Why Globalization Reaches Limits

We have been living in a world of rapid globalization, but this is not a condition that we can expect to continue indefinitely.

Figure 1. Ratio of Imported Goods and Services to GDP. Based in FRED data for IMPGS.

Figure 1. Ratio of Imported Goods and Services to GDP. Based in FRED data for IMPGS.

Each time imported goods and services start to surge as a percentage of GDP, these imports seem to be cut back, generally in a recession. The rising cost of the imports seems to have an adverse impact on the economy. (The imports I am showing are gross imports, rather than imports net of exports. I am using gross imports, because US exports tend to be of a different nature than US imports. US imports include many labor-intensive products, while exports tend to be goods such as agricultural goods and movie films that do not require much US labor.)

Recently, US imports seem to be down. Part of this reflects the impact of surging US oil production, and because of this, a declining need for oil imports. Figure 2 shows the impact of removing oil imports from the amounts shown on Figure 1.

Figure 2. Total US Imports of Goods and Services, and this total excluding crude oil imports, both as a ratio to GDP. Crude oil imports from https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/historical/petr.pdf

Figure 2. Total US Imports of Goods and Services, and this total excluding crude oil imports, both as a ratio to GDP. Crude oil imports from https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/historical/petr.pdf

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The Physics of Energy and the Economy

I approach the subject of the physics of energy and the economy with some trepidation. An economy seems to be a dissipative system, but what does this really mean? There are not many people who understand dissipative systems, and very few who understand how an economy operates. The combination leads to an awfully lot of false beliefs about the energy needs of an economy.

The primary issue at hand is that, as a dissipative system, every economy has its own energy needs, just as every forest has its own energy needs (in terms of sunlight) and every plant and animal has its own energy needs, in one form or another. A hurricane is another dissipative system. It needs the energy it gets from warm ocean water. If it moves across land, it will soon weaken and die.

There is a fairly narrow range of acceptable energy levels–an animal without enough food weakens and is more likely to be eaten by a predator or to succumb to a disease. A plant without enough sunlight is likely to weaken and die.

In fact, the effects of not having enough energy flows may spread more widely than the individual plant or animal that weakens and dies. If the reason a plant dies is because the plant is part of a forest that over time has grown so dense that the plants in the understory cannot get enough light, then there may be a bigger problem. The dying plant material may accumulate to the point of encouraging forest fires. Such a forest fire may burn a fairly wide area of the forest. Thus, the indirect result may be to put to an end a portion of the forest ecosystem itself.

How should we expect an economy to behave over time? The pattern of energy dissipated over the life cycle of a dissipative system will vary, depending on the particular system. In the examples I gave, the pattern seems to somewhat follow what Ugo Bardi calls a Seneca Cliff.

Figure 1. Seneca Cliff by Ugo Bardi

Figure 1. Seneca Cliff by Ugo Bardi

The Seneca Cliff pattern is so-named because long ago, Lucius Seneca wrote:

It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.

The Standard Wrong Belief about the Physics of Energy and the Economy

There is a standard wrong belief about the physics of energy and the economy; it is the belief we can somehow train the economy to get along without much energy. Continue reading

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Why oil under $30 per barrel is a major problem

A person often reads that low oil prices–for example, $30 per barrel oil prices–will stimulate the economy, and the economy will soon bounce back. What is wrong with this story? A lot of things, as I see it:

1. Oil producers can’t really produce oil for $30 per barrel.

A few countries can get oil out of the ground for $30 per barrel. Figure 1 gives an approximation to technical extraction costs for various countries. Even on this basis, there aren’t many countries extracting oil for under $30 per barrel–only Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. We wouldn’t have much crude oil if only these countries produced oil.

Figure 1. Global Breakeven prices (considering only technical extraction costs) versus production. Source:Alliance Bernstein, October 2014

Figure 1. Global breakeven prices (considering only technical extraction costs) versus production. Source: Alliance Bernstein, October 2014

2. Oil producers really need prices that are higher than the technical extraction costs shown in Figure 1, making the situation even worse.

Oil can only be extracted within a broader system. Companies need to pay taxes. These can be very high. Including these costs has historically brought total costs for many OPEC countries to over $100 per barrel.

Independent oil companies in non-OPEC countries also have costs other than technical extraction costs, including taxes and dividends to stockholders. Also, if companies are to avoid borrowing a huge amount of money, they need to have higher prices than simply the technical extraction costs. If they need to borrow, interest costs need to be considered as well.

3. When oil prices drop very low, producers generally don’t stop producing.

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2016: Oil Limits and the End of the Debt Supercycle

What is ahead for 2016? Most people don’t realize how tightly the following are linked:

  1. Growth in debt
  2. Growth in the economy
  3. Growth in cheap-to-extract energy supplies
  4. Inflation in the cost of producing commodities
  5. Growth in asset prices, such as the price of shares of stock and of farmland
  6. Growth in wages of non-elite workers
  7. Population growth

It looks to me as though this linkage is about to cause a very substantial disruption to the economy, as oil limits, as well as other energy limits, cause a rapid shift from the benevolent version of the economic supercycle to the portion of the economic supercycle reflecting contraction. Many people have talked about Peak Oil, the Limits to Growth, and the Debt Supercycle without realizing that the underlying problem is really the same–the fact the we are reaching the limits of a finite world.

There are actually a number of different kinds of limits to a finite world, all leading toward the rising cost of commodity production. I will discuss these in more detail later. In the past, the contraction phase of the supercycle seems to have been caused primarily by too high population relative to resources. This time, depleting fossil fuels–particularly oil–plays a major role. Other limits contributing to the end of the current debt supercycle include rising pollution and depletion of resources other than fossil fuels.

The problem of reaching limits in a finite world manifests itself in an unexpected way: slowing wage growth for non-elite workers. Lower wages mean that these workers become less able to afford the output of the system. These problems first lead to commodity oversupply and very low commodity prices. Eventually these problems lead to falling asset prices and widespread debt defaults. These problems are the opposite of what many expect, namely oil shortages and high prices. This strange situation exists because the economy is a networked system. Feedback loops in a networked system don’t necessarily work in the way people expect.

I expect that the particular problem we are likely to reach in 2016 is limits to oil storage. This may happen at different times for crude oil and the various types of refined products. As storage fills, prices can be expected to drop to a very low level–less than $10 per barrel for crude oil, and correspondingly low prices for the various types of oil products, such as gasoline, diesel, and asphalt. We can then expect to face a problem with debt defaults, failing banks, and failing governments (especially of oil exporters). Continue reading

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We are at Peak Oil now; we need very low-cost energy to fix it

This past week, I gave a presentation to a group interested in a particular type of renewable energy–solar energy that is deployed in space, so it would provide electricity 24 hours per day. Their question was: how low does the production cost of electricity really need to be?

I gave them this two-fold answer:

1. We are hitting something similar to “Peak Oil” right now. The symptoms are the opposite of the ones that most people expected. There is a glut of supply, and prices are far below the cost of production. Many commodities besides oil are affected; these include natural gas, coal, iron ore, many metals, and many types of food. Our concern should be that low prices will bring down production, quite possibly for many commodities simultaneously. Perhaps the problem should be called “Limits to Growth,” rather than “Peak Oil,” because it is a different type of problem than most people expected.

2. The only theoretical solution would be to create a huge supply of renewable energy that would work in today’s devices. It would need to be cheap to produce and be available in the immediate future. Electricity would need to be produced for no more than four cents per kWh, and liquid fuels would need to be produced for less than $20 per barrel of oil equivalent. The low cost would need to be the result of very sparing use of resources, rather than the result of government subsidies.

Of course, we have many other problems associated with a finite world, including rising population, water limits, and climate change. For this reason, even a huge supply of very cheap renewable energy would not be a permanent solution. Continue reading

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