Why we get bad diagnoses for the world’s energy-economy problems

The world economy seems to be seriously ill. The problem is not overly high oil prices, but that does not rule out energy as being a major underlying problem.

Two of the symptoms of the economy’s malaise are slow wage growth and increasing wage disparity. Tariffs are being used as solutions to these issues. Radical leaders are increasingly being elected. The Bank for International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund have raised concerns about the world’s aggregate debt levels. The IMF has even suggested that a second Great Depression might be ahead if major banks should fail in the manner that Lehman Brothers did in 2008.

Figure 1. Ratio of Core Debt Growth (non-financial debt including governmental debt) to GDP, based on data of the Bank of International Settlements.

If the economy were a human being, we would send it to a physician for a diagnosis regarding what is wrong. What really is needed is a physician who has a wide overview, and thus can understand the many symptoms. Hopefully, the physician can also provide a reasonable prognosis of what lies ahead.

Individual specialists studying the world’s economic and energy problems tend to look at these problems from narrow points of view. Some examples include:

  •  Curve fitting and cycle analysis using economic data by country since World War II, as is often performed by economists
  • Analysis of oil supply based on technically recoverable reserves or resources
  • Analysis of fresh water supply problems
  • Analysis of population problems, including rising population relative to arable land, and rising retiree population relative to working population
  • Analysis of ocean problems, including rising acidity and depleting fish stocks
  • Analysis of the expected impact of CO2 production from fossil fuels on climate
  • Analysis of rising debt levels

In fact, we are facing a combined problem, but most analysts/economists are looking at only their own piece of the problem. They assume that the other aspects have little or no influence on their particular result. What we really need is an analysis of the overall economic malady from a broader perspective.

In some ways, the situation is analogous to having no physician with a sufficient overview of where the world economy is headed. Instead, we have a number of specialists (perhaps analogous to a psychiatrist, a urologist, a podiatrist, and a dermatologist), none of whom really understands the underlying problem the patient is facing.

One point of confusion regarding whether today’s oil prices should be of concern is the fact that the maximum affordable oil price seems to decline over time. This happens because workers around the world increasingly cannot afford to buy the goods and services that the world economy produces. Inadequate wage growth within countries, growing globalization and rising interest rates all contribute to this growing affordability problem. To make matters confusing, this growing affordability problem corresponds to “falling demand” in the way economists frame the issues we are facing.

If we believe the technical analysis shown in Figure 2, the maximum affordable West Texas Intermediate oil price has declined from $147 per barrel in July 2008 to $76 per barrel recently. The current price is about $62 per barrel. The chart suggests that downward price resistance might be reached at $55 per barrel, assuming no major event occurs to change the current trend line. Any upward price bounce would appear to leave the price still much lower than oil producers need in order to reinvest sufficiently to allow future oil production to be maintained at current levels.

Figure 2. Down sloping diagonal line at the top of chart gives an estimate of the trend in maximum affordable West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil prices. The downward trend line starts in July 2008, when oil prices hit a maximum. This high point occurred when the US real estate debt bubble started unwinding. Later maximum points correspond to points when oil prices stopped rising and crude oil reservoirs started refilling. Chart prepared by Amit Noam Tal.

Thus, our concern about adequate future oil supplies should perhaps be focused on keeping oil prices high enough. It takes a growing debt bubble to keep oil demand high; perhaps our concern should be keeping this debt bubble high enough to allow extraction of commodities of all kinds, including oil. Figure 1 seems to show a recent downward trend in Debt to GDP ratios for the Eurozone, the United States and China. This may be part of today’s low price problem for commodities of all types.

Needless to say, climate analyses do not consider the severity of our energy problems, nor do they consider the extent to which there is a connection between energy supply and the ability of the economy to operate as usual. If the real issue is a near-term financial crash that will radically affect future fossil fuel consumption, the climate analysis will certainly miss this event.

The Real Nature of the Limits to Growth Problem

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How energy shortages really affect the economy

Many people expect energy shortages to lead to high prices. This is based on their view of what “running out” of oil might do to the economy.

In this post, I look at historical data surrounding inadequate energy supply. I also consider some of the physics associated with the situation. I see a strange coincidence between when coal production peaked (hit its maximum production before declining) in the United Kingdom and when World War I broke out. There was an equally strange coincidence between when the highest quality coal peaked in Germany and when World War II broke out. A good case can be made that inadequate energy supply is associated with conflict and fighting because leaders recognize how important an adequate energy supply is.

Some of my previous analysis has shown that if we view energy in terms of average energy supply per person, the world as a whole may be again entering into a period of inadequate energy supply. If my view is correct that inadequate energy supply leads to increased conflict, the recent discord that we have been seeing among world leaders may be related to today’s low supply of energy. (My energy analysis considers the combined energy supply available per person from fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewables. It is not simply an oil-based analysis.)

The physics of the low energy situation may be trying to “freeze out” the less efficient portions of the economy. If successful, the outcome might be analogous to the collapse of the central government of the Soviet Union in 1991, after oil prices had been low for several years. Total energy consumption of countries involved in the collapse dropped by close to 40%, on average. The rest of the world benefitted from lower oil prices (resulting from lower total demand). It also benefitted from the oil that remained in the ground and consequently was available for extraction in recent years, when we really needed it.

The idea that oil prices can rise very high seems to be based on the oil price increases of the 1970s and of the early 2000s. While oil prices can temporarily rise very high, it is hard to make a case that they can remain high for an extended period. For one thing, high oil prices tend to cause recessions and lower employment. In such an environment, affordability of energy products is lower, and oil prices tend to fall. For another, it is easy for the Federal Reserve to get oil prices back down by raising interest rates. In fact, the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates right now.

In my opinion, we should be more concerned about low oil prices than high because we live in a world economy with huge debt bubbles. Debt bubbles are part of what enable today’s high employment. Debt bubbles support employers that are close to the edge financially; they also support buyers who would not be able afford automobiles or college educations, if loans were to become more expensive because of higher interest rates. Employment in the affected industries would be cut back, leading to recession.

Because of these issues, pricking the debt bubble is likely to lead to a major recession and, indirectly, lower energy prices, as in late 2008 (Figure 12). These lower prices are not good news because energy providers of all kinds need fairly high energy prices to survive–probably equivalent to oil at $80 per barrel or higher. If energy prices stay persistently low, the world is likely to see much lower oil supply, in part because oil exporters need the tax revenue that they obtain from high-priced oil to fund their programs.  Continue reading

The Approaching US Energy-Economic Crisis

I was recently asked to give a talk called, “The Approaching US Energy-Economic Crisis.” In other words, how might the United States encounter problems that lead to a crisis? As we will see, many of the problems that could lead to a crisis (such as increased wage disparity and difficulty in collecting enough taxes) are issues that we are already beginning to encounter.

In this talk, I first discuss the connection between energy and the economy. Without this connection, it doesn’t make sense to talk about a crisis arising with respect to energy and the economy. I then discuss seven issues that could lead to a US energy-economic crisis.

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Oops! Low oil prices are related to a debt bubble

Why is the price of oil so low now? In fact, why are all commodity prices so low? I see the problem as being an affordability issue that has been hidden by a growing debt bubble. As this debt bubble has expanded, it has kept the sales prices of commodities up with the cost of extraction (Figure 1), even though wages have not been rising as fast as commodity prices since about the year 2000. Now many countries are cutting back on the rate of debt growth because debt/GDP ratios are becoming unreasonably high, and because the productivity of additional debt is falling.

If wages are stagnating, and debt is not growing very rapidly, the price of commodities tends to fall back to what is affordable by consumers. This is the problem we are experiencing now (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Author's illustration of problem we are now encountering.

Figure 1. Author’s illustration of problem we are now encountering.

I will explain the situation more fully in the form of a presentation. It can be downloaded in PDF form: Oops! The world economy depends on an energy-related debt bubble. Let’s start with the first slide, after the title slide. Continue reading

How our energy problem leads to a debt collapse problem

Usually, we don’t stop to think about how the whole economy works together. A major reason is that we have been lacking data to see long-term relationships. In this post, I show some longer-term time series relating to energy growth, GDP growth, and debt growth–going back to 1820 in some cases–that help us understand our situation better.

When examining these long-term time series, I come to the conclusion that what we are doing now is building debt to unsustainably high levels, thanks to today’s high cost of producing energy products. I doubt that this can be turned around. To do so would require immediate production of huge quantities of incredibly cheap energy products–that is oil at less than $20 per barrel in 2014$, and other energy products with comparably low cost structures.

Our goal would need to be to get back to the energy cost levels that we had prior to the run-up in costs in the 1970s. Growth in energy use would probably need to rise back to pre-1975 levels as well. Of course, such a low-price, high-growth scenario isn’t really sustainable in a finite world either. It would have adverse follow-on effects, too, including climate change.

In this post, I explain the reasoning that leads to this conclusion. Some back-up information is provided in the Appendix as well.

Insight 1. Economic growth tends to take place when a civilization can make goods and services more cheaply–that is, with less human labor, and often with smaller quantities of resources of other kinds as well.

When an economy learns how to make goods more cheaply, the group of people in that economy can make more goods and services in total because, on average, each worker can make more goods and services in his available work-time. We might say that members of that economy are becoming more productive. This additional productivity can be distributed among workers, supervisors, governments, and businesses, allowing what we think of as economic growth.

Insight 2. The way that increased productivity usually takes place is through leveraging of human labor with supplemental energy from other sources.

The reason why we would expect supplemental energy to be important is because the amount of energy an individual worker can provide is not very great without access to supplemental energy. Analysis shows that human mechanical power amounts to about 100 watts over a typical laboring day–about equal to the energy of a 100-watt light bulb.

Human energy can be leveraged with other energy in many other forms–the burning of wood (for example, for cooking); the use of animals such as dogs, oxen, and horses to supplement our human labor; the harnessing of water or wind energy; the burning of fossil fuels and the use of nuclear energy. The addition of increasingly large amounts of energy products tends to lead to greater productivity, and thus, greater economic growth.

As an example of one kind of leveraging, consider the use of oil for delivering goods in trucks. A business might still be able to deliver goods without this use of oil. In this case, the business might hire an employee to walk to the delivery location and carry the goods to be delivered in his hands.

A big change occurs when oil and other modern fuels become available. It is possible to manufacture trucks to deliver goods. (In fact, modern fuels are needed to make the metals used in building the truck.) Modern fuels also make it possible to build the roads on which the truck operates. Finally, oil products are used to operate the truck.

With the use of a truck, the worker can deliver goods more quickly, since he no longer has to walk to his delivery locations. Thus, the worker can deliver far more goods in a normal work-day. This is the way his productivity increases.

Insight 3. Growth in GDP has generally been less than 1.0% more than the growth in energy consumption. The only periods when this was not true were the periods 1975-1985 and 1985-1995. 

This is an exhibit I prepared using data from the sources listed.

Figure 2. World GDP growth compared to world energy consumption growth for selected time periods since 1820. World real GDP trends for 1975 to present are based on USDA real GDP data in 2010$ for 1975 and subsequent. (Estimated by author for 2015.) GDP estimates for prior to 1975 are based on Maddison project updates as of 2013. Growth in the use of energy products is based on a combination of data from Appendix A data from Vaclav Smil's Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 for 1965 and subsequent.

Figure 1. World GDP growth compared to world energy consumption growth for selected time periods since 1820. World real GDP trends for 1975 to present are based on USDA real GDP data in 2010$ for 1975 and subsequent. (Estimated by author for 2015.) GDP estimates for prior to 1975 are based on Maddison project updates as of 2013. Growth in the use of energy products is based on a combination of data from Appendix A data from Vaclav Smil’s Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 for 1965 and subsequent.

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