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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Reasons for our Energy Predicament – An Overview

Quiz: What will cause world oil supply to fall?

  1. Too little oil in the ground
  2. Oil prices are too low for oil producers
  3. Oil prices are too high for oil consumers leading to recession, debt defaults, and ultimately a cut back in credit availability and very low oil prices
  4. Oil exporters are subject to civil unrest and overthrow of governments, due to low prices and/or depleting reserves
  5. Lack of money (and physical resources that might be purchased with this money) to pull oil out of the ground.
  6. Pollution related issues–too much smog in China; too many problems with fracking; too many problems with CO2.
  7. The financial current system fails, and can only be replaced by one that allows much less debt. Oil prices remain too low under such a system. 

In my view, any answer other that the first one is likely to be at least partially right. Ultimately, the issue is that to extract oil or any fossil fuel, we have to keep the financial and political systems together. These systems can be expected to fail, far before we run out of oil in the ground. Most oil in the ground (as well as most other fossil fuels in the ground) will be left in the ground, in my view.

Basing estimates of future oil production on oil reserves is likely to give far too high an indication with respect to actual future production. Even more absurd numbers come from using “resource” numbers (which are higher than reserve numbers) to make estimates of future oil production. Coal and natural gas production is likely to fall at exactly the same time as oil, because the problems are likely to be financial and political ones, not “resources in the ground” problems.

Direct Application of M. King Hubbert Theory is Incorrect

M. King Hubbert is known for his estimates of future oil production  (195619621976) based on reserve amounts. There are two things of importance to notice about his estimates:

(a) The oil reserve estimates used are of free flowing oil reserves of the type that geologists currently were looking at. Thus, they were restricted to “cheap to extract” reserves, and

(b) When Hubbert showed graphs of world oil production following a generally symmetric curve (so downslope looks like a mirror image of upslope), Hubbert showed some other source of energy supply (nuclear in his early papers, solar in later ones) rising to high levels, before world oil production ever dropped. He even talked about making liquid fuels using a huge amount of energy plus carbon dioxide and water–in other words, reversing combustion (1962). In order to ramp nuclear or solar up to these very high levels, they would need to be  extremely cheap.

The assumptions that M. King Hubbert makes are effectively ones that would allow the economy to continue to grow and the financial system to “hang together.” If a person looks at today’s situation, it is quite different. We do not have an alternate fuel supply that will  allow the economy to continue to grow, regardless of fossil fuel consumption. The published reserves include large amounts of oil in the ground that are not of the very cheap to extract type. Extracting such oil will be impossible if oil prices are very low, or if credit availability is lacking. It is tempting for observers to look at oil reserves and assume that all is well, but this is definitely not the case.

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Energy and the Economy–Basic Principles and Feedback Loops

Does a fish know that its nose is wet? Probably not. It swims in water, and assumes that is the only way any animal lives.

We live in an economic world. Economic models that were developed years ago were created based on observations of how the economy seemed to work at the time. As time goes on, it is becoming clear that early economists missed important connections. The most important of these is the role of energy and its connection to the economy. It takes energy to make anything, from a piece of steel to a loaf of bread. It takes energy to transport anything. Humans need energy in the form of food to continue to live. Clearly, energy should have a place in economic models.

In this post, I explain some of the basic principles as I see them:

1. Humans have evolved to be dependent on external energy.

2. Humans now supplement their own limited energy supply with external energy of various types. In general, the more external energy used, the more humans are able to control their environment.

3. Over the 1 million+ years during which humans have been able to control fire, humans have generally been in situations with favorable feedback loops, due to increasing efficiency in producing goods and services required to meet basic needs. Such loops allowed continued population growth and economic growth.

4. We are now reaching limits on these feedback loops. The result is feedback loops that are changing from favorable feedbacks to contraction.

5. Part of the change in feedback loops relates to the cost of energy sources, such as oil. A rise in the price of oil tends to reduce salaries of workers (because of layoffs) as well as reduce discretionary income (because of higher price of food and commuting), contributing to the trend toward contraction.

All of this is very concerning, because in the past, adverse feedback loops of this type  seem to have led to collapse.

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Energy limits: Is there anything we can do?

The energy limit we are running into is a cost limit. I would argue that neither the Republican or Democrat approach to solving the problem will really work.

The Republicans favor “Drill Baby Drill”. If the issue is that the price of oil extraction is too high, additional drilling doesn’t really fix the problem. At best, it gives us a little more expensive oil to add to the world’s supply. The Wall Street research firm Sanford Bernstein recently estimated that the non-Opec marginal cost of production rose to $104.50 a barrel in 2012, up more than 13 per cent from $92.30 a barrel in 2011.

US consumers still cannot afford to buy high-priced oil, even if we extract the oil ourselves. The countries that see rising oil consumption tend to be ones that can leverage its use better with cheaper fuels, particularly coal (Figure 1). See Why coal consumption keeps rising; what economists missed. The recent reduction in US oil usage is more related to young people not being able to afford to drive than it is to improved automobile efficiency. See my post, Why is gasoline mileage lower? Better gasoline mileage?

Figure 1. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on EIA data. 2012 world consumption data estimated based on world "all liquids" production amounts.

Figure 1. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on EIA data. 2012 world consumption data estimated based on world “all liquids” production amounts.

The Democrats favor subsidizing high-priced energy approaches that wouldn’t be competitive without such subsidies. Government debt is at 103% of GDP. It is hard to see that the government can afford such subsidies. Also, it is doubtful that the supposed carbon-saving benefit is really there, when all of the follow-on effects are included. Buying wind turbine parts, solar panels, and goods that use rare earth minerals (used in many high-tech goods, including electric cars and  wind turbines) helps to stimulate the Chinese economy, adding to their coal use. Furthermore, the higher taxes needed to pay for these subsidies reduces the spendable income of the common worker, pushing the country in the direction of recession.

So what do we do as an alternative, if neither the Republican or Democrat approach works? I would argue that we are dealing with a situation that is essentially unfixable. It can be expected to morph into a financial crash, for reasons I explained in How Resource Limits Lead to Financial Collapse. Thus, the issue we will need to mitigate will be debt defaults, loss of jobs, and possibly major changes to governments. If we are dealing with a financial crash, oil prices may in fact be lower, but people will still be unable to afford the oil because of other issues, such as lack of jobs or lack of access to money in their bank accounts. Continue reading

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