Why We Have an Oversupply of Almost Everything (Oil, labor, capital, etc.)

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article called, Glut of Capital and Labor Challenge Policy Makers: Global oversupply extends beyond commodities, elevating deflation risk. To me, this is a very serious issue, quite likely signaling that we are reaching what has been called Limits to Growth, a situation modeled in 1972 in a book by that name.

What happens is that economic growth eventually runs into limits. Many people have assumed that these limits would be marked by high prices and excessive demand for goods. In my view, the issue is precisely the opposite one: Limits to growth are instead marked by low prices and inadequate demand. Common workers can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that the economy produces, because of inadequate wage growth. The price of all commodities drops, because of lower demand by workers. Furthermore, investors can no longer find investments that provide an adequate return on capital, because prices for finished goods are pulled down by the low demand of workers with inadequate wages.

Evidence Regarding the Connection Between Energy Consumption and GDP Growth

We can see the close connection between world energy consumption and world GDP using historical data.

Figure 1. World GDP in 2010$ compared (from USDA) compared to World Consumption of Energy (from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014).

Figure 1. World GDP in 2010$ compared (from USDA) compared to World Consumption of Energy (from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014).

This chart gives a clue regarding what is wrong with the economy. The slope of the line implies that adding one percentage point of growth in energy usage tends to add less and less GDP growth over time, as I have shown in Figure 2. This means that if we want to have, for example, a constant 4% growth in world GDP for the period 1969 to 2013, we would need to gradually increase the rate of growth in energy consumption from about 1.8% = (4.0% – 2.2%) growth in energy consumption in 1969 to 2.8% = (4.0% – 1.2%) growth in energy consumption in 2013. This need for more and more growth in energy use to produce the same amount of economic growth is taking place despite all of our efforts toward efficiency, and despite all of our efforts toward becoming more of a “service” economy, using less energy products!

Figure 2. Expected change in GDP growth corresponding to 1% growth in total energy, based on Figure 1 fitted line.

Figure 2. Expected change in GDP growth corresponding to 1% growth in total energy, based on Figure 1 fitted line.

To make matters worse, growth in world energy supply is generally trending downward as well. (This is not just oil supply whose growth is trending downward; this is oil plus everything else, including “renewables”.)

Figure 3. Three year average percent change in world energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014 data.

Figure 3. Three-year average percent change in world energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014 data.

There would be no problem, if economic growth were something that we could simply walk away from with no harmful consequences. Unfortunately, we live in a world where there are only two options–win or lose. We can win in our contest against other species (especially microbes), or we can lose. Winning looks like economic growth; losing looks like financial collapse with huge loss of human population, perhaps to epidemics, because we cannot maintain our current economic system.

The symptoms of losing the game are the symptoms we are seeing today–low commodity prices (temporarily higher, but nowhere nearly high enough to maintain production), not enough good paying jobs for common workers, and lack of investment opportunities, because workers cannot afford the high prices of goods that would be required to provide adequate return on investment.

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Gail in China: In Her Own Words and Pictures

Aired on  Our Finite World and the Doomstead Diner on April 29, 2015

Also available as a downloadable mp3:

As regular readers of  Our Finite World and the Doomstead Diner know, Gail recently took a month long trip to China, where she was invited by Professor Feng to give a compact University course to undergraduate students (with graduate students and faculty sitting in if they liked) at the China University of Petroleum in Beijing.

China University of Petroleum – Beijing (CUPB) is a national key university in China, located in the world famous scenic Changping District, the area close to the Great Wall and Ming Tombs. It is one of the 100 institutions implementing the national “211 Project”.

The university is equipped with the first-class facilities, including a library with a collection of 300,000 books, modernized classrooms, new computer facilities and a comprehensive sports center.

Above all, CUPB has an excellent academic staff body of 545, including 121 full professors and 128 associate professors.

Unfortunately, internet access from China is limited for a couple of reasons.  First off, any number of websites (like Google for example) get the Thumbs Down from the Chinese government.  WordPress is another site not well liked by the Chinese Central Committee.  While you can access some WordPress sites from China, actually getting onto your Admin board to do publication work is close to impossible.  Besides that, access is spotty in terms of bandwidth and speed, so even if a site is theoretically accessible, the infrastructure won’t allow you to access it in any usable form in many locations.  So Gail was a bit concerned before leaving that she wouldn’t be able to fill in the OFW readers on her trip while she was over there. Continue reading

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Overview of Our Energy Modeling Problem

We live in a world with limits, yet our economy needs growth. How can we expect this scenario to play out? My view is that this problem will play out as a fairly near-term financial problem, with low oil prices leading to a fall in oil production. But not everyone comes to this conclusion. What were the views of early researchers? How do my views differ?

In my post today, I plan to discuss the first lecture I gave to a group of college students in Beijing. A PDF of it can be found here: 1. Overview of Energy Modeling Problem. A MP4 video is available as well on my Presentations/Podcasts Page.

Many Limits in a Finite World

We live in a world with limits. These limits are not just energy limits; they come in many different forms:

2 We are reaching limits in many ways

All these limits work together. We can work around these limits, but the workarounds are higher cost–for example, substituting less polluting energy resources for more polluting energy resources, or extracting lower grade ores instead of high-grade ores. When lower grade ores are used, we need to process more waste material, raising costs because of greater energy use. When population rises, we must change our agricultural approaches to increase food production per acre cultivated.

The problem we reach with any of these workarounds is diminishing returns. We can keep increasing output, but doing so requires disproportionately more inputs of many kinds (including human labor, mineral resources, fresh water, and energy products) to produce the same quantity of output. This creates higher costs, and can lead to financial problems. This phenomenon is one of the major things that a model of a finite world should reflect.

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Putting the Real Story of Energy and the Economy Together

What is the real story of energy and the economy? We hear two predominant energy stories. One is the story economists tell: The economy can grow forever; energy shortages will have no impact on the economy. We can simply substitute other forms of energy, or do without.

Another version of the energy and the economy story is the view of many who believe in the “Peak Oil” theory. According to this view, oil supply can decrease with only a minor impact on the economy. The economy will continue along as before, except with higher prices. These higher prices encourage the production of alternatives, such wind and solar. At this point, it is not just peak oilers who endorse this view, but many others as well.

In my view, the real story of energy and the economy is much less favorable than either of these views. It is a story of oil limits that will make themselves known as financial limits, quite possibly in the near term—perhaps in as little time as a few months or years. Our underlying problem is diminishing returns—it takes more and more effort (hours of workers’ time and quantities of resources), to produce essentially the same goods and services.

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Gail in China Report #3

Greetings Finite Worlders!  Gail is on her 1 month lecture tour of China. She’s unable to access WordPress from China, but does have access to email, so she’s sending me updates to publish here on OFW.  My Byline/About appears at the bottom here, but the China Travelogue articles are authored by her. -RE

From Gail below:

Greetings from China again!

As I mentioned previously, it was Prof. Feng at China University of Petroleum in Beijing who invited me to come to China for the first two weeks. In the second two weeks I would be doing a variety of other things. I am now in the “other things” part of the visit.
One thing we did during the first two weeks is make video recordings of the talks I gave during the first two weeks. I also I have the PDF slides. After I get back I will work on putting those things up on OurFiniteWorld.com.
One thing that Prof. Feng has talked to me about is that he would like to host a “Finite World” conference in Beijing in 2016, if he can get the details worked out (and if the financial system stays together well enough, and if I would help with the endeavor). Because of the cost of transport and other details involved, he expects that the vast majority of the attendees would be from China–perhaps 80 Chinese attendees and 20 attendees from elsewhere in the world. Given the way Prof. Feng does things, I expect the plan would be to make videos of those talks available on line, to the many people who would not be able to travel to China.
I have been working on a number of other things. Together with Prof. Feng and a graduate student, I wrote an article called, “The Myth of Everlasting Oil from Shale Formations,” which we are hoping will run in the “People’s Daily.” The graduate student translated it into Chinese.
One morning, I gave a talk to a group of about 20 people doing research related to energy and the economy at an institute in Beijing. This is a photo of Prof. Feng, the director of the research group (Prof. Fan), and myself, standing in front of their buildings. They seemed to be interested in what I had to say. This talk was videotaped as well.
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One evening, I met with the vice president in charge of international operations for BGP, which is the subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) that does the initial geological assessment of proposed new locations. He told us that the work of his staff is down by 50%, but that the company has held off in laying off workers, because they are hopeful that prices will rise in the next few months. He is also hopeful that technological innovation will solve our other problems. He said that he is hesitant to lay off staff, because if he loses his staff, he loses the heart of his operations. It is very hard to build the expertise back up again.
I visited Ordos, Inner Mongolia for a short time. I received a very warm welcome there, from the extended family of the graduate student who invited me to visit the area. This is a photo of me shaking hands (in a symbolic handshake of friendship) with the graduate student’s father, while the graduate student looks on.
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Ordos is the gateway to many of China’s coal operations. One of the things we noticed was how few cars were on the road. The road was a new four lane highway, but we drove for miles without seeing another car or other vehicle. The Ordos airport had few patrons, and many spaces available for stores were not rented. The airport had been built at the time the growth in coal operations was at its highest, but growth has not continued as hoped. Another thing we noticed is that while apartments seem still to be being built in Ordos, many of the apartments seem to be unoccupied.
I am now in Daqing (pronounced Daching), China, the home of China’s largest oil field, Daqing Oil Field. The city is a very modern city that grew up after Daqing oil field began production in 1960. It now has about 2.5 million inhabitants. The economy is very much tied to oil–I have been told that there are something like 300,000 CNPC employees living in Daqing, and many more indirectly tied to the oil field. The production of Daqing Oil Field is now in decline. We (I am here with others from Petroleum University of China, Beijing) visited some of the oil field operations today. The question a person might ask is whether low oil prices will adversely affect Daqing operations. When we attempted to ask CNPC employees questions along this line, we were told that the oil field is profitable at $40 barrel. We were also told that the company is testing the use of fracking and long horizontal wells, in the hope of increasing production (or slowing the decline).
When I asked how long oil prices would have to stay low before Daqing employment would be affected, the CNBC employee I asked (who may not be knowledgeable about this) said “one to two years.” When I talk to people at Petroleum University of China in Beijing, the point is made that the Chinese government realizes that there is a need for employment for a huge number of people–laying off a large number of employees would simply turn one problem into a different one. That is probably the reason why employment at CNPC is as high as it is–300,000 employees is a huge number for a field producing less than 1 million barrels a day. A large number of people are involved with monitoring well production. This part of the operation could probably be significantly mechanized, reducing the needed number of workers–but then what would all of the laid-off workers do? We will be meeting with some of the folks at the Daqing branch of Petroleum University of China tomorrow–perhaps they will have some additional insights. If the numbers I quoted above are right, the employees are not earning very much a piece–or the story about being profitable at $40 barrel is not true.
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