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.
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.