COVID-19 and the economy: Where do we go from here?

The COVID-19 story keeps developing. At first, everyone listened to epidemiologists telling us that a great deal of social distancing, and even the closing down of economies, would be helpful. After trying these things, we ended up with a huge number of people out of work and protests everywhere. We discovered the models that were provided were not very predictive. We are also finding that a V-shaped recovery is not possible.

Now, we need to figure out what actions to take next. How vigorously should we be fighting COVID-19? The story is more complex than most people understand. These are some of the issues I see:

[1] The share of COVID-19 cases that can be expected to end in death seems to be much lower than most people expect. Continue reading

Our Energy and Debt Predicament in 2019

Many people are concerned that we have an oil problem. Or they are concerned about recession and the need to lower interest rates.

As I see the situation, we have a problem of a networked economy that is not functioning well. A big part of this problem is energy-related. Strange as it may seem, energy prices (including oil prices) are too low for producers. If debt levels were growing more rapidly, this low-price problem would go away.

The “standard way” of encouraging more debt-based purchases is by lowering interest rates. But we are running out of room to do this now. We also seem to be running out of economic investments to make with debt. If expected returns on investment were greater, interest rates would be higher.

Without economic investments, demand for commodities of all kinds, including energy products, tends to stay too low. This is the problem we have today. Our debt problem and our energy problem are really different aspects of a networked economy that is no longer generating enough total return. History suggests that these periods tend to end badly.

In the following sections, I will explain some of the issues involved.

[1] Our problem is not just that oil prices are too low. Prices are too low for practically every type of energy producer, and in many parts of the globe.

Continue reading

Debunking ‘Lower Oil Supply Will Raise Prices’

We often hear the statement, “When oil supply is lower, oil prices will rise because of scarcity.” Now, we are getting to see firsthand whether oil prices really do rise, as oil supplies become more scarce.

Figure 1. Figure from the OPEC Monthly Oil Market Report for August 2019 showing world and OPEC oil production by month.

Figure 1 shows that world oil supply hit a peak in November 2018 and has declined since then, mostly because of a decline in OPEC’s production. So, total oil production seems to be down for about eight months, relative to the peak in November 2018.

Despite this big cutback by OPEC in its oil production, prices have not responded as OPEC had hoped:

Figure 2. Average monthly spot Brent Oil prices, based on EIA data.

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Seven Reasons Why We Should Not Depend on Imported Goods from China

It seems to me that the situation in China is far different from what most people think it is. Even if we would like to depend on China, we really cannot.

Reason 1. When we depend on goods from China, an amazingly large share of the world’s industrial activity gets concentrated in China.

The five largest users of energy in the world are China, the United States, India, Russia, and Japan. The International Energy Agency shows total energy consumption as follows for the year 2016:

Figure 1. IEA’s estimate of energy consumption (total fuel consumed, or TFC) by sector in 2016 for the top five energy consuming nations. Mtoe is million tons oil equivalent. Source: IEA. Non-energy use is the use of fossil fuels as a material to create end products that are not burned. Examples include medicines, plastics, fertilizers, asphalt, and fabrics.

When these countries are compared, restricting our analysis to the portion of energy used by industry, we find the rather disconcerting result shown in Figure 2:

Figure 2. Chart by the International Energy Agency showing total fuel consumed (TFC) by industry, for the top five fuel consuming nations of the world.

China consumes more fuel for industrial production than the next four countries listed (United States, India, Russia, and Japan) combined. Of course, we don’t know exactly the corresponding amounts for other countries of the world, but we can observe that if a country is concerned about its CO2 emissions, the easiest way to reduce these emissions is to send heavy industry elsewhere, such as to China or India. There are likely many countries that are primarily service economies, thanks to the option of outsourcing most industry to other countries.

Much of the discussion I have read regarding sending industry elsewhere has been in the direction of, “As advanced as our economy is, we don’t need heavy industry; service jobs will substitute. Industry can be developed at lower cost elsewhere. Everyone will be better off with this arrangement. The invisible hand will provide jobs and goods and services for everyone.” In addition, corporations saw the possibility of adding customers from around the world. Not too many thought about the real-world problems that might result. Continue reading

Why it (sort of) makes sense for the US to impose tariffs

Nearly everyone wonders, “Why is Donald Trump crazy enough to impose tariffs on imports from other countries? How could this possibly make sense?”

As long as the world economy is growing rapidly, it makes sense for countries to cooperate with each other. With the use of cooperation, scarce resources can become part of supply lines that allow the production of complex goods, such as computers, requiring materials from around the world. The downsides of cooperation include:

(a) The use of more oil to transport goods around the world;

(b) The more rapid exhaustion of resources of all kinds around the world; and

(c) Growing wage disparity as workers from high-wage countries compete more directly with workers from low-wages countries.

These issues can be tolerated as long as the world economy is growing fast enough. As the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

In this post, I will explain what is going wrong and how Donald Trump’s actions fit in with the situation we are facing. Strangely enough, there is a physics aspect to what is happening, even though it is likely that Donald Trump and the voters who elected him would probably not recognize this. In fact, the world economy seems to be on the cusp of a shrinking-back event, with or without the tariffs. Adding tariffs is an indirect way of allowing the US to obtain a better position in the new, shrunken economy, if this is really possible.

The upcoming shrinking-back event is the result of too little energy consumption in relation to total world population. Most researchers have completely missed the possibility that energy limits could manifest themselves as excessive wage disparity. In fact, they have tended to assume that energy limits would manifest themselves as high energy prices, especially for oil.

The world’s networked economy doesn’t work in the simple way that most researchers have assumed. Too much wage disparity tends to lead to low energy prices, rather than high, because of increasing affordability issues. The result is energy prices that are too low for producers, rather than too high for consumers. Producers (such as OPEC nations) willingly cut back on production in an attempt to get prices back up. The resulting shortage can be expected to more closely resemble financial collapse than high prices and a need for rationing. Trump’s tariffs may provide the US a better position, if the world economy should partially collapse.

Let me try to explain some pieces of this story. Continue reading