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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How the Economy Works as It Reaches Energy Limits — An Introduction for Actuaries and Others

Why have long-term interest rates generally fallen since 1981? Why have asset prices risen? Can these trends be expected to continue? The standard evaluation approach by actuaries and economists seems to be to look at past patterns and assume that they will be repeated.

The catch is that energy consumption growth plays a hugely important role in GDP growth. It also plays an important role in interest rates that businesses and governments can afford to pay. Energy consumption growth has been slowing; it is hard to see how growth in energy consumption can ramp back up materially in the future.

Slowing growth in energy consumption puts the world on track for a future like the 1930s, or even worse. It is hard to see how GDP growth, interest rates, and inflation rates can ramp up in the future. More likely, asset price bubbles will pop, leading to significant financial distress. Derivatives may be affected by rapid changes in prices and currency relativities, as asset bubbles pop.

The article that follows is a partial write-up of a long talk I gave to a group of life and annuity actuaries. (I am a casualty actuary myself, which is a slightly different specialty.) A PDF of my presentation can be found at this link: Reaching Limits of a Finite World

 

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Why political correctness fails – Why what we know ‘for sure’ is wrong (Ex Religion)

Most of us are familiar with the Politically Correct (PC) World View. William Deresiewicz describes the view, which he calls the “religion of success,” as follows:

There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern.

There are other beliefs that go with this religion of success:

  • Wind and solar will save us.
  • Electric cars will make transportation possible indefinitely.
  • Our world leaders are all powerful.
  • Science has all of the answers.

To me, this story is pretty much equivalent to the article, “Earth Is Flat and Infinite, According to Paid Experts,” by Chris Hume in Funny Times. While the story is popular, it is just plain silly.

In this post, I explain why many popular understandings are just plain wrong. I cover several controversial topics, including environmentalism, peer-reviewed literature, and climate change models. This post pretty much excludes religion. It was added for people who find it hard to believe that a scientific article could also touch upon religion. If you want the complete discussion, as the post was originally written, please see this postContinue reading

Why political correctness fails – Why what we know ‘for sure’ is wrong

Most of us are familiar with the Politically Correct (PC) World View. William Deresiewicz describes the view, which he calls the “religion of success,” as follows:

There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern.

There are other beliefs that go with this religion of success:

  • Wind and solar will save us.
  • Electric cars will make transportation possible indefinitely.
  • Our world leaders are all powerful.
  • Science has all of the answers.

To me, this story is pretty much equivalent to the article, “Earth Is Flat and Infinite, According to Paid Experts,” by Chris Hume in Funny Times. While the story is popular, it is just plain silly.

In this post, I explain why many popular understandings are just plain wrong. I cover many controversial topics, including environmentalism, peer-reviewed literature, climate change models, and religion. I expect that the analysis will surprise almost everyone. Continue reading

Falling Interest Rates Have Postponed “Peak Oil”

Falling interest rates have huge power. My background is as an actuary, so I am very much aware of the great power of interest rates. But a lot of people are not aware of this power, including, I suspect, some of the people making today’s decisions to raise interest rates. Similar people want to sell securities now being held by the Federal Reserve and by other central banks. This would further ramp up interest rates. With high interest rates, practically nothing that is bought using credit is affordable. This is frightening.

Another group of people who don’t understand the power of interest rates is the group of people who put together the Peak Oil story. In my opinion, the story of finite resources, including oil, is true. But the way the problem manifests itself is quite different from what Peak Oilers have imagined because the economy is far more complex than the Hubbert Model assumes. One big piece that has been left out of the Hubbert Model is the impact of changing interest rates. When interest rates fall, this tends to allow oil prices to rise, and thus allows increased production. This postpones the Peak Oil crisis, but makes the ultimate crisis worse.

The new crisis can be expected to be “Peak Economy” instead of Peak Oil. Peak Economy is likely to have a far different shape than Peak Oil–a much sharper downturn. It is likely to affect many aspects of the economy at once. The financial system will be especially affected. We will have gluts of all energy products, because no energy product will be affordable to consumers at a price that is profitable to producers. Grid electricity is likely to fail at essentially the same time as other parts of the system.

Interest rates are very important in determining when we hit “Peak Economy.” As I will explain in this article, falling interest rates between 1981 and 2014 are one of the things that allowed Peak Oil to be postponed for many years.

Figure 1. 10-year Treasury Interest Rates. Chart prepared by St. Louis Fed.

These falling interest rates allowed oil prices to be much higher than they otherwise would have been, and thus allowed far more oil to be extracted than would otherwise have been the case.

Since mid 2014, the big change that has taken place was the elimination of Quantitative Easing (QE) by the US. This change had the effect of disrupting the “carry trade” in US dollars (borrowing in US dollars and purchasing investments, often debt with a slightly higher yield, in another currency).

Figure 2. At this point, oil prices are both too high for many would-be consumers and too low for producers.

As a result, the US dollar rose, relative to other currencies. This tended to send oil prices to a level that is too low for oil producers to make an adequate profit (Figure 2). In addition, governments of oil exporting countries (such as Venezuela, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia) cannot collect adequate taxes. This kind of problem does not lead to immediate collapse. Instead, it “sets the wheels in motion,” leading to collapse. This is a major reason why “Peak Economy” seems to be ahead, even if no one attempts to raise interest rates.

The problem is not yet very visible, because oil prices that are too low for producers are favorable for importers of oil, such as the US and Europe. Our economy actually functions better with these low oil prices. Unfortunately, this situation is not sustainable. In fact, rising interest rates are likely to make the situation much worse, quickly.

In this post, I will explain more details relating to these problems.

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