Deflationary Collapse Ahead?

Both the stock market and oil prices have been plunging. Is this “just another cycle,” or is it something much worse? I think it is something much worse.

Back in January, I wrote a post called Oil and the Economy: Where are We Headed in 2015-16? In it, I said that persistent very low prices could be a sign that we are reaching limits of a finite world. In fact, the scenario that is playing out matches up with what I expected to happen in my January post. In that post, I said

Needless to say, stagnating wages together with rapidly rising costs of oil production leads to a mismatch between:

  • The amount consumers can afford for oil
  • The cost of oil, if oil price matches the cost of production

This mismatch between rising costs of oil production and stagnating wages is what has been happening. The unaffordability problem can be hidden by a rising amount of debt for a while (since adding cheap debt helps make unaffordable big items seem affordable), but this scheme cannot go on forever.

Eventually, even at near zero interest rates, the amount of debt becomes too high, relative to income. Governments become afraid of adding more debt. Young people find student loans so burdensome that they put off buying homes and cars. The economic “pump” that used to result from rising wages and rising debt slows, slowing the growth of the world economy. With slow economic growth comes low demand for commodities that are used to make homes, cars, factories, and other goods. This slow economic growth is what brings the persistent trend toward low commodity prices experienced in recent years.

A chart I showed in my January post was this one:

Figure 1. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.

Figure 1. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.

The price of oil dropped dramatically in the latter half of 2008, partly because of the adverse impact high oil prices had on the economy, and partly because of a contraction in debt amounts at that time. It was only when banks were bailed out and the United States began its first round of Quantitative Easing (QE) to get longer term interest rates down even further that energy prices began to rise. Furthermore, China ramped up its debt in this time period, using its additional debt to build new homes, roads, and factories. This also helped pump energy prices back up again.

The price of oil was trending slightly downward between 2011 and 2014, suggesting that even then, prices were subject to an underlying downward trend. In mid-2014, there was a big downdraft in prices, which coincided with the end of US QE3 and with slower growth in debt in China. Prices rose for a time, but have recently dropped again, related to slowing Chinese, and thus world, economic growth. In part, China’s slowdown is occurring because it has reached limits regarding how many homes, roads and factories it needs.

I gave a list of likely changes to expect in my January post. These haven’t changed. I won’t repeat them all here. Instead, I will give an overview of what is going wrong and offer some thoughts regarding why others are not pointing out this same problem.

Overview of What is Going Wrong

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Reaching Debt Limits: With or without China’s problems, we have a problem

Credit Problems are a Very Current Issue

In the past several years, the engine of world’s growth has been China. China’s growth has been fueled by debt. China now seems to be running into difficulties with its industrial growth, and its difficulty with industrial growth indirectly leads to debt problems. A Platt’s video talks about China’s demand for oil increasing by only 2.5% in 2013, but this increase being driven by rising gasoline demand. Diesel use, which tracks with industrial use, seems to be approximately flat.

The UK Telegraph reports, “Markets hold breath as China’s shadow banking grinds to a halt.” According to that article,

A slew of shockingly weak data from China and Japan has led to a sharp sell-off in Asian stock markets and the biggest one-day crash in iron ore prices since the Lehman crisis, calling into question the strength of the global recovery.

The Shanghai Composite index of stocks fell below the key level of 2,000 after investors reacted with shock to an 18pc slump in Chinese exports in February and to signs that credit is wilting again. Iron ore fell 8.3pc.

Fresh loans in China’s shadow banking system evaporated to almost nothing from $160bn in January, suggesting the clampdown on the $8 trillion sector is biting hard.

Many recent reports have talked about the huge growth in China’s debt in recent years, much of it outside usual banking channels. One such report is this video called How China Fooled the World with Robert Peston.

Why Promises (and Debt) are Critical to the Economy

Without promises, it is hard to get anyone to do anything that they really don’t want to do. Think about training your dog. The way you usually do this training is with “doggie treats” to reward good behavior. Rewards for desired behavior are equally critical to the economy. An employer pays wages to an employee (a promise of pay for work performed).

It is possible to build a house or a store, stick by stick, as a person accumulates enough funds from other endeavors, but the process is very slow. Usually, if this approach is used, those building homes or stores will provide all of the labor themselves, to try to match outgo with income. If debt were used, it might be possible to use skilled craftsmen. It might even be possible to take advantage of economies of scale and build several homes together in the same neighborhood, and sell them to individuals who could buy the homes using debt.

Adding debt has many advantages to an economy. With debt, a person can buy a new car or house without needing to save up funds. These purchases lead to additional workers being employed in building these new cars and homes, adding jobs. The value of existing homes tends to rise, if other people are available to afford them, thanks to cheap debt availability. Rising home prices allow citizens to take out home equity loans and buy something else, adding further possibility of more jobs. Availability of cheap debt also tends to make business activity that would otherwise be barely profitable, more profitable, encouraging more investment. GDP measures business activity, not whether the activity is paid for with debt, so rising debt levels tend to lead to more GDP. Continue reading