The world’s self-organizing economy can be expected to act strangely, as energy supplies deplete

It is my view that when energy supply falls, it falls not because reserves “run out.” It falls because economies around the world cannot afford to purchase goods and services made with energy products and using energy products in their operation. It is really a price problem. Prices cannot be simultaneously high enough for oil producers (such as Russia and Saudi Arabia) to ramp up production and remain low enough for consumers around the world to buy the goods and services that they are accustomed to buying.

Figure 1. Chart showing average annual Brent-equivalent oil prices in 2021$ based on data from BP’s 2022 Statistical Review of World Energy, together with bars showing periods when prices seemed to be favorable to producers.

We are now in a period of price conflict. Oil and other energy prices have remained too low for producers since at least mid-2014. At the same time, depletion of fossil fuels has led to higher costs of extraction. Often, the tax needs of governments of oil exporting countries are higher as well, leading to even higher required prices for producers if they are to continue to produce oil and raise their production. Thus, producers truly require higher prices.

Governments of countries affected by this inflation in price are quite disturbed: Higher prices for energy products mean higher prices for all goods and services. This makes citizens very unhappy because wages do not rise to compensate for this inflation. Prices today are high enough to cause significant inflation (about $107 per barrel for Brent oil (Europe) and $97 for WTI (US)), but still not high enough to satisfy the high-price needs of energy producers.

It is my expectation that these and other issues will lead to a very strangely behaving world economy in the months and years ahead. The world economy we know today is, in fact, a self-organizing system operating under the laws of physics. With less energy, it will start “coming apart.” World trade will increasingly falter. Fossil fuel prices will be volatile, but not necessarily very high. In this post, I will try to explain some of the issues I see.

[1] The issue causing the price conflict can be described as reduced productivity of the economy. The ultimate outcome of reduced productivity of the economy is fewer total goods and services produced by the economy.

Figure 2 shows that, historically, there is an extremely high correlation between world energy consumption and the total quantity of goods and services produced by the world economy. In my analysis, I use Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) GDP because it is not distorted by the rise and fall of the US dollar relative to other currencies.

Figure 2. Correlation between world GDP measured in “Purchasing Power Parity” (PPP) 2017 International $ and world energy consumption, including both fossil fuels and renewables. GDP is as reported by the World Bank for 1990 through 2021 as of July 26, 2022; total energy consumption is as reported by BP in its 2022 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The reason such a high correlation exists is because it takes energy to perform each activity that contributes to GDP, such as lighting a room or transporting goods. Energy consumption which is cheap to produce and growing rapidly in quantity is ideal for increasing energy productivity, since it allows factories to be built cheaply and raw materials and finished goods to be transported at low cost.

Humans are part of the economy. Food is the energy product that humans require. Reducing food supply by 20% or 40% or 50% cannot be expected to work well. The economy suffers the same difficulty.

In recent years, depletion has been making the extraction of fossil fuel resources increasingly expensive. One issue is that the resources that were easiest to extract and closest to where they were needed were extracted first, leaving the highest cost resources for extraction later. Another issue is that with a growing population, the governments of oil exporting countries require higher tax revenue to support the overall needs of their countries.

Intermittent wind and solar are not substitutes for fossil fuels because they are not available when they are needed. If several months’ worth of storage could be added, the total cost would be so high that these energy sources would have no chance of being competitive. I recently wrote about some of the issues with renewables in Limits to Green Energy Are Becoming Much Clearer.

Rising population is a second problem leading to falling efficiency. In order to feed, clothe and house a rising population, a growing quantity of food must be produced from essentially the same amount of arable land. More water for the rising population is required for the rising population, often obtained by deeper wells or desalination. Clearly, the need to use increased materials and labor to work around problems caused by rising world population adds another layer of inefficiency.

If we also add the cost of attempting to work around pollution issues, this further adds another layer of inefficiency in the use of energy supplies.

More technology is not a solution, either, because adding any type of complexity requires energy to implement. For example, adding machines to replace current workers requires the use of energy products to make and operate the machines. Moving production to cheaper locations overseas (another form of complexity) requires energy for the transport of goods from where they are transported to where they are used.

Figure 2 shows that the world economy still requires more energy to produce increasing GDP, even with the gains achieved in technology and efficiency.

Because of energy limits, the world economy is trying to change from a “growth mode” to a “shrinkage mode.” This is something very much like the collapse of many ancient civilizations, including the fall of Rome in 165 to 197 CE. Historically, such collapses have unfolded over a period of years or decades.

[2] In the past, the growth rate of GDP has exceeded that of energy consumption. As the economy changes from growth to shrinkage, we should expect this situation to reverse: The rate of shrinkage of GDP will be greater than the rate of shrinkage of energy consumption.

Figure 3 shows that, historically, world economic growth has been slightly higher than the growth in energy consumption. This growth in energy consumption is based on total consumption of fossil fuels and renewables, as calculated by BP.

Figure 3. Annual growth in world PPP GDP compared to annual growth in consumption of energy supplies. World PPP GDP is data provided by the World Bank; world energy consumption is based on data of BP’s 2022 Statistical Review of World Energy.

In fact, based on the discussion in Section [1], this is precisely the situation we should expect: GDP growth should exceed energy consumption growth when the economy is growing. Unfortunately, Section [1] also suggests that we can expect this favorable relationship to disappear as energy supply begins to shrink because of growing inefficiencies in the system. In such a case, GDP is likely to shrink even more quickly than energy supply shrinks. One reason this happens is because complexity of many types cannot be maintained as energy supply shrinks. For example, international supply lines are likely to break if energy supplies fall too low.

[3] Interest rates play an important role in encouraging the development of energy resources. Generally falling interest rates are very beneficial; rising interest rates are quite detrimental. As the economy shifts toward shrinkage, the pattern we can expect is higher interest rates, rather than lower. As the limits of energy extraction are hit, these higher rates will tend to make the economy shrink even faster than it would otherwise shrink.

Part of what has allowed growing energy consumption in the period shown in Figures 2 and 3 is rising debt levels at generally lower interest rates. Falling interest rates together with debt availability make investment in factories and mines more affordable. They also help citizens seeking to buy a new car or home because the lower monthly payments make these items more affordable. Demand for energy products tends to rise, allowing the prices of commodities to rise higher than they would otherwise rise, thus making their production more profitable. This encourages more fossil fuel extraction and more development of renewables.

Once the economy starts to shrink, debt levels seem likely to shrink because of defaults and because of reluctance of lenders to lend, for fear of defaults. Interest rates will tend to rise, partly because of the higher inflation rates and partly because of the higher level of expected defaults. This debt pattern in turn will reinforce the tendency toward lower GDP growth compared to energy consumption growth. This is a major reason that raising interest rates now is likely to push the economy downward.

[4] With fewer goods and services produced by the economy, the world economy must eventually shrink. We should not be surprised if this shrinkage in some ways echoes the shrinkage that took place in the 2008-2009 recession and the 2020 shutdowns.

The GDP of the world economy is the goods and services produced by the world economy. If the economy starts to shrink, total world GDP will necessarily fall.

What happens in the future may echo what has happened in the past.

Figure 4. World energy consumption per capita, based on information published in BP’s 2022 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Central bank officials felt it was important to stop inflation in oil prices (and indirectly in food prices) back in the 2004 to 2006 period. This indirectly led to the 2008-2009 recession as parts of the world debt bubble started to collapse and many jobs were lost. We should not be surprised if a much worse version of this happens in the future.

The 2020 shutdowns were characterized in most news media as a response to Covid-19. Viewed on an overall system basis, however, they really were a response to many simultaneous problems:

  • Covid-19
  • A hidden shortage of fossil fuels that was not reflected as high enough prices for producers to ramp up production
  • Hidden financial problems that threatened a new version of the 2008 financial collapse
  • Factories in many parts of the world that were operating at far less than capacity
  • Workers demonstrating in the streets with respect to low wages and low pensions
  • Airlines with financial problems
  • Citizens frustrated by long commutes
  • Very many old, sick people in care homes of various types, passing around illnesses
  • An outsized medical system that still desired to increase profits
  • Politicians who wanted a way to better control their populations–perhaps rationing of output would work around an inadequate total supply of goods and services

Shutting down non-essential activities for a while would temporarily reduce demand for oil and other energy products, making it easier for the rest of the system to appear profitable. It would give an excuse to increase borrowing (and money printing) to hide the financial problems for a while longer. It would keep people at home, reducing the need for oil and other energy products, hiding the fossil fuel shortage for a while longer. It would force the medical system to reorganize, offering more telephone visits and laying off non-essential workers. Many individual citizens could reduce time lost to commuting, thanks to new work-from-home rules and internet connections. The homebuilding and home remodeling industries were stimulated, offering work to those who had been laid off.

The impacts of the shutdowns were greatest on poor people in poor countries, such as those in Central and South America. For example, many people in the vacation and travel industries were laid off in poor countries. People making fancy clothing for people going to conferences and weddings were laid off, as were people raising flowers for fancy events. These people had trouble finding new employment. They are at increased risk of dying, either from Covid-19 or inadequate nutrition, making them susceptible to other illnesses.

We should not be surprised if some near-term problems echo what has happened in the past. Debt defaults and falling home prices are very real possibilities, for example. Also, making a new crisis a huge focal point and scaring the population into staying at home has proven to be a huge success in temporarily reducing energy consumption without actual rationing. Some people believe that monkeypox or a climate change crisis will be the next area of focus in an attempt to reduce energy consumption, and thus lower oil prices.

[5] There is likely to be more conflict in a world with not enough goods and services to go around.

With a shrinking amount of finished goods and services, we should not be surprised if we see more conflict in the world. Many wars are resource wars. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with other countries indirectly involved, certainly could be considered a resource war. Russia wants higher prices for its exports of many kinds, including energy exports. I wrote about the conflict issue in a post I wrote in April 2022: The world has a major crude oil problem; expect conflict ahead.

World War I and World War II were almost certainly about energy resources. Peak coal in the UK seems to be closely related to World War I. Inadequate coal in Germany and lack of oil in Japan (and elsewhere) seem to be related to World War II.

[6] We seem to be facing a new set of problems in addition to the problems that gave rise to the Covid-19 shutdowns. These are likely to shape how any new crisis plays out.

Some recently added problems include the following:

  • Debt has risen to a high level, relative to 2008. This debt will be harder to repay with higher interest rates.
  • The US dollar is very high relative to other currencies. The high level of the US dollar causes problems for borrowers from outside the US in repaying their loans. It also makes energy prices very high outside the US.
  • Oil, coal and natural gas are all in short supply world-wide, leading to falling productivity of the overall system Item 1. If extraction is to continue, prices need to be much higher.
  • Difficulties with broken supply lines make it hard to ramp up production of manufactured goods of many kinds.
  • Inadequate labor supply is an increasing problem. Baby boomers are now retiring; not enough young people are available to take their place. Increased illness, associated with Covid-19 and its vaccines, is also an issue.

These issues point to a situation where rising interest rates seem likely to send the world economy downward because of debt defaults and failing businesses of many kinds.

The high dollar relative to other currencies leads to the potential for the system to break apart under stress. Alternatively, the US dollar may play a smaller role in international trade than in the past.

[7] Many parts of the economy are likely to find that the promised payments to be made to them cannot really take place.

We have been taught that money is a store of value. We have also been taught that government promises, such as pensions, unemployment insurance and health insurance can be counted on. If there are fewer goods and services available in total, the whole system must change to reflect the fact that there are no longer enough goods and services to go around. There may not even be enough food to go around.

As the world economy hits limits, we cannot assume that the money we have in the bank will really be able to purchase the goods we want in the future. The goods may not be available to purchase, or the government may put a restriction (such as $200 per week) on how much we can withdraw from our account each week, or inflation may make goods we currently buy unaffordable.

If we think about the situation, the world will be producing fewer goods and services each year, regardless of what promises that have been made in the past might say. For example, the number of bushels of wheat available worldwide will start falling, as will the number of new cars and the number of computers. Somehow, the goods and services people expected to be available will start disappearing. If the problem is inflation, the affordable quantity will start to fall.

We don’t know precisely what will happen, but these are some ideas, especially as higher interest rates become a problem:

  • Many businesses will fail. They will default on their debt; the value of their stock will go to zero. They will lay off their employees.
  • Employees and governments will also default on debts. Banks will have difficulty remaining solvent.
  • Pension plans will have nowhere nearly enough money to pay promised pensions. Either they will default or prices will rise so high that the pensions do not really purchase the goods that recipients hoped for.
  • The international system of trade is likely to start withering away. Eventually, most goods will be locally produced with whatever resources are available.
  • Many government agencies will become inadequately funded and fail. Intergovernmental agencies, such as the European Union and the United Nations, are especially vulnerable.
  • Governments are likely to reduce services provided because tax revenues are too low. Even if more money is printed, it cannot buy goods that are not there.
  • Citizens may become so unhappy with their governments that they overthrow them. Simpler, cheaper governmental systems, offering fewer services, may follow.

[8] It is likely that, in inflation-adjusted dollars, energy prices will not rise very high, for very long.

We are likely dealing with an economy that is basically falling apart. Factories will produce less because they cannot obtain financing. Purchasers of finished goods and services will have difficulty finding jobs that pay well and loans based on this employment. These effects will tend to keep commodity prices too low for producers. While there may be temporary spurts of higher prices, finished goods made with high-cost energy products will be too expensive for most citizens to afford. This will tend to push prices back down again.

[9] Conclusion.

We are dealing with a situation that economists, politicians and central banks are ill-equipped to handle. Raising interest rates may squeeze out a huge share of the economy. The economy was already “at the edge.” We can’t know for certain.

Virtually no one looks at the economy from a physics point of view. For one thing, the result is too distressing to explain to citizens. For another, it is fashionable for scientists of all types to produce papers and have them peer reviewed by others within their own ivory towers. Economists, politicians and central bankers don’t care about the physics of the situation. Even those basing their analysis on Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) tend to focus on only a narrow portion of what I explained in Section [1]. Once researchers have invested a huge amount of time and effort in one direction, they cannot consider the possibility that their approach may be seriously incomplete.

Unfortunately, the physics-based approach I am using indicates that the world’s economy is likely to change dramatically for the worse in the months and years ahead. Economies, in general, cannot last forever. Populations outgrow their resource bases; resources become too depleted. In physics terms, economies are dissipative structures, not unlike ecosystems, plants and animals. They can only exist for a limited time before they die or end their operation. They tend to be replaced by new, similar dissipative structures.

While the current world economy cannot last indefinitely, humans have continued to exist through many bottlenecks in the past, including ice ages. It is likely that some humans, perhaps in mutated form, will make it through the current bottleneck. These humans will likely create a new economy that is better adapted to the Earth as it changes.

Posted in Financial Implications, oil shortages | Tagged , , | 2,779 Comments

Why raising interest rates to reduce inflation may work out very badly

Are we headed for very high energy prices? Or, are we headed for a financial system that starts falling apart? The whole economic system may change remarkably. For example, what many people thought was money, or a promised pension plan, may not really be there when the time comes to get value from it. Shelves in stores may be empty when it comes time to make a purchase.

Most people do not understand that the world economy is a physics-based system, powered by energy. If the energy is suddenly much less available, there will be a huge problem. The world economy has been powered by a rapidly growing supply of energy for over 200 years.

Figure 1. World energy consumption by fuel based on Vaclav Smil’s estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects (Appendix) together with data from BP’s 2011 Statistical Review of World Energy for 1965 and subsequent. Wind and solar are included in Biofuels.

My concern is that the current attempt to bring inflation down will lead to falling energy supply and a world economy that is rapidly changing for the worse.

Figure 2. Energy amounts for 2010 and prior equal to those in Figure 1, with a corresponding amount for 2020. Future energy for 2030, 2040 and 2050 are rough estimates based on the observation that the world is now reaching extraction limits for both coal and oil.

Everything I can see says that world leaders are not able to face the possibility that the world is already running seriously short of oil and coal. Future supplies are likely to be much lower, and much more expensive, if they are available at all. Other energy types (including natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind and solar) are simply add-ons to a system built using coal and oil.

Current world leaders do not realize that the energy situation is very much like the water level in Lake Mead. Looking at it from the top, there still seems to be water there but, in fact, the required depth is lacking. Water for watering crops will soon be exhausted. The world’s energy supply is not a whole lot different. The supposedly proven reserves do not tell us anything at all. It is the amount of fossil fuels that can be affordably extracted that is important. We have already exceeded the amount that can be affordably extracted. If central banks cut back future energy supplies using higher interest rates, we can expect to encounter major problems going forward.

In this post, I will try to explain some of the issues involved.

[1] The amount of energy the economy requires depends very much on population. The greater the world population, the more oil is needed for food production and transportation. Non-oil energy is a bit more flexible in quantity than oil, but the total quantity of energy per capita needs to keep rising to prevent very adverse outcomes.

Figure 3. World per capita energy consumption by source, with the 1950-1980 period of rapid growth highlighted. Amounts are equal to those used in Figure 1, divided by population estimates by Angus Maddison.

Figure 3 highlights the fact that the period of Rapid Energy Growth between 1950 and 1980 was a period of unprecedented growth in per capita energy consumption. This was a period when many families could afford their own car for the first time. There were enough employment opportunities that, quite often, both spouses could hold down paying jobs outside the home. It was the growing supply of inexpensive fossil fuels that made these jobs available.

If a person looks closely, it is possible to see that the 1920 to 1940 period was a period of very low growth in energy consumption, relative to population. This was also the period of the Great Depression and the period leading up to World War II. Sluggish energy consumption growth at that time was linked to very undesirable socioeconomic outcomes.

Energy is like food for the economy. If energy of the right kinds is cheaply available, it is possible to build new roads, pipelines and electricity transmission lines. World trade grows. If available energy is inadequate, major wars tend to break out and standards of living are likely to fall. We now seem to be approaching a time of too little energy, relative to population.

[2] Recently published data through 2021 indicates that energy consumption growth is not keeping up with population growth, similar to the situation of the 1930s. This says that the economy is doing poorly. Supply lines are broken; most jobs don’t pay well; many goods that normally would be available aren’t available.

Figure 4. World energy consumption per capita, based on information published in BP’s 2022 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 4 shows that the year with the highest per capita energy consumption was 2018. This agrees with other information such as automobile sales.

Figure 5. Auto sales by country, based on data of vda.de

For example, the number of automobiles sold seems to have peaked back in the 2018 period. China and India are both reporting fewer automobile sales recently. The economy was already sliding into recession in 2019. The 2020 shutdowns hid the very poor condition the world economy was already in. If people were forced to remain in their homes, they could not take to the streets to protest their poor wages and pension plans. The shutdowns helped give the impression the world economy was doing better than it really was.

Figure 4 shows that even with the bounce back in 2021, total energy consumption per capita is still below the 2018 and 2019 values. This contrasts with the situation that occurred after the 2008-2009 Great Recession. By 2010, per capita energy consumption was back above the 2007 and 2008 values.

[3] We can look back and see how rising interest rates were used to slow the world economy in the 2004 to 2006 period, and how different the economic situation was then compared to now. Even with the rapid growth the economy was making at the time of the interest rates increases, the result was still a deep recession in 2008-2009.

Figure 6. Figure similar to Figure 4 showing world energy consumption per capita, except that notation has been added with respect to the timing of increases in US Federal Reserve Target Interest Rates.

It is clear from Figure 4 and Figure 6 that between 2001 and 2007, the quantity of energy consumed per capita was rising rapidly. This was the period shortly after China was added to the World Trade Organization. Manufacturing was rapidly being moved to China. China’s demand for energy products of all kinds was rising rapidly. As a result of this greater demand, oil prices were increasing between 2001 and 2007. To try to reduce inflation, the Federal Reserve raised target interest rates in the 2004 to 2006 period and gradually brought them down, starting in late 2007.

There are two things that are striking about this earlier situation:

  1. The world economy (as shown by rising energy supply) was growing much more rapidly during the 2001 to 2007 period than it is in 2022. All the world economy is trying to do now is get back to where it was before the 2020 shutdowns, in terms of energy consumption per capita.
  2. Eventually, there was a bad reaction to the higher interest rates of 2004 to 2006, but this did not come until 2008-2009. This was a much longer lag than most people would expect.

Now, in 2022, we cannot get energy consumption per capita up to the 2018 and 2019 levels. There are many unfinished automobiles, waiting for missing parts. Appliances of many kinds are not available without a long wait. Fertilizer is often not available. Broken supply lines leave many store shelves empty. It is not that demand is unusually high; it is the supply of the energy products we need to grow food and to transport many finished goods that is not available.

Raising interest rates is a way to reduce the demand for finished goods and services, such as automobiles and appliances, if the world economy is growing very rapidly, as it was back in the 2001 to 2007 period. If the problem is an inadequate supply of finished goods and services (due to broken supply lines and low wages for workers), then raising interest rates is entirely the wrong medicine. It will cause even fewer automobiles and appliances to be made. It will cause many current workers to be laid off. Such an approach, when the world is trying to deal with too few workers, will tend to make the situation worse, rather than better.

[4] The trend in fossil fuel supplies is concerning. Both oil and coal are past peak, on a per capita basis. World coal supply has been lagging population growth since at least 2011. While natural gas production is rising, the price tends to be high and the cost of transport is very high.

Most energy charts are similar to Figure 7, showing energy consumption on a total product supplied basis, without reference to the size of the population using those resources.

Figure 7. Total quantity of oil, coal and natural gas supplied based on information published in BP’s 2022 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 7 indicates that coal supplies are, in some sense, the most troubled of the three types of fossil fuels. In the 2001 to 2007 period, China was able to ramp up its manufacturing using coal, but eventually those supplies ran short. In fact, coal supplies around the world started running short. Instead of telling us about the shortfall in production, we started hearing a story that sounds a lot like The Fox and the Grapes of Aesop’s Fables: Coal is a horribly polluting fuel which we don’t really want anyhow.

To understand how these quantities correspond to the world’s rising population, it is helpful to look at consumption divided by population, shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8. Oil, coal and natural gas energy consumption per capita, based on data in BP’s 2022 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 8 shows that oil consumption per capita was relatively stable up until 2019. Then, it suddenly dropped in 2020, and it has not been able to fully recover from that drop in 2021. In fact, we know that as oil production has tried to increase in 2022, its price has risen further. Of the years shown, 2004 was the year with the highest oil consumption per capita. That was back at the time that “conventional” oil production peaked.

Figure 8 shows that the peak production of coal, relative to world population, was in the year 2011. Now, in 2022, the least expensive coal to extract has been depleted. World coal consumption has fallen far behind population growth. The big drop-off in coal availability means that countries are increasingly looking to natural gas as a flexible source of electricity generation. But natural gas has many other uses, including its use in making fertilizer and as a feedstock for many herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides. The result is that there is more demand for natural gas than can easily be supplied.

[5] Governments and academic institutions have gone out of their way to avoid telling the world how important energy of the right types and in the right quantities is to the economy.

Politicians cannot admit that the world economy cannot get along without the right quantities of energy that match the needs of today’s infrastructure. At most, a small amount of substitution is possible, if all the necessary transition steps are taken. Each transition step requires energy of various kinds. For example, a small amount of intermittent wind can be added to the fossil-fuel generated electricity supply, if care is taken to ramp up fossil-fuel generated electricity to offset the lack of wind when there is a shortfall in supply. Otherwise, battery or other storage is needed for the wind energy until the wind energy is truly needed by the system.

Thus, most people today are convinced that the economy doesn’t need energy. They believe that the world’s biggest problem is climate change. They tend to cheer when they hear that fossil fuel supplies are being shut down. Of course, without energy of the right kinds, jobs disappear. The total quantity of goods and services produced tends to fall very steeply. In this situation, there is likely not enough food for all the people in the world. War is likely to break out over limited resources.

[6] Once the economy starts heading downward, it is not clear that the economy can ever “catch itself” and start back on an upward path again, even for a short while.

Back in 2001, the World Economy was able to get a “bail out” from China’s rapid growth in coal production, but as we have seen, world coal production is no longer growing as fast as population.

Back in about 2010 and 2011, growth in US crude oil from shale formations was able to temporarily bail out world oil supply, but now this is also failing. Also, even the recent “growth” shown is to a significant extent from the completion of “drilled but uncompleted” wells started earlier. Eventually, there are no more “DUCs” to complete.

Figure 9. EIA chart showing US Field Production of Crude Oil through June 24, 2022.

In fact, despite all of the supposed high reserves of many kinds around the world, there is little evidence that the Middle East, or anywhere else, can actually raise production much higher.

Once the economy starts shrinking, debt defaults are likely to become a big problem. Banks will find their balance sheets impaired. They may be forced to close. Citizens with deposits may find that only part of their balance is available to spend.

Government programs will necessarily be forced to cut back to match the energy supplies that are available. For example, if road paving material is not available, roads cannot be repaved. If fuel cannot be found for school buses, students may need to learn at home.

Governments at all levels have promised pension plans. In fact, many employers have promised pension plans. Without a growing supply to cheap-to-produce energy, these promises are meaningless. Somehow, governments will find it necessary to cut back on their promises. Perhaps, Social Security and Medicare programs will be handed back to US States to fund, to the extent that the states have funds for these programs. Governments around the world can expect to face similar problems.

With less energy supply available, the whole world economy that we know today seems likely to start falling apart. Fewer goods will be available through international trade. It is cheap energy that has allowed today’s economy to function. Once this cheap energy is depleted, the world economy will need to shrink back in many ways, at once.

We don’t really know precisely what lies ahead, and perhaps, this lack of knowledge is for the best. We cannot even imagine a world economy changing rapidly for the worse.

Posted in Energy policy, Financial Implications, News Related Post | Tagged , | 3,945 Comments

A Few Insights Based on CDC Data Regarding COVID and its Vaccines

My background is as a casualty actuary. I am used to looking at data from standard sources and trying to make some sense of it. I am hesitant to take someone else’s word for what the data show because I know that it is easy for mistakes to creep in. In this post, I will provide observations based on data from the databases of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Johns Hopkins University. Hopefully, some of these observations will prove insightful.

I am aware that the proper reference for COVID is “COVID-19.” In this post, I have elected to use the shorter reference, except when shown in an exhibit prepared using software developed by someone else (Figure 3).

[1] Recent data show that COVID vaccines don’t really prevent a person from catching and passing along the virus that causes COVID. The CDC has recently changed its guidance to reflect the fact that the vaccines mostly reduce the chance of severe illness. Vaccines are still recommended by the CDC, not because they reduce transmission, but because they may reduce COVID-related healthcare costs.

Figure 1. Number of US vaccine doses provided to various age groups, based on data from a CDC database.

It is clear from Figure 1 that the big initial push for vaccine delivery peaked around April 2021. The rollout was substantially accomplished by July 2021. Then there was a second, lower peak, related primarily to boosters in the November 2021 to January 2022 period.

Figure 2 shows the pattern of newly reported COVID cases, relative to the first round of COVID vaccinations, based on data reported to the Johns Hopkins University database.

Figure 2.US reported COVID cases by month based on data from the Johns Hopkins University database.

Clearly, the first round of vaccinations did not put an end to new COVID cases. In fact, the CDC started becoming concerned about transmission among the vaccinated as early as July 2021. At that time, it started recommending that everyone wear a mask in conditions that represented high transmission. It also began using the term breakthrough infection to describe the (hopefully uncommon) condition of coming down with COVID after being vaccinated.

In fact, back when the Delta wave hit in the fall of 2021, it was possible to blame at least part of the problem on the lesser-vaccinated Southern part of the US. The well-vaccinated Northeast seemed to fare relatively much better (Figure 3).

Figure 3. US reported COVID cases (moving 7-day average, relative to population) by part of the US based on data from the Johns Hopkins University database. Visualization is available at this web address.

Figure 3 indicates that a quite different situation occurred when the Omicron variant hit close to the beginning of 2022. The heavily vaccinated Northeast clearly led the way, both in timing and in the number of COVID cases relative to population. The relatively less vaccinated South was much lower, close to the Midwest in its number of cases, relative to population.

The Omicron variant is very different from the original Wuhan version of the virus. This difference between virus variants is at least part reason that current mRNA vaccines fail to block transmission of the Omicron virus. Instead, current vaccines mostly reduce severe symptoms. This is very similar to the explanation we have heard when getting influenza vaccines each year. Researchers make a guess with respect to which particular strains will be circulating the following year. The level of protection will vary, depending upon whether the researchers’ guesses prove to be accurate the following year.

There are also indications from patterns elsewhere (and from theory) that it is not good practice to vaccinate at the time a virus is already starting to circulate widely. The booster vaccinations that took place in November and December 2021 (Figure 1) may have inadvertently raised, rather than lowered, their recipients’ chances of catching COVID. But, of course, the illness would be (on average) relatively mild. This lower severity of outcome is to be expected, partly because the mutated virus seems to be less virulent than the Wuhan COVID virus, and partly because the vaccines tend to reduce the severity of the disease.

The CDC started moving in the direction of treating vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike back in July 2021. Now, with the evidence from the Omicron wave coming in, it has had no choice but to move even further in the direction of treating everyone alike. For example, for domestic travel, the CDC recommends tests for both vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers if there is a concern about COVID. Recent CDC recommendations with respect to the wearing of masks do not depend upon vaccine status, either.

The idea of requiring everyone to be vaccinated likely originated from the cost-savings and profits that were expected to occur if people could be vaccinated and kept out of hospitals. Employers were very much in favor of such cost-savings because their workers likely would be able to stay on the job more of the time. Insurance companies were in favor of such an approach as well, because it would lower health care claim costs. Hospitals and physicians were in favor of the recommended COVID vaccines because physicians could perform more elective surgery (and thus make more money) if the hospitals were not full of COVID patients. Of course, the drug companies selling vaccines were in favor of selling more vaccines, too.

Furthermore, we know from prior experience with viruses that the ability to stop transmission with a vaccine varies greatly from virus to virus. Forecasting that any proposed vaccine will prevent transmission is a very “iffy” proposition. The viruses that cause the common cold, HIV and SARS are related (in some way) to the virus that causes COVID. Despite decades of research, none of these viruses has a successful vaccine. This suggests that COVID cannot be stopped by a vaccine, either. We also know, in general, that if a virus jumps from an animal to human hosts, transmission can only be stopped if all of the animal hosts are successfully vaccinated, as well.

[2] COVID vaccines used in the US do not seem to have done much to reduce total COVID deaths.

Figure 4. Number of US COVID deaths by month on two slightly different reporting bases. CDC data are based on death certificate data, reported up to several months after the date of the death, but backdated to the date of actual death. Thus, its indications will tend to be low for recent months. The Johns Hopkins University database contains reports sent in by providers. It should be more complete for recent dates.

Vaccinations started in December of 2020, but there were about 20% more COVID deaths in 2021 than in 2020. Part of the problem is that after the Delta peak in deaths in September, deaths never retreated to zero, or close to zero. COVID deaths immediately began increasing with the Omicron peak. While there was a lull during March 2022 in reported cases (Figures 2 and 3), data for April and May seem to indicate that reported cases are again on an upward path.

If today’s vaccines really worked as people initially hoped, I would expect to see a lot more progress in reducing new cases than shown to date.

[3] Data from OurWorldInData.org provides excess mortality indications for five age groupings. This data indicates that Ages 15-64 were particularly hard hit by the last two waves of COVID (Delta and Omicron). Ages 85+ were hit very lightly.

Figure 5. Chart prepared by OurWorldInData.org showing excess mortality.

Since these charts are for all causes of death combined, they will reflect deaths that might have occurred due to other problems of the 2020 to 2022 period, in addition to COVID deaths. For example, increased suicides and homicides would be included, as would a rise in drug overdoses and motor vehicle accidents. If there are deaths stemming from the use of vaccines, these deaths would be included in the total deaths from all causes, as well.

The rise in deaths in the Ages 15-64 grouping is particularly striking. This group is known for being more likely to be depressed by the events of the day. The base number of expected deaths is relatively lower than for the older ages. This allows the deaths from newly increased causes to magnify the total death rate of the period by a greater factor. Life insurance companies have been complaining about the high numbers of deaths experienced on their policies, predominantly for this age group.

The strikingly low deaths in the Ages 85+ group in 2021 may reflect the working of the vaccine. There might be other causes as well. Some of the weaker members of this group likely died in 2020, leaving fewer to die in 2021. This lower death rate may also reflect the impact of antibodies gained from catching COVID in 2020. People included in Ages 85+, more frequently than younger age groups, lived in care homes of various kinds during 2020. In this setting, they were more exposed to the early rounds of COVID than those living in home settings. Thus, they had more of a chance to develop antibodies from catching the illness.

[4] If we prepare charts showing provisional mortality data for 2021, together with similar indications for prior years, we can see how US mortality rates have been changing for different age groups. We can also see the relative role of COVID cases in these changes.

Figure 6. Death rates for four youngest age groupings, based on CDC Provisional Mortality Data for various years.

The CDC data show mortality rates based on deaths from all causes. For the years 2020 and 2021, it gives a separate indication of mortality associated with COVID. The orange line represents what the mortality would be if all COVID deaths (using a broad definition of COVID death, based on COVID appearing as “any cause” on the death certificate) were removed.

COVID vaccines were not available until mid-December 2020, and then for only a very small group, so the difference in the orange and blue lines at the 2020 point represents the number of COVID deaths for the age group, before the vaccines became available. The 2021 difference between the two lines represents the number of deaths from COVID taking into account whatever vaccines were used for this age group. We might expect the gap between the blue and orange lines to become smaller in 2021 than in 2020 if the vaccines given to the particular age group (or the prior antibodies from catching the illness) were making a significant change in reducing COVID cases in 2021.

Looking at Figure 6, COVID has essentially no impact on babies under Age 1. The total number of deaths seemed to drop more than usual in 2020, perhaps partly because mothers were at home more. For Ages 1-4, death rates are up in 2021, but not because of COVID. COVID seems to play practically no role in the mortality of Ages 5-14 and at most a very minor role for Ages 15-24. For the latter group, mortality is significantly up in both 2020 and 2021, perhaps because of more suicides and risky behavior resulting in death (such as car accidents and drug overdoses).

Figure 7. Death rates per 100,000 for four groupings between ages 25 and 64, based on CDC Provisional Mortality Data for various years.

We can see similar patterns to what we saw for Ages 15-24 in the chart above, but with progressively more COVID in the mix of causes leading to the uptick in the overall death rates. The share of COVID cases in the mix rises in 2021 relative to 2020 for all of these age groupings, despite the vaccines and prior immunity which should start building up (if immunity is truly “durable,” something that is not always the case).

Figure 8. Death rates for three groups from age 65 and up, based on CDC Provisional Mortality Data for various years.

It is only when we get to these oldest ages that death rates stop increasing in 2021. In fact, when the impact of COVID deaths is removed, the death rates seem to be improving. These age groups tended to get the vaccine early. They also lost quite a few sickly members in 2020, when the first round of COVID hit. The remaining group may be in somewhat better health than the original mix. Also, as mentioned in Section [3], they may also have more antibodies from actually catching COVID during 202o, while living in a care home.

[5] We can perhaps get an inkling of what is going wrong with death rates by comparing deaths by cause for January 2020, January 2021, and January 2022, based on monthly provisional death data.

A sample of one month is not very much, but January tends to be bad for mortality because the cold weather encourages dry indoor conditions, especially in the colder parts of the country. People tend to stay inside more because of cold weather. Vitamin D levels tend to be low because of lower sunlight exposure. Communicable disease deaths, including those of COVID, tend to be high at this time of year.

Figure 9. Chart prepared by Gail Tverberg using CDC data for Select Natural Causes. Amounts for January 2022 are likely somewhat incomplete because of the lag in death certificate preparation.

Looking at Figure 9, the first thing we notice is that total January 2022 deaths from natural causes are still outrageously high compared with January 2020 deaths. These deaths exclude deaths from suicides, drug overdoses, car accidents and many other unnatural causes that we know are trending up substantially, so the overall situation is probably even worse than natural death indications would suggest.

One thing we notice is that heart disease deaths seem to be trending higher. This could be a fluke, or it might be caused by COVID or the vaccines (or both). Investigation might be useful.

Cancer deaths, at least based on this tiny sample, seem to be flat. This suggests that fears of a rapid rise in cancer deaths because of vaccine-related issues may be unwarranted.

COVID deaths in January 2022 are down from their very elevated level in January 2021.

Cerebrovascular diseases, diabetes and kidney disease deaths all are higher, in this very small sample. These diseases would all seem to possibly be influenced by a greater number of COVID cases or perhaps by side effects associated with vaccines or with treatments. Researchers interested in these topics should be aware that data are being collected that might give insight into changes in the number of deaths associated with these causes.

One thing that alarmed me when I looked at the CDC’s list of “selected” natural causes is that the list of diseases for which data is given is not very complete. One grouping that clearly has been omitted is diseases of the liver. I would strongly suspect that deaths from diseases of the liver are rising, if people have been staying at home and drinking more alcoholic beverages.

[6] Conclusions and ideas for further examination.

Clearly, the CDC has a huge quantity of data that can be examined if anyone wants to put the time and energy into looking at it. Too often researchers coming from the biological sciences do not stop and think about using whatever data is available to support or refute their ideas, at least based on the evidence to date.

The significant increases in mortality for the many age groups between 15 and 64 would seem to suggest that something is going badly wrong. Someone should be examining these changes. If part of the problem is that vaccines are having serious side effects, this can perhaps be seen by analyzing deaths by cause for these age groups.

The lack of COVID cases in the youngest age groupings (babies and Ages 1-4) would suggest that vaccines are not really needed for these age groupings. Babies don’t excessively fill hospitals with COVID cases. Training their immune systems to look for a long-extinct version of the virus cannot be very helpful in the long run.

If the underlying purpose of vaccines is to help the profitability of big companies, hospitals, doctors and vaccine-makers, this makes a big difference in our understanding of what we are being told. Clearly, the government is also a big employer; its ability to stay within its budget is enhanced by holding down the hospital and other medical costs of its employees. For example, if the government wants the hospitalization costs and work lost by those in the US Army and US Navy to be as low as possible, it will mandate vaccines for these employees. The CDC, being a government agency, cannot help but be at least somewhat influenced by what government leaders are demanding when interpreting scientific evidence.

The government cannot explain that the reason it wants everyone to be vaccinated has essentially nothing to do with disease transmission, without upsetting many people, so it publicizes its change in stance with respect to vaccines as little as possible. Businesses do not want it known that their reason for demanding vaccines is to hold down their own COVID healthcare costs, so they are not anxious to publicize the underlying reason, either. Thus, the vast majority of citizens are not aware of the fact that even with boosters, their chance of catching COVID and passing it along to others is still very high. Studies seem to indicate that boosters may provide an individual person with a short window (6 weeks, or so) of lower likelihood of catching COVID, but the overall effect is not enough to reduce the overall pattern of disease transmission.

If a vaccine against Omicron is developed, we need to be aware that there is a high probability that by the time the vaccine is widely distributed, the virus will have mutated sufficiently that its only benefit will be to somewhat reduce the severity of whatever version of COVID is prevalent at the time the next wave of cases appears. Thus, we cannot hope that with a better-directed vaccine, it will make any substantial difference in disease transmission. Thus, we should expect that the major benefit will always be “reduced healthcare costs with respect to COVID.”

There are quite a few people who have discovered from reading on-line articles that there are ways of potentially reducing the severity of COVID besides receiving the vaccine. These include raising vitamin D levels in advance of contracting COVID and taking any number of common, inexpensive drugs (including aspirin) if the disease does hit. They also recognize that the long-term effects of the vaccines are unknown. For example, if repeated too many times, the vaccines may damage the immune system, according to some analyses. The views of these vaccine-refusers need to be respected. The vaccine-refusers can easily be turned into scapegoats.

Posted in Financial Implications, News Related Post | Tagged , , | 4,227 Comments

Is the debt bubble supporting the world economy in danger of collapsing?

The years between 1981 and 2020 were very special years for the world economy because interest rates were generally falling:

Figure 1. Yields on 10-year and 3-month US Treasuries, in a chart made by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis, as of May 10, 2022.

In some sense, falling interest rates meant that debt was becoming increasingly affordable. The monthly out-of-pocket expense for a new $500,000 mortgage was falling lower and lower. Automobile payments for a new $30,000 vehicle could more easily be accommodated into a person’s budget. A business would find it more affordable to add $5,000,000 in new debt to open at an additional location. With these beneficial effects, it would be no surprise if a debt bubble were to form.

With an ever-lower cost of debt, the economy has had a hidden tailwind pushing it long between 1981 to 2020. Now that interest rates are again rising, the danger is that a substantial portion of this debt bubble may collapse. My concern is that the economy may be heading for an incredibly hard landing because of the inter-relationship between interest rates and energy prices (Figure 2), and the important role energy plays in powering the economy.

Figure 2. Chart showing the important role Quantitative Easing (QE) to lower interest rates plays in adjusting the level of “demand” (and thus the selling price) for oil. Lower interest rates make goods and services created with higher-priced oil more affordable. In addition to the items noted on the chart, US QE3 was discontinued in 2014, about the time of the 2014 oil price crash. Also, the debt bubble crash of 2008 seems to be the indirect result of the US raising short term interest rates (Figure 1) in the 2004 to 2007 period.

In this post, I will try to explain my concerns.

[1] Ever since civilization began, a combination of (a) energy consumption and (b) debt has been required to power the economy.

Under the laws of physics, energy is required to power the economy. This happens because it takes the “dissipation” of energy to perform any activity that contributes to GDP. The energy dissipated can be the food energy that a person eats, or it can be wood or coal or another material burned to provide energy. Sometimes the energy dissipated is in the form of electricity. Looking back, we can see the close relationship between total energy consumption and world total GDP.

Figure 3. World energy consumption for the period 1990 to 2020, based on energy data from BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy and world Purchasing Power Parity GDP in 2017 International Dollars, as published by the World Bank.

The need for debt or some other approach that acts as a funding mechanism for capital expenditures (sale of shares of stock, for example), comes from the fact that humans make investments that will not produce a return for many years. For example, ever since civilization began, people have been planting crops. In some cases, there is a delay of a few months before a crop is produced; in other cases, such as with fruit or nut trees, there can be a delay of years before the investment pays back. Even the purchase by an individual of a home or a vehicle is, in a sense, an investment that will offer a return over a period of years.

With all parts of the economy benefiting from the lower interest rates (except, perhaps, banks and others lending the funds, who are making less profit from the lower interest rates), it is easy to see why lower interest rates would tend to stimulate new investment and drive up demand for commodities.

Commodities are used in great quantity, but the supply available at any one time is tiny by comparison. A sudden increase in demand will tend to send the commodity price higher because the quantity of the commodity available will need to be rationed among more would-be purchasers. A sudden decrease in the demand for a commodity (for example, crude oil, or wheat) will tend to send prices lower. Therefore, we see the strange sharp corners in Figure 2 that seem to be related to changing debt levels and higher or lower interest rates.

[2] The current plan of central banks is to raise interest rates aggressively. My concern is that this approach will leave commodity prices too low for producers. They will be tempted to decrease or stop production.

Politicians are concerned about the price of food and fuel being too high for consumers. Lenders are concerned about interest rates being too low to properly compensate for the loss of value of their investments due to inflation. The plan, which is already being implemented in the United States, is to raise interest rates and to significantly reverse Quantitative Easing (QE). Some people call the latter Quantitative Tightening (QT).

The concern that I have is that aggressively raising interest rates and reversing QE will lead to commodity prices that are too low for producers. There are likely to be many other impacts as well, such as the following:

  • Lower energy supply, due to cutbacks in production and lack of new investment
  • Lower food supply, due to inadequate fertilizer and broken supply lines
  • Much defaulting of debt
  • Pension plans that reduce or stop payments because of debt-related problems
  • Falling prices of stock
  • Defaults on derivatives

[3] My analysis shows how important increased energy consumption has been to economic growth over the last 200 years. Energy consumption per capita has been growing during this entire period, except during times of serious economic distress.

Figure 4. World energy consumption from 1820-2010, based on data from Appendix A of Vaclav Smil’s Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and BP Statistical Review of World Energy for 1965 and subsequent. Wind and solar energy are included in “Biofuels.”

Figure 4 shows the amazing growth in world energy consumption between 1820 and 2010. In the early part of the period, the energy used was mostly wood burned as fuel. In some parts of the world, animal dung was also used as fuel. Gradually, other fuels were added to the mix.

Figure 5. Estimated average annual increase in world energy consumption over 10-year periods using the data underlying Figure 4, plus similar additional data through 2020.

Figure 5 takes the same information shown in Figure 4 and calculates the average approximate annual increase in world energy consumption over 10-year periods. A person can see from this chart that the periods from 1951-1960 and from 1961-1970 were outliers on the high side. This was the time of rebuilding after World War II. Many families were able to own a car for the first time. The US highway interstate system was begun. Many pipelines and electricity transmission lines were built. This building continued into the 1971-1980 period.

Figure 6. Same chart as Figure 5, except that the portion of economic growth that was devoted to population growth is shown in blue at the bottom of each 10-year period. The amount of growth in energy consumption “left over” for improvement in the standard of living is shown in red.

Figure 6 displays the same information as Figure 5, except that each column is divided into two pieces. The lower (blue) portion represents the average annual growth in population during each period. The part left over at the top (in red) represents the growth in energy consumption that was available for increases in standard of living.

Figure 7. The same information displayed in Figure 6, displayed as an area chart. Blue areas represent average annual population growth percentages during these 10-year periods. The red area is determined by subtraction. It represents the amount of energy consumption growth that is “left over” for growth in the standard of living. Captions show distressing events during periods of low increases in the portion available to raise standards of living.

Figure 7 shows the same information as Figure 6, displayed as an area chart. I have also shown some of the distressing events that happened when growth in population was, in effect, taking up essentially all of energy consumption growth. The world economy could not grow normally. There was a tendency toward conflict. Unusual events would happen during these periods, including the collapse of the central government of the Soviet Union and the restrictions associated with the COVID pandemic.

The economy is a self-organizing system that behaves strangely when there is not enough inexpensive energy of the right types available to the system. Wars tend to start. Layers of government may disappear. Strange lockdowns may occur, such as the current restrictions in China.

[4] The energy situation at the time of rising interest rates in the 1960 to 1980 period was very different from today.

If we define years with high inflation rates as those with inflation rates of 5% or higher, Figure 8 shows that the period with high US inflation rates included nearly all the years from 1969 through 1982. Using a 5% inflation cutoff, the year 2021 would not qualify as a high inflation rate year.

Figure 8. US inflation rates, based on Table 1.1.4 Price Index for Gross Domestic Product, published by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

It is only when we look at annualized quarterly data that inflation rates start spiking to high levels. Inflation rates have been above 5% in each of the four quarters ended 2022-Q1. Trade problems related to the Ukraine Conflict have tended to add to price pressures recently.

Figure 9. US inflation rates, based on Table 1.1.4 Price Index for Gross Domestic Product, published by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Underlying these price spikes are increases in the prices of many commodities. Some of this represents a bounce back from artificially low prices that began in late 2014, probably related to the discontinuation of US QE3 (See Figure 2). These prices were far too low for producers. Coal and natural gas prices have also needed to rise, as a result of depletion and prior low prices. Food prices are also rising rapidly, since food is grown and transported using considerable quantities of fossil fuels.

The main differences between that period leading up to 1980 and now are the following:

[a] The big problem in the 1970s was spiking crude oil prices. Now, our problems seem to be spiking crude oil, natural gas and coal prices. In fact, nuclear power may also be a problem because a significant portion of uranium processing is performed in Russia. Thus, we now seem to be verging on losing nearly all our energy supplies to conflict or high prices!

[b] In the 1970s, there were many solutions to the crude oil problem, which were easily implemented. Electricity production could be switched from crude oil to coal or nuclear, with little problem, apart from building the new infrastructure. US cars were very large and fuel inefficient in the early 1970s. These could be replaced with smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles that were already being manufactured in Europe and Japan. Home heating could be transferred to natural gas or propane, to save crude oil for places where energy density was really needed.

Today, we are told that a transition to green energy is a solution. Unfortunately, this is mostly wishful thinking. At best, a transition to green energy will need a huge investment of fossil fuels (which are increasingly unavailable) over a period of at least 30 to 50 years if it is to be successful. See my article, Limits to Green Energy Are Becoming Much Clearer. Vaclav Smil, in his book Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects, discusses the need for very long transitions because energy supply needs to match the devices using it. Furthermore, new energy types are generally only add-ons to other supply, not replacements for those supplies.

[c] The types of economic growth in (a) the 1960 to 1980 period and (b) the period since 2008 are very different. In the earlier of these periods (especially prior to 1973), it was easy to extract oil, coal and natural gas inexpensively. Inflation-adjusted oil prices of less than $20 per barrel were typical. An ever-increasing supply of this oil seemed to be available. New machines (created with fossil fuels) made workers increasingly efficient. The economy tended to “overheat” if interest rates were not repeatedly raised (Figure 1). While higher interest rates could be expected to slow the economy, this was of little concern because rapid growth seemed to be inevitable. The supply of finished goods and services made by the economy was growing rapidly, even with headwinds from the higher interest rates.

On the other hand, in the 2008 to 2020 period, economic growth is largely the result of financial manipulation. The system has been flooded with increasing amounts of debt at ever lower interest rates. By the time of the lockdowns of 2020, would-be workers were being paid for doing nothing. World production of finished goods and services declined in 2020, and it has had difficulty rising since. In the first quarter of 2022, the US economy contracted by -1.4%. If headwinds from higher interest rates and QT are added, the economic system is likely to encounter substantial debt defaults and increasing breakdowns of supply lines.

[5] Today’s spiking energy prices appear to be much more closely related to the problems of the 1913 to 1945 era than they are to the problems of the late 1970s.

Looking back at Figure 7, our current period is more like the period between the two world wars than the period in the 1970s that we often associate with high inflation. In both periods, the “red” portion of the chart (the portion I identify with rising standard of living), has pretty much disappeared. In both the 1913 to 1945 period and today, it is nearly all the energy supplies other than biofuels that are disappearing.

In the 1913 to 1945 period, the problem was coal. Mines were becoming increasingly depleted, but raising coal prices to pay for the higher cost of extracting coal from depleted mines tended to make the coal prohibitively expensive. Mine operators tried to reduce wages, but this was not a solution either. Fighting broke out among countries, almost certainly related to inadequate coal supplies. Countries wanted coal to supply to their citizens so that industry could continue, and so that citizens could continue heating their homes.

Figure 10. Slide prepared by Gail Tverberg showing peak coal estimates for the UK and for Germany.

As stated at the beginning of this section, today’s problem is that nearly all our energy supplies are becoming unaffordable. In some sense, wind and solar may look better, but this is because of mandates and subsidies. They are not suitable for operating the world economy within any reasonable time frame.

There are other parallels to the 1913 to 1945 period. One of the big problems of the 1930s was prices that would not rise high enough for farmers to make a profit. Oil prices in the United States were extraordinarily low then. BP 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy reports that the average oil price in 1931, in 2020 US$, was $11.08. This is the lowest inflation-adjusted price of any year back to 1865. Such a price was almost certainly too low for producers to make a profit. Low prices, relative to rising costs, have recently been problems for both farmers and oil producers.

Another major problem of the 1930s was huge income disparity. Wide income disparity is again an issue today, thanks to increased specialization. Competition with unskilled workers in low wage countries is also an issue.

It is important to note that the big problem of the 1930s was deflation rather than inflation, as the debt bubble started popping in 1929.

[6] If a person looks only at the outcome of raising interest rates in the 1960s to 1980 timeframe, it is easy to get a misleading idea of the impact of increased interest rates now.

If people look only at what happened in the 1980s, the longer-term impact of the spike in interest rates doesn’t seem too severe. The world economy was growing well before the interest rates were raised. After the peak in interest rates, the world economy generally continued to grow. As a result of the high oil prices and the spiking interest rates, the world hastened its transition to using a bit less crude oil per person.

Figure 11. Per capita crude oil production from 1973 through 2021. Crude oil amounts are from international statistics of the US Energy Information Administration. Population estimates are from UN 2019 population estimates. The low population growth projection from the UN data is used for 2021.

At the same time, the world economy was able to expand the use of other energy products, at least through 2018.

Figure 12. World per capita total energy supply based on data from BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy. World per capita crude oil is based on international data of the EIA, together with UN 2019 population estimates. Note that crude oil data is through 2021, but total energy amounts are only through 2020.

Since 2019, our problem has been that the total energy supply has not been keeping up with the rising population. The cost of extraction of all kinds of oil, coal and natural gas keeps rising due to depletion, but the ability of customers to afford the higher prices of finished goods and services made with those energy products does not rise to match these higher costs. Energy prices probably would have spiked in 2020 if it were not for COVID-related restrictions. Production of oil, coal and natural gas has not been able to rise sufficiently after the lockdowns for economies to fully re-open. This is the primary reason for the recent spiking of energy prices.

Turning to inflation rates, the relationship between higher interest rates (Figure 1) and annual inflation rates (Figure 8) is surprisingly not very close. Inflation rates rose during the 1960 to 1973 period despite rising interest rates, mostly likely because of the rapid growth of the economy from an increased per-capita supply of inexpensive energy.

Figure 8 shows that inflation rates did not come down immediately after interest rates were raised to a high level in 1980, either. There was a decline in the inflation rate to 4% in 1983, but it was not until the collapse of the central government of the Soviet Union in 1991 that inflation rates have tended to stay close to 2% per year.

[7] A more relevant recent example with respect to the expected impact of rising interest rates is the impact of the increase in US short-term interest rates in the 2004 to 2007 period. This led to the subprime debt collapse in the US, associated with the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

Looking back at Figure 1, one can see the effect of raising short-term interest rates in the 2004 to 2007 era. This eventually led to the Great Recession of 2008-2009. I wrote about this in my academic paper, Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis, published in the journal Energy in 2010.

The situation we are facing today is much more severe than in 2008. The debt bubble is much larger. The shortage of energy products has spread beyond oil to coal and natural gas, as well. The idea of raising interest rates today is very much like going into the Great Depression and deciding to raise interest rates because bankers don’t feel like they are getting an adequate share of the goods and services produced by the economy. If there really aren’t enough goods and services for everyone, giving lenders a larger share of the total supply cannot work out well.

[8] The problems we are encountering have been hidden for many years by an outdated understanding of how the economy operates.

Because of the physics of the economy, it behaves very differently than most people assume. People almost invariably assume that all aspects of the economy can “stay together” regardless of whether there are shortages of energy or of other products. People also assume that shortages will be immediately become obvious through high prices, without realizing the huge role interest rates and debt levels play. People further assume that these spiking prices will somehow bring about greater supply, and the whole system will go on as before. Furthermore, they expect that whatever resources are in the ground, which we have the technical capability to extract, can be extracted.

It is important to note that prices are not necessarily a good indicator of shortages. Just as a fever can have many causes, high prices can have many causes.

The economy can only continue as long as all of its important parts continue. We cannot assume that reported reserves of anything can really be extracted, even if the reserves have been audited by a reliable auditor. What actually can be extracted depends on prices staying high enough to generate funds for additional investment as required. The amount that can be extracted also depends on the continuation of international supply lines providing goods such as steel pipe. The continued existence of governments that can keep order in the areas where extraction is to take place is important, as well.

What we should be most concerned about is a very rapidly shrinking economic system that cannot accommodate very many people. It seems that such a situation might occur if the debt bubble is popped and too many supply lines are broken. There may be a time lag between when interest rates are raised and when the adverse impacts on the economy are seen. This is a reason why central bankers should be very cautious about the increases in interest rates they make as well as QT. The situation may turn out much worse than planned!

Posted in Energy policy, Financial Implications | Tagged , , | 4,216 Comments

The world has a major crude oil problem; expect conflict ahead

Media outlets tend to make it sound as if all our economic problems are temporary problems, related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In fact, world crude oil production has been falling behind needed levels since 2019. This problem, by itself, encourages the world economy to contract in unexpected ways, including in the form of economic lockdowns and aggression between countries. This crude oil shortfall seems likely to become greater in the years ahead, pushing the world economy toward conflict and the elimination of inefficient players.

To me, crude oil production is of particular importance because this form of oil is especially useful. With refining, it can operate tractors used to cultivate crops, and it can operate trucks to bring food to stores to sell. With refining, it can be used to make jet fuel. It can also be refined to make fuel for earth moving equipment used in road building. In recent years, it has become common to publish “all liquids” amounts, which include liquid fuels such as ethanol and natural gas liquids. These fuels have uses when energy density is not important, but they do not operate the heavy machinery needed to maintain today’s economy.

In this post, I provide an overview of the crude oil situation as I see it. In my analysis, I utilize crude oil production data by the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) that has only recently become available for the full year of 2021. In some exhibits, I also make estimates for the first quarter of 2022 based on preliminary information for this period.

[1] World crude oil production grew marginally in 2021.

Figure 1. World crude oil production based on EIA international data through December 31, 2021.

Crude oil production for the year 2021 was a disappointment for those hoping that production would rapidly bounce back to at least the 2019 level. World crude oil production increased by 1.4% in 2021, to 77.0 million barrels per day, after a decrease of -7.5% in 2020. If we look back, we can see that the highest year of crude oil production was in 2018, not 2019. Oil production in 2021 was still 5.9 million barrels per day below the 2018 level.

With respect to the overall increase in crude oil production of 1.4% in 2021, OPEC helped bring this average up with an increase of 3.0% in 2021. Russia also helped, with an increase of 2.5%. The United States helped pull the world crude increase down, with a decrease in production of -1.1% in 2021. In Section [5], more information will be provided with respect to crude production for these groupings.

[2] The growth in world crude oil production shows an amazingly steady relationship to the growth in world population since 1991. The major exception is the decrease in consumption that took place in 2020, with the lockdowns that changed consumption patterns.

Figure 2. World per capita crude oil production based on EIA international data through December 31, 2021, together with UN 2019 population estimates. The UN’s estimated historical amounts were used through 2020; the “low growth” estimate was used for 2021.

Figure 2 indicates that, up through 2018, each person in the world consumed an average of around 4.0 barrels of crude oil. This equates to 168 US gallons or 636 liters of crude per year. Much of this crude is used by businesses and governments to produce the basic goods we expect from our economy, including food and roads.

A big downshift occurred in 2020 with the COVID lockdowns. Many people began working from home; international travel was scaled back. The reduction of these uses of oil helped bring down total world usage. Changes such as these explain the big dip in crude oil production (and consumption) in 2020, which continued into 2021.

Even in 2019, the world economy was starting to scale back. Beginning in early 2018, China banned the importation of many types of materials for recycling, and other countries soon followed suit. As a result, less oil was used for transporting materials across the ocean for recycling. (Subsidies for recycling were helping to pay for this oil.) Loss of recycling and other cutbacks (especially in China and India) led to fewer people in these countries being able to afford automobiles and smartphones. Lower production of these devices contributed to the lower use of crude oil.

On Figure 2, there is a slight year-to-year variation in crude oil per capita. The single highest year over the time period shown is 2005, with 2004 not far behind. This was about the time many people think that conventional oil production “peaked,” reducing the availability of inexpensive-to-produce oil.

[3] Crude oil prices dropped dramatically when economies were shut in, beginning in March 2020. Prices began spiking the summer and fall of 2021, as the world economy attempted to open up. This pattern suggests that the real problem is tight crude oil supply when the economy is not artificially constrained by COVID restrictions.

Figure 3. Average weekly Brent oil price in chart prepared by EIA, through April 8, 2022. Amounts are not adjusted for inflation.

An analysis of price trends suggests that most of the recent spike in crude prices is due to the tightness of the crude oil supply, rather than the Ukraine conflict. The Brent oil price dropped to an average of $14.24 in the week ending April 24, 2020, not long after COVID restrictions were enacted. When the economy started to reopen, in the week ending July 2, 2021, the average price rose to $76.26. By the week ending January 28, 2022, the average price had risen to $90.22.

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The Brent spot price on February 23, 2022, was $99.29. Brent prices briefly spiked higher, with weekly average prices rising as high as $123.60, for the week ending March 25, 2022. The current Brent oil price is about $107. If we compare the current price to the price the day before the invasion began, the price is only $8 higher. Even compared to the January 28 weekly average of $90.22, the current price is $17 higher.

Saying that the Ukraine invasion is causing the current high price is mostly a convenient excuse, suggesting that the high prices will suddenly disappear if this conflict disappears. The sad truth is that depletion is causing the cost of extraction to rise. Governments of oil exporting countries also need high prices to enable high taxes on exported oil. We are increasingly experiencing a conflict between the prices that the customers can afford and the prices that those doing the extraction require. In my view, most oil exporting countries need a price in excess of $120 per barrel to meet all of their needs, including reinvestment and taxes. Consumers would prefer oil prices under $50 per barrel to keep the price of food and transportation low.

[4] Food prices tend to rise when oil prices are high because products made from crude oil are used in the production and transport of food.

History shows that bad things tend to happen when food prices are very high, including riots by unhappy citizens. This is a major reason that high oil prices tend to lead to conflict.

Figure 4. FAO inflation-adjusted monthly food price index. Source.

[5] Quarterly crude oil data suggests that few opportunities exist to raise crude oil production to the level needed for the world economy to operate at the level it operated at in 2018 or 2019.

Figure 5 shows quarterly world crude oil production broken down into four groupings: OPEC, US, Russia, and “All Other.”

Figure 5. Quarterly crude oil production through first quarter of 2022. Amounts through December 2021 are EIA international estimates. Increase in OPEC first quarter of 2022 production is estimated based on OPEC Monthly Oil Market Report, April 2022. US crude oil production for first quarter of 2022 estimated based on preliminary EIA indications. Russia and All Other production for first quarter of 2022 are estimated based on recent trends.

Figure 5 shows four very different patterns of past growth in crude oil supply. The All Other grouping is generally trending a bit downward in terms of quantity supplied. If world per capita crude oil production is to stay at least level, the total production of the other three groupings (OPEC, US, and Russia) needs to be rising to offset this decline. In fact, it needs to rise enough that overall crude production growth keeps up with population growth.

Russian Crude Oil Production

The data underlying Figure 5 shows that up until the COVID restrictions, Russia’s crude oil production was increasing by 1.4% per year between early 2005 and early 2020. During the same period, world population was increasing by about 1.2%. Thus, Russia’s oil production has been part of what has helped keep world crude production about level, on a per capita basis. Also, Russia seems to have made up most of its temporary decrease in production related to COVID restrictions by the first quarter of 2022.

US Crude Oil Production

Growth in US crude oil production has been more of a “feast or famine” situation. This can be seen both in Figure 5 above and in Figure 6 below.

Figure 6. US crude oil production based on EIA data. First quarter of 2022 amount is estimated based on EIA weekly and monthly indications.

US crude oil production spurted up rapidly in the 2011 to 2014 period, when oil prices were high (Figure 3). When oil prices fell in late 2014, US crude production fell for about two years. US oil production began to rise again in late 2016, as oil prices rose again. By early 2019 (when oil prices were again lower), US crude oil growth began to slow down.

In early 2020, COVID lockdowns brought a 15% drop in crude oil production (considering quarterly production), most of which has not been made up. In fact, growth after the lockdowns has been slow, similar to the level of growth during the “growth slowdown” circled in Figure 6. We hear reports that the sweet spots in shale formations have largely been drilled. This leaves mostly high-cost areas left to drill. Also, investors would like better financial discipline. Ramping up greatly, and then cutting back, is no way to operate a successful company.

Thus, while growth in US crude oil production greatly supported world growth in crude oil production in the 2009 to 2018 period, it is impossible to see this pattern continuing. Getting crude oil production back up to the level of 12 million barrels a day where it was before the COVID restrictions would be extremely difficult. Further production growth, to support the growing needs of an expanding world population, is likely impossible.

OPEC Crude Oil Production

Figure 7 shows EIA crude oil production estimates for the total group of countries that are now members of OPEC. It also shows crude oil production excluding the two countries which have recently been subject to sanctions: Iran and Venezuela.

Figure 7. OPEC crude oil production to December 31, 2021, based on EIA data. Estimates for first quarter of 2022 based on indications from OPEC Monthly Oil Market Report, April 2022.

If Iran and Venezuela are removed, OPEC’s long-term production is surprisingly “flat.” The “peak” period of production is the fourth quarter of 2018. The fourth quarter of 2018 was the time when the OPEC countries were producing as much oil as they could, to get their production quotas as high as possible after the planned cutbacks that took effect at the beginning of 2019.

Strangely, EIA data indicates that production didn’t fall very much for this group of countries (OPEC excluding Iran and Venezuela), starting in early 2019. The 2019 cutback seems mostly to have affected the production of Iran and Venezuela. It was only later, in the first three quarters of 2020, when COVID restrictions were affecting worldwide production, that crude oil production for OPEC excluding Iran and Venezuela fell by 4 million barrels per day. Production for this group then began to rise, leaving a shortfall of about 900,000 barrels a day, relative to where it had been before the 2020 lockdowns.

It seems to me that, at most, production for the group of OPEC countries excluding Iran and Venezuela can be ramped up by 900,000 barrels a day, and even this is “iffy.” Iraq is reported to be having difficulty with its production; it needs more investment, or its production will fall. Nigeria is past peak, and it is also having difficulty with its production. The high reported crude oil reserves are meaningless; the question is, “How much can these countries produce when it is required?” It doesn’t look like production can be ramped up very much. Furthermore, we cannot count on continued long-term growth in production from these countries, such as would be needed to keep pace with rising world population.

Figure 8. Crude oil production indications for Iran and Venezuela, based on EIA data through December 31, 2021. Change in oil production for first quarter of 2021 is estimated based on OPEC Monthly Oil Market Report, April 2022.

Figure 8 suggests that, indeed, Iran might be able to raise its production by perhaps 1.0 million barrels a day when sanctions are lifted.

Venezuela looks like a country whose crude oil production was already declining before sanctions were imposed. The cost of production there was likely far higher than the world oil price. Also, Venezuela has oil debts to China that it needs to repay. At most, we might expect that Venezuela’s production could be raised by 300,000 barrels per day in the absence of sanctions.

Putting the three estimates of amounts that crude oil production can perhaps be raised together, we have:

  • OPEC ex Iran and Venezuela: 900,000 bpd
  • Iran: 1,000,000 bpd
  • Venezuela: 300,000 bpd
  • Total: 2.2 million bpd

The shortfall of crude oil production in 2021, relative to 2018 production, was 5.9 million bpd, as mentioned in Section [1]. The 2.2 million barrels per day possibly available from this analysis gets us nowhere near the 2018 level. Furthermore, we have nowhere to go to obtain the rising crude oil production required to support the rising population with enough crude oil to supply food and industrial goods at today’s consumption level.

[6] Eliminating, or even reducing, Russia’s crude oil production is certain to have an adverse impact on the world economy.

Figure 9 shows the step-down in crude oil production that occurred in early 2020 and indicates that the world’s oil supply is having difficulty getting back up to pre-COVID levels. If Russia’s crude oil production were to be eliminated, it would make for another step-down of comparable magnitude. Major segments of the economy would likely need to be eliminated.

Figure 9. Quarterly crude oil production through first quarter of 2022 divided by world population estimates based on 2019 UN population estimates. Crude oil amounts through December 2021 are EIA estimates. Crude oil production estimates for first quarter 2022 are as described in the caption to Figure 5.

[7] When there isn’t enough crude oil to go around, the naive belief is that oil prices will rise and either more oil will be found, or substitutes will take its place. In fact, the result may be conflict and elimination of segments of the economy.

Our self-organizing economy will tend to adapt in its own way to inadequate crude oil supplies. Eventually, the economy may collapse completely, but before that happens, changes are likely to happen to try to preserve the “better functioning” parts of the economy. In this way, perhaps parts of the world economy can continue to function for a while longer while getting rid of less productive parts of the economy.

The following is a partial list of ways the economy might adapt:

  • Fighting may take place over the remaining crude oil supplies. This may be the underlying reason for the conflict between NATO and Russia, with respect to Ukraine.
  • COVID lockdowns indirectly reduce demand for crude oil. A person might wonder whether the current COVID lockdowns in China are partly aimed at preventing oil and other commodity prices from rising to absurd levels.
  • Some organizations may disappear from the world economy because of inadequate funding or lack of profitability.
  • Additional supply lines are likely to break, allowing fewer types of goods and services to be made.
  • The world economy may subdivide into multiple pieces, with each piece able to make a much more limited array of goods and services than is provided today. A shift toward the use of other currencies instead of the US dollar may be part of this shift.
  • World population may shrink for multiple reasons, including poor nutrition and epidemics.
  • The poor, the elderly and the disabled may be increasingly cut off from government programs, as total goods and services (including total food supplies) fall too low.
  • Europe could be cut off from Russian fossil fuel exports, leaving relatively more for the rest of the world.

[8] Countries that are major importers of crude oil and crude oil products would seem to be at significant risk of reduced supply if there is not enough crude oil to go around.

Figure 10 shows a rough estimate of the ratio of crude oil produced to crude oil products consumed in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic. On an “All Liquids” basis, the US ratio of crude oil production to consumption would appear higher than shown on Figure 10 because of its unusually high share of natural gas liquids, ethanol, and “refinery gain” in its liquids production. If these types of production are omitted, the US still seems to have a deficit in producing the crude oil it consumes.

Figure 10. Rough estimate of ratio of crude oil produce to the quantity of crude oil products consumed, based on “Crude oil production” and “Oil: Regional consumption – by product group” in BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy. Russia+ includes Russia plus the other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Perhaps all that is needed is the general idea. If inadequate crude oil is available, all of the countries at the left of Figure 10 are quite vulnerable because they are very dependent on imports. Russia and the Middle East are prime targets for countries that are desperate for crude oil.

[9] Conclusion: We are likely entering a period of conflict and confusion because of the way the world’s self-organizing economy behaves when there is an inadequate supply of crude oil.

The issue of how important crude oil is to the world economy has been left out of most textbooks for years. Instead, we were taught creative myths covering several topics:

  • Huge amounts of fossil fuels will be available in the future
  • Climate change is our worst problem
  • Wind and solar will save us
  • A fast transition to an all-electric economy is possible
  • Electric cars are the future
  • The economy will grow forever

Now we are running into a serious shortfall of crude oil. We can expect a new set of problems, including far more conflict. Wars are likely. Debt defaults are likely. Political parties will take increasingly divergent positions on how to work around current problems. News media will increasingly tell the narrative that their owners and advertisers want told, with little regard for the real situation.

About all we can do is enjoy each day we have and try not to be disturbed by the increasing conflict around us. It becomes clear that many of us will not live as long or well as we previously expected, regardless of savings or supposed government programs. There is no real way to fix this issue, except perhaps to make religion and the possibility of life after death more of a focus.

Posted in Financial Implications, oil shortages | Tagged , , , | 4,255 Comments