Why We Have an Oversupply of Almost Everything (Oil, labor, capital, etc.)

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article called, Glut of Capital and Labor Challenge Policy Makers: Global oversupply extends beyond commodities, elevating deflation risk. To me, this is a very serious issue, quite likely signaling that we are reaching what has been called Limits to Growth, a situation modeled in 1972 in a book by that name.

What happens is that economic growth eventually runs into limits. Many people have assumed that these limits would be marked by high prices and excessive demand for goods. In my view, the issue is precisely the opposite one: Limits to growth are instead marked by low prices and inadequate demand. Common workers can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that the economy produces, because of inadequate wage growth. The price of all commodities drops, because of lower demand by workers. Furthermore, investors can no longer find investments that provide an adequate return on capital, because prices for finished goods are pulled down by the low demand of workers with inadequate wages.

Evidence Regarding the Connection Between Energy Consumption and GDP Growth

We can see the close connection between world energy consumption and world GDP using historical data.

Figure 1. World GDP in 2010$ compared (from USDA) compared to World Consumption of Energy (from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014).

Figure 1. World GDP in 2010$ compared (from USDA) compared to World Consumption of Energy (from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014).

This chart gives a clue regarding what is wrong with the economy. The slope of the line implies that adding one percentage point of growth in energy usage tends to add less and less GDP growth over time, as I have shown in Figure 2. This means that if we want to have, for example, a constant 4% growth in world GDP for the period 1969 to 2013, we would need to gradually increase the rate of growth in energy consumption from about 1.8% = (4.0% – 2.2%) growth in energy consumption in 1969 to 2.8% = (4.0% – 1.2%) growth in energy consumption in 2013. This need for more and more growth in energy use to produce the same amount of economic growth is taking place despite all of our efforts toward efficiency, and despite all of our efforts toward becoming more of a “service” economy, using less energy products!

Figure 2. Expected change in GDP growth corresponding to 1% growth in total energy, based on Figure 1 fitted line.

Figure 2. Expected change in GDP growth corresponding to 1% growth in total energy, based on Figure 1 fitted line.

To make matters worse, growth in world energy supply is generally trending downward as well. (This is not just oil supply whose growth is trending downward; this is oil plus everything else, including “renewables”.)

Figure 3. Three year average percent change in world energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014 data.

Figure 3. Three-year average percent change in world energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014 data.

There would be no problem, if economic growth were something that we could simply walk away from with no harmful consequences. Unfortunately, we live in a world where there are only two options–win or lose. We can win in our contest against other species (especially microbes), or we can lose. Winning looks like economic growth; losing looks like financial collapse with huge loss of human population, perhaps to epidemics, because we cannot maintain our current economic system.

The symptoms of losing the game are the symptoms we are seeing today–low commodity prices (temporarily higher, but nowhere nearly high enough to maintain production), not enough jobs that pay well for common workers, and a lack of investment opportunities, because workers cannot afford the high prices of goods that would be required to provide adequate return on investment.

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Low Oil Prices: Sign of a Debt Bubble Collapse, Leading to the End of Oil Supply?

Oil and other commodity prices have recently been dropping. Is this good news, or bad?

Figure 1. Trend in Commodity Prices since January 2011. Brent spot oil price from EIA; Australian Coal from World Bank Prink Sheet; Food from UN's FAO.

Figure 1. Trend in Commodity Prices since January 2011. Brent spot oil price from EIA; Australian Coal from World Bank Prink Sheet; Food from UN’s FAO.

I would argue that falling commodity prices are bad news. It likely means that the debt bubble which has been holding up the world economy for a very long time–since World War II, at least–is failing to expand sufficiently. If the debt bubble collapses, we will be in huge difficulty.

Many people have the impression that falling oil prices mean that the cost of production is falling, and thus that the feared “peak oil” is far in the distance. This is not the correct interpretation, especially when many types of commodities are decreasing in price at the same time. When prices are set in a world market, the big issue is affordability. Even if food, oil and coal are close to necessities, consumers can’t pay more than they can afford.

A person can tell from Figure 1 that since the first part of 2011, the prices of Brent oil, Australian coal, and food have been trending downward. This drop in prices continues into September. For example, as I write this, Brent oil price is $97.70, while the average price for the latest month shown (August) is $105.27. It is this steeper, recent drop, which many are concerned about.

We are dealing with several confusing issues. Let me try to explain some of them.

Issue #1: Over the short term, commodity prices don’t reflect the cost of extraction; they reflect what buyers can afford.

Oil prices are set on a worldwide basis. The cost of extraction varies around the world. So it is clear that oil prices will not match the cost of extraction, or the cost of extraction plus a reasonable profit, for any particular producer.

If oil prices drop, there is a temptation to believe that this is because the cost of production has dropped. Over a long enough period, a drop in the cost of production might be expected to lead to lower oil prices. But we know that many oil producers are finding current oil prices too low. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently reported, “Royal Dutch Shell CEO: Can’t deny returns are too low. Ben van Beurden prepared to shrink company in order to boost returns, profitability.” I wrote about this issue in my post, Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending.

In the short term, low prices are likely to signal that less of the commodity can be sold on the world market. Commodities such as oil and food are very desirable products. Why would less be needed? The issue, unfortunately, is affordability. Affordability depends largely on (1) wages and (2) debt. Wages tend to be fairly stable. The likely culprit, if affordability is leading to lower demand for desirable products like oil and food, is less growth in debt. Continue reading