How Economic Growth Fails

We all know generally how today’s economy works:

Figure 1

Figure 1

Our economy is a networked system. I have illustrated it as being similar to a child’s building toy. Ever-larger structures can be built by adding more businesses and consumers, and by using resources of various kinds to produce an increasing quantity of goods and services.

Figure 2. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

Figure 2. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

There is no overall direction to the system, so the system is said to be “self-organizing.”

The economy operates within a finite world, so at some point, a problem of diminishing returns develops. In other words, it takes more and more effort (human labor and use of resources) to produce a given quantity of oil or food, or fresh water, or other desirable products. The problem of slowing economic growth is very closely related to the question: How can the limits we are reaching be expected to play out in a finite world? Many people imagine that we will “run out” of some necessary resource, such as oil, but I see the situation differently. Let me explain a few issues that may not be obvious.

1. Our economy is like a pump that works increasingly slowly over time, as diminishing returns and other adverse influences affect its operation. Eventually, it is likely to stop.

As nearly as I can tell, the way economic growth occurs (and stops taking place) is as summarized in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Overview of our economic predicament

Figure 3. Overview of our economic predicament

As long as (a) energy and other resources are cheap, (b) debt is readily available, and (c) “overhead” in the form of payments for government services, business overhead, and interest payments on debt are low, the pump can continue working as normal. As various parts of the pump “gum up,” the economic growth pump slows down. It is likely to eventually stop, once it becomes too difficult to repay debt with interest with the meager level of economic growth achieved.

Commodity prices are also likely to drop too low. This happens because the wages of workers drop so low that they cannot afford to buy expensive products such as cars and new homes. Growing purchases of products such as these are a big part of what keep the economic pump operating.

Let me explain some of the pieces of the problem that give rise to the slowing economic growth pump, and the difficulties it encounters as it slows down. Continue reading

Nine Reasons Why Low Oil Prices May “Morph” Into Something Much Worse

Why are commodity prices, including oil prices, lagging? Ultimately, the question comes back to, “Why isn’t the world economy making very many of the end products that use these commodities?” If workers were getting rich enough to buy new homes and cars, demand for these products would be raising the prices of commodities used to build and operate cars, including the price of oil. If governments were rich enough to build an increasing number of roads and more public housing, there would be demand for the commodities used to build roads and public housing.

It looks to me as though we are heading into a deflationary depression, because the prices of commodities are falling below the cost of extraction. We need rapidly rising wages and debt if commodity prices are to rise back to 2011 levels or higher. This isn’t happening. Instead, Janet Yellen is talking about raising interest rates later this year, and  we are seeing commodity prices fall further and further. Let me explain some pieces of what is happening.

1. We have been forcing economic growth upward since 1981 through the use of falling interest rates. Interest rates are now so low that it is hard to force rates down further, in order to encourage further economic growth. 

Falling interest rates are hugely beneficial for the economy. If interest rates stop dropping, or worse yet, begin to rise, we will lose this very beneficial factor affecting the economy. The economy will tend to grow even less quickly, bringing down commodity prices further. The world economy may even start contracting, as it heads into a deflationary depression.

If we look at 10-year US treasury interest rates, there has been a steep fall in rates since 1981.

Figure 1. Chart prepared by St. Louis Fed using data through July 20, 2015.

Figure 1. Chart prepared by St. Louis Fed using data through July 20, 2015.

In fact, almost any kind of interest rates, including interest rates of shorter terms, mortgage interest rates, bank prime loan rates, and Moody’s Seasoned AAA Bonds, show a fairly similar pattern. There is more variability in very short-term interest rates, but the general direction has been down, to the point where interest rates can drop no further.

Declining interest rates stimulate the economy for many reasons:

  • Would-be homeowners find monthly payments are lower, so more people can afford to purchase homes. People already owning homes can afford to “move up” to more expensive homes.
  • Would-be auto owners find monthly payments lower, so more people can afford cars.
  • Employment in the home and auto industries is stimulated, as is employment in home furnishing industries.
  • Employment at colleges and universities grows, as lower interest rates encourage more students to borrow money to attend college.
  • With lower interest rates, businesses can afford to build factories and stores, even when the anticipated rate of return is not very high. The higher demand for autos, homes, home furnishing, and colleges adds to the success of businesses.
  • The low interest rates tend to raise asset prices, including prices of stocks, bonds, homes and farmland, making people feel richer.
  • If housing prices rise sufficiently, homeowners can refinance their mortgages, often at a lower interest rate. With the funds from refinancing, they can remodel, or buy a car, or take a vacation.
  • With low interest rates, the total amount that can be borrowed without interest payments becoming a huge burden rises greatly. This is especially important for governments, since they tend to borrow endlessly, without collateral for their loans.

While this very favorable trend in interest rates has been occurring for years, we don’t know precisely how much impact this stimulus is having on the economy. Instead, the situation is the “new normal.” In some ways, the benefit is like traveling down a hill on a skateboard, and not realizing how much the slope of the hill is affecting the speed of the skateboard. The situation goes on for so long that no one notices the benefit it confers.

If the economy is now moving too slowly, what do we expect to happen when interest rates start rising? Even level interest rates become a problem, if we have become accustomed to the economic boost we get from falling interest rates. Continue reading

Putting the Real Story of Energy and the Economy Together

What is the real story of energy and the economy? We hear two predominant energy stories. One is the story economists tell: The economy can grow forever; energy shortages will have no impact on the economy. We can simply substitute other forms of energy, or do without.

Another version of the energy and the economy story is the view of many who believe in the “Peak Oil” theory. According to this view, oil supply can decrease with only a minor impact on the economy. The economy will continue along as before, except with higher prices. These higher prices encourage the production of alternatives, such wind and solar. At this point, it is not just peak oilers who endorse this view, but many others as well.

In my view, the real story of energy and the economy is much less favorable than either of these views. It is a story of oil limits that will make themselves known as financial limits, quite possibly in the near term—perhaps in as little time as a few months or years. Our underlying problem is diminishing returns—it takes more and more effort (hours of workers’ time and quantities of resources), to produce essentially the same goods and services.

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How increased inefficiency explains falling oil prices

Since about 2001, several sectors of the economy have become increasingly inefficient, in the sense that it takes more resources to produce a given output, such as 1000 barrels of oil. I believe that this growing inefficiency explains both slowing world economic growth and the sharp recent drop in prices of many commodities, including oil.

The mechanism at work is what I would call the crowding out effect. As more resources are required for the increasingly inefficient sectors of the economy, fewer resources are available to the rest of the economy. As a result, wages stagnate or decline. Central banks find it necessary lower interest rates, to keep the economy going.

Unfortunately, with stagnant or lower wages, consumers find that goods from the increasingly inefficiently sectors are increasingly unaffordable, especially if prices rise to cover the resource requirements of these inefficient sectors. For most periods in the past, commodities prices have stayed close to the cost of production (at least for the “marginal producer”). What we seem to be seeing recently is a drop in price to what consumers can afford for some of these increasingly unaffordable sectors. Unless this situation can be turned around quickly, the whole system risks collapse.

Increasingly Inefficient Sectors of the Economy 

We can think of several increasingly inefficient sectors of the economy:

Oil. The problem with oil is that much of the easy (and thus, cheap) to extract oil is gone. There seems to be a great deal of expensive-to-extract oil available. Some of it is deep under the sea, even under salt layers. Some of it is very heavy and needs to be “steamed” out. Some of it requires “fracking.” The extra extraction steps require the use of more human labor and more physical resources (oil and gas, metal pipes, fresh water), but output rises by very little. Liquid extenders to oil, such as biofuels and coal-to-liquid operations, also tend to be heavy resource users, further exacerbating the problem of the rising cost of production for liquid fuels.

I have described the problem behind rising costs as increasing inefficiency of production. The technical name for our problem is diminishing returns. This situation occurs when increased investment offers ever-smaller returns. Diminishing returns tends to occur to some extent whenever resources of any kind are extracted from the ground. If the extent of diminishing returns is small enough, total costs can be kept flat with technological advances. Our problem now is that diminishing returns have grown to such an extent that technological advances are no longer keeping pace. As a result, the cost of producing many types of goods and services is growing faster than wages.

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