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Published on The Daily Impact on September 12, 2016
When an oil well like Deepwater Horizon explodes, the images are unforgettable. When the entire industry starts to collapse, it’s hard to see and to remember.
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
In a recent essay I proposed the existence of a new human subspecies – homo sapiens ephemera — that is smart (thus sapiens) but severely afflicted by attention deficit disorder and long-term memory loss. Thus ephemera may understand, for example, the connection between a burning fuse at his feet and an imminent explosion, but almost immediately forgets it, goes on to something else, and is surprised by the blast. Nowhere is this behavior more evident than in the U.S. oil patch, whose collapse, predicted here and elsewhere for years, is now described by none other than Moody’s Investors Service, quoted in Bloomberg News as “catastrophic” and perhaps “the worst bust of any industry this century.”
Does anybody remember the Savings and Loan debacle? The Enron (“smartest guys in the room”) implosion? The Dot-Com collapse? And the Sub-Prime Mortgages that Ate the World? After each of these episodes, Ephemera slapped his slanted forehead and said, “Boy, that was dumb. But nobody could have seen it coming.” Put on your protective headgear, because it’s happening again.
When they came to you, Ephemera, and asked you to invest gazillions of dollars up front in the New American Oil Revolution, they talked about energy independence! and America, Number One! and everything back the way it was in 1950! But the burning fuse at your feet was about fracking wells that cost ten times that of a conventional oil well and play out nearly ten times faster, about exploding trains and polluted water and earthquakes, in a market that would soon devalue the product by 50%.
Of course you gave them the money. You bought their stock, you bought their bonds, you bought their junk bonds. You lent them money, and when they couldn’t pay it back you lent them more to roll over the debt, which almost immediately became enormous because every one of those expensive wells had to be replaced every three years. You let them convert your secured debt to unsecured debt, or to watered down stock, or to fairy dust. Now, according to Moody’s, there has finally been an explosion. Who could have seen that coming?
Moody’s reports that twice as many oil and gas companies have gone bankrupt so far this year than did so in all of last year. Investors affected by these failures have seen an average 21 percent return. No, that’s not return on their investment, it’s return of their investment; they lost 80 per cent of their money. And those were secured lenders; junk-bond holders got back 6 cents for every dollar they invested.
Yet the fuse burns on. In the Bakken fracking field in North Dakota, for example, where no oil company has made any money, even when oil was priced at over $100 a barrel, where the total accumulated debt of the players is north of $30 billion, where production has been declining for over a year with oil prices below $50 and well below the cost of production — the zombie companies, almost all of them technically insolvent, continue to borrow operating money through such creative pitches as “distressed exchanges.”
The fuse burns faster, smokes even more, and doesn’t have much farther to go. What’s that? Hillary sneezed? Tell me more…..
Published on The Doomstead Diner on August 21, 2016
Discuss this article at the Education Table inside the Diner
A few weeks ago we saw a NEW Collapse Problem crop up, which is that apparently we have a GLUT of Lawyers! (this article has been on ice for a while due to other pressing collapse issues needing attentinon at Sunday Brunch)
Similar to Chinese over-capacity in Steel production, here in the FSoA we graduate too many Lawyers! These folks are graduating with upwards of $200K in Goobermint Insured Debt, and at least half the time they can't find a job as a Lawyer and end up pitching Cappucinos at Starbucks after graduation. Even with a $15/hr Minimum Wage, you're not going to pay off a $200K debt in any reasonable period of time.
The NYT wrote about this problem, focusing down on one particular mid-level Law Skule which has been trying to survive over the last decade or so, though sadly for them the number of suckers applying for spots in their classes has been steadily decreasing here.
“People are not being helped by going to these schools,” Kyle McEntee, executive director of the advocacy group Law School Transparency, said of Valparaiso and other low-tier law schools. “The debt is really high, bar passage rates are horrendous, employment is horrendous.”
Bad Newz of course for a lot of folks currently graduating from Law Skule, and Charles Hugh Smith over on Of Two Minds covered this problem with a GREAT SOLUTION! Shut down more Law Skules and get rid of the over-supply of Lawyers!
The only solution for the surplus of workers with law degrees is a massive, permanent reduction in the issuance of new law graduates.
CHS further informs us in this article that it's not just too many Lawyers we are graduating, we also are graduating too many Ph.D.s, M.D.s, D.D.S.s etc. We just don't have enough well paying JOBS for all these well educated people, so CLEARLY in CHS's Humble Opinion, the only solution for this is to shut down these schools and get rid of the glut!
Except…wait a minute…
Just about everyone in the MSM and the Blogosphere too says that our big problem is how our Education system has failed and how we can't compete with the Chinese because we don't have enough Smart and Well Trained people who can fill jobs in the High Tech world!
Which one is it here? Do we have TOO MANY well educated people or TOO FEW educated people?
You can quite obviously drop this down a level to the Baccalaureate Degree. Why are we graduating so many people with a BA when they don't need it for any jobs that are available for them to take? I mean really, you don't need a degree in Petroleum Engineering to concoct a Frappucino at Starbucks, right? You don't need an IT degree to flip burgers at Mickey's Ds either! These however are the GROWING employment “opportunities” in the society, while those nice high paying jobs as Corporate Lawyers and Energy Industry Shills are ever decreasing here. So by Charles Hugh Smith logic, obviously what we need to do here is shut down more Colleges also!
But why stop there? Face it, you don't need a High School diploma either to Wash Cars or Cut Lawns or serve the tables at Red Robin or Fridays or stock the shelves at Walmart. Hell, you don't even need to know how to add or subtract! The POS terminal does that for you! About all you really need to know is how to read and how to sign your W-2 form for the IRS. Otherwise you basically fulfill a Robotic Function in the society, which of course is ALSO replaceable by actual ROBOTS!
So now with the cost of Minimum Wage workers rising, of course the SOLUTION to this one is to substitute real Robots for the low skill set workers, which of course further depletes the number of jobs available even for Elementary School Graduates! Why bother going to Skule AT ALL? Just fuck it, it is clearly a WASTE OF TIME!
Not just a waste of time, but a waste of money too! WTF are we all paying HUGE TAXES to keep these fucking Elementary, Middle and High Skules open? The WASTE is incredible! Bloated Administrations, massive Pension obligations, this is just a total MONEY SINK! The damn Teachers and their Unions allow sub-standard teachers to keep teaching also!
So quite obviously here under the Charles Hugh Smith Memorial Economic Recovery Program, what we need to do is get rid of all the schools and all the teachers! Shrink it down, let the Supply match the Demand! LOL. The “Free Market” should determine who gets an education and who does not!
Of course, I am stretching this one out to its logical conclusion and doing some exaggeration, and even a dimwit Capitalista Libertarian like CHS would unlikely be in favor of eliminating all schools down through HS level. Although not sure on that one, perhaps he would support that idea, as long as for pay Private Schools were made available for those who could afford them.
This IS though the fundamental argument that is being pitched out. We have too many schools graduating too many people with advanced degrees, and we don't NEED them! So therefore, we should eliminate the schools in order to reduce the number of graduates in order to meet the actual demand for such graduates. Just like the Chinese should shutter over capacity in Steel and Coal Mining.
If you accept this idea as TRUE, then just how exactly is it that there is any social mobility whatsoever left in the society? If you shut down Law Schools and Med Schools and Dental Schools in order to reduce the number of graduates from these institutions, then HTF do people enter those professions, since they are Gate-Kept and require a degree from such an institution to practice?
In addition, if there is truly a “glut” of such folks, then WTF are their salaries so high? My lawyer billed out at something like $400/hr for his work on my WC case, which thankfully I did not have to pay but the losing Insurance Company had to pay, which also of course was very gratifying for me and profitable for my lawyer. LOL. My Neurosurgeon charged something like $1000 every time I stepped through his office door, whether I saw him or not, and with the exception of one time for about 10 minutes in the office I never did. He only showed up for a reasonable period of time of like 3 hours when he carved up my neck during the surgery, although I didn't see him then either since the Anaesthesiologist had me knocked out cold. I did not see him ever afterward either, just Nurses and apprentice Doctors on the neurosurgical ward. For this 3 hour period, I got charged around $150K, or $50K/hr. Even accounting for the Neurosurgeon, his Assistant, the Anaesthesiologist, 2 Nurses & 2 Technicians, HTF do you come up with a bill like that for 3 hours on the table? Somebody is padding the bill, that is how.
If there truly were too many people graduating Med Skule with Neurosurgery degrees, Neurosurgeons would not be able to charge anywhere near such outrageous fees. If there truly were too many people graduating from Dental Skules, dentists couldn't charge their outrageous fees either.
Unlike the Lawyers though, the Dentists caught on to this trend a lot earlier and began shutting down Dental Skules in the 90s, at least according to CHS. So an artificial scarcity is maintained in order to keep the salaries up. Unfortunately for the Dentists though, fewer people all the time can afford their charges, and so more people like me head for Mexico to get Dental Work done, at about 20 cents on the dollar there. lol. In Alaska, a Dentist will charge $300 to yank a tooth out of your mouth. Down in Mexico, an equally well trained Dentist will do the same thing for $25. This is a good deal less than 20 cents on the dollar, but for stuff like implants it is higher so I averaged it out. lol.
The Doctors are not doing much better here, their internship system is in complete dissaray, and Ph.Ds even in the science and tech fields are not doing too good. So why do people continue to go into these programs and work up huge debt bills they are unlikely to ever be able to pay off, until 25 years down the line the debt supposedly will be “forgiven”?
Two main reasons.
First off the myth still exists that Education is the ticket out from a low paid job and into the Upper Middle Class or even the Upper Class of the society. Although your chances are SLIM these days of landing one of these high paying jobs even with the education, without the education the chances are NONE. So you essentially roll the dice with a $200K gamble that you will be one of the lucky few who gets one of the few plum jobs still left out there.
Practically speaking however, those jobs are going only to graduates from Top Tier Universities like Harvard, Yale, MIT, Princeton, Columbia etc. If you went to Indiana State University, you are pretty much SOL unless you were Valedictorian, and there can be only one of those in a graduating class. The cost for those top tier universities also have gone through the roof, so you don't even have to go to grad skule to work up a $200K bill. Tuition, Room & Board at Harvard is now over $60K. That's $240K for a 4 year undergraduate degree. You really want one of those top Wall Street jobs, it's another $159K for a 2 year MBA, ringing up a Grand Total of right around $400K. You better land a job at Goldman pretty quick here! I'm not even sure you can do this entirely on loans, I think you are capped at $200K. So this Career Path is pretty much only for kids from already rich parents who can pay the freight out of pocket. Say good-by Social Mobility!
The second main reason the Students are taking out these loans is because it delays going out into a workforce where there aren't even decent full time jobs, and the loans provide them money to live on during the 4 years they are studying….something. I'm sure by now many of them realize that when they finally do walk out the University Door their Sheepskin won't do a damn thing to help their job chances, but at least they get 4 years to learn something or party or both.
So, clearly here the model is failing, and the process of shutting down professional schools is beginning, and smaller private colleges are also shutting down. The Public Universities are still getting funded by taxation, but even their Tuitions have ratcheted up so you'll walk out of one of them with a decent size debt also. Bernie Sanders promised a FREE College Education for everyone, but precisely how he would have funded this is an open question. Bernie is not getting elected anyhow, so it's doubtful we see this solution anytime too soon.
With public universities themselves requiring students take on a lot of debt, more of them will decide to forgo college, resulting in smaller numbers of students, further stressing the University budgets. More professors will be laid off to close the budget gap, and fewer spots for newly graduated Ph.D.s will be available, leading to a still larger glut of the “over-educated” on the unemployment lines. This is a typical Deflationary Spiral.
So what is the Model for the future here?
Well, if Politicians would admit the current model is failing, we might have a chance here, but of course they will not admit that. The myth that a College Education is the ticket to a high paying career needs to be maintained. Besides that the Banks also need students to keep taking out loans so they stay afloat, with the assumption here that Da Goobermint will eventually Bail Out all the delinquent loans. So they'll keep feeding the Zombie as long as they can.
In reality, the entire education system past Elementary School should be scrapped. Once they have learned the 3Rs, students should be given Internships, beginning with learning how to grow food with permaculture, hydroponics and aquaculture. Then an internship in building shelters from avilable materials and scavenging and repurposing old equipment. Then an internship in food handling and preservation and butchering animals. Then an internship in Stone Tool Knapping for the future when all the old metal tools have rusted away. After that they can do an internship in Medicinal Herbs and basic First Aid including setting broken bones and treating gunshot wounds, which there are bound to be a lot of until the ammo runs out. Then they can do an internship in basic dentistry, how to do tooth extractions and how to mend broken teeth and make appliances like bridges and dentures.
Each of these internships could be 1-2 years in length, working under the tutelage of a current expert in the various fields, or as close to an expert as you can find anyhow. So if you start at Age 13 after graduating from the 6th Grade, here is your SUN☼ Foundation Internship Education Plan:
1- Food Production- 2 years- Age 13-15
2- Shelter Building- 1 Year- Age 15-16
3- Scavenging and Mechanics- 1 year- Age 16-17
4- Food Handling & Preservation- 1 year Age 17-18
5- Stone Tool Knapping- 1 year Age 18-19
6- Medicinal Herbs and Basic Medicine: 2 years Age 19-21
7- Basic Dentistry: 2 years Age 21-23
Upon completing all the Apprenticeships, everyone will have basic training in all necessary tasks for the society. Obviously, not everyone is equal in ability and some will be stronger in some areas than others, and they may specialize in an area over time if they happen to be good at it, moving upward to Journeyman and Master. However, everyone is taught the basics and the final Graduation around Age 23 is a good age to then start a Family of your own to continue the cycle.
Apprenticeships are all Unpaid, you just get your Room & Board. All the Masters are also Unpaid by the Students, training new practitioners for all specialty areas is a requirement in order to practice. Ideally this would run under a Potlatch Gift Economy with no money in the society at all, but it could also be run using a LETS currency system.
Because this is a practical solution which addresses the actual needs we will have moving into the future, you can be sure it will not be implemented until after the current economic and education models completely crash.
However, we will be Waiting in the Wings at SUN☼ with this model ready to implement when the time comes to Build a Better Tomorrow.
Originally Published on Clusterfuck Nation August 8, 2016
Wake the fuck up! Today we turn from the sordid dumbshow of Election 2016 to the parlous mysteries of finance and economics behind our sick politics. Most of the commentary in the mainstream special needs news media is based on the incorrect notion that the current disposition of things is sure to continue and therefore all we have to do is manage the familiar dynamics of the operating system in place. For instance, Grand Vizier Paul Krugman in today’s New York Timespimping for the US to issue ever-greater debt to repair US infrastructure. Does it seem like a sound idea? Borrow tons more money to get American running gear back in order so we can return to a growth economy. (There’s even a Trumpian gloss to it.)
Here’s the catch: the “growth economy” of which they chatter is done. You can stick a fork in it. The techno-industrial fantasia is drawing to a close. We are heading into a long term contraction of activity, productivity, and population and the salient question is how disorderly will the long emergency of the journey be to that new disposition of things?
The wish to keep all our rackets running is understandable. They have provided a lot of comfort, convenience, and luxury. But we are no longer in Alexander Hamilton’s world of cornucopian American abundance, just needing to borrow a little from the future to get at the gargantuan riches of a wilderness empire. We’ve been there and done that, and our present-day techno-narcissistic wish to replace all that spent material abundance with a Pokemon Go virtual reality economy is sure to lead to epochal disenchantment.
Borrowing from the future only works when you have some real prospect of paying the future back. The institutions that govern borrowing have been pretending for some time that our debts can be paid back. The untruth of this can be easily traced to the revocation of FASB (the Financial Accounting Standards Board) Rule 157 in 2009, which said that banks no longer had to report the market value of the loans on their books, but rather could make up any old number that made things appear to pencil out. In other words FASB decided that standards were optional. But that is only one cog in the great wheel of fraud that has rotated mercilessly with the seasons since the Fall of 2008.
What we face is discontinuity, the end of old spent dynamics and the beginning of new dynamics. Monetary deflation has been underway for years because that’s what happens when debts can’t be repaid: money vanishes. Now we will encounter the other dimensions of deflation: the contraction of manufacturing, trade, wages, and all the familiar markers of expansion in the waning techno-industrial era. The many dodges and stratagems tried by the supreme central bankers to work around contraction only produce ever greater distortions in markets, currencies, and the distribution of dwindling capital, leading to a grand battle over the table-scraps of history, i.e. the rise of radical politics world-wide, including Islamic Jihadism, and the western response in Trump, LePen, and the nascent Germanic right-wing. These current manifestations may be mild versions of what’s coming.
Nobody in power can come to grips with the reality of our situation. We have to salvage what we can and get smaller, becoming a more modest presence here, or the planet itself is going to hit the delete button on us. It rubs against the current religion of progress, which has replaced the other old cultic practices. The choice now is between time-out or game over, and the debate over these things is absent from the arena.
The aforesaid distortions in markets, currencies, and capital are spinning out in an ever broader, centrifugal gyre, coinciding, as chance would have it, with the most peculiar election in modern times. The incoherence and deceit on both sides is far beyond even the extravagant American norms of dauntless political bullshit. We literally have no idea what we’re doing in this country, or what we’re actually wishing for. The financial structures of everyday life look more fragile than ever. Gravity always wins.
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.
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)
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Published on FEASTA on April 13, 2016
Discuss this article at the Economics Table inside the Diner
This article addresses the role of demurrage (negative interest) in the design of new currencies. But it takes a roundabout route with diversions around the zero and negative interest rates being currently applied to fiat money; and a detour via positive interest which is itself a stranger idea than we have been led to believe. It suggests that demurrage is worth a place in the designer’s kitbag, but not for the reason normally postulated.
The basic idea of interest is simple. It’s a special type of rent. If we loan out something we have no immediate need for ourselves, it seems reasonable that the borrower should pay us rent for its use. So interest is a rent on money.
A fundamental problem with the rent rationale in general occurs when the ‘property’ concerned is a public good – a commons which has been enclosed – or where it has been secured by violence or some other unfair means. In that case we might feel a little aggrieved at having property we feel we should have a degree of proprietorship over sold or rented back to us. This is the way many people feel about water for example.
Another issue arises when the property owner has (and will have) no need for the property themselves and have acquired it only for its rental value. Seeking a store of value via investment is understandable but when the asset class created is a ‘stuff of life’ good, tensions are sure to arise because investors are affecting the price of essentials. The more they can corner the market the more they can increase the cost of basic living. This seems to be increasingly the case with housing.
There is some mileage in a perspective which considers Money as a Commons . But the rental of surplus money, where that surplus is the result of the ‘sweat of the brow’ – the energy and innovation of the lender – can be defended to an extent. Unfortunately very little money lent is in this category. Most of it (97% it is said ) appears in our accounts as bank loans, created ex-nihilo specifically for the purpose by commercial banks. This is mostly well understood now and any doubters who still believe loans are redeployed money from savers are usually referred to the Bank of England paper on the subject . The interest earned is a significant revenue stream for the banks  that have been given the right to create money-as-credit. This right is not merited – it is a privilege that forms part of the unarticulated Bank-State Bargain .
So interest as we know it is rather a stranger animal (with a weaker rationale) than we might have thought.
There is a huge literature on interest/ usury of which the most compelling and readable recent examples are from http://www.kreatoczest.com/kz_publishing_ourtitles-pwi.htm”>Tarek el Diwany and the late Margrit Kennedy. But it ain’t going away any time soon, though it almost certainly must do in the degrowth economy that the planet needs.
For a good number of years the so-called base rate – the interest rate set by a central bank for lending to other banks – was seen as the key tool in the policymaker’s kitbag. (If at this point you are wondering why a bank that can create money out of nothing needs to borrow from the central bank, you’re not alone. We’ve all been there .) During this ‘monetarist’ phase the prevailing view was that by making money cheaper (lowering interest rates) you would cause more loans to be advanced by the banks and stimulate the economy.
This view has been progressively (and inconveniently for the orthodox school) exposed as an unhelpful over-simplification (i.e. b****cks) for three reasons. First if there is lack of confidence in the future among borrowers, lowering borrowing cost will not automatically trigger more lending (the ‘pushing on a string’ argument); secondly because additional money created may be invested rather than spent, causing asset bubbles (e.g. in housing) which dilute the effect; and thirdly because the ‘call to consume’ is being increasingly resisted.
It is often said that ‘money needs to circulate’. This is not just the mantra of the consumer economy where we all have the citizen’s primary duty of consuming ourselves into oblivion. It is also quoted by currency activists who will claim a higher velocity of exchange for their currencies and a consequent incremental effect on local GDP. The implicit assumption is that more is always better – perhaps unsurprising in a society where GDP is still seen as the primary measure of progress.
More is not always better though. Economists have used the term ‘marginal utility’ to describe the additional satisfaction a consumer gains from consuming one more unit of a good or service. Indeed a key function of advertising is to emphasise the illusory status-improvement associated with purchases in order to boost the perception of marginal utility. But the zeitgeist is changing. There is a cultural emptiness associated with the ‘you are what you buy’ proposition, and this is beginning to express itself via an old-fashioned reluctance to buy unneccesarily. Add the effect of austerity and you have a recipe for resistance.
In response, central banks, who to be fair have very few policy levers at their disposal anyway, have decreased base rates down close to zero with insufficient effect and are now exploring negative interest rate policies (NIRP). So in a forlorn attempt to get banks to lend more they are effectively being charged for leaving reserves with the central bank.
The general idea of demurrage as an accelerator of exchange has been around for a long time, its full delineation often being attributed to Silvio Gesell . In a currency design context the means of exchange function is usually considered paramount, and demurrage is seen to give the holders a ‘use it or lose it’ nudge towards spending.
My problem with it is that although the idea significantly predates 20th century consumerism, it still seems to reinforce the idea that we should buy stuff that we don’t need or really want. In a complementary currency context where the currency operates alongside fiat, ‘rusty money’ would presumably be spent before fiat, giving the currency an ‘edge’, but it still feels as if we are being bounced somewhat into the transaction. Maybe this is a personal thing; or a preciousness – certainly the German Chiemgauer currencies claim demurrage as a key success factor . But its attraction in pre-consumerist times was probably related to the fact that most spending options were local then, so more spending meant more local exchange. Nowadays most spending sucks money out of local economies.
Where a currency is in its early stages or where the remit of the currency self-limits and there are a limited range of goods and services on offer, demurrage feels heavy handed. Overall it seems a somewhat artificial device encouraging users to live beyond their needs.
However demurrage in the right format may facilitate self-financing. In its classic stamp-scrip form holders of currency notes had to periodically buy a stamp for (say) 2% of the note value and attach it to the note for it to preserve its value. The stamp though was paid for in fiat currency so we are back to supping with the deprecated devil. For digital currencies, the option exists to simply deduct a percentage of the account holders balance. That deduction can be routed to the currency administration account and in the words of Pat Conaty et al  enables “cooperative accumulation”. In a mutual credit context both positive and negative balances can be adjusted in this way – an approach varied in some new designs  and reminiscent of Keynes’ design for the Bancor whcih was aimed at balancing international trade flows .
A variation on this theme was suggested by the late Richard Douthwaite, who in his design for Liquidity Networks drew a distinction between currency units that had been given into circulation and those that had been earned. The former he felt might be suitable for the application of demurrage; the latter were not. The rationale here is that ‘taxing’ earned units is on balance a disincentive, whereas taxing unearned income with the aim of increasing liquidity is on balance fair. (The example of currency units which are spent into circulation by a sponsor such as local government is a halfway-house case where the rationale could perhaps be argued both ways.)
For currency project start-ups, finding the capital for step-change developments is likely to be problematic. For those that see themselves as fiat-averse , options are further limited. For such projects an alternative (or addition) to demurrage is to levy a transaction tax and set that aside for capital investment. This traditional approach to investment via savings might seem quaint and long-winded in comparison with what is now the usual borrow-fiat-to-invest model but it does have the attraction of decreasing outside dependency – a dependency on a deprecated system we are looking to reinvent. So if we can delay our gratification (which is after all meant to be the characteristic of an adult) this may be the right approach.
A secondary benefit of a transaction tax is in controlling gaming of the system. And since we should expect gaming (typically via false transactions) as soon as we introduce any differentiated reward/ penalty scheme, this would be no bad thing.
: Graham Barnes: Money as a Commons http://www.feasta.org/2014/09/05/money-as-a-commons/
[2,3]: Michael McLeay, Amar Radia and Ryland Thomas: Money creation in the modern economy:
Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin 2014 Q1 http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/quarterlybulletin/2014/qb14q1prereleasemoneycreation.pdf
: Joseph Huber, James Robertson: Creating New Money (1997)
The authors estimated the gains possible through reclaiming seignorage from UK banks at GBP 47 billion – equivalent at the time to 15% of total UK tax take. The GBP 200 billion + figure is NEF’s updated calculation for 2012.
: Graham Barnes: The Bank-State Bargain: http://www.feasta.org/2015/03/31/the-bank-state-bargain/
: Tarek el Diwani: Tne Problem with Interest http://www.kreatoczest.com/kz_publishing_ourtitles-pwi.htm
: Margrit Kennedy: Interest and Inflation Free Money
: See Positive Money http://positivemoney.org/
Essentially it’s because when they create credit-money as a loan, they create both an asset (the loan) and a balancing liability (the credit in the borrowers account) simultaneously.
: Silvio Gesell: “The Natural Economic Order”  e.g. “Only money that goes out of date like a newspaper, rots like potatoes, rusts like iron, evaporates like ether, is capable of standing the test as an instrument for the exchange of potatoes, newspapers, iron and ether. For such money is not preferred to goods either by the purchaser or the seller. We then part with our goods for money only because we need the money as a means of exchange, not because we expect an advantage from possession of the money. So we must make money worse as a commodity if we wish to make it better as a medium of exchange.”
: Christian Gelleri: Chiemgauer Regiomoney: Theory and Practice of a Local Currency
: David Bollier and Pat Conaty: Democratic Money and Capital for the Commons
: Colin McKay’s Deror: http://www.deror.org/ has an interesting design variation, progressively cancelling both credits and debits
: Graham Barnes: New currencies and their relationship with fiat currency
Featured image: Wörgl Shilling, a demurrage currency. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demurrage_%28currency%29#/media/File:Freigeld1.jpg
Published on the Our Finite World on May 12, 2016
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
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.
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:
I got my idea for Figure 2 from a natural gas resource triangle by Stephen Holditch.
A similar resource triangle is available for coal (from National Academies Press; Coal Resource, Reserve, and Quality Assessments):
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.)
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.
Published on the Our Finite World on May 2, 2016
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
During this time, a major price bubble occurred in land prices (Figure 2).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Published on The Doomstead Diner on April 27, 2016
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In our latest installment of the Collapse Update Report, Steve and me cover Energy Industry Bankruptcies, Mass Shootings & Suicides and trying to resolve monetary and fiscal problems utilizing Gold as Money.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 7 shows that world debt has been falling since June 30, 2014. This is precisely the time when world oil prices started falling.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
We have been living in a world of rapid globalization, but this is not a condition that we can expect to continue indefinitely.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Published on FEASTA on March 23, 2016
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The Boom and Bust of Sub Prime Oil and Natural Gas
Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first send mad
The aim of this article is to show that the shale industry, whether extracting oil or gas, has never been financially sustainable. All around the world it has consistently disappointed profit expectations. Even though it has produced considerable quantities of oil and gas, and enough to influence oil and gas prices, the industry has mostly been unprofitable and has only been able to continue by running up more and more debt. How could this be? It seems paradoxical and defies ordinary economic logic. The answer is to be found in the way that the shale gas sector has been funded. It is part of a bubble economy inflated by monetary policy that has kept down interest rates. This has made investors “hunt for yield”. These investors believed that they had found a paying investment in shale companies – but they were really proving that they were susceptible to wishful thinking, vulnerable to hype and highly unethical practices that enabled Wall Street and other bankers to do very nicely. Those who invested in fracking are going to lose a lot of money.
A Global Picture of disappointed expectations
Around the world big expectations for fracking have not been realised. One example is Argentina where shale oil reserves were thought to rival those in the USA. It is a country where there has been local opposition while central government pushed the industry in alliance with multinational companies and its own company YPC. However profitability has been elusive. To have any hope of profitability shale development has to be done at scale to rapidly bring down costs enough to make a profit. That requires a lot of capital and companies will not make this capital available without being sure that they are going to make a lot of money – but they cannot be sure until they have done tests for up to two years.
“It’s a sort of chicken and egg dilemma. Without profits, the estimated $20 billion a year needed to develop the play won’t come. And without this investment in drilling tens of thousands of wells, the economies of scale won’t be reached on the fields to cut costs.
“A reason not to rush into production — only 400 wells have been drilled — is that wells must be tested for up to two years to gauge the potential of the shale rock before a company will commit billions of dollars. This is especially the case now that low global oil prices have slimmed investment budgets for frontier plays.” (Charles Newbury, “Struggles to cut cost delay oil production in Argentina” Platts Oilgram News. August 17th 2015 at http://blogs.platts.com/2015/08/17/cut-cost-delay-oil-play-argentina/ )
The situation in Argentina highlights the underlying problem for the economics of shale oil and shale gas. Unconventional oil and gas fields have much higher costs than conventional ones. Tapping “conventional” oil and gas from permeable geological strata is cheaper in that the oil and gas flows underground and can be pumped out with less engineering. In contrast an “unconventional gas field” has to release the gas from impermable rock and therefore needs up to 100 more wells for the same amount of gas (or oil). A field must achieve economies of scale to have any chance of making a profit. It needs more activity underground to fracture the rock and it needs more activity on the surface to facilitate that. That is why it is more dangerous to the environment and public health – and also why it is more financially expensive. It requires more ongoing capital equipment too. Without a high gas (or oil ) price all of these activities cannot be made profitable.
Looked at in this way “unconventional oil and gas” is not the magical answer for peak oil (or later for peak natural gas) that it might have once seemed to be. To be long term viable the fracking sector requires three things: favourable geology, high oil and gas prices and easy and cheap credit. All three have proven elusive, making for disappointing results in all of the locations around the world where it has been tried. Unconventional gas is struggling to get off the ground outside of the USA and Australia. And in the USA, where it started, although it managed to get the credit to pay for the capital expenditure there are now grave doubts that a mountain of credit will ever be paid pack.
But let’s look outside of the USA too. Take Europe for example. In 2011 the international oil and gas industry and the Polish government thought Poland was going to be a major source of shale gas. 75 exploratory wells were drilled up to 2015 and 25 were fracked. The amount of gas recovered was one tenth to one third of what was needed for the wells to be commercially viable. Besides retreating from Poland, the industry has pulled out of nascent shale drilling efforts in Romania, Lithuania and Denmark, usually citing disappointing yields.
In the UK and Ireland too fracking is still stuck at the pre-exploratory stage, largely because of the rapid and powerful development of a movement of opposition. Although not definitive, a moratorium in Scotland and a “presumption against” fracking by planners in Northern Ireland, are political set backs for the industry. Yet even if the public and political opposition was not there, there would be reasons to doubt that fracking is viable in the UK. The doubt starts with the geology. While the British Geological Survey has produced maps of shale layers, and while it has been suggested that the carbon content might be there, the data is lacking for other key parameters, for example for rock porosity. In addition the shale in the UK has more folds and faults when compared to US fields. This might to lead to more earthquakes which would damage the wells – plus leading to a potential failure to achieve the pressure needed for fracturing if fracking fluid leaks into small faults when pushed underground.
Oil and Gas Prices
Now there are further doubts because of low and falling oil and gas prices. Here the issues are a little different for oil compared to natural gas on the one hand and for the situation in the USA as compared to other producing zones in the world on the other. That said, what all exploration and production companies are facing, whether in oil or gas production or whether in the USA or elsewhere, is that prices that are too low. It is proving difficult or impossible for most producers to make a profit given the costs of extracting and distribution. That has been especially noticeable for shale gas. Let us however first look at oil prices.
During the crash of 2007-2008 global oil prices crashed from a high peak but then recovered again. Between November 2010 and September 2014 there were 47 months in which oil prices were over $90 a barrel. This period of high oil prices can be described as being broadly reflective of supply and demand. On the demand side the global economy recovered, to a large degree stimulated by a massive credit-fuelled residential and infrastructure boom in China. This pumped up demand. On the supply side production from Libya and Iran was kept out of the world market because of the turmoil in Libya and sanctions against Iran. Thus, while there was some production increase from Saudi Arabia and, eventually, even more from Iraq, these increases were largely cancelled by Iran and Libya. Demand exceeded supply and prices remained high but the situation began to change in the autumn of 2014.
On the demand side the Chinese economy stalled while on the supply side production increased. OPEC as a whole was not the main source of that increasing production, and nor was Russia – the main source of increasing oil production was the boom in US shale oil. For reasons to be explored, production from the USA continued to soar even though prices fell and after a price rally early in 2015 prices continued to fall into 2016.
A similar downward trend has occurred around the world in natural gas prices – though in the USA they have been lower far longer – and certainly too low to allow for profitability.
In regard to gas the issues are somewhat different from oil because the market for natural gas is less globally networked. Natural gas markets are based on global regions and different gas prices in different parts of the world. Thus there is a north american gas market, a european gas market and a market in the far east. There are multiple long distance gas pipelines that are important economically and geopolitically. Wars and rivalries are fought over pipeline routes – this is a component in the Syrian conflict. However natural gas could not be transported so easily between continents – until recently, because now there is an infrastructure for sea transported liquified natural gas under development (LNG). Sea transported LNG begins to change things because it makes the market for natural gas more globally competitive.
At a risk of simplifying a varied picture natural gas prices in various areas have been stable at a low level or drifting downwards over the last two years and insufficient for profitability in a gas fracking sector. In both the USA and Europe natural gas prices are a half of what they were in 2014. In the USA this has been because of overproduction of gas, conventional and unconventional, with conventional production declining and being replaced and overtaken by unconventional production – as of late in 2015 however shale gas production too began to fall. For years production has been unprofitable in all but the best areas and in decline. Now it is in decline generally.
In Europe production decline because of depleting conventional gas fields has not prevented a fall in the gas price because demand has been falling too and this is likely to remain the case. Thus a recent report published by the Natural Gas Programme of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, concludes that European gas demand will not recover its 2010 level until about 2025. The decline in demand has been due to warmer winters but also due to low demand because of the low growth in manufacturing which has shifted to Asia, because of low population growth and because of energy saving measures too. At the time of writing it is being suggested that the competitive threat from the development of an LNG infrastructure will encourage Gazprom to change its pricing strategy to try to fight off future competition from sea transported supplies. In summary, it is highly likely that the gas price in Europe will remain low for a long time. If so, this completely undermines any remaining case for fracking for natural gas in europe, and particularly Britain.
At current gas prices all the exploration and production companies active in the UK and Ireland would struggle to make a profit. There are 4 studies of extraction costs of natural gas by fracking in the UK – by Ernst and Young, Bloomberg, Oxford Institute of Energy Studies and Centrica. All have maximum and minimum extraction costs. Current gas prices per therm are less than the minimum extraction cost in the lowest study. So for the industry to continue at all it has to assume that gas prices will rise in the future.
Low Gas price vs high extraction costs: Zachery Davis Boren, Greenpeace Energy Desk; August 2015 http://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2015/08/20/super-low-gas-price-spells-trouble-for-fracking-in-the-uk/
So what is the future for oil and gas prices? Of course the future is inherently uncertain – a President Trump might provoke any number of wars making America great again – it is difficult to see how Muslims could be banned from entry into the USA without that affecting oil and gas imports from Muslim countries. Or again heightened conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia might escalate with massive consequences, and not just for the oil and gas price. In these and other conceivable situations, the more chaos the less companies will want to invest anyway. Whether prices are high, or low, if there is too much turmoil conditions will not favour new investment. But leaving aside extreme geo-political scenarios will prices go up or will they go down? If oil and gas prices rise will this be sufficiently and for long enough for unconventional gas to be developed sustainably in the narrow financial or business sense?
The rising price scenario
It is important to grasp the idea that a rising prices scenario is only credible in conditions where a proportion of the industry has been driven out of the business – which is the hope of the Saudi oil industry. What the Saudis would like to see is not only the US fracking companies driven to bankruptcy but the banks that fund them with badly burned fingers and unwilling to finance the industry any more. That said the Saudis too have limited pockets. Their current aggressive foreign policy has to be funded from somewhere and it is conceivable that they could lose the capacity to push the anti-shale agenda through to the bitter end.
If the oil price does bounce back the beneficiaries would be the survivors. There is a view then that the current low prices will eventually lead, not only to falling production in the future but to bankruptcies and capital expenditure cut backs both in the conventional and unconventional sectors. It would speed the decline of oil fields like those in the North Sea where investment is now being slashed. With declining supply, inventories will be sold off, the market will move back into balance…. and then further the other way – so that eventually demand again exceeds supply. Higher prices, possibly spiking, will encourage new investment and the fracking companies will surge back at the other side of the crisis.
What must however be assumed for this to happen is that at some point “growth will resume” because, over the last two hundred years, it always has. If growth resumes the demand for energy will revive in order to feed it – making more material production and consumption possible. Some economists argue that one factor encouraging a revival in demand ought to be the low energy prices themselves. Higher energy prices act as a drag on the economy so low energy prices should do the opposite – i.e. stimulate it. In a recent speech the chair of the US Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, said that falling energy prices had, on average put an extra $1,000 in the pockets of each US citizen. It is assumed that this would encourage extra spending and thus extra income.
The falling or stagnant prices scenario
An alternative view is more sceptical about the revival of the global economy and of demand because of the high level of debt. In an economy where indebtness is low, falling energy prices probably would act as a stimulus for energy consumers. But will there be any or enough stimulus where the debt to income ratio is high? In an indebted economy windfall gains from reduced energy prices are likely to be partly used to pay off debts rather than being spent. A further issue is what will happen because of the way in which the finance sector has made itself vulnerable? It has channelled substantial credit to the energy sector – to exploration and development companies that now have difficulties paying this credit off? It certainly will not help in finding investment money to get fracking off the ground in the UK and elsewhere if it all ends in tears in the USA.
In the pessimistic scenario if the economy does not revive then there can be some scepticism that energy prices will revive too. This is the scenario in which deflationary conditions continue and even deepen. On this view the global economy is entering a long period of stagnation, decline and chaos. Some economists are describing how growth has slowed using descriptive phrases like “secular stagnation”. The fate of the Japanese economy from the early 1990s onwards gives grounds for comparison and concern. After a quarter of a century Japan has not escaped prolonged recessionary conditions. Because the global economy is highly indebted central banks have driven down interest rates to zero and now even below that. This has led to a bubble in asset markets but it has done little to spur generalised economic growth.
There could be a vicious circle here – without demand arising in a sustained growth process pushing up energy prices the profitability of the unconventional sector will never be sufficient to make future investment in that sector pay. In these circumstances future oil and gas production will not rise. Production will fall in the USA, especially as more of the identified sweet spots in the best plays are exhausted. In textbook supply and demand theory falling supply should eventually lead, ceteris paribus, to a rise in prices that justifies more investment and therefore more production. However “ceteris paribus” (other things remaining unchanged) does not apply in a stagnating or a declining economy. A declining economy is not one where private economic actors invest money in the hope of a future return because the necessary confidence and conviction about the future is not there. Purchasing power is hoarded, purchases are deferred where possible, debts are paid off where possible. These actions tend to intensify the deflation. If this is what happens, and it seems likely, it will make the problems of the shale gas sector even worse.
The Fracking Companies and the Finance Sector
Before the current difficulties Wall Street made a fortune in fees arranging debt finance for the US shale sector. Investors who were “looking for yield” instead of the ultra low interest rates payable on government debt thought the way to find that yield was to pile their money into junk finance to fund the frackers. Despite the economic reality Wall Street encouraged the misinvestment. Now the wall of energy sector junk finance repayable in the future is huge. The further forward one goes the higher it is. How much of this debt will ever be repaid? And what will happen to those who lent it if it is not? Given what has already been said the long run ability of the sector to repay its debt seems highly questionable. How did it come to this?
For several years prior to the crash of 2007-2008 the finance sector in the USA were knowingly giving loans to people with no income, no jobs and no assets. The people who organised this were doing so because they were earning fees on each loan arranged. What did they care about the virtual certainty that the loans would never be paid back? The crash was the inevitable result – the consequence of an ethical catastrophe. The banks had packaged the loans up into mortgage backed securities and sold them on so that someone else other than the originating bank carried the risk. Ratings agencies played their role in this crooked system and got fees rating securities that others called “toxic trash” as AAA. Meanwhile derivates contracts against defaults on these rotten securities were also sold even though it was not possible to pay up when the defaults happened – without being bailed out by the monetary authorities, as happened with AIG.
The Shale Bubble – toxic water, toxic air and toxic finance too
For several years after 2007-2008 shale was the next big money spinner – and the next ethical catastrophe for Wall Street. Just as it was blindingly obvious for years that sub prime would crash, but it was a nice money spinner at the time, so Wall Street has made a lot of money pumping up the shale bubble. All the evidence about health and environment costs have been ignored and the information about them suppressed. The information about the economics was ignored too. Of course, someone has to lose eventually but “while the music has played” there has been plenty of money for all sorts of players – petroleum engineers and geologists, PR companies, corrupt politicians, the companies supplying the pipelines, rigs and fracking gear. They had their snouts in the money trough and in many cases abandoned their ethics and their critical faculties while they were feeding.
Nor were investors looking closely enough at where they were going or at what they were funding. Even before the current price crash, many US fracking companies, just like those in Argentina and Poland, were struggling to make real profits yet vast quantities of money were channelled to them. Honest and astute observers who could see that the shale boom was a Wall Street induced bubble were ignored. One example was a report written by Deborah Rogers in early 2013 in which she drew attention to the difference between the reality and the message put out by the PR machine.
According to Rogers “Industry admits that 80% of shale wells ‘can easily be uneconomic.’ Massive write-downs have recently occurred which call into question the financial viability of shale assets and possibly even shale companies. In one case, assets were written off for more than 50% of the purchase price within a matter of months……publicly traded oil and gas companies have essentially two sets of economics. There is what may be called field economics, which addresses the basic day to day operations of the company and what is actually occurring out in the field with regard to well costs, production history, etc.; the other set is Wall Street or “Street” economics. This entails keeping a company attractive to financial analysts and investors so that the share price moves up and access to the capital markets is assured. “Street” economics has more to do with the frenzy we have seen in shales than does actual well performance in the field. With the help of Wall Street analysts acting as primary proponents for shale gas and oil, the markets were frothed into a frenzy. Boom cycles have the inherent characteristic of optimism. If left unchecked, such optimism can metamorphose into a mania such as we saw several years ago in the lead up to the mortgage crisis. (Deborah Rogers, “Shale and Wall Street” Energy Policy Forum 2013 http://shalebubble.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/SWS-report-FINAL.pdf)
Long before the price slide beginning late in 2014 the much hyped boom was not what it seemed. Roger’s article shows many parallels between the crazy and unethical excesses of Wall Street prior to the 2007 crash and what has been happening in the shale boom. As had happened with sub prime mortgages which were bundled up to become part of mortgage backed securities and then sold on – new kinds of financial assets were invented and sold to allow the unwary to invest their money in order as to “get a part of the action” and participate in the shale bonanza too. One bank instrumental in all of this was Barclay’s Capital, working together with a company called Chesapeake Energy. To help Chesapeake the Barclay’s financial wizards invented a structure called a Volumetric Production Payment (VPP). Rogers quotes a finance industry magazine, Risk, from March 2012.
“The main challenges in putting together the Chesapeake VPP deal were getting the structure right and guiding the rating agencies and institutional investors—who did not necessarily have deep familiarity with the energy business—through the complexities of natural gas production.”
The resulting financial assets were highly complex, off balance sheet, and as Barclay’s admitted the rating agencies had to be “guided” so that they could understand the complexities of the deal. (So much for the competence and independence of the resulting “rating”. ).
Production taking precedence over profitability (and over economic rationality)
The result was that current profitability took second place to an industry PR narrative about what was supposedly going to happen in the future as the shale companies grew and grew. Prior to the crash of 2007 bank employees were under pressure and being incentivised by bonuses to make as many loans as possible – even though many loans were unsound. Now the fracking company managers were being incentivised to produce as much product as possible even though they were losing money. The measure of the future dream was production growth rather than what it ought to have been – profitable production growth. The latter depended on whether that production growth was actually covering costs of production and it was not. It should be stressed again that this was happening before the current price slide. For example an analyst Arthur Berman looked at the financial figures for Exploration and Development Companies representing 40% of the US shale industry for 2013 and 2014 and found them to be powerfully in the negative. There was a $14 billion negative cash flow in 2014. (http://www.artberman.com/art-berman-shale-plays-have-years-not-decades-of-reserves-february-23-2015/)
Nevertheless the good news headlines about the production growth kept the share prices rising and the managers were on bonuses to make that production growth happen. Apart from the sceptics and the communities whose environments and health were under attack, the industry, the government, some naïve academics and Wall Street, all played their part in pumping up the dramatic narrative of the resurgent American Oil and Gas Dream. Eventually the USA would rival Saudi Arabia and more…becoming great again no doubt. As a more recent article in the Wall Street Journal explained:
“Markets have been waiting for U.S. energy producers to slash output during a period of depressed crude prices. But these companies have been paying their top executives to keep the oil flowing. Production and reserve growth are big components of the formulas that determine annual bonuses at many U.S. exploration and production companies. That meant energy executives took home tens of millions of dollars in bonuses for drilling in 2014, even though prices had begun to fall sharply in what would be the biggest oil bust in decades. The practice stems from Wall Street’s treatment of such companies’ shares as growth stocks, favoring future prospects over profitability. It has helped drive U.S. energy producers to spend more unearthing oil and gas than they make selling it, energy executives and analysts say.
It has also helped fuel the drilling boom that lifted U.S. oil and natural-gas production 76% and 31%, respectively, from 2009 through 2015, pushing down prices for both commodities. “You want to know why most of the industry outspent cash flow last year trying to grow production?” William Thomas, CEO of EOG Resources, said recently at a Houston conference. “That’s the way they’re paid.” (Ryan Dezember, Nicole Friedman and Erin Aillworth. “Key Formula for Executives Pay: Drill Baby Drill” http://www.wsj.com/articles/key-formula-for-oil-executives-pay-drill-baby-drill-1457721329)
The Euphoric Economy at Work – how to rip off manic investors
All of this raises the question of how, with profitability so low, this reckless show has managed to stay on the road for so long and still continues. A cynical answer would be to say that the function of Wall Street is to connect the greedy and stupid with people and institutions without scruples who will spend their money for them. For this to happen optimism must be generated at all times whether this optimism has any foundation or not. The study of bubbles is all about people who are able to swim in an ethical sewer oblivious to their environment. They are too “euphoric” or high on the prospect of making a lot of money to calmly calculate what is happening. Another word for this is mania. It helps to consider this as a period of collective madness like a mania – a period of collective excitement in which the capacity for ethical and other judgements are impaired.
In this collective insanity one can think of the money making calculations like this – if you buy the right to drill and are able to identify the geologically favourable “sweet spots” then at first the results are likely to be good. Instead of then drilling the less favourable locations and seeing your profits fall away you tell beautiful stories to another company with deep pockets enticed by the good news of the early success. So it is possible to sell the less favourable areas. Or maybe you sell the company, merging it with another. In this Wall Street (or the City of London no doubt) will come to your aid because it makes nice fees from mergers and acquisitions. The new owners then makes the loss. It is the buying company that then has to write down its balance sheet when it subsequently discovers that it was sold a mirage.
The stories about being duped are never told as loudly and plainly as the stories of the wonderful shining future that sell the fraud in the first place. That’s because managers do not like to speak loudly about their incompetence to avoid the embarrassment of admitting they were duped. It is usually possible to deny that it would have been possible for them to know what was happening and, after all, why should these managers care when it was other people’s money that they were losing? (The money of shareholders or bond holders).
But if the faith in the industry can be maintained then these kind of deals can at some time make the banksters and crooked production company bosses much more money than merely by drilling and fracking for shale gas or oil. Thus buying and selling drilling leases (bundled up together just like sub prime mortgages were) was a great money spinner for companies like Chesapeake. The greater the euphoria generated, the more money to be made. This is Deborah Rogers again:
“Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, stated unequivocally in a financial analyst call in 2008: ‘I can assure you that buying leases for x and selling them for 5x or 10x is a lot more profitable than trying to produce gas at $5 or $6 mcf.’”
Eight years later Aubrey McClendon was dead. He had been charged on a federal indictment of bid rigging from late 2007 to 2012 and drove his car at high speed into a bridge. There was a strong suspicion that he had killed himself.
The madness of shale goes on. Wall Street and the shale companies are still managing to play the same game of passing the risk parcel to the bigger fools who will take the loss. If people can be persuaded to buy into the companies just before they go bust then the smarter and bigger players can get out. At the time of writing (March 2016) there are suspicions that the banks are orchestrating a rise in the price of oil in order to help the shale companies raise capital which will enable them to pay off the banks while letting “the suckers” take the fall. This led one analyst to describe the glut, not just of oil, but of stupidity.
“Even the experts are stunned by this unprecedented glut in stupidity of managers of other people’s money: “Billions of dollars of dilutive equity continue to roll in with seemingly no end in sight,” Houston-based oil investment bank Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. said in a research note.” (http://oilprice.com/Energy/Crude-Oil/In-Risky-Move-Wall-St-Backs-Shale-With-Nearly-10-Billion-In-Equity.html)
Ethical or Financial Bankruptcy – which is more fundamental?
It is common in economics to refer to markets becoming frothy at times like this. Commentators seek to find the fundamentals underlying the “froth” (perhaps better described as scum). But what are “the fundamentals” in this story? The really fundamental thing is not that this sector is financially bankrupt – it is that it is ethically bankrupt too. An ethically bankrupt sector is definitely not sustainable. Any economic sector that destroys the environment including the climate, assaults public health and then enlists government in a corrupting endeavour to write and use the regulations in such a way as to undermine the very possibility of resistance is corrupt to the core. An industry that destroys people’s health and environment and then settles in court on condition that people are bound to secrecy about what has happened to them, as is common practice in the USA, cannot be trusted to tell the truth. It does not surprise in the least therefore that the unethical business methods of this sector, as well as the unethical methods of its allies in finance, also rely on trickery and defrauding anyone stupid enough to invest their money in it.
What will happen in the USA will no doubt have a big impact for the future credibility of the fracking industry in the UK and elsewhere in the world. That story is not yet in its final chapter but what has happened in the USA is already a cautionary tale and we would be stupid to ignore it. Local authorities in the UK should be careful that they are not caught out picking up the environmental costs of a collapsing industry. It has already happened in the USA and Canada – the advantage of limited liability to an industry without ethics is that it enables it to pass the cost of clearing up to communities after bankruptcies.
“CBC News reported that falling gas and oil prices have prompted many smaller companies to abandon their operations in Alberta, Canada, leaving the provincial government to close down and dismantle their wells. In the past year alone, the number of orphaned wells in Alberta increased from 162 to 702. At the current rate of work,
deconstructing the inventory of wells abandoned just in the past year alone will be a 20-year task.” (Source: Johnson, T. (2015, May 11). Alberta sees huge spike in abandoned oil and gas wells. CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/alberta-sees-huge-spike-in-abandoned-oil-and-gas-wells-1.3032434 )
In conclusion – a mountain of debt that will never be repaid?
People might ask, if the future of fracking is so much in doubt then why bother to build a movement of opposition to oppose it? The answer can be expressed by adapting a famous quote by John Maynard Keynes. In the original Keynes says “the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent”. The market can also remain irrational long enough to do a lot of damage. What this article has barely done at all is refer to what are called, in economics-speak, the “external costs” of fracking – the damages to climate, to local environments and to public health. Nor has this article examined the claimed benefits to employment and to local economies which are usually grossly overstated. There is now plenty of evidence about these things. What I have tried to do instead is to show that even in the narrowest of meanings of “economic” fracking does not make sense. A lot of damage is being done and there will be little positive to show for it. The ability to continue this destructive path is due to the legacy of political influence of the fossil fuel lobby in government and in the finance sector. The legacy influence has been strong enough to ignore and crush the opposition despite the damage. In the USA it can be argued that the fracking boom has been an irrational, unethical and ultimately unprofitable attempt to extend the lifetime of fossil fuels in order to keep the oil and gas industry in work, aided and abetted by Wall Street. It is an industry trying to secure a future for an influential network of professional and business interests that should, in truth, be being wound down – including the engineers, the university departments of petroleum geology, the regulators to name a few. A mountain of debt has been accumulated to perpetuate the illusion that these people have a future in which they can go on much as before – a mountain of financial debt that will never be repaid.
Stupidity has a knack of getting its way – Albert Camus
Sources and further reading:
On geological uncertainties: Mason Inman “Can Fracking Power Europe?”, March 2016 at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-fracking-power-europe/
Charles Newbury, “Struggles to cut cost delay oil production in Argentina” Platts Oilgram News. August 17th 2015 at http://blogs.platts.com/2015/08/17/cut-cost-delay-oil-play-argentina/
Low Gas price vs high extraction costs: Zachery Davis Boren, Greenpeace Energy Desk; August 2015 http://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2015/08/20/super-low-gas-price-spells-trouble-for-fracking-in-the-uk/
European natural gas supply and demand: https://www.oxfordenergy.org/publications/the-outlook-for-natural-gas-demand-in-europe/ and https://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Gazprom-Is-2016-the-Year-for-a-Change-of-Pricing-Strategy-in-Europe.pdf
Oil Majors as a source of investment capital http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/02/12/oil-firms-urged-to-avoid-dangerous-investment-cuts /
Deborah Rogers, “Shale and Wall Street” Energy Policy Forum 2013) http://shalebubble.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/SWS-report-FINAL.pdf
Fragility of UK explorer’s finances: http://www.companywatch.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/oil-and-gas-smaller-cap-research-11-January-2016-final.pdf
Arthur Berman “The Miracle of Shale Gas and Tight Oil is Easy Money” http://www.artberman.com/the-miracle-of-shale-gas-tight-oil-is-easy-money-part-i/
Ryan Dezember, Nicole Friedman and Erin Aillworth. “Key Formula for Executives Pay: Drill Baby Drill” http://www.wsj.com/articles/key-formula-for-oil-executives-pay-drill-baby-drill-1457721329
“Energy in the economy”: Brian Davey Credo. Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis Feasta books 2015. http://www.credoeconomics.com Chapters 32 and 33.
Published on the Our Finite World on March 17, 2016
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
- The extent to which population is rising.
- The extent to which globalization is taking place, and with it, access to other, higher EROEI, energy supplies.
- The extent to which the economy is getting more efficient in its use of energy.
- The extent to which EROEI is falling for various fuels (on a calendar year basis).
- The extent to which average EROEI is falling, because the mix of fuel is changing to become less polluting.
- The extent to which it is taking more energy to extract other resources, such as fresh water and metals.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Published on The Daily Impact on February 19, 2016
(* that is, the 99 per cent.)
I was there when a furniture-store owner I’ll call Chuck introduced, to a certain British-ruled, sub-tropical, behind-the-times island, the concept of hire-purchase — or, in American, rent-to-own. He started selling furniture on credit, for a small down payment and a contract to repay the balance at an astronomical interest rate. His policy scandalized everyone on the island who was rich enough not to need credit for such purposes; and was insanely popular with everyone else.
The establishment railed against what he was doing as somehow immoral, even illegal. Some legislators tried to declare it, and ban it, as “usury” (a quaint, antique sin, now regarded as about as serious as not eating fish on Friday). They decried hire purchase as a practice that would corrupt the moral fiber of poor people, which they seemed to think was somehow improved by not having furniture. They did not feel, however, that the large mortgages they held on their villas had in any way corrupted them.
Despite their disdain, the lower classes got their tables and chairs and Chuck got very rich indeed and was soon a welcome guest in the homes of the island’s rich and famous.
It was hard to follow or to credit the arguments against selling products on credit. Indeed, the upper classes — on the island as elsewhere in the world — soon abandoned all compunctions about selling on credit when they realized that selling things to people who could not afford them made them and their bankers, obscenely rich.
Since the innocent days of yesteryear, when having a mortgage was embarrassing, borrowing money was evidence of a character flaw and declaring bankruptcy was the secular equivalent of eternal damnation, debt in America has become a vast cancerous growth that now threatens the very life of its host. Let’s set aside for now the scary dimensions of public debt (now $19 trillion and rising) and corporate debt (over $14 trillion and rising) , and focus just on the debt of individual Americans (now over $12 trillion).
Total individual debt is almost back to where it was in late 2008 when the Great Recession began. For five years after the last crash it declined, not because people were paying their debts but because foreclosures and bankruptcies were obliterating them. Since 2013 overall debt has been increasing again, but changing in nature.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s latest consumer credit report, about 70% of individual debt is for housing (mortgages and revolving debt), and about 10% each for auto loans, student loans and credit-card debt (when you include the “other” category with with credit-card debt). Until the onset of the last recession, each of these categories increased in tandem. Since the recession, two of the categories of debt — housing and credit-card — have been steadily decreasing. The other two have been skyrocketing — student loans without pause and auto loans since 2011.
The characteristics and trends of debt are markedly different among people under 40, and over 40, years of age. In the past 12 years, the aggregate debt of those under 40 has fallen by 12%, while that of their elders has risen by 169%.
The components of debt are markedly different as well. The average 30-year-old has seen his mortgage debt decline by $8,000 (because he can’t afford a house, which is bad news for the economy); his credit-card debt reduced by $1,000 (because he’s wising up about that) and his auto-loan balance down by $300 (because young people are losing their lust for cars). He’d be in really good shape if it wasn’t for the $7,000 increase in his student-loan debt.
Meanwhile, the average senior is in worse shape than ever before. Her mortgage debt has increased by $11,000, her car-loan balance by $1,000 and — incredibly — the average student loan balance for people over 65 is up $850 per capita. That’s a nearly 900% increase in 12 years.
With the debt of young people declining because they can’t afford to buy anything, and the debt of elderly people increasing as they approach the end of their earning years and thus the ability to pay their debts, debt has become both an enormous threat to the welfare of families and a huge drag on the economy.
Remember the old fogeys on the island who accused my friend Chuck of doing something immoral when he enticed people to buy things they could not afford with a promise instead of cash? They sounded silly then. They don’t sound so silly now.
Thomas Lewis is a nationally recognized and reviewed author of six books, a broadcaster, public speaker and advocate of sustainable living. He also is Editor of The Daily Impact website, and former artist-in-residence at Frostburg State University. He has written several books about collapse issues, including Brace for Impact and Tribulation. Learn more about them here.
It looks like 2016 will be the year that humanfolk learn that the stuff they value was not worth as much as they thought it was. It will be a harrowing process because a great many humans are abandoning ownership of things that are rapidly losing value — e.g. stocks on the Shanghai exchange — and stuffing whatever “money” they can recover into the US dollar, the assets and usufructs of which are also going through a very painful reality value adjustment.
Of course this calls into question foremost exactly what money is, and the answer is: basically a narrative construct. In other words, a story explaining why we behave the way we do around certain things. Some parts of the story have a closer relationship with reality than other parts. The part about the US dollar has a rather weak connection.
When various authorities — the BLS, the Federal Reserve, The New York Times — state that the US economy is “strong,” we can translate that to mean giant companies listed on the stock exchanges are able to put up a Potemkin façade of soundness. For instance, Amazon.com. The company continues to seem like a good idea. And it reinforces that idea in the collective imagination by sending a lot of low-priced goods to your door, (all bought on credit cards), which rings your (nearly) instant gratification bell. This has prompted investors to gobble up Amazon stock.
It’s well-established by now that the “brick-and-mortar” retail operations are majorly sucking wind. Meaning, fewer people are driving to the Target store and venues like it to buy stuff. Supposedly, they are buying stuff at Amazon instead. What interests me in that story is the idea that every single object purchased these days has a UPS journey attached to it. Of course, people also drive to the Target store, though I doubt they leave the place with just one thing.
That dynamic ought to call into question just how people are living in the USA, and the answer to that is: spread out all over the place in a suburban sprawl living arrangement that has poor prospects for being reformed or mitigated. Either you drive yourself to the Target store for a slow-cooker and a few other things, or Amazon has to send the brown truck to each and every house. Either way includes an insane amount of transport, and sooner or later both the brick-and-mortar chain store model and the Amazon home delivery model will fail.
Now I don’t believe that will be the end of retail trade, but it will open the door for a painful transition to whatever the next iteration of retail trade will be. Probably much smaller and more local with less stuff. Unfortunately, it is difficult to imagine a resolution of that without also imagining a transition away from suburbia. The loss of faith in the suburban disposition of things will probably represent the greatest loss of perceived wealth in human history — which is how it should be, since it also happened to be the greatest misallocation of resources in human history. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and now its time has passed.
I suppose the loss of faith in value of all kinds will play out sequentially. It is starting in financial “assets” because so many of these are just faith-based stories, and in this quant-and-algo age it has gotten awfully hard to tell what is good story and what is just a swindle. One wonders, for example, how many well-dressed young people at the bond desks have been able to pawn off sub-prime car loans bundled into giant, tranched bonds with attractive yields to hapless counterparts at the asset allocation desks of the pension funds and insurance companies. My guess is the situation is at least just as bad as it was 2007.
The problem is that when this sucker goes down, to paraphrase the immortal words of George W. Bush, you have to wonder how much other stuff of everyday life for everyday people it will take down with it. The discovery phase of our predicament began ever so crisply in the very first business week of the new year. I’m going to hazard to predict that the damage halts briefly in mid-winter and then resumes with a vengeance in March. This may give thoughtful people a chance to rest and assess.
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.
Published on the Doomstead Diner on January 10, 2016
Discuss this Rant at the Diner TV Table inside the Diner
Week 1 of 2016 turned out incredibly eventful in the World of Collapse, and as a result I shelved my usual text based Sunday Brunch article in favor of a RANT on the ongoing CLUSTERFUCK. Carnage like we had in the last week simply cannot be adequately treated in an text based blog. The article I did have planned for Sunday Brunch I will publish sometime this week or maybe next weekend, a response to some issues brought up in the lead off Weather Gone Wild ™ episode.
The financial end of Collapse appears to be rapidly accelerating now, and may be at the point Central Bank interventions cannot contain the problem, which as I reinforce regularly is not really a monetary problem at all, but rather a resource depletion & population overshoot problem. Printing more fiat, extending more credit to the uber-rich, flipping to Gold as currency, none of these things can work to resolve resource depletion and population overshoot. Only depopulation can resolve those problems, which is why all the wars are breaking out over the resources. No aggregate population willingly depopulates, although increasing suicide rates within populations are a common outcome. This has been the case in Greece, and is also now apparent in Alberta in Canada as the Tar Sands play goes bust. Wars diminish population and continue until some sort of balance is achieved with the resources in the environment. Given the current level of resource depletion relative to population size, you can expect the wars to continue onward here for quite some time to come, although the profile may change in terms of international conflicts vs civil wars and high tech battles vs trebuchets and atl-atls over time.
In any event, Week 1 of 2016 saw a major escalation on all levels, particularly the financial one, which as it continues inexorably toward final collapse will drive all the rest of the civilization structures toward collapse as well. Insulating yourself against these oncoming calamities as best you can remains the priority for individuals and small communities as collapse plays itself out.
Also, in case you missed it, here's the recap from 2015 moving into this Clusterfuck
Published on the Economic Undertow on January 4, 2016
No doubt a lot of people are happy to see 2015 in the rear view mirror: refugees, their ‘hosts’ in Europe, bond investors, frackers and Brazilians, it is likely that 2016 will bring more of the same, challenges and idiocy … and a ray of light!
— Energy deflation to take hold in 2016
Figure 1 (above): The $64 trillion dollar question: ‘Is energy deflation under way’? If it is, get ready. It will be the biggest story of 2016 and
years decades to come. (TFC Charts, click for big)
Discuss this article at the Economics Table inside the Diner
Energy deflation is similar to Irving Fisher’s debt deflation: a premium or ‘scarcity rent’ is attached to the price of crude. This manifests itself as a reduction in customer borrowing power; the price of crude cannot fall fast enough to offset the ballooning scarcity rent! In energy deflation, fuel prices are always too high for customers while the same prices are too low the drillers. The outcome is a vicious cycle: increased scarcity rent and self-compounding fuel shortages => greater scarcity rent!
If oil prices happen to rise for any reason — such as a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran — the scarcity rent doesn’t go away, the entire combined price becomes even less affordable causing the price to crash again.
America’s waste-based economic infrastructure has been built assuming endless supply of sub- $20 crude into perpetuity. The inflated prices the world has endured since the turn of the millennium have left this ‘investment’ hopelessly underwater. The prices have also done a number on the credit-worthiness of ordinary customers. This is why declining prices for crude oil have so far been unable to reboot economic growth … current lower prices are still too high to offer much in the way of (debt) relief. This means more price drops to come; more driller pain.
Right now it is hard to tell whether the current ‘action’ in crude- and other markets is a trading phenomenon or something more, but we are soon to find out one way or the other. The inevitable outcome of energy deflation is the supply of fuel shrinking to the level that can be supported by productive, remunerative use … rather than the current wasteful level supported by access to credit. Because remunerative use of our fuel supply is a (very) modest fraction of overall consumption … a modest fraction of our current fuel supply is what we will be able to afford.
— Dollar Preference emerges as an economic factor in 2016
Figure 2: Hoarding much? M2 money velocity (chart by St. Louis Federal Reserve). While the actual supply of M2 funds is increasing, the volume of transaction taking place with those funds has been shrinking (plummeting).
A component of energy deflation is the effect of constrained energy supply on money. When priced in crude, money — particularly dollars — have real worth (money never has value, otherwise it would never be spent). It turns out a very modest (flow) constraint has an out-sized effect on money-worth. Right now, dollars are exchanged on demand for a valuable physical good millions of times every single at gas stations around the world. Because of this exchange, the dollar can be considered a quasi-hard currency … similar to the way exchanging dollars for gold rendered the buck a hard currency during the early 1930s. What keeps the dollar somewhat ‘soft’ despite exchangeability has been the flood of fuel into markets and gas stations. There is no obvious reason to prefer dollars or make an effort to gain them vs. something else; little in the way of ‘scarcity rent’ to distort the worth of dollars.
Given the appearance of a fuel supply constraint and the scarcity rent, the perceived character of money shifts: dollars cease to be near-worthless proxies for commerce, becoming instead proxies for scarce and valuable fuel. They are then hoarded out of circulation … as is starting to take place around the world right this minute!
Commerce withers as the economic activity is reduced to currency arbitrage; trading different forms of money back and forth so es to gain the fuel ‘bargain’ dollars represent … This is what ‘dollar preference’ means: the buck is preferred to all other kinds of money because of its relationship to fuel.
The only way to escape the depression that results from this preference is to break the bond between dollars and petroleum the same way the Roosevelt administration severed the connection between dollars and gold in 1933. The US must ‘go off oil’ the same way it- and the rest of the world went off gold in the middle-1930s.
Figure 3: Along with M2 velocity, gasoline sales have been declining. (chart by St. Louis Federal Reserve). When customer are broke — or tight-fisted — they don’t buy gas. Low prices can’t fix broke.
— The Kurds will destroy the Islamic State in Syria in early 2016.
The sharp decline in fuel prices since 2014 has severely dented the Islamic State which is not possessed of the material means of support: it has no economy to speak of, no industry, finance or organic credit. It must swap goods such as stolen fuel and antiquities with donor states by way of Turkey to gain materiel. Low oil prices means less funds to be spent on war-making, medical supplies and salaries.
Just days before Christmas, with little fuss and less warning, the Kurdish military force captured a vital road crossing over the Euphrates River, putting the Kurds astride ISIS supply lines and issuing the death-sentence for the group, (DW):
Syrian Kurds take strategic dam from ‘Islamic State’
An alliance of US-backed Syrian Kurdish and Arab rebels has taken a key dam on the Euphrates River from the so-called “Islamic State.” The alliance has pushed back “IS” from large swaths of territory.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a rebel alliance that includes the powerful YPG Kurdish militia and Arab rebel groups, wrested control of the strategic Tishreen Dam from Islamic State on Saturday after making rapid advances south earlier this week, Kurdish media reported.
Figure 4: In war — as with finance — leverage matters: Tishrin dam on the Euphrates carries the highway from Jarabulus to Manbij- to points south and east including Raqqa and Mosul in Iraq. (Washington Post/Institute for the Study of War). Taking the dam (intact) and establishing a bridgehead on the western side of the Euphrates leaves the landlocked ISIS group at the mercy of the Kurds.
The road connection with Turkey is the only way in- or out of the Islamic State caliphate with Jarabulus-Manbij as the main thoroughfare. Leaders, recruiters, wounded fighters traveling to- and through Turkey, troop replacements from the rest of the Middle East and elsewhere, all ISIS military supplies must travel through this territory; trucks carrying purloined crude travel the other direction. As of now there is no scheduled airline service to/from anywhere in the Islamic State.
The group is responding to the existential threat by adopting a lifeboat strategy: upping efforts to organize in Libya and elsewhere in Africa. Stripped of its precious caliphate heartland and its leadership dead, captured or on the run, the group will lose relevance, becoming target practice for other ‘Brand X’ militant groups and Western commandos. In our current Islamic world without pity, every sign of weakness is an invitation to murder. At the same time, ISIS ‘threat’ will be unmasked as to a large degree a US-media creation, a fashionable ‘flavor of the month’; the ‘New al-Qaeda’ (as opposed to ‘Classic’ version), a militarily inept criminal group with violent tendencies but little else; an instrument to mold US public opinion into an appropriately warlike form.
Figure 5: Syrian zones of control along with gains by Kurdish forces since November, 2015. Islamic State supply lines extend through the area claimed by Turkey as a ‘safe zone’. The weight of strategic necessity draws the Kurds toward Manbij and al-Bab. When these towns are captured the rout will be on. The only surprise will be how quickly the IS group collapses. It will be entertaining to watch the group’s ’emirs’ on YouTube in women’s clothes filter through Kurdish territories toward Turkey in small groups … and being found out; to see them jumping beardlessly into dented Toyota pickup trucks to race like rats across the countryside in every direction looking for a way out.
Fleeing to Iraq offers no hope of escape: there are Kurds in Iraq, too. They all have very long memories …
That the Kurds aim to close Manbij gap is indicated by heavy fighting between Kurds and non-ISIS militants near Azaz and US bombing in and around Manbij. The tactical cat is already out of the bag, there is nothing to gain for the Kurds by waiting … unless they hope to lure more IS fighters into the town so that they might be killed more efficiently.
Islamic State’s primary supporter is Turkey, a Nato member with all the military bells and whistles. It might be expected for the Turks defend their interests and send troops across the border to push the Kurds back. Not this time: they won’t risk stepping into Syria or attacking on the ground without air superiority, something they threw away without thinking … by shooting down a Russian aircraft that was doing them no harm.
In early November, a combined Iraqi-Syrian Kurdish offensive in Northern Iraq dislodged ISIS forces from Sinjar town in Northern Iraq, at the same time Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Force (now QSD) overran al-Hawl a few miles away across the border in Syria. This action cut the road running between Raqqa and Mosul. In December, Iraqi security forces attacked the Islamic State in Ramadi, pushing them out of the center of the city.
The patient Kurds torment the Islamic State in the east, causing them to pull in what reserves they possess, then attack in force in the west. The ISIS group is left with many widely separate places that must be held at all cost including Raqqa, Ash Shaddadi, the oil-producing region near Deir al-Zour and Manbij. This means that none of these place will be held at all.
Turkish blunder and Russian air defense means a Kurdish ‘cordon sanitaire’ along the northern Syria border connecting all the Rojava cantons. This gives Kurds an influence greater than their numbers would suggest. Their control over supply flows would constrain other rebel groups such as al-Nusra. They would be seen to ‘pick winners’, which in turn offers a potential a way out of the endless auto-destructive warfare between the irreconcilable factions. Kurds have demonstrated the ability to coexist with Syrian Arab Army, to collaborate on the ground with Sunni, Arab even Turkmen groups which are otherwise represented by extra-Syrian jihadi extremists. Kurds’ military capability and success increasingly renders Assad irrelevant regardless of Russian commitments … of all the groups involved in Syria the Kurds come across as most reasonable … grown up.
Islamic State — like Ashley Madison — has had a nice little run. Time for them to go, so also:
— Turkish strongman, Recep Erdogan, man of many blunders, to be removed from office by military coup.
The war that keeps on giving in the Middle East reaches out to touch everyone in the region. No escape for Erdogan who has lost his sense of balance. His approach to winning over Kurdish hearts and minds in Turkey is not to embrace them but to shoot. The inevitable outcome: a civil war leading to a belligerent Kurdistan carved out of southeastern Turkey, something the Turkish military — which is charged with the actual winning over part — views with alarm. Who gets the axe? 20+ million Kurds or one deluded mad man in an ill-fitting suit?
Prior to Erdogan and AK Party, the powerful military was the final political arbiter in Turkey. Prime ministers served at the pleasure of the command. If the Generals believed official policy was destructive or would lead to war there was a coup … as in 1960, 1971 and 1980. Erdogan purged the Turkish command by way of kangaroo corruption trials; the army has been a Stepin Fetchit fool-for-Erdogan ever since.
Undertow observes the Turkish military to be resentful and awaiting its chance … Turkish generals understand the army cannot defeat Kurdish militants in urban settings without destroying the country. The key is what the Kurds do over the next few months; as they defeat ISIS, they also defeat Erdogan at the same time. The emergence of ‘protection brigades’ like YPG in Kurdish areas will force the military’s hand. This is the Kurds’ moment, they will not be denied. Erdogan will be ejected and replaced with a national council until new elections can be held. The clue to this outcome is the exposure of Erdogan involvement in the smuggled oil trade with Islamic State. Corruption being the instrument by which the military is purged, corruption will also be the hammer to dismantle the Erdogan regime.
— The China economy will crash … who could have guessed?
Ho hum, who cares! Old news … Oops. The China stock market is crashing already. What took it so long? The cause is excess Chinese leverage + dollar preference, the flight of dollars from China and the stripping Chinese finance of collateral. Turns out China is not a credit provider but depends on millions of Americans borrowing from Capital One to buy stinky China-Brand Poison Dog Food and lead-painted baby toys.
Collapse of China’s economy is ironically best evidence of dollar preference! Said economy has been built on a foundation of borrowed dollars; repayment outside of China makes the dollars which remain in China that much more desirable. The bidding of dollars in China means the unbidding of everything else: China RMB depreciates, real estate stumbles, stocks are socked, the only thing certain in China is smog.
— The ‘Widowmaker Trade’ finally unravels.
Shorting Japanese bonds is called ‘the widowmaker’ because the prices never plunge … even when fundamentals such as the vast overhang of debt-relative to GDP suggest they must. The short-sellers wind up being fed to the pigs … Endless monetization and balance sheet expansion by Bank of Japan and reluctance (good sense) of Japanese themselves to spend has pushed bond prices high as possible and kept them there. (Bond yields are inverse to prices; yields decline and prices increase.) Beginning this year, dollar preference will undermine whatever worth the bonds represent as the yen will (continue to) depreciate relative to the dollar. A problem is the massive position accumulated by BoJ. Should it becomes necessary to sell some of its bonds, the Bank will find there are few buyers because they have been elbowed out of the market by the BoJ!
— Migrants will flood into the US as Puerto Rico defaults leaving millions of US citizens with no means of support.
The island has overspent and cannot retire its loans. Its ambiguous administrative status within the United States and inept leadership does not offer much hope for ordinary Puerto Ricans who will make their way in great numbers to the mainland.
— War between Iran and Saudi Arabia …
Both countries are fighting an all-out proxy war in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere; the recent execution of a Shiite imam by the Saudis has inflamed tensions to the breaking point. Reality rules: despite the status of both countries as (wealthy) petroleum suppliers, both countries are actually too poor to afford a general war, particularly one that might adversely affect exports … or propel energy deflation.
— Economic uncertainties will cause world- industry leaders to shelve ambitious plans to combat climate change
Instead: ‘Conservation by Other MeansTM‘ … Entropy always wins, always.
Published on the Our Finite World on December 8, 2015
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
|Greek protesters clash with policemen during riots at a May Day rally in Athens May 1, 2010. Credit:|
Discuss this article at the Geopolitics Table inside the Diner
Debt = theft from future generations
|Protesters in front of the Alþingishús, seat of the Icelandic parliament, on 15 November 2008. Credit:|
Difference between purely financial and energy-induced collapse
Data from the National Energy Agency in Iceland
Published on the Our Finite World on November 3, 2015
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I won’t try to explain Slide 36 further.
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.
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.
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.