Low Oil Prices: An Indication of Major Problems Ahead?

Many people, including most Peak Oilers, expect that oil prices will rise endlessly. They expect rising oil prices because, over time, companies find it necessary to access more difficult-to-extract oil. Accessing such oil tends to be increasingly expensive because it tends to require the use of greater quantities of resources and more advanced technology. This issue is sometimes referred to as diminishing returns. Figure 1 shows how oil prices might be expected to rise, if the higher costs encountered as a result of diminishing returns can be fully recovered from the ultimate customers of this oil.

Figure 1. Chart showing expected long-term rise in oil prices as the full cost of oil production becomes increasingly expensive due to diminishing returns.

In my view, this analysis suggesting ever-rising prices is incomplete. After a point, prices can’t really keep up with rising costs because the wages of many workers lag behind the growing cost of extraction.

The economy is a networked system facing many pressures, including a growing level of debt and the rising use of technology. When these pressures are considered, my analysis indicates that oil prices may fall too low for producers, rather than rise too high for consumers. Oil companies may close down if prices remain too low. Because of this, low oil prices should be of just as much concern as high oil prices.

In recent years, we have heard a great deal about the possibility of Peak Oil, including high oil prices. If the issue we are facing is really prices that are too low for producers, then there seems to be the possibility of a different limits issue, called Collapse. Many early economies seem to have collapsed as they reached resource limits. Collapse seems to be characterized by growing wealth disparity, inadequate wages for non-elite workers, failing governments, debt defaults, resource wars, and epidemics. Eventually, population associated with collapsed economies may fall very low or completely disappear. As Collapse approaches, commodity prices seem to be low, rather than high.

The low oil prices we have been seeing recently fit in disturbingly well with the hypothesis that the world economy is reaching affordability limits for a wide range of commodities, nearly all of which are subject to diminishing returns. This is a different problem than most researchers have been concerned about. In this article, I explain this situation further.

One thing that is a little confusing is the relative roles of diminishing returns and efficiency. I see diminishing returns as being more or less the opposite of growing efficiency.

Figure 2.

The fact that inflation-adjusted oil prices are now much higher than they were in the 1940s to 1960s is a sign that for oil, the contest between diminishing returns and efficiency has basically been won by diminishing returns for over 40 years.

Figure 3.

Oil Prices Cannot Rise Endlessly

It makes no sense for oil prices to rise endlessly, for what is inherently growing inefficiency. Endlessly rising prices for oil would be similar to paying a human laborer more and more for building widgets, during a time that that laborer becomes increasingly disabled. If the number of widgets that the worker can produce in one hour decreases by 50%, logically that worker’s wages should fall by 50%, not rise to make up for his/her growing inefficiency.

The problem with paying higher prices for what is equivalent to growing inefficiency can be hidden for a while, if the economy is growing rapidly enough. The way that the growing inefficiency is hidden is by adding Debt and Complexity (Figure 4).

Figure 4.

Growing complexity is very closely related to “Technology will save us.” Growing complexity involves the use of more advanced machinery and ever-more specialized workers. Businesses become larger and more hierarchical. International trade becomes increasingly important. Financial products such as derivatives become common.

Growing debt goes hand in hand with growing complexity. Businesses need growing debt to support capital expenditures for their new technology. Consumers find growing debt helpful in affording major purchases, such as homes and vehicles. Governments make debt-like promises of pensions to citizen. Thanks to these promised pensions, families can have fewer children and devote fewer years to child care at home.

The problem with adding complexity and adding debt is that they, too, reach diminishing returns. The easiest (and cheapest) fixes tend to be added first. For example, irrigating a field in a dry area may be an easy and cheap way to fix a problem with inadequate food supply. There may be other approaches that could be used as well, such as breeding crops that do well with little rainfall, but the payback on this investment may be smaller and later.

A major drawback of adding complexity is that doing so tends to increase wage and wealth disparity. When an employer pays high wages to supervisory workers and highly skilled workers, this leaves fewer funds with which to pay less skilled workers. Furthermore, the huge amount of capital goods required in this more complex economy tends to disproportionately benefit workers who are already highly paid. This happens because the owners of shares of stock in companies tend to overlap with employees who are already highly paid. Low paid employees can’t afford such purchases.

The net result of greater wage and wealth disparity is that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep prices high enough for oil producers. The many workers with low wages find it difficult to afford homes and families of their own. Their low purchasing power tends to hold down prices of commodities of all kinds. The higher wages of the highly trained and supervisory staff don’t make up for the shortfall in commodity demand because these highly paid workers spend their wages differently. They tend to spend proportionately more on services rather than on commodity-intensive goods. For example, they may send their children to elite colleges and pay for tax avoidance services. These services use relatively little in the way of commodities.

Once the Economy Slows Too Much, the Whole System Tends to Implode

A growing economy can hide a multitude of problems. Paying back debt with interest is easy, if a worker finds his wages growing. In fact, it doesn’t matter if the growth that supports his growing wages comes from inflationary growth or “real” growth, since debt repayment is typically not adjusted for inflation.

Figure 5. Repaying loans is easy in a growing economy, but much more difficult in a shrinking economy.

Both real growth and inflationary growth help workers have enough funds left at the end of the period for other goods they need, despite repaying debt with interest.

Once the economy stops growing, the whole system tends to implode. Wage disparity becomes a huge problem. It becomes impossible to repay debt with interest. Young people find that their standards of living are lower than those of their parents. Investments do not appear to be worthwhile without government subsidies. Businesses find that economies of scale no longer work to their advantage. Pension promises become overwhelming, compared to the wages of young people.

The Real Situation with Oil Prices

The real situation with oil prices–and in fact with respect to commodity prices in general–is approximately like that shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6.

What tends to happen is that oil prices tend to fall farther and farther behind what producers require, if they are truly to make adequate reinvestment in new fields and also pay high taxes to their governments. This should not be too surprising because oil prices represent a compromise between what citizens can afford and what producers require.

Figure 7. Illustration indicating that the world has already reached a point where no oil price works for both oil suppliers and oil consumers.

In the years before diminishing returns became too much of a problem (back before 2005, for example), it was possible to find prices that were within an acceptable range for both sellers and buyers. As diminishing returns has become an increasing problem, the price that consumers can afford has tended to fall increasingly far below the price that producers require. This is why oil prices at first fall a little too low for producers, and eventually seem likely to fall far below what producers need to stay in business. The problem is that no price works for both producers and consumers.

Affordability Issues Affect All Commodity Prices, Not Just Oil

We are dealing with a situation in which a growing share of workers (and would be workers) find it difficult to afford a home and family, because of wage disparity issues. Some workers have been displaced from their jobs by robots or by globalization. Some spend many years in advanced schooling and are left with large amounts of debt, making it difficult to afford a home, a family, and other things that many in the older generation were able to take for granted. Many of today’s workers are in low-wage countries; they cannot afford very much of the output of the world economy.

At the same time, diminishing returns affect nearly all commodities, just as they affect oil. Mineral ores are affected by diminishing returns because the highest grade ores tend to be extracted first. Food production is also subject to diminishing returns because population keeps rising, but arable land does not. As a result, each year it is necessary to grow more food per arable acre, leading to a need for more complexity (more irrigation or more fertilizer, or better hybrid seed), often at higher cost.

When the problem of growing wage disparity is matched up with the problem of diminishing returns for the many different types of commodity production, the same problem occurs that occurs with oil. Prices of a wide range of commodities tend to fall below the cost of production–first by a little and, if the debt bubble pops, by a whole lot.

We hear people say, “Of course oil prices will rise. Oil is a necessity.” The thing that they don’t realize is that the problem affects a much bigger “package” of commodities than just oil prices. In fact, finished goods and services of all kinds made with these commodities are also affected, including new homes and vehicles. Thus, the pattern we see of low oil prices, relative to what is required for true profitability, is really an extremely widespread problem.

Interest Rate Policies Affect Affordability

Commodity prices bear surprisingly little relationship to the cost of production. Instead, they seem to depend more on interest rate policies of government agencies. If interest rates rise or fall, this tends to have a big impact on household budgets, because monthly auto payments and home payments depend on interest rates. For example, US interest rates spiked in 1981.

Figure 8. US short and long term interest rates. Graph by FRED.

This spike in interest rates led to a major cutback in energy consumption and in GDP growth.

Figure 9. World GDP Growth versus Energy Consumption Growth, based on data of 2018 BP Statistical Review of World Energy and GDP data in 2010$ amounts, from the World Bank.

Oil prices began to slide, with the higher interest rates.

Figure 10.

Figure 11 indicates that the popping of a debt bubble (mostly relating to US sub-prime housing) sent oil prices down in 2008. Once interest rates were lowered through the US adoption of Quantitative Easing (QE), oil prices rose again. They fell again, when the US discontinued QE.

Figure 11. Figure showing collapsing debt bubble at the time US oil prices peaked, and the use of Quantitative Easing (QE) to stimulate the economy, and thus bring prices back up again.

While these charts show oil prices, there is a tendency for a broad range of commodity prices to move more or less together. This happens because the commodity price issue seems to be driven to a significant extent by the affordability of finished goods and services, including homes, automobiles, and restaurant food.

If the collapse of a major debt bubble occurs again, the world seems likely to experience impacts somewhat similar to those in 2008, depending, of course, on the location(s) and size(s) of the debt bubble(s). A wide variety of commodity prices are likely to fall very low; asset prices may also be affected. This time, however, government organizations seem to have fewer tools for pulling the world economy out of a prolonged slump because interest rates are already very low. Thus, the issues are likely to look more like a widespread economic problem (including far too low commodity prices) than an oil problem.

Lack of Growth in Energy Consumption Per Capita Seems to Lead to Collapse Scenarios

When we look back, the good times from an economic viewpoint occurred when energy consumption per capita (top red parts on Figure 12) were rising rapidly.

Figure 12.

The bad times for the economy were the valleys in Figure 12. Separate labels for these valleys have been added in Figure 13. If energy consumption is not growing relative to the rising world population, collapse in at least a part of the world economy tends to occur.

Figure 13.

The laws of physics tell us that energy consumption is required for movement and for heat. These are the basic processes involved in GDP generation, and in electricity transmission. Thus, it is logical to believe that energy consumption is required for GDP growth. We can see in Figure 9 that growth in energy consumption tends to come before GDP growth, strongly suggesting that it is the cause of GDP growth. This further confirms what the laws of physics tell us.

The fact that partial collapses tend to occur when the growth in energy consumption per capita falls too low is further confirmation of the way the economics system really operates. The Panic of 1857 occurred when the asset price bubble enabled by the California Gold Rush collapsed. Home, farm, and commodity prices fell very low. The problems ultimately were finally resolved in the US Civil War (1861 to 1865).

Similarly, the Depression of the 1930s was preceded by a stock market crash in 1929. During the Great Depression, wage disparity was a major problem. Commodity prices fell very low, as did farm prices. The issues of the Depression were not fully resolved until World War II.

At this point, world growth in energy consumption per capita seems to be falling again. We are also starting to see evidence of some of the same problems associated with earlier collapses: growing wage disparity, growing debt bubbles, and increasingly war-like behavior by world leaders. We should be aware that today’s low oil prices, together with these other symptoms of economic distress, may be pointing to yet another collapse scenario on the horizon.

Oil’s Role in the Economy Is Different From What Many Have Assumed

We have heard for a long time that the world is running out of oil, and we need to find substitutes. The story should have been, “Affordability of all commodities is falling too low, because of diminishing returns and growing wage disparity. We need to find rapidly rising quantities of very, very cheap energy products. We need a cheap substitute for oil. We cannot afford to substitute high-cost energy products for low-cost energy products. High-cost energy products affect the economy too adversely.”

In fact, the whole “Peak Oil” story is not really right. Neither is the “Renewables will save us” story, especially if the renewables require subsidies and are not very scalable. Energy prices can never be expected to rise high enough for renewables to become economic.

The issues we should truly be concerned about are Collapse, as encountered by many economies previously. If Collapse occurs, it seems likely to cut off production of many commodities, including oil and much of the food supply, indirectly because of low prices.

Low oil prices and low prices of other commodities are signs that we truly should be concerned about. Too many people have missed this point. They have been taken in by the false models of economists and by the confusion of Peak Oilers. At this point, we should start considering the very real possibility that our next world problem is likely to be Collapse of at least a portion of the world economy.

Interesting times seem to be ahead.



This entry was posted in Financial Implications and tagged , , , , by Gail Tverberg. Bookmark the permalink.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.

1,595 thoughts on “Low Oil Prices: An Indication of Major Problems Ahead?

  1. “The “everything bubble” is deflating. The fact that it’s happening relatively slowly shouldn’t blind us to the real threat: The world is dangerously underestimating how hard it’ll be to deal with the fallout once it pops.

    “Frothy markets can’t disguise the warning signs. The shift to tighter monetary policies in the West is putting pressure on global equity and real estate values. Even more critically, it’s weakening credit markets. Over-indebted emerging markets face headwinds from rising borrowing costs and dollar shortages…

    “…even after recent US interest rate hikes, the Fed has nowhere near enough room to cut rates that much without going negative. In Europe and Japan, where rates are already less than zero, easing would require substantially negative levels, which would likely be politically impossible. Even current levels are controversial. Negative rates are a disguised way of writing down debt; they penalize savers and weaken the banking system…

    “Ultimately, central banks might have to resort to QE variations such as “helicopter money.” …To make it palatable, the measure could be packaged as a way to rationalize welfare systems by reducing frictions and administration costs.

    “Direct intervention, such as lending to or investing in businesses, or taking over banks and large parts of the economy to restart activity, are also possible. Those would be awfully desperate measures, however, which points to the real problem. Since 2008, governments and central banks have stabilized the situation without fundamentally addressing high debt levels, weak banking systems and excessive financialization…

    “In any new crisis, then, policymakers are likely to be badly exposed. Central bank purchases of real estate and equities, helicopter money and more direct intervention could well fail to boost economic activity. That would contribute to a collapse in confidence in authorities, as the sight of governments forced to print money and throw it out of the window or take over markets increases people’s anxiety about the future.

    “There is already a crisis of trust – a democracy deficit – in many advanced economies, accompanied by rising political tensions. A loss of faith in the supposed technocratic abilities of policymakers to manage economies will compound these pressures.

    “The political economy could then accelerate towards the critical point identified by John Maynard Keynes in 1933, where “we must expect the progressive breakdown of the existing structure of contract and instruments of indebtedness, accompanied by the utter discredit of orthodox leadership in finance and government, with what ultimate outcome we cannot predict.””


    • Good article re helicopter money and currency debasement and and the risk those pose to the financial system’s credibility:

      “Global bond investor PIMCO said that since the 18th century there have been 56 examples of direct monetary financing, from France in 1795 to Zimbabwe in 2007. All had dire economic consequences.

      “Dropping cash directly onto consumers may well be the end of that line and, if that fails to work, governments may be very reluctant to reinstate monetary financing bans in future – creating the threat of systemic collapse.

      ““The main difference between helicopter and other possibilities, lies in the credibility of the whole monetary system,” Swiss economist Reto Foellmi told a discussion on Reuters Global Markets Forum this week. “If helicopter money is done literally, they would cross a point of no return.””


      • This article talks about Japan. Japan is the home of a huge debt bubble that sort of collapsed about 1992, without bringing down the whole economy.

        I think that a debt bubble that only slowly collapses represents a permanent drag on the economy. The economy had more inflation than other economies, before 1992; now it has more deflation.

        Also, the falling size of the workforce represents a drag on the economy. The economy really needs fewer homes, fewer cars, fewer roads, fewer clothes, fewer schools, and fewer of pretty much anything else. (This is true of much of Europe, as well.) It is hard to make much money tearing down old building. At the same time, keeping infrastructure operating requires more maintenance. The economy ends up creating a lot of robots (to save labor) plus a lot of make-work jobs for its citizens, because they need to do something besides tear down old buildings.

        Japan’s energy costs are high, because it imports its fuels. Nuclear was the one type of energy that helped them for quite a few years, but now it is having problems as well. It is hard for Japan to compete in the world marketplace unless it can hold down labor costs, to try to offset its high fuel costs for oil, coal, and natural gas.

  2. “China’s consumers and businesses are losing confidence. Car sales have plunged. The housing market is stumbling. Some factories are letting workers off for the Chinese New Year holiday two months early. China’s economy has slowed sharply in recent months, presenting perhaps the biggest challenge to President Xi Jinping in his six years of rule. Gauging the magnitude of the slowdown is difficult, given the unreliability of China’s economic data. But there are signs that the country’s problems are deepening.”


    • “As the risks to the global economy rises, the Bank of Japan is expected to join a chorus of warnings from other policy-makers of the threat to growth from protectionism and signal its resolve to keep the money spigot open. At this week’s policy review, the BOJ is seen maintaining its ultra-easy monetary settings even as years of heavy bond buying dries up market liquidity and hurts bank profits.”


      • I’m starting to get an uneasy feeling about where things are headed. The real bugaboo is how will the CB’s shock the system back into coherence once it’s descended into buyer’s market on steroids and unemployment is scaling up into the stratosphere? A new QE program might not even budge things at that point. “Here’s some cheap money. Please, do something to get things moving again.”

        • Same feeling.
          If the credit markets freeze, it’s over.
          I’m wondering if it will be free money. They could justify an emergency, and not even have to pay it (or interest) back for years. Anything to re-inflate. To them, failure is not an option. (until it happens)

            • Hey Mark, I randomly came back to this website today. I don’t come here often anymore as the story is pretty clear as to what is about to happen in the next few months/years. No sense in reading about it anymore. I just spend my time enjoying myself. Anyway hope you’re well and enjoying the (little) time we have left. Happy Holidays!

            • The same feeling here, ITEOTWAKI. We already know what will happen (collapse) and more or less how (too fast for our taste) We just don’t know how many months or years (I do not believe it will be decades) we have to get there. Meanwhile, we are reduced to waiting, trying to make the most of our days.
              But I regularly attend OFW , since it’s the only place of sanity I know. All the rest is noise (or mere fun).

            • Hello JMS, I totally agree, we are stuck in limbo, amongst the few who see this will finish in total and utter collapse of Industrial Civilization, and soon! I have taken the attitude of a healthy, active 90 year-old. I don’t think he wakes up everyday thinking OMG I only have a few years left. He wakes up and does his things and activities. He is not depressed even though he knows that the laws of nature limit him to just a few more years on this earth! Carpe Diem, that’s been my motto for a while now! Hope everything is well with you JMS! Happy Holidays! 🙂

  3. “The pillars of the global financial system are fundamentally unstable and could lead to a frightening chain -reaction in the next crisis, the world’s top watchdog has warned.

    “Giant central counterparties (CCPs) that clear much of the $540 trillion ($795 trillion) of derivatives are themselves vulnerable to failure in times of extreme stress.

    “This is a worry looming ever larger as rising US interest rates expose the weak links in global debt markets.

    “The Bank for International Settlements said in its quarterly report that the CCPs could cause “a destabilising feedback loop, amplifying stress”.”


    • “We are fast approaching that critical time of the year when investors must place their bets for 2019. It will be no easy task as investors face a battery of negative forces, adverse headwinds and a sense that the world is sinking into complete confusion. As if investors have not already been through enough hell and high water in the past decade, there is a prevailing sense that things are about to go pear-shaped again.”


      • “Ray Dalio, the billionaire founder of investment management firm Bridgewater Associates, said a gauge that measures conflicts around the world is at its highest level in more than 70 years.

        ““We created a conflict gauge — various ways of measuring different conflicts — and the conflict gauge now is the highest, really, since the war years,” Dalio said in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that will air on Sunday. “There is more polarity, more conflict internally, of a sort.”

        “Investors and business leaders are watching the rise in populism and protectionism to assess their impact on global economic activity. In 2017, Dalio warned that populism will be a more powerful force than monetary or fiscal policies, with politics affecting markets as happened in 1937.”


      • This is an article by (economists?) David Brown called, “A recession is looming, easy money is ending and the yuan is falling – get set for 2019, the year of living dangerously.”

        • 2019 is looking fraught with risk at this point. I’m keeping my fingers crossed the that the ECB is sensible enough to postpone QT in January and the Fed calms down a bit with these interest rate hikes. Some sort of Brexit breakthrough and a de-escalation of the trade war would also be good for the nerves.

  4. this guy is definite unstable

    • At least Trump has noticed problems elsewhere. Maybe he should start looking at the Dow which is dumping again today, Monday. Definitely proving it’s in a bear market.

  5. I just returned from visiting Tokyo. I know it doesn’t represent the country as a whole. One thing that stood out was just how busy so many people were doing unnecessary activities. There were too many staff in hotels, too many merchandisers in the stores. I know the japanese are different then most other cultures but how much is wasted keeping people busy?
    Tokyo was filled with young people and I hear they are trying to discourage/pay people not to move there. One smaller town we visited outside Tokyo was a ghost town very eery.
    If history is a lesson don’t count them out.

    • Japan is a strange country. It is losing workforce, because of the long-term low birth rates. It is using more robots than other countries, keeping new jobs down. But it really needs jobs for the many people it has (including older people without pensions), so there are a lot of make-work jobs, just to keep people busy. Some of these make-work jobs are paid for by Japan’s government debt.

  6. Trump Interior Secretary Zinke resigns amid ethics probes – “Surrounding himself with former lobbyists, it quickly became clear that Ryan Zinke was a pawn for the oil and gas industry”

    Guess it is time to throw out the trash?

  7. A federal court has vacated an environmental permit that would have allowed The Atlantic Coast Pipeline to cross two national forests, according to a court opinion filed Thursday with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

    The opinion quotes Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, saying: “We trust the United States Forest Service to ‘speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.’ ” A review of the permit records led the court to decide that the Forest Service “abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources.”

    “This conclusion is particularly informed by the Forest Service’s serious environmental concerns that were suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company’s deadlines,” the opinion reads.

  8. hi everyone, theparty in ChCh has already started and we weill be eating steak for Xmas and controlling hydropower and giving ourselves pleasure during slaughter. Fast Eddy i love you bud but stading on one’s feet corwing glory of the last battle is better than a rock wall. i will be the marauder who tires to steal your veges unless you feed me with whiskey, i always rememebr that invitation to yoour last days party and i’ll be trunign up in a subaru or a toyota landcruiser methinks cause i knows where you live…. tee hee

  9. “Economist Xiang Songzuo talked abt how Chinese economy could tank soon, due to wrong policies, delayed reforms & trade war. He said “a very important institute” in China just predicted in an internal report the growth in 2018 is 1.67%, or negative.”

    • Someone I talked to at the conference last week said that the situation was much worse in China than what is being reported in the press. The group he works for has cut back from 9 offices in China to 3, because of the fall off in demand.

  10. https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=Ug0YXLW9K9G7tgWT356gDg&q=dow&btnK=Google+Search&oq=dow&gs_l=psy-ab.3..35i39l2j0i131l2j0l3j0i131l2j0.3616.4318..5315…0.0..0.258.713.0j3j1……0….1..gws-wiz…..0.zAZKOGUtEcQ

    Ok, by Trump’s own declaration back in 2015, any standing president that has two days in a row totaling 1,000 pts. or more down on the stock market, should be impeached. On Friday Dec. 14th it went down 499 pts. Today the next day of trading, call it day #2, it went down a little over 500 pts. which is over 1,000 pts down in two days. Therefore Trump should be impeached and he should call for it himself.

    Since Oct. 3rd, 2018 when the Dow was at 26,828 it has fallen now to 23,600, a fall of THREE THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY EIGHT POINTS ON THE DOW (-3228).

    • Just joking around about impeachment, with the greater point being why is the plunge protection not working for the US stock market? Maybe they’re losing control.

      • Maybe they need to shake more off the producers retirement accounts. Can’t let the worker bees retire.

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