The Next Financial Crisis Is Not Far Away

Recently, a Spanish group called “Ecologist in Action” asked me to give them a presentation on what kind of financial crisis we should expect. They wanted to know when it would be and how it would take place.

The answer I had for the group is that we should expect financial collapse quite soon–perhaps as soon as the next few months. Our problem is energy related, but not in the way that most Peak Oil groups describe the problem. It is much more related to the election of President Trump and to the Brexit vote.

I have talked about this subject in various forms before, but not since 2016 energy production and consumption data became available. Most of the slides in this presentation use new BP data, through 2016. A copy of the presentation can be found at this link: The Next Financial Crisis.1

Slide 1

Most people don’t understand how interconnected the world economy is. All they understand is the simple connections that economists make in their models. Continue reading

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Falling Interest Rates Have Postponed “Peak Oil”

Falling interest rates have huge power. My background is as an actuary, so I am very much aware of the great power of interest rates. But a lot of people are not aware of this power, including, I suspect, some of the people making today’s decisions to raise interest rates. Similar people want to sell securities now being held by the Federal Reserve and by other central banks. This would further ramp up interest rates. With high interest rates, practically nothing that is bought using credit is affordable. This is frightening.

Another group of people who don’t understand the power of interest rates is the group of people who put together the Peak Oil story. In my opinion, the story of finite resources, including oil, is true. But the way the problem manifests itself is quite different from what Peak Oilers have imagined because the economy is far more complex than the Hubbert Model assumes. One big piece that has been left out of the Hubbert Model is the impact of changing interest rates. When interest rates fall, this tends to allow oil prices to rise, and thus allows increased production. This postpones the Peak Oil crisis, but makes the ultimate crisis worse.

The new crisis can be expected to be “Peak Economy” instead of Peak Oil. Peak Economy is likely to have a far different shape than Peak Oil–a much sharper downturn. It is likely to affect many aspects of the economy at once. The financial system will be especially affected. We will have gluts of all energy products, because no energy product will be affordable to consumers at a price that is profitable to producers. Grid electricity is likely to fail at essentially the same time as other parts of the system.

Interest rates are very important in determining when we hit “Peak Economy.” As I will explain in this article, falling interest rates between 1981 and 2014 are one of the things that allowed Peak Oil to be postponed for many years.

Figure 1. 10-year Treasury Interest Rates. Chart prepared by St. Louis Fed.

These falling interest rates allowed oil prices to be much higher than they otherwise would have been, and thus allowed far more oil to be extracted than would otherwise have been the case.

Since mid 2014, the big change that has taken place was the elimination of Quantitative Easing (QE) by the US. This change had the effect of disrupting the “carry trade” in US dollars (borrowing in US dollars and purchasing investments, often debt with a slightly higher yield, in another currency).

Figure 2. At this point, oil prices are both too high for many would-be consumers and too low for producers.

As a result, the US dollar rose, relative to other currencies. This tended to send oil prices to a level that is too low for oil producers to make an adequate profit (Figure 2). In addition, governments of oil exporting countries (such as Venezuela, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia) cannot collect adequate taxes. This kind of problem does not lead to immediate collapse. Instead, it “sets the wheels in motion,” leading to collapse. This is a major reason why “Peak Economy” seems to be ahead, even if no one attempts to raise interest rates.

The problem is not yet very visible, because oil prices that are too low for producers are favorable for importers of oil, such as the US and Europe. Our economy actually functions better with these low oil prices. Unfortunately, this situation is not sustainable. In fact, rising interest rates are likely to make the situation much worse, quickly.

In this post, I will explain more details relating to these problems.

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Open Thread and a Few Observations on Japan

I am putting this post up to give commenters who would like to carry on conversations related to previous posts a place to comment, since comments on my last post have been cut off.

Also, my family and I recently returned from a two-week vacation to Japan. The combination of the time away and jet lag has given me less time to research and write a full article. Here are a few observations, based on my recent trip to Japan:

General

The scenery is beautiful, but it is clear that the Japanese people and agriculture are squeezed into the small amount of land that is not mountainous and forested.

The amount of land being used for agriculture has been steadily falling. Our tour guide remarked that if an older person wanted to leave agriculture, getting solar panels installed is an alternate way of obtaining income. We did see quite a few solar panels. But does this approach make sense, when the amount of land farmed is relatively small and falling year-by-year? The USDA says, “Based on total calories consumed, Japan imports about 60 percent of its food each year.”

Tokyo-Edo Museum Visit

When we first arrived in Tokyo, before our bus tour began, we visited the Tokyo-Edo museum. This is a photo of one of the exhibits from the museum.

In previous posts, I have talked about economies being dissipative structures–growing for a fairly long period, before collapsing or obtaining an infusion of cheap energy. I thought that it was interesting that the Edo Period lasted 265 years (1603 – 1868). This is about as long as a person might expect an economy to last in its role as a dissipative structure. In the latter part of the Edo Period, there seemed to be increasing wealth disparity and problems with the government collecting enough taxes. These are things that we would expect to happen, as resources per capita start to fall and complexity starts to increase.

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Why We Should Be Concerned About Low Oil Prices

Most people assume that oil prices, and for that matter other energy prices, will rise as we reach limits. This isn’t really the way the system works; oil prices can be expected to fall too low, as we reach limits. Thus, we should not be surprised if the OPEC/Russia agreement to limit oil extraction falls apart, and oil prices fall further. This is the way the “end” is reached, not through high prices.

I recently tried to explain how the energy-economy system works, including the strange way prices fall, rather than rise, as we reach limits, at a recent workshop in Brussels called “New Narratives of Energy and Sustainability.” The talk was part of an “Inspirational Workshop Series” sponsored by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission.

Figure 1. Empty Schuman room of the Berlaymont European Commission building, shortly after we arrived. Photo shows Mario Giampietro and Vaclav Smil, who were the other speakers at the Inspirational Workshop. Attendees started arriving a few minutes later.

My talk was titled, “Elephants in the Room Regarding Energy and the Economy.” (PDF) In this post, I show my slides and give a bit of commentary.

Slide 2

The question, of course, is how this growth comes to an end.

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The Economy Is Like a Circus

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

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

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

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

What the Economy Needs to Do to Keep Functioning

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

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