World GDP in current US dollars seems to have peaked; this is a problem

World GDP in current US dollars is in some sense the simplest world GDP calculation that a person might make. It is calculated by taking the GDP for each year for each country in the local currency (for example, yen) and converting these GDP amounts to US dollars using the then-current relativity between the local currency and the US dollar.

To get a world total, all a person needs to do is add together the GDP amounts for all of the individual countries. There is no inflation adjustment, so comparing GDP growth amounts calculated on this basis gives an indication regarding how the world economy is growing, inclusive of inflation. Calculation of GDP on this basis is also inclusive of changes in relativities to the US dollar.

What has been concerning for the last couple of years is that World GDP on this basis is no longer growing robustly. In fact, it may even have started shrinking, with 2014 being the peak year. Figure 1 shows world GDP on a current US dollar basis, in a chart produced by the World Bank.

Figure 1. World GDP in “Current US Dollars,” in chart from World Bank website.

Since the concept of GDP in current US dollars is not a topic that most of us are very familiar with, this post, in part, is an exploration of how GDP and inflation calculations on this basis fit in with other concepts we are more familiar with.

As I look at the data, it becomes clear that the reason for the downturn in Current US$ GDP is very much related to topics that I have been writing about. In particular, it is related to the fall in oil prices since mid-2014 and to the problems that oil producers have been having since that time, earning too little profit on the oil they sell. A similar problem is affecting natural gas and coal, as well as some other commodities. These low prices, and the deflation that they are causing, seem to be flowing through to cause low world GDP in current US dollars.

Figure 2. Average per capita wages computed by dividing total “Wages and Salaries” as reported by US BEA by total US population, and adjusting to 2016 price level using CPI-Urban. Average inflation adjusted oil price is based primarily on Brent oil historical oil price as reported by BP, also adjusted by CPI-urban to 2016 price level.

While energy products seem to be relatively small compared to world GDP, in fact, they play an outsized role. This is the case partly because the use of energy products makes GDP growth possible (energy provides heat and movement needed for industrial processes), and partly because an increase in the price of energy products indirectly causes an increase in the price of other goods and services. This growth in prices makes it possible to use debt to finance goods and services of all types.

A decrease in the price of energy products has both positive and negative impacts. The major favorable effect is that the lower prices allow the GDPs of oil importers, such as the United States, European Union, Japan, and China, to grow more rapidly. This is the effect that has predominated so far.

The negative impacts appear more slowly, so we have seen less of them so far. One such negative impact is the fact that these lower prices tend to produce deflation rather than inflation, making debt harder to repay. Another negative impact is that lower prices (slowly) push companies producing energy products toward bankruptcy, disrupting debt in a different way. A third negative impact is layoffs in affected industries. A fourth negative impact is lower tax revenue, particularly for oil exporting countries. This lower revenue tends to lead to cutbacks in governmental programs and to disruptions similar to those seen in Venezuela.

In this post, I try to connect what I am seeing in the new data (GDP in current US$) with issues I have been writing about in previous posts. It seems to me that there is no way that oil and other energy prices can be brought to an adequate price level because we are reaching an affordability limit with respect to energy products. Thus, world GDP in current dollars can be expected to stay low, and eventually decline to a lower level. Thus, we seem to be encountering peak GDP in current dollars.

Furthermore, in the years ahead the negative impacts of lower oil and other energy prices can be expected to start predominating over the positive impacts. This change can be expected to lead to debt-related financial problems, instability of governments of oil exporters, and falling energy consumption of all kinds.

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Deflationary Collapse Ahead?

Both the stock market and oil prices have been plunging. Is this “just another cycle,” or is it something much worse? I think it is something much worse.

Back in January, I wrote a post called Oil and the Economy: Where are We Headed in 2015-16? In it, I said that persistent very low prices could be a sign that we are reaching limits of a finite world. In fact, the scenario that is playing out matches up with what I expected to happen in my January post. In that post, I said

Needless to say, stagnating wages together with rapidly rising costs of oil production leads to a mismatch between:

  • The amount consumers can afford for oil
  • The cost of oil, if oil price matches the cost of production

This mismatch between rising costs of oil production and stagnating wages is what has been happening. The unaffordability problem can be hidden by a rising amount of debt for a while (since adding cheap debt helps make unaffordable big items seem affordable), but this scheme cannot go on forever.

Eventually, even at near zero interest rates, the amount of debt becomes too high, relative to income. Governments become afraid of adding more debt. Young people find student loans so burdensome that they put off buying homes and cars. The economic “pump” that used to result from rising wages and rising debt slows, slowing the growth of the world economy. With slow economic growth comes low demand for commodities that are used to make homes, cars, factories, and other goods. This slow economic growth is what brings the persistent trend toward low commodity prices experienced in recent years.

A chart I showed in my January post was this one:

Figure 1. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.

Figure 1. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.

The price of oil dropped dramatically in the latter half of 2008, partly because of the adverse impact high oil prices had on the economy, and partly because of a contraction in debt amounts at that time. It was only when banks were bailed out and the United States began its first round of Quantitative Easing (QE) to get longer term interest rates down even further that energy prices began to rise. Furthermore, China ramped up its debt in this time period, using its additional debt to build new homes, roads, and factories. This also helped pump energy prices back up again.

The price of oil was trending slightly downward between 2011 and 2014, suggesting that even then, prices were subject to an underlying downward trend. In mid-2014, there was a big downdraft in prices, which coincided with the end of US QE3 and with slower growth in debt in China. Prices rose for a time, but have recently dropped again, related to slowing Chinese, and thus world, economic growth. In part, China’s slowdown is occurring because it has reached limits regarding how many homes, roads and factories it needs.

I gave a list of likely changes to expect in my January post. These haven’t changed. I won’t repeat them all here. Instead, I will give an overview of what is going wrong and offer some thoughts regarding why others are not pointing out this same problem.

Overview of What is Going Wrong

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What’s Ahead? Lower Oil Prices, Despite Higher Extraction Costs

Nearly everyone believes that oil prices will trend higher and higher, allowing increasing amounts of oil to be extracted. This belief is based on the observation that the cost of extraction is trending higher and higher. If we are to continue to have oil, we will need to pay the ever-higher cost of extraction. Either that, or we will have to pay the high cost of some type of substitute, if one can be found. Perhaps such a substitute will be a bit less expensive than oil, but costs are still likely to be high, since substitutes to date are higher-priced than oil.

Even though this is conventional reasoning based on experience with many substances, it doesn’t work with oil. Part of the reasoning is right, though. It is indeed true that the cost of extracting oil is trending upward. We extracted the easy to extract oil, and thus “cheap” to extract oil, first and have been forced to move on to extracting oil that is much more expensive to extract. For example, extracting oil using fracking is expensive. So is extracting Brazil’s off-shore oil from under the salt layer.

There are also rising indirect costs of production. Middle Eastern oil exporting nations need high tax revenue in order to keep their populations pacified with programs that provide desalinated water, food, housing and other benefits. This can be done only through high taxes on oil exports. The need for these high taxes acts to increase the sales prices required by these countries–often over $100 barrel (Arab Petroleum Investment House 2013).

Even though the cost of extracting oil is increasing, the feedback loops that occur when oil prices actually do rise are such that oil prices tend to quickly fall back, if they actually do rise. We know this intuitively–in oil importing nations, deep recessions have been associated with big oil price spikes, such as occurred in the 1970s and in 2008. Economist James Hamilton has shown that 10 out of 11 US recessions since World War II were associated with oil price spikes (Hamilton 2011). Hamilton also showed that the effects of the oil price spike were sufficient to cause the recession of that began in late 2007 (Hamilton 2009).

In this post, I will explore the reasons for these adverse feedback loops. I have discussed many of these issues previously in an academic paper I wrote that was published in the journal Energy, called “Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis” (available here or here).

If I am indeed right about the path of oil prices being down, rather than up, the long-term direction of the economy is quite different from what most are imagining. Oil companies will find new production increasingly unprofitable, and will distribute funds back to shareholders, rather than invest them in unprofitable operations. In fact, some oil companies are already reporting lower profits (Straus and Reed 2013).  Some oil companies will go bankrupt. As an example, the number two oil company in Brazil, OGX, recently filed for bankruptcy, because it could not profitably find and extract Brazil’s off-shore oil (Lorenzi and Blout 2013).

Oil companies will increasingly find that the huge amount of debt that they must amass in the hope of producing profits sometime in the future is not really sustainable. The Houston Chronicle reports that an E&Y survey of Oil and Gas Companies indicates that the percentage of companies that expect to decrease debt to capital ratios jumped to 48% in October 2013 from 31% a year ago (Eaton 2013). If companies with huge debt loads cut back production to the amount that their cash flow will sustain, oil extraction can be expected to fall–just as it can be expected to fall if oil and gas companies go bankrupt or give back investment funds to shareholders.

The downward path in oil production is likely to be steep, if oil prices do indeed drop. The economy depends on oil for many major functions, including most transportation, agriculture, and construction. Increasingly expensive to extract oil is a sign of diminishing returns. As we utilize more resources for extracting oil (oil, steel, water, human labor, capital, etc.), there will be fewer resources to invest in the rest of the economy, reducing its ability to grow. This lack of economic growth feeds back as low demand, bringing down the prices of commodities, including oil. It is because of this feedback loop that I believe that the path of oil prices is generally lower. This path is the opposite of what a naive reading of “supply and demand” curves from economics textbooks would suggest, and the opposite of what we need if the economy is to continue on its current path.  Continue reading

Inflation, Deflation, or Discontinuity?

A question that seems to come up quite often is, “Are we going to have inflation or deflation?” People want to figure out how to invest. Because of this, they want to know whether to expect a rise in prices, or a fall in prices, either in general, or in commodities, in the future.

The traditional “peak oil” response to this question has been that oil prices will tend to rise over time. There will not be enough oil available, so demand will outstrip supply. As a result, prices will rise both for oil and for food which depends on oil.

I see things differently. I think the issue ahead is deflation for commodities as well as for other types of assets. At some point, deflation may “morph” into discontinuity. It is the fact that price falls too low that will ultimately cut off oil production, not the lack of oil in the ground.

Even with little oil, there will still be some goods and services produced. These goods and services will not necessarily be available to holders of assets of the kind we have today. Instead, they will tend to go to those who produced them, and to those who win them by fighting over them.

Up and Down Escalator Economies

It seems to me that economies operate on two kinds of escalators–an up escalator, and a down escalator. The up escalator is driven by a favorable feedback cycle; the down escalator is driven by an unfavorable feedback cycle.

For a long time, the US economy has been on an up escalator, fueled by growth in the use of cheap energy. This growth in cheap energy led to rising wages, as humans learned to use external energy to leverage their own meager ability to “perform work”–dig ditches, transport goods, perform computations, and do many other tasks that machines (powered by electricity or oil) could do much better, and more cheaply, than humans.

Debt helped lever this growth up even faster than it would otherwise ramp up. Continued growth in debt made sense, because growth seemed likely for as far in the future as anyone could see. We could borrow from the future, and have more now.

Unfortunately, there is also a down escalator for economies, and we seem to be headed in that direction now. Such down escalators have hit local economies before, but never a networked global economy. From this point of view, we are in uncharted territory.
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Don’t count on gold in a downturn

The way the price of gold keeps rising, a person might think that no matter what the downturn, gold would prove to be a good investment. I think that if things don’t fall apart too much, gold will be an OK investment. If things really start falling apart, though, it is not clear that gold will work nearly as well, especially if we expect gold to function as a currency itself.

If things don’t fall apart too much

If we keep teetering on the edge, but our current financial system remains in place, gold seems likely to be a good investment–whether it is coins or gold bars, gold shares or exchange traded funds. People are frightened, and because of this, seem likely to keep bidding up the price of gold for some time to come. Continue reading