The world’s weird self-organizing economy

Why is it so difficult to make accurate long-term economic forecasts for the world economy? There are many separate countries involved, each with a self-organizing economy made up of businesses, consumers, governments, and laws. These individual economies together create a single world economy, which again is self-organizing.

Self-organizing economies don’t work in a convenient linear pattern–in other words, in a way that makes it possible to make valid straight line predictions from the past. Instead, they work in ways that don’t match up well with standard projection techniques.

How do we forecast what lies ahead? Today, some economists believe that the economy of the United States is in danger of overheating. Others believe that Italy and the United Kingdom are facing dire problems, and that these problems could adversely affect the world economy. The world economy should be our highest concern because each country is dependent on a combination of imported and exported goods. The forecasting question becomes, “How will divergent economic results affect the world’s economy?”

I am not an economist; I am a retired actuary. I have spent years making forecasts within the insurance industry. These forecasts were financial in nature, so I have had hands-on experience with how various parts of the financial system work. I was one of the people who correctly forecast the Great Recession. I also wrote the frequently cited academic article, Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis, which points out the connection between the Great Recession and oil limits.

Today’s indications seem to suggest that an even more major recession than the Great Recession may strike in the not too distant future. Why should this be the case? Am I imagining problems where none exist?

The next ten sections provide an introduction to how the world’s self-organizing economy seems to operate.

[1] The economy is one of many self-organized systems that grow. All are governed by the laws of physics. All use energy in their operation.

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Oil Limits Reduce GDP Growth; Unwinding QE a Problem

We know the world economic pattern we have been used to in years past–world population grows, resource usage grows (including energy resources), and debt increases. The economy grows fast enough that paying an interest rate a little higher than the inflation rate “works”  for both lenders and borrowers. Borrowers are able to handle the required interest rate, because their wages are rising fast enough to buy homes and cars at prevailing interest rates. Unemployment is not too much of a problem because jobs grow with population and resource usage. Governments do fairly well, too, because they can tax the growing wages of the population sufficiently to get enough taxes to pay the benefits they have promised to constituents.

This model “works” fairly well, as long as the economy is growing fast enough–population continues to grow and resource extraction continues to grow as planned. In a finite world, we know that this model cannot work forever. At some point, we can expect to start reaching limits.

What do these limits look like?  I would argue that in the case of resource extraction, these limits look like increasingly high cost of extraction. We need to extract resources from increasingly deep locations, in increasingly out-of-the way places, using increasingly more energy intensive techniques. For a while, improved technology is sufficient to keep costs down, but eventually the cost of extraction begins to rise. Some of the rising cost may even be taxes, because the country where the extraction is located needs higher taxes to keep a growing population properly fed and housed, so they do not rebel and disrupt production.

When the cost of extraction begins to rise, it is as if we are pouring more manpower and more resources of many types (steel, fracking fluid, jet fuel, electricity, diesel fuel) into a deep pit, never to be used again. When we put more resources in, we get the same amount of resource out, or even less than in the past. If we want to continue to increase the amount we extract, we have to further increase the quantity of resources used in extraction. I have referred to this issue as the Investment Sinkhole problem. Obviously, if we put more manpower and other resources into this pit, we have less for other purposes.

A recent example of resources hitting limits is oil. World oil prices started increasing about 2004 (Figure 1). Analysts say that these rising prices are related to rapidly increasing production costs. Oil company presidents say that we extracted the cheap to extract oil first, and most of it is now gone. Recent reports of major oil companies say profits are dropping, despite high oil prices.

Figure 1. World crude oil production and Brent spot oil price, both based on EIA data.

Figure 1. World crude oil production and Brent spot oil price, both based on EIA data.

Oil is an important commodity because it represents about 33% of the world’s energy supply. It is the world’s primary transportation fuel. It is a very important fuel in agriculture, operating farm equipment, transporting fertilizer, running diesel irrigation pumps, making herbicides and pesticides, and transporting goods to market. Therefore, if oil prices rise, food prices are likely to rise well. In fact, since nearly all goods are transported, an oil price rise affects nearly all goods and quite a few services.

There are really two issues when the cost of oil extraction rises:

1. If the sales price of oil rises, to what extent will this increase adversely affect the economic growth oil importing economies? Rising oil prices mean that the salaries of workers do not go as far, so they must cut back on discretionary goods. Profits of companies will also fall, because it is hard to raise prices of goods, without reducing the quantity sold. In my view, the run-up in oil prices since 2004 explains pretty much all of the “Great Recession’s” impact on oil importing economies. See my article Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis. In the next section, I show evidence that oil price increases have had a very adverse impact on GDP growth of oil importers.

2.  While the cost of oil extraction is expected to continue to rise, can the sales price of oil really increase to match this higher extraction cost? If oil price can’t rise because of affordability issues (low salary growth, low growth in debt, or cutbacks in government transfer payments), then there is likely to be a crisis of a different kind. Oil exporters will find that oil prices are not high enough to cover their costs, and will cut back drilling to what is profitable. In fact, countries that are producing oil mostly for themselves, such as the US, are also likely to see their oil production drop, because prices will not be high enough to justify new investment. In such a situation, both oil importers and oil exporters are much worse off, because most of our systems are dependent on oil, and less oil will be available.

The Federal Reserve now is discussing the possibility of stopping quantitative easing. If this is done, I expect it will have a very adverse economic effect: long-term interest rates will rise and asset prices are likely to fall. If commodity prices fall as well, then we could find ourselves in the scenario outlined in the preceding paragraph, in which oil prices drop lower than the cost of production for many producers.

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Why is US Oil Consumption Lower? Better Gasoline Mileage?

United States oil consumption in 2012 will be about 4.7 million barrels a day, or 20%, lower than it would have been, if the pre-2005 trend in oil consumption growth of 1.5% per year had continued. This drop in consumption is no doubt related to a rise in oil prices starting about 2004.

Figure 1. Comparison of Actual US Oil Consumption, with that that would have been expected if prior growth trend held. Actual based on EIA data.

Figure 1. Comparison of Actual US Oil Consumption, with that that would have been expected if prior growth trend held. Actual based on EIA data.

Oil prices started rising rapidly in the 2004-2005 period (Figure 2, below). They reached a peak in 2008, then dipped in 2009. They are now again at a very high level.

Figure 2. 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 2. 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.

Given the timing of the drop off in oil consumption, we would expect that most of the drop off would be the result of “demand destruction” as the result of high oil prices. In this post, we will see more specifically where this decline in consumption occurred.

A small part of the decline in oil consumption comes from improved gasoline mileage. My analysis incidates that about 7% of the reduction in oil use was due to better automobile mileage. The amount of savings related to improved gasoline mileage between 2004 and 2012 brought gasoline consumption down by about 347,000 barrels a day. The annual savings due to mileage improvements would be about one-eighth of this, or 43,000 barrels a day.

Apart from improved gasoline mileage, the vast majority of the savings seem to come from (1) continued shrinkage of US industrial activity, (2) a reduction in vehicle miles traveled, and (3) recessionary influences (likely related to high oil prices) on businesses, leading to job layoffs and less fuel use.
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How much oil growth do we need to support world GDP growth?

A few days ago, I showed the close relationship between growth in world oil consumption and growth in world GDP. In this post, I will extend that analysis by building a model that shows how much of an increase in world oil supply is need for a given increase in world GDP. This model indicates that if we want the world economy to grow by 4% per year, world oil supply will need to grow by close to 3% per year. This is more than world oil supply has grown per year since the 1970s–giving a clue as to why the world is having so much problem with economic growth now.

Theoretically, the model should also be able to predict what would happen on the downside as well–what would happen if world oil supply should suddenly start to contract. We will talk about what these indications are, but also discuss why they are probably misleading. The result may very well be quite a bit worse than the model predicts. Continue reading

Evidence that Oil Limits are Leading to Declining Economic Growth

The usual assumption that economists, financial planners, and actuaries make is that future real GDP growth can be expected to be fairly similar to the average past growth rate for some historical time period. This assumption can take a number of forms–how much a portfolio can be expected to yield in a future period, or how high real (that is, net of inflation considerations) interest rates can be expected to be in the future, or what percentage of GDP the government of a country can safely borrow.

But what if this assumption is wrong, and expected growth in real GDP is really declining over time? Then pension funding estimates will prove to be too low, amounts financial planners are telling their clients that invested funds can expect to build to will be too high, and estimates of the amounts that governments of countries can safely borrow will be too high. Other statements may be off as well–such as how much it will cost to mitigate climate change, as a percentage of GDP–since these estimates too depend on GDP growth assumptions.

If we graph historical data, there is significant evidence that growth rates in real GDP are gradually decreasing.  In Europe and the United States, expected GDP growth rates appear to be trending toward expected contraction, rather than growth.  This could be evidence of Limits to Growth, of the type described in the 1972 book by that name, by Meadows et al.

Figure 1. World Real GDP, with fitted exponential trend lines for selected time periods. World Real GDP from USDA Economic Research Service. Fitted periods are 1969-1973, 1975-1979, 1983-1990, 1993-2007, and 2007-2011.

Trend lines in Figure 1 were fitted to time periods based on oil supply growth patterns (described later in this post), because limited oil supply seems to be one critical factor in real GDP growth. It is important to note that over time, each fitted trend line shows less growth. For example, the earliest fitted period shows average growth of 4.7% per year, and the most recent fitted period shows 1.3% average growth.

In this post we will examine evidence regarding declining economic growth and discuss additional reasons why such a long-term decline in real GDP might be expected. Continue reading