Why we get bad diagnoses for the world’s energy-economy problems

The world economy seems to be seriously ill. The problem is not overly high oil prices, but that does not rule out energy as being a major underlying problem.

Two of the symptoms of the economy’s malaise are slow wage growth and increasing wage disparity. Tariffs are being used as solutions to these issues. Radical leaders are increasingly being elected. The Bank for International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund have raised concerns about the world’s aggregate debt levels. The IMF has even suggested that a second Great Depression might be ahead if major banks should fail in the manner that Lehman Brothers did in 2008.

Figure 1. Ratio of Core Debt Growth (non-financial debt including governmental debt) to GDP, based on data of the Bank of International Settlements.

If the economy were a human being, we would send it to a physician for a diagnosis regarding what is wrong. What really is needed is a physician who has a wide overview, and thus can understand the many symptoms. Hopefully, the physician can also provide a reasonable prognosis of what lies ahead.

Individual specialists studying the world’s economic and energy problems tend to look at these problems from narrow points of view. Some examples include:

  •  Curve fitting and cycle analysis using economic data by country since World War II, as is often performed by economists
  • Analysis of oil supply based on technically recoverable reserves or resources
  • Analysis of fresh water supply problems
  • Analysis of population problems, including rising population relative to arable land, and rising retiree population relative to working population
  • Analysis of ocean problems, including rising acidity and depleting fish stocks
  • Analysis of the expected impact of CO2 production from fossil fuels on climate
  • Analysis of rising debt levels

In fact, we are facing a combined problem, but most analysts/economists are looking at only their own piece of the problem. They assume that the other aspects have little or no influence on their particular result. What we really need is an analysis of the overall economic malady from a broader perspective.

In some ways, the situation is analogous to having no physician with a sufficient overview of where the world economy is headed. Instead, we have a number of specialists (perhaps analogous to a psychiatrist, a urologist, a podiatrist, and a dermatologist), none of whom really understands the underlying problem the patient is facing.

One point of confusion regarding whether today’s oil prices should be of concern is the fact that the maximum affordable oil price seems to decline over time. This happens because workers around the world increasingly cannot afford to buy the goods and services that the world economy produces. Inadequate wage growth within countries, growing globalization and rising interest rates all contribute to this growing affordability problem. To make matters confusing, this growing affordability problem corresponds to “falling demand” in the way economists frame the issues we are facing.

If we believe the technical analysis shown in Figure 2, the maximum affordable West Texas Intermediate oil price has declined from $147 per barrel in July 2008 to $76 per barrel recently. The current price is about $62 per barrel. The chart suggests that downward price resistance might be reached at $55 per barrel, assuming no major event occurs to change the current trend line. Any upward price bounce would appear to leave the price still much lower than oil producers need in order to reinvest sufficiently to allow future oil production to be maintained at current levels.

Figure 2. Down sloping diagonal line at the top of chart gives an estimate of the trend in maximum affordable West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil prices. The downward trend line starts in July 2008, when oil prices hit a maximum. This high point occurred when the US real estate debt bubble started unwinding. Later maximum points correspond to points when oil prices stopped rising and crude oil reservoirs started refilling. Chart prepared by Amit Noam Tal.

Thus, our concern about adequate future oil supplies should perhaps be focused on keeping oil prices high enough. It takes a growing debt bubble to keep oil demand high; perhaps our concern should be keeping this debt bubble high enough to allow extraction of commodities of all kinds, including oil. Figure 1 seems to show a recent downward trend in Debt to GDP ratios for the Eurozone, the United States and China. This may be part of today’s low price problem for commodities of all types.

Needless to say, climate analyses do not consider the severity of our energy problems, nor do they consider the extent to which there is a connection between energy supply and the ability of the economy to operate as usual. If the real issue is a near-term financial crash that will radically affect future fossil fuel consumption, the climate analysis will certainly miss this event.

The Real Nature of the Limits to Growth Problem

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Overly Simple Energy-Economy Models Give Misleading Answers

Does it make a difference if our models of energy and the economy are overly simple? I would argue that it depends on what we plan to use the models for. If all we want to do is determine approximately how many years in the future energy supplies will turn down, then a simple model is perfectly sufficient. But if we want to determine how we might change the current economy to make it hold up better against the forces it is facing, we need a more complex model that explains the economy’s real problems as we reach limits. We need a model that tells the correct shape of the curve, as well as the approximate timing. I suggest reading my recent post regarding complexity and its effects as background for this post.

The common lay interpretation of simple models is that running out of energy supplies can be expected to be our overwhelming problem in the future. A more complete model suggests that our problems as we approach limits are likely to be quite different: growing wealth disparity, inability to maintain complex infrastructure, and growing debt problems. Energy supplies that look easy to extract will not, in fact, be available because prices will not rise high enough. These problems can be expected to change the shape of the curve of future energy consumption to one with a fairly fast decline, such as the Seneca Cliff.

Figure 5. Seneca Cliff by Ugo Bardi

Figure 1. Seneca Cliff by Ugo Bardi. This curve is based on writings in the 1st century C.E. by Lucius Anneaus Seneca, “It would be of some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”

It is not intuitive, but complexity-related issues create a situation in which economies need to grow, or they will collapse. See my post, The Physics of Energy and the Economy. The popular idea that we extract 50% of a resource before peak, and 50% after peak will be found not to be true–much of the second 50% will stay in the ground.

Some readers may be interested in a new article that I assisted in writing, relating to the role that price plays in the quantity of oil extracted. The article is called, “An oil production forecast for China considering economic limits.”  This article has been published by the academic journal Energy, and is available as a free download for 50 days.

A Simple Model Works If All We Are Trying to Do Is Make a Rough Estimate of the Date of the Downturn

Are we like the team that Dennis Meadows headed up in the early 1970s, simply trying to make a ballpark estimate of when natural resource limits are going to become a severe problem? (This analysis is the basis of the 1972 book, Limits to Growth.) Or are we like M. King Hubbert, back in 1956, trying to warn citizens about energy problems in the fairly distant future? In the case of Hubbert and Meadows, all that was needed was a fairly simple model, telling roughly when the problem might hit, but not necessarily in what way. Continue reading

$50 Oil Doesn’t Work

$50 per barrel oil is clearly less impossible to live with than $30 per barrel oil, because most businesses cannot make a profit with $30 per barrel oil. But is $50 per barrel oil helpful?

I would argue that it really is not.

When oil was over $100 per barrel, human beings in many countries were getting the benefit of most of that high oil price:

  • Some of the $100 per barrel goes as wages to the employees of the oil company who extracted the oil.
  • Often, the oil company contracts with another company to do part of the oil extraction. Part of the $100 per barrel is paid as wages to employees of the subcontracting companies.
  • An oil company buys many goods, such as steel pipe, which are made by others. Part of the $100 per barrel goes to employees of the companies making the goods that the oil company buys.
  • An oil company pays taxes. These taxes are used to fund many programs, including new roads, schools, and transfer payments to the elderly and unemployed. Again, these funds go to actual people, as wages, or as transfer payments to people who cannot work.
  • An oil company pays dividends to stockholders. Some of the stockholders are individuals; others are pension funds, insurance companies, and other companies. Pension funds use the dividends to make pension payments to individuals. Insurance companies use the dividends to make insurance premiums affordable. One way or another, these dividends act to create benefits for individuals.
  • Interest payments on debt go to bondholders or to the bank making the loan. Pension plans and insurance companies often own the bonds. These interest payments go to pay pension payments of individuals or to help make insurance premiums more affordable.
  • A company may have accumulated profits that are not paid out in dividends and taxes. Typically, they are reinvested in the company, allowing more people to have jobs. In some cases, the value of the stock may rise as well.

When the price falls from $100 per barrel to $50 per barrel, the incomes of many people are adversely affected. This is a huge negative with respect to world economic growth.

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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 We Have an Oversupply of Almost Everything (Oil, labor, capital, etc.)

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article called, Glut of Capital and Labor Challenge Policy Makers: Global oversupply extends beyond commodities, elevating deflation risk. To me, this is a very serious issue, quite likely signaling that we are reaching what has been called Limits to Growth, a situation modeled in 1972 in a book by that name.

What happens is that economic growth eventually runs into limits. Many people have assumed that these limits would be marked by high prices and excessive demand for goods. In my view, the issue is precisely the opposite one: Limits to growth are instead marked by low prices and inadequate demand. Common workers can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that the economy produces, because of inadequate wage growth. The price of all commodities drops, because of lower demand by workers. Furthermore, investors can no longer find investments that provide an adequate return on capital, because prices for finished goods are pulled down by the low demand of workers with inadequate wages.

Evidence Regarding the Connection Between Energy Consumption and GDP Growth

We can see the close connection between world energy consumption and world GDP using historical data.

Figure 1. World GDP in 2010$ compared (from USDA) compared to World Consumption of Energy (from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014).

Figure 1. World GDP in 2010$ compared (from USDA) compared to World Consumption of Energy (from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014).

This chart gives a clue regarding what is wrong with the economy. The slope of the line implies that adding one percentage point of growth in energy usage tends to add less and less GDP growth over time, as I have shown in Figure 2. This means that if we want to have, for example, a constant 4% growth in world GDP for the period 1969 to 2013, we would need to gradually increase the rate of growth in energy consumption from about 1.8% = (4.0% – 2.2%) growth in energy consumption in 1969 to 2.8% = (4.0% – 1.2%) growth in energy consumption in 2013. This need for more and more growth in energy use to produce the same amount of economic growth is taking place despite all of our efforts toward efficiency, and despite all of our efforts toward becoming more of a “service” economy, using less energy products!

Figure 2. Expected change in GDP growth corresponding to 1% growth in total energy, based on Figure 1 fitted line.

Figure 2. Expected change in GDP growth corresponding to 1% growth in total energy, based on Figure 1 fitted line.

To make matters worse, growth in world energy supply is generally trending downward as well. (This is not just oil supply whose growth is trending downward; this is oil plus everything else, including “renewables”.)

Figure 3. Three year average percent change in world energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014 data.

Figure 3. Three-year average percent change in world energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014 data.

There would be no problem, if economic growth were something that we could simply walk away from with no harmful consequences. Unfortunately, we live in a world where there are only two options–win or lose. We can win in our contest against other species (especially microbes), or we can lose. Winning looks like economic growth; losing looks like financial collapse with huge loss of human population, perhaps to epidemics, because we cannot maintain our current economic system.

The symptoms of losing the game are the symptoms we are seeing today–low commodity prices (temporarily higher, but nowhere nearly high enough to maintain production), not enough jobs that pay well for common workers, and a lack of investment opportunities, because workers cannot afford the high prices of goods that would be required to provide adequate return on investment.

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