World GDP in current US dollars seems to have peaked; this is a problem

World GDP in current US dollars is in some sense the simplest world GDP calculation that a person might make. It is calculated by taking the GDP for each year for each country in the local currency (for example, yen) and converting these GDP amounts to US dollars using the then-current relativity between the local currency and the US dollar.

To get a world total, all a person needs to do is add together the GDP amounts for all of the individual countries. There is no inflation adjustment, so comparing GDP growth amounts calculated on this basis gives an indication regarding how the world economy is growing, inclusive of inflation. Calculation of GDP on this basis is also inclusive of changes in relativities to the US dollar.

What has been concerning for the last couple of years is that World GDP on this basis is no longer growing robustly. In fact, it may even have started shrinking, with 2014 being the peak year. Figure 1 shows world GDP on a current US dollar basis, in a chart produced by the World Bank.

Figure 1. World GDP in “Current US Dollars,” in chart from World Bank website.

Since the concept of GDP in current US dollars is not a topic that most of us are very familiar with, this post, in part, is an exploration of how GDP and inflation calculations on this basis fit in with other concepts we are more familiar with.

As I look at the data, it becomes clear that the reason for the downturn in Current US$ GDP is very much related to topics that I have been writing about. In particular, it is related to the fall in oil prices since mid-2014 and to the problems that oil producers have been having since that time, earning too little profit on the oil they sell. A similar problem is affecting natural gas and coal, as well as some other commodities. These low prices, and the deflation that they are causing, seem to be flowing through to cause low world GDP in current US dollars.

Figure 2. Average per capita wages computed by dividing total “Wages and Salaries” as reported by US BEA by total US population, and adjusting to 2016 price level using CPI-Urban. Average inflation adjusted oil price is based primarily on Brent oil historical oil price as reported by BP, also adjusted by CPI-urban to 2016 price level.

While energy products seem to be relatively small compared to world GDP, in fact, they play an outsized role. This is the case partly because the use of energy products makes GDP growth possible (energy provides heat and movement needed for industrial processes), and partly because an increase in the price of energy products indirectly causes an increase in the price of other goods and services. This growth in prices makes it possible to use debt to finance goods and services of all types.

A decrease in the price of energy products has both positive and negative impacts. The major favorable effect is that the lower prices allow the GDPs of oil importers, such as the United States, European Union, Japan, and China, to grow more rapidly. This is the effect that has predominated so far.

The negative impacts appear more slowly, so we have seen less of them so far. One such negative impact is the fact that these lower prices tend to produce deflation rather than inflation, making debt harder to repay. Another negative impact is that lower prices (slowly) push companies producing energy products toward bankruptcy, disrupting debt in a different way. A third negative impact is layoffs in affected industries. A fourth negative impact is lower tax revenue, particularly for oil exporting countries. This lower revenue tends to lead to cutbacks in governmental programs and to disruptions similar to those seen in Venezuela.

In this post, I try to connect what I am seeing in the new data (GDP in current US$) with issues I have been writing about in previous posts. It seems to me that there is no way that oil and other energy prices can be brought to an adequate price level because we are reaching an affordability limit with respect to energy products. Thus, world GDP in current dollars can be expected to stay low, and eventually decline to a lower level. Thus, we seem to be encountering peak GDP in current dollars.

Furthermore, in the years ahead the negative impacts of lower oil and other energy prices can be expected to start predominating over the positive impacts. This change can be expected to lead to debt-related financial problems, instability of governments of oil exporters, and falling energy consumption of all kinds.

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Researchers have been underestimating the cost of wind and solar

How should electricity from wind turbines and solar panels be evaluated? Should it be evaluated as if these devices are stand-alone devices? Or do these devices provide electricity that is of such low quality, because of its intermittency and other factors, that we should recognize the need for supporting services associated with actually putting the electricity on the grid? This question comes up in many types of evaluations, including Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE), Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI), Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), and Energy Payback Period (EPP).

I recently gave a talk called The Problem of Properly Evaluating Intermittent Renewable Resources (PDF) at a BioPhysical Economics Conference in Montana. As many of you know, this is the group that is concerned about Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI). As you might guess, my conclusion is that the current methodology is quite misleading. Wind and solar are not really stand-alone devices when it comes to providing the kind of electricity that is needed by the grid. Grid operators, utilities, and backup electricity providers must provide hidden subsidies to make the system really work.

This problem is currently not being recognized by any of the groups evaluating wind and solar, using techniques such as LCOE, EROI, LCA, and EPP. As a result, published results suggest that wind and solar are much more beneficial than they really are. The distortion affects both pricing and the amount of supposed CO2 savings.

One of the questions that came up at the conference was, “Is this distortion actually important when only a small amount of intermittent electricity is added to the grid?” For that reason, I have included discussion of this issue as well. My conclusion is that the problem of intermittency and the pricing distortions it causes is important, even at low grid penetrations. There may be some cases where intermittent renewables are helpful additions without buffering (especially when the current fuel is oil, and wind or solar can help reduce fuel usage), but there are likely to be many other instances where the costs involved greatly exceed the benefits gained. We need to be doing much more thoughtful analyses of costs and benefits in particular situations to understand exactly where intermittent resources might be helpful.

A big part of our problem is that we are dealing with variables that are “not independent.” If we add subsidized wind and solar, that act, by itself, changes the needed pricing for all of the other types of electricity. The price per kWh of supporting types of electricity needs to rise, because their EROIs fall as they are used in a less efficient manner. This same problem affects all of the other pricing approaches as well, including LCOE. Thus, our current pricing approaches make intermittent wind and solar look much more beneficial than they really are.

A clear workaround for this non-independence problem is to look primarily at the cost (in terms of EROI or LCOE) in which wind and solar are part of overall “packages” that produce grid-quality electricity, at the locations where they are needed. If we can find solutions on this basis, there would seem to be much more of a chance that wind and solar could be ramped up to a significant share of total electricity. The “problem” is that there is a lower bound on an acceptable EROI (probably 10:1, but possibly as low as 3:1 based on the work of Charles Hall). This is somewhat equivalent to an upper bound on the affordable cost of electricity using LCOE.

This means that if we really expect to scale wind and solar, we probably need to be creating packages of grid-quality electricity (wind or solar, supplemented by various devices to create grid quality electricity) at an acceptably high EROI. This is very similar to a requirement that wind or solar energy, including all of the necessary adjustments to bring them to grid quality, be available at a suitably low dollar cost–probably not too different from today’s wholesale cost of electricity. EROI theory would strongly suggest that energy costs for an economy cannot rise dramatically, without a huge problem for the economy. Hiding rising energy costs with government subsidies cannot fix this problem. Continue reading

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The Next Financial Crisis Is Not Far Away

Recently, a Spanish group called “Ecologists 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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