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. Did you see, what the young girl from Sweden said at Katowice?

    She said: your old recipies don’t work anymore. Stop lying. You lie, because you don’t want to be unpopulaire. We need a system, which works.

    • Hm, the irony of human existence in time and space, one can place bets as to whether her own children (assuming she is the end of next ‘third turning’ – grandma early 1960s hippie, mother 2000s feel good gov-ngo subsidized enviro-freak) are going to resume to true Scandinavian hands on tradition or end up in Malmo’s Chalifate leisure facilities..

      • I think Swedes will have to prepare themselves for a housing market crash and then some not so attractive favelas popping up in our capitol for the migrant crowd that can’t access the credit system.

        How far is it before some of the more pretentious housing areas in Sweden will be lit on fire in the same manners as the automotive carbeques of recent times.

        It will be glorious. But I’ll be safely in east Asia long before SHTF.

    • I think that the drop in concrete production is related to the drop in coal production, which took place about the same time. Incomes have not been rising enough for people to afford the huge number of new apartment buildings being built. When China cut back on building new homes and factories, less coal was consumed.

    • Volume vs. Quality.
      The Chinese urban infrastructure is mostly of exceptionally low quality. If you look at German lamp post or block of concrete, chances are it will be there for several decades, while the Chinese stuff is rotting, falling apart just few months after completion..

      • World, in that article it has photo of the Pantheon in Rome, which it says is the largest ever structure that used non-reinforced concrete, never surpassed in size, as contrast to the apparent poor quality concrete in China. They need to slow down a bit and do things right.

      • Well yes, and there is a something of a scandal now in the UK, as the mortar holding bricks and blocks together disintegrates within a few years – cost-cutting by suppliers of ready-mixed to the big housing builders.

        I’ve also seen fascias going mouldy and falling to bits in a similar time-frame here in the much-vaunted hi-tech hub of the UK……

        A Russian friend called it, with glee, the Sovietization of the UK. – whatever you get your hands on turns out to be crap.

        There are one or two Roman forts still in good shape in England though -good places to erect a lean-to shelter. 🙂

      • The Chinese surely know how to make good stuff. However, the endless staircase of middle management corruption makes all infrastructure materials diluted and of poor quality.

        Another benefit with lousy materials is that it will have to be replaced more often. Broken window-fallacy style corruption.

        • Not to mention the little issue of peak coal. Coal prices have not risen high enough for them to keep raising coal production/consumption on the trajectory it was previously on.

    • I wanted to check out the reference in this article where it says,

      The West might already be living on borrowed time. Motesharrei’s group has shown that by rapidly using non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, a society can grow by an order of magnitude beyond what would have been supported by renewables alone, and so is able to postpone its collapse. “But when the collapse happens,” they concluded, “it is much deeper.”

      The reference it gives with respect to order of magnitude larger is this article: Modeling sustainability: population, inequality, consumption, and bidirectional coupling of the Earth and Human Systems

      When I look at the article, I cannot find anything that talks about “order of magnitude larger.” What it does say is,

      To study key mechanisms behind such collapses, Motesharrei et al. [134] developed a two-way coupled Human and Nature Dynamic model, by adding accumulated wealth and economic inequality to a predator–prey model of human–nature interaction. The model shows that both economic inequality and resource overdepletion can lead to collapse, in agreement with the historical record. Experiments presented in that paper for different kinds of societies show that as long as total consumption does not overshoot the CC by too much, it is possible to converge to a sustainable level. However, if the overshoot is too large, a collapse becomes difficult to avoid (see Fig. 5).21 Modern society has been able to grow far beyond Earth’s CC by using nonrenewable resources such as fossil fuels and fossil water. However, results from the model show that an unsustainable scenario can be made sustainable by reducing per capita depletion rates, reducing inequality to decrease excessive consumption by the wealthiest, and reducing birth rates to stabilize the population [134]. The key question is whether these changes can be made in time.

      So I an not convinced that the linked article is a very good reference for what the linked article is saying about the economy with fossil fuels growing by an order of magnitude larger than that with renewable fuels only, unless a person interprets Figure 5 in the article as saying something like what the author says. If it is important, why didn’t the paper mention it?

      This is a link to another of Motesharrei’s papers. Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies

      Its highlights include:

      A sustainable steady state is shown to be possible in different types of societies. [Really!!!]

      But over-exploitation of either Labor or Nature results in a societal collapse.

      These are what the model says. The model doesn’t recognize some very real things, like the fact that human population continues to grow. Something is clearly wrong with the model. It can prove all kinds of untrue things.

      Perhaps I am being too picky. There are other authors that I am more familiar with, including Joseph Tainter and Peter Turchin. What they are saying makes more sense.

      William Strauss and Neil Howe just talks about cycles, as far as I know. Howe spoke at same conference I did in September in Bermuda (international actuarial group).

      Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute, who is quoted for his outlandish forecast, is one of the founders of the New England Complex System Institute. They were the ones who put on the conference that I went to this summer, where Carmen Reinhart and Peter Turchin spoke. I talked a little about that in the comments, after the visit.

      • So to avoid collapse we only need to redistribute the worlds wealth and put in strict population and resource consumption limits worldwide..

        And how many people think this could be achieved?

        • I think the world’s “wealth” is just really debts and promises that really can’t be realized anymore. So, spreading the “wealthy” folks money around might buy a few more months I suppose. But sustainable? I don’t think so.

        • No need to comment on population and consumption, but I’d like to understand redistribution of wealth better. Whether it’s stable and congruous with a resource base or not, couldn’t it raise demand to have MOL universal income, housing, health care?

          Wouldn’t that, a) make the global system more durable?, and b) couldn’t it, depending on whether it faces resource shortage or not, create a better approach to a stepping down economic scenario?

          So can industrial society be subdivided into smaller units that are heterogeneous instead homogeneous like it is now? I continue to be puzzled by why there is never consideration of anything other than a monolithic global system that everyone should know can never work?

          This belief system only mesmerizes people into doing nothing; they don’t know where their resources come from, or that they might have to replace some of those resources regionally. They shut down nearby coal plants. They talk about global climate change when they should be focused on local development. (OFW, wisely, doesn’t encourage that. But if people are not doing that, what better could they be doing?)

          • The shift toward a more hierarchical organization as limits approach hits animals as well as humans. It seems to be a physics response to “what to do when there is not enough to go around.” The more hierarchical organization allow for some survivors, even if all cannot survive.

            In theory, we could try for a flatter pattern in some countries. That might mean that the entire population of those countries will be wiped out, as surviving parts of other countries are better able to provide better return on energy investment.

            People tend to think in terms of their own country. It is the fact that we are part of a world economy that makes the flat income plan a non-starter.

            • In fact, when the total nutrition available is inadequate if it were to be shared equally, a hierarchical and unequal distribution – determined traditionally by status, sex and age – is most likely to ensure the survival of the whole group as an active entity, and is the most rational option.

              This is particularly so if a tribe needs to maintain the strength of warriors (usually male of course), without whom the tribe would be destroyed or enslaved by competitors for scarce resources.

              Good article in The Guardian on the collapse in Caracas, Venezuela, by the way.

        • Hm, that doesn’t matter.

          What does matter is that in it we have another confirmation that at least one faction of the visible govs is tasked with attempted plan to slow or counter act these trends. Because large part of the enviro protection and security policies oriented policies are evidently tasked with the aim subjugating and corralling masses in the times of less or no (reverse) growth.

          Hence the theory that visible govs or those inner shadow deeper circles are not briefed on the situation (to some degree) is disproved once more time.. as sheer lunacy..

          That doesn’t mean their position is not evolving, my working theory fitting the record quite accurately is that TPTB were up to certain point mostly preoccupied with the classics Peak Oil / energy depletion scenario but since ~mid/late 2000s regrouped – refined more closer to OFW type of scenarios..

      • “… many researchers avoid the word collapse, and talk instead about a rapid loss of complexity.”

        sure, but it’s more fun to use “The Collapse”…

        greater surplus energy = greater complexity…

        we know complexity must decrease greatly in the next decade or two because world surplus energy is guaranteed to decrease greatly…

        rapid decrease or slow decrease? who knows?

      • We might put it like this:

        ‘Something that looks like a ‘steady-state’ society can be maintained, in some regions, provided we accept very high mortality rates, much shorter lives, epidemic and endemic disease, euthanasia and infanticide, wars to further limit population, and regular winter famine’. And it must, of course, be non-industrial.

        But of course, the ‘steady-state’, ‘no-growth’ theorists would never promise that.

        • I think Norway had close to a steady state economy for a while, because it was so cold that die-off was very high whenever the economy hit a little bump. I was told that when the plague hit Europe, Norway was especially hard hit. It needed to import workers from Germany, to keep population high enough to continue businesses.

          • Spain also imported workers from Eastern Europe after the plague Black Death – to make up the work force; Italy, too. Slaves were also purchased to work domestically.

            Norway also placed restrictions on the right to marry, limiting growth without infanticide or contraception -humane and sensible, as every had the chance to marry eventually.

            Thomas Malthus observed this system and approved.

    • “End of days: Is Western civilization on the brink of collapse?”

      yes, of course it is!

      and don’t we have fun discussing it?

      we’re wobbling close to the edge of the cliff…

      I think the wobble gets more severe in 2019…

      but will we go over the edge then?

      maybe… maybe any year in the 2020s…

      maybe into the 2030s… let’s watch and see!

    • Now who gave the politicians the orders to do that? Shirley they didn’t think of such wonderment on their own!

      • I see the US 10 year is down to 2.85%…

        manipulated down or pushed down by market(s) turmoil?

        either way, it’s below what was being called the “critical” 3.00 level…

        • Right. The 10 year is down. The 2 year is down as well. So they are not inverting yet.

          It is hard to keep interest rates up, when so many economies are faring poorly. Self-organized interest rates tend to fall.

      • Neither can material prices which are through the roof according to a friend of mine who builds homes.

        • Part of the material prices problem has to do with the use (or lack of use) of Canadian lumber. Canada doesn’t tax its lumber much; the United States does. In the past, the US has used quite a bit of Canadian lumber. Trump has put tariffs on Canadian lumber, to stop the import of untaxed lumber. This is a link to one of the stories about the issue. Wildfires also have been an issue.

  2. US 10 year rate is in a better place…

    oil prices have become better for consumers…

    US oil $49(!) and Brent $59

    natural gas back below $4… about $3.60


    stock markets plunging…

    VIX is way up to around 24.5

    it seems to be economic whack-a-mole…

    “they” haven’t lost control yet, but it’s worrisome that the Plunge Protection Team seems to have no power at the moment…


    FE is missing and presumed captured by TPTB…

    but in 2 days it will be 12/19 and adonis will stop his “reset” predictions…


    a mixed bag, as we Americans say…

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