparities, for reasons we will discuss later in this presentation, when we talk about “complexity.”

Supplemental information showing how trend in per capita energy consumption seems to reflect health of economies

 

Supplemental slide. Per capita energy consumption trends for four advanced economies and for China, based on BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy and 2015 UN population data.

China’s energy consumption shows a contrasting pattern. China experienced rapid growth in energy consumption after it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Recently, China’s growth in energy consumption has been slowing, suggesting slowing growth in the economy–perhaps even more than reported in official GDP reports.

Why Peak Per Capita Energy Matters

In Slide 5, I give an overview of why peak energy per capita matters. My view is the second one shown on this slide. It is not that every segment of the economy will necessarily have problems. Instead, un-favored segments are likely to be first to have problems. Most conference attendees came with the first view.

Slide 5. Two views of peak energy per capita.

 

Slide 5. Two views of peak energy per capita.

How the Economy Is Affected by Growing Complexity

Joseph Tainter in the Collapse of Complex Societies tells us that the way economies that are in danger of reaching limits can sometimes solve their problems is through increased complexity.

Slide 6. Complexity introduction

 

Slide 6. Complexity introduction

Economists today seem to believe that technology will solve our problems. I see complexity and technology as being related, with complexity being a precursor to technology. Economies that hope to adopt higher levels of technology need to take steps in the direction of growing complexity, to achieve this goal.

When I thought about what makes up complexity, this is the list of elements I came up with:

Slide 7. Basic Elements of Complexity

 

Slide 7. Basic Elements of Complexity

Regarding concentration of energy, the use of concentrated energy seems to be what sets humans apart from other animals.

Slide 8. Early use of concentration of energy

 

Slide 8. Early use of concentration of energy

If we want a steady-state economy, “all” we need to do is set aside our use of concentrated energy, and live like chimpanzees. I am not sure how we keep our bigger brains adequately nourished. A couple of slides related to this are Slides 9 and 10.

Another type of concentration of energy is capital goods. Capital goods are all of the goods that we expect to last for a fairly long time–things like homes, vehicles, and factories. The big issue is how to pay for capital goods.

Slide 11. Capital goods-- more recent examples of concentrations of energy

 

Slide 11. Capital goods– more recent examples of concentrations of energy

The problem is that we need to pay workers now, but the benefit of these capital goods is spread over many years in the future. Somehow, the future benefit of these capital goods must be “pulled back” to today. The obvious answer to this predicament is the use of debt (or debt-like instruments) to fund capital goods. We will get back to the issue of debt later.

The next few slides (12 to 14) show other ways that concentrations of energy can be developed. One way is through the creation of businesses. Even larger concentrations of energy can be formed by creating bigger businesses, including international businesses. Governments can also be used to concentrate the use of energy resources, because of government’s ability to build roads, schools, and many other projects. International organizations can also act to concentrate wealth, by easing trade among members (Eurozone and World Trade Organization) and by lending money to member countries (International Monetary Fund and World Bank). All of these organizations can benefit from the use of debt to fund their growing organizations.

We said that concentration of energy was the first element of complexity (see outline at top). The second element of complexity is pure elements and compounds. In many ways, this requirement is similar to concentrations of energy, in the way it allows technology to work.

Slide 15. Why pure elements and compounds are needed for complexity

 

Slide 15. Why pure elements and compounds are needed for complexity

The third element of complexity (see outline at top) is leveraging of human energy through hierarchical organization. In many ways, this is the idea of concentrated energy, as applied to humans.

16. Leveraging of human energy through hierarchical organization.

 

16. Leveraging of human energy through hierarchical organization.

Historically, the big problem has been populations that grew too large for their resource bases. In a way, we are reaching a similar predicament. Not too surprisingly, when this happens, it is the people at the bottom of the hierarchy who tend not to receive enough.

Slide 17. People at the bottom of a hierarchy are most vulnerable.

 

Slide 17. People at the bottom of a hierarchy are most vulnerable.

Why Debt Is Required

Slide 18 - Why add debt?

 

Slide 18 – Why add debt?

One of the fundamental benefits of debt is time shifting.

Slide 19. How debt allows time shifting.

 

Slide 19. How debt allows time shifting.

Of course, the value of these capital goods is speculative, when debt is used to price them in advance. As long as capital goods, and other uses of debt, provide sufficient benefits to the economy so that debt can be repaid with interest, the system tends to work as planned.

Slide 20. Debt makes the economic system work more smoothly.

 

Slide 20. Debt makes the economic system work more smoothly.

One key aspect of debt is its ability to determine demand, and thus prices, of commodities such as oil and natural gas. The reason why debt has almost magical power is because if a potential buyer is given a loan for any kind of capital good, say a house, or car, or factory, the potential buyer can purchase the capital good far sooner than if he or she needed to save up for it. Each of these capital goods requires commodities of various kinds, such as steel, copper, oil, coal, and natural gas. Thus, we would expect rising debt levels to raise the prices of a broad range of commodity prices, simultaneously.

21. Debt helps determine prices of commodities

 

21. Debt helps determine prices of commodities

We can think of the situation as follows: An economy that keeps growing is (in energy terms) an out-of-balance system. Rising debt levels help maintain this out-of-balance condition by providing ever-higher commodity prices. These higher prices encourage greater extraction of energy products, even when the cost of extraction is rising because of diminishing returns. Even if extraction costs keep rising, the situation of ever-rising commodity prices cannot go on endlessly. At some point, prices become too high for workers to afford. Demand tends to fall at some point because workers at the bottom of the hierarchy find themselves “priced out” of buying goods such as houses and cars that would help maintain commodity demand.

What causes debt levels to stop rising? One reason why debt levels stop rising is that debt reaches absurd levels, making it difficult to repay debt with interest. Several examples of absurd debt levels are given in Slide 21. An additional example is excessive use of student loans. If incomes after student loans are not high enough, student debt may create a huge burden, preventing former students from buying homes and cars and starting families. The problem is that incomes after the educational experience are not sufficiently high to both pay back debt with interest and leave adequate funds for other needs.

Growing wage disparity can also lead directly to falling energy prices:

Slide 22. Growing wage disparity tends to lead to falling energy prices.

 

Slide 22. Growing wage disparity tends to lead to falling energy prices.

Both growing wage disparity and lack of growth in debt are signs that an economy is not growing very fast–in some sense, that the economy is not hot enough. Some of the would-be workers tend to drop out of the system, because wages are not high enough to cover commuting and childcare expenses. In some sense, they “condense out,” similar to the way that water turns to ice when there is not enough heat in the system.

The situation with prices of fossil fuels is similar; low prices are a sign that the economy is not growing fast enough. The system is forcing a reduction in the production of many kinds of commodities, including fossil fuels, by reducing prices below the cost of production for quite a few producers. This situation can be thought of as some of the production “condensing out,” because the energy products consumed are not causing the world economy to grow fast enough to maintain a “hot” demand level.

More Thoughts on Energy Prices and Debt Levels

Slide 24. Use of debt permits two different valuations of worth of commodities.

 

Slide 24. Use of debt permits two different valuations of worth of commodities.

The thing that is confusing is that for many years, energy and commodity costs were very similar to energy and other commodity prices. It has been only very recently–when prices rose too high for consumers to afford–that the difference has appeared.

Slide 25. Possibility of different price compared to production cost appears very late.

 

Slide 25. Possibility of different price compared to production cost appears very late.

Looking at historical data in Slide 26, we can see two recent sharp drops in oil prices. Both occurred when debt levels were no longer rising.

Slide 26. Connection of debt with oil prices is shown by two sharp declines.

 

Slide 26. Connection of debt with oil prices is shown by two sharp declines.

In fact, prices of oil, coal, and natural gas tend to rise and fall together–just as we would expect, if they are all responding to the same changes in debt levels, and indirectly, the same changes in world economic growth rates.

Slide 27. Prices of oil, call and natural gas tend to rise and fall together.

 

Slide 27. Prices of oil, call and natural gas tend to rise and fall together.

If energy prices are based on debt levels, our concern should be that all fossil fuels will peak within a few years of each other. The cause of the peak will be low prices, not “running out” of energy products.

Slide 28. Concerns if energy prices are based on debt levels

 

Slide 28. Concerns if energy prices are based on debt levels

In fact, the problems of the economy may be quite different from “running out.”

Slide 31. Candidates for what really brings the system down.

 

Slide 31. Candidates for what really brings the system down.

Supplemental Information on Income Disparity

A few slides giving additional information on income disparity are shown as slides 38-40. Please check the end of my presentation for these.

Conclusion

One topic I did not specifically discuss in this presentation is the possibility of slowing world economic growth. If we are seeing falling world energy consumption per capita, it should not be surprising if world GDP growth per capita is falling as well. I have talked about the link between energy consumption and GDP growth many times, including in my paper, Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.

It was not until I sat down to write up this presentation that I realized how closely the timing of the recent sharp drop of world oil prices corresponds with the decrease in world per capita energy consumption shown on Slide 4. World per capita energy consumption hit a peak in 2013, and dropped slightly in 2014, with a greater change in 2015. Mid-2014 is when oil prices began their major slide, so the timing of the two events matches up almost precisely. Thus, the drop in coal consumption may be resulting in low world economic growth, which in turn is holding down both oil and natural gas prices.

The apparent coincidence in timing may simply reflect the fact that the same forces that cause falling commodity prices are also causing low economic growth. Growing wage disparity and lack of growth in debt seem to be factors in causing both. If workers at the bottom of the hierarchy could better afford the output of the world economy, with or without additional debt, the world economy would have a better chance of growing.

I don’t see much hope for fixing a world whose economy is moving in the direction of shrinkage. Instead, the situation is likely to get worse, until the financial system collapses, or one of the issues shown on Slide 31 starts to become too great a problem.

I see the big push for renewables to be mostly a waste of time and resources. The major exception is perhaps hydroelectric, in parts of the world with good locations for new installations. EROI analyses are often used to justify renewables, but in my view (shown in the part of the presentation not discussed), EROI is too “blunt” a tool to properly evaluate resources that differ greatly in quality of output and in debt requirements. A major goal needs to be to maintain the functionality of the electric grid; evaluations of intermittent renewables should consider real-life experiences of other countries. For example, current pricing approaches seem to exacerbate the problem of falling wholesale electricity prices, and thus falling fossil fuel prices. (See this or this article.)

A major impediment to getting a rational discussion of the issues is the inability of a large share of the population to deal with what appears to be a potentially dire outcome. Textbook and journal editors recognize this issue, and gear their editorial guidelines accordingly. I was reminded of this again, when the question came up (again) of whether I would consider writing a book for a particular academic book publisher. The main thing I would need to do to make the book acceptable would be find a way of sidestepping any unpleasant outcome–or, better yet, I should come up with a “happily ever after” ending.

China: Is peak coal part of its problem?

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Published on the Our Finite World on June 20, 2016A coal train once supplied the city of Holland, Michigan with fuel for its electric generating plant. They converted the plant to natural gas. Their costs are down, their emissions are down, and coal is down for the count. (Photo by wsilver/Flickr)A coal train once supplied the city of Holland, Michigan with fuel for its electric generating plant. They converted the plant to natural gas. Their costs are down, their emissions are down, and coal is down for the count. (Photo by wsilver/Flickr)

Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

The world’s coal resources are clearly huge. How could China, or the world in total, reach peak coal in a timeframe that makes a difference?

If we look at China’s coal production and consumption in BP’s 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy (SRWE), this is what we see:

Figure 1. China's production and consumption of coal based on BP 2016 SRWE.

 

 

 

Figure 1. China’s production and consumption of coal based on BP 2016 SRWE.

Figure 2 shows that the quantities of other fuels are increasing in a pattern similar to past patterns. None of them is large enough to make a real difference in offsetting the loss of coal consumption. Renewables (really “other renewables”) include wind, solar, geothermal, and wood burned to produce electricity. This category is still tiny in comparison to coal.

Figure 2. China's energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

 

 

 

Figure 2. China’s energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

Why would a country selectively decide to slow down the growth of the fuel that has made its current “boom” possible? Coal is generally cheaper than other fuels. The fact that China has a lot of low-cost coal, and can use it together with its cheap labor, has allowed China to manufacture goods very inexpensively, and thus be very competitive in world markets.

In my view, China really had no choice regarding the cutback in coal production–market forces were pushing for less production of goods, and this was playing out as lower commodity prices of many types, including coal, oil, and natural gas, plus many types of metals.

China is mostly self-sufficient in coal production, but it is a major importer of natural gas and oil. Lower oil and natural gas prices made imported fuels of these types more affordable, and thus encouraged more importing of these products. At the same time, lower coal prices made many of China’s mines unprofitable, leading to a need to cut back on production. Thus we see the rather bizarre result: consumption of the cheapest energy product (coal) is falling first. We will discuss this issue more later.

China’s Overall Historical Production of Energy Products

With the pattern of energy consumption shown in Figure 2, growth in China’s total fuel consumption has slowed, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. China energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

 

 

 

Figure 3. China energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

The indicated increases in total fuel consumption in Figure 3 are as follows: 8.1% in 2011; 4.0% in 2012; 3.9% in 2013; 2.3% in 2014; 1.5% in 2015.

Unless there is a huge shift to a service economy, we would expect China’s GDP to decrease rather rapidly as well, perhaps staying 1% or 2% higher than the growth in fuel consumption. Such a relationship would suggest that China’s reported GDP for 2014 and 2015 may be overstated.

The Problem of Low Coal Prices

Most of us don’t pay attention to coal prices around the world, but according to BP data, coal prices have been following a similar pattern to those of oil and natural gas.

Figure 4. Coal prices since 1999 based on BP 2016 SRWE data.

 

 

 

Figure 4. Coal prices since 1999 based on BP 2016 SRWE data.

Oil prices tend to cluster more closely than those of coal and natural gas because there is more of a world market for oil than for the other fuels. Coal and natural gas have relatively high delivery costs, making it more expensive to trade these products internationally.

Figure 5. World oil prices since 1999 for various oil types, based on BP 2016 SRWE. (Prices not adjusted for inflation.)

 

 

 

Figure 5. World oil prices since 1999 for various oil types, based on BP 2016 SRWE. (Prices not adjusted for inflation.)

Figure 6. Historical prices for several types of natural gas, from BP 2016 SRWE.

 

 

 

Figure 6. Historical prices for several types of natural gas, from BP 2016 SRWE.

The one place where natural gas prices failed to follow the same pattern as oil and coal prices was in the United States. After 2008, shale producers extracted more natural gas for the US market than it could easily absorb. This overproduction, together with a lack of export capacity, led to falling US prices. By 2014 and 2015, prices were falling everywhere for oil, coal and natural gas.

Why Prices of Fossil Fuels Move Together

The reason why prices of fossil fuels tend to move together is because commodity prices reflect “demand” at a given time. This demand is determined by a combination of wage levels and debt levels. When wage levels are high and debt levels are increasing, consumers can afford more goods, such as new homes and new cars. Building these new homes and cars takes many different kinds of materials, so commodity prices of many kinds tend to rise together, to encourage production of these diverse materials.

Why Fossil Fuel Prices Don’t Necessarily Rise Indefinitely

Rising fossil fuel prices depend on rising demand. Wages are not really rising fast enough to increase fossil fuel prices to the levels shown in Figures 4, 5, and 6, so the world has had to depend on rising debt levels to fill the gap. Unfortunately, there are diminishing returns to adding debt. We can witness the poor impact that Japan’s rising debt level has had on raising its GDP.

Adding more debt is like using an elastic rubber band to increase the world output of goods and services. Adding debt works for a while, as the relatively elastic economy responds to growing debt. At some point, however, the amount of debt required becomes too high relative to the benefit obtained. The system tends to “snap back,” and prices fall for many commodities at the same time. This seems to be what happened recently in late 2008, and what has happened again recently. The challenge is to restore world economic growth, since it is really robust world economic growth that allows commodity prices to rise to high levels.

Some Historical Perspective on Rising Energy Prices and Rising Debt 

In “normal” times, a small increase in demand will increase production of fossil fuels by several percentage points–generally enough to handle the rising demand. Prices can then fall back again and there is no long-term rise in prices. This situation occurred for quite a long time prior to about 1970.

After about 1970, we found that it became more difficult to raise production levels of energy products, without permanently raising prices. US oil production began to decline in 1970. This started an energy crisis that has been simmering beneath the surface for 45 years. Various workarounds for our energy shortage problem were tried, such as adding nuclear, drilling for oil in new areas such as the North Sea, and building more energy efficient cars. Another approach used was reducing interest rates, to make high-priced homes, cars and factories more affordable.

By the late 1990s, even these workarounds were no longer providing the benefit needed. Another idea was tried: encourage more international trade. This would allow the world access to untapped energy sources, including coal, in the less developed parts of the world, such as China and India.

This too, worked for a while, but resource depletion tended to continue to raise the cost of energy extraction. Also, the competition with low-cost labor in India, China, and other countries tended to hold down the wages of the less-educated workers in the developed countries. Higher prices at the same time that wages for some of the workers were depressed is, of course, a bad mismatch.

One way of “fixing” the problem was with cheaper debt, and more debt, so that consumers could buy homes and cars with lower incomes.  This fix of more debt stopped working in 2008, as repayment on “subprime” debt faltered, and all fossil fuel prices collapsed.

Figure 7. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.

 

 

 

Figure 7. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.

To “re-inflate” the world economy, world leaders began to try to add even more debt. They did this by fixing interest rates even lower, starting in late 2008, using a program called Quantitative Easing (QE). This program was successful in raising commodity prices again, although its effect seemed to diminish with time. China’s huge growth in debt during this period helped as well.

Energy prices turned downward again in mid-2014, when the United States discontinued its QE program, and China (under new leadership), decided not to continue increasing debt as quickly as before. The result was a second sharp drop in commodity prices, without a corresponding drop in the cost of producing these fossil fuels. This shift was devastating from the point of view of energy supply producers.

Impact of Lower Prices on China’s Coal Producers

China has a lot of coal resources, but not all of these resources can be produced cheaply. Generally, the least expensive resources tend to be produced first. When prices are high, it may look like deeper, thinner seams can be extracted, in addition to the easier and cheaper to extract seams, but this is never certain. At some point, prices may fall and thus issue a “stop mining” instruction.

When coal prices drop, producers are likely to encounter debt problems, as loans related to coal operations become due. The reason why this happens is because loans taken out when coal prices were high are likely to reflect an optimistic view of how much can be extracted. Once prices drop, operators discover that they have committed themselves to paying back more in loans than their coal mines can actually produce. This seems to be happening now.

What Are the Implications for Future World Coal Production?

If we look at a chart showing world consumption of energy products by fuel, we see that world coal production has turned down in a similar manner to the downturn in Chinese coal production.

Figure 8. World energy consumption by fuel, separately by major groupings.

 

 

 

Figure 8. World energy consumption by fuel, separately by major groupings.

There are many large areas of the world that seem to be beyond their peak in coal production, including the United States, the Eurozone, the Former Soviet Union, and Canada. Note that the United States’ coal production “peaked” in 1998. This added to pressures for globalization.

Figure 9. Areas where coal production has peaked, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

 

 

 

Figure 9. Areas where coal production has peaked, based on BP 2016 SRWE. FSU means “Former Soviet Union.”

If we consider the rest of the world excluding the areas shown separately in Figure 9 as the “Non-Peaking Portion of the World,” we find that China’s current coal production far exceeds that of the Non-Peaking portion of world production.

Figure 9. Coal production in China compared to world production minus production shown in Figure 8.

 

 

 

Figure 10. Coal production in China compared to world production minus production shown in Figure 8.

Figure 10 indicates that even the non-peaking portion of the world is showing a downturn in production in 2015, no doubt relating to current low prices.

Another issue is that India’s coal production now falls far short of its consumption. Thus, India is becoming a major coal importer. In 2015, India’s consumption of coal slightly exceeded that of the United States, making it the second largest consumer of coal after China, and the largest coal importer. If China should decide to increase its coal consumption by adding imports, it would need to compete with India for supplies.

Figure 14. India's production and consumption of coal, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

 

 

 

Figure 11. India’s production and consumption of coal, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

India’s hope for continued economic growth is also tied to coal, even though it doesn’t produce enough itself. India’s use of natural gas is declining, because its own locally-produced natural gas supplies are declining, and imports are expensive.

Figure 11. India's energy consumption by fuel based on BP 2016 SRWE.

 

 

 

Figure 12. India’s energy consumption by fuel based on BP 2016 SRWE.

Imported coal is more expensive than locally produced coal, because of the transportation costs involved. Thus, adding an increasing portion of imported coal will eventually make India’s products less price competitive. India started from a lower wage level than China, so perhaps it can temporarily withstand a somewhat higher average coal price. At some point, however, it will reach limits on how much of its mix can be imported, before workers cannot afford its products made with this high-priced coal.

As noted above, India and China will be competing for the same exports, if they both expect to grow using imported coal. We can modify Figure 9 to show what the size pool producing imports might now look like, if the countries needing imports is “China + India,” and the part with perhaps extra coal to export is the Non-Peaking Areas from Figure 9, less India.

Figure 12. Coal production for China plus India, compared to production from non-peaking group used in Figure 9, minus India. Based on BP 2016 SRWE.

 

 

 

Figure 12. Coal production for China plus India, compared to production from non-peaking group used in Figure 9, minus India. Based on BP 2016 SRWE.

This comparison shows an even a worse mismatch between the peaking areas, and the current production of areas that might raise their supply.

Is Future Coal Production a Function of Resources Available, or of Prices?

Future coal production is clearly a function of both the amount of resources available and future prices. If there are no resources available, it is pretty clear that no resources can be extracted.

What most researchers have not understood is that future prices are important as well. We can’t expect that prices will rise indefinitely, because low-paid workers, especially, find themselves in a squeeze. They find homes and cars increasingly unaffordable, unless the government can somehow manipulate interest rates down to never heard of levels. Because of this lack of understanding of the role of prices, most of today’s models don’t consider the possibility that price levels may cut back production, at what seems to be an early date relative to the amount of resources in the ground.

Part of the confusion comes from the view economists have regarding prices, innovation, and substitution. Economists seem to be firmly convinced that prices will always rise to fix the problem of future shortages, but their models do not seem to take into account the major role that energy plays in the economy, and the lack of available substitutes. Certainly, the history of energy prices does not support this claim.

If I am correct in saying that prices cannot rise indefinitely, then all three of the fossil fuels are likely to peak, more or less simultaneously, when prices can no longer stay high enough to enable extraction. The downslope after the peak will be based on financial outcomes, such as the bankruptcies of coal operators, not on the exhaustion of reserves or resources in the ground. This dynamic can be expected to produce a much sharper downturn than modeled by the Hubbert Curve.

If analysts consider the possibility that prices will never again rise very high for very long, they realize such a low-price scenario would be a catastrophe. That is why we hear very little about this possibility.

Conclusion

It appears likely that China’s coal production has “peaked” and has begun to decline. This is especially likely if energy prices stay low, or never rise very high for very long.

If I am correct about energy prices not rising high enough in the future, all fossil fuels may reach peak production more or less simultaneously in the not too distant future. Widespread debt defaults seem likely if this happens.

If we are, in fact, reaching peak coal, even before peak oil, this is disconcerting for those who believe that the Hubbert Model is the only way of viewing the world. Maybe we are expecting too much from the model; maybe we need a model that considers prices, and how prices depend on wages and rising debt. Falling energy prices are especially bad for the system; they seem to lead to debt defaults.

The real oil limits story; what other researchers missed

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Published on the Our Finite World on May 12, 2016

oilwell

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For a long time, a common assumption has been that the world will eventually “run out” of oil and other non-renewable resources. Instead, we seem to be running into surpluses and low prices. What is going on that was missed by M. King Hubbert, Harold Hotelling, and by the popular understanding of supply and demand?

The underlying assumption in these models is that scarcity would appear before the final cutoff of consumption. Hubbert looked at the situation from a geologist’s point of view in the 1950s to 1980s, without an understanding of the extent to which geological availability could change with higher price and improved technology. Harold Hotelling’s work came out of the conservationist movement of 1890 to 1920, which was concerned about running out of non-renewable resources. Those using supply and demand models have equivalent concerns–too little fossil fuel supply relative to demand, especially when environmental considerations are included.

Virtually no one realizes that the economy is a self-organized networked system. There are many interconnections within the system. The real situation is that as prices rise, supply tends to rise as well, because new sources of production become available at the higher price. At the same time, demand tends to fall for a variety of reasons:

  • Lower affordability
  • Lower productivity growth
  • Falling relative wages of non-elite workers

The potential mismatch between amount of supply and demand is exacerbated by the oversized role that debt plays in determining the level of commodity prices. Because the oil problem is one of diminishing returns, adding debt becomes less and less profitable over time. There is a potential for a sharp decrease in debt from a combination of defaults and planned debt reductions, leading to very much lower oil prices, and severe problems for oil producers. Financial institutions tend to be badly affected as well. If a person looks at only past history, the situation looks secure, but it really is not.

Figure 1. By Merzperson at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2570936

 

 

 

Figure 1. By Merzperson at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2570936

Substitutes aren’t really helpful; they tend to be high-priced and dependent on the use of fossil fuels, including oil. They cannot possibly operate on their own. They add to the “oversupply at high prices” problem, but don’t really fix the need for low-priced supply.

Why supply tends to rise as prices rise

 

For any non-renewable commodity, there are a wide variety of resources that will “sort of” work as substitutes, if the price is high enough. If the price can be raised to a very high level, the funds available will encourage the development of more advanced (and expensive) technology.

If it is possible to raise the price to a very high level, it is likely that a very large quantity of oil will be available. Figure 1 shows some of the types of oil available:

Getting sufficient oil out is a price problemI got my idea for Figure 2 from a natural gas resource triangle by Stephen Holditch.

Figure 2. Stephen Holdritch's resource triangle for natural gas

 

 

 

Figure 3. Stephen Holditch’s resource triangle for natural gas

A similar resource triangle is available for coal (from National Academies Press; Coal Resource, Reserve, and Quality Assessments):

Figure 3. Coal resources in 1997, based on EIA data. Image from

 

 

 

Figure 4. Coal resources in 1997, based on EIA data. Image from National Academies Press.

Because of the availability of an increasing amount of resources, we are likely to get more oil, natural gas, and coal, if prices rise. We associate high prices with scarcity; instead, high prices tend to make a larger quantity of energy product available.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has a different way of illustrating the likelihood of huge future oil supply, if prices can only rise high enough.

Figure 4. Figure 1.4 from International Energy Agency's 2015 World Energy Outlook.

 

 

 

Figure 5. Figure 1.4 from International Energy Agency’s 2015 World Energy Outlook.

The implication of this chart is that the IEA believes that oil prices can rise to $300 per barrel, giving the world plenty of oil to extract for many years ahead.

Can consumers really afford very high-priced energy products?

In my view, the answer is “No!” If oil is high priced, then the many things made with oil will tend to be high priced as well. Wages don’t rise with oil prices; most of us remember this from the oil price run-up of 2003 to 2008.

Because of this affordability issue, the limit to oil production is really an invisible price limit, represented as a dotted line. We can’t know in advance where this is, so it is easy to assume that it doesn’t exist.

Figure 4. Resource triangle, with dotted line indicating uncertain financial cut-off.

 

 

 

Figure 6. Resource triangle, with dotted line indicating uncertain financial cut-off.

The higher cost of extraction is equivalent to diminishing returns.

As we are forced to seek out ever more expensive to extract resources, the economy is in some sense becoming less and less efficient. We are devoting more of our human labor and other resources to extracting fossil fuels, and to extracting minerals from ever-lower-quality ores. In some sense, we could just as well be putting these resources into a pit and burying them–they no longer help us grow the rest of the economy. Using resources in this way leaves fewer resources to “grow” the rest of the economy. As a result, we should expect economic contraction when the cost of oil extraction rises.

In fact, economic contraction seems to happen when oil prices rise, at least for oil importing countries. Economist James Hamilton has shown that 10 out of 11 post-World War II recessions were associated with oil price spikes. A 2004 IEA report says, “.  .  . a sustained $10 per barrel increase in oil prices from $25 to $35 would result in the OECD as a whole losing 0.4% of GDP in the first and second years of higher prices. Inflation would rise by half a percentage point and unemployment would also increase.”

Energy products play a critical role in the economy.

Economic activity is based on many kinds of physical changes. For example:

  • Using heat to transform materials from one form to another;
  • Using energy products to help move goods from one place to another;
  • Moving electrons in such a way that light is provided
  • Moving electrons in such a way that Internet transmission can be provided.

A human being, by himself, exerts only about 100 watts of power. A human being is also quite limited in what he can do; he can provide a little heat, but no light, for example. Energy products are very helpful for making capital goods such as buildings, machines, roads, electricity transmission lines, cars and trucks.

We can think of energy products, and capital goods made using energy products, as ways of leveraging human energy. If per capita energy consumption increases over time, leveraging of human labor can grow. As a result, humans can become ever more productive–think of new and better machines to help humans do their work. Dips in this leveraging tend to correspond to economic contraction (Figure 7).

Figure 6. World energy consumption per capita, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2105 data. Year 2015 estimate and notes by G. Tverberg.

 

 

 

Figure 7. World energy consumption per capita, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2105 data. Year 2015 estimate and notes by G. Tverberg.

To have a growing economy, wages of non-elite workers need to be growing. 

Our economy is in a sense a “circular economy,” in which non-elite workers (less educated, non-managerial workers) play a pivotal role because they are both producers of goods and potential consumers of the output of the economy. Because there are so many non-elite workers, their demand for homes, cars, and electronic goods plays a critical role in maintaining the total demand of the economy.

Figure 6. Representation of two major part of economy by author.

 

 

 

Figure 8. Representation of two major parts of the economy by author.

If the wages of these non-elite workers are growing, thanks to increased productivity, the economy as a whole can grow. If the wages of these workers are shrinking or are flat (in inflation-adjusted terms), the economy is in trouble. The recycling process cannot work very well.

If there is not enough economic growth–often caused by not enough growth in energy consumption to leverage human labor–then we tend to get a growing imbalance between the sector on the left with businesses, governments, and elite workers, and the sector on the right, with non-elite workers. Part of this wage imbalance comes from sending jobs to low-wage countries. As jobs are shifted to low-wage countries, the workers of the world increasingly cannot afford the goods that they and other workers are producing.

Figure 7. Representation by author of balance that occurs.

 

 

 

Figure 9. Representation by author of imbalance that occurs.

If the wages of non-elite workers are not rising sufficiently, rising debt can be used to hide this problem for a while. The way this is done is by allowing workers to buy goods at ever-lower interest rates, over ever-longer time periods. This strategy has an endpoint, which we seem to be close to reaching.

Debt is a key factor in creating an economy that operates using energy.

A generally overlooked problem of our current system is the fact that we do not receive the benefit of energy products until well after they are used. This is especially the case for energy used to make capital investments, such as buildings, roads, machines, and vehicles. Even education and health care represent energy investments that have benefits long after the investment is made.

The reason debt (and close substitutes) are needed is because it is necessary to bring forward hoped-for future benefits of energy products to the current period if workers are to be paid. In addition, the use of debt makes it possible to pay for consumer products such as automobiles and houses over a period of years. It also allows factories and other capital goods to be financed over the period they provide their benefits. (See my post Debt: The Key Factor Connecting Energy and the Economy.)

When debt is used to move forward hoped-for future benefits to the present, oil prices can be higher, as can be the prices of other commodities. In fact, the price of assets in general can be higher. With the higher price of oil, it is possible for businesses to use the hoped-for future benefits of oil to pay current workers. This system works, as long as the price set by this system doesn’t exceed the actual benefit to the economy of the added energy.

The amount of benefits that oil products provide to the economy is determined by their physical characteristics–for example, how far oil can make a truck move. These benefits can increase a bit over time, with rising efficiency, but in general, physics sets an upper bound to this increase. Thus, the value of oil and other energy products cannot rise without limit.

Using hoped-for benefits to set oil prices is likely to lead to oil prices that overshoot their maximum sustainable level, and then fall back.

A debt-based system of setting oil prices is different from what most of us would have considered possible. If wages of non-elite workers had been growing fast enough (Figure 9), increasing debt would not even be needed, because the whole system could grow thanks to the increased buying power of the many non-elite workers. These workers could buy new houses and cars, have more meat in their diet, and travel on international vacations, adding to demand for oil and other energy products, thereby keeping prices up.

As wages of non-elite workers fall behind, an increasing amount of debt is needed. For the US, the ratio of the increase in debt to the increase in GDP (including the rise in inflation) is as shown in Figure 10:

Figure 10. United States increase in debt over five year period, divided by increase in GDP (with inflation!) in that five year period. GDP from Bureau of Economic Analysis; debt is non-financial debt, from BIS compilation for all countries.

 

 

 

Figure 10. United States increase in debt over five-year period, divided by increase in GDP (with inflation!) in that five-year period. GDP from Bureau of Economic Analysis; debt is non-financial debt, from BIS compilation for all countries.

Thus, the increase in debt has never been less than the corresponding increase in GDP over five-year periods, even when oil prices were low prior to 1970. In general, the pattern would suggest that the higher the oil price, the higher the increase in debt needs to be to generate one dollar of GDP. This is to be expected, if economic growth depends on Btus of energy, and higher prices lead to the need for more debt to cover the purchase of necessary Btus of energy.

We are reaching a head-on collision between (1) the rising cost of energy production and (2) the falling ability of non-elite workers to pay for this high-priced energy. 

The head-on collision we are reaching is what causes the potential instability referred to at the beginning of this article, as illustrated in Figure 1. Of course, such a collision has the potential to cause debt defaults, as it becomes impossible to repay debt with interest.

Figure 11. Repaying loans is easy in a growing economy, but much more difficult in a shrinking economy.

 

 

 

Figure 11. Repaying loans is easy in a growing economy, but much more difficult in a shrinking economy.

Turchin and Nefedov in the academic book Secular Cycles analyzed eight agricultural economies that eventually collapsed. The problem that these economies encountered was exactly the same one we are now encountering: falling wages of non-elite workers at the same time that the cost of producing energy products (food, at that time) was rising. Rising costs were often an end result of too many people for the arable land. A workaround could be found, such as building irrigation or adding a larger army to conquer a neighboring land, but it would add costs.

As the problems of these economies progressed, debt defaults became more of a problem. Governments found it hard to collect enough taxes, because so many of the workers were increasingly impoverished. Often, workers became sufficiently weakened by an inadequate diet that they became vulnerable to epidemics. Governments often collapsed.

In the economies analyzed by Turchin and Nefedov, food prices temporarily spiked, but it is not clear that this was the final outcome, given the inability of workers to pay the high prices. Debt defaults would tend to further reduce ability to pay. Thus, it would not be surprising if prices ended up low (from lack of demand), rather than high. We know that ancient Babylon is an example of one economy that collapsed. Revelation 18:11-13 seems to describe the situation after Babylon’s collapse as one of lack of demand.

11 “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore— 12 cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13 cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.

Other parts of the oil limits story that researchers have missed

As I have previously mentioned, most researchers begin with the view that soon there will be a problem with energy scarcity. The real issue that tends to bring the system down is related, but it is fairly different. It is the fact that as we use energy, the system necessarily generates entropy. This entropy takes the form of rising debt and increased pollution. It is these entropy-related issues, rather than a shortage of energy products per se, that tends to bring the system down. See my post, Our economic growth system is reaching limits in a strange way.

We could, in theory, fix our problems by adding infinite debt at the same time that wages of non-elite workers tend toward zero. We could then use this additional debt to fight pollution problems and pay all of the workers. All of us know that this solution would not work in the real world, however.

The two-sided economy I have described in Figures 8 and 9 is one part of our problem. There is a popular saying, “We pay each other’s wages.” Unfortunately, paying each other’s wages does not work well, if the wage level of elite workers differs too much from the wage level of the non-elite workers. A worker making $7.50 per hour in a part-time job is not going to be able to pay the wages of a surgeon making $300,000 per year, no matter how an insurance policy is designed to spread costs evenly. A worker in India or Africa will not be able to afford goods made by human workers in the United States, because of wage differences.

Governments can try to fix the problem of non-elite workers getting too small a share of the output of the system, but this is not easy to do. The real problem is that the system as a whole is not producing enough goods and services. This happens because the high cost of energy extraction (plus related issues–pollution control; need for more education for workers; need for ever-larger government and more elite workers) is removing too many resources from the system. The result is that the economy as a whole tends to grow ever more slowly. The quantity of goods and services produced by the economy does not rise very rapidly. When there are not enough goods produced in total, non-elite workers tend to find that their allocation has been reduced.

If governments attempt to add debt to fix the problems with the system, the addition of debt tends to raise asset prices on the left side of Figures 8 and 9. Unfortunately, the additional debt usually has little impact on the wages of non-elite workers (that is, the right hand part of the system).

Governments have talked about minimum income programs to raise incomes of those who are not elite workers. Whether or not this approach can work depends on many things–how much additional debt can be added to the system; whether this debt will actually raise the total amount of goods and services produced; how tolerant those in the left-hand side of Figures 8 and 9 are of losing their share of goods and services; the impact on relative currency levels.

Research involving Energy Returned on Energy Investment (EROEI) ratios for fossil fuels is a frequently used approach for evaluating prospective energy substitutes, such as wind turbines and solar panels. Unfortunately, this ratio only tells part of the story. The real problem is declining return on human labor for the system as a whole–that is, falling inflation adjusted wages of non-elite workers. This could also be described as falling EROEI–falling return on human labor. Declining human labor EROEI represents the same problem that fish swimming upstream have, when pursuit of food starts requiring so much energy that further upstream trips are no longer worthwhile.

Falling fossil fuel EROEI is a contributor to falling EROEI with respect to human labor, but there are other contributors as well (Figure 12). (My list is probably not exhaustive.)

Figure 12. Authors' depiction of changes to workers share of output of economy, as costs keep rising for other portions of the economy keep rising.

 

 

 

Figure 12. Author’s depiction of changes to workers’ share of output of economy, as costs keep rising for other portions of the economy.

If our problem is a shortage of fossil fuels, fossil fuel EROEI analysis is ideal for determining how to best leverage our small remaining fossil fuel supply. For each type of fossil fuel evaluated, the fossil fuel EROEI calculation determines the amount of energy output from a given quantity of fossil fuel inputs. If a decision is made to focus primarily on the energy products with the highest EROEI ratios, then our existing fossil fuel supply can be used as sparingly as possible.

If our problem isn’t really a shortage of fossil fuels, EROEI is much less helpful. In fact, the EROEI calculation strips out the timing over which the energy return is made, even though this may vary greatly. The delay (and thus needed amount of debt) is likely to be greatest for those energy products where large front-end capital expenditures are required. Nuclear would tend to be a problem in this regard; so would wind and solar.

To evaluate the extent to which a given energy product tends to raise debt levels, a better approach might be to look at debt levels directly. Another measure might be to compare the required system-wide capital expenditures for a particular purpose, for example, to provide sufficient non-intermittent electricity for the state of California over a period of say, 50 years, using different electricity generation scenarios.

Our academic system of inquiry, with its peer reviewed literature system, has let us down.

Our peer reviewed academic system is not telling this story. Part of the problem is that this is a difficult story. It has taken me most of the last ten years to figure it out.

Part of the problem with our academic system seems to be excessive reliance on past analyses. Once one direction has been set, it is hard to change. Another part of the problem is that the focus of each researcher tends to be quite narrow. The result can be that it is hard to “see the forest for the trees.”

Furthermore, politicians and academic publishers tend to “push” results in the direction of a desired outcome. Grant money goes to researchers who follow the government-preferred fields of inquiry; publishers prefer books that are not too alarming to students.

I am coming at this issue from “out in left field.” I don’t have a Ph.D., although I am a Fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society, which many would consider similar. I also have an M. S. in Mathematics. I do not work in a university setting. I do not have a strong background in subjects a person might expect, such as geology, economic theory, or physics. I do have a fair amount of practical experience with financial modeling from my actuarial background, however.

My approach is very different from that of most researchers. I come to the problem from the point of view of how a finite world might be expected to operate. I write most of my articles on the Internet, where I get the benefit of comments from readers. Many of these commenters point me in the direction of articles or books I should read, or raise additional issues I should consider.

Over the years, I have become acquainted with many researchers in related fields. These people have generally reached out to me–invited me to speak at their conferences, or corresponded with me about issues they considered important. As a result of this collaboration, I have been able to put together a more complete story than others.

I have stayed away from publishers and funding sources that might try to influence what I say. I have not been taking donations, and do not run ads on my website. The story is one that needs to be told, but it easily gets distorted if the person telling the story is influenced by what will generate the largest donations, or the most grant money.

Debt: The Key Factor Connecting Energy and the Economy

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Published on the Our Finite World on May 2, 2016

Debt_Volcano

Discuss this article at the Economics Table inside the Diner

There are many who believe that the use of energy is critical to the growth of the economy. In fact, I am among these people. The thing that is not as apparent is that growth in energy consumption is dependent on the growth of debt. Both energy and debt have characteristics that are close to “magic” with respect to the growth of the economy. Economic growth can only take place when growing debt (or a very close substitute, such as company stock) is available to enable the use of energy products.

The reason why debt is important is because energy products enable the creation of many kinds of capital goods, and these goods are often bought with debt. Commercial examples would include metal tools, factories, refineries, pipelines, electricity generation plants, electricity transmission lines, schools, hospitals, roads, gold coins, and commercial vehicles. Consumers also benefit because energy products allow the production of houses and apartments, automobiles, busses, and passenger trains. In a sense, the creation of these capital goods is one form of “energy profit” that is obtained from the consumption of energy.

The reason debt is needed is because while energy products can indeed produce a large “energy profit,” this energy profit is spread over many years in the future. In order to actually be able to obtain the benefit of this energy profit in a timeframe where the economy can use it, the financial system needs to bring forward some or all of the energy profit to an earlier timeframe. It is only when businesses can do this, that they have money to pay workers. This time shifting also allows businesses to earn a financial profit themselves. Governments indirectly benefit as well, because they can then tax the higher wages of workers and businesses, so that governmental services can be provided, including paved roads and good schools.

Debt and Other Promises

Clearly, if the economy were producing only items for current consumption–for example, if hunters and gatherers were only finding food to eat and sticks to burn, so that they could cook this food, then there would be no need for the time shifting function of debt. But there would likely still be a need for promises, such as, “If you will hunt for food, I will gather plant food and care for the children.” With the use of promises, it is possible to have division of labor and economies of scale. Promises allow a business to pay workers at the end of the month, instead of every day.

As an economy becomes more complex, its needs change. At first, central markets can be used to facilitate the exchange of goods. If one person brings more to the market than he takes home, a record of his credit balance can be kept on a clay tablet for use another day. This approach works as long as the credit can only be used at that particular market. If the credit balance is to be used elsewhere, or if the balance is to hold its value for a period of years, a different, more flexible approach is needed.

Over the years, economies have developed a wide range of debt and debt-like products. For the purpose of this discussion, I am including all of them as debt, broadly defined. One type is what we think of as “money.” Money is really a portable promise for a share of the future output of the economy. It can provide time shifting, if this money is held for a time before it is spent.

Another type of debt is a loan with a fixed term, such as a mortgage or car loan. Such a loan provides time shifting, allowing something to be paid for over a significant share of its life. Equity funding for a company is not really a loan, but it, too, allows time shifting. Those purchasing shares of stock do so with the expectation that they will be repaid in the future through price appreciation and dividends. It thus acts much like a loan, for the purpose of this discussion. There are many other types of promises regarding future funding that are closely related–for example, government loan guarantees, derivatives, ETFs, and government pension promises. All indirectly add to the willingness of people and businesses to spend money now–someone else has somehow made promises that remove uncertainty regarding future income flows or future payment obligations.

The Magic Things Debt Does

It is not immediately obvious how important debt is. In fact, neoclassical economists have tended to ignore the role of debt. I see several, almost magic, ways that debt helps the economy.

  1. Debt brings forward the date when an individual or company can afford to purchase capital goods. Without debt, the only way to afford such a purchase would be to save up the full price in advance. Using debt, a business can add a new machine to allow it to produce more goods before the business saves up money from its prior operations. A young person can afford to buy a house or car, long before he could save up funds for such a purchase. With the help of debt, the price of capital goods can be financed over much of their working life.
  2. Adding debt raises the prices of commodities. Commodities, such as lumber, iron, copper, and oil are what we use to make cars, houses, and factories. “Demand” for these commodities rises because more people and businesses can afford to buy capital goods that use these energy products. Often these capital goods also use energy products over their lifetime (for example, gasoline to operate a car), so there is a long-term impact on the demand for energy products, in addition to the demand associated with making the capital goods. Of course, with higher prices, it becomes profitable to extract oil and other energy resources from more marginal areas of production. More companies enter the field. As long as prices remain high, they are able to earn a profit.
  3. Adding debt stimulates the economy, almost like turning the heat up on a stove. When debt is added for any purpose–even starting a war–it starts a whole chain of purchases, each of which acts to stimulate the economy. If a young person takes out a loan to buy a car, the purchase of the car leads to the salesman having more money to buy goods for his family. The company selling the cars is able to make a bigger profit, which the business can reinvest or pay to shareholders as dividends. The purchase of the car leads to more demand for metals used to make the car, and thus tends to increase the number of mining jobs. Each new worker in turn is able to buy more goods and services, starting a beneficial cycle that gradually radiates out through the economy.
  4. Adding debt tends to lead to higher asset prices. Clearly, (from Item 2), adding debt can raise the price of commodities. Adding debt can also make it possible for more people to afford real estate and investments in the stock market. For example, Japan greatly ramped up its debt level between 1965 and 1989.

     

    Figure 1. Annual growth in non-financial debt (in Yen), separated into private and government debt, based on Bank of International Settlements data.

     

    Figure 1. Annual growth in non-financial debt (in Yen), separated into private and government debt, based on Bank of International Settlements data.

     

    During this time, a major price bubble occurred in land prices (Figure 2).

    Figure 2. Land Prices in Japan. Figure from Of Two Minds by Charles Hugh Smith.

     

    Figure 2. Land Prices in Japan. Figure from Of Two Minds by Charles Hugh Smith.

     

    There is a reason why this bubble could occur. Because of the stimulating effect that debt had on the economy, more people had the wealth to buy real estate, especially if this too was sold on credit. Once private debt levels stopped rising rapidly, price levels crashed both for land and stock prices. TheBubbleBubble.com explains what happened: “By 1989, Japanese officials became increasingly concerned with the country’s growing asset bubbles and the Bank of Japan decided to tighten its monetary policy.” Doing so popped both the home and stock price bubbles.

  5. Adding debt adds to GDP. GDP is a measure of the goods and services produced during a period. Many of these goods and services are bought using debt, so it is not surprising that adding more debt tends to add more GDP. The amount of GDP added is less than the amount of debt added, even when inflation growth is considered as part of GDP.

     

    Figure 3. United States increase in debt over five year period, divided by increase in GDP (with inflation!) in that five year period. GDP from Bureau of Economic Analysis; debt is non-financial debt, from BIS compilation for all countries.

     

    Figure 3. United States increase in debt over five-year period, divided by increase in GDP (including inflation) in that five-year period. GDP from Bureau of Economic Analysis; debt is non-financial debt, from BIS compilation for all countries.

     

    The general tendency is toward the need for an increasing amount of debt per dollar of GDP added. This is especially the case when oil prices are high. In the US, the ratio of non-financial debt to GDP added was almost down to 1:1 for a time, back when oil prices were less than $20 per barrel (in today’s dollars).

  6. Adding debt tends to increase wealth disparity.  Adding debt tends to increasingly divide an economy into “haves” and “have-nots.” Many of the “haves” own the means of production, including an ever-increasing amount of capital goods, and thus can earn profits and dividends from these capital goods. Others are high-level officials in businesses and the government who earn high salaries. Interest payments also tend to transfer payments from the poor to the more wealthy. We might say that the common laborers are increasingly “frozen out” of the economy that otherwise is heating up. This shift started to take place in the United States about 1981.

     

     

    Figure 3. Chart comparing income gains by the top 10% to income gains by the bottom 90% by economist Emmanuel Saez. Based on an analysis IRS data, published in Forbes.

     

    Figure 4. Chart comparing income gains by the top 10% to income gains by the bottom 90% by economist Emmanuel Saez. Based on an analysis of IRS data, published in Forbes.

     

  7. Adding debt is something that governments can influence, either by lowering interest rates or by borrowing the money themselves.  Actions by governments to reduce interest rates can be effective, because they lower monthly payments that borrowers need to make to take out a loan of a given amount. Thus, they tend to encourage more borrowing. In Figure 5, below, note that the decrease in interest rates in 1981 corresponds precisely with the rise in debt to GDP ratios is Figure 3 and the shift in income patterns in Figure 4.

     

    Figure 4. Ten year treasury interest rates, based on St. Louis Fed data.

     

    Figure 5. Ten year treasury interest rates, based on St. Louis Fed data.

     

    Figure 6 later in this post shows that changes in Quantitative Easing (QE) (which affects interest rates and the level of the US dollar relative to other currencies) also correspond to sharp changes in oil prices. Changes in the level of the dollar also affect demand for oil. See a recent post related to this issue.

What Goes Wrong as More Debt Is Added?

It is clear from the discussion so far that quite a few things go wrong. These are a few additional items:

1. There are limits to government manipulation of debt levels.  First, interest rates eventually drop so low that they become negative in some countries. Negative interest rates tend to cause bank profitability to drop and lead to hoarding by those who planned to use savings for retirement.

Second, government borrowing doesn’t work as well at stimulating the economy as investments made by the private sector. A likely reason is that private sector investments are made when the borrower believes that the return on the investment will be high enough to pay back the debt with interest, and still make a profit. Government investments often do not meet this standard. Some reports indicate that Japan’s government has used borrowed money to fund bridges to nowhere and houses with no one home. China’s centrally directed economy seems to lead to similar over-borrowing problems. Chinese businesses also borrow to cover interest on prior loans.

2. Ratios of debt to GDP tend to rise, worrying government leaders. Debt is a way of accessing the benefits of Btus of energy, in advance of the time they are really available. As the amount of easy-to-extract oil depletes, the cost of oil extraction gradually rises. Unfortunately, the amount of “work” a barrel of oil can perform–for example, how far it can make a truck travel–doesn’t rise correspondingly. As a result, the higher price simply reflects increasing inefficiency of extraction, and thus the need to use a larger share of the economy’s output to extract oil. The amount of debt needed to keep GDP rising keeps growing, in part because oil is becoming higher priced to extract, and in part because goods that use oil in their production also tend to rise in cost. As a result, the ratio of debt to GDP tends to spiral upward.

3. Rising debt allows for a temporary false valuation of the benefit of energy products. The true value of oil and other energy products comes primarily from the Btus of energy they provide, such as how far a truck can be made to travel. Thus we would expect that the true value of energy products would remain relatively constant over time. If anything, the value of energy products will tend to rise by a small amount (say, 1% per year) as technology improvements lead to growing efficiency in their use.

What we think of as the magic hand of the economy determines a price for commodities at all times, based on “supply” and “demand.” This price clearly is not very close to the future energy profit that the energy products will actually provide, because it tends to vary widely over time. We don’t know what the true value of a barrel of oil to society is. If the true value is $100 per barrel (in today’s money), then back when oil prices were $10 or $20 per barrel (in today’s money), there would have been $80 to $90 (equal to $100 minus the actual price) of “energy profit” that could be pumped back into the economy as productivity gains for workers, interest on debt, and dividends on stock, tax revenue, and money for new investment. The economy could (and did) grow quickly. There was less need for added debt, because goods made with oil were cheap. Wages for workers could rise rapidly, as they did in the 1950 to 1968 period (Figure 4).

If prices approach the true value of oil (assumed to be $100 per barrel), the extra energy profit would pretty much disappear. The economy would increasingly become “hollowed out.”  Productivity gains that lead to wage gains would mostly disappear. Businesses would find it hard to earn adequate profits, and would cut back on dividends. Some companies might need to borrow money in order to pay dividends. World economic growth would slow.

Prices can even temporarily overshoot their true value to the economy, then drop sharply back. This happens because prices are set by demand, and demand depends on a combination of wage levels and debt levels. Oil prices can be high for a while, if borrowing is temporarily high, and then fall back as it becomes clear that profitable investments are not really available if oil is at such a high price level.

4. Wages of non-elite workers tend to drop too low. Workers play a very special role in the economy: they both (a) provide the labor for the economy and (b) act as consumers for the economy. If workers aren’t earning enough, there is a problem with many of them not being able to buy the goods and services the economy produces. This is especially the case for purchases such as homes and cars, which are often bought using debt. Indirectly, this lack of ability to afford the output of the system puts a downward pressure on the price of commodities, particularly energy commodities. Prices may fall below the cost of production, or may not rise high enough.

Figure 6. World oil supply and prices based on EIA data.

 

Figure 6. World oil supply and prices based on EIA data.

The reason that wages of the less educated, non-managerial workers tend to lag behind is related to the issue of diminishing returns. A workaround is a more “complex” society, with bigger businesses, bigger government, more capital goods, and more debt. In some cases, manufacturing is shifted to parts of the world with lower wages. Non-elite workers increasingly find themselves with too small a share of the output of the economy. Figure 7 shows some influences that tend to lead to too low wages for non-elite workers.

Figure 7. Illustration by author of why an economy that doesn't grow leads to falling wages for workers.

 

Figure 7. Illustration by author of why an economy that doesn’t grow leads to falling wages for workers. All amounts are guess-timates, to show a general principle.

When wages for a large share of workers drop too low, there is a problem with workers not having enough money to buy goods like cars and houses. The economy tends to contract. This is a different form of too low Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) than most people think of. In my view, low return on human labor is the most important type of EROEI. Falling wages of a large share of workers can lead to economic collapse, because there are not enough buyers for the output of the system.

5. Eventually, debt defaults become a problem. As the world becomes more divided into “haves” and “have-nots,” falling ability to repay a debt becomes more of a problem. To some extent, this happens at the individual level, with auto loans, student debt, and mortgages. If commodity prices fall or stay too low, it happens to commodity producers, including oil producers. It also happens to countries, especially to those who are dependent on commodity exports.

The rise in the cost of oil extraction is another factor. As the cost of extraction begins to exceed the benefit of oil to the economy (assumed above to be $100 per barrel), the energy profit from oil is no longer sufficient to allow the economy to grow as in the past. Without economic growth, it becomes much harder to repay debt with interest.

Figure 7. In a period of economic decline (Scenario 2), the amount a debtor has left over after repaying debt plus interest is disproportionately large, leaving the debtor with inadequate funds for paying other expenses. In a period of economic growth (Scenario 1), the overall growth in incomes tends to compensate for the need to pay back the debt with interest.

 

Figure 8. In a period of economic decline (Scenario 2), the amount a debtor has left over after repaying debt plus interest is disproportionately large, leaving the debtor with inadequate funds for paying other expenses. In a period of economic growth (Scenario 1), the overall growth in incomes tends to compensate for the need to pay back the debt with interest.

6. At some point, we reach peak debt. The economy acts like a pump. As long as there are sufficient energy profits coming through the system (based on $100 per barrel minus the actual oil price, in our example), wages can rise and corporate profits can rise. Asset prices can rise, and energy prices can stay high. Once these energy profits start falling back, wages stagnate and business profits decline. Businesses cut back on borrowing, because they see fewer profitable opportunities for investment. Individuals cut back on borrowing, because with their lower wages, it becomes more difficult to buy a house or car. Governments try to fight declining demand for debt, but eventually reach limits of the economy’s tolerance for negative interest rates.

Once debt begins contracting, the contraction tends to bring down commodity prices. This is a huge problem for commodity producers, because they need prices that are high enough to cover their cost of production. Ultimately, falling debt, together with falling wages, and lack of energy profit have the potential to bring down the system.

Conclusion

The situation we are facing today is one in which growing debt has been holding up oil prices and other commodity prices for a long time. We are now reaching limits on this process, as evidenced by growing wealth disparity, low commodity prices, and the frantic actions of government leaders around the world regarding slow economic growth and the need for more stimulus. These issues are becoming major ones in the upcoming US political election.

Those studying oil issues from an EROEI perspective tend to miss the connection with debt, because EROEI analysis strips out timing differences. In my view, debt is essential to oil extraction, because it brings forward an estimate of the value of the oil and other energy products, so that businesses of all kinds can make use of the “energy profit” in paying their employees and in paying their taxes. Most people don’t think of the issue this way.

In this article, I suggest a different way of thinking about the limit we are reaching–oil prices can’t rise above some price limit without adversely affecting the economy. It is the savings below this limit that aid productivity growth and government funding. Perhaps researchers should be examining this price limit approach more carefully. This is not the same approach as EROEI analysis, but has the advantage of having fewer “boundary issues.”  It also offers a check for reasonableness of EROEI indications developed through conventional analysis. If an energy product needs a government subsidy, it is doubtful that that energy product is really providing an energy profit.

 

US 2015 Oil Production and Future Oil Prices

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Published on the Our Finite World on April 18, 2016

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Oil production can be confusing because there are various “pieces” that may or may not be included. In this analysis, I look at oil production of the United States broadly (including crude oil, natural gas plant liquids, and biofuels), because this is the way oil consumption is defined. I also provide some thoughts regarding the direction of future world oil prices.

Figure 1. US Liquid Fuels production by month based on EIA March 2016 Monthly Energy Review Reports.

 

 

Figure 1. US Liquid Fuels production by month based on EIA March 2016 Monthly Energy Review Reports.

US oil production clearly flattened out in 2015. If we look at changes relative to the same month, one-year prior, we see that as of December 2014, growth was very high, increasing by 18.0% relative to the prior year.

Figure 2. US Liquids Growth Over 12 Months Prior based on EIA's March 2016 Monthly Energy Review.

 

 

Figure 2. US Liquids Growth Over 12 Months Prior based on EIA’s March 2016 Monthly Energy Review.

By December 2015, growth over the prior year finally turned slightly negative, with production for the month down 0.2% relative to one year prior. It should be noted that in the above charts, amounts are on an “energy produced” or “British Thermal Units” (Btu) basis. Using this approach, ethanol and natural gas liquids get less credit than they would using a barrels-per-day approach. This reflects the fact that these products are less energy-dense.

Figure 3 shows the trend in month-by-month production.

Figure 3. US total liquids production since January 2013, based on EIA's March 2016 Monthly Energy Review.

 

 

Figure 3. US total liquids production since January 2013, based on EIA’s March 2016 Monthly Energy Review.

The high month for production was April 2015, and production has been down since then. The production of natural gas liquids and biofuels has tended to continue to rise, partially offsetting the fall in crude oil production. Production amounts for recent months include estimates, and actual amounts may differ from these estimates. As a result, updated EIA data may eventually show a somewhat different pattern.

Taking a longer view of US liquids production, this is what we see for the three categories separately:

Figure 4. US Liquid Fuel Production since 1949, based on EIA's March 2016 Monthly Energy Review.

 

 

Figure 4. US Liquid Fuel Production since 1949, based on EIA’s March 2016 Monthly Energy Review.

Growth in US liquid fuel production slowed in 2015. The increase in liquid fuels production in 2015 amounted to 1.96 quadrillion Btus (“quads”), or about 59% as much as the increase in production in 2014 of 3.34 quads. On a barrels-per-day (bpd) basis, this would equate to roughly a 1.0 million bpd increase in 2015, compared to a 1.68 million bpd increase in 2014.

The data in Figure 4 indicates that with all categories included, 2015 liquids exceeded the 1970 peak by 16%. Considering crude oil alone, 2015 production amounted to 98% of the 1970 peak.

Figure 5 shows an approximate breakdown of crude oil production since 1945 on a bpd basis. The big spike in production is from tight oil, which is another name for oil from shale.

Figure 5. Oil crude oil production separated into tight oil (from shale), oil from Alaska, and all other, based on EIA oil production data by state.

 

 

Figure 5. Oil crude oil production separated into tight oil (from shale), oil from Alaska, and all other, based on EIA oil production data by state.

Here again, US crude oil production in 2015 appears to amount to 98% of the 1970 crude oil peak. Thus, on a crude oil basis alone, we have not yet hit the 1970 peak.

Prospects for an Oil Price Rise

Most recent analyses of oil prices have focused on the amount of mismatch between supply and demand, and the need to craft a temporary agreement to reduce oil production. The thing that is missing in this discussion is an analysis of buying power of consumers. Is the problem a temporary problem, or a permanent one?

In order for oil product demand to keep rising, the buying power of consumers needs to keep rising. In other words, some combination of consumer wages and debt levels of consumers needs to keep rising. (Rising debt is helpful because, with more debt, it is often possible to buy goods that would not otherwise be affordable.)

We know that in many countries, wages for lower-level workers have stagnated for a number of reasons, including competition with wages in lower-wage countries, computerization, and the use of automation (Figure 6). Thus, we know that low wages for a large share of consumers may be a problem.

Figure 6. Chart comparing income gains by the top 10% to income gains by the bottom 90% by economist Emmanuel Saez. Based on an analysis IRS data, published in Forbes.

 

 

Figure 6. Chart comparing US income gains by the top 10% to income gains by the bottom 90% by economist Emmanuel Saez. Based on an analysis IRS data, published in Forbes.

Figure 7 shows that world debt has been falling since June 30, 2014. This is precisely the time when world oil prices started falling.

Figure 6. Total non-financial world debt based on Bank for International Settlements data and average Brent oil price for the quarter, based on EIA data.

 

 

Figure 7. Total non-financial world debt based on Bank for International Settlements data and average Brent oil price for the quarter, based on EIA data.

One reason for the fall in world debt, measured in US dollars, is the fact that the US dollar started rising relative to other currencies about this time. Oil is priced in dollars; if the US dollar rises relative to other currencies, it makes oil less affordable to those whose currencies have lower values. The big rise in the level of the dollar came when the US discontinued quantitative easing in 2014. World debt, as measured in US dollars, began to fall as the US dollar rose.

Figure 7. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.

 

 

Figure 8. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.

As long as the US dollar is high relative to other currencies, oil products remain less affordable, and demand tends to stay low.

Another issue that struck me in looking at world debt data is the way the growth in debt is distributed (Figure 9). Debt growth for households has been much lower than for businesses and governments.

Figure 8. World non-financial debt divided among debt of households, businesses, and governments, based on Bank for International Settlements data.

 

 

Figure 9. World non-financial debt divided among debt of households, businesses, and governments, based on Bank for International Settlements data.

Since March 31, 2008, non-financial debt of households has been close to flat. In fact, between June 30, 2014 and September 30, 2015,  it shrank by 6.3%. In contrast, non-financial debt of both businesses and governments has risen since March 31, 2008. Government debt has shrunk by 5.6% since June 30, 2014–almost as large a percentage drop as for household debt.

The issue that we need to be aware of is that consumers are the foundation of the economy. If their wages are not rising rapidly, and if their buying power (considering both debt and wages) is not rising by very much, they are not going to be buying very many new houses and cars–the big products that require oil consumption. Businesses may think that they can continue to grow without taking the consumer along, but very soon this growth proves to be a myth. Governments cannot grow without rising wages either, because the majority of their tax revenue comes from individuals, rather than corporations.

Today, there is a great deal of faith that oil prices will rise, if someone, somewhere, will reduce oil production. In fact, in order to bring oil demand back up to a level that commands a price over $100 per barrel, we need consumers who can afford to buy a growing quantity of goods made with oil products. To do this, we need to fix three related problems:

  • Low wages of many consumers
  • World debt that is no longer rising (especially for consumers)
  • A high dollar relative to other currencies

These problems are likely to be difficult to fix, so we should expect low oil prices, more or less indefinitely. Lack of oil supply may bring a temporary spike in oil prices, but it cannot fix a permanent problem with consumer spending around the world.

Why we have a wage inequality problem

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Published on the Our Finite World on March 29, 2016

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Wage inequality is a topic in elections around the world. What can be done to provide more income for those without jobs, and those with low wages?

Wage inequality is really a sign of a deeper problem; basically it reflects an economic system that is not growing rapidly enough to satisfy everyone. In a finite world, it is easy for an economy to grow rapidly at first. In the early days, there are enough resources, such as land, fresh water, and metals, for each person to get a reasonable-sized amount. Each would-be farmer can obtain as much land as he thinks he can work with; fresh water is readily available virtually for free; and goods made with metals, such as cars, are not expensive. There are many jobs available, and wages for most people are fairly similar.

As population grows, and as resources degrade, the situation changes. It is still possible to grow enough food, but it takes large farms, with expensive equipment (but very few actual workers) to produce that food. It is possible to produce enough water, but it takes high-tech equipment and a handful of workers who know how to use the high-tech equipment. Metals suddenly need to be lighter and stronger and have other characteristics for the high tech industry, thus requiring more advanced products. International trade becomes more important to be able to get the correct mix of materials for the advanced products needed to operate the high-tech economy.

With these changes, the economic system that previously provided many jobs for those with limited training (often providing on-the-job training, if necessary) gradually became a system that provides a relatively small number of high-paying jobs, together with many low-paying jobs. In the United States, the change started happening in 1981, and has gotten worse recently.

Figure 1. Chart comparing income gains by the top 10% to income gains by the bottom 90% by economist Emmanuel Saez. Based on an analysis IRS data, published in Forbes.

 

Figure 1. Chart comparing income gains by the top 10% to those of the bottom 90%, by economist Emmanuel Saez. Based on an analysis of IRS data; published in Forbes.

 

What Happens When an Economy Doesn’t Grow Rapidly Enough?

If an economy is growing rapidly enough, it is easy for everyone to get close to an adequate amount. The way I think of the problem is that as economic growth slows, the “overhead” grows disproportionately, taking an ever-larger share of the goods and services the economy produces. The ordinary worker (non-supervisory worker, without advanced degrees) tends to get left out. Figure 2 is my representation of the problem, if the current pattern continues into the future.

Figure 2. Authors' depiction of changes to workers share of output of economy, as costs keep rising for other portions of the economy keep rising.

 

Figure 2. Author’s depiction of changes to workers’ share of output of economy, if costs keep rising for other portions of the economy. (Chart is only intended to illustrate the problem; it is not based on a study of the relative amounts involved.)

 

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Our economic growth system is reaching limits in a strange way

Economic growth never seems to be as high as those making forecasts would like it to be. This is a record of recent forecasts by the International Monetary Fund:

Figure 1. World GDP Forecasts by the International Monetary Fund.

 

Figure 1. World GDP Forecasts by the International Monetary Fund.

 

Figure 2 shows world economic growth on  a different basis–a basis that appears to me to be very close to total world GDP, as measured in US dollars, without adjustment for inflation. On this  basis, world GDP (or Gross Planetary Product as the author calls it) does very poorly in 2015, nearly as bad as in 2009.

Figure 2. Gross Planet Product at current prices (trillions of dollars) by Peter A. G. van Bergeijk in Voxeu.

 

Figure 2. Gross Planet Product at current prices (trillions of dollars) by Peter A. G. van Bergeijk in Voxeu, based on IMF World Economic Outlook Database, October 2015.

 

The poor 2015 performance in Figure 2 reflects a combination of falling inflation rates, as a result of falling commodity prices, and a rising relativity of the US dollar to other currencies.

Clearly something is wrong, but virtually no one has figured out the problem.

The World Energy System Is Reaching Limits in a Strange Double Way

We are experiencing a world economy that seems to be reaching limits, but the symptoms are not what peak oil groups warned about. Instead of high prices and lack of supply, we are facing indirect problems brought on by our high consumption of energy products. In my view, we have a double pump problem.

Figure 3. Double gasoline pump from Torrence Collection of Auto Memorabilia.

 

Figure 3. Double gasoline pump from Torrence Collection of Auto Memorabilia.

 

We don’t just extract fossil fuels. Instead, whether we intend to or not, we get a lot of other things as well: rising debt, rising pollution, and a more complex economy.

The system acts as if whenever one pump dispenses the energy products we want, another pump disperses other products we don’t want. Let’s look at three of the big unwanted “co-products.” Continue reading

 

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Why Globalization Reaches Limits

We have been living in a world of rapid globalization, but this is not a condition that we can expect to continue indefinitely.

Figure 1. Ratio of Imported Goods and Services to GDP. Based in FRED data for IMPGS.

 

Figure 1. Ratio of Imported Goods and Services to GDP. Based in FRED data for IMPGS.

 

Each time imported goods and services start to surge as a percentage of GDP, these imports seem to be cut back, generally in a recession. The rising cost of the imports seems to have an adverse impact on the economy. (The imports I am showing are gross imports, rather than imports net of exports. I am using gross imports, because US exports tend to be of a different nature than US imports. US imports include many labor-intensive products, while exports tend to be goods such as agricultural goods and movie films that do not require much US labor.)

Recently, US imports seem to be down. Part of this reflects the impact of surging US oil production, and because of this, a declining need for oil imports. Figure 2 shows the impact of removing oil imports from the amounts shown on Figure 1.

Figure 2. Total US Imports of Goods and Services, and this total excluding crude oil imports, both as a ratio to GDP. Crude oil imports from https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/historical/petr.pdf

 

Figure 2. Total US Imports of Goods and Services, and this total excluding crude oil imports, both as a ratio to GDP. Crude oil imports from https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/historical/petr.pdf

 

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The Physics of Energy and the Economy

I approach the subject of the physics of energy and the economy with some trepidation. An economy seems to be a dissipative system, but what does this really mean? There are not many people who understand dissipative systems, and very few who understand how an economy operates. The combination leads to an awfully lot of false beliefs about the energy needs of an economy.

The primary issue at hand is that, as a dissipative system, every economy has its own energy needs, just as every forest has its own energy needs (in terms of sunlight) and every plant and animal has its own energy needs, in one form or another. A hurricane is another dissipative system. It needs the energy it gets from warm ocean water. If it moves across land, it will soon weaken and die.

There is a fairly narrow range of acceptable energy levels–an animal without enough food weakens and is more likely to be eaten by a predator or to succumb to a disease. A plant without enough sunlight is likely to weaken and die.

In fact, the effects of not having enough energy flows may spread more widely than the individual plant or animal that weakens and dies. If the reason a plant dies is because the plant is part of a forest that over time has grown so dense that the plants in the understory cannot get enough light, then there may be a bigger problem. The dying plant material may accumulate to the point of encouraging forest fires. Such a forest fire may burn a fairly wide area of the forest. Thus, the indirect result may be to put to an end a portion of the forest ecosystem itself.

How should we expect an economy to behave over time? The pattern of energy dissipated over the life cycle of a dissipative system will vary, depending on the particular system. In the examples I gave, the pattern seems to somewhat follow what Ugo Bardi calls a Seneca Cliff.

Figure 1. Seneca Cliff by Ugo Bardi

 

Figure 1. Seneca Cliff by Ugo Bardi

 

The Seneca Cliff pattern is so-named because long ago, Lucius Seneca wrote:

It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.

The Standard Wrong Belief about the Physics of Energy and the Economy

There is a standard wrong belief about the physics of energy and the economy; it is the belief we can somehow train the economy to get along without much energy. Continue reading

 

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Why oil under $30 per barrel is a major problem

A person often reads that low oil prices–for example, $30 per barrel oil prices–will stimulate the economy, and the economy will soon bounce back. What is wrong with this story? A lot of things, as I see it:

1. Oil producers can’t really produce oil for $30 per barrel.

A few countries can get oil out of the ground for $30 per barrel. Figure 1 gives an approximation to technical extraction costs for various countries. Even on this basis, there aren’t many countries extracting oil for under $30 per barrel–only Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. We wouldn’t have much crude oil if only these countries produced oil.

Figure 1. Global Breakeven prices (considering only technical extraction costs) versus production. Source:Alliance Bernstein, October 2014

 

Figure 1. Global breakeven prices (considering only technical extraction costs) versus production. Source: Alliance Bernstein, October 2014

 

2. Oil producers really need prices that are higher than the technical extraction costs shown in Figure 1, making the situation even worse.

Oil can only be extracted within a broader system. Companies need to pay taxes. These can be very high. Including these costs has historically brought total costs for many OPEC countries to over $100 per barrel.

Independent oil companies in non-OPEC countries also have costs other than technical extraction costs, including taxes and dividends to stockholders. Also, if companies are to avoid borrowing a huge amount of money, they need to have higher prices than simply the technical extraction costs. If they need to borrow, interest costs need to be considered as well.

3. When oil prices drop very low, producers generally don’t stop producing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Strange Limits to Growth

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Published on the Our Finite World on March 17, 2016

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Our economic growth system is reaching limits in a strange way

Economic growth never seems to be as high as those making forecasts would like it to be. This is a record of recent forecasts by the International Monetary Fund:

Figure 1. World GDP Forecasts by the International Monetary Fund.

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1. World GDP Forecasts by the International Monetary Fund.

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 2 shows world economic growth on  a different basis–a basis that appears to me to be very close to total world GDP, as measured in US dollars, without adjustment for inflation. On this  basis, world GDP (or Gross Planetary Product as the author calls it) does very poorly in 2015, nearly as bad as in 2009.

Figure 2. Gross Planet Product at current prices (trillions of dollars) by Peter A. G. van Bergeijk in Voxeu.

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 2. Gross Planet Product at current prices (trillions of dollars) by Peter A. G. van Bergeijk in Voxeu, based on IMF World Economic Outlook Database, October 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

The poor 2015 performance in Figure 2 reflects a combination of falling inflation rates, as a result of falling commodity prices, and a rising relativity of the US dollar to other currencies.

Clearly something is wrong, but virtually no one has figured out the problem.

The World Energy System Is Reaching Limits in a Strange Double Way

We are experiencing a world economy that seems to be reaching limits, but the symptoms are not what peak oil groups warned about. Instead of high prices and lack of supply, we are facing indirect problems brought on by our high consumption of energy products. In my view, we have a double pump problem.

Figure 3. Double gasoline pump from Torrence Collection of Auto Memorabilia.

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 3. Double gasoline pump from Torrence Collection of Auto Memorabilia.

 

 

 

 

 

We don’t just extract fossil fuels. Instead, whether we intend to or not, we get a lot of other things as well: rising debt, rising pollution, and a more complex economy.

The system acts as if whenever one pump dispenses the energy products we want, another pump disperses other products we don’t want. Let’s look at three of the big unwanted “co-products.”

1. Rising debt is an issue because fossil fuels give us things that would never have been possible, in the absence of fossil fuels. For example, thanks to fossil fuels, farmers can have such things as metal plows instead of wooden ones and barbed wire to separate their property from the property of others. Fossil fuels provide many more advanced capabilities as well, including tractors, fertilizer, pesticides, GPS systems to guide tractors, trucks to take food to market, modern roads, and refrigeration.

The benefits of fossil fuels are immense, but can only be experienced once fossil fuels are in use. Because of this, we have adapted our debt system to be a much greater part of the economy than it ever needed to be, prior to the use of fossil fuels. As the cost of fossil fuel extraction rises, ever more debt is required to place these fossil fuels in use. The Bank for International Settlements tells us that worldwide, between 2006 and 2014, the amount of oil and gas company bonds outstanding increased by an average of 15% per year, while syndicated bank loans to oil and gas companies increased by an average of 13% per year. Taken together, about $3 trillion of these types of loans to the oil and gas companies were outstanding at the end of 2014.

As the cost of fossil fuels rises, the cost of everything made using fossil fuels tends to rise as well. Cars, trucks, and homes become more expensive to build, especially if they are intended to be energy efficient. The cost of capital goods purchased by businesses rises as well, since these too are made with fossil fuels. Needless to say, the amount of debt to purchase all of these goods rises as well. Part of the reason for the increased debt is simply because it becomes more difficult for businesses and individuals to purchase needed goods out of cash flow.

As long as fossil fuel prices are rising (not just the cost of extraction), this rising debt doesn’t look like a huge problem. The rising fossil fuel prices push the general inflation rate higher. But once prices stop rising, and in fact start falling, the amount of debt outstanding suddenly seems much more onerous.

2. Rising pollution from fossil fuels is another issue as we use an increasing amount of fossil fuels. If only a tiny amount of fossil fuels is used, pollution tends not to be much of an issue. Air can remain safe for breathing and water can remain safe for drinking. Increasing CO2 pollution is not a significant issue.

Once we start using increasing amounts, pollution becomes a greater issue. Partly this is the case because natural sinks reach their saturation point. Another is the changing nature of technology as we move to more advanced techniques. Techniques such as deep sea drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and arctic drilling have pollution risks that less advanced techniques did not have.

3. A more complex economy is a less obvious co-product of the increasing use of fossil fuels. In a very simple economy, there is little need for big government and big business. If there are businesses, they can be run by a small number of individuals, with little investment in capital goods. A king, together with a handful of appointees, can operate the government if it does not provide much in the way of services such as paved roads, armies, and schools. International trade is not a huge necessity because workers can provide nearly all necessary goods and services with local materials.

The use of increasing amounts of fossil fuels changes the situation materially. Fossil fuels are what allow us to have metals in quantity–without fossil fuels, we need to cut down forests, use the trees to make charcoal, and use the charcoal to make small quantities of metals.

Once fossil fuels are available in quantity, they allow the economy to make modern capital goods, such as machines, oil drilling equipment, hydraulic dump trucks, farming equipment, and airplanes. Businesses need to be much larger to produce and own such equipment. International trade becomes much more important, because a much broader array of materials is needed to make and operate these devices. Education becomes ever more important, as devices become increasingly complex. Governments become larger, to deal with the additional services they now need to provide.

Increasing complexity has a downside. If an increasing share of the output of the economy is funneled into management pay, expenditures for capital goods, and other expenditures associated with an increasingly complex economy (including higher taxes, and more dividend and interest payments), less of the output of the economy is available for “ordinary” laborers–including those without advanced training or supervisory responsibilities.

As a result, pay for these workers is likely to fall relative to the rising cost of living. Some would-be workers may drop out of the labor force, because the benefits of working are too low compared to other costs, such as childcare and transportation costs. Ultimately, the low wages of these workers can be expected to start causing problems for the economic system as a whole, because these workers can no longer afford the output of the system. These workers reduce their purchases of houses and cars, both of which are produced using fossil fuels and other commodities.

Ultimately, the prices of commodities fall below their cost of production. This happens because there are so many of these ordinary laborers, and the lack of good wages for these workers tends to slow the “demand” side of the economic growth loop. This is the problem that we are now experiencing. Figure 4 below shows how the system would work, if increasing complexity were not interfering with economic growth.

Figure 4. How economic growth works, if increased complexity is not interfering.

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 4. How economic growth works, if increased complexity is not interfering.

 

 

 

 

 

Also see my post, How Economic Growth Fails.

The Two Pumps Are Really Energy and Entropy

Unlike the markings on the pump (gasoline and ethanol), the two pumps of our system are energy consumption and entropy. When we think we are getting energy consumption, we really get various forms of entropy as well.

The first pump, rising energy consumption, seems to be what makes the world economy grow.

Figure 4. World GDP in 2010$ compared (from USDA) compared to World Consumption of Energy (from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014).

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 5. World GDP in 2010$ compared (from USDA) compared to World Consumption of Energy (from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014).

 

 

 

 

 

This happens because the use of energy products allows businesses to leverage human labor, so that human labor can be more productive. A farmer with a stick as his only implement cannot produce much food, but a farmer with a tractor, gasoline, modern implements, hybrid seeds, irrigation, and access to modern roads can be very productive. This productivity would not be available without fossil fuels. Figure 4, shown earlier, describes how this increased productivity usually gets back into the system.

The second pump in Figure 3 is Entropy Production. Entropy is a measure of the disorder associated with the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels and other energy products. Entropy can be thought of as a loss of information. Once energy products are burned, we have a portion of GDP in the place of the energy products that have been consumed. This is why there is a high correlation between energy consumption and GDP. As energy products are burned, we also have an increasing pile of debt, increasing pollution (that our sinks become less and less able to handle), and increasing wealth disparity.

Figure 6. Chart by economist Emmanuel Saez based on an analysis IRS data, published in Forbes.

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 6. Difference in US income growth patterns of the top 10% versus the bottom 90%. Chart by economist Emmanuel Saez based on an analysis of IRS data, published in Forbes.

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond the three types of entropy I have mentioned, there are other related problems. For example, the current immigration problem is at least partly a problem associated with increased complexity and thus increased wealth disparity. Also, low oil prices are a sign of a loss of “information,” and thus also a sign of growing entropy.

Our Energy/Entropy System Operates on an Energy Flow Basis

I think of two different kinds of accounting systems:

  1. Accounting on a cash flow basis
  2. Accounting on an accrual basis, such as GAAP

With respect to energy, we burn fossil fuels in a given year, and we obtain output of renewable energy devices in a given year. We eat food that has generally been grown in the year we eat it. There is virtually no accrual aspect to the way the system works. This is very different from the accrual-basis financial statements prepared by most large companies that allow credit for investments before the benefit is actually in place.

When it comes to promises such as Social Security benefits, we are, in effect, promising retirees a share of energy production in future years. The promise is only worth something if the system continues to work well–in other words, if the financial system has not collapsed, pollution is not too great a problem, and marginalized workers are not revolting.

Governments can print money, but they can’t print resources. It is the resources, particularly energy resources, that we need to run the economy. In fact, we need per capita resources to be at least flat, or perhaps increasing.

Figure 7. World energy consumption per capita, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2105 data. Year 2015 estimate and notes by G. Tverberg.

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 7. World energy consumption per capita, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2105 data. Year 2015 estimate and notes by G. Tverberg.

 

 

 

 

 

Printing money is an attempt to get a larger share of the world’s resources for the population of a given country. Printing money usually doesn’t work very well, because if a country prints a lot of money, the currency of that country is likely to fall relative to currencies of other countries.

What Causes the System to Fail? Too Little Energy, or Too Much Entropy?

In an interconnected system, it is sometimes hard to understand what causes the system to fail. Is it too little production of energy products, or too much entropy associated with these energy products? Astrophysicist Francois Roddier tells me that he thinks it is too much entropy that causes the system to fail, and I tend to agree with him. (See also “Pourquoi les économies stagnant et les civilizations sʼeffondrent”  by Roddier in Économie de l’après-croissance.) The rising amount of debt, pollution, and income inequality tend to bring the system down, long before “running out” of energy products becomes a problem. In fact, the low commodity prices we are now experiencing appear to be part of the entropy problem as well.

Can Renewable Energy Be a Solution?

As far as I can see, renewable energy, unless it is very cheap (like hydroelectric dams were many years ago), absolutely does not work as a solution to our energy problems. The basic issue is that the energy system works on a flow year basis. To match energy-in versus energy-out, we need to analyze each year separately. For example, we need to match energy going into making offshore wind turbines against energy coming out of offshore wind turbines, for each calendar year (say 2016). To keep the net energy flow positive, there needs to be an extremely slow ramp-up of high-cost renewable energy.

In a way, high-cost renewable energy is very close to entropy-only energy. Because of the high front-end energy consumption and the slow speed at which it is paid back, high-priced renewable energy generates very little energy, net of energy going into its production. (In some instances, renewable energy may actually be an energy sink.) Instead, renewable energy generates lots of entropy-related products, including increased debt and increased taxes to pay for subsidies. It also adds to the complexity of the system, because of the variable nature of its output. Perhaps renewable energy is less bad at generating pollution, or maybe the pollution is simply of a different type. Ultimately, it is a problem, just as any other type of supplemental energy is.

One problem with so-called renewable energy is that it can’t be expected to outlast the system as a whole, unless it is part of some off-grid system with backup batteries and an inverter. Even then, the lifetime of the whole system is limited to the lifetime of the shortest-lived necessary component: solar panels, battery backup, inverter, and the device the user is trying to run with the system, such as a water pump.

There are currently many stresses on our economic system. We can’t be certain that the system will last very long. When the system starts collapsing, it is likely to take grid-connected electricity systems with it.

What Is the Connection to Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI)?

If a person believes that energy is a one pump system (the left pump in Figure 3), then a person’s big concern is “running out.” If a person wants to maximize the benefit of energy resources, he will choose energy resources with as high an EROEI as possible. In other words, he will try to get as much energy out per unit of energy in as possible. For example, one estimate gives EROEI of 100 to 1 for hydroelectric, 80 to 1 for coal, and much lower ratios for other fuels. Thus, a mix that is heavy in hydroelectric and coal will stretch energy supplies as far as possible.

Another place where EROEI is important is in determining “net” energy, that is, energy net of the energy going into making it.

As I mentioned above, energy per capita needs to be at least level to keep the economy from collapsing. In fact, net energy per capita probably needs to be slightly increasing to keep the economy growing sufficiently, if “net” energy is adjusted for all of the effects that simultaneously impact the energy needs of the economy, apart from energy used in producing “normal” goods and services. (Most people are not aware of the economy’s growing need for energy supplies. For an explanation regarding why this is true, see my recent post The Physics of Energy and the Economy.)

In theory, EROEI analyses might be helpful in determining how much gross energy is necessary to produce the desired amount of net energy. In practice, there are many pieces that go into determining the total quantity of net energy required to keep the economy expanding, making the calculation difficult to perform. These include:

  1. The extent to which population is rising.
  2. The extent to which globalization is taking place, and with it, access to other, higher EROEI, energy supplies.
  3. The extent to which the economy is getting more efficient in its use of energy.
  4. The extent to which EROEI is falling for various fuels (on a calendar year basis).
  5. The extent to which average EROEI is falling, because the mix of fuel is changing to become less polluting.
  6.  The extent to which it is taking more energy to extract other resources, such as fresh water and metals.
  7. The extent to which it is taking more energy to make pollution-control devices, and workarounds for problems with energy.

Looking at Figure 5, it is not obvious that there is a need for a big adjustment, one way or another, to produce net energy from gross energy. Of course, this may be an artifact of the way GDP is measured. High-priced metals and water are treated as part of GDP, as is the cost of pollution control devices. People’s general standard of living may not be rising, but now they are paying for clean air and water, something they didn’t need to pay for before. It looks like GDP is increasing, but there is little true benefit from the higher GDP.

The one big take-away I have from Figure 7 is simply that if our goal is to get net energy to rise sufficiently, the best way to do this is to make certain that gross energy production rises sufficiently. World leaders were successful in doing this since 2001, through their globalization efforts. Of course, the new energy we got was mostly coal–bad from the points of view of pollution and workers’ wages in developed countries, but good from some other perspectives: low direct debt requirement, low complexity requirement, and high EROEI.

Figure 8. China's energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 8. China’s energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

One issue with EROEI calculations is that they disregard timing, and thus are not on an energy flow-year basis. Ignoring timing also means the calculations give little information regarding the likely debt build-up associated with an energy product.

Conclusion

If a person doesn’t understand what the problem is, it is easy to come to the wrong conclusion. Part of our problem is that we need a growing amount of net energy, per capita, to keep the economy from collapsing. Part of our problem is that entropy problems such as rising debt, increased pollution, and increasing complexity tend to bring the system down, even when we seem to have plenty of energy supplies. These are the two big problems we are facing that few people recognize.

Another part of our problem is that it is necessary for common laborers to have good-paying jobs, and in fact rising pay, if the economy is to continue to grow. As much as we would like everyone to have advanced training (and training that changes with each new innovation), the productivity of workers does not rise sufficiently to justify the high cost of giving advanced education to a large share of the population. Instead, we must deal with the fact that the world’s economy needs large numbers of workers with relatively little training. In fact, we need rising pay for these workers, because there are so many of them, and they are the ones who keep the “demand” part of the commodity price cycle high enough.

Robots may be very efficient at producing goods and services, but they cannot recycle the earnings of the system. In theory, businesses could pay very high taxes on the output of automated systems, so that governments could create make-work projects to hire all of the unemployed workers. In practice, the idea is impractical–the businesses would simply move to an area with lower taxes.

Growth now is slowing because of all of the entropy issues involved. People in China cannot stand any more pollution. Too many laborers in developed countries are being marginalized by globalization and by competition with ever-more intelligent machines that can replace much of the function of humans. None of this would be a problem, except that we have a huge amount of debt that needs to be repaid with interest, and we need commodity prices to rise high enough to encourage production. If these problems are not fixed, the whole system will collapse, even though there seems to be a surplus of energy products.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Globalization Reaches Limits

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Published on the Our Finite World on March 1, 2016

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We have been living in a world of rapid globalization, but this is not a condition that we can expect to continue indefinitely.

Figure 1. Ratio of Imported Goods and Services to GDP. Based in FRED data for IMPGS.

 

 

 

Figure 1. Ratio of Imported Goods and Services to GDP. Based in FRED data for IMPGS.

 

 

 

Each time imported goods and services start to surge as a percentage of GDP, these imports seem to be cut back, generally in a recession. The rising cost of the imports seems to have an adverse impact on the economy. (The imports I am showing are gross imports, rather than imports net of exports. I am using gross imports, because US exports tend to be of a different nature than US imports. US imports include many labor-intensive products, while exports tend to be goods such as agricultural goods and movie films that do not require much US labor.)

Recently, US imports seem to be down. Part of this reflects the impact of surging US oil production, and because of this, a declining need for oil imports. Figure 2 shows the impact of removing oil imports from the amounts shown on Figure 1.

Figure 2. Total US Imports of Goods and Services, and this total excluding crude oil imports, both as a ratio to GDP. Crude oil imports from https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/historical/petr.pdf

 

 

 

Figure 2. Total US Imports of Goods and Services, and this total excluding crude oil imports, both as a ratio to GDP. Crude oil imports from https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/historical/petr.pdf

 

 

 

If we look at the years from 2008 to the present, there was clearly a big dip in imports at the time of the Great Recession. Apart from that dip, US imports have barely kept up with GDP growth since 2008.

Let’s think about the situation from the point of view of developing nations, wanting to increase the amount of goods they sell to the US. As long as US imports were growing rapidly, then the demand for the goods and services these developing nations were trying to sell would be growing rapidly. But once US imports flattened out as a percentage of GDP, then it became much harder for developing nations to “grow” their exports to the US.

I have not done an extensive analysis outside the US, but based on the recent slow economic growth patterns for Japan and Europe, I would expect that import growth for these areas to be slowing as well. In fact, data from the World Trade Organization for Japan, France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, and the United Kingdom seem to show a recent slowdown in imported goods for these countries as well.

If this lack of demand growth by a number of industrialized countries continues, it will tend to seriously slow export growth for developing countries.

Where Does Demand For Imports Come From?

Many of the goods and services we import have an adverse impact on US wages. For example, if we import clothing, toys, and furniture, these imports directly remove US jobs making similar goods here. Similarly, programming jobs and call center jobs outsourced to lower cost nations reduce the number of jobs available in the US. When US oil prices rose in the 1970s, we started importing compact cars from Japan. Substituting Japanese-made cars for American-made cars also led to a loss of US jobs.

Even if a job isn’t directly lost, the competition with low wage nations tends to hold down wages. Over time, US wages have tended to fall as a percentage of GDP.

Figure 3. Ratio of US Wages and Salaries to GDP, based on information of the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

 

 

 

Figure 3. Ratio of US Wages and Salaries to GDP, based on information of the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

 

 

 

Another phenomenon that has tended to occur is greater disparity of wages. Partly this disparity represents wage pressure on individuals doing jobs that could easily be outsourced to a lower-wage country. Also, executive salaries tend to rise, as companies become more international in scope. As a result, earnings for the top 10% have tended to increase since 1981, while wages for the bottom 90% have stagnated.

Figure 4. Chart by economist Emmanuel Saez based on an analysis IRS data, published in Forbes.

 

 

 

Figure 4. Chart by economist Emmanuel Saez based on an analysis IRS data, published in Forbes. “Real income” is inflation-adjusted income.

 

 

 

If wages of most workers are lagging behind, how is it possible to afford increased imports? I would argue that what has happened in practice is greater and greater use of debt. If wages of American workers had been rising rapidly, perhaps these higher wages could have enabled workers to afford the increased quantity of imported goods. With wages lagging behind, growing debt has been used as a way of affording imported goods and services.

Inasmuch as the US dollar was the world’s reserve currency, this increase in debt did not have a seriously adverse impact on the economy. In fact, back when oil prices were higher than they are today, petrodollar recycling helped maintain demand for US Treasuries as the US borrowed increasing amounts of money to purchase oil and other goods. This process helped keep borrowing costs low for the US.

Figure 5. US Increase in Debt as Ratio to GDP and US imports as Ratio to GDP. Both from FRED data: TSMDO and IMPGS.

 

 

 

Figure 5. US Increase in Debt as Ratio to GDP and US imports as Ratio to GDP. Both from FRED data: TSMDO and IMPGS.

 

 

 

The problem, however, is that at some point it becomes impossible to raise the debt level further. The ratio of debt to GDP becomes unmanageable. Consumers, because their wages have been held down by competition with wages around the world, cannot afford to keep adding more debt. Businesses find that slow wage growth in the US holds down demand. Because of this slow growth in the demand, businesses don’t need much additional debt to expand their businesses either.

Commodity Prices Are Extremely Sensitive to Lack of Demand

Commodities, by their nature, are things we use a lot of. It is usually difficult to store very much of these commodities. As a result, it is easy for supply and demand to get out of balance. Because of this, prices swing widely.

Demand is really a measure of affordability. If wages are lagging behind, then an increase in debt (for example, to buy a new house or a new car) can substitute for a lack of savings from wages. Unfortunately, such increases in debt have not been happening recently. We saw in Figure 5, above, that recent growth in US debt is lagging behind. If very many countries find themselves with wages rising slowly, and debt is not rising much either, then it is easy for commodity demand to fall behind supply. In such a case, prices of commodities will tend to fall behind the cost of production–exactly the problem the world has been experiencing recently. The problem started as early as 2012, but has been especially bad in the past year.

The way the governments of several countries have tried to fix stagnating economic growth is through a program called Quantitative Easing (QE). This program produces very low interest rates. Unfortunately, QE doesn’t really work as intended for commodities. QE tends to increase the supply of commodities, but it does not increase the demand for commodities.

The reason QE increases the supply of commodities is because yield-starved investors are willing to pour large amounts of capital into projects, in the hope that commodity prices will rise high enough that investments will be profitable–in other words, that investments in shares of stock will be profitable and also that debt can be repaid with interest. A major example of this push for production after QE started in 2008 is the rapid growth in US “liquids” production, thanks in large part to extraction from shale formations.

Figure 6. US oil and other liquids production, based on EIA data. Available data is through November, but amount shown is estimate of full year.

 

 

 

Figure 6. US oil and other liquids production, based on EIA data. Available data is through November, but amount shown is estimate of full year.

 

 

 

As we saw in Figure 5, the ultra-low interest rates have not been successful in encouraging new debt in general. These low rates also haven’t been successful in increasing US capital expenditures (Figure 7). In fact, even with all of the recent shale investment, capital investment remains low relative to what we would expect based on past investment patterns.

Figure 7. US Fixed Investment (Factories, Equipment, Schools, Roads) Excluding Consumer Durables as Ratio to GDP, based in US Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

 

 

 

Figure 7. US Fixed Investment (Factories, Equipment, Schools, Roads) Excluding Consumer Durables as Ratio to GDP, based in US Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

 

 

 

Instead, the low wages that result from globalization, without huge increases in debt, make it difficult to keep commodity prices up high enough. Workers, with low wages, delay starting their own households, so have no need for a separate apartment or house. They may also be able to share a vehicle with other family members. Because of the mismatch between supply and demand, commodity prices of many kinds have been falling. Oil prices, shown on Figure 9, have been down, but prices for coal, natural gas, and LNG are also down. Oil supply is up a little on a world basis, but not by an amount that would have been difficult to absorb in the 1960s and 1970s, when prices were much lower.

Figure 9. World oil production and price. Production is based on BP, plus author's estimate for 2016. Historical oil prices are calculated based on a higher than usual recent inflation rate, assuming Shadowstats' view of inflation is correct.

 

 

 

Figure 9. World oil production and price. Production is based on BP, plus author’s estimate for 2016. Historical oil prices are calculated based on a higher than usual recent inflation rate, assuming Shadowstats’ view of inflation is correct.

 

 

 

Developing Countries are Often Commodity Exporters 

Developing countries can be greatly affected if commodity prices are low, because they are often commodity exporters. One problem is obviously the cutback in wages, if it becomes necessary to reduce commodity production.  A second problem relates to the tax revenue that these exports generate. Without this revenue, it is often necessary to cut back funding for programs such as building roads and schools. This leads to even more job loss elsewhere in the economy. The combination of wage loss and tax loss may make it difficult to repay loans.

Obviously, if low commodity prices persist, this is another limit to globalization.

Conclusion

We have identified two different limits to globalization. One of them has to do with limits on the amount of goods and services that developed countries can absorb before those imports unduly disrupt local economies, either through job loss, or through more need for debt than the developed economies can handle. The other occurs because of the sensitivity of many developing nations have to low commodity prices, because they are exporters of these commodities.

Of course, there are other issues as well. China has discovered that if its coal is burned in great quantity, it is very polluting and a problem for this reason. China has begun to reduce its coal consumption, partly because of pollution issues.

Figure 10. China's energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

 

 

 

Figure 10. China’s energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

 

 

 

There are many other limiting factors. Fresh water is a major problem, throughout much of the developing world. Adding more people and more industry makes the situation worse.

One problem with globalization is a long-term tendency to move manufacturing production to countries with ever-lower standards in many ways: ever-lower pollution controls, ever-lower safety standards for workers, and ever-lower wages and benefits for workers. This means that the world becomes an ever-worse place to work and live, and the workers in the system become less and less able to afford the output of the system. The lack of buyers for the output of the system makes it increasingly difficult to keep prices of commodities high enough to support their continued production.

The logical end point, even beyond globalization, is for automation and robots to perform nearly all production. Of course, if that happens, there will be no one to buy the output of the system. Won’t that be a problem?

Adequate wages are critical to making any system work. As the system has tended increasingly toward globalization, politicians have tended to focus more and more on the needs of businesses and governments, and less on the needs of workers. At some point, the lack of buyers for the output of the system will tend to bring the whole system down.

Thus, at some point, the trend toward globalization and automation must stop. We need buyers for the output from the system, and this is precisely the opposite of the direction in which the system is trending. If a way is not found to fix the system, it will ultimately collapse. At a minimum, the trend toward increasing imports will end–if it hasn’t already.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Market Collapse Is On The Horizon

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Published on the Oil Price on February 13, 2016

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What is ahead for 2016? Most people don’t realize how tightly the following are linked:

1. Growth in debt
2. Growth in the economy
3. Growth in cheap-to-extract energy supplies
4. Inflation in the cost of producing commodities
5. Growth in asset prices, such as the price of shares of stock and of farmland
6. Growth in wages of non-elite workers
7. Population growth

It looks to me as though this linkage is about to cause a very substantial disruption to the economy, as oil limits, as well as other energy limits, cause a rapid shift from the benevolent version of the economic supercycle to the portion of the economic supercycle reflecting contraction. Many people have talked about Peak Oil, the Limits to Growth, and the Debt Supercycle without realizing that the underlying problem is really the same–the fact the we are reaching the limits of a finite world.

There are actually a number of different kinds of limits to a finite world, all leading toward the rising cost of commodity production. I will discuss these in more detail later. In the past, the contraction phase of the supercycle seems to have been caused primarily by too high a population relative to resources. This time, depleting fossil fuels–particularly oil–plays a major role. Other limits contributing to the end of the current debt supercycle include rising pollution and depletion of resources other than fossil fuels.

The problem of reaching limits in a finite world manifests itself in an unexpected way: slowing wage growth for non-elite workers. Lower wages mean that these workers become less able to afford the output of the system. These problems first lead to commodity oversupply and very low commodity prices. Eventually these problems lead to falling asset prices and widespread debt defaults. These problems are the opposite of what many expect, namely oil shortages and high prices. This strange situation exists because the economy is a networked system. Feedback loops in a networked system don’t necessarily work in the way people expect.

I expect that the particular problem we are likely to reach in 2016 is limits to oil storage. This may happen at different times for crude oil and the various types of refined products. As storage fills, prices can be expected to drop to a very low level–less than $10 per barrel for crude oil, and correspondingly low prices for the various types of oil products, such as gasoline, diesel, and asphalt. We can then expect to face a problem with debt defaults, failing banks, and failing governments (especially of oil exporters).

The idea of a bounce back to new higher oil prices seems exceedingly unlikely, in part because of the huge overhang of supply in storage, which owners will want to sell, keeping supply high for a long time. Furthermore, the underlying cause of the problem is the failure of wages of non-elite workers to rise rapidly enough to keep up with the rising cost of commodity production, particularly oil production. Because of falling inflation-adjusted wages, non-elite workers are becoming increasingly unable to afford the output of the economic system. As non-elite workers cut back on their purchases of goods, the economy tends to contract rather than expand. Efficiencies of scale are lost, and debt becomes increasingly difficult to repay with interest. The whole system tends to collapse.

How the Economic Growth Supercycle Works, in an Ideal Situation

In an ideal situation, growth in debt tends to stimulate the economy. The availability of debt makes the purchase of high-priced goods such as factories, homes, cars, and trucks more affordable. All of these high-priced goods require the use of commodities, including energy products and metals. Thus, growing debt tends to add to the demand for commodities, and helps keep their prices higher than the cost of production, making it profitable to produce these commodities. The availability of profits encourages the extraction of an ever-greater quantity of energy supplies and other commodities.

The growing quantity of energy supplies made possible by this profitability can be used to leverage human labor to an ever-greater extent, so that workers become increasingly productive. For example, energy supplies help build roads, trucks, and machines used in factories, making workers more productive. As a result, wages tend to rise, reflecting the greater productivity of workers in the context of these new investments. Businesses find that demand for their goods and services grows because of the growing wages of workers, and governments find that they can collect increasing tax revenue. The arrangement of repaying debt with interest tends to work well in this situation. GDP grows sufficiently rapidly that the ratio of debt to GDP stays relatively flat.

Over time, the cost of commodity production tends to rise for several reasons:

1. Population tends to grow over time, so the quantity of agricultural land available per person tends to fall. Higher-priced techniques (such as irrigation, better seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides) are required to increase production per acre. Similarly, rising population gives rise to a need to produce fresh water using increasingly high-priced techniques, such as desalination.

2. Businesses tend to extract the least expensive fuels such as oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium first. They later move on to more expensive to extract fuels, when the less-expensive fuels are depleted. For example, Figure 1 shows the sharp increase in the cost of oil extraction that took place about 1999.

Figure 1. Figure by Steve Kopits of Westwood Douglas showing the trend in per-barrel capital expenditures for oil exploration and production. CAGR is “Compound Annual Growth Rate.”

3. Pollution tends to become an increasing problem because the least polluting commodity sources are used first. When mitigations such as substituting renewables for fossil fuels are used, they tend to be more expensive than the products they are replacing. The leads to the higher cost of final products.

Related: The Hidden Agenda Behind Saudi Arabia’s Market Share Strategy

4. Overuse of resources other than fuels becomes a problem, leading to problems such as the higher cost of producing metals, deforestation, depleted fish stocks, and eroded topsoil. Some workarounds are available, but these tend to add costs as well.

As long as the cost of commodity production is rising only slowly, its increasing cost is benevolent. This increase in cost adds to inflation in the price of goods and helps inflate away prior debt, so that debt is easier to pay. It also leads to asset inflation, making the use of debt seem to be a worthwhile approach to finance future economic growth, including the growth of energy supplies. The whole system seems to work as an economic growth pump, with the rising wages of non-elite workers pushing the growth pump along.

The Big “Oops” Comes when the Price of Commodities Starts Rising Faster than Wages of Non-Elite Workers

Clearly the wages of non-elite workers need to be rising faster than commodity prices in order to push the economic growth pump along. The economic pump effect is lost when the wages of non-elite workers start falling, relative to the price of commodities. This tends to happen when the cost of commodity production begins rising rapidly, as it did for oil after 1999 (Figure 1).

The loss of the economic pump effect occurs because the rising cost of oil (or electricity, or food, or other energy products) forces workers to cut back on discretionary expenditures. This is what happened in the 2003 to 2008 period as oil prices spiked and other energy prices rose sharply. (See my article Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.) Non-elite workers found it increasingly difficult to afford expensive products such as homes, cars, and washing machines. Housing prices dropped. Debt growth slowed, leading to a sharp drop in oil prices and other commodity prices.

Figure 2. World oil supply and prices based on EIA data.

It was somewhat possible to “fix” low oil prices through the use of Quantitative Easing (QE) and the growth of debt at very low interest rates, after 2008. In fact, these very low interest rates are what encouraged the very rapid growth in the production of US crude oil, natural gas liquids, and biofuels.

Now, debt is reaching limits. Both the US and China have (in a sense) “taken their foot off the economic debt accelerator.” It doesn’t seem to make sense to encourage more use of debt, because recent very low interest rates have encouraged unwise investments. In China, more factories and homes have been built than the market can absorb. In the US, oil “liquids” production rose faster than it could be absorbed by the world market when prices were over $100 per barrel. This led to the big price drop. If it were possible to produce the additional oil for a very low price, say $20 per barrel, the world economy could probably absorb it. Such a low selling price doesn’t really “work” because of the high cost of production.

Debt is important because it can help an economy grow, as long as the total amount of debt does not become unmanageable. Thus, for a time, growing debt can offset the adverse impact of the rising cost of energy products. We know that oil prices began to rise sharply in the 1970s, and in fact other energy prices rose as well.

Figure 3. Historical World Energy Price in 2014$, from BP Statistical Review of World History 2015.

Looking at debt growth, we find that it rose rapidly, starting about the time oil prices started spiking. Former Director of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman, talks about “The Distastrous 40-Year Debt Supercycle,” which he believes is now ending.

Figure 4. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods. See post on debt for explanation of methodology.

In recent years, we have been reaching a situation where commodity prices have been rising faster than the wages of non-elite workers. Jobs that are available tend to be low-paid service jobs. Young people find it necessary to stay in school longer. They also find it necessary to delay marriage and postpone buying a car and home. All of these issues contribute to the falling wages of non-elite workers. Some of these individuals are, in fact, getting zero wages, because they are in school longer. Individuals who retire or voluntarily leave the work force further add to the problem of wages no longer rising sufficiently to afford the output of the system.

The US government has recently decided to raise interest rates. This further reduces the buying power of non-elite workers. We have a situation where the “economic growth pump,” created through the use of a rising quantity of cheap energy products plus rising debt, is disappearing. While homes, cars, and vacation travel are available, an increasing share of the population cannot afford them. This tends to lead to a situation where commodity prices fall below the cost of production for a wide range of types of commodities, making the production of commodities unprofitable. In such a situation, a person expects companies to cut back on production. Many defaults may occur.

China has acted as a major growth pump for the world for the last 15 years, since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. China’s growth is now slowing, and can be expected to slow further. Its growth was financed by a huge increase in debt. Paying back this debt is likely to be a problem.

Figure 5. Author’s illustration of problem we are now encountering.

Thus, we seem to be coming to the contraction portion of the debt supercycle. This is frightening, because if debt is contracting, asset prices (such as stock prices and the price of land) are likely to fall. Banks are likely to fail, unless they can transfer their problems to others–owners of the bank or even those with bank deposits. Governments will be affected as well, because it will become more expensive to borrow money, and because it becomes more difficult to obtain revenue through taxation. Many governments may fail as well for that reason.

The U. S. Oil Storage Problem

Oil prices began falling in the middle of 2014, so we might expect oil storage problems to start about that time, but this is not exactly the case. Supplies of US crude oil in storage didn’t start rising until about the end of 2014.

Related: Why Today’s Oil Bust Pales In Comparison To The 80’s

Figure 6. US crude oil in storage, excluding Strategic Petroleum Reserve, based on EIA data.

 

 

 

 

Once crude oil supplies started rising rapidly, they increased by about 90 million barrels between December 2014 and April 2015. After April 2015, supplies dipped again, suggesting that there is some seasonality to the growing crude oil supply. The most “dangerous” time for rapidly rising amounts added to storage would seem to be between December 31 and April 30. According to the EIA, maximum crude oil storage is 551 million barrels of crude oil (considering all storage facilities). Adding another 90 million barrels of oil (similar to the run-up between Dec. 2014 and April 2015) would put the total over the 551 million barrel crude oil capacity.

Cushing, Oklahoma, is the largest storage area for crude oil. According to the EIA, maximum working storage for the facility is 73 million barrels. Oil storage at Cushing since oil prices started declining is shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7. Quantity of crude oil stored at Cushing between June 27, 2014, and June 1, 2016, based on EIA data.

Clearly the same kind of run up in oil storage that occurred between December and April one year ago cannot all be stored at Cushing, if maximum working capacity is only 73 million barrels, and the amount currently in storage is 64 million barrels.

Another way of storing oil is as finished products. Here, the run-up in storage began earlier (starting in mid-2014) and stabilized at about 65 million barrels per day above the prior year, by January 2015. Clearly, if companies can do some pre-planning, they would prefer not to refine products for which there is little market. They would rather store unneeded oil as crude, rather than as refined products.

Figure 8. Total Oil Products in Storage, based on EIA data.

EIA indicates that the total capacity for oil products is 1,549 million barrels. Thus, in theory, the amount of oil products stored can be increased by as much as 700 million barrels, assuming that the products needing to be stored and the locations where storage are available match up exactly. In practice, the amount of additional storage available is probably quite a bit less than 700 million barrels because of mismatch problems.

In theory, if companies can be persuaded to refine more products than they can sell, the amount of products that can be stored can rise significantly. Even in this case, the amount of storage is not unlimited. Even if the full 700 million barrels of storage for crude oil products is available, this corresponds to less than one million barrels a day for two years, or two million barrels a day for one year. Thus, products storage could easily be filled as well, if demand remains low.

At this point, we don’t have the mismatch between oil production and consumption fixed. In fact, both Iraq and Iran would like to increase their production, adding to the production/consumption mismatch. China’s economy seems to be stalling, keeping its oil consumption from rising as quickly as in the past, and further adding to the supply/demand mismatch problem. Figure 9 shows an approximation to our mismatch problem. As far as I can tell, the problem is still getting worse, not better.

Figure 9. Total liquids oil production and consumption, based on a combination of BP and EIA data.

There has been a lot of talk about the United States reducing its production, but the impact so far has been small, based on data from EIA’s International Energy Statistics and its December 2015 Monthly Energy Review.

Figure 10. US quarterly oil liquids production data, based on EIA’s International Energy Statistics and Monthly Energy Review.

Based on information through November from EIA’s Monthly Energy Review, total liquids production for the US for the year 2015 will be about 700,000 barrels per day higher than it was for 2014. This increase is likely greater than the increase in production by either Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Perhaps in 2016, oil production of the US will start decreasing, but so far, increases in biofuels and natural gas liquids are partly offsetting recent reductions in crude oil production. Also, even when companies are forced into bankruptcy, oil production does not necessarily stop because of the potential value of the oil to new owners.

Figure 11 shows that very high stocks of oil were a problem, way back in the 1920s. There were other similarities to today’s problems as well, including a deflating debt bubble and low commodity prices. Thus, we should not be too surprised by high oil stocks now, when oil prices are low.

(Click to enlarge)

Figure 11. US ending stock of crude oil, excluding the strategic petroleum reserve. Figure by EIA.

Many people overlook the problems today because the US economy tends to be doing better than that of the rest of the world. The oil storage problem is really a world problem, however, reflecting a combination of low demand growth (caused by low wage growth and lack of debt growth, as the world economy hits limits) continuing supply growth (related to very low interest rates making all kinds of investment appear profitable and new production from Iraq and, in the near future, Iran). Storage on ships is increasingly being filled up and storage in Western Europe is 97% filled. Thus, the US is quite likely to see a growing need for oil storage in the year ahead, partly because there are few other places to put the oil, and partly because the gap between supply and demand has not yet been fixed.

What is Ahead for 2016?

1. Problems with a slowing world economy are likely to become more pronounced, as China’s growth problems continue, and as other commodity-producing countries such as Brazil, South Africa, and Australia experience recession. There may be rapid shifts in currencies, as countries attempt to devalue their currencies, to try to gain an advantage in world markets. Saudi Arabia may decide to devalue its currency, to get more benefit from the oil it sells.

Related: OPEC-Russia Rumors Persist After Comments From Rosneft Chief

2. Oil storage seems likely to become a problem sometime in 2016. In fact, if the run-up in oil supply is heavily front-ended to the December to April period, similar to what happened a year ago, lack of crude oil storage space could become a problem within the next three months. Oil prices could fall to $10 or below. We know that for natural gas and electricity, prices often fall below zero when the ability of the system to absorb more supply disappears. It is not clear the oil prices can fall below zero, but they can certainly fall very low. Even if we can somehow manage to escape the problem of running out of crude oil storage capacity in 2016, we could encounter storage problems of some type in 2017 or 2018.

3. Falling oil prices are likely to cause numerous problems. One is debt defaults, both for oil companies and for companies making products used by the oil industry. Another is layoffs in the oil industry. Another problem is negative inflation rates, making debt harder to repay. Still another issue is falling asset prices, such as stock prices and prices of land used to produce commodities. Part of the reason for the fall in price has to do with the falling price of the commodities produced. Also, sovereign wealth funds will need to sell securities, to have money to keep their economies going. The sale of these securities will put downward pressure on stock and bond prices.

4. Debt defaults are likely to cause major problems in 2016. As noted in the introduction, we seem to be approaching the unwinding of a debt supercycle. We can expect one company after another to fail because of low commodity prices. The problems of these failing companies can be expected to spread to the economy as a whole. Failing companies will lay off workers, reducing the quantity of wages available to buy goods made with commodities. Debt will not be fully repaid, causing problems for banks, insurance companies, and pension funds. Even electricity companies may be affected, if their suppliers go bankrupt and their customers become less able to pay their bills.
5. Governments of some oil exporters may collapse or be overthrown, if prices fall to a low level. The resulting disruption of oil exports may be welcomed, if storage is becoming an increased problem.

6. It is not clear that the complete unwind will take place in 2016, but a major piece of this unwind could take place in 2016, especially if crude oil storage fills up, pushing oil prices to less than $10 per barrel.

7. Whether or not oil storage fills up, oil prices are likely to remain very low, as the result of rising supply, barely rising demand, and no one willing to take steps to try to fix the problem. Everyone seems to think that someone else (Saudi Arabia?) can or should fix the problem. In fact, the problem is too large for Saudi Arabia to fix. The United States could in theory fix the current oil supply problem by taxing its own oil production at a confiscatory tax rate, but this seems exceedingly unlikely. Closing existing oil production before it is forced to close would guarantee future dependency on oil imports. A more likely approach would be to tax imported oil, to keep the amount imported down to a manageable level. This approach would likely cause the ire of oil exporters.

8. The many problems of 2016 (including rapid moves in currencies, falling commodity prices, and loan defaults) are likely to cause large payouts of derivatives, potentially leading to the bankruptcies of financial institutions, as they did in 2008. To prevent such bankruptcies, most governments plan to move as much of the losses related to derivatives and debt defaults to private parties as possible. It is possible that this approach will lead to depositors losing what appear to be insured bank deposits. At first, any such losses will likely be limited to amounts in excess of FDIC insurance limits. As the crisis spreads, losses could spread to other deposits. Deposits of employers may be affected as well, leading to difficulty in paying employees.

9. All in all, 2016 looks likely to be a much worse year than 2008 from a financial perspective. The problems will look similar to those that might have happened in 2008, but didn’t thanks to government intervention. This time, governments appear to be mostly out of approaches to fix the problems.

10. Two years ago, I put together the chart shown as Figure 12. It shows the production of all energy products declining rapidly after 2015. I see no reason why this forecast should be changed. Once the debt supercycle starts its contraction phase, we can expect a major reduction in both the demand and supply of all kinds of energy products.

Figure 12. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

Conclusion

We are certainly entering a worrying period. We have not really understood how the economy works, so we have tended to assume we could fix one or another part of the problem. The underlying problem seems to be a problem of physics. The economy is a dissipative structure, a type of self-organizing system that forms in thermodynamically open systems. As such, it requires energy to grow. Ultimately, diminishing returns with respect to human labor–what some of us would call falling inflation-adjusted wages of non-elite workers–tends to bring economies down. Thus all economies have finite lifetimes, just as humans, animals, plants, and hurricanes do. We are in the unfortunate position of observing the end of our economy’s lifetime.

Most energy research to date has focused on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. While this is a contributing problem, this is really not the proximate cause of the impending collapse. The Second Law of Thermodynamics operates in thermodynamically closed systems, which is not precisely the issue here.

We know that historically collapses have tended to take many years. This collapse may take place more rapidly because today’s economy is dependent on international supply chains, electricity, and liquid fuels–things that previous economies were not dependent on.

Why oil under $30 per barrel is a major problem

Oil Barrels with Red Arrow isolated on white background. 3D rendergc2reddit-logoOff the keyboard of Gail Tverberg

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Published on the Our Finite World on January 19, 2016

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A person often reads that low oil prices–for example, $30 per barrel oil prices–will stimulate the economy, and the economy will soon bounce back. What is wrong with this story? A lot of things, as I see it:

1. Oil producers can’t really produce oil for $30 per barrel.

A few countries can get oil out of the ground for $30 per barrel. Figure 1 gives an approximation to technical extraction costs for various countries. Even on this basis, there aren’t many countries extracting oil for under $30 per barrel–only Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. We wouldn’t have much crude oil if only these countries produced oil.

Figure 1. Global Breakeven prices (considering only technical extraction costs) versus production. Source:Alliance Bernstein, October 2014

 

 

Figure 1. Global breakeven prices (considering only technical extraction costs) versus production. Source: Alliance Bernstein, October 2014

 

 

2. Oil producers really need prices that are higher than the technical extraction costs shown in Figure 1, making the situation even worse.

Oil can only be extracted within a broader system. Companies need to pay taxes. These can be very high. Including these costs has historically brought total costs for many OPEC countries to over $100 per barrel.

Independent oil companies in non-OPEC countries also have costs other than technical extraction costs, including taxes and dividends to stockholders. Also, if companies are to avoid borrowing a huge amount of money, they need to have higher prices than simply the technical extraction costs. If they need to borrow, interest costs need to be considered as well.

3. When oil prices drop very low, producers generally don’t stop producing.

There are built-in delays in the oil production system. It takes several years to put a new oil extraction project in place. If companies have been working on a project, they generally won’t stop just because prices happen to be low. One reason for continuing on a project is the existence of debt that must be repaid with interest, whether or not the project continues.

Also, once an oil well is drilled, it can continue to produce for several years. Ongoing costs after the initial drilling are generally very low. These previously drilled wells will generally be kept operating, regardless of the current selling price for oil. In theory, these wells can be stopped and restarted, but the costs involved tend to deter this action.

Oil exporters will continue to drill new wells because their governments badly need tax revenue from oil sales to fund government programs. These countries tend to have low extraction costs; nearly the entire difference between the market price of oil and the price required to operate the oil company ends up being paid in taxes. Thus, there is an incentive to raise production to help generate additional tax revenue, if prices drop. This is the issue for Saudi Arabia and many other OPEC nations.

Very often, oil companies will purchase derivative contracts that protect themselves from the impact of a drop in market prices for a specified time period (typically a year or two). These companies will tend to ignore price drops for as long as these contracts are in place.

There is also the issue of employee retention. In a sense, a company’s greatest assets are its employees. Once these employees are lost, it will be hard to hire and retrain new employees. So employees are kept on as long as possible.

The US keeps raising its biofuel mandate, regardless of the price of oil. No one stops to realize that in the current over-supplied situation, the mandate adds to low price pressures.

One brake on the system should be the financial pain induced by low oil prices, but this braking effect doesn’t necessarily happen quickly. Oil exporters often have sovereign wealth funds that they can tap to offset low tax revenue. Because of the availability of these funds, some exporters can continue to finance governmental services for two or more years, even with very low oil prices.

Defaults on loans to oil companies should also act as a brake on the system. We know that during the Great Recession, regulators allowed commercial real estate loans to be extended, even when property valuations fell, thus keeping the problem hidden. There is a temptation for regulators to allow similar leniency regarding oil company loans. If this happens, the “braking effect” on the system is reduced, allowing the default problem to grow until it becomes very large and can no longer be hidden.

4. Oil demand doesn’t increase very rapidly after prices drop from a high level.

People often think that going from a low price to a high price is the opposite of going from a high price to a low price, in terms of the effect on the economy. This is not really the case.

4a. When oil prices rise from a low price to a high price, this generally means that production has been inadequate, with only the production that could be obtained at the prior lower price. The price must rise to a higher level in order to encourage additional production.

The reason that the cost of oil production tends to rise is because the cheapest-to-extract oil is removed first. Oil producers must thus keep adding production that is ever-more expensive for one reason or another: harder to reach location, more advanced technology, or needing additional steps that require additional human labor and more physical resources. Growing efficiencies can somewhat offset this trend, but the overall trend in the cost of oil production has been sharply upward since about 1999.

The rising price of oil has an adverse impact on affordability. The usual pattern is that after a rise in the price of oil, economies of oil importing nations go into recession. This happens because workers’ wages do not rise at the same time as oil prices. As a result, workers find that they cannot buy as many discretionary items and must cut back. These cutbacks in purchases create problems for businesses, because businesses generally have high fixed costs including mortgages and other debt payments. If these businesses are to continue to operate, they are forced to cut costs in one way or another. Cost reduction occurs in many ways, including reducing wages for workers, layoffs, automation, and outsourcing of manufacturing to cheaper locations.

For both employers and employees, the impact of these rapid changes often feels like a rug has been pulled out from under foot. It is very unpleasant and disconcerting.

4b. When prices fall, the situation that occurs is not the opposite of 4a. Employers find that thanks to lower oil prices, their costs are a little lower. Very often, they will try to keep some of these savings as higher profits. Governments may choose to raise tax rates on oil products when oil prices fall, because consumers will be less sensitive to such a change than otherwise would be the case. Businesses have no motivation to give up cost-saving techniques they have adopted, such as automation or outsourcing to a cheaper location.

Few businesses will construct new factories with the expectation that low oil prices will be available for a long time, because they realize that low prices are only temporary. They know that if oil prices don’t go back up in a fairly short period of time (months or a few years), the quantity of oil available is likely to drop precipitously. If sufficient oil is to be available in the future, oil prices will need to be high enough to cover the true cost of production. Thus, current low prices are at most a temporary benefit–something like the eye of a hurricane.

Since the impact of low prices is only temporary, businesses will want to adopt only changes that can take place quickly and can be easily reversed. A restaurant or bar might add more waiters and waitresses. A car sales business might add a few more salesmen because car sales might be better. A factory making cars might schedule more shifts of workers, so as to keep the number of cars produced very high. Airlines might add more flights, if they can do so without purchasing additional planes.

Because of these issues, the jobs that are added to the economy are likely to be mostly in the service sector. The shift toward outsourcing to lower-cost countries and automation can be expected to continue. Citizens will get some benefit from the lower oil prices, but not as much as if governments and businesses weren’t first in line to get their share of the savings. The benefit to citizens will be much less than if all of the people who were laid off in the last recession got their jobs back.

5. The sharp drop in oil prices in the last 18 months has little to do with the cost of production. 

Instead, recent oil prices represent an attempt by the market to find a balance between supply and demand. Since supply doesn’t come down quickly in response to lower prices, and demand doesn’t rise quickly in response to lower prices, prices can drop very low–far below the cost of production.

As noted in Section 4, high oil prices tend to be recessionary. The primary way of offsetting recessionary forces is by directly or indirectly adding debt at low interest rates. With this increased debt, more homes and factories can be built, and more cars can be purchased. The economy can be forced to act in a more “normal” manner because the low interest rates and the additional debt in some sense counteract the adverse impact of high oil prices.

Figure 2. World oil supply and prices based on EIA data.

 

 

Figure 2. World oil supply and prices based on EIA data.

 

 

Oil prices dropped very low in 2008, as a result of the recessionary influences that take place when oil prices are high. It was only with the benefit of considerable debt-based stimulation that oil prices were gradually pumped back up to the $100+ per barrel level. This stimulation included US deficit spending, Quantitative Easing (QE) starting in December 2008, and a considerable increase in debt by the Chinese.

Commodity prices tend to be very volatile because we use such large quantities of them and because storage is quite limited. Supply and demand have to balance almost exactly, or prices spike higher or lower. We are now back to an “out of balance” situation, similar to where we were in late 2008. Our options for fixing the situation are more limited this time. Interest rates are already very low, and governments generally feel that they have as much debt as they can safely handle.

6. One contributing factor to today’s low oil prices is a drop-off in the stimulus efforts of 2008.

As noted in Section 4, high oil prices tend to be recessionary. As noted in Section 5, this recessionary impact can, at least to some extent, be offset by stimulus in the form of increased debt and lower interest rates. Unfortunately, this stimulus has tended to have adverse consequences. It encouraged overbuilding of both homes and factories in China. It encouraged a speculative rise in asset prices. It encouraged investments in enterprises of questionable profitability, including many investments in oil from US shale formations.

In response to these problems, the amount of stimulus is being reduced. The US discontinued its QE program and cut back its deficit spending. It even began raising interest rates in December 2015. China is also cutting back on the quantity of new debt it is adding.

Unfortunately, without the high level of past stimulus, it is difficult for the world economy to grow rapidly enough to keep the prices of all commodities, including oil, high. This is a major contributing factor to current low prices.

7. The danger with very low oil prices is that we will lose the energy products upon which our economy depends.

There are a number of different ways that oil production can be lost if low oil prices continue for an extended period.

In oil exporting countries, there can be revolutions and political unrest leading to a loss of oil production.

In almost any country, there can be a sharp reduction in production because oil companies cannot obtain debt financing to pay for more services. In some cases, companies may go bankrupt, and the new owners may choose not to extract oil at low prices.

There can also be systemwide financial problems that indirectly lead to much lower oil production. For example, if banks cannot be depended upon for payroll services, or to guarantee payment for international shipments, such problems would affect all oil companies, not just ones in financial difficulty.

Oil is not unique in its problems. Coal and natural gas are also experiencing low prices. They could experience disruptions indirectly because of continued low prices.

8. The economy cannot get along without an adequate supply of oil and other fossil fuel products. 

We often read articles in the press that seem to suggest that the economy could get along without fossil fuels. For example, the impression is given that renewables are “just around the corner,” and their existence will eliminate the need for fossil fuels. Unfortunately, at this point in time, we are nowhere being able to get along without fossil fuels.

Food is grown and transported using oil products. Roads are made and maintained using oil and other energy products. Oil is our single largest energy product.

Experience over a very long period shows a close tie between energy use and GDP growth (Figure 3). Nearly all technology is made using fossil fuel products, so even energy growth ascribed to technology improvements could be considered to be available to a significant extent because of fossil fuels.

Figure 3. World GDP growth compared to world energy consumption growth for selected time periods since 1820. World real GDP trends for 1975 to present are based on USDA real GDP data in 2010$ for 1975 and subsequent. (Estimated by author for 2015.) GDP estimates for prior to 1975 are based on Maddison project updates as of 2013. Growth in the use of energy products is based on a combination of data from Appendix A data from Vaclav Smil's Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 for 1965 and subsequent.

 

 

Figure 3. World GDP growth compared to world energy consumption growth for selected time periods since 1820. World real GDP trends from 1975 to present are based on USDA real GDP data in 2010$ for 1975 and subsequent. (Estimated by the author for 2015.) GDP estimates for prior to 1975 are based on Maddison project updates as of 2013. Growth in the use of energy products is based on a combination of data from Appendix A data from Vaclav Smil’s Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 for 1965 and subsequent.

 

 

While renewables are being added, they still represent only a tiny share of the world’s energy consumption.

Figure 4. World energy consumption by part of the world, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

 

 

Figure 4. World energy consumption by part of the world, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

 

 

Thus, we are nowhere near a point where the world economy could continue to function without an adequate supply of oil, coal and natural gas.

9. Many people believe that oil prices will bounce back up again, and everything will be fine. This seems unlikely. 

The growing cost of oil extraction that we have been encountering in the last 15 years represents one form of diminishing returns. Once the cost of making energy products becomes high, an economy is permanently handicapped. Prices higher than those maintained in the 2011-2014 period are really needed if extraction is to continue and grow. Unfortunately, such high prices tend to be recessionary. As a result, high prices tend to push demand down. When demand falls too low, prices tend to fall very low.

There are several ways to improve demand for commodities, and thus raise prices again. These include (a) increasing wages of non-elite workers (b) increasing the proportion of the population with jobs, and (c) increasing the amount of debt. None of these are moving in the “right” direction.

Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies points out that once diminishing returns set in, the response is more “complexity” to solve these problems. Government programs become more important, and taxes are often higher. Education of elite workers becomes more important. Businesses become larger. This increased complexity leads to more of the output of the economy being funneled to sectors of the economy other than the wages of non-elite workers. Because there are so many of these non-elite workers, their lack of buying power adversely affects demand for goods that use commodities, such as homes, cars, and motorcycles.1

Another force tending to hold down demand is a smaller proportion of the population in the labor force. There are many factors contributing to this: Young people are in school longer. The bulge of workers born after World War II is now reaching retirement age. Lagging wages make it increasingly difficult for young parents to afford childcare so that both can work.

As noted in Section 5, debt growth is no longer rising as rapidly as in the past. In fact, we are seeing the beginning of interest rate increases.

When we add to these problems the slowdown in growth in the Chinese economy and the new oil that Iran will be adding to the world oil supply, it is hard to see how the oil imbalance will be fixed in any reasonable time period. Instead, the imbalance seems likely to remain at a high level, or even get worse. With limited storage available, prices will tend to continue to fall.

10. The rapid run up in US oil production after 2008 has been a significant contributor to the mismatch between oil supply and demand that has taken place since mid-2014.  

Without US production, world oil production (broadly defined, including biofuels and natural gas liquids) is close to flat.

Figure 5. Total liquids oil production for the world as a whole and for the world excluding the US, based on EIA International Petroleum Monthly data.

 

 

Figure 5. Total liquids oil production for the world as a whole and for the world excluding the US, based on EIA International Petroleum Monthly data.

 

 

Viewed separately, US oil production has risen very rapidly. Total production rose by about six million barrels per day between 2008 and 2015.

Figure 6. US Liquids production, based on EIA data (International Petroleum Monthly, through June 2015; supplemented by December Monthly Energy Review for most recent data.

 

 

Figure 6. US Liquids production, based on EIA data (International Petroleum Monthly, through June 2015; supplemented by December Monthly Energy Review for most recent data).

 

 

US oil supply was able to rise very rapidly partly because QE led to the availability of debt at very low interest rates. In addition, investors found yields on debt so low that they purchased almost any equity investment that appeared to have a chance of long-term value. The combination of these factors, plus the belief that oil prices would always increase because extraction costs tend to rise over time, funneled large amounts of investment funds into the liquid fuels sector.

As a result, US oil production (broadly defined), increased rapidly, increasing nearly 1.0 million barrels per day in 2012, 1.2 million barrels per day in 2013, 1.7 million barrels per day in 2014. The final numbers are not in, but it looks like US oil production will still increase by another 700,000 barrels a day in 2015. The 700,000 extra barrels of oil added by the US in 2015 is likely greater than the amount added by either Saudi Arabia or Iraq.

World oil consumption does not increase rapidly when oil prices are high. World oil consumption increased by 871,000 barrels a day in 2012, 1,397,000 barrels a day in 2013, and 843,000 barrels a day in 2014, according to BP. Thus, in 2014, the US by itself added approximately twice as much oil production as the increase in world oil demand. This mismatch likely contributed to collapsing oil prices in 2014.

Given the apparent role of the US in creating the mismatch between oil supply and demand, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Saudi Arabia is unwilling to try to fix the problem.

Conclusion

Things aren’t working out the way we had hoped. We can’t seem to get oil supply and demand in balance. If prices are high, oil companies can extract a lot of oil, but consumers can’t afford the products that use it, such as homes and cars; if oil prices are low, oil companies try to continue to extract oil, but soon develop financial problems.

Complicating the problem is the economy’s continued need for stimulus in order to keep the prices of oil and other commodities high enough to encourage production. Stimulus seems to takes the form of ever-rising debt at ever-lower interest rates. Such a program isn’t sustainable, partly because it leads to mal-investment and partly because it leads to a debt bubble that is subject to collapse.

Stimulus seems to be needed because of today’s high extraction cost for oil. If the cost of extraction were still very low, this stimulus wouldn’t be needed because products made using oil would be more affordable.

Decision makers thought that peak oil could be fixed simply by producing more oil and more oil substitutes. It is becoming increasingly clear that the problem is more complicated than this. We need to find a way to make the whole system operate correctly. We need to produce exactly the correct amount of oil that buyers can afford. Prices need to be high enough for oil producers, but not too high for purchasers of goods using oil. The amount of debt should not spiral out of control. There doesn’t seem to be a way to produce the desired outcome, now that oil extraction costs are high.

Rigidities built into the oil price-supply system (as described in Sections 3 and 4) tend to hide problems, letting them grow bigger and bigger. This is why we could suddenly find ourselves with a major financial problem that few have anticipated.

Unfortunately, what we are facing now is a predicament, rather than a problem. There is quite likely no good solution. This is a worry.

Note:

[1] For example, more dividend and interest payments are paid, tending to benefit the financial industry and the elite classes. More of the output of the economy goes to workers in supervisory positions or having advanced education. Other workers–those with more “ordinary” responsibilities–find their wages falling behind the general rise in the cost of living. As a result, they find it increasingly difficult to buy cars, homes, motorcycles, and other goods that use commodities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2016: Oil Limits and the End of the Debt Supercycle

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Published on the Our Finite World on January 7, 2016

Debt_Volcano

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What is ahead for 2016? Most people don’t realize how tightly the following are linked:

  1. Growth in debt
  2. Growth in the economy
  3. Growth in cheap-to-extract energy supplies
  4. Inflation in the cost of producing commodities
  5. Growth in asset prices, such as the price of shares of stock and of farmland
  6. Growth in wages of non-elite workers
  7. Population growth

It looks to me as though this linkage is about to cause a very substantial disruption to the economy, as oil limits, as well as other energy limits, cause a rapid shift from the benevolent version of the economic supercycle to the portion of the economic supercycle reflecting contraction. Many people have talked about Peak Oil, the Limits to Growth, and the Debt Supercycle without realizing that the underlying problem is really the same–the fact the we are reaching the limits of a finite world.

There are actually a number of different kinds of limits to a finite world, all leading toward the rising cost of commodity production. I will discuss these in more detail later. In the past, the contraction phase of the supercycle seems to have been caused primarily by too high population relative to resources. This time, depleting fossil fuels–particularly oil–plays a major role. Other limits contributing to the end of the current debt supercycle include rising pollution and depletion of resources other than fossil fuels.

The problem of reaching limits in a finite world manifests itself in an unexpected way: slowing wage growth for non-elite workers. Lower wages mean that these workers become less able to afford the output of the system. These problems first lead to commodity oversupply and very low commodity prices. Eventually these problems lead to falling asset prices and widespread debt defaults. These problems are the opposite of what many expect, namely oil shortages and high prices. This strange situation exists because the economy is a networked system. Feedback loops in a networked system don’t necessarily work in the way people expect.

I expect that the particular problem we are likely to reach in 2016 is limits to oil storage. This may happen at different times for crude oil and the various types of refined products. As storage fills, prices can be expected to drop to a very low level–less than $10 per barrel for crude oil, and correspondingly low prices for the various types of oil products, such as gasoline, diesel, and asphalt. We can then expect to face a problem with debt defaults, failing banks, and failing governments (especially of oil exporters).

The idea of a bounce back to new higher oil prices seems exceedingly unlikely, in part because of the huge overhang of supply in storage, which owners will want to sell, keeping supply high for a long time. Furthermore, the underlying cause of the problem is the failure of wages of non-elite workers to rise rapidly enough to keep up with the rising cost of commodity production, particularly oil production. Because of falling inflation-adjusted wages, non-elite workers are becoming increasingly unable to afford the output of the economic system. As non-elite workers cut back on their purchases of goods, the economy tends to contract rather than expand. Efficiencies of scale are lost, and debt becomes increasingly difficult to repay with interest.  The whole system tends to collapse.

How the Economic Growth Supercycle Works, in an Ideal Situation

In an ideal situation, growth in debt tends to stimulate the economy. The availability of debt makes the purchase of high-priced goods such as factories, homes, cars, and trucks more affordable. All of these high-priced goods require the use of commodities, including energy products and metals. Thus, growing debt tends to add to the demand for commodities, and helps keep their prices higher than the cost of production, making it profitable to produce these commodities. The availability of profits encourages the extraction of an ever-greater quantity of energy supplies and other commodities.

The growing quantity of energy supplies made possible by this profitability can be used to leverage human labor to an ever-greater extent, so that workers become increasingly productive. For example, energy supplies help build roads, trucks, and machines used in factories, making workers more productive. As a result, wages tend to rise, reflecting the greater productivity of workers in the context of these new investments. Businesses find that demand for their goods and services grows because of the growing wages of workers, and governments find that they can collect increasing tax revenue. The arrangement of repaying debt with interest tends to work well in this situation. GDP grows sufficiently rapidly that the ratio of debt to GDP stays relatively flat.

Over time, the cost of commodity production tends to rise for several reasons:

  1. Population tends to grow over time, so the quantity of agricultural land available per person tends to fall. Higher-priced techniques (such as irrigation, better seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides) are required to increase production per acre. Similarly, rising population gives rise to a need to produce fresh water using increasingly high-priced techniques, such as desalination.
  2. Businesses tend to extract the least expensive fuels such as oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium first. They later move on to more expensive to extract fuels, when the less-expensive fuels are depleted. For example, Figure 1 shows the sharp increase in the cost of oil extraction that took place about 1999.

     

     

    Figure 1. Figure by Steve Kopits of Westwood Douglas showing trends in world oil exploration and production costs per barrel. CAGR is "Compound Annual Growth Rate."

     

    Figure 1. Figure by Steve Kopits of Westwood Douglas showing the trend in per-barrel capital expenditures for oil exploration and production. CAGR is “Compound Annual Growth Rate.”

     

  3. Pollution tends to become an increasing problem because the least polluting commodity sources are used first. When mitigations such as substituting renewables for fossil fuels are used, they tend to be more expensive than the products they are replacing. The leads to the higher cost of final products.
  4. Overuse of resources other than fuels becomes a problem, leading to problems such as the higher cost of producing metals, deforestation, depleted fish stocks, and eroded topsoil. Some workarounds are available, but these tend to add costs as well.

As long as the cost of commodity production is rising only slowly, its increasing cost is benevolent. This increase in cost adds to inflation in the price of goods and helps inflate away prior debt, so that debt is easier to pay. It also leads to asset inflation, making the use of debt seem to be a worthwhile approach to finance future economic growth, including the growth of energy supplies. The whole system seems to work as an economic growth pump, with the rising wages of non-elite workers pushing the growth pump along.

The Big “Oops” Comes when the Price of Commodities Starts Rising Faster than Wages of Non-Elite Workers

Clearly the wages of non-elite workers need to be rising faster than commodity prices in order to push the economic growth pump along. The economic pump effect is lost when the wages of non-elite workers start falling, relative to the price of commodities. This tends to happen when the cost of commodity production begins rising rapidly, as it did for oil after 1999 (Figure 1).

The loss of the economic pump effect occurs because the rising cost of oil (or electricity, or food, or other energy products) forces workers to cut back on discretionary expenditures. This is what happened in the 2003 to 2008 period as oil prices spiked and other energy prices rose sharply. (See my article Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.) Non-elite workers found it increasingly difficult to afford expensive products such as homes, cars, and washing machines. Housing prices dropped. Debt growth slowed, leading to a sharp drop in oil prices and other commodity prices.

Figure 2. World oil supply and prices based on EIA data.

 

Figure 2. World oil supply and prices based on EIA data.

 

It was somewhat possible to “fix” low oil prices through the use of Quantitative Easing (QE) and the growth of debt at very low interest rates, after 2008. In fact, these very low interest rates are what encouraged the very rapid growth in the production of US crude oil, natural gas liquids, and biofuels.

Now, debt is reaching limits. Both the US and China have (in a sense) “taken their foot off the economic debt accelerator.” It doesn’t seem to make sense to encourage more use of debt, because recent very low interest rates have encouraged unwise investments. In China, more factories and homes have been built than the market can absorb. In the US, oil “liquids” production rose faster than it could be absorbed by the world market when prices were over $100 per barrel. This led to the big price drop. If it were possible to produce the additional oil for a very low price, say $20 per barrel, the world economy could probably absorb it. Such a low selling price doesn’t really “work” because of the high cost of production.

Debt is important because it can help an economy grow, as long as the total amount of debt does not become unmanageable. Thus, for a time, growing debt can offset the adverse impact of the rising cost of energy products. We know that oil prices began to rise sharply in the 1970s, and in fact other energy prices rose as well.

Figure 4. Historical World Energy Price in 2014$, from BP Statistical Review of World History 2015.

 

Figure 3. Historical World Energy Price in 2014$, from BP Statistical Review of World History 2015.

 

Looking at debt growth, we find that it rose rapidly, starting about the time oil prices started spiking. Former Director of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman, talks about “The Distastrous 40-Year Debt Supercycle,” which he believes is now ending.

Figure 4. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods. See post on debt for explanation of methodology.

 

Figure 4. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods. See post on debt for explanation of methodology.

 

In recent years, we have been reaching a situation where commodity prices have been rising faster than the wages of non-elite workers. Jobs that are available tend to be low-paid service jobs. Young people find it necessary to stay in school longer. They also find it necessary to delay marriage and postpone buying a car and home. All of these issues contribute to the falling wages of non-elite workers. Some of these individuals are, in fact, getting zero wages, because they are in school longer. Individuals who retire or voluntarily leave the work force further add to the problem of wages no longer rising sufficiently to afford the output of the system.

The US government has recently decided to raise interest rates. This further reduces the buying power of non-elite workers. We have a situation where the “economic growth pump,” created through the use of a rising quantity of cheap energy products plus rising debt, is disappearing. While homes, cars, and vacation travel are available, an increasing share of the population cannot afford them. This tends to lead to a situation where commodity prices fall below the cost of production for a wide range of types of commodities, making the production of commodities unprofitable. In such a situation, a person expects companies to cut back on production. Many defaults may occur.

China has acted as a major growth pump for the world for the last 15 years, since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. China’s growth is now slowing, and can be expected to slow further. Its growth was financed by a huge increase in debt. Paying back this debt is likely to be a problem.

Figure 5. Author's illustration of problem we are now encountering.

 

Figure 5. Author’s illustration of problem we are now encountering.

 

Thus, we seem to be coming to the contraction portion of the debt supercycle. This is frightening, because if debt is contracting, asset prices (such as stock prices and the price of land) are likely to fall. Banks are likely to fail, unless they can transfer their problems to others–owners of the bank or even those with bank deposits. Governments will be affected as well, because it will become more expensive to borrow money, and because it becomes more difficult to obtain revenue through taxation. Many governments may fail as well for that reason.

The U. S. Oil Storage Problem

Oil prices began falling in the middle of 2014, so we might expect oil storage problems to start about that time, but this is not exactly the case. Supplies of US crude oil in storage didn’t start rising until about the end of 2014.

Figure 6. US crude oil in storage, excluding SPR, based on EIA data.

 

Figure 6. US crude oil in storage, excluding Strategic Petroleum Reserve, based on EIA data.

 

Once crude oil supplies started rising rapidly, they increased by about 90 million barrels between December 2014 and April 2015. After April 2015, supplies dipped again, suggesting that there is some seasonality to the growing crude oil supply. The most “dangerous” time for rapidly rising amounts added to storage would seem to be between December 31 and April 30. According to the EIA, maximum crude oil storage is 551 million barrels of crude oil (considering all storage facilities). Adding another 90 million barrels of oil (similar to the run-up between Dec. 2014 and April 2015) would put the total over the 551 million barrel crude oil capacity.

Cushing, Oklahoma, is the largest storage area for crude oil. According to the EIA, maximum working storage for the facility is 73 million barrels. Oil storage at Cushing since oil prices started declining is shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7. Crude oil stored at Cushing between June 27, 2014, and June 1, 2016. based on EIA data.

 

Figure 7. Quantity of crude oil stored at Cushing between June 27, 2014, and June 1, 2016, based on EIA data.

 

Clearly the same kind of run up in oil storage that occurred between December and April one year ago cannot all be stored at Cushing, if maximum working capacity is only 73 million barrels, and the amount currently in storage is 64 million barrels.

Another way of storing oil is as finished products. Here, the run-up in storage began earlier (starting in mid-2014) and stabilized at about 65 million barrels per day above the prior year, by January 2015.  Clearly, if companies can do some pre-planning, they would prefer not to refine products for which there is little market. They would rather store unneeded oil as crude, rather than as refined products.

Figure 7. Total Oil Products in Storage, based on EIA data.

 

Figure 8. Total Oil Products in Storage, based on EIA data.

 

EIA indicates that the total capacity for oil products is 1,549 million barrels. Thus, in theory, the amount of oil products stored can be increased by as much as 700 million barrels, assuming that the products needing to be stored and the locations where storage are available match up exactly. In practice, the amount of additional storage available is probably quite a bit less than 700 million barrels because of mismatch problems.

In theory, if companies can be persuaded to refine more products than they can sell, the amount of products that can be stored can rise significantly. Even in this case, the amount of storage is not unlimited. Even if the full 700 million barrels of storage for crude oil products is available, this corresponds to less than one million barrels a day for two years, or two million barrels a day for one year. Thus, products storage could easily be filled as well, if demand remains low.

At this point, we don’t have the mismatch between oil production and consumption fixed. In fact, both Iraq and Iran would like to increase their production, adding to the production/consumption mismatch. China’s economy seems to be stalling, keeping its oil consumption from rising as quickly as in the past, and further adding to the supply/demand mismatch problem. Figure 9 shows an approximation to our mismatch problem. As far as I can tell, the problem is still getting worse, not better.

Figure 1. Total liquids oil production and consumption, based on a combination of BP and EIA data.

 

Figure 9. Total liquids oil production and consumption, based on a combination of BP and EIA data.

 

There has been a lot of talk about the United States reducing its production, but the impact so far has been small, based on data from EIA’s International Energy Statistics and its December 2015 Monthly Energy Review.

Figure 10. US quarterly oil liquids production data, based on EIA data.

 

Figure 10. US quarterly oil liquids production data, based on EIA’s International Energy Statistics and Monthly Energy Review.

 

Based on information through November from EIA’s Monthly Energy Review, total liquids production for the US for the year 2015 will be over 800,000 barrels per day higher than it was for 2014. This increase is likely greater than the increase in production by either Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Perhaps in 2016, oil production of the US will start decreasing, but so far, increases in biofuels and natural gas liquids are partly offsetting recent reductions in crude oil production. Also, even when companies are forced into bankruptcy, oil production does not necessarily stop because of the potential value of the oil to new owners.

Figure 11 shows that very high stocks of oil were a problem, way back in the 1920s. There were other similarities to today’s problems as well, including a deflating debt bubble and low commodity prices. Thus, we should not be too surprised by high oil stocks now, when oil prices are low.

Figure 2. US ending stock of crude oil, excluding the strategic petroleum reserve. Figure produced by EIA. Figure by EIA.

 

Figure 11. US ending stock of crude oil, excluding the strategic petroleum reserve. Figure by EIA.

 

Many people overlook the problems today because the US economy tends to be doing better than that of the rest of the world. The oil storage problem is really a world problem, however, reflecting a combination of low demand growth (caused by low wage growth and lack of debt growth, as the world economy hits limits) continuing supply growth (related to very low interest rates making all kinds of investment appear profitable and new production from Iraq and, in the near future, Iran). Storage on ships is increasingly being filled up and storage in Western Europe is 97% filled. Thus, the US is quite likely to see a growing need for oil storage in the year ahead, partly because there are few other places to put the oil, and partly because the gap between supply and demand has not yet been fixed.

What is Ahead for 2016?

  1. Problems with a slowing world economy are likely to become more pronounced, as China’s growth problems continue, and as other commodity-producing countries such as Brazil, South Africa, and Australia experience recession. There may be rapid shifts in currencies, as countries attempt to devalue their currencies, to try to gain an advantage in world markets. Saudi Arabia may decide to devalue its currency, to get more benefit from the oil it sells.
  2. Oil storage seems likely to become a problem sometime in 2016. In fact, if the run-up in oil supply is heavily front-ended to the December to April period, similar to what happened a year ago, lack of crude oil storage space could become a problem within the next three months. Oil prices could fall to $10 or below. We know that for natural gas and electricity, prices often fall below zero when the ability of the system to absorb more supply disappears. It is not clear the oil prices can fall below zero, but they can certainly fall very low. Even if we can somehow manage to escape the problem of running out of crude oil storage capacity in 2016, we could encounter storage problems of some type in 2017 or 2018.
  3. Falling oil prices are likely to cause numerous problems. One is debt defaults, both for oil companies and for companies making products used by the oil industry. Another is layoffs in the oil industry. Another problem is negative inflation rates, making debt harder to repay. Still another issue is falling asset prices, such as stock prices and prices of land used to produce commodities. Part of the reason for the fall in price has to do with the falling price of the commodities produced. Also, sovereign wealth funds will need to sell securities, to have money to keep their economies going. The sale of these securities will put downward pressure on stock and bond prices.
  4. Debt defaults are likely to cause major problems in 2016. As noted in the introduction, we seem to be approaching the unwinding of a debt supercycle. We can expect one company after another to fail because of low commodity prices. The problems of these failing companies can be expected to spread to the economy as a whole. Failing companies will lay off workers, reducing the quantity of wages available to buy goods made with commodities. Debt will not be fully repaid, causing problems for banks, insurance companies, and pension funds. Even electricity companies may be affected, if their suppliers go bankrupt and their customers become less able to pay their bills.
  5. Governments of some oil exporters may collapse or be overthrown, if prices fall to a low level. The resulting disruption of oil exports may be welcomed, if storage is becoming an increased problem.
  6. It is not clear that the complete unwind will take place in 2016, but a major piece of this unwind could take place in 2016, especially if crude oil storage fills up, pushing oil prices to less than $10 per barrel.
  7. Whether or not oil storage fills up, oil prices are likely to remain very low, as the result of rising supply, barely rising demand, and no one willing to take steps to try to fix the problem. Everyone seems to think that someone else (Saudi Arabia?) can or should fix the problem. In fact, the problem is too large for Saudi Arabia to fix. The United States could in theory fix the current oil supply problem by taxing its own oil production at a confiscatory tax rate, but this seems exceedingly unlikely. Closing existing oil production before it is forced to close would guarantee future dependency on oil imports. A more likely approach would be to tax imported oil, to keep the amount imported down to a manageable level. This approach would likely cause the ire of oil exporters.
  8. The many problems of 2016 (including rapid moves in currencies, falling commodity prices, and loan defaults) are likely to cause large payouts of derivatives, potentially leading to the bankruptcies of financial institutions, as they did in 2008. To prevent such bankruptcies, most governments plan to move as much of the losses related to derivatives and debt defaults to private parties as possible. It is possible that this approach will lead to depositors losing what appear to be insured bank deposits. At first, any such losses will likely be limited to amounts in excess of FDIC insurance limits. As the crisis spreads, losses could spread to other deposits. Deposits of employers may be affected as well, leading to difficulty in paying employees.
  9. All in all, 2016 looks likely to be a much worse year than 2008 from a financial perspective. The problems will look similar to those that might have happened in 2008, but didn’t thanks to government intervention. This time, governments appear to be mostly out of approaches to fix the problems.
  10. Two years ago, I put together the chart shown as Figure 12. It shows the production of all energy products declining rapidly after 2015. I see no reason why this forecast should be changed. Once the debt supercycle starts its contraction phase, we can expect a major reduction in both the demand and supply of all kinds of energy products.
Figure 4. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

 

Figure 12. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

 

Conclusion

We are certainly entering a worrying period. We have not really understood how the economy works, so we have tended to assume we could fix one or another part of the problem. The underlying problem seems to be a problem of physics. The economy is a dissipative structure, a type of self-organizing system that forms in thermodynamically open systems. As such, it requires energy to grow. Ultimately, diminishing returns with respect to human labor–what some of us would call falling inflation-adjusted wages of non-elite workers–tends to bring economies down. Thus all economies have finite lifetimes, just as humans, animals, plants, and hurricanes do. We are in the unfortunate position of observing the end of our economy’s lifetime.

Most energy research to date has focused on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. While this is a contributing problem, this is really not the proximate cause of the impending collapse. The Second Law of Thermodynamics operates in thermodynamically closed systems, which is not precisely the issue here.

We know that historically collapses have tended to take many years. This collapse may take place more rapidly because today’s economy is dependent on international supply chains, electricity, and liquid fuels–things that previous economies were not dependent on.

I have written many articles on related subjects (unfortunately, no book). These are a few of them:

Low Oil Prices – Why Worry?

How Economic Growth Fails

Deflationary Collapse Ahead?

Oops! Low oil prices are related to a debt bubble

Why “supply and demand” doesn’t work for oil

Economic growth: How it works; how it fails; why wealth disparity occurs

We are at Peak Oil now; we need very low-cost energy to fix it

 

Peak Oil has ARRIVED!

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on December 21, 2015

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Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

We are at Peak Oil now; we need very low-cost energy to fix it

This past week, I gave a presentation to a group interested in a particular type of renewable energy–solar energy that is deployed in space, so it would provide electricity 24 hours per day. Their question was: how low does the production cost of electricity really need to be?

I gave them this two-fold answer:

1. We are hitting something similar to “Peak Oil” right now. The symptoms are the opposite of the ones that most people expected. There is a glut of supply, and prices are far below the cost of production. Many commodities besides oil are affected; these include natural gas, coal, iron ore, many metals, and many types of food. Our concern should be that low prices will bring down production, quite possibly for many commodities simultaneously. Perhaps the problem should be called “Limits to Growth,” rather than “Peak Oil,” because it is a different type of problem than most people expected.

2. The only theoretical solution would be to create a huge supply of renewable energy that would work in today’s devices. It would need to be cheap to produce and be available in the immediate future. Electricity would need to be produced for no more than four cents per kWh, and liquid fuels would need to be produced for less than $20 per barrel of oil equivalent. The low cost would need to be the result of very sparing use of resources, rather than the result of government subsidies.

Of course, we have many other problems associated with a finite world, including rising population, water limits, and climate change. For this reason, even a huge supply of very cheap renewable energy would not be a permanent solution.

This is a link to the presentation: Energy Economics Outlook. I will not attempt to explain the slides in detail.

Slide 1

 

 

 

Slide 1

 

 

 

Slide 2

 

 

 

Slide 2

 

 

 

Some people falsely believe that energy supplies are “only needed for industrial purposes.” Energy supplies are, in fact, needed for many things: cooking our food, keeping our homes warm, and creating the clothing we expect to wear. It would be impossible to feed, house, and clothe 7.3 billion people without supplemental energy of some kind.

Slide 3

 

 

 

Slide 3

 

 

 

Slide 4

 

 

 

Slide 4

 

 

 

Slide 4 suggests that the world economy is heading into recession, because recent growth in the use of energy supplies is very low recently. Another sign that we are headed into recession is that fact that CO2 emissions fell in 2015. They usually don’t fall unless a global crisis exists. Emissions fell when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and they fell during the economic crisis in 2008. Perhaps the world economy is hitting headwinds that are not being picked up well in conventional calculations of GDP growth.

Slide 5

 

 

 

Slide 5

 

 

 

Slide 5 shows a chart I put together, using data from several different sources, showing how growth in energy consumption has compared with growth in GDP. Growth in GDP tends to be somewhat higher than growth in energy consumption.

Economic growth (and growth in energy use) was low prior to 1950. There was a big jump in economic growth immediately after World War II, in the 1950-65 period. There was almost as much growth in the 1965- 75 period. Since 1975, economic growth has generally been slowing.

Slide 6

 

 

 

Slide 6

 

 

 

Between the years 1900 and 1998, the use of electricity rose (black line) as the cost of electricity fell (purple, red, and green lines). Electricity consumption could rise because it was becoming more affordable. Rising electricity consumption allowed the economy to make more goods and services. Workers (with the use of electricity) were becoming more efficient, so wages could rise. With higher wages, workers could afford more products that used electricity, such as electric lights for their homes and radios.

If electricity prices had risen instead of fallen, it seems doubtful that this pattern of rising consumption could have taken place.

Slide 7

 

 

 

Slide 7

 

 

 

The comments in Figure 7 represent my own view. It is based on both theoretical considerations and historical relationships. Many who have studied the economy believe that energy is important for economic growth. In my view, the real need is for cheap-to-produce energy, not just any energy. If cheap energy is not really available, then adding more debt can somewhat make up for the high cost of energy production.

Debt is important because it makes goods affordable that would not otherwise be affordable. For example, having a loan for a house or a car makes a huge difference regarding whether such an item is affordable.

Even when energy products are cheap, debt seems to be needed to get oil or coal out of the ground, or to make a new device such as a wind turbine. Part of the problem is the cost of the capital equipment needed to extract the oil or coal, or the cost of the wind turbines themselves. Another part of the problem is paying for factories to make devices that use the energy product. A third problem is making it possible for users to afford the end products, such as houses and cars. It is much easier to borrow the money for a new tractor, and pay the loan off as the tractor is put to use, than it is to save money in advance, using only the funds earned when farming with simple hand-held tools.

Slide 8

 

 

 

Slide 8

 

 

 

I mentioned the need for $20 per barrel oil on Slide 7. This is a very inexpensive price. Slide 8 shows that the only time when oil prices were that low was prior to the mid-1970s. (Note that the amounts in Slide 8 have already been adjusted for inflation, so my $20 per barrel target is an inflation-adjusted amount.) The cost of oil production is now far above $20 per barrel. The sales price now is about $37 per barrel. This is below the price producers need, but still above my target price level.

Slide 9

 

 

 

Slide 9

 

 

 

Slide 9 explains where I got my $20 per barrel price target. Back prior to 1975–in other words, back when oil prices were generally low, $20 per barrel or less–the increase in debt more or less corresponded to the growth in GDP. Once prices rose above $20 per barrel, the amount of debt needed to produce a given amount of GDP growth rose dramatically.

Slide 10

 

 

 

Slide 10

 

 

 

Slide 10 shows interest rates for US debt with 10-year maturity. These interest rates often underlie mortgage rates. As interest rates fall, homeowners can afford increasingly expensive homes. If shorter-term interest rates fall as well, auto loans become cheaper too.

Slide 11

 

 

 

Slide 11

 

 

 

The value to society of a barrel of oil is determined by how many miles it can make a diesel truck go, or how far it can make an airplane fly. This value to society is more or less fixed. The only change is the small increment each year from efficiency changes, making a barrel of oil “go farther.”

In the 2000-14 period, the cost of new oil production was increasing very rapidly–by more than 10% per year, by some estimates. The rising cost of oil production occurred much more quickly than efficiency changes. The result was a falling difference between the value to society and the cost of production. When oil prices are high, oil-importing nations tend to suffer recession. When oil prices are low, oil-exporting nations find it hard to collect enough taxes to support their many programs.

Slide 12

 

 

 

Slide 12

 

 

 

The fact that we need energy for economic growth means that we somehow must obtain this energy, even if doing so costs more. The big run-up in oil prices is a major reason for the historical run-up in debt levels. China’s big build-out of homes, roads, and factories was also financed by debt.

The higher cost of oil affects many things that we don’t think are related, including the cost of building new homes, the cost of building cars, and the cost of building roads. As consumers are forced to buy increasingly expensive homes and cars, and as governments find that the building of roads is increasingly expensive, more debt is used. The terms of loans are often longer as well, to hold down monthly costs.

If we still had cheap oil, this oil by itself could provide a “lift” to the economy. An increasing amount of debt can “sort of” compensate for the absence of cheap oil.

The problem we encounter is that neither cheap energy nor the continued run-up of debt is sustainable. Cheap energy tends to change to expensive energy, because we use the cheapest sources first. The continued debt run-up becomes more and more difficult to handle, unless interest rates fall lower and lower. At some point, interest rates can’t fall enough, and the whole pile of debt tends to collapse, like a Ponzi scheme.

Slide 13

 

 

 

Slide 13

 

 

 

I gave this talk on December 15; the first increase in interest rates took place on December 16. With rising interest rates, we suddenly have “the prop” that was attempting to hold up economic growth taken away.

We need ever expanding debt–that is, debt rising faster than GDP levels–to try to keep the world economy growing, so that the whole pile of debt doesn’t fall over and collapse. If we are to have non-debt growth in the future (because we are reaching limits on debt), it needs to again come from cheap energy alone. We need to get back to something similar to the low-cost energy that fueled the economy before the debt run-up.

Slide 14

 

 

 

Slide 14

 

 

 

Most of us have heard the Peak Oil story, and assume it represents a reasonable view of where we are headed. I think it is close to 180 degrees off course.

Slide 15

 

 

 

Slide 15

 

 

 

M. King Hubbert talked about a very special situation–a situation where another cheap, abundant fuel took over, before fossil fuels began to decline. In this particular situation (and only in this particular situation), it is reasonable to assume that production will follow a symmetric “Hubbert Curve,” with half of the production coming after the peak, and half beforehand. Otherwise, the down slope is likely to be much steeper.

Many peak oilers missed this important point. We certainly are not in a situation today where another very cheap fuel has taken over.

Slide 16

 

 

 

Slide 16

 

 

 

Slide 16 represents what I see as the predominant “Peak Oil” view of the oil limits situation. Some individuals will of course have different opinions.

Slide 17

 

 

 

Slide 17

 

 

 

Peak oilers certainly did get part of the story right–at some point, the cost of oil extraction would rise. What they got wrong was how the whole scenario would play out. It turns out, it plays out pretty much the opposite of what most had supposed–that is, with stagnating wages, loss of buying power, and prices of all commodities falling because of lack of “demand.”

We seem to be hitting energy limits, right now. That is why debt is such a problem, and it is why prices of many commodities, including oil, are far too low compared to the cost of production.

Slide 18

 

 

 

Slide 18

 

 

 

Slide 18 shows the fall of commodity prices up through 2014. The fall in commodity prices has continued in 2015 as well. The story we frequently hear is about low oil prices, but there is also a problem with low natural gas prices. Coal prices are low now too, and, in fact, many coal producers are near bankruptcy. Prices of iron ore, steel, copper, and many other metals are very low, as are prices of many kinds of staple foods traded internationally.

Slide 19

 

 

 

Slide 19

 

 

 

The problem with low commodity prices is that there are many loans that have been taken out to support their production. There is a significant chance of default, if prices remain low. Also, low commodity prices affect asset prices–for example, prices of coalmines, or prices of agricultural land. As the prices of commodities fall, the price of the land used to produce those commodities falls. When this happens, it becomes difficult to repay the loans on the property.

Slide 20

 

 

 

Slide 20

 

 

 

Peak Oilers were right about the cost of production continuing to rise. What they missed was the fact that prices would at some point fall behind the cost of production because of affordability issues. Low prices would then bring the economy down, as it did in the Depression in the 1930s, and in quite a few earlier collapses.

I think of increased demand, provided by debt, as being like a rubber band. Just as a rubber band can stretch for a while, the price of oil can rise for a while, fueled by more and more debt. At some point, debt can’t rise any higher–the rate of return on investments made using debt is too low, and defaults become too frequent. Instead of continuing to rise, commodity prices fall back. Market prices of commodities fall to much lower prices than the costs of production.

In order to get oil prices up higher, the wages of factory workers, restaurant workers, and other non-elite workers need to rise, so that they can afford to buy nice cars and nice homes. Commodities of many types are used both in making homes and cars, and in operating them.

Slide 21

 

 

 

Slide 21

 

 

 

If space solar (or for that matter, any renewable energy) is to be helpful, it needs to be very cheap, so that products made using renewable energy are affordable.

If the replacement energy source is cheap enough, perhaps there will not be a huge run-up in debt to GDP ratios, to finance the new devices used to provide electricity or other energy.

We are encountering problems now, so we need a replacement now, not 20 or 50 years from now.

Slide 22

 

 

 

Slide 22

 

 

 

We cannot expect the cost of electricity production to be more than the current wholesale selling price of electricity. Thus, it needs to be four cents per kWh or less. Ideally, the price of electricity should be falling, as in Slide 6.

Another consideration is that we need to be able to operate our current vehicles using a liquid fuel, made with electricity, because of the time and materials involved in switching over to electric vehicles. This requirement likely reduces the maximum cost of electricity even below four cents per kWh.

Slide 23

 

 

 

Slide 23

 

 

 

It is possible to run into many different kinds of limits, over a period of time. In my view, the first limit we reach is an affordability limit. We can tell we are hitting this limit when high prices reverse to low prices, as they have done since 2011. The fact that prices are continuing to fall is especially worrisome.

Slide 24

 

 

 

Slide 24

 

 

 

There has been a popular myth that it is OK for energy costs to rise. We will just choose the least costly of the high-priced alternatives. This approach doesn’t really work, because wages do not rise at the same time.

Also, we have to compete with other countries. If their energy costs are cheaper, their manufacturing costs are likely to be lower.

Slide 25

 

 

 

Slide 25

 

 

 

If conditions existed that allowed oil prices to rise endlessly (in other words, rising wages of non-elite workers together with debt that could spiral ever higher, as a percentage of GDP), we wouldn’t really have a problem–we could afford increasingly expensive substitutes.  Unfortunately, the story of ever-rising oil prices is simply fiction. It is a pleasant story, but not really true. I explain some of the issues further in “Why ‘supply and demand’ doesn’t work for oil.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Economic growth: How it works; how it fails; why wealth disparity occurs

 economic-growthgc2reddit-logoOff the keyboard of Gail Tverberg

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Published on the Our Finite World on December 8, 2015

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Discuss this article at the Economics Table inside the Diner

Economists have put together models of how an economy works, but these models were developed years ago, when the world economy was far from limits. These models may have been reasonably adequate when they were developed, but there is increasing evidence that they don’t work in an economy that is reaching limits. For example, my most recent post, “Why ‘supply and demand’ doesn’t work for oil,” showed that when the world is facing the rising cost of oil extraction, “supply and demand” doesn’t work in the expected way.

In order to figure out what really does happen, we need to consider findings from a variety of different fields, including biology, physics, systems analysis, finance, and the study of past economic collapses. Since I started studying the situation in 2005, I have had the privilege of meeting many people who work in areas related to this problem.

My own background is in mathematics and actuarial science. Actuarial projections, such as those that underlie pensions and long term care policies, are one place where historical assumptions are not likely to be accurate, if an economy is reaching limits. Because of this connection to actuarial work, I have a particular interest in the problem.

How Other Species Grow 

We know that other species don’t amass wealth in the way humans do. However, the number of plants or animals of a given type can grow, at least within a range. Techniques that seem to be helpful for increasing the number of a given species include:

  • Natural selection. With natural selection, all species have more offspring than needed to reproduce the parent. A species is able to continuously adapt to the changing environment because the best-adapted offspring tend to live.
  • Cooperation. Individual cells within an organism cooperate in terms of the functions they perform. Cooperation also occurs among members of the same species, and among different species (symbiosis, parasites, hosts). In some cases, division of labor may occur (for example, bees, other social insects).
  • Use of tools. Animals frequently use tools. Sometimes items such as rocks or logs are used directly. At other times, animals craft tools with their forepaws or beaks.

All species have specific needs of various kinds, including energy needs, water needs, mineral needs, and lack of pollution. They are in constant competition with both other members of the same species and with members of other species to meet these needs. It is individuals who can out-compete others in the resource battle that survive. In some cases, animals find hierarchical behavior helpful in the competition for resources.

There are various feedbacks that regulate the growth of a biological system. For example, a person or animal eats, and later becomes hungry. Likewise, an animal drinks, and later becomes thirsty. Over the longer term, animals have a reserve of fat for times when food is scarce, and a small reserve of water. If they are not able to eat and drink within the required timeframe, they will die. Another feedback within the system regulates overuse of resources: if any kind of animal eats all of a type of plant or animal that it requires for food, it will not have food in the future.

Energy needs are one of the limiting factors, both for individual biological members of an ecosystem, and for the overall ecosystem. Energy systems need greater power (energy use per period of time) to out-compete one another. The Maximum Power Principle by Howard Odum says that biological systems will organize to increase power whenever system constraints allow.

Another way of viewing energy needs comes from the work of Ilya Prigogine, who studied how ordered structures, such as biological systems, can develop from disorder in a thermodynamically open system. Prigogine has called these ordered structures dissipative systems. These systems can temporarily exist as long as the system is held far from equilibrium by a continual flow of energy through the system. If the flow energy disappears, the biological system will die.

Using either Odum’s or Prigogine’s view, energy of the right type is essential for the growth of an overall ecosystem as well as for the continued health of its individual members.

How Humans Separated Themselves from Other Animals

Animals generally get energy from food. It stands to reason that if an animal has a unique way of obtaining additional energy to supplement the energy it gets from food, it will have an advantage over other animals. In fact, this approach seems to have been the secret to the growth of human populations.

Human population, plus the domesticated plants and animals of humans, now dominate the globe. Humans’ path toward population growth seems to have started when early members of the species learned how to burn biomass in a controlled way. The burning of biomass had many benefits, including being able to keep warm, cook food and ward off predators. Cooking food was especially beneficial, because it allowed humans to use a wider range of foodstuffs. It also allowed bodies of humans to more easily get nutrition from food that was eaten. As a result, stomachs, jaws, and teeth could become smaller, and brains could become bigger, enabling more intelligence. The use of cooked food began long enough ago that our bodies are now adapted to the use of some cooked food.

With the use of fire to burn biomass, humans could better “win” in the competition against other species, allowing the number of humans to increase. In this way, humans could, to some extent, circumvent natural selection. From the point of the individual who could live longer, or whose children could live to maturity, this was a benefit. Unfortunately, it had at least two drawbacks:

  1. While animal populations tended to become increasingly adapted to a changing environment through natural selection, humans tend not to become better adapted, because of the high survival rate that results from more adequate food supplies and better healthcare. Humans might eventually find themselves becoming less well adapted: more overweight, or having more physical disabilities, or having more of a tendency toward diabetes.
  2. Without a natural limit to population, the quantity of resources per person tends to decline over time. For example, such a tendency tends to lead to less farmland per person. This would be a problem if techniques remained the same. Thus, rising population tends to lead to constant pressure to raise output (more food per arable acre or technological advancements that allow the economy to “do more with less”).

How Humans Have Been Able to Meet the Challenge of Rising Population Relative to Resources

Humans were able to meet the challenge of rising population by taking the techniques many animals use, as described above, and raising them to new levels. The fact that humans figured out how to burn biomass, and later would learn to harness other kinds of energy, gave humans many capabilities that other animals did not have.

  • Co-operation with other humans became possible, through a variety of mechanisms (learning of language with our bigger brains, development of financial systems to facilitate trade). Even as hunter-gatherers, researchers have found that economies of scale (enabled by co-operation) allowed greater food gathering per hectare. Division of labor allowed some specialization, even in very early days (gathering, fishing, hunting).
  • Humans have been able to domesticate many kinds of plants and animals.  Generally, the relationship with other species is a symbiotic relationship–the animals gain the benefit of a steady food supply and protection from predators, so their population can increase. Chosen plants have little competition from “weeds,” thanks to the protection humans provide. As a result, they can flourish whether or not they would be competitive with other plants and predators in the wild.
  • Humans have been able to take the idea of making and using tools to an extreme level. Humans first started by using fire to sharpen rocks. With the sharpened rocks, they could make new devices such as boats, and they could make spears to help kill animals for food. Tools could be used for planting the seeds they wanted to grow, so they did not have to live with the mixture of plants nature provided. We don’t think of roads, pipelines, and lines for transmitting electricity as tools, but as a practical matter, they also provide functions similar to those of tools. The many chemicals humans use, such as herbicides, insecticides, and antibiotics, also act in way similar to tools. The many objects that humans create to make life “better” (houses, cars, dishwashers, prepared foods, cosmetics) might in some very broad sense be considered tools as well. Some tools might be considered “capital,” when used to create additional goods and services.
  • Humans created businesses and governments to enable better organization, including division of labor and hierarchical behavior. A single person can create a simple tool, just as an animal can. But there are economies of scale, such as when many devices of a particular kind can be made, or when some individuals learn specialized skills that enable them to perform particular tasks better. As mentioned previously, even in the days of hunter-gatherers, there were economies of scale, if a larger group of workers could be organized so that specialization could take place.
  • Financial systems and changing systems of laws and regulations provide additional structure to the system, telling businesses and customers how much of a given product is required at a given time, and at what prices. In animals, appetite and thirst determine how important obtaining food and water are at a given point in time. Financial systems provide a somewhat similar role for an economy, but the financial system doesn’t operate within as constrained a system as hunger and thirst. As a result, the financial system can give strange signals, including prices that at times fall below the cost of extraction.
  • Humans have tended to put resources of many kinds (arable land, land for homes and businesses, fresh water, mineral resources) under the control of governments. Governments then authorize particular individuals and business to use this land, under various arrangements (“ownership,” leases, or authorized temporary usage). Governments often collect taxes for use of the resources. The practice is in some ways similar to the use of territoriality by animals, but it can have the opposite result. With animals, territoriality is used to prevent crowding, and can act to prevent overuse of shared resources. With human economies, ownership or temporary use permits can lead to a government sanctioned way of depleting resources, and thus, over time, can lead to a higher cost of resource extraction.

Physicist François Roddier has described individual human economies as another type of dissipative structure, not too different from biological systems, such as plants, animals, and ecosystems. If this is true, an adequate supply of energy is absolutely essential for the growth of the world economy.

We know that there is a very close tie between energy use and the growth of the world economy. Energy consumption has recently been dropping (Figure 1), suggesting that the world is heading into recession again. The Wall Street Journal indicates that a junk bond selloff also points in the direction of a likely recession in the not-too-distant future.

Figure 1. Three year average growth rate in world energy consumption and in GDP. World energy consumption based on BP Review of World Energy, 2015 data; real GDP from USDA in 2010$.

 

 

 

Figure 1. Three year average growth rate in world energy consumption and in GDP. World energy consumption based on BP Review of World Energy, 2015 data; real GDP from USDA in 2010$.

What Goes Wrong as Economic Growth Approaches Limits?

We know that in the past, many economies have collapsed. In fact, if Roddier is correct about economies being dissipative structures, then we know that economies cannot be expected to last forever. Economies will tend to run into energy limits, and these energy limits will ultimately bring them down.

The symptoms that occur when economies run into energy limits are not intuitively obvious. The following are some of the things that generally go wrong:

Item 1. A slowdown in economic growth.

Research by Turchin and Nefedov regarding historical collapses shows that growth tended to start in an economy when a group of people discovered a new energy-related resource. For example, a piece of land might be cleared to allow more arable land, or existing arable land might be irrigated. At first, these new resources allowed economies to grow rapidly for many years. Once the population grew to match the new carrying capacity of the land, economies tended to hit a period of “stagflation” for another period, say 50 or 60 years. Eventually “collapse” occurred, typically over a period of 20 or more years.

Today’s world economy seems to be following a similar pattern. The world started using coal in quantity in the early 1800s. This helped ramp up economic growth above a baseline of less than 1% per year. A second larger ramp up in economic growth occurred about the time of World War II, as oil began to be put to greater use (Figure 2).

Figure 2. World GDP growth compared to world energy consumption growth for selected time periods since 1820. World real GDP trends for 1975 to present are based on USDA real GDP data in 2010$ for 1975 and subsequent. (Estimated by author for 2015.) GDP estimates for prior to 1975 are based on Maddison project updates as of 2013. Growth in the use of energy products is based on a combination of data from Appendix A data from Vaclav Smil's Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 for 1965 and subsequent.

 

 

 

Figure 2. World GDP growth compared to world energy consumption growth for selected time periods since 1820. World real GDP trends for 1975 to present are based on USDA real GDP data in 2010$ for 1975 and subsequent. (Estimated by author for 2015.) GDP estimates for prior to 1975 are based on Maddison project updates as of 2013. Growth in the use of energy products is based on a combination of data from Appendix A data from Vaclav Smil’s Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 for 1965 and subsequent.

Worldwide, the economic growth rate hit a high point in the 1950 to 1965 period, and since then has trended downward. Figure 2 indicates that in all periods analyzed, the increase in energy consumption accounts for the majority of economic growth.

Since 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization, world economic growth has been supported by economic growth in China. This growth was made possible by China’s rapid growth in coal consumption (Figure 3).

Figure 3. China's energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

 

 

 

Figure 3. China’s energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

China’s growth in energy consumption, particularly coal consumption, is now slowing. Its economy is slowing at the same time, so its leadership in world economic growth is now being lost. There is no new major source of cheap energy coming online. This is a major reason why world economic growth is slowing.

Item 2. Increased use of debt, with less and less productivity of that debt in terms of increased goods and services produced.  

Another finding of Turchin and Nefedov is that the use of debt tended to increase in the stagflation period. Since growth was lower in this period, it is clear that the use of debt was becoming less productive.

If we look at the world situation today, we find a similar situation. More and more debt is being used, but that debt is becoming less productive in terms of the amount of GDP being provided. In fact, this pattern of falling productivity of debt seems to have been taking place since the early 1970s, when the price of oil rose above $20 per barrel (in 2014$). It is doubtful that that economic growth can occur if the price of oil is above $20 per barrel, without debt spiraling ever upward as a percentage of GDP. It is supplemental energy that allows the economy to function. If the price of energy is too high, it becomes unaffordable, and economic growth slows.

Figure 4. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods. See post on debt for explanation of methodology.

 

 

 

Figure 4. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods. See author’s post on debt for explanation of methodology.

China has been using debt to fund its recent expansion. There is evidence that it, too, is encountering falling productivity of additional debt.

We mentioned that appetite controls how much an animal eats. Debt helps control demand for energy products, and in fact, for products of all kinds in the economy. Appetite is different from debt as a regulator of demand. For one thing, debt can be used for an almost unlimited number of purposes, whether or not these purposes have any real possibility of adding GDP to the economy. (This is especially true if interest rates are close to 0%, or even negative.) There are few controls on debt. Governments have discovered that in some instances, debt stimulates an economy. Because of this, governments have tended to be very liberal in encouraging growth in debt. Often, when a debtor is near default, this problem is hidden by extending the term of the loan and pretending that no problem exists.

With respect to biological organisms, energy is often stored up as fat and used later when there is a shortfall of energy. This is the opposite of the way financing for human “tools” generally works. Here financing is often obtained when a tool is put into operation, with the hope that the new tool will pay back its worth, plus interest, over the life of the tool. Much debt doesn’t even have such a purpose; sometimes it is used simply to make an expensive object easier to purchase, or to give a young person (perhaps with poor grades) an opportunity to attend college. When debt has such poor regulation, we cannot expect it to work as reliably as biological mechanisms in feeding back information regarding true “demand” through the price system.

Item 3. Increased disparity of wages; non-elite workers earning less.

Item 3 is another problem that Turchin and Nefedov encountered in reviewing economies that collapsed. One of the reasons for the increased disparity of wages is the increased need for hierarchical relationships if an economy wants to work around a shortfall in goods and services by adding new “tools”. Businesses and governments need to grow larger if they are to accommodate these more complex processes. In such a case, the natural tendency is for these organizations to become more hierarchical in nature. Also, if there is growth, followed by a temporary need to shrink back, the cutbacks are likely to come disproportionately from the lower ranks of workers, reinforcing the hierarchical structure.

Figure 5. Chart by Pavlina Tscherneva, in Reorienting Fiscal Policy, as reprinted by the Washington Post.

 

 

 

Figure 5. Chart by Pavlina Tscherneva, in Reorienting Fiscal Policy, as reprinted by the Washington Post.

Funding arrangements for the new “tools” to work around shortages add to the hierarchical behavior. Typically, businesses must expand to fund the development of the new tools. This expansion may be funded by debt, or by stock programs. Regardless of which approach is used for funding, the programs tend to funnel an increasing share of the wealth of the economy to the wealthier members of the economy. This happens because interest payments and dividend payments both go disproportionately to benefit those who are already high up on the wealth hierarchy.

Furthermore, the inherent problem of fewer resources per person is not really solved, so an increasingly large share of jobs become “service” jobs, using only a small quantity of energy products, but also providing little true benefit to the economy. The wages for these jobs are thus low. The addition of these low-paid jobs to the economy further reinforces the hierarchical nature of the system.

In a sense, what is happening is that the economy as a whole is growing very little in output of goods and services. An ever-larger share of the output is going to the wealthier members of the economy, because of increased hierarchical behavior and because of growth in debt and dividend payments. Non-elite members of the economy find their wages falling in inflation adjusted terms, because, in a sense, the productivity of their labor as leveraged by a falling amount of energy resources is gradually contracting, rather than increasing. It becomes increasingly difficult for the low-paid members of the economy to “pay the wages” of the high-paid members of the economy, so overall demand for goods and services tends to contract. As a result, the increasingly hierarchical behavior of the economy pushes the economy even more toward contraction.

Item 4. Increased difficulty in obtaining adequate funding for government programs.

Governments operate on the surpluses of an economy. As an economy finds itself in a squeeze (job loss, more workers with lower wages, fewer goods and services being produced), governments find themselves increasingly called upon to deal with these problems. Governments may need larger armies to try to obtain resources elsewhere, or they may be needed to build a public works project (like a dam, to get more water and hydroelectric power), or they may need to make transfer payments to displaced workers. Here again, Turchin and Nefedov found governmental funding to be one of the problems of economies reaching limits.

Energy products are unique in that their value to society can be quite different from their cost of extraction. A third value, which may be different from either of the first two values, is the selling price of the energy product. When the cost of producing energy products is low, the wide difference between the value to society and the cost of extraction can be used to fund government programs and to raise the wages of workers. In fact, this difference seems to be a primary reason why economic growth occurs. (This difference is not recognized by most economists.)

As the cost of extraction of energy products rises, the difference between the value to society and the cost of extraction falls, because the value to society is pretty close to fixed (except for changes taking place because of energy efficiency changes), based on how far a barrel of oil can move a truck or how many British thermal units of energy it can provide. As the cost of energy extraction rises, it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain enough tax revenue, either from taxing energy products directly, or from taxing wages. Wages tend to reflect the energy consumption required to support each job because supplemental energy acts to leverage the abilities of workers, and thus improves their productivity.

Energy selling prices may behave in a strange manner, as an economy increasingly reaches limits. Falling prices redistribute what gain is available, so that energy importers get more, while energy exporters get less. Of course, the problem we are now seeing is that oil exporting countries are having difficulty obtaining sufficient revenue for their programs.

Debt is different this time

This time truly is different. We should have learned from past experience that debt tends not to be very permanent; it often defaults. We should therefore expect huge periods of debt defaults, and we should expect to need frequent debt jubilees. Economist Michael Hudson reports that the structure of debt was very different in the past (Killing the Host or excerpt). In early times, he found that by far the major creditors were the temples and palaces of Bronze Age Mesopotamia, not private individuals acting on their own. Because of the top-down nature of the debt, it was easy for the temples and palaces to forgive debt and restore balance to the social structure.

Now, especially since World War II, there is a new belief in the permanency of debt, and about its suitability for funding insurance companies, banks, and pension plans. The rise in economic growth after World War II was important in this new belief in permanency, because without economic growth, it is extremely difficult to pay back debt with interest, unless debt is used for a truly productive purpose. (See also Figures 2 and 4, above)

FIgure 6. Ngram showing frequency of words over a period of years, by Google searches in books.

 

 

 

Figure 6. Ngram showing frequency of words over a period of years, by Google searches of a large number of books. Words searched from top to bottom are “economic growth, IRA, financial services, MBA, and pension plans.”

The Ngram chart above, showing the frequency of word searches for “economic growth, IRA (Individual Retirement Accounts), financial services, MBA (Master of Business Administration), and pension plans” indicates that economic growth was essentially a new concept after World War II. Once it became clear that the economy could grow, financial services began to grow, as did the training of MBAs. Pension plans grew at first, but once companies with pension programs found that it was difficult to keep them adequately funded, there was a shift to IRAs. With IRAs, employees are expected to fund their own retirements, generally using a combination of stock and debt purchases.

Now that debt is “reused” and integrated into the economy, it becomes much more difficult to forgive. We have a situation where insurance companies, banks, and pension plans are all tied together. They all depend on the current economic growth paradigm, including use of debt with interest, continued dividend plans, and rising stock market prices. We have a major problem if widespread debt defaults start.

Demographic Bubble

The other problem we are up against, making government funding even more difficult than it would otherwise be, is the retirement of the baby boomers, born soon after World War II. This by itself would be a problem for maintaining adequate government funding. When it is added to multiple other problems, including bailing out banks, insurance companies, and pension plans if there are debt defaults, the demographic bubble leaves us in much worse shape than economies that reached limits in the past.

Note that High Energy Prices Are Not on the List of Expected Problems

The idea that as we approach limits, we should expect ever-higher energy prices, is simply not true. It should be viewed as a superstition, or as an erroneous understanding of our current situation, based on a poor model of energy supply and demand. Turchin and Nefedov found evidence of spiking food prices, perhaps similar to the spiking we saw in energy prices as we approached the peak in prices in 2008. But with wages of non-elite workers falling too low, especially on an after-tax basis, it was hard for prices to continue to spike.

The idea that collapse can come from low prices, rather than high, is something that is not obvious, unless a person thinks through the situation carefully. Prices seem to be primarily influenced by two factors:

(1) Wages of non-elite workers. These wages are important because there is such a large number of them. If their wages are high enough, they buy homes, cars, and other products that are big users of commodities, both when they are made, and as they are operated.

(2) Increases or decreases in the amount of debt outstanding. If debt defaults start to rise, it is very easy for growth in the quantity of debt outstanding to slow, or even to fall. In such a case, low commodity prices, rather than high, become a problem. As economic growth slows, we should expect more debt defaults, not fewer. There is also a limit to how high Debt/GDP ratios can rise before many suspect that the world economy functions much like a Ponzi Scheme.

Mark Twain wrote, “It ain’t what you know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure, that just ain’t so.” This is especially a problem for academic researchers who depend on the precedents of past academic papers. A researcher may have come to a conclusion years ago, based on a narrow set of research that didn’t cover today’s conditions. The belief can get carried forward endlessly, even though it isn’t really true in today’s situation.

If we are going to figure out the real answer to how the economy operates, we need to look closely at indications from many areas of research. Such an approach can allow us to see the situation in a broader context and thus “weed out” firmly held beliefs that aren’t really true.

Oops! Low oil prices are related to a debt bubble

debt-bubblegc2reddit-logoOff the keyboard of Gail Tverberg

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Published on the Our Finite World on November 3, 2015

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Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

Why is the price of oil so low now? In fact, why are all commodity prices so low? I see the problem as being an affordability issue that has been hidden by a growing debt bubble. As this debt bubble has expanded, it has kept the sales prices of commodities up with the cost of extraction (Figure 1), even though wages have not been rising as fast as commodity prices since about the year 2000. Now many countries are cutting back on the rate of debt growth because debt/GDP ratios are becoming unreasonably high, and because the productivity of additional debt is falling.

If wages are stagnating, and debt is not growing very rapidly, the price of commodities tends to fall back to what is affordable by consumers. This is the problem we are experiencing now (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Author's illustration of problem we are now encountering.

 

 

 

Figure 1. Author’s illustration of problem we are now encountering.

I will explain the situation more fully in the form of a presentation. It can be downloaded in PDF form: Oops! The world economy depends on an energy-related debt bubble. Let’s start with the first slide, after the title slide.

Slide 2

 

 

 

Slide 2

Growth is incredibly important to the economy (Slide 2). If the economy is growing, we keep needing to build more buildings, vehicles, and roads, leading to more jobs. Existing businesses find demand for their products rising. Because of this rising demand, profits of many businesses can be expected to rise over time, thanks to economies of scale.

Something that is not as obvious is that a growing economy enables much greater use of debt than would otherwise be the case. When an economy is growing, as illustrated by the ever-increasing sizes of circles, it is possible to “borrow from the future.” This act of borrowing gives consumers the ability to buy more things now than they would otherwise would be able to afford–more “demand” in the language of economists. Customers can thus afford cars and homes, and businesses can afford factories. Companies issuing stock can expect that price of shares will most likely rise in the future.

Without economic growth, it would be very hard to have the financial system that we have today, with its stable banks, insurance companies, and pension plans. The pattern of economic growth makes interest and dividend payments easier to make, and reduces the likelihood of debt default. It allows financial planners to set up savings plans for retirement, and gives people confidence that the system will “be there” when it is needed. Without economic growth, debt is more of a last resort–something that might land a person in debtors’ prison if things go wrong.

Slide 3

 

 

 

Slide 3

It should be obvious that the economic growth story cannot be true indefinitely. We would run short of resources, and population would grow too dense. Pollution, including CO2 pollution, would become an increasing problem.

Slide 4

 

 

 

Slide 4

The question without an obvious answer is “When does the endless economic growth story become untrue?” If we listen to the television, the answer would seem to be somewhere in the distant future, if a slowdown in economic growth happens at all.

Most of us who read financial newspapers are aware that more debt and lower interest rates are the types of stimulus provided to the economy, to try to help it grow faster. Our current “run up” in debt seems to have started about the time of World War II. This growing debt allows “demand” for goods like houses, cars, and factories to be higher. Because of this higher demand, commodity prices can be higher than they otherwise would be.

Thus, if debt is growing quickly enough, it allows the sales price of energy products and other commodities to stay as high as their cost of extraction. The problem is that debt/GDP ratios can’t rise endlessly. Once debt/GDP ratios stop rising quickly enough, commodity prices are likely to fall. In fact, the run-up in debt is a bubble, which is itself in danger of collapsing, because of too many debt defaults.

Slide 5

 

 

 

Slide 5

The economy is made up of many parts, including businesses and consumers. The consumers have a second role as well–many of them are workers, and thus get their wages from the system. Governments have many roles, including providing financial systems, building roads, and providing laws and regulations. The economy gradually grows and changes over time, as new businesses are added, and others leave, and as laws change. Consumers make their decisions based on available products in the marketplace and they amount they have to spend. Thus, the economy is a self-organized networked system–see my post Why Standard Economic Models Don’t Work–Our Economy is a Network.

One key feature of a self-organized networked system is that it tends to grow over time, as more energy becomes available. As its grows, it changes in ways that make it difficult to shrink back. For example, once cars became the predominant method of transportation, cities changed in ways that made it difficult to go back to using horses for transportation. There are now not enough horses available for this purpose, and there are no facilities for “parking” horses in cities when they are not needed. And, of course, we don’t have services in place for cleaning up the messes that horses leave.

Slide 6

 

 

 

Slide 6

When businesses start, they need capital. Very often they sell shares of stock, and they may get loans from banks. As companies grow and expand, they typically need to buy more land, buildings and equipment. Very often loans are used for this purpose.

As the economy grows, the amount of loans outstanding and the number of shares of stock outstanding tends to grow.

Slide 7

 

 

 

Slide 7

Businesses compete by trying to make goods and services more efficiently than the competition. Human labor tends to be expensive. For example, a sweater knit by hand by someone earning $10 per hour will be very expensive; a sweater knit on a machine will be much less expensive. If a company can add machines to leverage human labor, the workers using those machines become more productive. Wages rise, to reflect the greater productivity of workers, using the machines.

We often think of the technology behind the machines as being important, but technology is only part of the story. Machines reflecting the latest in technology are made using energy products (such as coal, diesel and electricity) and operated using energy products. Without the availability of affordable energy products, ideas for inventions would remain just that–simply ideas.

The other thing that is needed to make technology widely available is some form of financing–debt or equity financing. So a three-way partnership is needed for economic growth: (1) ideas for inventions, (2) inexpensive energy products and other resources to make them happen, and (3) some sort of financing (debt/equity) for the undertaking. 

Workers play two roles in the economy; besides making products and services, they are also consumers. If their wages are rising fast enough, thanks to growing efficiency feeding back as higher wages, they can buy increasing amounts of goods and services. The whole system tends to grow. I think of this as the normal “growth pump” in the economy.

If the “worker” growth pump isn’t working well enough, it can be supplemented for a time by a “more debt” growth pump. This is why debt-based stimulus tends to work, at least for a while.

Slide 8

 

 

 

Slide 8

There are really two keys to economic growth–besides technology, which many people assume is primary. One key is the rising availability of cheap energy. When cheap energy is available, businesses find it affordable to add machines and equipment such as trucks to allow workers to be more productive, and thus start the economic growth cycle.

The other key is availability of debt, to finance the operation. Businesses use debt, in combination with equity financing, to add new plants and equipment. Customers find long-term debt helpful in financing big-ticket items such as homes and cars. Governments use debt for many purposes, including “stimulating the economy”–trying to get economic growth to speed up.

Slide 9

 

 

 

Slide 9

Slide 9 illustrates how workers play a key role in the economy. If businesses can create jobs with rising wages for workers, these workers can in turn use these rising wages to buy an increasing quantity of goods and services.

It is the ability of workers to afford goods like homes, cars, motorcycles, and boats that helps the economy to grow. It also helps to keep the price of commodities up, because making these goods uses commodities like iron, steel, copper, oil, and coal.

Slide 10

 

 

 

Slide 10

In the 1900 to 1998 period, the price of electricity production fell (shown by the falling purple, red, and green lines) as the production of electricity became more efficient. At the same time, the economy used an increasing quantity of electricity (shown by the rising black line). The reason that electricity use could grow was because electricity became more affordable. This allowed businesses to use more of it to leverage human labor. Consumers could use more electricity as well, so that they could finish tasks at home more quickly, such as washing clothes, leaving more time to work outside the home.

Slide 11

 

 

 

Slide 11

If we compare (1) the amount of energy consumed worldwide (all types added together) with (2) the world GDP in inflation-adjusted dollars, we find a very high correlation.

Slide 12

 

 

 

Slide 12

In Slide 12, GDP (represented by the top line on the chart–the sum of the red and the blue areas) was growing very slowly back in the 1820 to 1870 period, at less than 1% per year. This growth rate increased to a little under 2% a year in the 1870 to 1900 and 1900 to 1950 periods. The big spurt in growth of nearly 5% per year came in the 1950 to 1965 period. After that, the GDP growth rate has gradually slowed.

On Slide 12, the blue area represents the growth rate in energy products. We can calculate this, based on the amount of energy products used. Growth in energy usage (blue) tends to be close to the total GDP growth rate (sum of red and blue), suggesting that most economic growth comes from increased energy use. The red area, which corresponds to “efficiency/technology,” is calculated by subtraction. The period of time when the efficiency/technology portion was greatest was between 1975 and 1995. This was the period when we were making major changes in the automobile fleet to make cars more fuel efficient, and we were converting home heating to more fuel-efficient heating, not using oil.

Slide 13

 

 

 

Slide 13

If we look at economic growth rates and the growth in energy use over shorter periods, we see a similar pattern. The growth in GDP is a little higher than the growth in energy consumption, similar to the pattern we saw on Slide 12.

If we look carefully at Slide 13, we see that changes in the growth rate for energy (blue line) tends to happen first and is followed by changes in the GDP growth rate (red line). This pattern of energy changes occurring first suggests that growth in the use of energy is a cause of economic growth. It also suggests that lack of growth in the use of energy is a reason for world recessions. Recently, the rate of growth in the world’s consumption of energy has dropped (Slide 13), suggesting that the world economy is heading into a new recession.

Slide 14

 

 

 

Slide 14

There is nearly always an investment of time and resources, in order to make something happen–anything from the growing of food to the mining of coal. Very often, it takes more than one person to undertake the initial steps; there needs to be a way to pay the other investors. Another issue is the guarantee of payment for resources gathered from a distance.

Slide 15

 

 

 

Slide 15

We rarely think about how all-pervasive promises are. Many customs of early tribes seem to reflect informal rules regarding the sharing of goods and services, and penalties if these rules are not followed.

Now, financial promises have to some extent replaced informal customs. The thing that we sometimes forget is that the bonds companies offer for sale, and the stock that companies issue, have no value unless the company issuing the stock or bonds is actually successful.  As a result, the many promises that are made are, in a sense, contingent promises: the bond will be repaid, if the company is still in business (or if the company is dissolved, if the amount received from the sale of assets is great enough). The future value of a company’s stock also depends on the success of the company.

Slide 16

 

 

 

Slide 16

Governments become an important part of the web of promises. Governments collect their assessments through taxes. As an economy grows, the amount of government services tends to increase, and taxes tend to increase.

The roles of governments and businesses vary somewhat depending on the type of economy of a country. In a sense, this type of variation is not important. It is the functioning of the overall networked system that is important.

Slide 17

 

 

 

Slide 17

There was a very large run up in US debt about the time of World War II, not just in the US, but also in the other countries involved in World War II.

Adding the debt for World War II helped pull the US out of the lingering effects of the Depression. Many women started working outside the home for the first time. There was a ramp-up of production, aimed especially at the war effort.

Slide 18 - From The United States' 65-Year Debt Bubble

 

 

 

Slide 18 – From The United States’ 65-Year Debt Bubble

What does a country do when a war is over? Send the soldiers back home again, without jobs, and the women who had been working to support the war effort back home again, also without jobs? This was a time period when non-government debt ramped up in the US. In fact, it seems to have ramped up elsewhere around the world as well. The new debt helped support many growing industries at the time–helping rebuild Europe, and helping build homes and cars for citizens in the US. As noted previously, both energy use and GDP soared during this time period.

Slide 19

 

 

 

Slide 19

I haven’t found very good records of debt going back very far, but what I can piece together suggests that the rate of debt growth (total debt, including both government and private debt) was similar to the rate of growth of GDP, up until about 1975. Then, debt began growing much more rapidly than GDP.

Slide 20

 

 

 

Slide 20

The big issue that led to a big increase in the need for debt in the early 1970s was an increase in the price of oil. Oil is the single largest source of energy. It is used in many important ways, including making food, transporting coal, and extracting metals. Thus, when the price of oil rises, so does the price of many other goods.

As we noted on Slides 11, 12, and 13, it is the growing quantity of energy consumption that is important in providing economic growth. The natural tendency with high energy prices is to cut back on energy-related consumption. Increasing debt, if it is at a sufficiently low interest rate, helps counteract this natural tendency toward less energy usage. For example, the availability of debt at a low interest makes it possible for more consumers to purchase big-ticket items like houses, cars, and motorcycles. These products indirectly lead to the growing consumption of energy products, because energy is used in making these big-ticket items and because they use energy in their continuing operation.

Slide 21

 

 

 

Slide 21

Many people have been concerned about what they call “peak oil”–the idea that oil supply would suddenly drop because we reach geological limits. I think that this is a backward analysis regarding how the system works. There is plenty of oil available, if only the price would rise high enough and stay high for long enough.

Much of this oil is non-conventional oil–oil that cannot be extracted using the inexpensive approaches we used in the early days of oil production. In some cases, non-conventional oil is so viscous it needs to be melted with steam, before it will flow freely. Some of the unconventional oil can only be extracted by “fracking.” Some of the unconventional oil is very deep under the ocean. Near Brazil, this oil is under a layer of salt. If prices would remain high enough, for long enough, we could get this oil out.

The problem is that in order to get this unconventional oil out, costs are higher. These higher costs are sometimes described as reflecting diminishing returns–more capital goods are needed, as are more resources and human labor, to produce additional barrels of oil. The situation is equivalent to the system of oil extraction becoming less and less efficient, because we need to add more steps to the operation, raising the cost of producing finished oil products. The higher price of oil products spills over to a higher cost for producing food, because oil is used in operating farm equipment and transporting food to market. The higher cost of oil also spills over to the cost of almost anything that is shipped long distance, because oil is used as a transportation fuel.

You will remember that increased efficiency is what makes an economy grow faster (Slide 7, also Slide 37). Diminishing returns is the opposite of increased efficiency, so it tends to push the economy toward contraction. We are running into many other forms of increased inefficiency. One such type of inefficiency involves adding devices to reduce pollution, for example in electricity production. Another type of inefficiency involves switching to higher-cost methods of generation, such as solar panels and offshore wind, to reduce pollution. No matter how beneficial these techniques may be from some perspectives, from the perspective of economic growth, they are a problem. They tend to make the economy grow more slowly, rather than faster.

The standard workaround for slow economic growth is more debt. If the interest rate is low enough and the length of the loan is long enough, consumers can “sort of” afford increasingly expensive cars and homes. Young people with barely adequate high school grades can “sort of” afford higher education. With cheap debt, businesses can afford to buy back company stock, making reported earnings per share rise–even though after the buy-back, the actual investment used to generate future earnings is lower. With sufficient cheap debt, shale companies can create models showing that even if their cash flow is negative at $100 per barrel oil prices ($2 out for $1 in) and even more negative at $50 per barrel ($4 out for $1 in), somehow, the companies will be profitable in the very long run.

The technique of adding more debt doesn’t fix the underlying problem of growing inefficiency, instead of growing efficiency. Instead, as more debt is added, the additional debt becomes increasingly unproductive. It mostly provides a temporary cover-up for economic growth problems, rather than fixing them.

Slide 22

 

 

 

Slide 22

A common belief has been that as we reach limits of a finite world, oil prices and perhaps other prices will spike. In my view, this is a wrong understanding of how things work.

What we have is a combination of rising costs of production for many kinds of goods at the same time that wages are not rising very quickly.  This problem can be temporarily hidden by a rising amount of debt at ever-lower interest rates, but this is not a long-term solution.

We end up with a conflict between the prices businesses need and the prices that workers can afford. For a while, this conflict can be resolved by a spike in prices, as we experienced in the 2005-2008 period. These spikes tend to lead to recession, for reasons shown on the next slide. Recession tends to lead to lower prices again.

Slide 26

 

 

 

Slide 26

The image on Slide 26 shows an exaggeration to make clear the shift that takes place, if the price of oil spikes. When the price of one necessary part of consumers’ budgets increases–namely the food and gasoline segment–there is a problem. Debt payments already committed to, such as those on homes and automobiles, remain constant. Consumers find that they must cut back on discretionary spending–in other words, “Everything else,” shown in green. This tends to lead to recession.

Slide 27

 

 

 

Slide 27

If we look at oil prices since 2000, we see that the period is marked by steep rises and falls in oil prices. In Slides 27 – 29, we will see that changes in the price of oil tend to correspond to changes in debt availability and cost.

In 2008, oil prices rose to a peak in July, and then dropped precipitously to under $40 per barrel in December of the same year. Slide 27 shows that the United States began its program of Quantitative Easing (QE) in late 2008. This helped to lower interest rates, especially longer-term interest rates. China and a number of other countries also raised their debt levels during this period. We would expect greater debt and lower interest rates to increase demand for commodities, and thus raise their prices, and in fact, this is what happened between December 2008 and 2011.

The drop in prices in 2014 corresponds to the time that the US phased out its program of QE, and China cut back on debt availability. Here, the economy is encountering less cheap debt availability, and the impact is in the direction expected–a drop in prices.

Slide 28 - From The United States' 65-Year Debt Bubble

 

 

 

Slide 28 – From The United States’ 65-Year Debt Bubble

If we go back to the steep drop in oil prices in July 2008, we find that the timing of the drop in prices matches the timing when US non-governmental debt started falling. In my academic article, Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis, I show that this drop in debt outstanding takes place for both mortgages and credit card debt.

Slide 29

 

 

 

Slide 29

The US government, as well as other governments around the world, responded by sharply increasing their debt levels. This increase in governmental debt (known as sovereign debt) is part of what helped oil and other commodity prices to rise again after 2008.

Slide 30

 

 

 

Slide 30

We often hear about the drop in oil prices, but the drop in prices is far more widespread. Nearly all commodities have dropped in price since 2011. Today’s commodity price levels are below the cost of production for many producers, for all of these types of commodities. In fact, for oil, there is hardly any country that can produce at today’s price level, even Saudi Arabia and Iraq, when needed tax levels by governments are considered as well.

Producers don’t go out of business immediately. Instead, they tend to “hold on” as best they can, deferring new investment and trying to generate as much cash flow as possible. Because most of them have no alternative way of making a living, they often continue producing, as best they can, even with low prices, deferring the day of bankruptcy as long as possible. Thus, the glut of supply doesn’t go away quickly. Instead, low prices tend to get worse, and low prices tend to persist for a very long period.

Slide 31

 

 

 

Slide 31

In 2008, we had an illustration of what can go wrong when the economy runs into too many headwinds. In that situation, the price of oil and other commodities dropped dramatically.

Now we have a somewhat different set of headwinds, but the impact is the same–the price of commodities has dropped dramatically. Wages are not rising much, so they are not providing the necessary uplift to the economy. Without wage growth, the only other approach to growing the economy is debt, but this reaches limits as well. See my post, Why We Have an Oversupply of Almost Everything (Oil, labor, capital, etc.)

There is some evidence that the Great Depression in the 1930s involved the collapse of a debt bubble. It seems to me that it may very well have also involved wages that were falling in inflation-adjusted terms for a significant number of wage-earners. I say this, because farmers were moving to the city in the early 1900s, as mechanization led to lower prices for food and less need for farmers. I haven’t seen figures on incomes of farmers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were dropping as well, especially for the many farmers who couldn’t afford mechanization. Wages for those who wanted to work as laborers on farms were likely also dropping, since they now needed to compete with mechanization.

In many ways, the situation that led up to the Great Depression appears to be not too different from our situation today. In the early 1900s, many farmers were being displaced by changes to agriculture. Now, wages for many are depressed, as workers in developed economies increasingly compete with workers in historically low-wage countries. Additional mechanization of manufacturing also plays a role in reducing job opportunities.

If my conjecture is right, the Great Depression may have been caused by problems similar to what we are seeing today–wages that were too low for a large segment of the economy, thus reducing economic growth, and a temporary debt bubble that tended to cover up the wage problem. Once the debt bubble collapsed, demand for commodities of all types collapsed, and prices collapsed. This problem was very difficult to fix.

Slide 32

 

 

 

Slide 32

When we add more debt to the economy, users of debt-financing find that more of their future income goes toward repaying that debt, cutting off the ability to buy other goods. For example, a young person with a large balance of student loans is unlikely to be able to afford buying a house as well.

A way of somewhat mitigating the problem of too much income going toward debt repayment is lowering interest rates. In fact, in quite a few countries, the interest rates governments pay on debt are now negative.

Slide 33

 

 

 

Slide 33

If the cost of producing commodities continues to rise, but the price that consumers can afford to pay does not rise sufficiently, at some point there is a problem. Instead of continuing to rise, prices start to fall below their cost of production. This drop can be very sharp, as it was in 2008.

The falling price of commodities is the same situation we encountered in 2008 (Slide 27); it is the same situation we reached at the beginning of the Great Depression back in 1929. It seems to happen when wage growth is inadequate, and the debt level is not growing fast enough to hide the inadequate wage growth. This time around, we are also challenged by the cost of producing commodities rising, something that was not a problem at the time of the Great Depression.

Slide 34

 

 

 

Slide 34

If we think about the situation, having prices fall behind the cost of production is a disaster. We can’t get oil out of the ground, if prices are too low. Farmers can’t afford to grow food commercially, if prices remain too low.

Prices of assets such as the value of farmland, the value of oil held by leases, and the value of metal ores in mines will fall. Assets such as these secure many loans. If an oil company has a loan secured by the value of oil held by lease, and this value falls permanently, there is a significant chance that the oil company will default on the loan.

The usual belief is, “The cure for low prices is low prices.” In other words, the situation will fix itself. What really happens, though, is that everyone is so afraid of a big crash that all parties make extreme efforts to avoid a crash. In fact, there is evidence today that banks are “looking the other way,” rather than taking steps to cut off lending to shale drillers, when current operations are clearly unprofitable.

By the time the crash does come around, it is likely to be a huge one, affecting many segments of the economy at once. Oil exporters and exporters of other commodities will be especially affected. Some of them, such as Venezuela, Yemen, and even Iraq may collapse. Financial institutions are likely to find themselves burdened with many “underwater loans.” The usual technique of lowering interest rates to try to aid the economy doesn’t look like it would work this time, because rates are already so low. Governments are not in sufficiently good financial condition to be able to bail out all of the banks and others needing assistance. In fact, governments may fail. The fall of the former Soviet Union occurred when oil prices were low.

Once there are major debt defaults, lenders will want to wait to see that prices will stay consistently high for a period (say, two or three years) before extending credit again. Thus, even if commodity prices should bounce back in 2017, it is doubtful that producers will be able to find financing at a reasonable interest rate until, say, 2020. By that time, depletion will have taken its toll. It will be impossible to make up for the many years of low investment at that time. Production is likely to continue falling, even if prices do rise.

The indirect impact of low oil and other commodity prices is likely to be a collapse in our current debt bubble. This collapsing bubble may lead to the failures of banks and even governments. It seems quite possible that these indirect impacts will affect us most, even more than the direct loss of commodities. These impacts could come quite quickly–in the next few months, in some cases.

Slide 35

 

 

 

Slide 35

Stocks, bonds, pension programs, insurance programs, bank accounts, and many other things of a financial nature seem to be very “solid” things–things that we can expect to be here and grow, for many years to come. Yet these things, directly and indirectly, depend on the ability of our system to produce goods and services. If something goes terribly wrong, we may find that financial assets have little more value than the pieces of paper that represent them.

Slide 36

 

 

 

Slide 36

I won’t try to explain Slide 36 further.

Slide 37

 

 

 

Slide 37

Slide 37 illustrates the principle of increased efficiency. If a smaller amount of resources and human labor can be used to create a larger amount of end product, this is growing efficiency. If more and more resources and labor are used to produce a smaller amount of end product, this is growing inefficiency.

The other part of the story is that simply automating processes is not enough. Instead, the economy must also produce a sufficiently large number of jobs, and these jobs must pay high enough wages that the workers can afford to buy the output of the economy. It is really the health of the whole interconnected system that is important.

Slide 38

 

 

 

Slide 38

Our low price problems are here now. That is why we need very cheap non-polluting energy products now, in large quantity, if there is any chance of fixing the system. These energy products must work in today’s devices, so we aren’t faced with the cost and delay involved with changing to new devices, such as cars and trucks that use a different fuel than petroleum.

Slide 39

 

 

 

Slide 39

Regarding Slides 39 and 40, we are sitting on the edge, waiting to see what will happen next.

The US economy temporarily seems to be in somewhat of a bubble, now that it does not have QE, while several other countries still do. This bubble is related to a “flight to quality,” and leads to a higher dollar, relative to other currencies. It also leads to high stock market valuations. As a result, the US economy seems to be doing better than much of the rest of the world.

Regardless of how well the US economy seems to be doing, the underlying problems of rising costs of producing commodities and prices that lag below the cost of production are still present, making the situation unstable. Wages continue to lag behind as well. We should not be too surprised if the economy starts taking major downward steps in the next few months.

Slide 40

 

 

 

Slide 40

Our Electricity Problem: Getting the Diagnosis Correct

City Lights 2012 - Flat mapgc2reddit-logoOff the keyboard of Gail Tverberg

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Published on Our Finite World on October 14, 2015

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What is really wrong with our energy system, particularly as it relates to electricity and natural gas? Are there any mitigations available? I have been asked to give a talk at an Electricity/Natural Gas conference that includes both producers and industrial users of electricity and natural gas.

In this presentation, I suggest that the standard diagnosis of the problems facing the energy system is incomplete. While climate change may be a problem, there is another urgent problem that attendees at the conference should be aware of as well–affordability, and the severe near-term impact affordability can be expected to have on the system.

My written summary of this talk is fairly brief. I have not tried to repeat the information shown on the slides. This is a link to a copy of my presentation: Our Electricity Problem: Getting the Diagnosis Right

Slide 2

 

 

 

 

Slide 2

A finite world is one that is subject to limits. Its economy cannot grow forever for many reasons.

Slide 3

 

 

 

 

Slide 3

Let’s look at some examples (Slide 4) of how limits work in finite systems. Often there seems to be a change of direction.

Slide 4

 

 

 

 

Slide 4

The standard story that we hear says that energy prices can rise and rise, indefinitely. But as I look at the data, this doesn’t seem to be true in practice. At some point, there is a problem with affordability, because wages don’t rise as the price of energy products grows.

Slide 5

 

 

 

 

Slide 5

In many ways, the problems that overtake the economy are similar to ailments that beset a human being. A person can have multiple ailments, some of which grow in severity over the years. The catch, of course, is that if an early ailment becomes severe, it may kill the patient, eliminating the need to fix the later ailments.

The way I see the economy, there are many hurdles that have the potential to inflict severe damage on the economy. Slide 6 shows a few of them. Some examples of other issues include lack of fresh water and erosion of topsoil.

In my view, we are right now reaching an affordability crisis. One way it manifests itself is as high commodity prices that fall and thus become low commodity prices. Falling commodity prices are likely to cause debt-related problems because of all of the debt incurred in their production. We may find financial problems, much worse than those experienced in 2008, back again.

Slide 6

 

 

 

 

Slide 6

Many others have focused on climate change. In their view, we can extract pretty much all of the fossil fuels that are in the ground, because prices will rise higher and higher, allowing this to be done.

If, in fact, prices fall after a point, then there is a good chance that we must leave most of them in the ground because of affordability issues. If this is the case, the situation may be very different: we may lose fossil fuel production in not many years because of disruptions caused by low prices.

We often think of affordability in terms of what a gallon of oil costs or in terms of how much a kilowatt-hour of electricity sells for. While these costs are one part of the problem, a big part of the affordability problem relates to big-ticket items, as listed in Slide 7.  If customers cannot afford these big-ticket items, such as homes and cars, the economy loses both (a) the energy use that would be required to make these big-ticket items, and (b) the later energy use that these big items would require.

Slide 7

 

 

 

 

Slide 7

If we look at the data, we find that inflation-adjusted median income for families has been falling.

Slide 8

 

 

 

 

Slide 8

Part of this lower family income involves a smaller share of the population working.

Slide 9

 

 

 

 

Slide 9

When a person looks at the labor force growth split between men and women, there is a very different pattern. Men show a small downward trend over time; women increasingly joined the labor force, but this trend topped out in 1999, and became a decline since 2008.

Slide 10

 

 

 

 

Slide 10

Something we all are aware of:

Slide 11

 

 

 

 

Slide 11

Many fewer homes are now being built in the United States.

Slide 12

 

 

 

 

Slide 12

There has been a very different trend in auto purchases in the United States, Europe, and Japan compared to the rest of the world. In the developed areas, interest rates have been very low, and lenders have increasingly offered loans to subprime buyers. An increasing number of the loans are 7-year loans, and the loan to value ratio is often 125%. We seem to be creating a new subprime auto bubble. Based on our experience with subprime housing loans, this is not a sustainable pattern.

Slide 13

 

 

 

 

Slide 13

I am convinced that most economists have missed a basic principle regarding how economic growth takes place (Slide 14). I define efficiency in terms of what it takes in terms of human labor and resources to produce finished output, such as a barrel of oil or a kilowatt-hour of electricity. Are these finished goods becoming cheaper or more expensive in inflation-adjusted terms?

On Slide 18, note the change in the size of the output boxes, compared to the input boxes. Increased efficiency produces more output compared to the resources used; increased inefficiency produces less output compared to the resources used.

If an economy is becoming increasingly efficient, a given number of workers and a given amount of resources can produce more and more goods. This is good for economic growth. Growing inefficiency is a problem, because it quickly uses up both available worker-time and available resources. Many economists never seem to have gotten past the idea, “We pay each other’s wages.” Yes, we do, but if those wages are being used to encourage the use of increasingly inefficient processes, we go backwards in terms of economic growth.

Slide 14

 

 

 

 

Slide 14

If we look back historically, we can see a growing efficiency pattern with electricity, in the 1900 to 1998 period. As the price dropped, both consumers and businesses could afford more of it (illustrated with rising black “demand” curve). Part of the lower cost came from increased efficiency of electricity generation during this period.

Slide 15

 

 

 

 

Slide 15

If we look at the oil sector, since about 1999 we have had exactly the opposite pattern taking place. The cost of oil “exploration and production capital expenditures” has been rising at a rapid rate. This is an issue of diminishing returns. We have already extracted the easy-to-extract oil, and as a result, we need to move on to more difficult (and expensive) to extract oil. Thus we are becoming increasingly inefficient, in terms of the cost of producing the end product, oil.

Slide 16

 

 

 

 

Slide 16

As we move on to more expensive oil, the higher cost tends to squeeze budgets. The thing that is important is the fact that wages don’t rise sufficiently to cover the cost increase; in fact, the images I showed earlier seem to suggest that in the recent era of high prices, we have seen unusually slow growth in wages. The amount of wages is represented by the size of the circles in Figure 17.  The wage circles don’t grow.

Slide 17 shows that as workers need to spend more for oil, and for the things that oil is used to make, such as food, the discretionary portion of their budgets (“everything else”) is squeezed. This shift in discretionary spending is what tends to lead to recession. The same principle works if consumers suddenly find themselves with higher electricity bills–discretionary spending is again squeezed.

Slide 17

 

 

 

 

Slide 17

The problem that squeezes all commodities at the same time is falling discretionary income. The amount of debt that can be borrowed also tends to fall as discretionary income falls. The combination leads to falling affordability for expensive goods, like new autos and new homes.

The price patterns for commodities of many types move together, reflecting a combination of rising cost of oil (because of higher extraction costs) and falling ability of consumers to afford the high prices of these goods. I have not included food on Figure 18, but many food prices have recently fallen as well.

Of course, the costs for producers creating these commodities have not fallen proportionately, and many have huge amounts of outstanding debt. Repayment of debt becomes difficult, as prices remain low.

Slide 18

 

 

 

 

Slide 18

Back at Slide 14, I talked about increased efficiency leading to economic growth, and increased inefficiency causing economic contraction. Because our leaders have not looked at things this way, they have encouraged increased inefficiency in many areas, as I describe on Slide 19. To some extent, this increased inefficiency is required. For example, as population grows in areas with low water supplies, the need for desalination grows. Also, pollution problems increase as we use lower qualities of coal and oil.

Slide 19

 

 

 

 

Slide 19

What are the expected impacts on the electricity industry and on natural gas? Are there any workarounds?

Let’s look at a few implications of the problems we now see.

In my view, low oil and natural gas prices are likely to be a huge problem for the natural gas industry, leading to the bankruptcy of many natural gas suppliers.

We cannot expect natural gas supply to grow. In fact, we cannot expect a coal to natural gas transition because the natural gas price won’t rise high enough, for long enough.

Slide 21

 

 

 

 

Slide 21

If we look at the history of US natural gas prices (using Henry Hub data), we see that prices have tended to stay low, after the 2008 spike. This was a great disappointment to those who built new natural gas extraction capability. They expected prices to rise, to justify their new higher costs. In my view, the continued low natural gas prices to some extent already reflect affordability issues.

Slide 22

 

 

 

 

Slide 22

The Marcellus Shale was perhaps the most successful of the new natural gas production, but it seems to now be topping out because of low prices (Slide 23).

Many producers will have their lending terms reevaluated using September 30, 2015 data. This reevaluation is likely to lead to bankruptcy of some producers, and cutbacks of production of other producers.

Slide 23

 

 

 

 

Slide 23

Coal use has been declining, as shown in Slide 24. Coal has some of the same problems as natural gas, as I will explain on Slide 25.

Slide 24

 

 

 

 

Slide 24

The basic issue is that coal prices are too low for most producers. Even if a particular producer has low extraction costs, this benefit is not enough to keep producers from bankruptcy. The problem that occurs is that coal companies are locked into high cost structures because of patterns that continue to persist from when prices were high. Lease costs are high; taxes and royalties are high; often debt was entered into, assuming that revenue would remain high in the future. Now revenue is lower, and there is no way to fix the “hole” that results from low prices. Production stays high, because each producer must produce as much as possible, to try to avoid bankruptcy for as long as possible.

Slide 25

 

 

 

 

Slide 25

Coal is in a sense ahead of natural gas, in terms of bankruptcies, with big bankruptcies already starting.

With prices as low as they are, there is little chance for a new producer to come in, buy the production facilities at a low price, and restart operations. A big issue is ongoing costs such as royalty payments that cannot be eliminated. Another is debt availability to support the new operations.

Slide 26

 

 

 

 

Slide 26

Bankruptcies are likely to interrupt supply chains as well. Part of the problem may simply be the excessively high cost of credit, for those members of the supply chain with poor credit ratings. Once a supply chain breaks, replacements parts may not be available. Other services that a company contracts for with outside suppliers may disappear as well.

As I note on Slide 27, customers may have financial difficulties. Those who remain in business will tend to buy less, so demand is likely to be lower, rather than higher. Companies producing electricity should not be misled by the rosy forecasts of the EIA and IEA regarding future demand amounts.

Slide 27

 

 

 

 

Slide 27

Slide 28 shows that industrial consumption of energy products has been falling since the 1970s, as industrial production has moved overseas. Now the dollar is high relative to other currencies, encouraging more of this trend. On a per capita basis, residential energy consumption is down, and commercial energy consumption is level. It is hard to see that this mix will provide very much of an upward trend in natural gas and electricity consumption in the future. (Note: Slide 28 shows energy of all types combined, including both electricity and fuels burned directly. This approach is used because there has been a shift over time to the use of electricity. This method shows the overall trend in energy use better than, say, an electricity-only analysis.)

Slide 28

 

 

 

 

Slide 28

The major ways subsidies for wind and solar PV are available are through greater government debt or through higher costs passed on to customers. There are now getting to be pushbacks in both of these areas.

Slide 29

 

 

 

 

Slide 29

In Europe, the cost of intermittent electricity tends to be passed on to consumers. Dr. Euan Mearns put together the chart shown in Slide 30 comparing price of electricity with the per capita wind and solar PV generation installed for European countries. There is a striking correlation. Countries with more installed wind and solar PV tend to have higher electricity prices for the consumer.

Slide 30

 

 

 

 

Slide 30

Given the problem with commodity producers not being able to collect high enough prices for their products, and the large number of resulting bankruptcies, a person comes to the rather startling conclusion that the ideal structure for electricity providers in today’s economy is that of a vertically integrated utility. In other words, an electric utility should directly own its suppliers, as well as transmission lines and everything else needed to produce and distribute electricity.

Utilities have traditionally had the ability to price on a cost-plus basis. With vertical integration, the utility can use its pricing ability to keep prices for fuel producers from falling too low, and thus sidestep the problem of bankruptcies. To the extent that the required price for electricity keeps rising, it will tend to pressure discretionary spending. (See Slide 17.) But at least grid electricity will be among the last to “go” under this structure.

Slide 31

 

 

 

 

Slide 31

Black Hills Corporation lists the many electricity-generating facilities it owns (coal and natural gas), and the places it has arrangements to sell this electricity as a utility. The Black Hills Corporation indicates it has had 45 years of dividend increases. This increase in dividends is in stark contrast to the many coal and natural gas producers that are currently near bankruptcy, as a result of low coal and natural gas prices.

Slide 32

 

 

 

 

Slide 32

How does one resolve the conflict between industrial companies wanting to generate their own electricity (for a variety of reasons) and the need to have an electric grid for everyone else? It seems to me that we have to keep in mind that having an operating electric grid for everyone else is absolutely essential. Without the electric grid, gasoline stations would stop pumping gasoline and diesel. Transportation would stop. Electric elevators would stop. Treatment of fresh water and sewage would stop. Companies everywhere would lose their consumers. The economy would quickly come to a halt.

With our current affordability problems, we are in danger of losing the electric grid. That is why it is essential that those who opt out not be given too large a credit for providing some or nearly all of their own electricity. The credit given to industrial companies should reflect the savings to the system, no more.

Slide 33

 

 

 

 

Slide 33

One concern is the bankruptcy of peaker plants, if their use is significantly reduced by, for example, the use of solar PV. If these peaker plants continue to be needed for balancing purposes, this may be a problem. Another concern is the rising cost of grid transmission for those who continue to get their electricity from the grid.

Slide 34

 

 

 

 

Slide 34

To sum up, the story we read from most sources is so climate-change focused, a person wonders if there aren’t other issues that are important as well. Most observers have overlooked the importance of low commodity prices, and the impact that they can have on coal and natural gas producers’ ability to produce the fuels that are needed by electric utilities.

Too much faith is being placed in natural gas, as the fuel of the future. And too much faith is being placed on intermittent renewables, without fully understanding their costs and limitations.

I haven’t tried to address the many indirect problems arising from many bankruptcies. These may be severe.

Slide 35

 

 

 

 

Slide 35

Low Oil Prices – Why Worry?

oilwellgc2Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg

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Published on Our Finite World on September 29, 2015

oilwell

Discuss this article at the Economics Table inside the Diner

Most people believe that low oil prices are good for the United States, since the discretionary income of consumers will rise. There is the added benefit that Peak Oil must be far off in the distance, since “Peak Oilers” talked about high oil prices. Thus, low oil prices are viewed as an all around benefit.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The Peak Oil story we have been told is wrong. The collapse in oil production comes from oil prices that are too low, not too high. If oil prices or prices of other commodities are too low, production will slow and eventually stop. Growth in the world economy will slow, lowering inflation rates as well as economic growth rates. We encountered this kind of the problem in the 1930s. We seem to be headed in the same direction today. Figure 1, used by Janet Yellen in her September 24 speech, shows a slowing inflation rate for Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE), thanks to lower energy prices, lower relative import prices, and general “slack” in the economy.

Figure 1. Why has PCE Inflation fallen below 2%? from Janet Yellen speech, September 24, 2015.

 

 

 

Figure 1. “Why has PCE Inflation fallen below 2%?” from Janet Yellen speech, September 24, 2015.

What Janet Yellen is seeing in Figure 1, even though she does not recognize it, is evidence of a slowing world economy. The economy can no longer support energy prices as high as they have been, and they have gradually retreated. Currency relativities have also readjusted, leading to lower prices of imported goods for the United States. Both lower energy prices and lower prices of imported goods contribute to lower inflation rates.

Instead of reaching “Peak Oil” through the limit of high oil prices, we are reaching the opposite limit, sometimes called “Limits to Growth.” Limits to Growth describes the situation when an economy stops growing because the economy cannot handle high energy prices. In many ways, Limits to Growth with low oil prices is worse than Peak Oil with high oil prices. Slowing economic growth leads to commodity prices that can never rebound by very much, or for very long. Thus, this economic malaise leads to a fairly fast cutback in commodity production. It can also lead to massive debt defaults.

Let’s look at some of the pieces of our current predicament.

Part 1. Getting oil prices to rise again to a high level, and stay there, is likely to be difficult. High oil prices tend to lead to economic contraction.  

Figure 2 shows an illustration I made over five years ago:

Figure 1. Chart I made in Feb. 2010, for an article I wrote called, Peak Oil: Looking for the Wrong Symptoms.

 

 

 

Figure 2. Chart made by author in Feb. 2010, for an article called Peak Oil: Looking for the Wrong Symptoms.

Clearly Figure 2 exaggerates some aspects of an oil price change, but it makes an important point. If oil prices rise–even if it is after prices have fallen from a higher level–there is likely to be an adverse impact on our pocketbooks. Our wages (represented by the size of the circles) don’t increase. Fixed expenses, including mortgages and other debt payments, don’t change either. The expenses that do increase in price are oil products, such as gasoline and diesel, and food, since oil is used to create and transport food. When the cost of food and gasoline rises, discretionary spending (in other words, “everything else”) shrinks.

When discretionary spending gets squeezed, layoffs are likely. Waitresses at restaurants may get laid off; workers in the home building and auto manufacturing industries may find their jobs eliminated. Some workers who get laid off from their jobs may default on their loans causing problems for banks as well. We start the cycle of recession and falling oil prices that we should be familiar with, after the crash in oil prices in 2008.

So instead of getting oil prices to rise permanently, at most we get a zigzag effect. Oil prices rise for a while, become hard to maintain, and then fall back again, as recessionary influences tend to reduce the demand for oil and bring the price of oil back down again.

Part 2. The world economy has been held together by increasing debt at ever-lower interest rates for many years. We are reaching limits on this process.

Back in the second half of 2008, oil prices dropped sharply. A number of steps were taken to get the world economy working better again. The US began Quantitative Easing (QE) in late 2008. This helped reduce longer-term interest rates, allowing consumers to better afford homes and cars. Since building cars and homes requires oil (and cars require oil to operate as well), their greater sales could stimulate the economy, and thus help raise demand for oil and other commodities.

Figure 2. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.

 

 

 

Figure 3. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.

Following the 2008 crash, there were other stimulus efforts as well. China, in particular, ramped up its debt after 2008, as did many governments around the world. This additional governmental debt led to increased spending on roads and homes. This spending thus added to the demand for oil and helped bring the price of oil back up.

These stimulus effects gradually brought prices up to the $120 per barrel level in 2011. After this, stimulus efforts gradually tapered. Oil prices gradually slid down between 2011 and 2014, as the push for ever-higher debt levels faded. When the US discontinued its QE and China started scaling back on the amount of debt it added in 2014, oil prices began a severe drop, not too different from the way they dropped in 2008.

I reported earlier that the July 2008 crash corresponded with a reduction in debt levels. Both US credit card debt (Fig. 4) and mortgage debt (Fig. 5) decreased at precisely the time of the 2008 price crash.

Figure 3. US Revolving Debt Outstanding (mostly credit card debt) based on monthly data of the Federal Reserve.

 

 

 

Figure 4. US Revolving Debt Outstanding (mostly credit card debt) based on monthly data from the Federal Reserve.

Figure 6. US Mortgage Debt Outstanding, based on Federal Reserve Z1 Report.

 

 

 

Figure 5. US Mortgage Debt Outstanding, based on the Federal Reserve Z1 Report.

At this point, interest rates are at record low levels; they are even negative in some parts of Europe. Interest rates have been falling since 1981.

Figure 6. Chart prepared by St. Louis Fed using data through July 20, 2015.

 

 

 

Figure 6. Chart prepared by the St. Louis Fed using data through July 20, 2015.

I showed in a recent post (How our energy problem leads to a debt collapse problem) that when the cost of oil production is over $20 per barrel, we need ever-higher debt ratios to GDP to produce economic growth. This need for ever-rising debt contributes to our inability to keep commodity prices high enough to satisfy the needs of commodity producers.

Part 3. We are reaching a demographic bottleneck with the “baby boomers” retiring. This demographic bottleneck causes an adverse impact on the demand for commodities.

Demand represents the amount of goods customers can afford. The amount consumers can afford doesn’t necessarily rise endlessly. One of the problems leading to falling demand is falling inflation-adjusted median wages. I have written about this issue previously in How Economic Growth Fails.

Figure 7. Median Inflation-Adjusted Family Income, in chart prepared by Federal Reserve of St. Louis.

 

 

 

Figure 7. Median Inflation-Adjusted Family Income, in chart prepared by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis.

Another part of the problem of falling demand is a falling number of working-age individuals–something I approximate by using estimates of the population aged 20 to 64. Figure 8 shows how the population of these working-age individuals has been changing for the United States, Europe, and Japan.

Figure 8. Annual percentage growth in population aged 20 - 64, based on UN 2015 population estimates.

 

 

 

Figure 8. Annual percentage growth in population aged 20 – 64, based on UN 2015 population estimates.

Figure 8 indicates that Japan’s working age population started shrinking in 1998 and now is shrinking by more than 1.0% per year. Europe’s working age population started shrinking in 2012. The United States’ working age population hasn’t started shrinking, but its rate of growth started slowing in 1999. This slowdown in growth rate is likely part of the reason that labor force participation rates have been falling in the United States since about 1999.

Figure 9. US Labor force participation rate. Chart prepared by Federal Reserve of St. Louis.

 

 

 

Figure 9. US Labor force participation rate. Chart prepared by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis.

When there are fewer workers, the economy has a tendency to shrink. Tax levels to pay for retirees are likely to start increasing. As the ratio of retirees rises, those still working find it increasingly difficult to afford new homes and cars. In fact, if the population of workers aged 20 to 64 is shrinking, there is little need to add new homes for this group; all that is needed is repairs for existing homes. Many retirees aged 65 and over would like their own homes, but providing separate living quarters for this population becomes increasingly unaffordable, as the elderly population becomes greater and greater, relative to the working age population.

Figure 10 shows that the population aged 65 and over already equals 47% of Japan’s working age population. (This fact no doubt explains some of Japan’s recent financial difficulties.) The ratios of the elderly to the working age population are lower for Europe and the United States, but are trending higher. This may be a reason why Germany has been open to adding new immigrants to its population.

Figure 9. Ratio of elderly (age 65+) to working age population (ages 20 to 64) based on UN 2015 population estimates.

 

 

 

Figure 10. Ratio of elderly (age 65+) to working age population (aged 20 to 64) based on UN 2015 population estimates.

For the Most Developed Regions in total (which includes US, Europe, and Japan), the UN projects that those aged 65 and over will equal 50% of those aged 20 to 64 by 2050. China is expected to have a similar percentage of elderly, relative to working age (51%), by 2050. With such a large elderly population, every two people aged 20 to 64 (not all of whom may be working) need to be supporting one person over 65, in addition to the children whom they are supporting.

Demand for commodities comes from workers having income to purchase goods that are made using commodities–things like roads, new houses, new schools, and new factories. Economies that are trying to care for an increasingly large percentage of elderly citizens don’t need a lot of new houses, roads and factories. This lower demand is part of what tends to hold commodity prices down, including oil prices.

Part 4. World oil demand, and in fact, energy demand in general, is now slowing.

If we calculate energy demand based on changes in world consumption, we see a definite pattern of slowing growth (Fig.11). I commented on this slowing growth in my recent post, BP Data Suggests We Are Reaching Peak Energy Demand.

Figure 11. Annual percent change in world oil and energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 data.

 

 

 

Figure 11. Annual percent change in world oil and energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 data.

The pattern we are seeing is the one to be expected if the world is entering another recession. Economists may miss this point if they are focused primarily on the GDP indications of the United States.

World economic growth rates are not easily measured. China’s economic growth seems to be slowing now, but this change does not seem to be fully reflected in its recently reported GDP. Rapidly changing financial exchange rates also make the true world economic growth rate harder to discern. Countries whose currencies have dropped relative to the dollar are now less able to buy our goods and services, and are less able to repay dollar denominated debts.

Part 5. The low price problem is now affecting many commodities besides oil. The widespread nature of the problem suggests that the issue is a demand (affordability) problem–something that is hard to fix.

Many people focus only on oil, believing that it is in some way different from other commodities. Unfortunately, nearly all commodities are showing falling prices:

Figure 12. Monthly commodity price index from Commodity Markets Outlook, July 2015. Used under Creative Commons license.

 

 

 

Figure 12. Monthly commodity price index from Commodity Markets Outlook, July 2015. Used under Creative Commons license.

Energy prices stayed high longer than other prices, perhaps because they were in some sense more essential. But now, they have fallen as much as other prices. The fact that commodities tend to move together tends to hold over the longer term, suggesting that demand (driven by growth in debt, working age population, and other factors) underlies many commodity price trends simultaneously.

Figure 13. Inflation adjusted prices adjusted to 1999 price = 100, based on World Bank

 

 

 

Figure 13. Inflation adjusted prices adjusted to 1999 price = 100, based on World Bank “Pink Sheet” data.

The pattern of many commodities moving together is what we would expect if there were a demand problem leading to low prices. This demand problem would likely reflect several issues:

  • The world economy cannot tolerate high priced energy because of the problem shown in Figure 2. We have increasingly used cheaper debt and larger quantities of debt to cover this basic problem, but are running out of fixes.
  • The cost of producing energy products keeps trending upward, because we extracted the cheap-to-produce oil (and coal and natural gas) first. We have no alternative but to use more expensive-to-produce energy products.
  • Many costs other than energy costs have been trending upward in inflation-adjusted terms, as well. These include fresh water costs, the cost of metal extraction, the cost of mitigating pollution, and the cost of advanced education. All of these tend to squeeze discretionary income in a pattern similar to the problem indicated in Figure 2. Thus, they tend to add to recessionary influences.
  • We are now reaching a working population bottleneck as well, as described in Part 4.

Part 6. Oil prices seem to need to be under $60 barrel, and perhaps under $40 barrel, to encourage demand growth in US, Europe, and Japan. 

If we look at the historical impact of oil prices on consumption for the US, Europe, and Japan combined, we find that whenever oil prices are above $60 per barrel in inflation-adjusted prices, consumption tends to fall. Consumption tends to be flat in the $40 to $60 per barrel range. It is only when prices are in the under $40 per barrel range that consumption has generally risen.

Figure 8. Historical consumption vs price for the United States, Japan, and Europe. Based on a combination of EIA and BP data.

 

 

 

Figure 14. Historical consumption vs. price for the United States, Japan, and Europe. Based on a combination of EIA and BP data.

There is virtually no oil that can be produced in the under $40 barrel range–or even in the under $60 barrel a range, if tax needs of governments are included. Thus, we end up with non-overlapping ranges:

  1. The amount that consumers in advanced economies can afford.
  2. The amount the producers, with their current high-cost structure, actually need.

One issue, with lower oil prices, is, “What kinds of uses do the lower oil prices encourage?” Clearly, no one will build a new factory using oil, unless the price of oil is expected to be sufficiently low over the long-term for this use. Thus, adding industry will likely be difficult, even if the price of oil drops for a few years. We also note that the United States seems to have started losing its industrial production in the 1970s (Fig. 15), as its own oil production fell. Apart from the temporarily greater use of oil in shale drilling, the trend toward off-shoring industrial production will likely continue, regardless of the price of oil.

Figure 15. US per capita energy consumption by sector, based on EIA data.

 

 

 

Figure 15. US per capita energy consumption by sector, based on EIA data. Includes all types of energy, including the amount of fossil fuels that would need to be burned to produce electricity.

If we cannot expect low oil prices to favorably affect the industrial sector, the primary impact of lower oil prices will likely be on the transportation sector. (Little oil is used in the residential and commercial sectors.) Goods shipped by truck will be cheaper to ship. This will make imported goods, which are already cheap (thanks to the rising dollar), cheaper yet. Airlines may be able to add more flights, and this may add some jobs. But more than anything else, lower oil prices will encourage people to drive more miles in personal automobiles and will encourage the use of larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles. These uses are much less beneficial to the economy than adding high-paid industrial jobs.

Part 7. Saudi Arabia is not in a position to help the world with its low price oil problem, even if it wanted to. 

Many of the common beliefs about Saudi Arabia’s oil capacity are of doubtful validity. Saudi Arabia claims to have huge oil reserves, but as a practical matter, its growth in oil production has been modest. Its oil exports are actually down relative to its exports in the 1970s, and relative to the 2005-2006 period.

Figure 16. Saudi Arabia oil production, consumption, and exports, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 data.

 

 

 

Figure 16. Saudi Arabia’s oil production, consumption, and exports based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 data.

Low oil prices are having an adverse impact on the revenues that Saudi Arabia receives for exporting oil. In 2015, Saudi Arabia has so far issued bonds worth $5 billion US$, and plans to issue more to fill the gap in its budget caused by falling oil prices. Saudi Arabia really needs $100+ per barrel oil prices to fund its budget. In fact, nearly all of the other OPEC countries also need $100+ prices to fund their budgets. Saudi Arabia also has a growing population, so it needs rising oil exports just to maintain its 2014 level of exports per capita. Saudi Arabia cannot reduce its exports by 10% to 25% to help the rest of the world. It would lose market share and likely not get it back. Losing market share would permanently leave a “hole” in its budget that could never be refilled.

Saudi Arabia and a number of the other OPEC countries have published “proven reserve” numbers that are widely believed to be inflated. Even if the reserves represent a reasonable outlook for very long term production, there is no way that Saudi oil production can be ramped up greatly, without a large investment of capital–something that is likely not to be available in a low price environment.

In the United States, there is an expectation that when estimates are published, the authors will do their best to produce correct amounts. In the real world, there is a lot of exaggeration that takes place. Most of us have heard about the recent Volkswagen emissions scandal and the uncertainty regarding China’s GDP growth rates. Saudi Arabia, on a monthly basis, does not give truthful oil production numbers to OPEC–OPEC regularly publishes “third party estimates” which are considered more reliable. If Saudi Arabia cannot be trusted to give accurate monthly oil production amounts, why should we believe any other unaudited amounts that it provides?

Part 8. We seem to be at a point where major debt defaults will soon start for oil and other commodities. Once this happens, the resulting layoffs and bank problems will put even more downward pressure on commodity prices.

Wolf Richter has recently written about huge jumps in interest rates that are being forced on some borrowers. Olin Corp., a manufacture of chlor-alkali products, recently attempted to sell $1.5 billion in eight and ten year bonds with yields of 6.5% and 6.75% respectively. Instead, it ended up selling $1.22 billion of bonds with the same maturities, with yields of 9.75% and 10.0% respectively.

Richter also mentions existing bonds of energy companies that are trading at big discounts, indicating that buyers have substantial questions regarding whether the bonds will pay off as expected. Chesapeake Energy, the second largest natural gas driller in the US, has 7% notes due in 2023 that are now trading at 67 cent on the dollar. Halcon Resources has 8.875% notes due in 2021 that are trading at 33.5 cents on the dollar. Lynn Energy has 6.5% notes due in 2021 that are trading at 23 cents on the dollar. Clearly, bond investors think that debt defaults are not far away.

Bloomberg reports:

The latest round of twice-yearly reevaluations is under way, and almost 80 percent of oil and natural gas producers will see a reduction in the maximum amount they can borrow, according to a survey by Haynes and Boone LLP, a law firm with offices in Houston, New York and other cities. Companies’ credit lines will be cut by an average of 39 percent, the survey showed.

Debts of mining companies are also being affected with today’s low prices of metals. Thus, we can expect defaults and cutbacks in areas other than oil and gas, too.

There is a widespread belief that if prices remain low, someone will come along, buy the distressed assets at low prices, and ramp up production as soon as prices rise again. If prices never rise for very long, though, this won’t happen. The bankruptcies that occur will mean the end for that particular resource play. We won’t really be able to get prices back up to where they need to be to extract the resources.

Thus low prices, with no way to get them back up, and no hope of making a profit on extraction, are likely the way we reach limits in a finite world. Because low demand affects all commodities simultaneously, “Limits to Growth” equates to what might be called “Peak Resources” of all kinds, at approximately the same time.

How our energy problem leads to a debt collapse problem

oilwellgc2smOff the keyboard of Gail Tverberg

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Published on Our Finite World on September 14, 2015

oilwell

Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

Usually, we don’t stop to think about how the whole economy works together. A major reason is that we have been lacking data to see long-term relationships. In this post, I show some longer-term time series relating to energy growth, GDP growth, and debt growth–going back to 1820 in some cases–that help us understand our situation better.

When examining these long-term time series, I come to the conclusion that what we are doing now is building debt to unsustainably high levels, thanks to today’s high cost of producing energy products. I doubt that this can be turned around. To do so would require immediate production of huge quantities of incredibly cheap energy products–that is oil at less than $20 per barrel in 2014$, and other energy products with comparably low cost structures.

Our goal would need to be to get back to the energy cost levels that we had prior to the run-up in costs in the 1970s. Growth in energy use would probably need to rise back to pre-1975 levels as well. Of course, such a low-price, high-growth scenario isn’t really sustainable in a finite world either. It would have adverse follow-on effects, too, including climate change.

In this post, I explain the reasoning that leads to this conclusion. Some back-up information is provided in the Appendix as well.

Insight 1. Economic growth tends to take place when a civilization can make goods and services more cheaply–that is, with less human labor, and often with smaller quantities of resources of other kinds as well.

When an economy learns how to make goods more cheaply, the group of people in that economy can make more goods and services in total because, on average, each worker can make more goods and services in his available work-time. We might say that members of that economy are becoming more productive. This additional productivity can be distributed among workers, supervisors, governments, and businesses, allowing what we think of as economic growth.

Insight 2. The way that increased productivity usually takes place is through leveraging of human labor with supplemental energy from other sources.

The reason why we would expect supplemental energy to be important is because the amount of energy an individual worker can provide is not very great without access to supplemental energy. Analysis shows that human mechanical power amounts to about 100 watts over a typical laboring day–about equal to the energy of a 100-watt light bulb.

Human energy can be leveraged with other energy in many other forms–the burning of wood (for example, for cooking); the use of animals such as dogs, oxen, and horses to supplement our human labor; the harnessing of water or wind energy; the burning of fossil fuels and the use of nuclear energy. The addition of increasingly large amounts of energy products tends to lead to greater productivity, and thus, greater economic growth.

As an example of one kind of leveraging, consider the use of oil for delivering goods in trucks. A business might still be able to deliver goods without this use of oil. In this case, the business might hire an employee to walk to the delivery location and carry the goods to be delivered in his hands.

A big change occurs when oil and other modern fuels become available. It is possible to manufacture trucks to deliver goods. (In fact, modern fuels are needed to make the metals used in building the truck.) Modern fuels also make it possible to build the roads on which the truck operates. Finally, oil products are used to operate the truck.

With the use of a truck, the worker can deliver goods more quickly, since he no longer has to walk to his delivery locations. Thus, the worker can deliver far more goods in a normal work-day. This is the way his productivity increases.

Insight 3. Growth in GDP has generally been less than 1.0% more than the growth in energy consumption. The only periods when this was not true were the periods 1975-1985 and 1985-1995. 

This is an exhibit I prepared using data from the sources listed.

Figure 2. World GDP growth compared to world energy consumption growth for selected time periods since 1820. World real GDP trends for 1975 to present are based on USDA real GDP data in 2010$ for 1975 and subsequent. (Estimated by author for 2015.) GDP estimates for prior to 1975 are based on Maddison project updates as of 2013. Growth in the use of energy products is based on a combination of data from Appendix A data from Vaclav Smil's Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 for 1965 and subsequent.

 

 

 

 

Figure 1. World GDP growth compared to world energy consumption growth for selected time periods since 1820. World real GDP trends for 1975 to present are based on USDA real GDP data in 2010$ for 1975 and subsequent. (Estimated by author for 2015.) GDP estimates for prior to 1975 are based on Maddison project updates as of 2013. Growth in the use of energy products is based on a combination of data from Appendix A data from Vaclav Smil’s Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 for 1965 and subsequent.

The difference between energy growth and GDP growth is attributed to Efficiency and Technology. In fact, energy use and technology use work hand in hand. People don’t buy oil just to have oil; they buy oil for the services that devices using oil can provide. Efficiency is important too. If a device is cheaper to use, thanks to efficient use of energy, consumers find it more affordable (if the cost of the device itself is not too expensive). Thus, efficiency can lead to more use of energy.

The period between 1975 and 1985 was the period when the developed economies were making many changes including

  • Changes to make automobiles smaller and more fuel efficient
  • Replacement of oil-fired electricity generation with nuclear (which needed no fossil fuels for ongoing fuel) and with coal
  • Replacement of home heating using oil with more modern heating units, not using oil

Some of this effort continued into the 1985-1995 period, as newer cars gradually replaced older cars, and modern furnaces gradually replaced oil-fired furnaces. Thus, we should not be surprised that the 1975-1985 and 1985-1995 periods were the ones with unusually high growth in Efficiency/Technology.

Insight 4. The value of energy to society is not the same as the cost of extracting it, refining it, and shipping it to the desired end location.

The value of energy to society reflects the additional goods and services that we as a society can produce, thanks to the benefits energy adds to the system as a whole. This value can be either higher or lower than the cost of extracting the energy from the ground, processing it, and delivering it so that it will work in our devices.

If the price of oil, or of other energy products, is low, we would expect the cost of production to be lower than its value to society. We can visualize the relationship to be as shown in Figure 2. It is the low price that provides the leveraging benefit of oil.

Figure 2. Illustration by author.

 

 

 

 

Figure 2. Illustration by author.

In the example given in Insight 2 of the worker driving a truck over a road to deliver goods, there are actually many “players” involved:

  • The company extracting the oil
  • The government of the company extracting the oil
  • The business making the truck
  • The government of the country building the road
  • The business hiring the worker delivering the goods
  • The worker himself

The benefit of the efficiency gain is shared among the different players listed above. How this sharing is done is based on relative price levels and government tax levels. Thus, there are many different types of entities (which I refer to on Figure 2 as “consumers”) all getting a benefit from the leveraging impact of the oil products at the same time.

The value to society of oil and of other energy products is pretty much fixed, based on the energy content (in Btus or whatever other unit a person desires). The value to society can change a little with energy efficiency, if we learn to pave roads with less use of energy products, and if we learn to manufacture trucks with less use of energy products, and if we can make the trucks that use it become more efficient per mile.

If the cost of producing oil or other energy product rises (in other words, the left bar in Figure 2 gets taller), then the “gap” between the cost of production and the value to society (right bar) may fall too low. The amount of money to distribute, resulting from the gain that comes from using energy to leverage human labor, falls. None of the entities involved can get an adequate distribution: There is less money to pay interest payments on debt; there is less money to pay dividend payments to stockholders; there is less money to give the workers raises. In fact, it reminds me of the situation described in my post Why We Have an Oversupply of Almost Everything (Oil, labor, capital, etc.)

If there is too little gap between the selling price of oil and its value to society, there gets to be pressure for the price of oil to fall. Partly, this comes from low wage increases (because wages are being squeezed). If workers cannot buy finished products such as homes and cars, the price of commodities such as steel and oil tends to drop. This seems to be the situation today. Partly this pressure come from the fact that society can live for a while with “squeezed margins. Eventually, some of the “pain” needs to go back to the oil producers (the difference between the left bar and the middle bar on Figure 2), instead of only being borne by the oil consumers (the difference between the middle bar and the right bar on Figure 2). This is why we should expect the kind of oil price drop experienced in the past year.

Insight 5. We would expect world economic growth to slow as oil prices rise, because of Insights (1) and (2).

According to (1), we need to make goods increasingly cheaply to support economic growth. Oil is the energy product with the highest use worldwide. If its cost rises, it takes a huge amount of savings elsewhere in the system to allow the combination to continue to produce goods increasingly cheaply.

According to (2), it is the energy content that needs to rise. With higher prices, consumers can afford less. As a result, they tend to consume less, in energy content. This lower energy consumption lowers the leveraging of human energy, so there tends to be less economic growth.

Figure 3. Historical World Energy Price in 2014$, from BP Statistical Review of World History 2015.

 

 

 

 

Figure 3. Historical World Energy Price in 2014$, from BP Statistical Review of World History 2015.

Figure 3 shows world oil prices. Given Insights (1) and (2), we would expect the rate of economic growth to slow during the 1975-1985 period and during the 2005-2015 period, and indeed they do, in Figure 1.

Insight 6. Increasing debt seems to be a major driver of demand growth, and thus energy consumption.

There are many reasons why we would expect debt to be hugely beneficial to economic growth:

Debt is used to “smooth” many kinds of transactions. For example, the payment of wages to an individual represents a kind of debt, since otherwise, the employer would need to pay the worker daily, using the type of goods produced by the business–something that would be very inconvenient.

Debt is also helpful in enabling big financial transactions, such as the purchase of a house or a factory or a car. With debt, the amount that needs to be saved up in advance is greatly reduced. Most of the cost can be paid in monthly installments over the life of the item purchased. If debt is used to pay for a factory, the output of the factory can be used to repay the debt.

An indirect impact of adding debt is that it helps raise the price of commodities, such as oil, steel, and electricity. This happens because with the use of debt, “demand” for expensive products like homes, factories, and cars is greater, because more people and businesses can afford to buy them, thanks to the availability of debt. These expensive products are made with commodities like steel, wood, oil, and coal. With more debt, the prices of these commodities tend to balance at a higher level than they would otherwise. For example, oil prices may balance at $100 per barrel, instead of $70 per barrel. At these higher price levels, production from higher-cost sources becomes profitable–for example, oil from deeper wells, water from desalination, and coal transported over longer distances.

Because of these benefits of debt use, it is hard for me to imagine that fossil fuel extraction could have occurred without the use of very large amounts of debt. I first discussed this issue in Why Malthus Got His Forecast Wrong.

Figure 4 shows an estimate of how world debt has grown, on an annual, inflation-adjusted basis, compared to inflation-adjusted GDP. (See the Appendix for additional information.)

Figure 2. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods.

 

 

 

 

Figure 4. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods. See Appendix for information regarding calculation.

Figure 4 indicates that the growth of debt spurted about 1950. One influence may have been John Maynard Keynes’ book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, written in 1936. This book advocated the use of additional debt to stimulate economies that were growing at below their full potential. We also know that governments with war debts needed to offset the repayment of these war debts with new “peace debts” (debt available to businesses and consumers) if they didn’t want their economies to shrink for lack of debt growth. See my post The United States’ 65-Year Debt Bubble.

Insight 7. Once inflation-adjusted oil prices passed $20 per barrel, a change took place. We started needing much more debt to generate a dollar of GDP.   

This problem can be seen on Figure 4–the lines diverge, starting in the 1975-1985 period. Up until about 1975, the rise in debt levels was similar to GDP growth. In fact, if we look at Figure 1, energy growth also tended to grow with debt and GDP in the pre-1975 time period. After 1975, we started needing increasing amounts of debt to generate GDP growth.

We can understand the need for more debt by thinking about how leveraging really works. Leveraging works because of the energy content of the supplemental energy. To get the desired quantity of energy content, a larger dollar amount of investment is needed to produce the same quantity of energy, if the cost of producing the energy product is higher.

Most people look at debt growth as a percentage of GDP growth, but this misses an important dynamic: is our problem occurring because debt growth is high, or because GDP growth in response to the debt growth is low? When I look at Figure 4, my conclusion is that when energy costs were low–basically at pre-1975 levels of $20 a barrel for oil, and similarly cheap levels for nuclear and other fossil fuels–it was possible for debt growth to approximately match GDP growth. Once energy costs started to rise, more debt was needed. Some of this was additional debt related directly to the process of creating energy products; some of this debt related to international trade and to buyers’ need to finance higher-cost end products.

Based on Figure 4, even the drop back to the $30 to $40 per barrel range in the 1985 to 2000 period didn’t fix the rising debt to GDP ratio problem. To truly fix the situation, we need to get the cost of producing fuels to a low enough level that they can profitably be sold at the equivalent of less than $20 per barrel. With diminishing returns, this seems to be impossible.

Insight 8. Adding more energy efficiency may require more debt growth as well.

The biggest spurt of debt came in the 1975-1985 period. If we compare Figure 4 to Figure 1, and consider what was happening at that time, quite a bit of this additional debt may have related to changes associated with increased energy efficiency: new efficient nuclear electricity generation to replace generation of oil with electricity; new more efficient home heating to replace old oil based heating units; and the building of new, more fuel-efficient cars.

Insight 9. The limit we are reaching can be viewed as a debt limit.

If demand really comes from additional debt, then what we need to keep GDP growth high is debt that grows sufficiently rapidly. (An alternative way of keeping demand high would be through rising wages of non-elite workers. Unfortunately, these wages tend to be depressed by diminishing returns–a problem I wasn’t able to cover in this post. See my post, How Economic Growth Fails.)

Many people believe that energy demand can rise endlessly. It seems to me that this belief is very close to the belief that the ratio of debt to GDP can rise endlessly. 

Insight 10. Our debt system is very close to a Ponzi Scheme.

A Ponzi Scheme is a fraudulent investment program in which the operator promises a high rate of return to investors. Instead of obtaining these returns from true profits, the operator funds payouts to existing investors using ever-rising amounts of new investment. Eventually the plan fails, from lack of new investment dollars.

Our economic growth situation is not fraudulent, but otherwise it has uncomfortable similarities to a Ponzi Scheme. Instead of adding new investors each year, our economy needs to increase its amount of debt each year, in order to continue to grow GDP. GDP would not grow on its own, without additional investment funded by debt. To make matters worse, the required amount of additional debt rises, as the cost of producing additional energy products rises.

According to McKinsey Global Institute, global debt amounted to 286% of GDP in mid-2014. It had been “only” 246% of GDP in 2000. A person can see from Figure 4 that even with this rate of debt growth, both energy growth and GDP growth have been slowing in recent time periods. The answer would seem to be to add more debt growth. Unfortunately, adding more debt puts us in a position where debt repayments becomes too high relative to ongoing spending needs.

It is this debt problem that leads to my concern that we are headed for a near-term financial system crash. Even purposely slowing debt growth tends to make the economy slow, and thus lead to a crash. Because of the Ponzi nature of our arrangement, any kind of  slowing of debt growth is likely to lead to a debt crash. There are several reasons to support this contention:

  • With lower debt, commodity prices are likely to stay low, or fall further. Our economy’s long-term tendency toward inflation will shift toward deflation, making all existing debt harder to repay.
  • Without a rapid rise in debt, the price of oil and other commodities will tend to stay low, leading to huge defaults in these sectors.
  • Once debt defaults start, lenders are likely to require higher interest rates to compensate for rising level of defaults.

Appendix

Background on Long Term World GDP, Energy, and Debt Indications

Economic theories have grown up over roughly 200 years without the benefit of information regarding the relationship between economic growth, debt, and the use of energy products, on an aggregate basis. Long-term data are mostly compiled on an individual country basis. Many countries are missing from standard listings, especially for recent years and for distant past years, making unadjusted summations of the amounts shown misleading. Fluctuations in currency levels add to the confusion.

Because of these issues, it is quite possible for economists to develop theories, but never have good aggregate data to test them against. Aggregate data are very important to me, because we now live in a globalized world. It is hard to make sense of the world economy if the group of oil exporting nations shows one pattern, the group of newly industrialized countries shows another pattern, and the US, Europe, and Japan show a third pattern. Analyses limited to a handful of countries “like us” can provide very distorted indications.

Fortunately, there are some data sources that permit aggregation of data for the world as a whole. In particular, the USDA Economic Research Service conveniently “fills in the blanks” with reasonable estimates of GDP, making it possible to sum indications to a world total, at least for 1969 and subsequent. Another source of world GDP data is the  “Maddison Project,” started by Angus Maddison and now updated by Bolt and van Zanden. Long-term world energy data are also available from BP for 1965 and subsequent years, and from Smil, for the years 1820 to 2008, but there are data differences that need to be bridged to combine them.

Figure 1A is a repeat of Figure 1 above, showing the long-term trend in world GDP, broken down between growth in energy use and other changes, primarily related to improvement in technology and greater efficiency.

Figure 2. World GDP growth compared to world energy consumption growth for selected time periods since 1820. World real GDP trends for 1975 to present are based on USDA real GDP data in 2010$ for 1975 and subsequent. (Estimated by author for 2015.) GDP estimates for prior to 1975 are based on Maddison project updates as of 2013. Growth in the use of energy products is based on a combination of data from Appendix A data from Vaclav Smil's Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 for 1965 and subsequent.

 

 

 

 

Figure 1A. World GDP growth compared to world energy consumption growth for selected time periods since 1820. World real GDP trends for 1975 to present are based on USDA real GDP data in 2010$ for 1975 and subsequent. (Estimated by author for 2015.) GDP estimates for prior to 1975 are based on Maddison project updates as of 2013. Growth in the use of energy products is based on a combination of data from Appendix A data from Vaclav Smil’s Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 for 1965 and subsequent.

Based on Figure 1A, growth of energy consumption ranged from 52% to 89% of GDP growth. Over the period 1965 to present, growth in energy consumption averaged 68% of GDP. Some academic research gives a similar result. Gael Geraud, who analyzes the results for 50 countries between 1970 and 2011, says that in the timeframe he studied, “The long-run output elasticity evolved between 60% and 70%.” Geraud’s results contrast with an economic theory that says that energy is only responsible for a share of economic growth proportional to its cost as a percentage of GDP–typically something like 8%.

If we look at the Efficiency/Technology piece separately, the only times it contributed more than 1% per year to economic growth were during the 1975-1985 and 1985-1995 timeframes, when GDP growth exceeded energy growth by 1.4% and 1.3% respectively. This was the time when major changes to the economy were being made in response to the price spikes of the 1970s. As indicated in Figure 4A, this was also the time when increases in debt were very high relative to GDP growth, suggesting that very high debt growth is needed to produce these higher efficiency gains.

Figure 2A shows another way of looking at the same data as in Figure 1A. The slope of the fitted line is .97, indicating that energy consumption and GDP have tended to grow at almost the same rate over the long term.

Figure 4. Data in Figure 3, displayed in X-Y chart format.

 

 

 

 

Figure 2A. Data in Figure 1, displayed in X-Y chart format.

Of course, the extraction of energy products is enabled by technology growth. Consumers want the use of end products (like refrigerators and cars), not the use of the fuel itself.  Increased energy efficiency also enables growth in energy use, because it makes products cheaper for buyers, enabling economic growth. For example, Figure 3A shows the rapid growth in electricity usage in the 1900 to 1998 time period, as US electricity prices fell.

Figure 3. Ayres and Warr Electricity Prices and Electricity Demand, from

 

 

 

 

Figure 3A. Ayres and Warr Electricity Prices and Electricity Demand, from “Accounting for growth: the role of physical work.”

Another thing besides technology and energy efficiency that enables the extraction of fossil fuels is growth in debt. Here again, there is a problem with inadequate data, on a long-term worldwide basis. We have some information about recent global debt ratios to GDP based on a McKinsey study. In addition, Bawerk provides a graph showing a long-term rise in the ratio of US total credit market debt to GDP. Longer-term debt patterns related to US Federal debt by itself are also available. One thing that becomes clear is that there has been a strong upward trend in debt levels, relative to GDP, for the US and for the world, for a very long period.

If we use worldwide data to the extent it is available, and substitute US total debt ratios on early periods, it is possible to make a reasonable approximation as to how this growth in debt must have taken place. To correct for inflation, I have applied these debt to GDP ratios to the inflation-adjusted GDP amounts underlying Figure 1A. Once we have debt amounts on an inflation-adjusted basis, it is possible to calculate average annual growth rates in this inflation-adjusted debt. This is what I show in Figure 4A.

Figure 3. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods.

 

 

 

 

Figure 4A. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods.

Since 1975, energy has gradually been changing to require much more debt per unit of energy produced, for three reasons:

  1. The overall cost of production of these energy products rose starting in the mid-1970s. As a result, debt went “less far” when it came to producing additional barrels of oil or kilowatt-hours of electricity.
  2. The nature of energy production began shifting toward greater use of front-end investment compared to ongoing expense. This change led to a need for more debt, because front-end investment tends to be financed by debt, while ongoing expense does not. Examples requiring heavy front-end investment include oil sands, oil from shale, deep-sea oil projects, wind turbines, and solar PV.
  3. If investment costs are low, oil and gas companies can often use profits from prior projects to finance new projects, so there is no real need for borrowing. When profits are squeezed by rapidly rising extraction costs, as has been the case in recent years, oil companies begin to borrow to pay ordinary expenses, such as paying dividends. They are so cash-strapped that almost any expense needs to be accomplished using debt.

The rest of the economy has also experienced a greater need for debt as energy prices rise. For example, oil imported at a high price requires much more debt than oil imported at a low price. A house built using expensive oil and other energy products is more expensive to purchase, and so requires a higher mortgage. When automobiles are made to be more fuel efficient, this tends to raise their cost and thus, the amount of debt required by those purchasing those automobiles.

It is clear that this increase in debt ratios cannot continue endlessly, for reasons discussed in the main text. Perhaps those evaluating alternative energy sources should be computing estimated “energy return on debt investment” ratios for these new sources. The ideal new energy source will be very close to self-funding, with little build-up of debt.

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