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

Ten Reasons Why a Severe Drop in Oil Prices is a Problem

Not long ago, I wrote Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices are a Problem. If high oil prices can be a problem, how can low oil prices also be a problem? In particular, how can the steep drop in oil prices we have recently been experiencing also be a problem?

Let me explain some of the issues:

Issue 1. If the price of oil is too low, it will simply be left in the ground.

The world badly needs oil for many purposes: to power its cars, to plant it fields, to operate its oil-powered irrigation pumps, and to act as a raw material for making many kinds of products, including medicines and fabrics.

If the price of oil is too low, it will be left in the ground. With low oil prices, production may drop off rapidly. High price encourages more production and more substitutes; low price leads to a whole series of secondary effects (debt defaults resulting from deflation, job loss, collapse of oil exporters, loss of letters of credit needed for exports, bank failures) that indirectly lead to a much quicker decline in oil production.

The view is sometimes expressed that once 50% of oil is extracted, the amount of oil we can extract will gradually begin to decline, for geological reasons. This view is only true if high prices prevail, as we hit limits. If our problem is low oil prices because of debt problems or other issues, then the decline is likely to be far more rapid. With low oil prices, even what we consider to be proved oil reserves today may be left in the ground.

Issue 2. The drop in oil prices is already having an impact on shale extraction and offshore drilling.

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Debt: Eight Reasons This Time is Different

In today’s world, we have a huge amount of debt outstanding. Academic researchers Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have become famous for their book This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly and their earlier paper This Time is Different: A Panoramic View of Eight Centuries of Financial Crises. Their point, of course, is that the same thing happens over and over again. We can learn from past crises to solve our current problems.

Part of their story is of course correct. Governments have gotten themselves into problems with debt, time after time. This is happening again now. In fact, the same two authors recently prepared a working paper for the International Monetary Fund called Financial and Sovereign Debt Crises: Some Lessons Learned and Some Lessons Forgotten, talking about ideas such as governments inflating their way out of debt problems and pushing problems off to insurance companies and pension funds, through regulations requiring investment in certain securities.

Many seem to believe that if we worked our way out of debt problems in the past, we can do the same thing again. The same assets may have new owners, but everything will work together in the long run. Businesses will continue operating, and people will continue to have jobs. We may have to adjust monetary policy, or perhaps regulation of financial institutions, but that is about all.

I think this is where the story goes wrong. The situation we have now is very different, and far worse, than what happened in the past. We live in a much more tightly networked economy. This time, our problems are tied to the need for cheap, high quality energy products. The comfort we get from everything eventually working out in the past is false comfort.

If we look closely at the past, we see that in some cases the outcomes are not benign. There are situations where much of the population in an area died off. This die-off did not occur directly because of debt defaults. Instead, the same issues that gave rise to debt defaults, primarily diminishing returns with respect to food and other types of production, also led to die off. We are not necessarily exempt from these same kinds of problems in the future.

Why the Current Interest in Debt Levels and Interest Rates

The reason I bring up these issues is because the problem of too much world debt is now coming to the forefront. The Bank for International Settlements, which is the central bank for central banks, issued a report a week ago in which they said world debt levels are too high, and that continuing the current low interest rate policy has too many bad effects. Something needs to be done to normalize monetary policy.

Janet Yellen, Federal Reserve Chair, and Christine Lagarde, managing director or the International Monetary Fund, have also been making statements about the issue of how to fix our current economic problems (News Report; Video). There is the additional rather bizarre point that back in January, Lagarde used numerology to suggest that a major change in policy might be announced in 2014 (on July 20?), with the hope that the past “seven miserable years” can be followed by “seven strong years.” The IMF has talked in the past about using its special drawing rights (SDRs) as a sort of international currency. In this role, the SDRs could act as the world’s reserve currency, be used for issuing bonds, and be used for setting the prices of commodities such as gold and oil. Perhaps a variation on SDRs is what Lagarde has in mind.

So with this background, let’s get back to the main point of the post. How is this debt crisis, and the likely outcome, different from previous crises?

1. We live in a globalized economy. Any slip-up of a major economy would very much affect all of the other major economies. Continue reading

Two Views of our Current Economic and Energy Crisis

As the US heads toward debt default and continues with government shutdown, the underlying reason for the predicament is generally not clear to the American people or the world. The story that the press has generally been feeding us places the problem as basically a temporary one, caused by conflicts between the Democrats and Republicans.

It seems to me that the problem is much deeper. In this post, I summarize the two views, and provide reasons why the Predominant View is very far off the mark. We may be headed for a financial collapse that the Predominant View misses completely.

Predominant View of our Current Economic and Energy Predicament

The world economy under “normal” circumstances grows. Economic growth can sometimes slow a little, and then a little Keynesian stimulus is needed. Such stimulus would typically include deficit spending and low-interest rates. Perhaps it would include “Quantitative Easing” as well, since it tends to stimulate interest in buying assets of all kinds.

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Reaching Debt Limits

If an economy is growing, it is easy to add debt. The additional growth in future years provides money both to pay back the debt and to cover the additional interest. Promotions are common and layoffs are few, so a debt such as a mortgage can easily be repaid.

Figure 1. Author's image of an expanding economy.

Figure 1. Author’s image of an expanding economy.

The situation is fairly different if the economy is contracting. It is hard to find sufficient money for repaying the debt itself, not to mention the additional interest. Layoffs and business closings make repaying loans much more difficult.

Figure 2. Author's image of declining economy.

Figure 2. Author’s image of declining economy.

If an economy is in a steady state, with no growth, debt still causes a problem. While there is theoretically enough money to repay the debt, interest costs are a drag on the economy. Interest payments tend to move money from debtors (who tend to be less wealthy) to creditors (who tend to be more wealthy). If the economy is growing, growth provides at least some additional funds offset to this loss of funds to debtors. Without growth, interest payments (or fees instead of interest) are a drain on debtors. Changing from interest payments to fees does not materially affect the outcome.

Recently, the growth of most types of US debt has stalled (Figure 3, below). The major exception is governmental debt, which is still growing rapidly. The purpose of sequestration is to slightly slow this growth in US debt.

Figure 3. US debt, based on Federal Reserve Z1 data,

Figure 3. US debt, based on Federal Reserve Z1 data,

The growth in government debt occurs because of a mismatch between income and expenditures. There is a cutback in government revenue because high oil prices make some goods using oil unaffordable, causing a cutback in production, and hence employment. The government is affected because unemployed workers don’t pay much in taxes.  Government expenditures are still high because many unemployed workers are still collecting benefits.

What can we expect going forward? Will the debt situation get even worse? Continue reading