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

Economic growth: How it works; how it fails; why wealth disparity occurs

Economists have put together models of how an economy works, but these models were developed years ago, when the world economy was far from limits. These models may have been reasonably adequate when they were developed, but there is increasing evidence that they don’t work in an economy that is reaching limits. For example, my most recent post, “Why ‘supply and demand’ doesn’t work for oil,” showed that when the world is facing the rising cost of oil extraction, “supply and demand” doesn’t work in the expected way.

In order to figure out what really does happen, we need to consider findings from a variety of different fields, including biology, physics, systems analysis, finance, and the study of past economic collapses. Since I started studying the situation in 2005, I have had the privilege of meeting many people who work in areas related to this problem.

My own background is in mathematics and actuarial science. Actuarial projections, such as those that underlie pensions and long term care policies, are one place where historical assumptions are not likely to be accurate, if an economy is reaching limits. Because of this connection to actuarial work, I have a particular interest in the problem.

How Other Species Grow 

We know that other species don’t amass wealth in the way humans do. However, the number of plants or animals of a given type can grow, at least within a range. Techniques that seem to be helpful for increasing the number of a given species include:

  • Natural selection. With natural selection, all species have more offspring than needed to reproduce the parent. A species is able to continuously adapt to the changing environment because the best-adapted offspring tend to live.
  • Cooperation. Individual cells within an organism cooperate in terms of the functions they perform. Cooperation also occurs among members of the same species, and among different species (symbiosis, parasites, hosts). In some cases, division of labor may occur (for example, bees, other social insects).
  • Use of tools. Animals frequently use tools. Sometimes items such as rocks or logs are used directly. At other times, animals craft tools with their forepaws or beaks.

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Why “supply and demand” doesn’t work for oil

The traditional understanding of supply and demand works in some limited cases–will a manufacturer make red dresses or blue dresses? The manufacturer’s choice doesn’t make much difference to the economic system as a whole, except perhaps in the amount of red and blue dye sold, so it is easy to accommodate.

Figure 1. From Wikipedia: The price P of a product is determined by a balance between production at each price (supply S) and the desires of those with purchasing power at each price (demand D). The diagram shows a positive shift in demand from D1 to D2, resulting in an increase in price (P) and quantity sold (Q) of the product.

Figure 1. From Wikipedia: The price P of a product is determined by a balance between production at each price (supply S) and the desires of those with purchasing power at each price (demand D). The diagram shows a positive shift in demand from D1 to D2, resulting in an increase in price (P) and quantity sold (Q) of the product.

A gradual switch in consumer preferences from beef to chicken is also fairly easy to accommodate within the system, as more chicken producers are added and the number of beef producers is reduced. The transition is generally helped by the fact that it takes fewer resources to produce a pound of chicken meat than a pound of beef, so that the spendable income of consumers tends to go farther. Thus, while supply and demand are not independent in this example, a rising percentage of chicken consumption tends to be helpful in increasing the “quantity demanded,” because chicken is more affordable than beef. The lack of independence between supply and demand is in the “helpful” direction. It would be different if chicken were a lot more expensive to produce than beef. Then the quantity demanded would tend to decrease as the shift was increasingly made, putting a fairly quick end to the transition to the higher-priced substitute.

A gradual switch to higher-cost energy products, in a sense, works in the opposite direction to a switch from beef to chicken. Instead of taking fewer resources, it takes more resources, because we extracted the cheapest-to-extract energy products first. It takes more and more humans working in these industries to produce a given number of barrels of oil equivalent, or Btus of energy. The workers are becoming less efficient, but not because of any fault of their own. It is really the processes that are being used that are becoming less efficient–deeper wells, locations in the Arctic and other inhospitable climates, use of new procedures like hydraulic fracturing, use of chemicals for extraction that wouldn’t have been used in the past. The workers may be becoming more efficient at drilling one foot of pipe used for extraction; the problem is that so many more feet need to be drilled for extraction to take place. In addition, so many other steps need to take place that the overall process is becoming less efficient. The return on any kind of investment (human labor, US dollars of investment, steel invested, energy invested) is falling. Continue reading

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

Our Electricity Problem: Getting the Diagnosis Correct

What is really wrong with our energy system, particularly as it relates to electricity and natural gas? Are there any mitigations available? I have been asked to give a talk at an Electricity/Natural Gas conference that includes both producers and industrial users of electricity and natural gas.

In this presentation, I suggest that the standard diagnosis of the problems facing the energy system is incomplete. While climate change may be a problem, there is another urgent problem that attendees at the conference should be aware of as well–affordability, and the severe near-term impact affordability can be expected to have on the system.

My written summary of this talk is fairly brief. I have not tried to repeat the information shown on the slides. This is a link to a copy of my presentation: Our Electricity Problem: Getting the Diagnosis Right

Slide 2

Slide 2

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