Raising Interest Rates Can’t End Well!

The Federal Reserve would like to raise target interest rates because of inflation concerns and concern that asset bubbles are forming. Part of their concern seems to arise indirectly from the rise in oil prices, relative to their low level in early 2016.

Figure 1. WSJ figure indicating likely reasons for rate hike.

A finite world does not behave the way most modelers expect. Interest rates that worked perfectly well in the past don’t necessarily work well now. Oil prices that worked perfectly well in the past don’t necessarily work well now. It seems to me that raising interest rates at this time is very ill advised. These are a few of the issues I see:

[1] The economy is now incredibly dependent upon rising debt to prop up its spending. The pattern of total debt to GDP for the United States is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. United States’ debt to GDP ratios based on Federal Reserve Z1 data and BEA GDP data. The red line represents the increase over the latest three years.

There was a huge increase in debt in the period leading up to the 2008 crash. Every year between 2001 and 2008, the increase in debt was greater than four times the increase in GDP. In fact, for some years in that period, more than $8 of debt were added for every dollar of GDP added.

We now seem to be starting a new run up in debt. In 2015, the amount of debt added was $2.5 trillion ($66.1 trillion minus $63.6 trillion), while the amount of GDP added was only $529 million. This indicates a ratio of over 4.7 for the single year of 2016. (Figure 2 shows only three-year averages, because of the volatility of amounts.) Continue reading

Oops! The economy is like a self-driving car

Back in 1776, Adam Smith talked about the “invisible hand” of the economy. Investopedia explains how the invisible hand works as, “In a free market economy, self-interested individuals operate through a system of mutual interdependence to promote the general benefit of society at large.”

We talk and act today as if governments and economic policy are what make the economy behave as it does. Unfortunately, Adam Smith was right; there is an invisible hand guiding the economy. Today we know that there is a physics reason for why the economy acts as it does: the economy is a dissipative structure–something we will talk more about later.  First, let’s talk about how the economy really operates.

Our Economy Is Like a Self-Driving Car: Wages of Non-Elite Workers Are the Engine

Workers make goods and provide services. Non-elite workers–that is, workers without advanced education or supervisory responsibilities–play a special role, because there are so many of them. The economy can grow (just like a self-driving car can move forward) (1) if workers can make an increasing quantity of goods and services each year, and (2) if non-elite workers can afford to buy the goods that are being produced. If these workers find fewer jobs available, or if they don’t pay sufficiently well, it is as if the engine of the self-driving car is no longer working. The car could just as well fall apart into 1,000 pieces in the driveway.

If the wages of non-elite workers are too low, they cannot afford to pay very much in taxes, so governments are adversely affected. They also cannot afford to buy capital goods such as vehicles and homes. Thus, depressed wages of non-elite workers adversely affect both businesses and governments. If these non-elite workers are getting paid well, the “make/buy loop” is closed: the people whose labor creates fairly ordinary goods and services can also afford to buy those goods and services.

Recurring Needs of Car/Economy

The economy, like a car, has recurring needs, analogous to monthly lease payments, insurance payments, and maintenance costs. These would include payments for a variety of support services, including the following:

  • Government programs, including payments to the elderly and unemployed
  • Higher education programs
  • Healthcare

Needless to say, the above services tend to keep rising in cost, whether or not the wages of non-elite workers keep rising to keep up with these costs. Continue reading

How Researchers Could Miss the Real Energy Story

I have been telling a fairly different energy story from most energy researchers. How could I possibly be correct? What have other researchers been missing?

The “standard” approach is to start from the amount of resources that we have of a particular type, for example, oil in the ground, and see how far these resources will go. Growing development of technology seems to allow increasing amounts of these resources to be extracted. Thus, limits seem to be farther and farther in the distance, especially if a person starts out with an optimistic bias. It is easy to get this optimistic bias, with all research funds going in the direction of, “What can we do to solve our energy problems?”

Approaches for forecasting future supply problems that start from the amount of resources in the ground suffer from the problem that it is hard to draw a sharp line regarding when we will run into difficulties. It is clear that at some point, there will be a problem–EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Investment) will be too low–but exactly when is hard to pinpoint. If a person starts from an optimistic viewpoint, it is easy to assume that as long as Energy Output is greater than Energy Input for a given process, that process must be helpful for solving our energy problem.

In fact, in my opinion, the story is very different. The very thing that should be saving us–technology–has side effects that bring the whole system down. 

The only way we can keep adding technology is by adding more capital goods, more specialization, and more advanced education for selected members of society. The problem, as we should know from research regarding historical economies that have collapsed, is that more complexity ultimately leads to collapse because it leads to huge wage disparity. (See TainterTurchin and Nefedov.) Ultimately, the people at the bottom of the hierarchy cannot afford the output of the economy. Added debt at lower interest rates can only partially offset this problem. Governments cannot collect enough taxes from the large number of people at the bottom of the hierarchy, even though the top 1% may flourish. The economy tends to collapse because of the side effects of greater complexity.

Our economy is a networked system, so it should not be surprising that there is more than one way for the system to reach its end.

Slide 5

Figure 1

I have described the problem that really brings down the economy as “too low return on human labor,” at least for those at the bottom of the hierarchy. The wages of the non-elite are too low to provide an adequate standard of living. In a sense, this is a situation of too low EROEI: too low return on human energy. Most energy researchers have been looking at a very different kind of EROEI: a calculation based on the investment of fossil fuel energy. The two kinds of EROEI are related, but not very closely. Many economies have collapsed, without ever using fossil fuel energy,

While what I call “fossil fuel EROEI” was a reasonable starting place for an analysis of our energy problems back in the 1970s, the calculation now gets more emphasis than it truly deserves. The limit we are reaching is a different one: falling return on human labor EROEI, at least for those who are not among the elite. Increasing wage disparity is becoming a severe problem now; it is the reason we have very divisive candidates running for political office, and many people in favor of reduced globalization.

Overly Simple Models Give Misleading Answers Continue reading

What really causes falling productivity growth — an energy-based explanation

What really causes falling productivity growth? The answer seems to be very much energy-related. Human labor by itself does not cause productivity growth. It is human labor, leveraged by various tools, that leads to productivity growth. These tools are made using energy, and they often use energy to operate. A decrease in energy consumption by the business sector can be expected to lead to falling productivity growth. In this post, I will explain why such a pattern can be expected, and show that, in fact, such a pattern is happening in the United States.

Figure 4. Total amount of energy used by Commercial and Industrial Sector (excluding transportation) based on EIA Energy Consumption by Sector, divided by Bureau of Labor Statistics Total Non-Farm Employees by Year.

Preview of Figure 4. Total quantity of per capita energy used by the US Commercial and Industrial Sectors (excluding transportation). Computed by dividing EIA Energy Consumption by Sector by Total Non-Farm Employment from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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.

Continue reading