Debt: Eight Reasons This Time is Different

In today’s world, we have a huge amount of debt outstanding. Academic researchers Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have become famous for their book This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly and their earlier paper This Time is Different: A Panoramic View of Eight Centuries of Financial Crises. Their point, of course, is that the same thing happens over and over again. We can learn from past crises to solve our current problems.

Part of their story is of course correct. Governments have gotten themselves into problems with debt, time after time. This is happening again now. In fact, the same two authors recently prepared a working paper for the International Monetary Fund called Financial and Sovereign Debt Crises: Some Lessons Learned and Some Lessons Forgotten, talking about ideas such as governments inflating their way out of debt problems and pushing problems off to insurance companies and pension funds, through regulations requiring investment in certain securities.

Many seem to believe that if we worked our way out of debt problems in the past, we can do the same thing again. The same assets may have new owners, but everything will work together in the long run. Businesses will continue operating, and people will continue to have jobs. We may have to adjust monetary policy, or perhaps regulation of financial institutions, but that is about all.

I think this is where the story goes wrong. The situation we have now is very different, and far worse, than what happened in the past. We live in a much more tightly networked economy. This time, our problems are tied to the need for cheap, high quality energy products. The comfort we get from everything eventually working out in the past is false comfort.

If we look closely at the past, we see that in some cases the outcomes are not benign. There are situations where much of the population in an area died off. This die-off did not occur directly because of debt defaults. Instead, the same issues that gave rise to debt defaults, primarily diminishing returns with respect to food and other types of production, also led to die off. We are not necessarily exempt from these same kinds of problems in the future.

Why the Current Interest in Debt Levels and Interest Rates

The reason I bring up these issues is because the problem of too much world debt is now coming to the forefront. The Bank for International Settlements, which is the central bank for central banks, issued a report a week ago in which they said world debt levels are too high, and that continuing the current low interest rate policy has too many bad effects. Something needs to be done to normalize monetary policy.

Janet Yellen, Federal Reserve Chair, and Christine Lagarde, managing director or the International Monetary Fund, have also been making statements about the issue of how to fix our current economic problems (News Report; Video). There is the additional rather bizarre point that back in January, Lagarde used numerology to suggest that a major change in policy might be announced in 2014 (on July 20?), with the hope that the past “seven miserable years” can be followed by “seven strong years.” The IMF has talked in the past about using its special drawing rights (SDRs) as a sort of international currency. In this role, the SDRs could act as the world’s reserve currency, be used for issuing bonds, and be used for setting the prices of commodities such as gold and oil. Perhaps a variation on SDRs is what Lagarde has in mind.

So with this background, let’s get back to the main point of the post. How is this debt crisis, and the likely outcome, different from previous crises?

1. We live in a globalized economy. Any slip-up of a major economy would very much affect all of the other major economies. Continue reading

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Why Standard Economic Models Don’t Work–Our Economy is a Network

The story of energy and the economy seems to be an obvious common sense one: some sources of energy are becoming scarce or overly polluting, so we need to develop new ones. The new ones may be more expensive, but the world will adapt. Prices will rise and people will learn to do more with less. Everything will work out in the end. It is only a matter of time and a little faith. In fact, the Financial Times published an article recently called “Looking Past the Death of Peak Oil” that pretty much followed this line of reasoning.

Energy Common Sense Doesn’t Work Because the World is Finite 

The main reason such common sense doesn’t work is because in a finite world, every action we take has many direct and indirect effects. This chain of effects produces connectedness that makes the economy operate as a network. This network behaves differently than most of us would expect. This networked behavior is not reflected in current economic models.

Most people believe that the amount of oil in the ground is the limiting factor for oil extraction. In a finite world, this isn’t true. In a finite world, the limiting factor is feedback loops that lead to inadequate wages, inadequate debt growth, inadequate tax revenue, and ultimately inadequate funds for investment in oil extraction. The behavior of networks may lead to economic collapses of oil exporters, and even to a collapse of the overall economic system.

An issue that is often overlooked in the standard view of oil limits is diminishing returns. With diminishing returns, the cost of extraction eventually rises because the easy-to-obtain resources are extracted first. For a time, the rising cost of extraction can be hidden by advances in technology and increased mechanization, but at some point, the inflation-adjusted cost of oil production starts to rise.

With diminishing returns, the economy is, in effect, becoming less and less efficient, instead of becoming more and more efficient. As this effect feeds through the system, wages tend to fall and the economy tends to shrink rather than grow. Because of the way a networked system “works,” this shrinkage tends to collapse the economy. The usage of  energy products of all kinds is likely to fall, more or less simultaneously.

In some ways current, economic models are the equivalent of flat maps, when we live in a spherical world. These models work pretty well for a while, but eventually, their predictions deviate further and further from reality. The reason our models of the future are wrong is because we are not imagining the system correctly. Continue reading

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IEA Investment Report – What is Right; What is Wrong

Recently, the IEA published  a “Special Report” called World Energy Investment Outlook. Lets’s start with things I agree with:

1. World needs $48 trillion in investment to meet its energy needs to 2035. This is certainly true, if we assume, as the IEA assumes, that world economic growth will actually improve a bit, from 3.3% per year in the 1990 to 2011 period to 3.6% per year in the 2011 to 2035 period. It is likely that the growth in investment needs will be even higher than the IEA indicates.

In my view, this is a CYA report. The IEA sees trouble ahead. There is no way that investment of the needed amount (which is likely far more than $48 trillion) can be met. With the publication of this report, the IEA can say, “We told you so. You didn’t invest enough. That is why energy supply ran into huge problems.”

2. Without reform to power markets, the reliability of Europe’s electricity supply is under threat. The current pricing model, in which wind and solar PV get feed in tariffs and electricity prices for other fuels is set using merit order pricing, produces huge market distortions.

In my view, the problem is even worse than the writers of the report understand. The value of wind and solar PV are inherently difficult to determine, because they produce intermittent supply, and this is not comparable to other types of electricity. Furthermore, a big chunk of costs relate to transmission and distribution–42% of electricity investment costs in the New Policies Scenario. Many well-meaning researchers looked at wind and solar PV and thought they were a solution, but they tended to look at the situation too narrowly.

To look at the situation properly, one really needs to look at the total system cost of generating electricity with intermittent renewables (of a given amount) compared to the total system cost of generating electricity without intermittent renewables. Proper pricing needs to include all of the additional costs involved, including the additional cost for storage, the additional cost for long distance transmission, and the additional costs encountered by fossil fuel providers in ramping up and down their generation to match changing output from intermittent renewables.

Continue reading

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Converging Energy Crises – And How our Current Situation Differs from the Past

At the Age of Limits Conference, I gave a talk called Converging Crises (PDF), talking about the crises facing us as we reach energy limits. In this post, I discuss some highlights from a fairly long talk.

A related topic is how our current situation is different from past collapses. John Michael Greer talked about prior collapses, but because both of our talks were late in the conference and because I was leaving to catch a plane, we never had a chance to discuss how “this time is different.” To fill this gap, I have included some comments on this subject at the end of this post.

The Nature of our Current Crisis

Figure 1

Figure 1

The first three crises are the basic ones: population growth, resource depletion, and environmental degradation. The other crises are not as basic, but still may act to bring the system down. Continue reading

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The Connection Between Oil Prices, Debt Levels, and Interest Rates

If oil is “just another commodity,” then there shouldn’t be any connection between oil prices, debt levels, interest rates, and total rates of return. But there clearly is a connection.

On one hand, spikes in oil prices are connected with recessions. According to economist James Hamilton, ten out of eleven post-World War II recessions have been associated with spikes in oil prices. There also is a logical reason for oil prices spikes to be associated with recession: oil is used in making and transporting food, and in commuting to work. These are necessities for most people. If these costs rise, there is a need to cut back on non-essential goods, leading to layoffs in discretionary sectors, and thus recession.

On the other hand, the manipulation of interest rates and the addition of governmental debt (by spending more than is collected in tax dollars) are the primary ways of “fixing” recession. According to Keynesian economics, output is strongly influenced by aggregate demand–in other words, total spending in the economy. Any approach that can increase total spending–either more debt, or more affordable debt will increase economic output.

What is the Direct Connection Between Increased Debt and Oil Prices?

The economy doesn’t just grow by itself (contrary to the belief of many economists). It grows because affordable energy products allow raw materials to be transformed into finished products. Increased debt helps energy products become more affordable.

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Without debt, not a very large share of the total population could afford a car or a new home. In fact, most businesses could not afford new factories, without debt. The price of commodities of all sorts would drop off dramatically without the availability of debt, because there would be less demand for the commodities that are used to make goods. Continue reading

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