Low Oil Prices: Why Worry?

Most people believe that low oil prices are good for the United States, since the discretionary income of consumers will rise. There is the added benefit that Peak Oil must be far off in the distance, since “Peak Oilers” talked about high oil prices. Thus, low oil prices are viewed as an all around benefit.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The Peak Oil story we have been told is wrong. The collapse in oil production comes from oil prices that are too low, not too high. If oil prices or prices of other commodities are too low, production will slow and eventually stop. Growth in the world economy will slow, lowering inflation rates as well as economic growth rates. We encountered this kind of the problem in the 1930s. We seem to be headed in the same direction today. Figure 1, used by Janet Yellen in her September 24 speech, shows a slowing inflation rate for Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE), thanks to lower energy prices, lower relative import prices, and general “slack” in the economy.

Figure 1. Why has PCE Inflation fallen below 2%? from Janet Yellen speech, September 24, 2015.

Figure 1. “Why has PCE Inflation fallen below 2%?” from Janet Yellen speech, September 24, 2015.

What Janet Yellen is seeing in Figure 1, even though she does not recognize it, is evidence of a slowing world economy. The economy can no longer support energy prices as high as they have been, and they have gradually retreated. Currency relativities have also readjusted, leading to lower prices of imported goods for the United States. Both lower energy prices and lower prices of imported goods contribute to lower inflation rates.

Instead of reaching “Peak Oil” through the limit of high oil prices, we are reaching the opposite limit, sometimes called “Limits to Growth.” Limits to Growth describes the situation when an economy stops growing because the economy cannot handle high energy prices. In many ways, Limits to Growth with low oil prices is worse than Peak Oil with high oil prices. Slowing economic growth leads to commodity prices that can never rebound by very much, or for very long. Thus, this economic malaise leads to a fairly fast cutback in commodity production. It can also lead to massive debt defaults.

Let’s look at some of the pieces of our current predicament.

Part 1. Getting oil prices to rise again to a high level, and stay there, is likely to be difficult. High oil prices tend to lead to economic contraction.  

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Why EIA, IEA, and BP Oil Forecasts are Too High

When forecasting how much oil will be available in future years, a standard approach seems to be the following:

  1. Figure out how much GDP growth the researcher hopes to have in the future.
  2. “Work backward” to see how much oil is needed, based on how much oil was used for a given level of GDP in the past. Adjust this amount for hoped-for efficiency gains and transfers to other fuel uses.
  3. Verify that there is actually enough oil available to support this level of growth in oil consumption.

In fact, this seems to be the approach used by most forecasting agencies, including EIA, IEA and BP. It seems to me that this approach has a fundamental flaw. It doesn’t consider the possibility of continued low oil prices and the impact that these low oil prices are likely to have on future oil production. Hoped-for future GDP growth may not be possible if oil prices, as well as other commodity prices, remain low.

Future Oil Resources Seem to Be More Than Adequate

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The Problem of Debt as We Reach Oil Limits

(This is Part 3 of my series – A New Theory of Energy and the Economy. These are links to Part 1 and Part 2.)

Many readers have asked me to explain debt. They also wonder, “Why can’t we just cancel debt and start over?” if we are reaching oil limits, and these limits threaten to destabilize the system. To answer these questions, I need to talk about the subject of promises in general, not just what we would call debt.

In some sense, debt and other promises are what hold together our networked economy. Debt and other promises allow division of labor, because each person can “pay” the others in the group for their labor with a promise of some sort, rather than with an immediate payment in goods. The existence of debt allows us to have many convenient forms of payment, such as dollar bills, credit cards, and checks. Indirectly, the many convenient forms of payment allow trade and even international trade.

Figure 1. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

Figure 1. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

Each debt, and in fact each promise of any sort, involves two parties. From the point of view of one party, the commitment is to pay a certain amount (or certain amount plus interest). From the point of view of the other party, it is a future benefit–an amount available in a bank account, or a paycheck, or a commitment from a government to pay unemployment benefits. The two parties are in a sense bound together by these commitments, in a way similar to the way atoms are bound together into molecules. We can’t get rid of debt without getting rid of the benefits that debt provides–something that is a huge problem.

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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

Low Oil Prices Lead to Economic Peak Oil

We have all heard the story about oil supply supposedly rising and falling for geological reasons. But what if the story is a little different from this–oil production rises and falls for economic reasons? If this is the issue, it doesn’t really matter how much oil is in the ground. What matters is if economic conditions are “right” for continued and rising extraction. I have shown in previous posts that oil prices that are too high are a problem for oil importers while oil prices that are too low are a problem for oil exporters. As a result, oil prices need to be in a Goldilocks zone, or we have serious problems, of one sort or another.

As long as the price of oil keeps rising, there is at least some chance the amount of oil extracted each year will keep rising, because more oil resources will become economic to extract. The real problem arises when oil price falls back from a price level it has held, as it has done recently, and as it did back in July 2008. Then there is a real chance that investment will become non-economic, and because of this, oil production will fall.

Figure 1. World crude oil price and production, based on monthly EIA data.

Figure 1. World crude oil price and production, based on monthly EIA data.The corresponding price in late April is approximately $100 barrel, so is even lower yet.

Oil prices play multiple roles:

  1. High oil prices encourage extraction from more difficult locations, because the higher cost covers the additional extraction costs.
  2. High oil prices allow exporters to have adequate money to pacify their populations, even if their oil exports have been declining, as they have been for many exporters.
  3. High oil prices allow funds for investment in new oil fields, as old ones deplete.
  4. High oil prices tend to put oil importing countries into recession, because it raises the costs of goods and services produced, without raising the salaries of the workers. In fact, there is evidence that high oil prices lower wages (both directly and through lower workforce participation).
  5. High oil prices make countries that use large amounts of oil less competitive with countries that use less fuel in general, and less oil in particular.

When oil prices decline, it is evidence that Items 4 and 5 above are outweighing Items 1, 2, and 3.  This tips the scale in the direction of a fall in oil production.

Debt also affects oil prices. As long as investors have faith that businesses can make money, despite high oil prices, they will continue to borrow to expand their businesses. This additional debt helps drive up demand for goods and services of all kinds, including oil, so oil prices rise. Also, if consumers are able to borrow increasing amounts of money, this also drives up demand for goods that use oil, such as cars. But once the debt bubble bursts, it is easy for oil prices fall very far, very fast, as they did in 2008.

If we look at the 2008 situation, oil limits were very much behind the overall problem, even though most people do not recognize this connection. It was the fact that oil limits eventually led to credit limits that caused the system (including oil prices) to crash as it did. High oil prices led to debt defaults and bank write offs, and eventually led to a huge credit contraction in economies of the developed world. This credit contraction affected not just oil demand, but demand for other energy products as well.

The problems of the 2008 period were never really solved: the lack of growth in world oil supply remains, and this lack of growth in world oil supply continues to hold back world economic growth, particularly in developed countries. We recently have not been feeling the effects as much, because with deficit spending, the problems have largely moved from the private sector to the government sector.

The situation remains a tinderbox, however. The financial situation is propped up by ultra-low interest rates, continued government deficit spending, and Quantitative Easing. In a finite world, debt growth cannot continue indefinitely. But if debt growth permanently stops, and switches to contraction, we would end up in an even worse financial mess than in 2008. In fact, such a change would very likely to would lead to a contraction of “Limits to Growth” proportions.

In this post, I will explain some of these issues further.

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