Our Energy and Debt Predicament in 2019

Many people are concerned that we have an oil problem. Or they are concerned about recession and the need to lower interest rates.

As I see the situation, we have a problem of a networked economy that is not functioning well. A big part of this problem is energy-related. Strange as it may seem, energy prices (including oil prices) are too low for producers. If debt levels were growing more rapidly, this low-price problem would go away.

The “standard way” of encouraging more debt-based purchases is by lowering interest rates. But we are running out of room to do this now. We also seem to be running out of economic investments to make with debt. If expected returns on investment were greater, interest rates would be higher.

Without economic investments, demand for commodities of all kinds, including energy products, tends to stay too low. This is the problem we have today. Our debt problem and our energy problem are really different aspects of a networked economy that is no longer generating enough total return. History suggests that these periods tend to end badly.

In the following sections, I will explain some of the issues involved.

[1] Our problem is not just that oil prices are too low. Prices are too low for practically every type of energy producer, and in many parts of the globe.

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The true feasibility of moving away from fossil fuels

One of the great misconceptions of our time is the belief that we can move away from fossil fuels if we make suitable choices on fuels. In one view, we can make the transition to a low-energy economy powered by wind, water, and solar. In other versions, we might include some other energy sources, such as biofuels or nuclear, but the story is not very different.

The problem is the same regardless of what lower bound a person chooses: our economy is way too dependent on consuming an amount of energy that grows with each added human participant in the economy. This added energy is necessary because each person needs food, transportation, housing, and clothing, all of which are dependent upon energy consumption. The economy operates under the laws of physics, and history shows disturbing outcomes if energy consumption per capita declines.

There are a number of issues:

  • The impact of alternative energy sources is smaller than commonly believed.
  • When countries have reduced their energy consumption per capita by significant amounts, the results have been very unsatisfactory.
  • Energy consumption plays a bigger role in our lives than most of us imagine.
  • It seems likely that fossil fuels will leave us before we can leave them.
  • The timing of when fossil fuels will leave us seems to depend on when central banks lose their ability to stimulate the economy through lower interest rates.
  • If fossil fuels leave us, the result could be the collapse of financial systems and governments.

[1] Wind, water and solar provide only a small share of energy consumption today; any transition to the use of renewables alone would have huge repercussions.

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The World’s Fragile Economic Condition – Part 2

The world economy can appear to be operating quite well but can be hiding a major problem that causes it to be fragile. My presentation The World’s Fragile Economic Condition (PDF) explains why we should expect financial problems if energy consumption stops growing sufficiently rapidly. In fact, a global sell off in the equity markets, such as we have started to see recently, is one of the kinds of energy-related impacts we would expect.

This is Part 2 of a two-part write up of the presentation. In Part 1 (The World’s Fragile Economic Condition – Part 1), I explained that a large portion of the story that we usually hear about how the world economy operates and the role energy plays is not really correct. I explained that the world economy is a self-organized system that depends upon energy growth to support its own growth. In fact, there seems to be a dose-response. The faster energy consumption grows, the faster the world economy seems to grow. The period with fastest growth occurred between 1940 and 1980. During this period, interest rates were rising and workers saw their wages increase as fast as, or faster than, inflation. After 1980, the rate of growth in energy consumption fell, and the world needed to tackle its growth problems with a different approach, namely growing debt.

In this post, I explain how debt (and its partner, the sale of shares of stock) help pull the economy forward. With these types of financing, investment in new production becomes almost effortless as long as the return on investment stays high enough to repay debt with interest and to repay shareholders adequately. At some point, however, diminishing returns sets in because the most productive investments are made first.

The way diminishing returns plays out in energy extraction is by raising the cost of producing energy products. In order for the sales prices of energy products to rise to match the rising cost of production, rising demand is needed to give an upward “tug” on sales prices. This rising demand is normally produced by adding increasing amounts of debt at ever-lower interest rates. At some point, the debt bubble created in this manner becomes overstretched. We seem to be reaching that point now, especially in vulnerable parts of the world economy.

Slide 34

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The World’s Fragile Economic Condition – Part 1

Where is the world economy heading? In my opinion, a large portion of the story that we usually hear about how the world economy operates and the role energy plays is not really correct. In this post (to be continued in Part 2 in the near future), I explain how some of the major elements of the world economy seem to function. I also point out some relationships that tend to make the world’s economic condition more fragile.

Trying to explain the situation a bit further, the economy is a networked system. It doesn’t behave the way nearly everyone expects it to behave. Many people believe that any energy problem will be signaled by high prices. A look at history shows that this is not really the case: fighting and conflict are also likely outcomes. In fact, rising tariffs are a sign of energy problems.

The underlying energy problem represents a conflict between supply and demand, but not in the way most people expect. The world needs rising demand to support the rising cost of energy products, but this rising demand is, in fact, very difficult to produce. The way that this rising demand is normally produced is by adding increasing amounts of debt, at ever-lower interest rates. At some point, the debt bubble created to provide the necessary demand becomes overstretched. Now, we seem to be reaching a situation where the debt bubble may pop, at least in some parts of the world. This is a very concerning situation.

Context. The presentation discussed in this post was given to the Casualty Actuaries of the Southeast. (I am a casualty actuary myself, living in the Southeast.) The attendees tended to be quite young, and they tended not to be very aware of energy issues. I was trying to “bring them up to speed.” This is a link to the presentation: The World’s Fragile Economic Condition.

Slide 1

Slide 2

This post covers only Items 1, 2, and 3 from the Outline in Slide 2. I will save Items 3 through 6 for a post called “The World’s Fragile Economic Condition-Part 2.”

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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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