What has gone wrong with oil prices, debt, and GDP growth?

Our economy is a mystery to almost everyone, including economists. Let me explain the way I see the situation:

(1) The big thing that pulls the economy forward is the time-shifting nature of debt and debt-like instruments.

If we want any kind of specialization, we need some sort of long-term obligation that will make that specialization worthwhile. If one hunter-gatherer specializes in finding flints that will start fires, that hunter-gatherer needs some sort of guarantee that others, who are finding food, will share some of their food with him, so that the group, as a whole, can prosper. Others, who specialize in gathering firewood, or in childcare, also need some kind of guarantee that their efforts will be rewarded.

At first, these obligations were enforced by social norms such as, “If you don’t follow the rules of the group, we will throw you out.” Gradually, reciprocal obligations became more formalized, and included more time shifting, “If you will work for me, I will pay you at the end of the month.” Or, “If you will pay my transportation costs to a land of more opportunity, I will repay you with 10% of my wages for the first five years.” Or, “I will sell you this piece of land, if you will pay me x amount per month for y years.”

In some cases, the loan (or loan-like agreements) takes the form of stock ownership of an enterprise. In this case, the promise is for future dividends, and the possibility of growth in the value of the stock, in return for the use of funds. Even though we generally refer to one type of loan-like agreement as “equity ownership” and the other as “debt,” they have a great deal of similarity. Funds are being provided to the enterprise, with the expectation of greater return in the future.

As another example, governments make promises for future benefits, such as Social Security, healthcare, and payments to the unemployed. These payments are not guaranteed, so are not considered debt. Even without a guarantee, they act in many ways like debt. Citizens plan their lives around these payments, even though they may be reduced or eliminated.

Surprisingly, even “cash” is debt. It is similar to a bond that pays zero interest and has no redemption date; this type of bond can also be easily transferred from person to person. Since cash can be hidden under mattresses, it too can be used as a device for time-shifting.

(2) The big thing that goes wrong in this time-shifting approach to operating the economy is the loss of what I would call an “opportunity gradient.”

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The Energy Problem behind Trump’s Election

The energy problem behind Trump’s election is not the one people have been looking for. Instead, it is an energy problem that leads to low wages for many workers in the US, and high unemployment rates in the European Union. (The different outcomes reflect different minimum wage laws. Higher minimum wages tend to lead to higher unemployment rates; lower minimum wages tend to lead to higher employment, but unsatisfactory wage levels for many.) The energy problem is also reflected as low prices of oil and other commodities.

To try to solve the energy problem, we use approaches that involve increasing complexity, including new technology and globalization. As we add more and more complexity, these approaches tend to work less and less well. In fact, they can become a problem in themselves, because they tend to redistribute wealth toward the top of the employment hierarchy, and they increase “overhead” for the economy as a whole.

In this material, I explain how inadequate energy supplies can appear as either low wages or as high prices. Basically, if energy supplies are inadequate, workers tend to be less productive because they have fewer or less advanced tools to work with. Their lower wages reflect lower productivity (Slide 20).  Slide 6 offers some additional insights.

Trump’s election seems to reflect the cooling effect that our energy problems are having on the economy as a whole. Citizens are increasingly unhappy with their wage situation, and want a major change. Trump’s election may at least temporarily have a beneficial effect, since it may work in the direction of reducing complexity.

Long term, however, it is hard to see that the policies of any elected official will be able to fix our underlying energy problems.

I wrote up my post as a presentation. It can be downloaded at this link: The Energy Problem Behind Trump’s Election. I thought this might be a way of putting together quite a bit of material into one place. I have displayed the images of the PDF below the fold, for those who would like to read them as a post.

I hope the large number of images does not cause viewing problems. Let me know if you have suggestions for making this material more accessible.

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How Researchers Could Miss the Real Energy Story

I have been telling a fairly different energy story from most energy researchers. How could I possibly be correct? What have other researchers been missing?

The “standard” approach is to start from the amount of resources that we have of a particular type, for example, oil in the ground, and see how far these resources will go. Growing development of technology seems to allow increasing amounts of these resources to be extracted. Thus, limits seem to be farther and farther in the distance, especially if a person starts out with an optimistic bias. It is easy to get this optimistic bias, with all research funds going in the direction of, “What can we do to solve our energy problems?”

Approaches for forecasting future supply problems that start from the amount of resources in the ground suffer from the problem that it is hard to draw a sharp line regarding when we will run into difficulties. It is clear that at some point, there will be a problem–EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Investment) will be too low–but exactly when is hard to pinpoint. If a person starts from an optimistic viewpoint, it is easy to assume that as long as Energy Output is greater than Energy Input for a given process, that process must be helpful for solving our energy problem.

In fact, in my opinion, the story is very different. The very thing that should be saving us–technology–has side effects that bring the whole system down. 

The only way we can keep adding technology is by adding more capital goods, more specialization, and more advanced education for selected members of society. The problem, as we should know from research regarding historical economies that have collapsed, is that more complexity ultimately leads to collapse because it leads to huge wage disparity. (See TainterTurchin and Nefedov.) Ultimately, the people at the bottom of the hierarchy cannot afford the output of the economy. Added debt at lower interest rates can only partially offset this problem. Governments cannot collect enough taxes from the large number of people at the bottom of the hierarchy, even though the top 1% may flourish. The economy tends to collapse because of the side effects of greater complexity.

Our economy is a networked system, so it should not be surprising that there is more than one way for the system to reach its end.

Slide 5

Figure 1

I have described the problem that really brings down the economy as “too low return on human labor,” at least for those at the bottom of the hierarchy. The wages of the non-elite are too low to provide an adequate standard of living. In a sense, this is a situation of too low EROEI: too low return on human energy. Most energy researchers have been looking at a very different kind of EROEI: a calculation based on the investment of fossil fuel energy. The two kinds of EROEI are related, but not very closely. Many economies have collapsed, without ever using fossil fuel energy,

While what I call “fossil fuel EROEI” was a reasonable starting place for an analysis of our energy problems back in the 1970s, the calculation now gets more emphasis than it truly deserves. The limit we are reaching is a different one: falling return on human labor EROEI, at least for those who are not among the elite. Increasing wage disparity is becoming a severe problem now; it is the reason we have very divisive candidates running for political office, and many people in favor of reduced globalization.

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Why energy prices are ultimately headed lower; what the IMF missed

We have been hearing a great deal about IMF concerns recently, after the release of its October 2016 World Economic Outlook and its Annual Meeting October 7-9. The concerns mentioned include the following:

  • Too much growth in debt, with China particularly mentioned as a problem
  • World economic growth seems to have slowed on a long-term basis
  • Central bank intervention required to produce artificially low interest rates, to produce even this low growth
  • Global international trade is no longer growing rapidly
  • Economic stagnation could lead to protectionist calls

These issues are very much related to issues that I have been writing about:

  • It takes energy to make goods and services.
  • It takes an increasing amount of energy consumption to create a growing amount of goods and services–in other words, growing GDP.
  • This energy must be inexpensive, if it is to operate in the historical way: the economy produces good productivity growth; this productivity growth translates to wage growth; and debt levels can stay within reasonable bounds as growth occurs.
  • We can’t keep producing cheap energy because what “runs out” is cheap-to-extract energy. We extract this cheap-to-extract energy first, forcing us to move on to expensive-to-extract energy.
  • Eventually, we run into the problem of energy prices falling below the cost of production because of affordability issues. The wages of non-elite workers don’t keep up with the rising cost of extraction.
  • Governments can try to cover up the problem with more debt at ever-lower interest rates, but eventually this doesn’t work either.
  • Instead of producing higher commodity prices, the system tends to produce asset bubbles.
  • Eventually, the system must collapse due to growing inefficiencies of the system. The result is likely to look much like a “Minsky Moment,” with a collapse in asset prices.
  • The collapse in assets prices will lead to debt defaults, bank failures, and a lack of new loans. With fewer new loans, there will be a further decrease in demand. As a result, energy and other commodity prices can be expected to fall to new lows.

Let me explain a few of these issues.

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What really causes falling productivity growth — an energy-based explanation

What really causes falling productivity growth? The answer seems to be very much energy-related. Human labor by itself does not cause productivity growth. It is human labor, leveraged by various tools, that leads to productivity growth. These tools are made using energy, and they often use energy to operate. A decrease in energy consumption by the business sector can be expected to lead to falling productivity growth. In this post, I will explain why such a pattern can be expected, and show that, in fact, such a pattern is happening in the United States.

Figure 4. Total amount of energy used by Commercial and Industrial Sector (excluding transportation) based on EIA Energy Consumption by Sector, divided by Bureau of Labor Statistics Total Non-Farm Employees by Year.

Preview of Figure 4. Total quantity of per capita energy used by the US Commercial and Industrial Sectors (excluding transportation). Computed by dividing EIA Energy Consumption by Sector by Total Non-Farm Employment from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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