Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices are a Problem

A person might think from looking at news reports that our oil problems are gone, but oil prices are still high.

Figure 1. US crude oil prices  (based on average prices paid by US refiners for all grades of oil based on EIA data) converted to 2012$ using CPI-Urban data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Figure 1. US crude oil prices (based on average prices paid by US refiners for all grades of oil based on EIA data) converted to 2012$ using CPI-Urban data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In fact, the new “tight oil” sources of oil which are supposed to grow in supply are still expensive to extract. If we expect to have more tight oil and more oil from other unconventional sources, we need to expect to continue to have high oil prices. The new oil may help supply somewhat, but the high cost of extraction is not likely to go away.

Why are high oil prices a problem?

1. It is not just oil prices that rise. The cost of food rises as well, partly because oil is used in many ways in growing and transporting food and partly because of the competition from biofuels for land, sending land prices up. The cost of shipping goods of all types rises, since oil is used in nearly all methods of transports. The cost of materials that are made from oil, such as asphalt and chemical products, also rises.  Continue reading

2013: Beginning of Long-Term Recession?

We have been hearing a lot about escaping the fiscal cliff, but our problem isn’t solved. The fixes to date have been partial and temporary. There are many painful decisions ahead. Based on what I can see, the most likely outcome is that the US economy will enter a severe recession by the end of 2013.

My expectation is that credit markets are likely see increased defaults, as workers find their wages squeezed by higher Social Security taxes, and as government programs are cut back. Credit is likely to decrease in availability and become higher-priced. It is quite possible that credit problems will adversely affect the international trade system. Stock markets will tend to perform poorly. The Federal Reserve will try to intervene in credit markets, but if the US government is one of the defaulters (at least temporarily), it may not be able to completely fix the situation.

Less credit will tend to hold down prices of goods and services. Fewer people will be working, though, so even at reduced prices, many people will find discretionary items such as larger homes, new cars, and restaurant meals to be unaffordable. Thus, once the recession is in force, car sales are likely to drop, and prices of resale homes will again decline.

Oil prices may temporarily drop. This price decrease, together with a drop in credit availability, is likely to lead to a reduction in drilling in high-priced locations, such as US oil shale (tight oil) plays.

Other energy sources are also likely to be affected. Demand for electricity is likely to drop. Renewable energy investment is likely to decline because of less electricity demand and less credit availability. By 2014 and 2015, less government funding may also play a role.

This recession is likely be very long term. In fact, based on my view of the reasons for the recession, it may never be possible to exit from it completely.

I base the foregoing views on several observations:

1. High oil prices are a major cause of the United States Federal Government’s current financial problems. The financial difficulties occur because high oil prices tend to lead to unemployment, and high unemployment tends to lead to higher government expenditures and lower government revenue. This is especially true for oil importers.

Figure 1. US Government Income and Outlay, based on historical tables from the White House Office of Management and Budget (Table 1.1). *2012 is estimated. http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals

Figure 1. US Government Income and Outlay, based on historical tables from the White House Office of Management and Budget (Table 1.1). *2012 is estimated by OMB. http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals

2. The United States and world’s oil problems have not been solved. While there are new sources of oil, they tend to be sources of expensive oil, so they don’t solve the problem of high-priced oil. Furthermore, if our real economic problem is high-priced oil, and we have no way of permanently reducing oil prices, high oil prices can be expected to cause a long-term drag on economic growth.

3. A cutback in discretionary spending  is likely. US workers are already struggling with wages that are not rising as fast as GDP (Figure 2). Starting in January, 2013, US workers have the additional problem of rising Social Security taxes, and later this year, a likely cutback in government expenditures. The combination is likely to lead to a cutback in discretionary spending.

Figure 2. Wage Base (defined as sum of "Wage and Salary Disbursements" plus "Employer Contributions for Social Insurance" plus "Proprietors' Income" from Table 2.1. Personal Income and its Distribution)  as Percentage of GDP, based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis data. *2012 amounts estimated based on part-year data.

Figure 2. Wage Base (sum of “Wage and Salary Disbursements” plus “Employer Contributions for Social Insurance” plus “Proprietors’ Income” from Table 2.1. Personal Income and its Distribution) as Percentage of GDP, based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis data. *2012 amounts estimated based on part-year data.

4. The size of our current financial problems, both in terms of US government income/outgo imbalance and debt level, is extremely large.  If high oil prices present a permanent drag on the economy, we cannot expect economic growth to resume in a way that would fix these problems.

5. The financial symptoms that the US and many other oil importers are experiencing bear striking similarities to the problems that many civilizations experienced prior to collapse, based on my reading of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov’s book Secular Cycles. According to this analysis of eight collapses over the last 2000 years, the collapses did not take place overnight. Instead, economies moved from an Expansion Phase, to a Stagflation Phase, to a Crisis Phase, to a Depression/Intercycle Phase. Timing varies, but typically totals around 300 years for the four phases combined.

It appears to me that the corresponding secular cycle for the US began in roughly 1800, with the ramp up of coal use. Later other modern fuels, including oil, were added. Since the 1970s, the US has mostly been experiencing the Stagflation Phase. The Crisis Phase appears to be not far away.

The Turkin analysis started with a model. This model was verified based on the experiences of  eight agricultural civilizations (beginning dates between 350 BCE and 1620 CE). While the situation is different today, there may be lessons that can be learned.

Below the fold, I discuss these observations further.

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High-Priced Fuel Syndrome

Governments and economists around the world have not figured out that what the world economy is suffering from, to varying degrees, is “high-priced fuel syndrome“.

High-priced fuel syndrome has a number of symptoms:

  • Slow economic growth, or contraction
  • People in discretionary industries laid off from work
  • High unemployment rates
  • Debt defaults (or huge government intervention to prevent debt defaults)
  • Governments in increasingly poor financial condition
  • Declining home and business property values
  • Rising food prices
  • Lower tolerance for immigrants
  • Huge difficulty in funding retirement programs, programs for disabled, and regular pension plans
  • Rising international tensions related to energy supply

The countries with the most problem with high-priced fuel syndrome are the industrialized countries that are big importers of oil. This is the case because oil has been a particularly high-priced fuel in the past few years. Importing high-priced oil adds challenges of its own, since funds used for imported oil flow out of the country.

Figure 1. Historical inflation adjusted oil price per barrel, (Brent equivalent in 2011$), based on amounts shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

While oil is the biggest culprit in high-priced fuel syndrome, high-priced fuels of other sorts can play a role as well. Natural gas is recently high-priced in Europe and Japan, but not the USA. The higher natural gas price contributes to a higher average energy cost level for these countries.  High-priced renewables, such as off-shore wind and solar photovoltaic, can be expected to act in a similar fashion, because they add to the price challenge customers face.

At this point, Europe is hardest-hit by high-priced fuel syndrome. In part this is because Europe is a big importer of both oil and gas,  and both are high-priced. European countries have also encouraged the use of high-priced renewables, adding to their difficulties.

While many people have laughed at the issue of the world “running out of oil” (or natural gas, or some other substitute fuel), it seems to me that they have basically missed the point. There is always lots of fuel in the ground, or available through devices we create that produce “renewable” fuel. The major issue is that the fuel becomes too expensive for the economy to afford.

The United States, Europe, and Japan were industrialized back when fuels were cheap, in the pre-1972 era (Figure 1, above). The cost structure of government welfare programs (such as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment) also assume that the economy will continue as it did with low-priced fuels. Substituting ever more-expensive fuels can be expected to push a country toward economic contraction, reduction in programs that the economy can no longer afford, and the symptoms listed above. Continue reading

Planning for Higher Food and Energy Prices, and their Wider Impacts

Over the years, we have become accustomed to a rising standard of living. One of things that has helped this happen is a gradually declining ratio of food costs to total personal expenditures. Energy costs have not followed as clear a trend, but are higher again now, and seem likely to be higher in the future as well.

Figure 1. Food (excluding restaurant food) and fuel as percentage of personal income, based on Bureau of Economic Analysis data, Table 2.5.5

As long as the sum of food and energy costs were declining, an increasingly larger percentage left over after covering “the basics” could be used for other purchases. This no doubt contributed to a rising standard of living, because a larger share of income could be used for education, and for recreation, and for new homes. The greater share of income that was available to spend on new homes no doubt contributed to the long-term rise in home prices.

Now, it looks like this long-term trend of lower food and energy prices in relationship to personal expenditures is turning around because of higher oil prices and higher food prices (and, as will be discussed below the fold, lower employment figures). Higher food prices are partly the result of higher oil prices, since oil is used in the production and transport of food. Other contributing factors include more land use for biofuels, rising meat expectations from “emerging market countries,” and weather “issues.”

How do we plan for this new situation, in which food and energy seem likely to again be rising in relationship to incomes, and as a result, living standards quite likely declining? The following are a few of my thoughts:

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What Lies behind Egypt’s Problems? How do They Affect Others?

We have all been reading about Egypt in the newspapers, and wonder what is behind their problems. Let me offer a few insights.

At least part of Egypt’s problem is the fact that in the past the government has threatened to reduce food subsidies. Now it is planning to hold food subsidies level and raise energy subsidies, but it is not clear that the dollar amount of subsidy will be enough. The government is taking steps to make food and energy affordable for most, but there is worry that the steps being taken will not be enough.

Egypt’s Declining Financial Situation

There is a good reason why one might expect Egypt to start running into problems with energy and food subsidies. Its own financial situation is declining at the same time that the cost of food imports is soaring. If we look at a graph of Egyptian oil imports, exports, and consumption (using a graph from Energy Export Databrowser, which graphs BP Statistical Data), we find that Egypt’s oil use has been rising rapidly, at the same time the amount extracted each year is declining.

Figure 1. Egypt’s oil production, consumption, and exports

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