Twenty (Important) Concepts I Wasn’t Taught in Business School – Part I


Twenty-one years ago I received an MBA with Honors from the University of Chicago. The world became my oyster. Or so it seemed. For many years I achieved status in the metrics popular in our day ~ large paychecks, nice cars, travel to exotic places, girlfriend(s), novelty, and perhaps most importantly, respect for being a 'successful' member of society. But it turns out my financial career, shortlived as it was, occurred at the tail end of an era ~ where financial markers would increasingly decouple from the reality they were created to represent. My skill of being able to create more digits out of some digits, (or at least being able to sell that likelihood), allowed me to succeed in a "turbo" financial system that would moonshot over the next 20 years. For a short time I was in the 1% (and still am relative to 'all humans who have ever lived'). Being in the 1% afforded me an opportunity to dig a little deeper in what was really going on (because I quit, and had time to read and think about things for 10 years). It turns out the logic underpinning the financial system, and therefore my career, was based on some core flawed assumptions that had 'worked' in the short run but have since become outdated, putting societies at significant risks. Around 30% of matriculating undergraduate college students today choose a business major, yet 'doing business' without knowledge of biology, ecology, and physics entirely circumvents first principles of how our world really works ~ my too long but also too short summary of the important things I wasn't taught in business school is below.

The Blind men and the Elephant, by Rudyard Kipling
Business as usual as we know it, with economics as its guide and financial metrics as its scorecard, is in its death throes. The below essay is going to appear critical of finance and the nations (world's) business schools. But it is too, critical, of our entire educational system. However, physicists, plumbers and plowmen do not have the same pull with respect to our cultural goals and narrative that financial folk do - as such an examination of the central assumptions driving society is long overdue. But before I point out what I didn't learn in MBA school, I want to be fair - I did learn things of ‘value’ for the waters I would swim in the future: statistics, regression, how to professionally present and to facilitate meetings, and some useful marketing concepts. Of course, like any 20 something student, 1/2 of the value of graduate school is learning to interact with the group of people that will be your peers, and the relationships and contacts that develop. Plus the placement office was very helpful in getting us jobs as well. The culture at Salomon Brothers impressed me the most and I landed in their Private Investment Department, where we were basically stockbrokers for the uber-rich - as a trainee I wasn't allowed to call on anyone worth less than $50 million (in 1993). After Salomon shut our department down I went to a similar job at Lehman Brothers. At Lehman I increasingly felt like a high paid car salesmen and after 2 years quit to go work for a client, develop trading algorithms on commodities and eventually started my own small fund. But increasingly, instead of trading or trying to grow my business I found myself reading about oil, history, evolution and ecological issues. It really bothered me that 'externalities' were not priced into our goods or profits. One day, on a hike, it struck me that what I was doing felt spiritually hollow and despite it ‘paying the bills’ I began to realize I was more interested in learning about how the world worked and maybe doing something about improving it. In 2002 I gave my clients their money back, embarked on basically a 2 year hiking trip with my dog, and a car full of books. Eventually I would obtain a PhD in Natural Resources, but like many of you my real degree was obtained on this site, interacting with the many and varied people I met and continue to call friends and mentors. I am continuing to work on, or at least think about, making the near and long term future better, despite the tall odds, while living on a small farm in Wisconsin. More on this below. In the years that have passed, modern society has become a crazy mélange of angst, uncertainty and worry. Many of us intuitively recognize that we’ve constructed a ginormous Rube Goldberg machine which for a number of reasons may not continue to crank out goods and services for the next 30-40 years. We blame this and that demographic for our declining prospects – the Republicans, the environmentalists, the greedy rich, the lazy poor, the immigrants, the liberals, etc. We blame this and that country or political system – evil socialists, heartless capitalists, Chinese, Syrians, Europeans, etc. We watch TV and internet about the latest ‘news’ influencing our world yet are not entirely confident of the connections. But underlying all this back and forth are some first principles, which are only taught piecemeal in our schools, if at all. Below is a short list of 20 principles underpinning today’s global ‘commerce’. I should note, if I was a 25 year old starting business school, eager to get a high paying job in two short years, I wouldn’t believe what follows below, even if I had time or interest to read it, which I probably wouldn't.

20. Economic 'laws' were created during and based on a non-repeatable period of human history

"I found a flaw. I was shocked because I'd been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well." Alan Greenspan testimony to Congress, Oct 2011

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The above graphic shows a three-tiered time history of our planet, starting with the top black line being geologic time. The tiny black sliver on the far right, is enlarged in the second line, and the sliver on its far right is again enlarged on the bottom line, where the last 12,000 years are shown. We, both our environment, and ourselves, are products of this evolutionary history. Our true wealth originates from energy, natural resources and ecosystem services, developed over geologic time. Our true behavioral drivers are a product of our brains being sculpted and honed by 'what worked' in all 3 eras of this graph (but mostly the top 2). The dark line on the bottom is human population, but just as well could be economic output or fossil fuel use, as they have been highly correlated over this period. The economic ‘theories’ underpinning our current society developed exclusively during the short period labeled 'A' on the graph, on a planet still ecologically empty of human systems and when increasing amounts of extraordinarily powerful fossil energy was applied to an expanding global economic system. For decades our human economies seemed to follow a pattern of growth interrupted by brief recession and resumption to growth. This has made it seem, for all intents and purposes, that growth of both the economy and aggregate individual wealth was something akin to a natural law –it is certainly taught that way in business schools. The reality is that our human trajectory –both past and future - is not a straight line but more like a polynomial - long straight stretches, up and down, with some wavy periods in the middle, and ultimately capped. Our present culture, our institutions, and all of our assumptions about the future were developed during a long 'upward sloping' stretch. Since this straight line period has gone on longer than the average human lifetime, our biological focus on the present over the future and past makes it difficult to imagine that the underlying truth is something else. Evidence based science in fields like biology and physics has been marginalized during this long period of 'correlation=causation'. This oversight is not only ubiquitous in finance and economics but present in much of the social sciences, which over the past 2 generations have largely conflated proximate and ultimate explanations for individuals and societies. In nature geese fly south for the winter and north in the spring. They do this based on neurotransmitter signals honed over evolutionary time that contributed to their survival, both as individuals and as a species. "Flying north in spring" is a proximate explanation. "Neuro-chemical cues to maximize food/energy intake per effort contributing to survival" is an 'ultimate' explanation. In business school I was taught, 'markets go north' because of invention, technology and profits, an explanation which seemed incomplete to me even though it has appeared to be valid for most of my life. Social sciences have made great explanations of WHAT our behavior is, but the descriptions of WHY we are what we are and HOW we have accomplished a vast and impressive industrial civilization are still on the far fringes of mainstream science. Economics (and its subset of finance) is currently the social science leading our culture and institutions forward, even if now only by inertia.

19. The economy is a subset of the environment, not vice versa

If people destroy something replaceable made by mankind, they are called vandals; if they destroy something irreplaceable made by God, they are called developers.
Joseph Wood Krutch
When you have to classify the very capacity of the Earth to support life as an "externality", then it is time to rethink your theory. --Herman Daly--

Click image to enlarge.
Standard economic and financial texts explain that our natural environment is only a subset of a larger human economy. A less anthropocentric (and more accurate) description however, is that human economies are only a subset of our natural environment. Though this may seem obvious, currently anything not influencing market prices remains outside of our economic system, and thus only actively 'valued' by government mandates or by some individuals, not by the cultural system as a whole. A landmark study in NATURE showed that the total value of 'ecosystem services' -those essential processes provided to humans by our environment like: clean air, hydrologic cycles, biodiversity, etc. if translated to dollar terms, were valued between 100-300% of Global GNP. Yet the market takes them for granted and does not ascribe value to them at all!!! Part of reason is that the negative impacts from market externalities aren't immediate, and with our steep discount rates (see below), the near term 'benefits' of GDP outweigh 'abstract' costs at some unknown future date. Mankind's social conquest of earth has brought with it some uncomfortable 'externalities'. We are undergoing a 6th great extinction, which is no wonder given that humans and our livestock now outweigh wild animals by almost 50:1. Our one species is appropriating over 30% of the Net Primary Productivity of the planet. (One can ask, how can we use 30% of sunlight yet have 50x the weight of the other vertebrates and the answer, as we will see below, is our consumption of fossil carbon). A short list of deleterious impacts not incorporated into prices/costs includes: air pollution, water pollution, industrial animal production, overfishing (90% of pellagic fishes (tuna) in ocean are gone), nuclear waste, biodiversity loss, and antibiotic resistance. Perhaps the most ominous is the threat of climate change and ocean acidification, where humans, via burning large amounts of fossil carbon, are impacting global biogeochemical systems in profound and long-lasting ways. Since GDP, profits and 'stuff' are how we currently measure success, these 'externalities' only measurement is the sense of loss, foreboding and angst by people paying attention. Such loss is currently not quantified by decision makers. In the past, only when there was a ‘smoking gun’ e.g. in the case of chlorofluorocarbons, DDT, unleaded gasoline, did society organize and require rules and regulations for the externalities, but these examples, as serious as they were, were not anathema to the entire human economy.

18. Energy is almost everything

Without natural resources life itself is impossible. From birth to death, natural resources, transformed for human use, feed, clothe, shelter, and transport us. Upon them we depend for every material necessity, comfort, convenience, and protection in our lives. Without abundant resources prosperity is out of reach.
— Gifford Pinchot Breaking New Ground (1998), 505.
In nature, everything runs on energy. The suns rays combine with soil and water and CO2 to grow plants (primary productivity). Animals eat the plants. Other animals eat the animals. At each stage of this process there is an energy input, an energy output and waste heat (2nd law of thermodynamics). But at the bottom is always an energy input. Nothing can live without it. Similarly, man and his systems are part of nature. Our trajectory from using sources like biomass and draft animals, to wind and water power, to fossil fuels and electricity has enabled large increases in per capita output because of increases in the quantity of fuel available to produce non-energy goods. This transition to higher energy gain fuels also enabled social and economic diversification as less of our available energy was needed for the energy securing process, thereby diverting more energy towards non-extractive activities. The bottom of the human trophic pyramid is energy, about 90% of which is currently in the form of fossil carbon. Every single good, service or transaction that contributes to our GDP requires some energy input as a prerequisite. There are no exceptions. No matter how we choose to make a cup, whether from wood, or coconut, or glass or steel or plastic, energy is required in the process. Without primary energy, there would be no technology, or food, or medicine, or microwaves, or air conditioners, or cars, or internet, or anything.
A long term graph of human output (GDP) is one highly correlated with primary energy use. For a while (1950s to 1990s) improvements in efficiency, especially in natural gas plants, complemented energy use as a driver of GDP, but most of these have declined to now have only minor contributions. Since 2000, 96% of our GDP can be explained by 'more energy' being used. (For more data and explanation on this, please see "Green Growth - An Oxymoron"). Some resource economists have claimed that the relationship between energy and the economy decoupled starting in the 1970s, but what happened was just an outsourcing of the 'heavy lifting' of industrial processes to cheaper locations. If one includes energy transfers embedded in finished goods and imports there isn’t a single country in the world that shows a disconnect between energy use and GDP. Energy it turns out, not dollars, is what we have to budget and spend. Quite simply, energy is the ability to do work. How much work, we'll see below.

17. Cheap energy, not technology, has been the main driver of wealth and productivity

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The chemical potential energy available from the burning of things (e.g. wood) is rather astounding when compared with the energy which we supply our bodies in the form of food, and the fossil fuels of coal, oil, and natural gas burn even hotter while also being much easier to store and transport. We quickly learned that using some of this heat to perform work would transform what we could accomplish in massive ways. One barrel of oil, priced at just over $100 boasts 5,700,000 BTUs or work potential of 1700kWhs. At an average of .60 kWh per work day, to generate this amount of 'labor', an average human would have to work 2833 days, or 11 working years. At the average hourly US wage rate, this is almost $500,000 of labor can be substituted by the latent energy in one barrel of oil that costs us $100. Unbeknownst to most stock and bond researchers on Wall Street, this is the real ‘Trade’. The vast majority of our industrial processes and activities are the result of this ‘Trade’. We applied large amounts of extremely cheap fossil carbon to tasks humans used to do manually. And we invented many many more. Each time it was an extremely inefficient trade from the perspective of energy (much more energy used) but even more extremely profitable from the perspective of human society. For instance, depending on the boundaries, driving a car on a paved road uses 50-100 times the energy of a human walking, but gets us to where we are going 10 times faster. The ‘Trade’ is largely responsible for some combination of: higher wages, higher profits, lower priced goods and more people. The average american today consumes ~60 barrel of oil equivalents of fossil carbon annually, a 'subsidy' from ancient plants and geologic processes amounting to ~600 years of their own human labor, before conversion. Even with 7 billion people, each human kWh is supported by over 90kWh of fossil labor, and in OECD nations about 4-5 times this much. Technology acts as an enabler, both by inventing new and creative ways to convert primary energy into (useful?) activities and goods for human consumption and, occasionally, by making us use or extract primary energy in more efficient ways. Even such services that appear independent of energy, are not so- for example, using computers, iPhones, etc in aggregate comprise about 10% of our energy use, when the servers etc are included. Technology can create GDP without adding to energy use by using energy more efficiently but: a) much of the large theoretical movements towards energy efficiency have already occurred and b) energy saved is often used elsewhere in the system to build consumption demand, requiring more and more primary energy (Jevons paradox, rebound effect). Technological improvement thus does increase efficiency, but higher levels of resource consumption and a larger scale of resource extraction offset this advantage. Despite the power in the Trade, its benefits can be readily reversed. Firstly, if we add very large amounts of primary energy, even if it is inexpensive, the wage increases/benefits start to decline. But more importantly, and has been happening in the past decade or so, as energy prices increase, so too do the benefits of the “Trade” start to wane. The graph to the right (source, page 18) shows that as the price of energy doubles or triples the benefits of this 'Trade' quickly recede. This is especially true for energy intensive transportation, like air travel, and for highly energy intensive processes, like aluminum smelting, cement manufacture- fully 30% of US industry falls into this category. The ensuing reduction in 'salary' from large energy price increases can only partially be offset by efficiency measures or lean manufacturing moves, because the whole 'Trade' was predicated on large amounts of very cheap energy. This is why the mainstream media touting increased oil production or the growth rate in solar/wind is missing the larger point - what matters are the benefits derived at the various cost points of energy extraction/harnessing. Even with large amounts of gross energy, if it is too costly, it is much less helpful or worse, the infrastructure, trade arrangements and expectations built upon continued $40 oil and $0.05kWh electricity will have to be changed. Basically, the benefits to human societies from the mammoth bank account we found underground are almost indistinguishable from magic. Yet we have managed, over time, to conflate the Magic with the Wizard.

16. Energy is special, is non-substitutable in the production function, and has an upward sloping long term cost curve

"Oil is a renewable resource, with no intrinsic value over and above its marginal cost... There is no original stock or store of wealth to be doled out on any special criterion... Capital markets are equipped to handle oil depletion...It is all a matter of money", M.A. Adelman, Professor of Economics, MIT Source
Physics informs us that energy is necessary for economic production and, therefore growth. However, economic texts do not even mention energy as a factor that either constrains or enables economic growth. Standard financial theory (Solows exogenous growth model, Cobb Douglas function) posits that capital and labor combine to create economic products, and that energy is just one generic commodity input into the production function - fully substitutable the way that designer jeans, or earrings or sushi are. The truth is that every single transaction that creates something of value in our global economy requires an energy input first. Capital, labor and conversions are ALL dependent on energy. For instance, the intro text by Frank and Bernanke (2d ed., 2004, p. 48) offers explanations for increased productivity: …increased quantity of capital per worker, increased # of workers, and, "perhaps the most important,...improvements in knowledge and technology." Nowhere in standard economic literature is there even a hint that the "improvement" in technology they refer to has, historically, been directly linked to the progression of displacing solar-powered human and animal muscle with larger and larger quantities of energy from oil, coal, and gas. Though energy is central (in that even more difficult ore grades require more overburden to extract, requiring more diesel fuel, etc), energy is not the only key limiter – other minerals and metals are finite and deteriorating in quality and cannot be (easily) replaced. Since energy seemed the same as any other commodity economic models assumed that energy and resources would follow the same decreasing cost curve we have come to expect from gadgets like toasters and coffee cups, where the technology, outsourcing of parts to their lowest cost countries, and efficiencies of scale have generally formed a declining cost over time. For a while, energy too followed this curve, but given that high quality resources are finite, and require high quality processed resources themselves to extract and refine, eventually the cost curve of energy and other key minerals and ores, begins to rise again. This 'dual view' of energy vs regular everyday products is a key failing in economic texts. But for most of the past 60-70 years however this omission was perhaps understandable, as there WAS a continuing supply of cheap energy so its worth seemed to be just the dollar price of it. For most, this is still the dominant worldview – dollars are more important than energy.


Historical cost curves for oil, coal and natural gas for Europe - Graph source: Rune Likvern Click to enlarge

15. Energy has costs in energy terms, which can differ significantly than dollar signals

“It is appropriate to conclude that, as long as the sun shines brightly on our fair planet, the appropriate estimate for the drag on the economy from increasing entropy is zero. William Nordhaus
“ The laws of economics are like the laws of engineering. There's only one set of laws and they work everywhere. One of the things I've learned in my time at the World Bank is that whenever anybody says "But economics works differently here", they're about to say something dumb. Lawrence H. Summers

“ ... the world can, in effect, get along without natural resources ... at some finite cost, production can be freed of dependence on exhaustible resources altogether.... Nobel Laureate Robert Solow

In nature, animals expend energy (muscle calories) in order to access energy (prey). The return on this ‘investment’ is a central evolutionary process bearing on metabolism, mating, strength and survival. Those organisms that have high energy returns in turn have surplus to withstand the various hurdles found in nature. So it is in the human system where the amount of energy that society has ‘to spend’ is that left over after the energy and resources needed to harvest and distribute that energy are accounted for. Finite resources typically follow a 'best first' concept of resource extraction. As we moved from surface exploration based on seeps to seismic surveys showing buried anticlines, to deep-water and subsalt reservoir exploration, and finally to hydro-fracturing of tight oil formations , the return per unit of energy input declined from over 100:1 to something under 10:1. To economists and decision makers only the dollar cost and gross production mattered during this period, as after all, more dollars would ‘create’ more energy flowing through our economies. Net energy can peak and decline while gross energy continues to rise, and indeed can go to zero when there is still plenty of gross resource remaining. Everything we do will become more expensive if we cannot reduce the energy consumption of specific processes faster than prices grow. Yet, financial texts continue to view economic activity as a function of infinite money creation rather than a function of capped energy stocks and finite energy flows.



Left chart - western Majors price needed for cash flow break even in yellow, overlayed on OPEC vs non-OPEC crude oil production. Source IEA, Goldman Sach 4/13 report 'Higher long term prices required for troubled industry'. Right curve total oil production from Western Majors - source
Irrespective of the dollar price tag, it requires about 245 kilojoules to lift 5kg of oil 5 km out of the ground. Similar biophysical costs apply to every energy extraction/harnessing technology we have - but they are all parsed into financial terms for convenience. After all, isn't it dollars (euros, yen, renminbi) that our system is trying to optimize? But these physical input requirements will not vary whether the number of digits in the worlds banking system increases or shrinks or goes away. Though fossil fuels are our primary source of wealth, they were created a long time ago, and in drawing down their bounty we have not needed to pay the price of their generation, only their extraction. And, despite enormous amounts of sunlight hitting the earth everyday, real (and significant) resources need to be expended in order to harness and convert the sunlight into forms and at places where it can be used.


There is an enormous difference between ‘gross’ and ‘net’ which manifests in financial sphere via costs. Irrespective of our choice of nominal statistic measuring GDP (wampum or dollars or digits or gold), an increasing % of them will be allocated to the energy sector. If our objective is just to increase GDP, we can just keep growing gross energy by locating and exploiting deeper and deeper pockets of fossil hydrocarbons, but eventually our entire food, healthcare, entertainment infrastructure will be to provide for a giant mining operation. Few media outlets (none actually) handicap the new surge in gross USA oil production by a)capex requirements going up faster than oil prices, b) the enormous increase in diesel use in the shale plays and c) the higher API gravity oil (42 for Bakken, 55 for Eagleford) which exaggerate energy content per barrel between 3.5% and 10.7%. Under current trends, the implications of energy depletion is we will move from energy costing less than 5% of our economy to 10-15% or more. In addition to the obvious problems this will create, we will be using lower quality energy as well. As oil has become more expensive, we are increasingly going towards coal and wood to replace it. Already, in countries with a large drop in ability to afford (e.g. Greece) are cutting down forests to heat their homes in winter.
Net energy is what societies should be focused on, and most don’t even know what it is.

14. Money/financial instruments are just markers for real capital

Some material things make my life more enjoyable; many, however, would not. I like having an expensive private plane, but owning a half-dozen homes would be a burden. Too often, a vast collection of possessions ends up possessing its owner. The asset I most value, aside from health, is interesting, diverse, and long-standing friends. Warren Buffet - The Giving Pledge

Some of my 'real capital': Natural capital - my backyard with trees, sun, water, Social capital Here 2 of my dogs, but equally my friends, contacts and family relationships, Built capital Our house, with solar hot water, chain saws, an aloe vera plant, and a deck, and Human Capital My health and skills (identifying edible mushrooms), my fathers health and skills (he's a doctor, and can grow vegetables, etc)
Growing a big bank account is like fat storage for animals – but it’s not, because it’s only a marker for fat – its caloric benefit stored for the future is intertwined with a sociocultural system linked to monetary and credit marker. In business school, (and on Wall St.) we were taught that stocks going up ~10% a year over the long run was something akin to a natural law. The truth turns out to be something quite different. Stocks and bonds are themselves ‘derivatives’ of primary capital - energy and natural resources – which combine with technology to produce secondary capital - tractors, houses, tools, etc. Money and financial instruments are thus tertiary capital, with no intrinsic value – it’s the social system and what if confers that has value and this system is based on natural, built, social and human capital. And, our current system of ‘claims’ (what people think they own) has largely decoupled from underlying ‘real capital’.

13. Our money is created by commercial banks out of thin air (deposits and loans are created at same time)

Though societies require ‘energy’, individuals require money in order to transact in the things energy provides. What is money anyways? I certainly didn't learn in business school (or any school for that matter). Quite simply, money is a claim on a certain amount of energy. When our economic engine kicked into gear in the early 1900s, money (not energy or resources) was the limiting factor. We had so much wealth in our natural resource bank account that we needed ways of turbocharging the broader economy so productive ventures could be undertaken by anyone with skill, products or ambition. It was around this time that banks came into existence - to increase the flow of money to match the productive output of our economies only made sense - too little money and we couldn't produce the 'power' needed by a hungry world. Creditworthy individuals/businesses could now obtain loans from commercial banks who were required to keep a small portion of their assets on reserve with a central bank, yet one should always take care about possible risks, says Doyle Salewski, a Bankruptcy attorney in Ottawa. And it worked fabulously well. Correlation=causation and all that. We were taught to view credit creation as a series of consecutive bank "intermediations", where some initial deposit rippled through the banking system and via a multiplier, created additional money. E.g. banks are unable to create credit themselves, but are just passing on some wealth already created. This is true for about 5% of money coming into existence. The reality for 95%+ of money creation is profoundly different. The standard concept of lending describes a transfer of an existing commodity to its exclusive use somewhere else. However, this new credit extended by banks does not remove purchasing power or claims on resources from anywhere else in the economy. Since banks are capital constrained, not reserve constrained they lend when (ostensibly) creditworthy customers have demand for loans, not when they have excess reserves. As such the ‘fractional reserve banking’ system taught in textbooks and demonized on the blogosphere is not the proper description. I didn't learn this until 2007 or so. Banks do not lend money, they create it. And this is why the focus on government debt is a red herring. All of our financial claims are debt relative to natural resources. **(Edit - This new paper by Bank of England states precisely what I did just above -banks are not just intermediaries as taught in textbooks)

12. Debt is a non-neutral intertemporal transfer



The left graph, shows the disconnect between GDP and aggregate, non-financial debt. In every single year since 1965 we have grown our debt more than we have grown our GDP. The right graph shows the inverse - how much GDP we receive for each new dollar of debt - declining debt productivity. Source: FED Z.1 2013, NBER (Note: I use the terms credit and debt interchangeably, though creditor and debtor are opposites) Of the broad aggregate money in existence in the US of around $60 trillion, only about $1 trillion is physical currency. The rest can be considered, ‘debt’, a claim of some sort (corporate, household, municipal, government, etc.) If cash is a claim on energy and resources, adding debt (from a position of no debt) becomes a claim on future energy and resources. In financial textbooks, debt is an economically neutral concept, neither bad nor good, but just an exchange of time preference between two parties on when they choose to consume. (* we were taught in corporate finance, because of the deductibility of interest, choosing debt over equity is preferred in situations with taxes – but in the real world, when capital markets are open and credit is flowing, if a CEO has choice between financing a project with equity or debt, he/she will almost always prefer debt. And so they do.) However, there are several things that happen when we issue debt/credit that cause the impact of the convention to be much different than in the textbooks: 1) While we are issuing debt (especially on a full planet) the best and easiest to find energy and resources deplete making energy (and therefore other things) generally more expensive for the creditor than the debtor. People that choose to save are ‘outcompeted’ by people who choose to consume by taking on debt (source: Fesenmyer Cousino Weinzimmer). At SOME point in the future SOME creditors will get less, or nothing. (the question now is ‘when’ and ‘who’) 2) We increasingly have to issue more debt to keep up with the declining benefit of the “Trade”, lest aggregate demand plunge. 3) Over time we consume more rather than adding productive investment capacity. This lowers debt productivity over time (debt productivity is how much GDP we get for an additional $ of debt, or the ratio of GDP growth relative to debt growth). If an additional dollar of debt created a dollar of GDP, or anything close, it would be more or less like the textbooks claim – a tradeoff in the temporal preferences of the creditor and debtor. And, when debt productivity is high, we are transforming and extending wealth into different forms of future wealth (energy into productive factories etc). But when debt productivity is low (or approaching zero as is the case now), new debt is really just an exchange of wealth for income. This is happening now in all nations of the world to varying degrees. E.g. since 2008, G7 nations have added 1 trillion in nominal GDP, but at a cost of increasing debt by $18 trillion – and this doesn’t include off balance sheet guarantees. Debt can thus be viewed two ways – 1) from a wealth inequality perspective, for every debtor there is a creditor – a zero sum game, 2) all claims (debts) are relative to the energy and natural resources required to a) service them and b) pay off the principle. (So, think 2 Italians: Gini and Ponzi.)

11. Energy measured in energy terms is the cost of capital

The cost of finite natural resources measured in energy terms is our real cost of capital. In the short and intermediate run, dollars function as energy, as we can use them to contract and pay for anything we want, including energy and energy production. They SEEM like the limiters. But in the long run, accelerating credit creation obscures the engine of the whole enterprise - the ‘burning of the energy’. Credit cannot create energy, but it does allow continued energy extraction and much (needed) higher prices than were credit unavailable. At some point in the past 40 years we crossed a threshold of 'not enough money' in the system to 'not enough cheap energy' in the system, which in turn necessitated even more money. After this point, new credit increasingly added gross energy masking declines in our true cost of capital (net energy/EROI). Though its hard to imagine, if society had disallowed debt circa 1975 (e.g. required banks to have 100% Tier 2 capital and reserves) OR if we had some natural resource tether – like gold – to our money supply since then, global oil production and GDP would likely have peaked 20-30 years ago (and we’d have a lot more of the sub 50$ tranche left). As such, focus on oil and gas production numbers isn't too helpful without incorporating credit forecasts and integrating affordability for societies at different price tranches. An example might make this clearer: imagine 3,000 helicopters each dropped a billion dollars of cash in different communities across the country (that’s $3 Trillion ). Citizens that get there first would stuff their backpacks and become millionaires overnight, lots of others would have significant spending money, a larger number would get a few random hundreds stuck in fences, or cracks, and a large % of the population, not near the dropzone, would get nothing. The net effect of this would be to drive up energy use as the new rich would buy cars and take trips and generally consume more. EROI of the nations oil fields wouldn’t change, but oil companies would get a higher price for the now harder to find oil because the economy would be stronger, despite the fact that those $3 trillion came from thin air (or next to it). So, debt went up, GDP went up, oil prices went up, EROI stayed the same, a few people got richer, and a large % of people got little to nothing. This is pretty much what is happening today in the developed world. Natural systems can perhaps grow 2-3% per year (standing forests in USA increase their volume by 2.6% per year). This can be increased via technology, extraction of principle (fossil carbon), debt, or some combination. If via technology, we are accessing energy we might not have been able to access in the future. If we use debt, we are diverting energy that would have been accessible in the future to today by increasing its affordability via handouts/guarantees and increasing the price that energy producers receive for it. In this fashion debt functions similarly to technology in oil extraction. Neither one is 'bad', but both favor immediate consumption on an assumption they will be repeated in continued iterations in the future. Debt temporarily makes gross energy feel like net energy as a larger amount of energy is burned despite higher prices, lower wages and profits. Gross energy also adds to GDP, as the $80+ per barrel oil extraction costs in e.g. Bakken Shale ends up being spent in Williston and surrounding areas (this would be a different case if the oil were produced in Canada, or Saudi Arabia). But over time, as debt increases gross energy and net energy stays constant or declines, a larger % of our economy becomes involved in the energy sector. Already we have college graduates trained in biology, or accounting, or hotel management, working on oil rigs. In the future, important processes and parts of non-energy infrastructure will become too expensive to continue. Even more concerning is that, faced with higher costs, energy companies increasingly follow the societal trend towards using debt to pull production forward in time (e.g. Chesapeake, Statoil). In this environment, we can expect total capital expenditure to keep pace with total revenue every year, and net cash flow become negative as debt rises. In the last 10 years the global credit market has grown at 12% per year allowing GDP growth of only 3.5% and increasing global crude oil production less than 1% annually. We're so used to running on various treadmills that the landscape doesn't look all too scary. But since 2008, despite energies fundamental role in economic growth, it is access to credit that is supporting our economies, in a surreal, permanent, Faustian bargain sort of way. As long as interest rates (govt borrowing costs) are low and market participants accept it, this can go on for quite a long time, all the while burning through the next tranche of extractable carbon and getting reduced benefits from the "Trade" creating other societal pressures. I don't expect the government takeover of the credit mechanism to stop, but if it does, both oil production and oil prices will be quite a bit lower. In the long run it's all about the energy. For the foreseeable future, it's mostly about the credit But why do we want energy and money anyways? Continued in Part II

Stumbling Blocks to Figuring Out the Real Oil Limits Story

The story of oil limits is one that crosses many disciplines. It is not an easy one to understand. Most of those who are writing about peak oil come from hard sciences such as geology, chemistry, and engineering. The following are several stumbling blocks to figuring out the full story that I have encountered. Needless to say, not all of those writing about peak oil have been tripped up by these issues, but it makes it difficult to understand the “real” story.

The stumbling blocks I see are the following:

1. The quantity of oil supply available is primarily a financial issue.

The issue that peak oil people are criticized for missing is the fact that if oil prices are high, it can enable higher-cost sources of production–at least until these higher-cost sources of production prove to be too expensive for potential consumers to buy. Thus, high price can extend oil production for longer than would seem possible, based on historical patterns. As a result, forecasts based on past patterns are likely to be inaccurate.

There is a flip side of this as well that economist have missed. If oil prices are low (for example, $20 barrel), the economy is likely to be very different from what it is when oil prices are high (near $100 barrel, as they are now).

When oil prices are low, it is likely that oil production can be expanded rapidly, if desired, because it takes little effort to extract an additional barrel of oil. In such an atmosphere, it is easy to add jobs, because new technology, such as cars and air conditioners made and transported using such oil, is affordable. Growth in debt makes considerable “sense” as well, because additional debt enables more oil use. It is likely that this debt can be repaid, even with fairly high interest rates, given the favorable jobs situation and growing economy.

With high oil prices, there is a constant uphill battle against high oil prices that rubs off onto other areas of the economy. Businesses tend not to be too much affected, because they can fix their problem with high oil prices by (a) raising the prices of the finished goods they sell (thereby reducing demand for their goods, leading to a cutback in production and thus jobs) or (b) saving on costs by outsourcing production to a lower-cost country (also cutting US jobs), or (c) increased automation (also cutting US jobs).

The ones that tend to be most affected by high oil prices are wage-earners, who find that their chances of obtaining high-paying jobs are lower, and governments, who find it increasingly difficult to collect enough taxes from wage-earners to pay for all of the promised benefits.

2. The higher cost of oil extraction in the future doesn’t necessarily mean that the price consumers can afford to pay will rise.

In peak oil groups, I often hear the statement, “When oil prices rise, . . .” as if rising oil prices are a given. Businesses may be afford to pay more, but individuals and governments are finding themselves in increasingly poor financial condition. Quantitative easing isn’t getting money back to individuals and governments–instead, it is inflating the price of assets–a temporary benefit until asset price bubbles break, as they have in the past, or interest rates rise.

The limit on oil supply is what I would call an affordability limit. Young people who don’t have jobs can’t afford to buy cars. If young people graduate from college with a huge amount of educational loans, they can’t afford to buy houses either. Within the US, Europe, and Japan, we seem to have already hit the affordability limit on the amount of oil we are consuming. Economic growth is low, as oil consumption declines.


Figure 1. Oil consumption based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The risk, as I see it, is that the price consumers can afford to pay will drop below the cost of extraction. It is this drop in oil price that will cause supply to fall. If the drop in price is very great, we could see a very rapid decline in oil production, especially in countries with a high cost of production, such as the US and Canada. Some oil exporters may find themselves in difficulty, because they are no longer able to collect the tax revenue they were depending upon. This could lead to uprisings in the Middle East and possibly lower oil production in affected countries.

I should point out that it is not just the peak oil community that seems to think rising oil prices can continue indefinitely. Economists and those forecasting climate change seem to share this view. If oil and other fossil fuel prices can rise indefinitely, then a very large share of fossil fuels in the ground can be extracted.

3. There is widespread confusion about what M. King Hubbert really said about the shape of the decline curve.

M. King Hubbert is known for showing images of world oil supply which seem to show that oil supply will rise and then fall in a symmetric pattern. In other words, if it took 50 years for oil production to rise from level A to level B, it should also take 50 years from oil production to fall from level B back to level A. This relatively slow downslope gives comfort to many people concerned about peak oil because they believe that the slow downward path in oil production will be helpful in mitigation strategies.

In fact, if we look at Hubbert’s papers, we discover that Hubbert only made his forecast of a symmetric downslope in the context of another energy source fully replacing oil or fossil fuels, even before the start of the decline. For example, looking at his 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, we see nuclear taking over before the fossil fuel decline:


Figure 2. Figure from Hubbert’s 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.

Hubbert’s 1976 paper talks about solar energy being the substitute, instead of nuclear. In Hubbert’s 1962 paper, Energy Resources – A Report to the Committee on Natural Resources, Hubbert writes about the possibility of having so much cheap energy that it would be possible to essentially reverse combustion–combine lots of energy, plus carbon dioxide and water, to produce new types of fuel plus water. If we could do this, we could solve many of the world’s problems–fix our high CO2 levels, produce lots of fuel for our current vehicles, and even desalinate water, without fossil fuels.

Clearly the situation today is very different from what Hubbert was envisioning. Neither nuclear or solar energy is providing a sufficient substitute for our current economy to continue as in the past, without fossil fuels. We have a huge number of cars, tractors and trucks that would need to be converted to another energy source, if we were to move away from oil.

If there is not a perfect substitute for oil or fossil fuels, the situation is vastly different from what Hubbert pictured. If oil supply drops (perhaps in response to a drop in oil prices), the world economy must quickly adjust to a lower energy supply, disrupting systems of every type. The drop-off in oil as well as other fossil fuels is likely to be much faster than the symmetric Hubbert curve would suggest. I wrote about this issue in my post, Will the decline in world oil supply be fast or slow?

4. We do have an estimate of the shape of the downslope when there is not a perfect substitute the resource with limits.

There are many historical examples of societies that found a way to greatly increase food supply (for example, by clearing land for new fields, or by learning to use irrigation). Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedof researched the details underlying eight agrarian societies of this type, documenting their findings in the book Secular Cycles.

These researchers found that at first population was able to increase, because of the greater ability to grow food. Population typically increased for well over 100 years, as population gradually expanded to match the new capacity for growing food.

At some point, the economies analyzed entered a period of stagflation, during which wages of the common worker stagnated, because an early limit had been reached. Population had reached the level the new resources could comfortably support. After that point, growth slowed. New babies were born, but additional area for crops was not being added. Adding more farmers didn’t increase output by very much. Debt also increased during the stagflation period. The chart below is my estimate of the general pattern of population growth found by Turchin and Nefedov, in the years following the addition of the new capability to grow food.


Figure 3. Shape of typical Secular Cycle, based on Secular Cycles by Peter Turkin and Sergey Nefedov. (Figure by Gail Tverberg)

Eventually, a crisis period hit. One major issue was a continuing need to pay for government programs had been added during the growth and stagflation periods. With the stagnating wages of workers, it became increasingly difficult to collect enough taxes to pay for all of these programs. Debt repayment also became a problem. Food prices tended to spike and became quite variable. Governments became increasingly susceptible to collapse, either because of outside forces or internal overthrow. Population was reduced through a combination of factors–more wars and a weakened population becoming more susceptible to epidemics.

It seems to me that our current situation is somewhat analogous to what has occurred in these secular cycles. The world began using fossil fuels in significant quantity about 1800, and reached the stagflation phase in the early 1970s, when US oil production began to decline. We are now encountering the classic symptom of resources not rising as fast as population–namely, wages of the common workers stagnating. Fossil fuel prices tend to spike and be quite variable. Government financial problems we are seeing today sound very similar to what past civilizations experienced, when they hit resource limits.

We don’t know that our current civilization will follow the same shape of downslope as earlier civilizations that hit limits, because our economy is not an agrarian economy. We are now dealing with a globalized civilization that depends on international trade. Jobs are much more specialized than the past. But unless there is a miraculous growth in cheap energy supply that can fix our problems with young workers not finding good-paying jobs, there seems to be a good chance we are headed in the same general direction.

5. High Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI) is a necessary but not sufficient condition for an energy source to be a suitable substitute for oil.

We are dealing with a complicated financial system, but EROI is a one-dimensional measure. It can tell us what won’t work, but it can’t tell us what will work.

Any substitute for oil (for example, a transition to battery-operated cars) needs to be considered in the context of what the total cost will be of a transition to a new system, the timing of these costs, and who will pay these costs. It is important to consider what impact these costs will have on those who already are at greatest risk–namely, individuals who are having difficulty earning adequate wages, and governments that are finding it increasingly difficult to pay benefits that have been promised in the past. If individuals are being asked to pay higher costs, this will reduce discretionary income to be used for other purposes. If a government is already stressed, adding energy related stresses may “push it over the edge,” making it impossible to collect enough taxes for all of the promised programs.

6. It is easy to be influenced by the fact that everyone likes a happy ending.

People coming from a peak oil perspective often accuse the main street media of putting forth a “happily ever after” version of the oil story. But I think there is a temptation of the peak oil community to put together its own “happily ever after” story.

The main street media version says that the economy can continue to grow, and we can continue to drive cars and go to our current jobs, despite a need to change to different kind of fuel supply.

The peak oil version of the story often seems to say, “If we conserve, and learn to be happy with less, there won’t be too much of a problem.” Some seem to suggest that hoarding solar panels for our own use can be helpful. Others seem to believe that society as a whole can be transformed by adding more solar and wind power to our current electrical system.

The difficulty with adding a new energy source in quantity is that we don’t have any such energy source that can truly act as a cheap substitute for oil. If solar PV or wind, or some other new energy source were truly a good substitute for fossil fuels, such a fuel would be exceedingly cheap and could be used with today’s vehicles. Governments could improve their financial condition by taxing this new energy resource heavily. It would be obvious to everyone that by adding much more of this miraculous new fuel, we could add many more good-paying jobs, especially for our young workers.

Unfortunately, I cannot see that we have found a good oil substitute. Instead, quantitative easing is temporarily hiding financial problems of governments and individuals by forcing interest rates to be very low. This makes cars and homes more affordable, and keeps the amount of interest paid by the federal government very low. We know that these artificially low interest rates are temporary, though. Once they “go away,” tax rates will need to rise, and asset prices (stock prices, bond prices, and home prices) will drop. Oil prices may very well decline below the cost of production. We will again be at risk of heading down the “Crisis” slope shown in Figure 3.

The Oil Drum Going to Archive Status – Important Story Still to Be Told

The peak oil community is filled with many dedicated volunteers coming from a variety of backgrounds. I particularly commend The Oil Drum volunteers for sticking with the issue as long as they have. Many of them have discovered at least some of the pitfalls of the traditional “peak oil” story listed above.

I will continue to tell the story of oil limits on my site, Our Finite World. In the near future, I am also giving a number of talks about the issue to actuarial groups. I need to get the story documented in other formats as well–in book form and in the actuarial literature. The fact that The Oil Drum is going to archive status doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real, important story to be told. It isn’t quite the original peak oil story, but it is closely related.

This article was originally posted at Our Finite World.

Energy Products: Return on Investment Is Already Too Low

My major point when I gave my talk at the Fifth Biophysical Economics Conference at the University of Vermont was that our economy’s overall energy return on investment is already too low to maintain the economic system we are accustomed to. That is why the US economy, and the economies of other developed nations, are showing signs of heading toward financial collapse. Both a PDF of my presentation and a podcast of the talk are available on Our Finite World, on a new page called Presentations/Podcasts.

My analysis is with respect to the feasibility of keeping our current economic system operating. It seems to me that the problems we are experiencing today–governments with inadequate funding, low economic growth, a financial system that cannot operate with “normal” interest rates, and stagnant to falling wages–are precisely the kinds of effects we might expect, if energy sources are providing an inadequate energy return for today’s economy.

Commenters frequently remark that such-and-such an energy source has an Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI) ratio of greater than 5:1, so must be a helpful addition to our current energy supply. My finding that the overall energy return is already too low seems to run counter to this belief. In this post, I will try to explain why this difference occurs. Part of the difference is that I am looking at what our current economy requires, not some theoretical low-level economy. Also, I don’t think that it is really feasible to create a new economic system, based on lower EROI resources, because today’s renewables are fossil-fuel based, and initially tend to add to fossil fuel use.

Adequate Return for All Elements Required for Energy Investment

In order to extract oil or create biofuels, or to make any other type of energy investment, at least four distinct elements described in Figure 1: (1) adequate payback on energy invested, (2) sufficient wages for humans, (3) sufficient credit availability and (4) sufficient funds for government services. If any of these is lacking, the whole system has a tendency to seize up.


Figure 1. One sheet from Biophysical Economics Conference Presentation

EROI analyses tend to look primarily at the first item on the list, comparing “energy available to society” as the result of a given process to “energy required for extraction” (all in units of energy). While this comparison can be helpful for some purposes, it seems to me that we should also be looking at whether the dollars collected at the end-product level are sufficient to provide an adequate financial return to meet the financial needs of all four areas simultaneously.

My list of the four distinct elements necessary to enable energy extraction and to keep the economy functioning is really an abbreviated list. Clearly one needs other items, such as profits for businesses. In a sense, the whole world economy is an energy delivery system. This is why it is important to understand what the system needs to function properly.

What Happens as Oil Prices Rise

When oil prices rise, wages for humans seem to fall, or at least stagnate (Figure 2, below). The comparison shown uses US per capita wages, so takes into account changes in the proportion of people with jobs as well as the level of wages.


Figure 2. High oil prices are associated with depressed wages. Oil price through 2011 from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy, updated to 2012 using EIA data and CPI-Urban from BLS. Average wages calculated by dividing Private Industry wages from US BEA Table 2.1 by US population, and bringing to 2012 cost level using CPI-Urban.

In fact, if we analyze Figure 2, we see that virtually all of the rise in US wages came in periods when oil prices were below $30 per barrel, in inflation-adjusted terms. The reason why the drop in wages happens at higher per-barrel levels is related to the drop in corporate profits that can be expected if oil prices rise, and businesses fail to respond. Let me explain this further with Figure 3, below.


Figure 3. Illustration by author of ways oil price rise could squeeze wages. Amounts illustrative, not based on averages.

Figure 3 is a bit complicated. What happens initially when oil prices rise, is illustrated in the black box at the left. What happens is that the business’ profits fall, because oil is used as one of the inputs used in manufacturing and transportation. If the cost of oil rises and the sales price of the product remains unchanged, the company’s profits are likely to fall. Additionally, there may be some reduction in demand for the product, because the discretionary income of consumers is reduced because of rising oil prices. Clearly, the business will want to fix its business model, so that it can again make an adequate profit.

There are three ways that a business can bring its profits back to a satisfactory level, illustrated in the last three columns of Figure 3. They are

  • Automation. Human energy is the most expensive type of energy a business can employ, because wages to paid to humans to do a given process (such as putting a label on a jar) are far higher than the cost of an electricity-based process to perform the same procedure. Thus, if a firm can substitute electrical or oil energy for human energy, its cost of production will be lower, and profits can be improved. Of course, workers will be laid off in the process, reducing total wages paid.
  • Outsourcing to a Country with Lower Costs. If part of the production cost can be moved to a country where wage costs are lower, this will reduce the cost of manufacturing the product, and allow the business to offset (partially or fully) the impact of rising oil prices. Of course, this will again lead to less US employment of workers.
  • Make a Smaller Batch. If neither of the above options work, another possibility is to cut back production across the board. Even if oil prices rise, there are still some consumers who can afford the higher prices. If a business can cut back in the size of its operations (for example, close unprofitable branches or fly fewer airplanes), it can cut back on outgo of many types: rent, energy products used, and wages. With reduced output, the company may be able to make an adequate profit by selling only to those who can afford the higher price.

In all three instances, an attempt to fix corporate profits leads to a squeeze on human wages–the highest cost source of energy services that there is. This seems to be Nature’s attempt way of rebalancing the system, toward lower-cost energy sources.

If we look at the other elements shown in Figure 1, we see that they have been under pressure recently as well. The availability of credit to fund new energy investment is enabled by profits that are sufficiently high that they can withstand interest charges incurred in the payback of debt. Debt use is also enabled by growth, since if profits will be higher in the future, it makes sense to delay funding until the future. In recent years, central governments have seen a need to put interest rates at artificially low levels, in order to encourage borrowing. To me, this is a sign that the credit portion of the system is also under pressure.

Government’s ability to fund its own needs has been under severe stress as well. Part of the problem comes from the inability of workers to pay adequate taxes, because their wages are lower. Part of the problem comes from a need for governments to pay out more in benefits, such as disability income, unemployment, and food stamps. The part that gets most stressed is the debt portion of government funding. This really represents the intersection of two different areas mentioned in Figure 1: (3) Adequacy of credit availability and (4) Funding for government services.

The constellation of energy problems we are now experiencing seems to me to be precisely what might be expected, if energy return is now, on average, already too low.

The Role of Energy Extraction in this Squeeze

When any energy producer decides to produce energy of a given type (say oil or uranium), the energy producer will look for the resource that can be extracted at lowest cost to the producer.


Figure 4. Resource triangle, with dotted line indicating uncertain financial cut-off.

Initially, production starts where costs are most affordable–not much energy is required for extraction; governments involved do not require too high taxes; and the cost of human labor is not too high. The producer may need debt financing, and this must also be available, at an affordable cost.

For example, easy-to-extract oil located in the US that could be extracted very simply in the early days of extraction (say before 1900), was very inexpensive to extract, and would be near the top of the triangle. Tight oil from the Bakken and bitumen from Canada would be examples of higher cost types of oil, located lower in the triangle.

As the least expensive energy is extracted, later producers wishing to extract energy must often settle for higher cost extraction. In some cases, technology advancements can help bring costs back down again. In others, such as recent oil extraction, the higher costs are firmly in place. Higher sales prices available in the market place enable production “lower in the triangle.” The catch is that these higher oil prices lead to stresses in other systems: human employment, government funding, and ability for credit markets to work normally.

What Is Happening on an Overall Basis

Man has used external energy for a very long time, to raise his standard of living. Man started over 1,000,000 years ago with the burning of biomass, to keep himself warm, to cook food, and for use in hunting. Gradually, man added other sources of energy. All of these sources of energy allowed man to accomplish more in a given day. As a result of these greater accomplishments, man’s standard of living rose–he could have clothes, food which had been cooked, sharper tools, and heat when it was cold.

Over time, man added additional sources of energy, eventually including coal and oil. These additional sources of energy allowed man to leverage his own limited ability to do work, using his own energy. Goods created using external energy tended to be less expensive than those made with only human energy, allowing prices to drop, and wages to go farther. Food became more available and cheaper, allowing population to rise. Money was also available for public health, allowing more babies to live to maturity.

What happened in the early 2000s was a sharp “bend” in the system. Instead of goods becoming increasingly inexpensive, they started becoming relatively more expensive relative to the earnings of the common man. For example, the price of metals, used in many kinds of goods started becoming more expensive.


Figure 5. Commodity Metals Price Index from the International Monetary Fund, adjusted by the US CPI-Urban to 2012 price levels. Commodity Metals include Copper, Aluminum, Iron Ore, Tin, Nickel, Zinc, Lead, and Uranium.

There seem to be two reasons for this: (1) In the early 2000s, oil prices started rising (Figure 2, above), and these higher prices started exerting an upward force on the price of goods. At the same time, (2) globalization took off, providing downward pressure on wages. The result was that suddenly, workers found it harder to keep a job, and even when they were working, wages were stagnant.

It seems to me that prior to the early 2000s, part of what buoyed up the system was the large difference between:

A. The cost of extracting a barrel of oil

B. The value of that barrel of oil to society as a whole, in terms of additional human productivity, and hence additional goods and services that barrel of oil could provide.

As oil prices rose, this difference started disappearing, and its benefit to the world economy started going away. The government became increasingly stressed, trying to provide for the many people without jobs while tax revenue lagged. Slower economic growth made the debt system increasingly fragile. The economy was gradually transformed from one which provided perpetual growth, to one where citizens were becoming poorer and poorer. This pushed the economy in the direction of collapse. Research documented in the book Secular Cycles by Turchin and Nefedov shows that in past collapses, the inability of governments to collect sufficient taxes from populations that were becoming increasingly poor (due to more population relative to resources) was a primary contributing factor in these collapses. The problems that the US and other developed countries are having in collecting enough taxes to balance their budgets, without continuing to add debt, are documentation that this issue is again a problem today. Greece and Spain are having particular problems in this regard.

A More Complete List of Inputs that Need Adequate Returns

My original list was

  1. Energy counted in EROI calculation–mostly fossil fuels, sometimes biomass used as a fuel
  2. Human labor
  3. Credit system
  4. Cost of government

To this we probably need to add:

  1. Profits for corporations involved in these processes
  2. Rent for land used in the process – this cost would be highest in biofuel operations.
  3. Costs to prevent pollution, and mitigate its effects – not charged currently, except as mandated by law
  4. Compensation for mineral depletion and degradation of soil. Degradation of soil would likely be an issue for biofuels.
  5. Energy not counted in EROI calculations. This is mostly “free energy” such as solar, wind, and wave energy, but can include energy which is of limited quantity, such as biomass energy.

Given the diversity of items in this list, it is not clear that simply keeping EROI above some specified target such as 5:1 is likely to provide enough “margin” to cover the financial return needed to properly fund all of these elements. Also, because the need for government services tends to increase over time as the system gets more stressed, if there is an EROI threshold, it needs to increase over time.

It might also be noted that the amounts paid for government services are surprisingly high for fossil fuels. Barry Rodgers gave some figures regarding “government take” (including lease fees as well as other taxes and fees) in the May 2013 Oil and Gas Journal. According to his figures, the average government take associated with an $80 barrel of US tight oil is $33.29 per barrel. This compares to capital expenditures of $22.60 a barrel, and operating expenditures of $7.50 a barrel. If we are to leave fossil fuels, we would need to get along without the government services funded by these fees, or we would need to find a different source of government funding.

Source of the EROI 5:1 Threshold

To my knowledge, no one has directly proven that a 5:1 threshold is sufficient for an energy source to be helpful to an economy. The study that is often referred to is the 2009 paper, What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have? (Free for download), by Charles A. S. Hall, Steven Balogh, and David Murphy. This paper analyzes how much energy needs to provided by oil and coal, if the energy provided by those fuels is to be sufficient to pay not just for the energy used in its own extraction, but also for the energy required for pipeline and truck or train transportation to its destination of use. The conclusion of that paper was that in order to include these energy transportation costs for oil or coal, an EROI of at least 3:1 was needed.

Clearly this figure is not high enough to cover all costs of using the fuels, including the energy costs to build devices that actually use the fuels, such as private passenger cars, electrical power plants and transmission lines, and devices to use electricity, such as refrigerators. The ratio required would probably need to be higher for harder-to-transport fuels, such as natural gas and ethanol. The ratio would also need to include the energy cost of schools, if there are to be engineers to design all of these devices, and factory workers who can read basic instructions. If the cost of government in general were added, the cost would be higher yet. One could theoretically add other systems as well, such as the cost of maintaining the financial system.

The way I understood the 5:1 ratio was that it was more or less a lower bound, below which even looking at an energy product did not make sense. Given the diversity of what is needed to support the current economy, the small increment between 3 and 5 is probably not enough–the minimum ratio probably needs to be much higher. The ratio also seems to need to change for different fuels, with many quite a bit higher.

The Add-On Problem for Fossil Fuel Based Renewables

With renewables made using fossil fuels, such as hydroelectric, wind turbines, solar PV, and ethanol, the only way anyone can calculate EROI factors is as add-ons to our current fossil fuel system. These renewables depend on the fossil fuel system for their initial manufacture, for their maintenance, and for the upkeep of all the systems that allow the economy to function. There is no way that these fuels can power the whole system, based on what we know today, within the next hundred years. Thus, any EROI factor is misleading if viewed as the possibility what might happen if these fuels were to attempt to operate on a stand-alone basis. The system simply wouldn’t work–it would collapse.

A related issue is the front-ended nature of the fossil fuels used in creating most of today’s renewables. People today think of “financing” any new investment, with easy payments over a period of years. The catch (as Tom Murphy pointed out in his BPE talk) is that Nature Doesn’t Do Financing. Nature demands up-front payment in terms of any fossil fuels used. Thus, if we build a huge new hydroelectric dam, such as the Three Gorges Dam in China, the fossil fuels required to make the concrete and to move huge amounts of soil come at the beginning of the project. This is also true if we make a huge number of solar panels. The saving we get are all only theoretical, and will take place only if we are actually able reduce the use of other fossil fuel energy sources in the future, because of the energy from the PV panels or other new renewable.

In nearly all cases, adding renewables requires increasing fossil fuel use for this reason. We could, in theory, reduce fossil fuel use elsewhere, to try to cover the greater fossil fuel use to add renewables, but this would mean cutting industries and jobs currently using the fuel, something that many find objectionable. Several readers have suggested that we could greatly ramp-up solar PV. Yes, we could, but we would have to greatly ramp up fossil fuel usage (mostly coal in China, if current manufacturing approaches are used) to create these panels. Any future savings would be theoretical, depending on how long we keep the new system operating, and how much fossil fuel energy consumption is actually reduced as a result of the new panels.

Conclusions

At this point, the foregoing analysis suggests that products created using today’s oil and other energy products are not producing an adequate financial return to cover wages, interest expense, and necessary taxes. If EROI plays a major role in determining financial returns, EROI on average is already too low for many developed economies.

It is convenient to think that an economy can keep adding lower and lower EROI resources, but at some point, a “stop” signal starts appearing. I would argue that the issues we are seeing in many sectors of the economy are clear indicators that such a threshold is already being reached. An economy in which the wages of the common worker are buying less and less is an economy in trouble. I talk in another post (Energy and the Economy–Basic Principles and Feedback Loops) about the fact that economic growth seems to be the result of one set of feedbacks. As the price of oil rises and related changes take place, these feedbacks change from economic growth to economic contraction. It is these feedbacks that we are already having problems with.

One can argue that EROI has nothing to do with these issues. But if this is the case, what is the point it analyzing it in the first place? We clearly need to understand when an economy is giving us “stop” signals with respect to increasingly low quality energy inputs. If EROI is not helpful in this regard, perhaps we need to be looking at other indicators.

Originally posted at OurFiniteWorld.com.

Additional Iranian Oil Sanctions May Be Counterproductive

A June 6, 2013, article from Reuters is titled, “Lawmakers in new drive to slash Iran’s oil sales to a trickle.” According to it,

U.S. lawmakers are embarking this summer on a campaign to deal a deeper blow to Iran’s diminishing oil exports, and while they are still working out the details, analysts say the ultimate goal could be a near total cut-off.

My concern is that the new sanctions, if they work, will put the United States and Europe in a worse financial position than they were before the sanctions, mostly because of a spike in oil prices.

How much reduction in oil exports are we talking about? According to both the EIA and BP, Iranian oil exports were in the 2.5 million barrels a day range, for most years in the 1992 to 2011 period. In 2012, Iran’s oil exports dropped to 1.7 or 1.8 million barrels a day. Recent data from OPEC suggests Iranian oil exports (crude + products) have recently dropped to about 1.5 million barrels a day in May 2013.


Figure 1. Iranian oil exports, based on BP and on EIA data.

If the ultimate goal is “close to total cut-off,” an obvious question we should be asking ourselves is whether it makes sense to handicap world oil production by close to 2.5 million barrels relative to 2011, or close to 1.5 million barrels relative to May 2013. Oil prices have spiked in the past when there has been an interruption in world oil supply. Why wouldn’t they this time? Furthermore, who are really handicapping: Ourselves or Iran?

Possible Alternative Sources of Oil Supply

I would argue that we do not have adequate sources of backup oil supply. We are operating too “close to the edge” when it comes to world oil capacity.

Saudi Arabia likely has some spare capacity. If we go by how much Saudi Arabia in the recent past has been able to increase its production, its short-term spare capacity would appear to be about 600,000 barrels a day–not nearly enough to offset the decline in Iran’s oil exports. The 600,000 barrels a day is calculated by comparing Saudi Arabia’s highest production for individual months of 2012 of 10.0 million barrels of oil a day with its actual production in May 2013 of 9.4 million barrels a day, according to the OPEC’s Monthly Oil Market Report (MOMR). Saudi Arabia claims to have capacity of 12.5 million barrels a day, but its production in recent years has never been anywhere near its claimed capacity, raising questions about the truthfulness of the claim.

How about exports from Iraq? This is a graph of oil exports from Iraq, based on EIA data.


Figure 2. Iraq oil exports, based on EIA production and consumption data.

Iraq is indeed adding a little bit to world oil exports–about 326,000 barrels a day in oil exports were added in 2012. But the wild fluctuations don’t provide confidence the trend will continue. It is possible to get a rough idea of what future increases in oil exports might amount to. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is targeting 6 million barrels a day of oil extraction for Iraq by 2020. (Dave Summers–also known as Heading Out–isn’t confident even this can be achieved.) Extraction at this level would mean oil exports of about 4.5 million barrels a day in 2020. The expected annual growth in exports from today’s 2.2 million barrels a day of oil exports would be about 283,000 barrels a year, between now and 2020. Even if this rate of increase in oil exports is achieved, it won’t handle the immediate need for close to 1.5 million barrels a day of oil exports if Iranian exports are taken out of the world supply.

How about the supposedly miraculous growth in US oil supplies? If we look at the actual data, we see that the United States is still a major oil importer, even when such sources as “biofuels” are included in the total. (Imports are the gap between the ”consumption” and “production” lines.)


Figure 3: US Liquids (oil including natural gas liquids, “refinery expansion” and biofuels) production and consumption, based on data of the EIA.

At the same time, Europe keeps falling behind farther, so it needs increasing amounts of imports.


Figure 4: European Liquids (oil including natural gas liquids, “refinery expansion” and biofuels) production and consumption, based on data of the EIA.

Thus, even if the US’ need for imports is declining, Europe’s need for imports is increasing, as is the need for imports to Asia, including China and India. Losing part of the world’s oil supply makes it harder to get enough imports, without oil prices spiking again.

If Oil Supply Cushion is Less

Suppose that we somehow, miraculously, take Iranian oil exports off-line and find enough substitute supply without oil prices spiking too badly. We know too well from experience that there is the distinct possibility that part of current oil supply will later be taken off-line, for some unplanned reason. This might be another Arab Spring revolution, or perhaps fighting may break out between two oil producers. Or the United States may have a bad hurricane season. So even if oil prices don’t spike immediately, removing what little spare capacity there is, increases the likelihood that oil prices will spike in the future, from some unrelated cause.

Who gets hurt with an oil price spike?

The countries that are most hurt by high oil prices are the big oil importers–the United States, the European Union, and Japan. We can see this with recent experience, shown in Figure 6 below. Oil prices have been high since 2005. These high oil prices have led to a cutback in consumption by oil importers, even as other countries more-or-less sailed along. The countries with lower oil consumption since 2005 are precisely the ones that have had problem with recession. See my post, Peak Oil Demand is Already a Huge Problem.


Figure 5. Oil consumption based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

If oil prices rise, more money will be transferred from oil importers to oil exporters. Oil exporters, such as the members of OPEC, will benefit. Of course, Iran itself will not benefit. Oil importing countries that have been having trouble with their debt loads are likely to have even more difficulty, because their citizens are made poorer by high oil prices.

How Badly Do Sanctions Really Hurt Iran?

The sanctions cause Iran to leave its oil in the ground until later. While this hurts the Iranian economy now, the oil will still be there for extraction later. With the fields “rested,” Iran may even be able to increase the amount that can be extracted later. If oil prices are higher later, Iran will get the benefit of the higher prices. The oil supplies of other countries will also be more depleted then, so it will have more of an advantage than it does now.

With all of the sanctions against Iran, the country has been encouraged to ramp up its natural gas production. It has also increased its fleet of natural gas-powered cars, so that it has more such cars than any other country in the world. Iran is also refining more of its oil, making itself less dependent on gasoline imports. Making these changes now makes Iran more self-reliant in the long-run.

A person might think that all of the sanctions to date have significantly reduced the standard of living of a typical Iranian. If this is true, it is not showing up much in the data. Prior to 2012, the economy had grown consistently for two decades. The sanctions led to an estimated decline in real GDP of -1.9% in 2012, according to the CIA World Fact Book. Iran’s per capita use of energy has been rising, and continues to do so, even in 2012. Its per capita energy use is now higher than Italy’s.


Figure 6. Per capita energy consumption for Italy and Iran, based on BP total primary energy consumption from 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy, and EIA population data.

There are obviously any number of other countries that Iran’s energy consumption could be compared to. If we compare Iran’s energy consumption to Israel, Iran’s per capita energy consumption is a little lower.


Figure 7. Per capita energy consumption for Israel and Iran, based on BP total primary energy consumption from 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy, and EIA population data.

Messing with Iran’s Currency

According to Bloomberg News, Useless Rial Is U.S. Goal in New Iran Sanctions, Treasury Says. According to the article:

“The idea is to cause depreciation of the rial and make it unusable in international commerce,” he said. “On July 1 we will have the ability to impose sanctions on any foreign bank that exchanges rial to any other currency or that holds rial-denominated accounts.”

The move is intended to toughen sanctions that so far failed to press the Islamic republic to halt its nuclear program. According to the Treasury, the rial has lost more than two-thirds of its value in the past two years, trading at 36,000 per U.S. dollar as of April 30, compared with 16,000 at the start of 2012.

Interesting! Isn’t devaluing the currency exactly what Japan and all of the countries doing Quantitative Easing have been trying to do, perhaps to a lesser degree? As a result, Iran’s stock market has been soaring. Iran is a country that has two export products that other countries want to buy: oil and natural gas. It has little debt, and in the past has been running a budget surplus. Making more rial to the dollar makes imports to Iran more expensive, but exports more competitive in the world marketplace. This is precisely what other countries have been trying to accomplish.

I am skeptical this rial marginalization will work. Will these changes make any difference, in terms of trade with China and Russia? For that matter, will countries that want to buy natural gas from Iran stop trading with Iran? There are ways around any barriers we put up. The US dollar is the world’s reserve currency, but it is already under pressure in that role. Doesn’t all of this messing with the rial lead to more pressure to move away from the US dollar in its role as a reserve currency? Countries that have products to sell that are in short supply globally can usually find a way to sell them. The countries that seem to have much worse problems are those with nothing that the rest of the world wants to buy–Greece, Spain, etc.

Conclusion

All of this posturing looks like a power struggle between the East and the West. The techniques the West has been using so far haven’t been working all that well. The plan is to step up the same techniques, in the hope they will work better. It is not all that clear that they will–if they work, they may quite possibly backfire, because we are working with world oil supply, in a world where oil supply is still constrained. Reducing world oil supply by the amount of Iran’s oil exports doesn’t help the West at all.

There have been a lot of exaggerated reports, seeming to suggest all is right now with world oil supply. The danger is that US leaders are now starting to believe what they read. Supply is now available, because of high price. Price is high because of the problem of diminishing returns leading to ever higher prices required to make oil extraction profitable for exporters. Demand is now down in the West, because high prices are leading to job loss and recessionary forces there. Pushing the world further in this direction is hardly helpful.

If we are very lucky, the United States’ stepped up sanctions could get Iran to back down on its nuclear weapons program (assuming it has one). But if we are less lucky, we may find ourselves with spiking oil prices. To make things worse, we may see the role of the United States dollar as the world’s reserve currency destabilized. It seems to me that we are playing with fire.

This post originally appeared on Our Finite World.

How Oil Exporters Reach Financial Collapse

Recently, I explained how high oil prices can bring on financial collapse for oil importers. In this post, I’ll discuss the flip side of the situation: how oil exporters reach financial collapse.

Unfortunately, we have many examples of countries that were oil exporters, but are dealing with collapse situations. Egypt, Syria, and Yemen all have had political disruptions since 2011. These may not be called financial collapse, but they all took place as the country’s oil exports decreased and as the price of imported food rose. Another example is the Former Soviet Union (FSU). It collapsed in 1991, after a period of low oil prices, in what looks very much like a financial collapse.

There are several dynamics at work in the financial collapse of oil exporters:

  1. Oil exporters are often dependent on oil export revenue to fund government programs.
  2. The need for government programs grows as population grows and as the price of food rises.
  3. The amount of oil that can be extracted in a given year often declines over time, as initial stores are depleted.
  4. Exports often decline even more rapidly than oil supply, because of rising oil consumption as population grows.

In general, high oil prices are good for oil exporters (except the effect on food prices). At the same time, oil importers strongly prefer low oil prices. As a result, we end up with a price tug of war between oil importers and oil exporters.

One additional issue is declining Energy Return on Energy Invested. Countries often have the option of reducing their rate of decline by adding production in areas which are more expensive to drill (say deeper, smaller locations offshore Norway) or by using enhanced oil recovery methods. Such approaches add costs (and energy use), and further add to the price that oil exporters need for their product.

Egypt, Syria, and Yemen

Egypt, Syria, and Yemen are three countries that the press would say are suffering from the continuing impact of the Arab Spring revolutions, which began in 2011, or of civil war. The similarity of the oil production and consumption charts for the three countries (shown below) suggests that declining oil exports likely played a major role as well.

In all three countries, oil production rose and then began to fall (Figures 1, 2, and 3). At the same time, oil consumption rose. The two lines–production and consumption–come very close to meeting in 2011, indicating that oil exports are at that point dropping to 0.


Figure 1. Oil production and consumption for Syria, based on EIA data. (Both are on an “all liquids” basis.)


Figure 2. Oil production and consumption for Egypt, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.


Figure 3. Oil production and consumption for Yemen, based on EIA data. (Both are on an “all liquids” basis.)

To make matters worse, the three countries are in an arid part of the world, where a large share of food must be imported. Oil prices and food prices tend to rise at the same time (Figure 4, below). By 2011, both food and oil prices were high. In fact, both prices have tended to stay high. Now, these countries find themselves with the unpleasant problem of paying for the higher cost of imported food (grown and transported with oil), so indirectly they are becoming an oil importer instead of an oil exporter.


Figure 4. Food and oil prices tend to rise at the same time. Based on data of the FAO and the EIA.

Faced with less revenue from oil exports, and higher prices of food imports, these countries find themselves with a permanent mismatch between revenue and expenses. Part of the revenue mismatch relates to subsidies offered to poor residents. With higher food and oil prices, the funding needed for subsidies rises rapidly, even as oil exports drop to close to zero.

One issue that makes the situation worse is the huge rise in population that came with increased prosperity. Population has nearly doubled since 1980 in Egypt, and has more than doubled in both Syria and Yemen (Figure 5, below).


Figure 5. Ratio of population in later years to population in 1980, based on EIA data.

All in all, the situation is very bad. These countries admittedly do have other resources, such as grazing land for animals, food crop production, and in some cases natural gas exports, but the loss of oil exports puts a hole in their budgets. If oil production continues to drop in the future, both jobs and local oil consumption are likely to be affected as well. (This is a link to a post I wrote about the Egyptian situation two years ago.)

I tried to put together an index of the relative dependence of various countries on oil exports, by comparing the value of oil exports to Gross National Income. Based on exports before the recent drop-off, Yemen’s index is around 30%; Syria and Egypt are a little under 10%. The index no doubt understates the role of oil, because it does not include the oil the country uses itself, or the impact of any natural gas industry. It also excludes indirect jobs, like that of grocery store owner or taxi driver.

If Egypt and Syria are indeed collapsing with what seems like low dependence on oil exports, it makes one wonder about the impact if Saudi Arabia’s (index over 70%) or Libya’s (index about 60%) oil extraction would drop.

The Collapse of the Former Soviet Union

The Soviet Union was an oil exporter and a major world power, prior to its collapse in 1991. While there are many views as to what led to this collapse, one issue seems to be a drop in oil price in the early 1980s.


Figure 6. Former Soviet Union oil production and price in 2011$, based on data from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The drop in oil prices did not lead to an immediate decline in oil production (Figure 6), most likely because the cost of maintaining production on a field that has recently developed, is low for a few years. What is expensive is the up-front cost of bringing new fields on line. These were not added, causing a decline in production, after a few years.

Russia’s energy data shows the marks of the financial collapse building, prior to 1991. Revenue from oil exports dropped in the mid 1980s, because of the lower oil price. Oil production started declining in 1987, four years before the collapse. Other types of energy production started declining as well, as if a recession were underway, pulling the economy down in all areas.


Figure 7. Former Soviet Union Energy production by type (hydroelectric omitted), based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Every type of energy production (except hydropower, not shown) dropped back during this period, even coal and nuclear, with decreases beginning prior to 1991. Population growth started slowing prior to 1991 as well. Eventually, the government collapsed, after continuing recession.


Figure 8. Former Soviet Union energy production and consumption, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The FSU never regained its former stature as a manufacturing country, even when oil production rose, after oil prices rebounded. With little manufacturing, energy consumption has remained far below its pre-1991 levels (Figure 8).

I visited Russia in 2012, and saw for myself a little of the current situation. One problem is that its cost structure (based primarily on oil and gas which is now high-priced, and workers who need wages to pay for these fuels) is not competitive with the low-cost structure of the Chinese and Indians. Another issue is the poor condition of Russia’s infrastructure (roads, bridges, water pipelines, etc.) due to neglect during the time of its collapse. With the high cost of oil, it is expensive to make repairs and add new infrastructure.

In terms of my index, Russia’s oil exports now amount to a little less than 20% of Gross National Income.

Collapse in Countries with Declining Exports

Egypt, Syria, and Yemen are examples of countries whose exports have pretty much disappeared, causing great crisis. But how about countries with earlier declines in production? To some extent, there were not many problems in the 2003 to 2008 period, because declines in oil exports could often be offset by increases in oil prices.

One country that stands out, though, is Argentina, with problems both before and after the 2003-2008 period.


Figure 9. Oil and Gas Production of Argentina, based on EIA data (total liquids).

Argentina’s oil production hit a peak in 1998, and began dropping in 1999. Oil prices were at an unusually low level in the 1998 to 2002 period. This timing coincided precisely with it first economic crisis, which came in 1999 to 2002. Oil prices rose in the 2003 to 2008 period, and Argentina’s problems seemed to disappear.

Now Argentina’s oil exports are very low, and in 2012 and 2013, the country is again having financial problems. Argentina’s economy is well diversified, so a person wouldn’t think that oil would play a big role. (My index of the role of oil exports was only about 2%, as of 2008.) But oil problems overlay any other problems a country may have. If a country has a tendency to overspend its income, or over-promise subsidies, any reduction in oil income will tend to magnify this effect. When making plans, it is easy to overlook the fact that the benefit from oil income is temporary.

Target Break-Even Brent Oil Prices

Many large oil exporters include revenue from oil exports in a country’s annual budget. This is quite different from the cost of pulling the oil out of the ground. It is the money governments collect, as taxes or revenue sharing agreements or leases, to support their programs. With rising population, and often with declining exports, oil exporters find that they need higher prices each year, just to make their budgets balance.

Figure 10 provides some Deutche Bank estimates of budget break-even oil prices.


Figure 10. Budget breakeven oil prices, based on a Deutche Bank analysis provided in a presentation by Mark Lewis.

Note that the indicated break-even prices for Nigeria and Russia are above current Brent price levels. (The current Brent Crude oil price is $106.) An estimate from Energy Policy Information Center (EPIC) shows Venezuela’s break-even price to be a little higher than Russia’s, and Iran’s between that of Nigeria and Russia. According to EPIC, Iraq’s break-even is in the $80 to $100 barrel range. The Saudi Arabian oil minister was quoted on January 16, 2013 as saying that the country needs oil prices averaging $100 barrel.

One concern is that these break-even prices will keep rising. Another concern is that countries “at the margin” will find it difficult to reach their price targets.

One country of concern is Venezuela. It has a very high break-even price, and recently underwent a leadership change. It also has a tendency to spend oil revenue, even before the oil is pulled from the ground, through loan programs from the Chinese.


Figure 11. Oil production and consumption of Venezuela, based on data of the EIA.

Venezuela’s exports are lower than in some previous years (Figure 11, above), but with the rise in the price per barrel, the dollar value has perhaps risen–this really depends on the price negotiated by China. With funds spent before the oil is produced, Venezuela can easily get itself into a trap, if “regular” oil production drops, or if it is difficult to ramp up new planned production.

Venezuela’s oil export index is about 20%, which is similar to Russia’s and Norway’s.

In general, oil exporters with declining oil production face worrisome situations. Reduced oil exports present a drag on the economy unless oil prices are rising rapidly. If oil prices do not keep rising rapidly, oil exporters will need to cut back on social programs–something that will not be well-accepted by citizens. Furthermore, adding new industries to take the place of missing oil supply may be difficult. There may even be a reduction in oil supply available to world market, if civil disorder causes a loss of production which would otherwise reach the export market.

This post originally appeared on Our Finite World.

Our Energy Predicament in Charts

A friend asked me to put together a presentation on our energy predicament. I am not certain all of the charts in this post will go into it, but I thought others might be interested in a not-so-difficult version of the story of the energy predicament we are reaching.

My friend also asked what characteristics a new fuel would need to have to solve our energy predicament. Because of this, I have included a section at the end on this subject, rather than the traditional, “How do we respond?” section. Given the timing involved, and the combination of limits we are reaching, it is not clear that a fuel suitable for mitigation is really feasible, however.

ENERGY BASICS

Energy makes the world go around


Figure 1. Source: Jewish World Review

Energy literally makes the world turn on its axis and rotate around the sun.

Energy is what allows us to transform a set of raw materials into a finished product.


Figure 2. Energy is what allows us to transform raw materials into finished products. (Figure by author.)

Energy is also what allows an us to transport goods (or ourselves) from one location to another. Services of any type require energy–for example, energy to light an office building, energy to create a computer, and human energy to make the computer operate. Without energy of many types, we wouldn’t have an economy.

Increased energy use is associated with increasing prosperity.


Figure 3. World growth in energy use, oil use, and GDP (three-year averages). Oil and energy use based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. GDP growth based on USDA Economic Research data.

Energy use and oil use have risen more or less in tandem with GDP increases. Oil is expensive and in short supply, so its increases have tended to be somewhat smaller than total energy increases. This happens because businesses are constantly seeking ways to substitute away from oil use.


Figure 4. China’s energy consumption by source, based on BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy data.

China is an example of a country with very high growth in energy use. China’s energy use started growing rapidly immediately after it joined the World Trade Organization in December 2001. China’s energy use is mostly coal.


Figure 5. Per capita oil consumption in countries with recent bank bailouts, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

European countries with bank bailouts show declining oil consumption.

Increased fuel use is also associated with rising population growth.


Figure 6. World population from US Census Bureau, overlaid with fossil fuel use (red) by Vaclav Smil from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects.

On Figure 6 above, the fuel use and population growth rise very rapidly, after fossil fuels were added about 1800. In fact, the lines overlay each other, so it is not possible to see both. Adding fossil fuels allowed much better food supply, sanitation, and medical care, all leading to huge population growth.


Figure 7. World Population 1980 to 2011, based on EIA data.

World population is still growing rapidly, especially outside of the developed countries. The countries with the most population growth (blue) are only now beginning to obtain goods and services that the developed world takes for granted, like better medical services, cars, and electricity for every home. Their fuel use is growing rapidly.

There are many sources of usable energy.


Figure 8. Examples of usable energy sources. Images from Wikipedia and Power Point clip art.

Figure 8 illustrates a few sources of usable energy. Clearly, there are great differences among them, both in terms of how the energy they provide is created, and in terms of the types of energy services they can most easily provide. Businesses will substitute a cheaper source of energy whenever they can. Businesses especially seek ways to substitute away from human energy, since it is the most expensive type. One approach is automation. This substitutes machines (running on electricity or oil) for human labor. Another approach is outsourcing the manufacturing of goods to countries that have lower-cost labor.

One factor that limits fuel switching from oil to electricity is the amount of machinery currently using oil. Robert Hirsch says

Worldwide machinery operating on oil is valued at $50 to $100 trillion (Automobiles, airplanes, tractors, trucks, ships, buses, etc.)

There is also a huge investment in roads, bridges, refineries, and pipelines. Past transitions have taken more than 30 years, because it usually makes economic sense to wait for current machinery to reach the end of its economic life before replacing it.

LIMITS WE ARE REACHING

Unfortunately, we live in a finite world. At some point we start reaching limits.


Figure 9. Humans at this point are winning the competition with other species for resources.

One limit we are reaching is how many people the world will support, without unduly affecting other species. There are now over 7 billion humans on earth, compared to fewer than 200,000 gorillas and chimpanzees, which are also primates.

The natural order is set up so that each species–including humans–reproduces in far greater numbers than is needed to replace itself. Natural selection chooses which of the many organisms will survive. With the benefit of fossil fuel energy, humans (as well as their cows, pigs, goats, chickens, dogs and cats) have been able to survive in far greater numbers than other species. In fact, paleobiologists tell us that the Sixth Mass Extinction has begun, thanks to humans. At some point, interdependencies are disturbed, and we can expect more population collapses.


Figure 10. Air pollution in Taiwan, from Wikipedia.

Another limit is pollution of many types. This image is of air pollution, but there is also water pollution and CO2 pollution. Even what we think of as renewable energy often poses pollution challenges. For example, battery recycling/disposal can pose pollution challenges. Mining of rare earth minerals, used in electric cars, wind turbines, and many high tech devices is often cited as being very polluting in China.

Another limit is declining soil quality. In the natural order, soil is not disturbed by plowing, and the nutrients animals use are recycled back into the soil, after they use them.

As we disturb this natural order, we find erosion reduces top-soil depth. The amount of organic matter in the soil is reduced, making crops less drought-resistant. Nutrients such as phosphorous and potassium are often depleted, and need to be added as soil amendments, requiring fossil fuel transport. Soils often suffer from salinity related to irrigation. Nitrogen levels also become depleted.

It is possible to mitigate these problems using fossil fuels. However, we discover that our ability to feed 7 billion people becomes increasingly dependent on continued fossil fuel use. If we increase biofuel production, this tends to make the situation worse. Techniques such as regrading of hills to improve rainwater absorption can help the situation, but this too requires energy.

Another limit is imposed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy happens. Things fall apart. All of the “stuff” humans have produced (including roads, bridges, pipelines, electricity transmission equipment, cars, and computers) keeps degrading, and eventually needs to be replaced. If we intend to continue to have roads, we need to keep repairing them and building new ones. Using current technology, this requires an increasing amount of fossil fuel energy.


Figure 11. Declining resource quality image by author.

Another limit arises because we extract the cheapest, easiest to extract resources first. (Figure 11) As a result, at some point, the cost of extraction rises, because the cheap resources have already been depleted. Outside observers don’t necessarily notice a difference as the quality of resources drops over time; it always looks as if there is an increasing quantity of reserves available as we move down the resource triangle.

Unfortunately, the apparently increased resources are not really comparable to what was already extracted. The resources lower down in the resource triangle, such as oil and gas that requires “fracking” to extract, require the use of increased energy resources. The speed of extraction is often remarkably slower–light oil flows like milk, while heavy oil can be the consistency of peanut butter. Extracting oil using fracking has been compared to getting oil from the pores of a concrete driveway.

Another example is fresh water. Initially we take it from a local stream, or from a shallow well, where little energy (and cost) is required to obtain it. As this resource depletes, we seek other sources–deeper wells, or water piped from afar, or desalination. All of these approaches use much more energy. If the world’s total energy supply is not growing rapidly, using more energy for water supply is likely to mean less energy is available for other uses. I discuss this issue in Our Investment Sinkhole Problem.

OIL LIMITS


Figure 12. US crude oil production, based on EIA data. 2012 data estimated based on partial year data. Tight oil split is author’s estimate based on state distribution of oil supply increases.

An example of how resource depletion can work is illustrated with US oil supply. US oil production (blue) suddenly began to decline in 1970, despite the oil industry’s best efforts to extract more. By scrambling around quickly, it was possible to add more oil production from Alaska (red), but this soon declined as well.

It wasn’t until oil prices rose in the late 2000s that it made economic sense to use technology which had been developed much earlier to extract tight oil. Tight oil is expensive oil to extract. How much production will rise from current levels depends to a significant extent on how much oil prices are able to increase in the future. The higher that oil prices rise, the greater the recessionary impact that can be expected, but the more oil that can be produced.


Figure 13. World crude oil production based on EIA data. *2012 estimated based on data through October.

World oil supply is now about level, except for the small increase added by US and Canadian oil supply. (Figure 13) One concern with world oil supply as flat as it is, is that at some point, world oil supply will suddenly take a nosedive, just as US oil production did.


Figure 14. Oil consumption by area, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Report. FSU is Former Soviet Union.

Another concern is that the developing world will get the majority of the world oil supply, leaving little for historically large users (Figure 14). US, Europe, and Japan experienced severe recession in the 2007-2009 period, and still are seeing economic headwinds, at the same time that countries that were able to obtain the oil continued to experience economic growth.

I think of our current situation as being like that of a host who gives a party for 10 people. There is enough food to go around, but just barely. The host decides to invite another 50 people to the party. Surprise! Suddenly there is a shortfall. Globalization has its downside!


Figure 15. World oil supply and price, both based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data. Updates to 2012$ added based on EIA price and supply data and BLS CPI urban.

A third concern is that oil prices will disrupt economies of oil importing nations. Oil prices rose sharply after US oil production dropped in the 1970s. They began rising rapidly again about 2003, as the world became more globalized. In addition, oil resources became increasingly expensive to extract. There is little possibility now that oil prices can decline for long without a drop in oil production.

Oil price spikes lead to recession. Economist James Hamilton has shown that ten out of the most recent 11 US recession were associated with oil price spikes. When oil prices rise, food prices tend to rise at the same time. Consumers cut back on discretionary spending, because fuel for commuting and the price of food are necessities. This cutback in spending leads to layoffs in the discretionary sector and recession.


Figure 16. High oil prices are associated with depressed wages. Oil price through 2011 from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy, updated to 2012 using EIA data and CPI-Urban from BLS. Average wages calculated by dividing Private Industry wages from US BEA Table 2.1 by US population, and bringing to 2012 cost level using CPI-Urban.

High oil prices also seem to lead to depressed wages. (Figure 16. Here, I am dividing total wages for all non-government employees or by the total US population, and then taking this average wage, and adjusting if for inflation.) This is the effect we would expect, if the major substitution caused by high oil prices is a loss of human employment. This shift tends to occur because human energy is very expensive, and because wages tend to be a big share of a company’s costs.


Figure 17. Illustration by author of ways oil price rise could squeeze wages. Amounts illustrative, not based on averages.

Figure 17 shows an illustration of the effect that happens. If oil prices rise, the cost of making goods and transporting them to their destination rises. If the sales prices of goods doesn’t rise, a business’ profits will shrink. (Before and after the oil price rise shown in black box). The company will consider low profits unacceptable.

The company has several ways of fixing its lower profit. Wages tend to be one of the company’s largest costs, so these are a likely target. One approach is automation. This may slightly raise electricity costs, but it will lower wage costs, and raise profits. Another approach is outsourcing production to a low-cost country like China. This will lower wage costs and probably other costs, leading to higher profit for the company.

A third approach is what I call “making a smaller batch.” It involves closing unprofitable offices, or flying fewer jets, so that the quantity produced matches the new lower demand for the product, given the higher required sales’ price, now that the oil price is higher. Any of these approaches reduces the amount of wages paid to US employees.

HOW DOES THIS CONCLUDE?

A person could argue that any of the limits could eventually bring the system down. The pressure on wages is particularly a problem, since a further rise in oil prices would seem likely to lead to more job loss, and further pressure on wages of those who keep their jobs. The large amount of debt outstanding is another issue of concern.


Figure 18. Author’s view of how various limits might work together to produce different symptoms.

My personal view is that the most likely scenario is that the various limits will work together to produce secondary effects, and it is the secondary effects that are likely to bring society down. These secondary effects are Financial (wealth disparity, debt defaults, inability to collect enough taxes), Political (not enough taxes, uprising by the lower classes, government collapse) and Disease Susceptibility (inadequate food, medicine, and sanitation due to inadequate wages and government cutbacks).

These effects are similar to ones experienced in the past when economies started reaching resource limits, based on the research of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov reported in the book Secular Cycles. In the past, societies seemed to go through about 300 year cycles. The first was Growth, lasting over 100 years. The second was Stagflation, lasting perhaps 50 or 60 years. This third was Crisis, with population decline, lasting up to 50 years (but perhaps a much shorter time). The fourth was Depression/ Intercycle.

If we estimate that today’s complete cycle started in 1800 with the use of coal, and the Stagflation period started about 1970 with the decline in US oil production, then we now seem to be nearing the Crisis stage. Of course, each situation is different. This is the first time we are reaching resource limits on a world-wide basis.


Figure 19. Government receipts divided by private industry wages, and government expenditures divided by private industry wage, based on BEA data.

There is considerable evidence that we are already reaching the situation where governments are encountering financial distress of the type shown in Figure 18. With wages being depressing in recent years (Figure 16), it is difficult to collect as much taxes as required. At the same time, expenses are elevated to handle the many issues that arise (such as payments to the unemployed, subsidies for alternative energy, and the higher costs of road repairs due to higher asphalt costs). The big gap between revenue and expense makes it hard to fix our current financial predicament, and increases the likelihood of political problems.

REQUIREMENTS FOR A FUEL TO FIX OUR CURRENT PREDICAMENT

Is it possible to fix our current situation? To really fix the situation, we would need to reproduce the situation we had in the post-World War II period–when energy was cheap, and growing very rapidly. Economists have observed that historically, the cost of energy was very low. Given the importance of energy, its low price was an important feature, not a bug. It is what allowed society to have plenty of energy for growth, at minimal cost.

In order for a new alternative fuel to truly fix our current predicament, it would need the following characteristics:

  1. Abundant – Available in huge quantities, to meet society’s ever-growing needs.
  2. Direct match for current oil or electricity – Needed to avoid the huge cost of building new infrastructure. Electricity needs to be non-intermittent, to avoid the cost of mitigating intermittency. We also need an oil substitute. This oil substitute theoretically might be generated using electricity to combine carbon dioxide and water to create a liquid fuel. Such substitution would require time and investment, however.
  3. Non-polluting – No carbon dioxide or air and water pollution.
  4. Inexpensive – Ideally no more than $20 or $30 barrel for oil equivalent; 4 cents/kWh electricity. Figure 15 shows wage growth has historically occurred primarily below when oil was below $30 barrel.
  5. Big energy gain in the process, since it is additional energy that society really needs – This generally goes with low price.
  6. Uses resources very sparingly, since these are depleting.
  7. Available now or very soon
  8. Self-financing – Ideally through boot-strapping–that is, generating its own cash flow for future investment because of very favorable economics.

It is interesting that when M. King Hubbert originally made his forecast of the decline of fossil fuels, he made his forecast as if an alternative fuel would become available in huge quantity, by the time of the decline. His original idea (in 1956) was that the new fuel would be nuclear. By 1976, his view was that the new fuel needed to be some version of solar energy.

What kind of solar energy might this be? Solar panels PV located on the ground are heavy users of resources, because they have a low capacity factor (percentage of the time they are actually collecting sunlight), and because they need to be fairly sturdy, to withstand wind, rain, and hail. Space solar theoretically would be much better, because it is much more sparing in its use of resources–it would have over a 99% capacity factor, and the PV film could be much thinner. Timing for space solar would be a big issue, however, assuming financial issues can be worked out.

Also, even if space solar or some other fuel should provide the fuel characteristics we need, we still need to address the population issue. As long as world population keeps rising, humans are an increasing strain on earth’s resources.

This post originally appeared on Our Finite World.

The Connection of Depressed Wages to High Oil Prices and Limits to Growth

In my view, wages are the backbone an economy. If workers have difficulty finding a job, or have difficulty earning sufficient wages, the lack of wages will be a problem, not just for the workers, but for governments and businesses. Governments will have a hard time collecting enough taxes, and businesses will have a hard time finding enough customers. There can be business-to-business transactions, but ultimately somewhere “downstream,” businesses need wage-earning customers who can afford to pay for goods and services. Even if a business produces a resource that is in very high demand, such as oil, it still needs wage-earning customers either to buy the resource directly (for example, as gasoline), or to buy the resource indirectly (for example, as food which uses oil in production and transport).

It is not just any wages that are important. It is the wages paid by private companies (rather than governments) that are important, as the backbone to the economy. Governments tend to get their revenues from private citizens and from businesses, both of which are dependent on wages of private citizens. There are a few pieces outside of this loop, such as taxes on imports from foreign countries. With the advent of free international trade, this source is disappearing. Another piece outside the US wage-loop is taxes on resource extraction, if these resources are exported.

Instead of using the analogy of a backbone, perhaps I should say that wages are the base that ultimately determines the quantity of goods and services an economy can afford.


Figure 1. Author’s view of structure of the economy. Non-governmental wages form the base of the entire economy.

Obviously there are other kinds of income, such as “rents,” but these, too, ultimately come from wage earners. Furthermore, businesses cannot earn money to pay dividends unless some consumer, somewhere, can afford to buy the goods and services their business is selling.

I have written recently about how the proportion of Americans with jobs rose to a peak, and since has been declining.


Figure 2. US Number Employed / Population, where US Number Employed is Total Non_Farm Workers from Current Employment Statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Population is US Resident Population from the US Census. 2012 is partial year estimate.

I decided in this post to look at the dollars these workers are earning. In particular, I decided to look at wages, other than government wages, adjusted to today’s cost level using the “CPI- Urban,” cost index of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I discovered that these wages are doing very poorly. I also discovered a disturbing connection between high oil prices and flattening or declining wages. Putting all of these pieces together suggests a connection to “Limits to Growth.”

Per Capita Non-Government Wages

If we take inflation-adjusted non-government wages, and divide by the total US population (not just employed workers), we get a measure of the extent to which wages have been growing or shrinking. Some of this growth will be from a second wage-earner in a family joining the workforce. Some of this growth will be from families in recent years having fewer children, so that adults make up a larger portion of the population. If some jobs move overseas and are not replaced, this will act to reduce wages.


Figure 3. US per capita non-governmental wages, in 2012 dollars. Non-governmental wages and population from Bureau of Economic Analysis; Adjusted to 2012 cost level using CPI-Urban from Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Comparing Figure 2 and Figure 3, we can see that they follow generally the same shape. A major portion of the increase in wages in Figure 3 is thus driven by a higher proportion of the population having jobs, at least up until the year 2000.

Figure 3 emphasizes how poorly wages have performed since the year 2000. Average wages on a Figure 3 basis hit a high point of $$19,112 in 2000. They then dropped back to $18,145 in 2003. In 2007, they briefly surpassed the year 2000 high point, hitting $19,573. More recently they dipped again and (with government deficit spending) have recovered a bit, rising to $18,053 in 2012. This is very low by historical standards; it is between the level they were in 1998 and 1999.

Looking at Figure 3, the other time when wages were flat was the period between 1973 and 1983. The thing that is striking is that both the current period and the previous “flat” period took place during periods of high oil prices (Figure 4, below). The vast majority of the rise in non-government per capita wages that has taken place has happened when the inflation-adjusted price of oil was less than $30 barrel.


Figure 4. Per capita non-government wages, as in Figure 3, together with historical oil prices in 2012$, based on BP 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data, updated with 2012 IEA Brent oil price data.

We have discussed previously why high oil prices can be expected to have an adverse impact on wages. There are multiple ways this can happen. For example, oil plays a very direct role in growing and transporting food and in making gasoline. Thus, the cost of food and of commuting increases. This causes people to cut back on discretionary expenditures, leading to layoffs in discretionary sectors. Lay-offs in discretionary sectors means fewer jobs.

Another thing that happens is a change in the competitive situation that indirectly leads to layoffs. Oil is used in transporting many types of goods, and is used in producing a wide variety of products, such as asphalt shingles and synthetic cloth. Wages don’t rise at the same time as oil prices rise. The result is a mismatch between what citizens can afford, and the cost to manufacture and transport products. Some customers are “priced out” of the market. Businesses find that they must scale back the size of their operations to produce only the amount customers can afford. For example, a delivery service will operate fewer vehicles, if demand is lower, laying off workers.

Also playing a role in reduced employment is increased competition from China, India, and other low wage countries. These countries typically use a lot of coal in their energy mix, so are less affected by high oil prices. As a result, their prices become more competitive as oil prices rise.

Changes in trade agreements can also be expected to play a role in the competitive situation. China started growing rapidly immediately after it joined the World Trade Organization in December, 2001. The big drop-off in US employment coincides very closely in time to the time China started growing quickly.


Figure 5. China’s energy consumption by source, based on BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Another factor in reduced wages is increased automation, in an attempt to compete with low-wage countries. An employer may replace several workers with a single worker, using a new high-tech machine. The worker with the new machine may earn more, but the others are left to find jobs elsewhere.

Going forward, increased retirement of “baby boomers” is likely to add further challenges. Retirees will need to be fed and cared for, mostly from taxes on current workers. In theory, the retirement of baby boomers should leave more jobs for unemployed young people, but this will depend on whether such jobs are really available.

One important point is that the impact of high oil prices on wages doesn’t “go away” to any significant extent over time. This is clear from Figure 4, and is a point I have made previously. Increased fuel efficiency helps a bit, as do adaptations like finding a job closer to where a person lives. But high oil prices continue to make goods that are made using oil less competitive on a world market. High oil prices also continue to make increased automation attractive, and continue to keep the cost of transport of high. Individuals find they need to permanently cut back on discretionary spending to balance their budgets.

Oil prices are likely to remain high, and in fact, rise in the future. When we started extracting oil, we began with the easy (and cheap) to extract oil first. Now, the inexpensive to extract oil is mostly gone; what is left is high-priced oil. Over time, the price becomes even higher, as diminishing returns set in. The recent publicity about the possibility of more tight oil in the United States doesn’t change this dynamic. What the press releases don’t say is that this oil will only be available if it is sufficiently high-priced. A recent survey by Barclays indicates that North American oil and gas companies are anticipating less than a one per cent increase in “exploration and production” expenses in 2013; current North American oil and gas prices are not high enough to justify much increase in investment.

Per Capita Real GDP

In recent years, the economy as a whole has tended to fare better than wage earners. This happens partly because deficit spending is being used to provide income to the many unemployed people, and partly because businesses are able to “bounce back” from an earnings point of view better than wage-earners, because they can cut back the size of their operations to keep profits high. Sometimes they can even substitute low overseas labor costs, or automation.

If we compare per capita real (that is, inflation-adjusted) GDP with oil prices (both in 2012$), this is what we see:


Figure 6. Per capita real GDP (based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis data) compared to oil prices in 2012$, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

There is some stalling in the rise of real GDP per capita, with high oil prices, but it is not nearly as pronounced as the stalling of wage growth. Nevertheless, Economist James Hamilton found that 10 out of the last 11 US recessions were associated with oil price spikes.

On a per capita basis, real GDP per capita in 2012 is between the 2005 and the 2006 level. This is far better than the situation with non-government wages. In Figure 4, we saw that in 2012, non-government wages were only between the 1998 to 1999 level. Ouch!

Hitting “Limits to Growth?”

I wonder if the situation we are reaching now isn’t “Limits to Growth,” as described by the book by that name by Meadows et al. written in 1972. The way we seem to be reaching Limits to Growth is through high oil prices, and the impacts these high oil prices have both on wages and on competitiveness with other countries. I explained some of these issues earlier in this post. There are also impacts on governments:

  • Low wages in total mean less tax revenue for governments;
  • Fewer employed means more government outlays for unemployment benefits;
  • Low wages lead to more problems with debt defaults, and more need for bank bailouts;
  • Governments can’t raise taxes fast enough or reduce benefits quickly enough, so they find themselves with rapidly rising deficits. If governments do raise taxes, workers are even worse off. If they reduce expenditures (less unemployment payments or allowing banks to fail), citizens are also unhappy.

Over the last several thousand years, many civilizations have grown up, reached limits of one sort or another, and eventually collapsed. Based on the work of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov in the book Secular Cycles, there were financial issues not too different from the ones we are seeing now involved in these collapses. I showed in my post 2013: Beginning of Long-Term Recession? that there seem to be significant parallels to our current situation. These collapses often took 20 years or more, but the situation is still concerning.

While the situation we are looking at is unpleasant, if we understand the source of our problems, we can at least look at our situation a bit more rationally. We may not be able to find solutions, but we can at least eliminate some approaches as being unrealistic. We may be able to find partial solutions, such as making survival possible for a subset of humanity, if not everyone. If we don’t understand our predicament, there is no way we can rationally address it.

This post originally appeared on Our Finite World.

Twelve Reasons Why Globalization is a Huge Problem

Globalization seems to be looked on as an unmitigated “good” by economists. Unfortunately, economists seem to be guided by their badly flawed models; they miss real-world problems. In particular, they miss the point that the world is finite. We don’t have infinite resources, or unlimited ability to handle excess pollution. So we are setting up a “solution” that is at best temporary.

Economists also tend to look at results too narrowly–from the point of view of a business that can expand, or a worker who has plenty of money, even though these users are not typical. In real life, the business are facing increased competition, and the worker may be laid off because of greater competition.

The following is a list of reasons why globalization is not living up to what was promised, and is, in fact, a very major problem.

1. Globalization uses up finite resources more quickly. As an example, China joined the world trade organization in December 2001. In 2002, its coal use began rising rapidly (Figure 1, below).


Figure 1. China’s energy consumption by source, based on BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy data.

In fact, there is also a huge increase in world coal consumption (Figure 2, below). India’s consumption is increasing as well, but from a smaller base.


Figure 2. World coal consumption based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy

2. Globalization increases world carbon dioxide emissions. If the world burns its coal more quickly, and does not cut back on other fossil fuel use, carbon dioxide emissions increase. Figure 3 shows how carbon dioxide emissions have increased, relative to what might have been expected, based on the trend line for the years prior to when the Kyoto protocol was adopted in 1997.


Figure 3. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.

3. Globalization makes it virtually impossible for regulators in one country to foresee the worldwide implications of their actions. Actions which would seem to reduce emissions for an individual country may indirectly encourage world trade, ramp up manufacturing in coal-producing areas, and increase emissions over all. See my post Climate Change: Why Standard Fixes Don’t Work.

4. Globalization acts to increase world oil prices.


Figure 4. World oil supply and price, both based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data. Updates to 2012$ added based on EIA price and supply data and BLS CPI urban.

The world has undergone two sets of oil price spikes. The first one, in the 1973 to 1983 period, occurred after US oil supply began to decline in 1970 (Figure 4, above and Figure 5 below).


Figure 5. US crude oil production, based on EIA data. 2012 data estimated based on partial year data. Tight oil split is author’s estimate based on state distribution of oil supply increases.

After 1983, it was possible to bring oil prices back to the $30 to $40 barrel range (in 2012$), compared to the $20 barrel price (in 2012$) available prior to 1970. This was partly done partly by ramping up oil production in the North Sea, Alaska and Mexico (sources which were already known), and partly by reducing consumption. The reduction in consumption was accomplished by cutting back oil use for electricity, and by encouraging the use of more fuel-efficient cars.

Now, since 2005, we have high oil prices back, but we have a much worse problem. The reason the problem is worse now is partly because oil supply is not growing very much, due to limits we are reaching, and partly because demand is exploding due to globalization.

If we look at world oil supply, it is virtually flat. The United States and Canada together provide the slight increase in world oil supply that has occurred since 2005. Otherwise, supply has been flat since 2005 (Figure 6, below). What looks like a huge increase in US oil production in 2012 in Figure 5 looks much less impressive, when viewed in the context of world oil production in Figure 6.


Figure 6. World crude oil production based on EIA data. *2012 estimated based on data through October.

Part of our problem now is that with globalization, world oil demand is rising very rapidly. Chinese buyers purchased more cars in 2012 than did European buyers. Rapidly rising world demand, together with oil supply which is barely rising, pushes world prices upward. This time, there also is no possibility of a dip in world oil demand of the type that occurred in the early 1980s. Even if the West drops its oil consumption greatly, the East has sufficient pent-up demand that it will make use of any oil that is made available to the market.

Adding to our problem is the fact that we have already extracted most of the inexpensive to extract oil because the “easy” (and cheap) to extract oil was extracted first. Because of this, oil prices cannot decrease very much, without world supply dropping off. Instead, because of diminishing returns, needed price keeps ratcheting upward. The new “tight” oil that is acting to increase US supply is an example of expensive to produce oil–it can’t bring needed price relief.

5. Globalization transfers consumption of limited oil supply from developed countries to developing countries. If world oil supply isn’t growing by very much, and demand is growing rapidly in developing countries, oil to meet this rising demand must come from somewhere. The way this transfer takes place is through the mechanism of high oil prices. High oil prices are particularly a problem for major oil importing countries, such as the United States, many European countries, and Japan. Because oil is used in growing food and for commuting, a rise in oil price tends to lead to a cutback in discretionary spending, recession, and lower oil use in these countries. See my academic article, “Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis,” available here or here.


Figure 7. World oil consumption in million metric tons, divided among three areas of the world. (FSU is Former Soviet Union.)

Developing countries are better able to use higher-priced oil than developed countries. In some cases (particularly in oil-producing countries) subsidies play a role. In addition, the shift of manufacturing to less developed countries increases the number of workers who can afford a motorcycle or car. Job loss plays a role in the loss of oil consumption from developed countries–see my post, Why is US Oil Consumption Lower? Better Gasoline Mileage? The real issue isn’t better mileage; one major issue is loss of jobs.

6. Globalization transfers jobs from developed countries to less developed countries. Globalization levels the playing field, in a way that makes it hard for developed countries to compete. A country with a lower cost structure (lower wages and benefits for workers, more inexpensive coal in its energy mix, and more lenient rules on pollution) is able to out-compete a typical OECD country. In the United States, the percentage of US citizen with jobs started dropping about the time China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.


Figure 8. US Number Employed / Population, where US Number Employed is Total Non_Farm Workers from Current Employment Statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Population is US Resident Population from the US Census. 2012 is partial year estimate.

7. Globalization transfers investment spending from developed countries to less developed countries. If an investor has a chance to choose between a country with a competitive advantage and a country with a competitive disadvantage, which will the investor choose? A shift in investment shouldn’t be too surprising.

In the US, domestic investment was fairly steady as a percentage of National Income until the mid-1980s (Figure 9). In recent years, it has dropped off and is now close to consumption of assets (similar to depreciation, but includes other removal from service). The assets in question include all types of capital assets, including government-owned assets (schools, roads), business owned assets (factories, stores), and individual homes. A similar pattern applies to business investment viewed separately.


Figure 9. United States domestic investment compared to consumption of assets, as percentage of National Income. Based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis data from Table 5.1, Savings and Investment by Sector.

Part of the shift in the balance between investment and consumption of assets is rising consumption of assets. This would include early retirement of factories, among other things.

Even very low interest rates in recent years have not brought US investment back to earlier levels.

8. With the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, globalization leads to huge US balance of trade deficits and other imbalances.


Figure 10. US Balance on Current Account, based on data of US Bureau of Economic Analysis. Amounts in 2012$ calculated based on US CPI-Urban of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With increased globalization and the rising price of oil since 2002, the US trade deficit has soared (Figure 10). Adding together amounts from Figure 10, the cumulative US deficit for the period 1980 through 2011 is $8.6 trillion. By the end of 2012, the cumulative deficit since 1980 is probably a little over 9 trillion.

A major reason for the large US trade deficit is the fact that the US dollar is the world’s “reserve currency.” While the mechanism is too complicated to explain here, the result is that the US can run deficits year after year, and the rest of the world will take their surpluses, and use it to buy US debt. With this arrangement, the rest of the world funds the United States’ continued overspending. It is fairly clear the system was not put together with the thought that it would work in a fully globalized world–it simply leads to too great an advantage for the United States relative to other countries. Erik Townsend recently wrote an article called Why Peak Oil Threatens the International Monetary System, in which he talks about the possibility of high oil prices bringing an end to the current arrangement.

At this point, high oil prices together with globalization have led to huge US deficit spending since 2008. This has occurred partly because a smaller portion of the population is working (and thus paying taxes), and partly because US spending for unemployment benefits and stimulus has risen. The result is a mismatch between government income and spending (Figure 11, below).


Figure 11. Receipts and Expenditures for all US government entities combined (including state and local) based on BEA data. 2012 estimated based on partial year data.

Thanks to the mismatch described in the last paragraph, the federal deficit in recent years has been far greater than the balance of payment deficit. As a result, some other source of funding for the additional US debt has been needed, in addition to what is provided by the reserve currency arrangement. The Federal Reserve has been using Quantitative Easing to buy up federal debt since late 2008. This has provided a buyer for additional debt and also keeps US interest rates low (hoping to attract some investment back to the US, and keeping US debt payments affordable). The current situation is unsustainable, however. Continued overspending and printing money to pay debt is not a long-term solution to huge imbalances among countries and lack of cheap oil–situations that do not “go away” by themselves.

9. Globalization tends to move taxation away from corporations, and onto individual citizens. Corporations have the ability to move to locations where the tax rate is lowest. Individual citizens have much less ability to make such a change. Also, with today’s lack of jobs, each community competes with other communities with respect to how many tax breaks it can give to prospective employers. When we look at the breakdown of US tax receipts (federal, state, and local combined) this is what we find:


Figure 12. Source of US Government revenue, by year, based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis Data.

The only portion that is entirely from corporations is corporate income taxes, shown in red. This has clearly shrunk by more than half. Part of the green layer (excise, sales, and property tax) is also from corporations, since truckers also pay excise tax on fuel they purchase, and businesses usually pay property taxes. It is clear, though, that the portion of revenue coming from personal income taxes and Social Security and Medicare funding (blue) has been rising.

I showed that high oil prices seem to lead to depressed US wages in my post, The Connection of Depressed Wages to High Oil Prices and Limits to Growth. If wages are low at the same time that wage-earners are being asked to shoulder an increasing share of rising government costs, this creates a mismatch that wage-earners are not really able to handle.

10. Globalization sets up a currency “race to the bottom,” with each country trying to get an export advantage by dropping the value of its currency.

Because of the competitive nature of the world economy, each country needs to sell its goods and services at as low a price as possible. This can be done in various ways–pay its workers lower wages; allow more pollution; use cheaper more polluting fuels; or debase the currency by Quantitative Easing (also known as “printing money,”) in the hope that this will produce inflation and lower the value of the currency relative to other currencies.

There is no way this race to the bottom can end well. Prices of imports become very high in a debased currency–this becomes a problem. In addition, the supply of money is increasingly out of balance with real goods and services. This produces asset bubbles, such as artificially high stock market prices, and artificially high bond prices (because the interest rates on bonds are so low). These assets bubbles lead to investment crashes. Also, if the printing ever stops (and perhaps even if it doesn’t), interest rates will rise, greatly raising cost to governments, corporations, and individual citizens.

11. Globalization encourages dependence on other countries for essential goods and services. With globalization, goods can often be obtained cheaply from elsewhere. A country may come to believe that there is no point in producing its own food or clothing. It becomes easy to depend on imports and specialize in something like financial services or high-priced medical care–services that are not as oil-dependent.

As long as the system stays together, this arrangement works, more or less. However, if the built-in instabilities in the system become too great, and the system stops working, there is suddenly a very large problem. Even if the dependence is not on food, but is instead on computers and replacement parts for machinery, there can still be a big problem if imports are interrupted.

12. Globalization ties countries together, so that if one country collapses, the collapse is likely to ripple through the system, pulling many other countries with it.

History includes many examples of civilizations that started from a small base, gradually grew to over-utilize their resource base, and then collapsed. We are now dealing with a world situation which is not too different. The big difference this time is that a large number of countries is involved, and these countries are increasingly interdependent. In my post 2013: Beginning of Long-Term Recession, I showed that there are significant parallels between financial dislocations now happening in the United States and the types of changes which happened in other societies, prior to collapse. My analysis was based on the model of collapse developed in the book Secular Cycles by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov.

It is not just the United States that is in perilous financial condition. Many European countries and Japan are in similarly poor condition. The failure of one country has the potential to pull many others down, and with it much of the system. The only countries that remain safe are the ones that have not grown to depend on globalization–which is probably not many today–perhaps landlocked countries of Africa.

In the past, when one area collapsed, there was less interdependence. When one area collapsed, it was possible to let cropland “rest” and deforested areas regrow. With regeneration, and perhaps new technology, it was possible for a new civilization to grow in the same area later. If we are dealing with a world-wide collapse, it will be much more difficult to follow this model.

This post originally appeared on Our Finite World.

Our Investment Sinkhole Problem

We are used to expecting that more investment will yield more output, but in the real world, things don’t always work out that way.


Figure 1. Comparison of 2005 to 2011 percent change in real GDP vs percent change in oil consumption, both on a per capita basis. (GDP per capita on a PPP basis from World Bank, oil consumption from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.)

In Figure 1, we see that for several groupings, the increase (or decrease) in oil consumption tends to correlate with the increase (or decrease) in GDP. The usual pattern is that GDP growth is a little greater than oil consumption growth. This happens because of changes of various sorts: (a) Increasing substitution of other energy sources for oil, (b) Increased efficiency in using oil, and (c) A changing GDP mix away from producing goods, and toward producing services, leading to a proportionately lower need for oil and other energy products.

The situation is strikingly different for Saudi Arabia, however. A huge increase in oil consumption (Figure 1), and in fact in total energy consumption (Figure 2, below), does not seem to result in a corresponding rise in GDP.


Figure 2. Total primary energy consumed per capita, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data and population data from EIA.

At least part of problem is that Saudi Arabia is reaching limits of various types. One of them is inadequate water for a rising population. Adding desalination plants adds huge costs and huge energy usage, but does not increase the standards of living of citizens. Instead, adding desalination plants simply allows the country to pump less water from its depleting aquifers.

To some extent, the same situation occurs in oil and gas fields. Expensive investment is required, but it is doubtful that there is an increase in capacity that is proportional to its cost. To a significant extent, new investment simply offsets a decline in production elsewhere, so maintains the status quo. It is expensive, but adds little to what gets measured as GDP.

The world outside of Saudi Arabia is now running into an investment sinkhole issue as well. This takes several forms: water limits that require deeper wells or desalination plants; oil and gas limits that require more expensive forms of extraction; and pollution limits requiring expensive adjustments to automobiles or to power plants.

These higher investment costs lead to higher end product costs of goods using these resources. These higher costs eventually transfer to other products that most of us consider essential: food because it uses much oil in growing and transport; electricity because it is associated with pollution controls; and metals for basic manufacturing, because they also use oil in extraction and transport.

Ultimately, these investment sinkholes seem likely to cause huge problems. In some sense, they mean the economy is becoming less efficient, rather than more efficient. From an investment point of view, they can expect to crowd out other types of investment. From a consumer’s point of view, they lead to a rising cost of essential products that can be expected to squeeze out other purchases.

Why Investment Sinkholes Go Unrecognized

From the point of view of an individual investor, all that matters is whether he will get an adequate return on the investment he makes. If a city government decides to install a desalination plant, the investor’s primary concern is that someone (the government or those buying water) will pay enough money that he can make an adequate return on his investment over time. Citizens clearly need water. The only question is whether citizens can afford the desalinated water from their discretionary income. Obviously, if citizens spend more on desalinated water, the amount of discretionary income available for other goods will be reduced.

The same issue arises with pollution control equipment installed by a utility, or by an auto maker. The need for pollution control equipment arises because of limits we are reaching–too many people in too small a space, and too many waste products for the environment to handle. The utility or auto makers adds what is mandated, since clearly, buyers of electricity or of an automobile will recognize the need for clean air, and will be willing to use some of their discretionary income for pollution control equipment. Mandated renewable energy requirements are another way that governments attempt to compensate for limits we are reaching. These, too, tend to impose higher costs, and indirectly reduce consumers’ discretionary income.

All types of mineral extraction, but particularly oil, eventually reach the situation where it takes an increasing amount of investment (money, energy products, and often water) to extract a given amount of resource. This situation arises because companies extract the cheapest to extract resources first, and move on to the more expensive to extract resources later. As consumers, we recognize the situation through rising commodity prices. There is generally a real issue behind the rising prices–not enough resource available in readily accessible locations, so we need to dig deeper, or apply more “high tech” solutions. These high tech solutions indirectly require more investment and more energy, as well.

While we don’t stop to think about what is happening, the reality is that increasingly less oil (or other product such as natural gas, coal, gold, or copper) is being produced, for the same investment dollar. As long as the price of the product keeps rising sufficiently to cover the higher cost of extraction, the investor is happy, even if the cost of the resource is becoming unbearably high for consumers.

The catch with energy products is that consumers really need the products extracted–the oil to grow the food they eat and for commuting, for example. We also know that in general, energy of some sort is required to manufacture every kind of product that is made, and is needed to enable nearly every kind of service. Oil is the most portable of the world’s energy sources, and because of this, is used in powering most types of vehicles and much portable equipment. It is also used as a raw material in many products. As a result, limits on oil supply are likely to have an adverse impact on the economy as a whole, and on economic growth.

The Oil and Gas Part of the Problem

A major issue today is that oil supply is already constrained–it is not rising very quickly on a world basis, no matter how much investment is made (Figure 3).


Figure 3. World oil supply with exponential trend lines fitted by author. Oil consumption data from BP 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

As noted above, the easy-to-extract oil and gas was extracted first. New development is increasingly occurring in expensive-to-extract locations, such as deep water, Canadian oil sands, arctic oil, and “tight oil” that requires fracking to extract. This oil requires more energy to produce, and more inputs of other sorts, such as water for fracking. Because of rising costs, the price of oil has tripled in the last 10 years.

Investment costs also continue to soar because of rising costs associated with exploration and production. Worldwide, oil and gas exploration and production spending increased by 19% in 2011 and 11% in 2012, according to Barclays Capital. Such spending produced only a modest increase in output–about 0.1% increase in crude oil production in 2011, and 2.2% increase in the first 10 months of 2012, based on EIA data. Natural gas production increased by 3.1% in 2011, according to BP. Estimates for 2012 are not yet available.

If we want to “grow” oil and gas production at all, businesses will need to keep investing increasing amounts of money (and energy) into oil and gas extraction. For this to happen, prices paid by consumers for oil and gas will need to continue to rise. In the US, there is a particular problem, because the selling price of natural gas is now far below what it costs shale gas producers to produce it–a price estimated to be $8 by Steve Kopits of Douglas Westwood. The Henry Hub spot natural gas price is now only $3.38.

The question now is whether oil and gas investment will keep rising fast enough to keep production rising. Barclays is forecasting only a 7% increase in worldwide oil and gas investment in 2013. According to the forecast, virtually none of the investment growth will come from North America, apparently because oil and gas prices are not currently high enough to justify the high-priced projects needed. The flat investment forecast by Barclays suggests a major disconnect between what the IEA is saying–that North America is on its way to becoming an energy exporter–and the actual actions of oil and gas companies based on current price levels. Of course, if oil and gas prices would go higher, more investment might be made–a point I made when writing about the IEA analysis.

What will the ultimate impact be on the economy?

I would argue that for most of the developed (OECD) countries, the ultimate impact will be a long-term contraction of the economy, similar to that illustrated in Scenario 2 of Figure 4.


Figure 4. Two views of future economic growth.

What happens is that as we increasingly reach limits, more and more investment capital (and physical use of oil) is allocated toward the investment sinkholes. This has a double effect:

(1) The prices paid for resources that are subject in investment sinkholes need to continue to rise, in order to continue to attract enough investment capital. This is true both for goods that directly come from investment sinkholes (oil, gas and water) and from products that have a less direct connection, but depend on rising-cost inputs (such as food and electricity).

(2) Products outside of essential goods and services will increasingly be starved of investment capital and physical resources. This happens partly because of the greater investment needs in the sinkhole areas. Also, as consumers pay increasing amounts for essential goods and service because of (1), they cut back on the purchase of discretionary items, reducing demand for non-essentials.

In some real sense, because of the sinkhole investment phenomenon, we are getting less and less back for every dollar invested (and every barrel of oil invested). This phenomenon as applied to energy resources is sometimes referred to as declining Energy Return on Energy Invested.

As discussed above, world oil supply in recent years is quite close to flat (Figure 3). The flat supply of oil is further reduced by the additional oil investment required by sinkhole projects, such as the ones Saudi Arabia is undertaking. Also, there is a tendency for the developing world to attract a disproportionate share of the oil supply that is available, because they can leverage its use to a greater extent. Both of these phenomena lead to a shrinking oil supply for OECD countries.

The combination of shrinking OECD oil supply, together with the need for oil for many functions necessary for economic growth, leads to a tendency for the economies of OECD nations to shrink. It is hard to see an end to this shrinkage, because there really is no end to the limits we are reaching. No one has invented a substitute for water, or for unpolluted air. People talk about inventing a substitute for oil, but biofuels and intermittent electricity are very poor substitutes. Often substitutes have even higher costs, adding to the investment sinkhole problem, rather than solving it.

Where We Are Now

When resource prices rise, the impact is felt almost immediately. Salaries don’t rise at the same time oil prices rise, so consumers have to cut back on some purchases of discretionary goods and services. The initial impact is layoffs in discretionary sectors of the economy. Within a few years, however, the layoff problems are transformed into central government debt problems. This happens because governments need to pay benefits to laid-off workers at the same time they are collecting less in taxes.

The most recent time we experienced the full impact of rising commodity prices was in 2008-2009, but we are not yet over these problems. The US government now has a severe debt problem. As the government attempts to extricate itself from the high level of debt it has gotten itself into, citizens are again likely to see their budgets squeezed because of higher taxes, lay-offs of government workers, and reduced government benefits. As a result, consumers will have less to spend on discretionary goods and service. Layoffs will occur in discretionary sectors of the economy, eventually leading to more recession.

Over time, we can expect the investment sinkhole problem to get worse. In time, the impact is likely to look like long-term contraction, as illustrated in Scenario 2 of Figure 4.

Is There An End to The Contraction?

It is hard to see a favorable outcome to the continued contraction. Our current financial system depends on long-term growth. The impact on it is likely to be huge stress on the financial system and a large number of debt defaults. It is even possible we will see a collapse of the financial system, or of some governments.

In a way, what we are talking about is the Limits to Growth problem modeled in the 1972 book by that name. It is the fact that we are reaching limits in many ways simultaneously that is causing our problem. There are theoretical ways around individual limits, but putting them together makes the cost impossibly high for the consumer, and places huge financial stress on governments.

This article originally appeared on Our Finite World.

Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices Are a Problem

A person might think from looking at news reports that our oil problems are gone, but oil prices are still high.


Figure 1. US crude oil prices (based on average prices paid by US refiners for all grades of oil based on EIA data) converted to 2012$ using CPI-Urban data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In fact, the new “tight oil” sources of oil which are supposed to grow in supply are still expensive to extract. If we expect to have more tight oil and more oil from other unconventional sources, we need to expect to continue to have high oil prices. The new oil may help supply somewhat, but the high cost of extraction is not likely to go away.

Why are high oil prices a problem?

1. It is not just oil prices that rise. The cost of food rises as well, partly because oil is used in many ways in growing and transporting food and partly because of the competition from biofuels for land, sending land prices up. The cost of shipping goods of all types rises, since oil is used in nearly all methods of transports. The cost of materials that are made from oil, such as asphalt and chemical products, also rises.

If the cost of oil rises, it tends to raise the cost of other fossil fuels. The cost of natural gas extraction tends to rises, since oil is used in natural gas drilling and in transporting water for fracking. Because of an over-supply of natural gas in the US, its sales price is temporarily less than the cost of production. This is not a sustainable situation. Higher oil costs also tend to raise the cost of transporting coal to the destination where it is used.


Figure 2. US Energy Prices as % of Wages and as of GDP. Ratio to GDP provided by EIA Short Term Economic Outlook – Figure 27, converted to Wage Base by author, using same wages as described for Figure 3.

Figure 2 shows total energy costs as a percentage of two different bases: GDP and Wages.1 These costs are still near their high point in 2008, relative to these bases. Because oil is the largest source of energy, and the highest priced, it represents the majority of energy costs. GDP is the usual base of comparison, but I have chosen to show a comparison to wages as well. I do this because even if an increase in costs takes place in the government or business sector of the economy, most of the higher costs will eventually have to be paid for by individuals, through higher taxes or higher prices on goods or services.

2. High oil prices don’t go away, except in recession.

We extracted the easiest (and cheapest) to extract oil first. Even oil company executives say, “The easy oil is gone.” The oil that is available now tends to be expensive to extract because it is deep under the sea, or near the North Pole, or needs to be “fracked,” or is thick like paste, and needs to be melted. We haven’t discovered cheaper substitutes, either, even though we have been looking for years.

In fact, there is good reason to believe that the cost of oil extraction will continue to rise faster than the rate of inflation, because we are hitting a situation of “diminishing returns”. There is evidence that world oil production costs are increasing at about 9% per year (7% after backing out the effect of inflation). Oil prices paid by consumers will need to keep pace, if we expect increased extraction to take place.  There is even evidence that sweet sports are extracted first in Bakken tight oil, causing the cost of this extraction to rise as well.

3. Salaries don’t increase to offset rising oil prices.

Most of us know from personal experience that salaries don’t rise with rising oil prices.

In fact, as oil prices have risen since 2000, wage growth has increasingly lagged GDP growth. Figure 3 shows the ratio of  wages (using the same definition as in Figure 2) to GDP.


Figure 3. Wage Base (defined as sum of “Wage and Salary Disbursements” plus “Employer Contributions for Social Insurance” plus “Proprietors’ Income” from Table 2.1. Personal Income and its Distribution) as Percentage of GDP, based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis data. *2012 amounts estimated based on part-year data.

If salaries don’t rise, and prices of many types of goods and services do, something has to “give”. This disparity seems to be  the reason for the continuing economic discomfort experienced in the past several years. For many consumers, the only solution is a long-term cut back in discretionary spending.

4. Spikes in oil prices tend to be associated with recessions. 

Economist James Hamilton has shown that 10 out of the last 11 US recessions were associated with oil price spikes.

When oil prices rise, consumers tend to cut back on discretionary spending, so as to have enough money for basics, such as food and gasoline for commuting. These cut-backs in spending  lead to lay-offs in discretionary sectors of the economy, such as vacation travel and visits to  restaurants. The lay-offs in these sectors lead to more cutbacks in spending, and to more debt defaults.

5. High oil prices don’t “recycle” well through the economy.

Theoretically, high oil prices might lead to more employment in the oil sector, and more purchases by these employees. In practice, this provides only a very partial offset to higher price. The oil sector is not a big employer, although with rising oil extraction costs and more US drilling, it is getting to be a larger employer.  Oil importing countries find that much of their expenditures must go abroad. Even if these expenditures are recycled back as more US debt, this is not the same as more US salaries. Also, the United States government is reaching debt limits.

Even within oil exporting countries, high oil prices don’t necessarily recycle to other citizens well. A recent study shows that 2011 food price spikes helped trigger the Arab Spring. Since higher food prices are closely related to higher oil prices (and occurred at the same time), this is an example of poor recycling. As populations rise, the need to keep big populations properly fed and otherwise cared for gets to be more of an issue. Countries with high populations relative to exports, such as Iran, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, and Venezuela would seem to have the most difficulty in providing needed goods to citizens.

6. Housing prices are adversely affected by high oil prices.

If a person is  required to pay more for oil, food, and delivered goods of all sorts, less will be left over for discretionary spending. Buying a new home is one such type of discretionary expenditure.

US housing prices started to drop in mid 2006, according to data of the S&P Case Shiller home price index. This timing fits in well with when oil prices began to rise, based on Figure 1.

7. Business profitability is adversely affected by high oil prices.

Some businesses in discretionary sectors may close their doors completely. Others may lay off workers to get supply and demand back into balance.

8. The impact of high oil prices doesn’t “go away”.

Citizens’ discretionary income is permanently lower. Businesses that close when oil prices rise generally don’t re-open. In some cases, businesses that close may be replaced by companies in China or India, with lower operating costs. These lower operating costs indirectly reflect the fact that the companies use less oil, and the fact that their workers can be paid less, because the workers use less oil. This is a part of the reason why US employment levels remain low, and why we don’t see a big bounce-back in growth after the Great Recession. Figure 4 below shows the big shifts in oil consumption that have taken place.


Figure 4. Percentage growth in oil consumption between 2006 and 2011, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

A major part of the “fix” for high oil prices that does takes place is provided by the government. This takes the place in the form of unemployment benefits, stimulus programs, and artificially low interest rates.

Efficiency changes may provide some mitigation, as older less fuel-efficient cars are replaced with more fuel-efficient cars. Of course, if the more fuel-efficient cars are more expensive, part of the savings to consumers will be lost because of higher monthly payments for the replacement vehicles.

9. Government finances are especially affected by high oil prices.

With higher unemployment rates, governments are faced with paying more unemployment benefits and making more stimulus payments. If there have been many debt defaults (because of more unemployment or because of falling home prices), the government may also need to bail out banks. At the same time, taxes collected from citizens are lower, because of lower employment. A major reason (but not the only reason) for today’s debt problems of the governments of large oil importers, such as US, Japan, and much of Europe, is high oil prices.

Governments are also affected by the high cost of replacing infrastructure that was built when oil prices were much lower. For example, the cost of replacing asphalt roads is much higher. So is the cost of replacing bridges and buried underground pipelines. The only way these costs can be reduced is by doing less–going back to gravel roads, for example.

10. Higher oil prices reflect a need to focus a disproportionate share of investment and resource use inside the oil sector. This makes it increasingly difficult maintain growth within the oil sector, and acts to reduce growth rates outside the oil sector.

There is a close tie between energy consumption and economic activity because nearly all economic activity requires the use of some type of energy besides human labor.  Oil is the single largest source of energy, and the most expensive. When we look at GDP growth for the world, it is closely aligned with growth in oil consumption and growth in energy consumption in general. In fact, changes in oil and energy growth seem to precede GDP growth, as might be expected if oil and energy use are a cause of world economic growth.


Figure 5. Growth in World GDP, energy consumption, and oil consumption. GDP growth is based on USDA International Macroeconomic Data. Oil consumption and energy consumption growth are based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The current situation of needing increasing amounts of resources to extract oil is sometimes referred to one of declining Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI). Multiple problems are associated with declining EROEI, when cost levels are already high:

(a) It becomes increasingly difficult to keep scaling up oil industry investment because of limits on debt availability, when heavy investment is made up front, and returns are many years away. As an example, Petrobas in Brazil is running into this limit. Some US oil and gas producers are reaching debt limits as well.

(b) Greater use of oil within the industry leaves less for other sectors of the economy. Oil production has not been rising very quickly in recent years (Figure 6 below), so even a small increase by the industry can reduce net availability of oil to society.  Some of this additional oil use is difficult to avoid. For example, if oil is located in a remote area, employees frequently need to live at great distance from the site and commute using oil-based means of transport.


Figure 6. World crude oil production (including condensate) based primarily on US Energy Information Administration data, with trend lines fitted by the author.

(c) Declining EROEI puts pressure on other limited resources as well. For example, there can be water limits, when fracking is used, leading to conflicts with other use, such as agricultural use of water. Pollution can become an increasingly large problem as well.

(d) High oil investment cost can be expected to slow down new investment, and keep oil supply from rising as fast world demand rises. To the extent that oil is necessary for economic growth, this slowdown will tend to constrain growth in other economic sectors.

Airline Industry as an Example of Impacts on Discretionary Industries

High oil prices can be expected to cause discretionary sectors to shrink back in size. In many respects, the airline industry is the “canary in the coal mine,” showing how discretionary sectors can be forced to shrink.

In the case of commercial air lines, when oil prices are high, consumers have less money to spend on vacation travel, so demand for airline tickets falls. At the same time, the price of fuel to operate airplanes rises, making the cost of operating airplanes higher. Business travel is less affected, but still is affected to some extent, because some long-distance business travel is discretionary.

Airlines respond by consolidating and cutting back in whatever ways they can. Salaries of pilots and stewardesses are reduced. Pension plans are scaled back. New more fuel-efficient aircraft are purchased, and less fuel-efficient aircraft are phased out. Less profitable routes are closed. The industry still experiences bankruptcy after bankruptcy, and merger after merger. If oil prices stabilize for a while, this process stabilizes a bit, but doesn’t really stop. Eventually, the commercial airline industry may shrink to such an extent that necessary business flights become difficult.

There are many discretionary sectors besides the airline industry waiting in the wings to shrink.  While oil prices have been high for several years, their effects have not yet been fully incorporated into discretionary sectors. This is the case because governments have been able to use deficit spending and artificially low interest rates to shield consumers from the “real” impacts of high-priced oil.

Governments are now finding that debt cannot be ramped up indefinitely. As taxes need to be raised and benefits decreased, and as interest rates are forced higher, consumers will again see discretionary income squeezed. New cutbacks are likely to hit additional discretionary sectors, such as restaurants, the “arts,” higher education, and medicine for the elderly.

It would be very helpful if new unconventional oil developments would fix the problem of high-cost oil, but it is difficult to see how they will. They are high-cost to develop and slow to ramp up. Governments are in such poor financial condition that they need taxes from wherever they can get them–revenue of oil and gas operators is a likely target. To the extent that unconventional oil and gas production does ramp up, my expectation is that it will be too little, too late, and too high-priced.

Note:

[1] Wages include private and government wages, proprietors’ income, and taxes paid by employers on behalf of employees. They do not include transfer payments, such as Social Security.

This post originally appeared on Our Finite World.

Why Malthus Got His Forecast Wrong

Most of us have heard that Thomas Malthus made a forecast in 1798 that the world would run short of food. He expected that this would happen because in a world with limited agricultural land, food supply would fail to rise as rapidly as population. In fact, at the time of his writing, he believed that population was already in danger of outstripping food supply. As a result, he expected that a great famine would ensue.

Most of us don’t understand why he was wrong. A common misbelief is that the reason he was wrong is that he failed to anticipate improved technology. My analysis suggests that there were really two underlying factors which enabled the development and widespread use of technology. These were (1) the beginning of fossil fuel use, which ramped up immediately after his writing, and (2) a ramp up in non-governmental debt after World War II, which enabled the rapid uptake of new technology such the sale of cars and trucks. Without fossil fuels, availability of materials such as metal and glass (needed for most types of technology) would have been severely restricted. Without increased debt, common people would not have been able to afford the new types of high-tech products that businesses were able to produce.

This issue of why Malthus’s forecast was wrong is relevant today, as we grapple with the issues of world hunger and of oil consumption that is not growing as rapidly as consumers would like–certainly it is not keeping oil prices down at historic levels.

What Malthus Didn’t Anticipate

Malthus was writing immediately before fossil fuel use started to ramp up.


Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent

The availability of coal allowed more and better metal products (such as metal plows, barbed wire fences, and trains for long distance transport). These and other inventions allowed the number of farmers to decrease at the same time the amount of food produced (per farmer and in total) rose. On a per capita basis, energy consumption rose (Figure 2) allowing farmers and others more efficient ways of growing crops and manufacturing goods.


Figure 2. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption (based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent) by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

If it hadn’t been for the fossil fuel ramp up, starting first with coal, Malthus might in fact have been right. As it was, population was able to ramp up quickly after the addition of fossil fuels.


Figure 3. World Population, based on Angus Maddison estimates, interpolated where necessary.

A person can see that there was a particularly steep rise in population, right after World War II, in the 1950s and 1960s (Figure 3). This is when oil consumption mushroomed (Figure 2, above), and when oil enabled better transport of crops to market, use of tractors and other farm equipment, and medical advances such as antibiotics. The Green Revolution allowed agricultural production to expand greatly during this period. It used fossil fuels (particularly oil and natural gas) to enable the synthetic fertilizers, irrigation, hybrid seed, herbicides and pesticides, allowing increased food production.

It is likely that increased consumer and business debt following World War II (Figure 4) also played a role in the post-World War II ramp up.


Figure 4. US Debt excluding Federal Debt as Ratio to GDP, based on Z1 Debt data of the Federal Reserve and GDP from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The reason I say that debt likely played a role in this ramp is because at the end of World War II, people were, on average, pretty poor. The United States had recently been through the Depression. Many were soldiers coming back from war, without jobs. Without a ramp up in factory work and related employment, many would be unemployed. A ramp up in debt fixed several problems at once:

  • Allowed low-paid workers funds to buy new products, such as cars, that used oil
  • Allowed entrepreneurs funds to set up factories
  • Allowed pipelines to be built, and other support for ramped up oil extraction
  • Provided jobs for many coming home from the war effort

The debt ramp up, and the resulting increase in oil production, raised living standards. Figure 2 shows that the increase in per capita energy consumption was far greater in the 1950 to 1970 period when oil production was ramped up than in the coal ramp-up between 1840 and 1920. The long coal ramp-up period does not appear to have been accompanied by such a big ramp-up in non-governmental debt.

Tentative Conclusion

A tentative conclusion might be that as long as we can keep ramping up availability of energy products and debt, Malthus’s views are not very relevant.

Of course, things aren’t looking as benign today. World oil production has been close to flat since about 2005 (Figure 5).


Figure 5. World crude oil production (including condensate) based primarily on US Energy Information Administration data, with trend lines fitted by the author.

The world has been able to increase production of other fuels to compensate so far. Unfortunately, the big increase is in coal (Figures 1 and 2). This mostly relates to growth in the economies of Asian countries, which are large users of coal.

The cost of oil has more than tripled in the last ten years. The higher cost of oil is a problem, because it leads to recession, unemployment, and governmental debt problems in oil-importing countries. See my posts High-Priced Fuel Syndrome, Understanding Our Oil-Related Fiscal Cliff, and The Close Tie Between Energy Consumption, Employment, and Recession.

Continued increase in debt now seems to be running into limits. Federal government debt is in the news every day, and non-government debt seems to be contracting relative to GDP, based on Figure 4.

Looking Ahead

I am not sure that we can conclude that we are headed for catastrophe the day after tomorrow, but the graphs give a person reason to pause to think about the situation.

The reason I write posts is to try to pull together the big picture. If we only look at the latest new item forecasting huge increases in tight oil production or talking about 200 years of natural gas, it is easy to reach the conclusion that all of our problems are past. If we look at the big picture, they clearly are not.

Debt problems are closely related to high oil prices in recent years. Debt problems are today’s issue, and they are not being considered in the huge oil and gas forecasts we see everywhere. The new tight oil and the new shale gas resources likely will need to be financed by increasing amounts of debt, so there is a direct connection with debt. There is also an indirect connection, through governmental debt problems, higher taxes, and the likely resulting recession (leading to lower oil prices, perhaps too low to sustain the high cost of extraction).

Also, it is interesting that the supposedly huge increases in US oil supply don’t really translate to any discernible bump in world oil supply in Figure 5.

We know that the world is finite, and that in some way, at some point in the future, easily extractable supplies of many types of resources will run short. We also know that pollution (at least the way humans define pollution) can be expected to become an increasing problem, as an increasing number of humans inhabit the earth, and as we pull increasingly “dilute” resources from the ground.

Based on earth’s long-term history, and on the experience of other finite systems, it is clear that at some point, perhaps hundreds or thousands of years from now, the earth will cycle to a new state–a new climate with different dominant species. It may turn out that these new species are plants, rather than animals. The new dominant species will likely ones that can benefit from our waste. Humans would of course like to push this possibility back as long as we can.

At this point, my goal is to pull together a view of the big picture, in a way that other analysts usually miss. The picture may not be pretty, but we at least need to understand what the issues are. Is the shift in the cycle very close at hand? If so, what should our response be?

This article originally appeared on Our Finite World here.

#6 – Naked Oil

The Oil Drum staff wishes Happy Holidays to all in our readership community. We are on a brief hiatus during this period, and will be back with our regular publications early in the new year. In the meantime, we present the top ten of best read Oil Drum posts in 2012. The fifth in this series is a post by Chris Cook, former compliance and market supervision director of the International Petroleum Exchange.

All is not as it appears in the global oil markets, which have become entirely dysfunctional and no longer fit for its purpose, in my view. I believe that the market price is about to collapse as it did in 2008, and that this will mark the end of an era in which the market has been run by and on behalf of trading and financial intermediaries.

In this post I forecast the imminent death of the crude oil market and I identify the killers; the re-birth of the global market in crude oil in new form will be the subject of another post.

Global Oil Pricing

The “Brent Complex” is aptly named, being an increasingly baroque collection of contracts relating to North Sea crude oil, originally based upon the Shell “Brent” quality crude oil contract that originated in the 1980s.

It now consists of physical and forward BFOE (the Brent, Forties, Oseberg and Ekofisk fields) contracts in North Sea crude oil; and the key ICE Europe BFOE futures contract, which is not a deliverable contract and is purely a financial bet based upon the price in the BFOE forward market.

There is also a whole plethora of other ‘over the counter’ (OTC) contracts involving not only BFOE, but also a huge transatlantic “arbitrage” market between the BFOE contract and the US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) contract originated by NYMEX, but cloned by ICE Europe.

North Sea crude oil production has been in secular decline for many years, and even though the North Sea crude oil benchmark contract was extended from the Brent quality to become BFOE, there are now only about 60 cargoes each of 600,000 barrels of BFOE quality crude oil (and as low as 50 when maintenance is under way) delivered out of the North Sea each month, worth at current prices about $4 billion.

It is the ‘Dated’ or spot price of these cargoes – as reported by the oil price reporting service Platts in the ‘Platts Window’– that is the benchmark for global oil prices either directly (about 60%) or indirectly, through BFOE/WTI arbitrage for most of the rest.

It will be seen that traders of the scale of the oil majors and sovereign oil companies do not really have to put much money at risk by their standards in order to acquire enough cargoes to move or support the global market price via the BFOE market.

Indeed, the evolution of the BFOE market has been a response to declining production and the fact that traders could not resist manipulating the market by buying up contracts and “squeezing” those who had sold forward oil they did not have, causing them very substantial losses. The fewer cargoes produced, the easier the underlying market is to manipulate.

As a very knowledgeable insider puts it….

The Platts window is the most abused market mechanism in the world.

But since all of this short term ‘micro’ manipulation or trading (choose your language) has been going on among consenting adults in a wholesale market inaccessible to the man in the street, it is pretty much a zero sum game, and for many years the UK regulators responsible for it – ie the Financial Services Authority and its predecessor - have essentially ignored it, with a “light touch” wholesale market regime.

If the history of commodity markets shows us anything, it is that if producers can manipulate or support prices then they will, and there are many examples of which the classic cases are the 1985 tin crisis, and Yasuo Hamanaka’s 10-year manipulation of the copper market on behalf of Sumitomo Corporation.

When I gave evidence to the UK Parliament’s Treasury Select Committee three years ago at the time of the last crude oil bubble, I recommended a major transatlantic regulatory investigation into the operation of the Brent Complex and in particular in respect of the relationship between financial investors and producers, and the role of intermediaries in that relationship.

I also proposed root and branch reform of global energy market architecture, which in my view can only come from producer nations and consumer nations collectively, because intermediary turkeys will not vote for Christmas.

A Meme is Born

In the early 1990s, Goldman Sachs created a new way of investing in commodities. The Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI) enabled investment in a basket of commodities – of which oil and oil products was the greatest component – and the new GSCI fund invested by buying futures contracts in the relevant commodity markets which were 'rolled over' from month to month.

The genius dash of marketing fairy dust that was sprinkled on this concept was to call investment in the fund a ‘hedge against inflation’. Investors in the fund were able to offload the perceived risk of holding dollars and instead take on the risk of holding commodities.

The smartest kids on the block were not slow to realise that the GSCI – which was structurally ‘long’ of commodity markets – was taking a long term position which was precisely the opposite of a commodity producer who is structurally ‘short’ of commodities because they routinely sell futures contracts in order to insure themselves against a fall in the dollar price; ie commodity producers are offloading the risk of owning commodities, and taking on the risk of holding dollars.

So, in 1995 a marriage was arranged.

BP and Goldman Sachs get Married

From 1995 to 2007 BP and Goldman Sachs were joined at the head, having the same chairman – the Irish former head of the World Trade Organisation, Peter Sutherland. From 1999 until he fell from grace in 2007 through revelations about his private life, BP’s CEO Lord Browne was also on the Goldman Sachs board.

The outcome of the relationship was that BP were in a position, if they were so minded, to obtain interest-free funding via Goldman Sachs, from GSCI investors through the simple expedient of a sale and repurchase agreement - ie BP could sell title to oil with an agreement to buy back the oil later at an agreed price.

The outcome would be a financial ‘lease’ of oil by BP to GSCI investors and the monetisation of part of BP’s oil inventory. Such agreements in relation to bilateral physical oil transactions are typically concluded privately, and are invisible to the organised markets. However, any risk management contracts which an intermediary such as Goldman Sachs may enter into as a counter-party to both a fund and a producer are visible on the futures exchanges.

Due to the invisibility of the change of ownership of inventory ‘information asymmetry’ is created where some market participants are in possession of key market information which others do not have. This ownership by investors of inventory in the custody of a producer has been termed ‘Dark Inventory’

I must make quite clear at this point that only BP and Goldman Sachs know whether they actually did create Dark Inventory by leasing oil in this way, and readers must make up their own minds on that. But I do know that in their shoes, what I would have done, particularly bearing in mind that such commodity leasing is a perfectly legitimate financing stratagem that has been in routine use in the precious metals and base metal markets for a very long time indeed.

Planet Hype

The ‘inflation hedging’ meme gradually gained traction and a new breed of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and structured investment products were created to invest in commodities. In 2005, Shell entered quite transparently into a relationship with ETF Securities which enabled them to cut out as middlemen both investment banks and the futures market casinos, and with them the substantial rent both collect.

Other investment banks also started to offer similar products and a bandwagon began to roll. From 2005 to 2008, we therefore saw an increasing flood of dollars into the oil market, and this was accompanied by the most shameless and often completely misleading hype, and led to a bubble in the price.

There was (and still is) no piece of news which cannot be interpreted as a reason to buy crude oil. The classic case was US environmental restrictions on oil products, which led to restricted supply, and to price increases in oil products. Now, anyone would think that reduced refinery throughput will reduce the demand for crude oil and should logically lead to a fall in crude oil prices.

But on Planet Hype faulty economic logic – the view that higher product prices are necessarily associated with higher crude oil prices – was instead used as justification for the higher crude oil prices which resulted from the financial buying of crude oil attracted by the hype.

You couldn’t make it up: but unfortunately, they could, and they did.

More worrying than mere hype was that a very significant amount of oil inventory had actually changed hands from producers to investors. Only those directly involved were aware that below the visible part of the oil market iceberg lurked massive unseen ‘Dark Inventory’.

Greedy Speculators and Hoarding

The pervasive narrative among people and politicians, and which is spread by a campaigning press, is of ‘greedy speculators’ who are ‘hoarding’ commodities and ‘gouging’ consumers in search of a transaction profit.

There is no better example of this meme than the UK’s Daily Mail scoop on 20th November 2009.

Here we saw pictures of shoals of some 54 shark-like tankers loaded with oil and lurking off the UK coast with millions of barrels of ‘hoarded’ crude oil, some of them having been there since April 2009. The Mail’s story was that these tankers were full of hoarded oil whose greedy owners were waiting for prices to rise before gouging the public.

The reality was rather different.

The motivation of the investors involved was not greed but fear. The Fed had been busily printing another trillion in QE dollars to buy securities and the sellers, and other investors aimed not to make a dollar profit but rather to avoid a dollar loss.

So they poured $ billions into oil index funds and similar products and the oil leases/loans which accommodated these funds’ financial purchases of oil had the effect of raising forward prices and of depressing the spot price, thereby creating what is known as a market ‘in contango’.

When the forward price is high enough in a contango market, what happens is that traders will borrow money to buy crude oil now, and sell the oil at the higher price in the future. Provided the contango is high enough, they will cover interest costs and the cost of chartering and insuring the vessel and its cargo, and lock in a profit for the trader at the end.

This is exactly what traders did through the summer of 2009, until the winter demand by refineries for crude oil and a reduction in the flow of QE dollars into the market combined to see the stored oil gradually delivered to refineries and the sharks depart the UK shores.

The point is that the widely held perception of high oil prices being the fault of hoarders and greedy speculators is – apart from very short term ‘spikes’ in the price - entirely misconceived. And even when speculators do dabble in oil markets, they are almost always pillaged by traders and investment banks with much better market information, which is probably what is happening right now.

The Bubble Bursts

In 2008 there was an influx of genuine speculators in search of short term transaction profit. The motivation of inflation hedgers, on the other hand, is the avoidance of loss, which leads to different market behaviour and the perverse outcome that they have been responsible for causing the very inflation they sought to avoid.

The price eventually reached levels at which demand for products began to be affected and shrewd market observers began to position themselves for the inevitable bursting of the obvious bubble. But those market traders and speculators who correctly diagnosed that the price would collapse were unaware of the existence of the Dark Inventory of pre-sold oil sitting invisibly like an iceberg under the water.

Traders who had sold off-exchange Brent/BFOE contracts or deliverable WTI contracts found themselves ‘squeezed’ because title to the crude oil which they thought would be available at a cheaper price to fulfil their contractual commitment had been ‘pre-sold’ to financial investors. This meant that they had to scramble to buy oil at a higher price than they had expected.

The price spiked to $147 per barrel, and then declined over several months all the way to $35 per barrel or so, as many of the index fund investors pulled their money out of the market in late 2008 and joined a stampede to the safety of US Treasury Bills. What was happening here was that the Dark Inventory which had been created flooded back into the market, and overwhelmed the market’s capacity to absorb it.

Convergence and Futures Pricing

The oil market price is – by definition – the price at which title to dollars is exchanged for title to crude oil.

But there is very considerable debate among economists about the effect of derivative contracts on this spot market price, and whether it is the case that the futures market converges on the physical market price or vice versa.

Now, in the case of a deliverable exchange futures contract, a price is set for delivery of a standardised quantity of a particular specification of a commodity at a particular location within a specified period of time. If that contract is held open until the expiry date and time then there will indeed be a spot delivery and payment against documents at the original price. in accordance with the exchange’s contractual terms.

But the key point is that this futures contract will not be held open to the expiry date at the original price unless the physical market price – which is set by physical supply and demand – is actually at that price at that specific point in time. If the physical price is lower or higher, then the futures contract will be closed out through a matching purchase or sale and a profit or loss will be taken.

I managed the International Petroleum Exchange’s Gas Oil contract for six years, which was deliverable in North West Europe, and the final minutes of trading before contract expiry were Europe’s greatest game of ‘chicken’.

Moreover, no IPE broker in his right mind would dream (because the broker was responsible to the London Clearing House for defaults) of letting a financial investor with no capability of making or taking delivery hold a position into the last month before delivery. And if a broker was not in his right mind, it was my job to act under the exchange rules to ensure such positions were liquidated.

In other markets, the ability to own physical commodities – eg through ownership of warehouse warrants – is much more straightforward for investors. But the logistics of oil and oil products are such that financial investors are simply incapable of participating in the physical market. In my view, the use of position limits for financial investors in crude oil and oil products is of little or no use if the clearing house, exchange, and brokers are doing their job.

Finally, now that the US WTI contract is just the tail on the Brent/BFOE physical market dog, this discussion has moved on, since the ICE Brent/BFOE futures contract is in fact settled in cash against an index based on trading in the BFOE forward market, with no physical delivery. It is simply a straightforward financial bet in relation to the routinely manipulated underlying BFOE physical market price - ie, the question of convergence does not arise.

Anything but Dollars

With interest rates at zero per cent, and with the Federal Reserve Bank printing dollars through QE, a tidal wave of money flowed into equity and commodity markets purely as an alternative to the dollar, and they did so through a proliferation of funds set up by banks.

Note here that the beauty of such funds for the banks is that it is the investors who take the market risk, not the banks, and the marketing and operation of funds has become a very profitable use of scarce bank capital.

So a flood of financial purchasers of oil were looking for producers willing and able to sell or lease oil to them.

Producers in Pain

Producing nations who had massively expanded their spending in line with a perceived ‘sellers’ market’ paradigm where they had the whip hand, were badly hurt by the 2008 price collapse and OPEC took action to restrict production.

But might some OPEC members or other producing nations have gone further than this?

What is clear is that the price rose swiftly in 2009 and then remained roughly in a range between $70 and $90 per barrel until early 2011 when twin shocks hit the oil market. Firstly, there was the supply shock in Libya which saw 1.5m bbl per day of top quality crude oil leave the market, and secondly, the demand shock of Fukushima, which saw a dramatic switch from nuclear to carbon-fuelled energy.

My thesis is that Shell directly, and others indirectly, were not the only ones leasing oil to funds. I believe that it is probable that the US and Saudis/GCC reached – with the help of the best financial brains money can rent – a geo-political understanding with the aim that the oil price is firstly capped at an upper level which does not lead to politically embarrassing high US gasoline prices; and secondly, collared at a level which provides a satisfactory level of Saudi/GCC oil revenues.

The QE Pump Stops

In June 2011, the QE pump which had been keeping commodity and equity markets inflated and correlated stopped, and price levels began to decline. Consumer demand – as opposed to financial demand – for commodities had also been affected not only by high prices, but by reduced demand from developed nations for finished goods. In September 2011, more than $9bn of index fund money pulled out of the markets for the safe haven of T-bills.

What happened as a result was that the regular rolling over of oil leases, and the free dollar funding for producers of their oil inventory ceased. So the leased oil returned to the ownership of the producers, while the dollars returned to the ownership of the funds.

Since the ‘repurchases’ were no longer occurring, the forward oil price fell below the current price, and this ‘backwardation’ was misinterpreted by market traders and speculators. They believed that the backwardation was – as it usually is - a sign that current demand was high and increasing relative to forward demand, whereas in this false market the current demand is unchanged but the forward demand is decreasing.

As in 2008, speculators and traders were again suckered too soon into the market, and this led to profits at their expense to those with asymmetric information, and a ‘pop’ upwards in the price as they were forced to close speculative short positions. My information is that a major oil market trader was successfully able to ‘squeeze’ the Brent/BFOE market on at least two occasions in late 2011 precisely because they were aware of the true situation of inventory ownership, and the rest of the market was not.

As an insider puts it……

You can’t have proper price discovery when half of the inventory is being sold elsewhere at a different price. On exchange physical doesn’t even exist. Futures are converging to physical, but only the physical which is visible for Platts assessment.

….pointing out that transactions in respect of physical ownership of oil do not take place on an exchange, and that there is effectively a ‘two tier’ market. Only a proportion of spot or physical Brent/BFOE transactions therefore actually form the basis of the Platts assessment of the global benchmark oil price.

Enter Iran

In my view, there is little or no chance of military action against Iran, and having been to Iran five times in recent years, and as recently as two months ago, there is much I could write on this subject.

While financial sanctions have been pretty smart, and increasingly effective so far, the medium and long term effect of the proposed EU oil embargo – which will in fact affect only a pretty minimal and easily accommodated amount of demand which is evaporating anyway – is more apparent than real.

While there would undoubtedly be a short term price rise – cheered on by the usual suspects – in the medium and long term the embargo will act to reduce oil prices. This is because Iran will necessarily have to sell oil at below market price to China and others, and since the market is over-supplied, particularly in Europe, this will undercut market prices generally.

Mexico has routinely hedged oil production for years, and Qatar – who are very shrewd operators – began to do the same in November 2011 since they expect the price to fall this year. In the short term the Iran ‘crisis’ is in my view being hyped for all it is worth to entice yet more unwary speculators into the oil market so that other producers may sell their production forward at high prices while they last before the inevitable and imminent collapse.

Current Position

If you believe the investment banks – who all have oil funds to sell to the credulous – Far Eastern demand is holding up, supplies are tight, and stocks are low, so prices are set to rise to maybe $120 or above in 2012, even in the absence of fisticuffs involving Iran.

I take a different view. I see real demand – as opposed to financial demand and stock-piling, such as in the copper market – declining in 2012 as the financial crisis continues at best, and deepens at worst, particularly in the EU. Stocks are low because bank financing of stock is disappearing as banks retrench, and it makes no sense for traders to hold stocks if forward prices are lower than today’s price.

As for supplies, US crude oil production is probably higher, and consumption lower, than widely appreciated. Elsewhere, there is plenty of oil available now that much of the Dark Inventory has been liquidated, and this liquidation was probably why in November 2011 we saw the highest Saudi monthly deliveries in 30 years.

Finally, we see North Sea oil being shipped – for the first time since 2008 – half way around the world to find Far East buyers. We also see Petroplus, a major independent Swiss refiner, crippled by inflated crude oil prices, and shutting down three refineries because demand for its products has disappeared, and it can no longer finance crude oil purchases now that banks have pulled its credit lines.

In my world, refineries closed due to reduced demand for their products imply a reduction in demand for crude oil: but not, apparently, on the Planet Hype of investment banks with funds to sell.

History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme, and my forecast is that the crude oil price will fall dramatically during the first half of 2012, possibly as low as $45 to $55 per barrel.

Then What?

As the price collapses we will see producer nations generally and OPEC in particular once again going into panic mode, and genuinely cutting production. We will also see the next great regulatory scandal where a legion of risk-averse retail investors who have lost most or all of their investment will not be pleased to hear that they were warned on Page 5, paragraph (b); clause (iv) of their customer agreement that markets could go down as well as up.

At this point, I hope and expect that consumer and producer nations might finally get their heads together and agree that whereas the former seeks a stable low price, and the latter a stable high price, they actually have an interest – even if intermediaries do not – in agreeing a formula for a stable fair price.

We can’t solve 21st century problems with 20th century solutions and I shall address the subject of a resilient global energy market architecture in my next post.

IEA Oil Forecast Unrealistically High; Misses Diminishing Returns

The International Energy Agency (IEA) provides unrealistically high oil forecasts in its new 2012 World Energy Outlook (WEO). It claims, among other things, that the United States will become the world’s largest oil producer by around 2020, and North America will become a net oil exporter by around 2030.


Figure 1. Author’s interpretation of IEA Forecast of Future US Oil Production under “New Policies” Scenario, based on information provided in IEA’s 2012 World Energy Outlook.

Figure 1 shows that this increase comes solely from the expected rise in tight oil production and natural gas liquids. The idea that we will become an exporter in later years occurs despite falling production, because “demand” will drop so much.

The oil price forecasts underlying these and other forecasts in the report are approximately as follows:


Figure 2. Author’s interpretation of future average world oil prices, as provided by IEA in their 2012 WEO report. (Forecast provided by IEA is more “concave downward”.) Historical amounts are based on BP 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy amounts.

One reason the WEO 2012 estimates are unreasonable is because the oil prices shown are unrealistically low relative to the production amounts forecast in the report. This seems to occur because the IEA misses the problem of diminishing returns. As the easy-to-produce oil becomes more depleted, and we need to move to more difficult reservoirs, the cost of extraction increases.

In fact, there is evidence that the “tight” oil referenced in Exhibit 1 is already starting to reach production limits, at current prices. The only way these production limits might be reasonably overcome is with higher oil prices–much higher than the IEA is assuming in any of its forecasts.

Higher oil prices cause a huge problem because of their impact on the world economy. The IEA in fact mentions that current high oil prices are already acting as a brake on the global economy in its first slide for the press. Higher oil prices also mean that investment costs required to reach target production levels will be even higher than forecast by the IEA, adding another impediment to reaching its forecast production levels.

If higher prices put the economies of oil importing nations into recession, then oil prices will drop lower, reducing the incentive to invest in new oil production infrastructure. In fact, we could find ourselves reaching “peak oil” because of an economic dilemma: while there seems to be plenty of oil available, the cost of extracting it may be reaching a point where it is more expensive than consumers can afford. As a result, some oil that we know about, and have been counting as reserves, will have to be left in the ground.

The IMF has recently done modeling that is relevant to this issue in a working paper called “Oil and the World Economy: Some Possible Futures.” This analysis may provide some insight as to what the real situation will be.

The Problem of Diminishing Returns

One issue that the IEA has not properly modeled is the issue of declining resource quality, leading to diminishing returns and a rising “real” (inflation adjusted) cost of production. This situation is often described as reflecting declining Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI).

The reason diminishing returns are a problem is because when a producer decides to extract oil, or gas or coal, the producer looks for the cheapest, easiest to extract, resource first. It is only when this resource is mostly depleted that the producer will seek locations where more expensive, harder to extract resource is available. Thus, over time, the inflation adjusted cost of extracting a resource tends to increase.


Figure 3. Author’s illustration of impacts of declining resource quality.

In terms of the triangle shown, producers tend to start at the top, with the “best” of the resource, and work their way toward the bottom. One result of this approach is that the cost per unit of production tends to rise, even as there are technology advances and efficiency gains, because the quality of the resource is declining.

Reserves tend to increase over time with this approach, because as producers work their way down the triangle in the diagram, they always see an increasing quantity of lower quality resources. The new reserves are increasingly expensive to extract, in inflation adjusted terms. There is no flashing light that says, “Above this price, customers won’t be able to afford to purchase this resource any more,” though. As a result, the increasingly low quality reserves get added to reported amounts, even though in some cases, the cost of products made with these reserves (say gasoline or diesel) will send economies into recession.

It should be noted that the issue of diminishing returns exists for almost any kind of resource. It exists for uranium extraction, since there is always more available, just harder to reach, or in lower concentration. Diminishing returns exists for gold, copper, and for nearly any other kind of metal. This means we often need more oil for metal extraction and processing, as we dig deeper or find ore that is mixed with a higher proportion of waste product.

The problem of diminishing returns also seems to hold for renewables. The first biofuel developed was ethanol from corn, since the process of making alcohol from corn has been known for ages. Newer approaches, such as ethanol from biomass and biofuel from algae, tend to be much more expensive. As a result, when we add new biofuel production, it is likely to be more expensive, and thus harder for the customer to afford. If we want it, we will need increasingly high subsidies.

Wind energy is also subject to diminishing returns. Onshore wind was developed first, and it is far less expensive than offshore wind, which was developed later. Early units of wind added to an electric grid do not disturb the electric grid to too great an extent. Later units of wind energy add increasingly large costs: long distance transmission lines, electrical storage, and other balancing–something that is generally overlooked in making early cost analyses.

Diminishing returns seem even to happen for energy efficiency. We have been working on energy efficiency a very long time. We have a tendency to pick the low-hanging fruit first. Later expenditure for efficiency may be less cost-effective.

Why Light Tight Oil Won’t Increase as in Figure 1

Tight oil, also referred to as “shale oil,” is supposed to be the United States’ oil savior, if we believe the IEA. The Bakken and Eagle Ford plays are the best known examples.

Rune Likvern of The Oil Drum has shown that drilling wells in the Bakken already seems to be reaching diminishing returns. The choicest locations appear to have been drilled first, and the locations being drilled now give poorer yields. He has also shown that the average well in the Bakken now requires a price of $80 to $90 barrel, which is close to the recent selling price. If increased production is desired, the price of oil will need to start increasing (and keep increasing) to provide the incentive needed to drill wells in less-choice location.

There are other issues as well. If there is a need to drill an increasing number of wells just to stay even, or an even larger number, to increase the amount of oil produced, we start to reach limits on many kinds: number of rigs available, number of workers available, miles driven for water to be used for fracking. Perhaps the issue that will limit production first, though, is limits on debt available to producers. Rune Likvern has also shown that cash flows from tight oil extraction tend to run “in the red,” so an increasing amount of debt financing is needed as operations ramp up. At some point, companies hit their credit limit and have to stop adding new wells until cash flow catches up.

Evidence Regarding Rate of Growth of Oil Extraction Costs

Bernstein Research recently published information showing that the marginal cost of oil production was $92 barrel in 2011 for non-OPEC, non Former Soviet Union oil producers at the 90th percentile of production. This cost is increasing at 14% per year (or about 12% a year in inflation adjusted terms). Even at the median marginal cost level, costs appear to be increasing at a compound annual growth rate of 9% (or about 7% in inflation adjusted terms). See also this FTAlphaville post.

If we take the $92 barrel cost in 2011 at the 90th percentile of production and increase it by 7% a year (arguably we should be using 12% per year), the real cost will be $169 barrel in 2020, and $467 a barrel in 2035. These are far in excess of the IEA oil price estimates shown on Figure 2. There is no reason to believe that Bakken and other tight oil production costs would be substantially cheaper.

For Further Study, Based on a Recent IMF Analysis

It is very clear to me that the IEA oil estimates way too high, unless prices are much higher. Of course, prices can’t really be much higher, or the economy will go into recession. As a result, production both for the US and the rest of the world is likely to be much lower than forecast by the IEA.

It would be useful to have a better estimate of exactly where the world is headed. One way this might be done is by adapting the indications of a new IMF working paper called Oil and the World Economy: Some Possible Futures. The working paper considers some unknown time, between now and 2020, when the rate of increase in oil supply is assumed to decrease by 1%. While it is not stated in the report, it appears to me that this is similar to what actually happened about 2005, when the rate of oil production increase dropped from 1.3%” annual increase to 0.1%, a 1.2% decrease. (Figure 4, below).


Figure 4. World crude oil production (including condensate) based primarily on US Energy Information Administration data, with trend lines fitted by the author.

I have a few observations regarding such an adaption:

(a) The model could be adjusted to consider the fact that a drop in the trend rate of about 1.2% actually took place in 2005, rather than simply assuming that a 1% decrease will happen at some unspecified point in the future. It appears to me that shift in the oil extraction trend line underlies many of the world’s problems in the last several years.

(b) The treatment in the model of diminishing returns should be adjusted. It is my understanding that this is currently handled assuming a 2% annual increase in real costs of production. The model could be adjusted to reflect a more realistic (higher) annual cost in oil production, and indirectly, required selling price.

(c) The authors of the IMF report suggest building a more resource-based model, and I would agree that this would be helpful. There are many interlinkages that the current model cannot adequately capture. A more resource-driven model, especially one that considers balance sheets of world governments, would appear to be better.

My View of What is Happening Now

As noted above, world crude oil production seems to have hit a plateau, starting about 2005. This is working its way through the economy with varying effects over time. The major effect at this point of time seems to be on the finances of governments that import oil, although it started earlier, with different aspects more apparent.

In general, what happens as we reach a situation of diminishing returns, and thus rising real oil prices, seems to be as follows:

As the price of oil rises, the price of food and commuting tend to rise. Both of these are considered essential by most consumers, so consumers cut back in discretionary spending, to have sufficient funds for the essentials. This leads to layoffs in discretionary industries, such as vacation travel and restaurant eating. The rise in laid off workers leads to an increase in debt defaults, and problems for banks. Housing and commercial real estate prices tend to fall, because of reduced demand, further adding to debt default problems.

Governments of oil importers get drawn into this in many ways: (1) Their revenues are reduced, because they receive less tax revenue from people who are laid off from work and from businesses with fewer sales. (2) They are asked to prop up failing banks, and to stimulate the economy. (3) They are also asked to pay workers who have been laid off from work. The net of all of this is that the governments of many oil importers find themselves with huge budget deficits, and declining ability to fix these deficits. This pattern is precisely what we are seeing today in many of Eurozone countries, the United States, Japan.

The statements about rising oil production in the US are just a distraction. Diminishing returns mean that US oil production will never increase very much. Oil costs will remain high, and this will be the real issue disturbing economies around the world.

Abridged version of a post at Our Finite World.

Can an Economy Learn to Live with Increasingly High Oil Prices?

Prof. James Hamilton of University of California recently wrote a post called Thresholds in the economic effects of oil prices. In it, he concludes

As U.S. retail gasoline prices once again near $4.00 a gallon, does this pose a threat to the economy and President Obama’s prospects for re-election? My answer is no.

EDIT - I originally wrote this post thinking that Prof. Hamilton was looking at a broader question: Can an economy learn to live with increasingly high oil prices? After looking again at his article again, I realize that he is talking about a narrow question: Using the figures he was looking at (average gasoline prices across all grades), prices were for the week of Sept. 17 near $4 a gallon, as they had been several times in the past, as they bounced up and down.

In that context, what he says is far closer to right than what my analysis of the broader question of whether an economy can learn to live with increasingly high oil prices, below, would suggest. There is a difference, because gasoline prices are not too closely tied to oil prices in short term fluctuations, and because the issue is likely to be as much one of consumer sentiment as anything else, as long as the issue is simply one of gasoline prices in a not-too-wide range. But I think there are some longer-term, more general issues we should be concerned about.

My Analysis of the More General Question: Can an Economy Learn to Live with Increasingly High Oil Prices?

As I see it, increasingly high oil prices weaken an economy because they reduce discretionary spending and indirectly cause people to be laid-off from work. They have many other adverse effects as well–they tend to raise food prices, with similar effect. The laid-off workers require unemployment compensation payments, and the same time they are contributing less tax revenue. All of this creates a huge imbalance between revenue collected by governments and expenditures paid out. If oil prices rise again, it will tend to make the imbalance worse.

An economy such as the United States can cover up the problems caused by high oil prices with variety of financial techniques. In my view, high consumer confidence measures the success of those cover-ups, more than it measures the actual underlying situation. One way the US government has managed to cover up how badly the economy is being hurt by high oil prices is by spending far more than the government takes in as revenue. This has happened continuously since late 2008, with outgo exceeding income by more than 50% each year, even though the country is supposedly not in recession.


Figure 1. US Government Income and Outlay, based on historical tables from the White House Office of Management and Budget (Table 1.1). Amounts include off-budget spending, such as Social Security and Medicare, in addition to on-budget spending. *2012 is estimated. Office of Management and Budget/Historical Tables.

The amount consumers have available to spend on cars and gasoline is very much affected by deficit spending. With deficit spending, government employment can remain high and transfer payments can continue, without anyone really “paying” for these costs, putting more money into the economy to spend on oil and cars.

There are other government programs as well. Interest rates on homes and new cars are being kept at record lows, leaving consumers with more money to spend on cars and gasoline. Low interest rates and low taxes also stimulate employers to hire more employees. Quantitative easing helps contribute to higher stock market prices, and makes it easier for the federal government to keep adding large amount of debt.

To me, the fact that the economy is not currently completely “in the tank” speaks more to the success of stimulus programs than having anything to do with adaptation to higher price levels. Countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy do not have the luxury of being able to hide the impacts of their high cost of oil. They are doing less well financially, but were not included in Hamilton’s analysis.

Easy to Overestimate Impact of Recent Changes in Vehicles

With vehicles, we are dealing with a mixture of vehicles of all ages. The average age of automobiles is now estimated to be 10.8 years. The average age of trucks is no doubt greater. The EIA provides a summary of average fuel economy by type of vehicle based on US Federal Highway Administration Data, summarized in Figure 2.


Figure 2. US Motor Vehicle Average Fuel Economy based on US Federal Highway Administration Data (Based on EIA Annual Energy Review, Table 2.8) SW = Short Wheelbase; LW = Long Wheelbase.

This data is only through 2010. While it shows some improvement in efficiency of light duty short wheelbase vehicles, it shows little improvement in efficiency overall. The big increases in efficiency were in the period between 1973 and 1991.

The mix of cars by type is concerning.


Figure 3. Automobiles as percentage of total registered vehicles, based on data of the Federal Highway Administration.

The percentage of automobiles has been dropping, as the number of SUV and trucks has been rising. The change between 2008 and 2010 reflects the fact that the number of “automobile” registrations dropped by 4.5% in that time-period, while the number of other (larger) vehicles rose slightly. Thus, the long-term trend to relatively more of the larger vehicles continued. Obviously, this data doesn’t show carpooling and other adaptations, but it is difficult to see any recent big trend toward efficiency.

Can the Economy Weather another Rise to $4.00 Gasoline?

The question of whether the economy can weather $4.00 gasoline, to me, depends on the issue of whether the US government can keep coming up with more manipulations to hide its financial problems.

The US economy started to run into severe headwinds about the year 2001. This is when the percentage of Americans with jobs started falling.


Figure 4. US Number Employed / Population, where US Number Employed is Total Non-Farm Workers from Current Employment Statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Population is US Resident Population from the US Census. (This includes children and others not usually in the labor force.) 2012 is a partial year estimate.

While economists don’t seem to attribute past economic growth to increasing employment percentages, it seems logical to believe they played a role in the long-term growth in the 1960 to 2000 period. The economic growth came not just from the work these employees did themselves, but from the fossil fuels they used on the job. The wages the employees obtained for doing the work allowed the workers to buy products others had made. The long-term growth in non-farm employment between 1960 and 2000 was enabled by increased productivity in the agricultural sector, which was also fueled by increasing use of fossil fuels.

The percentage of the US population with jobs started falling starting in 2001. This is very close to the time when the US started importing far more goods from China, India, and the rest of Asia. If we look at energy consumption for China, we see a sharp increase in energy consumption about 2002:


Figure 5. China’s energy consumption by source, based on BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy data.

We can also look at broader groupings of energy consumption, and see a similar pattern:


Figure 6. Energy Consumption Divided among three parts of the world: (1) The combination of the European Union-27, USA, and Japan, (2) The Former Soviet Union, and (3) The Rest of the World, based on data from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The cost of goods produced in Asia is cheaper for two reasons:

(1) They tend to use a lot of coal in their energy mix, keeping energy costs down.

(2) Wages are far lower. One reason wages can be lower is because of the warmer climate.

It seems to be an article of faith of economists today that the US economy and the European economies will return to growth. Then the stimulus can be removed, and everyone can live happily ever after. But is this really something we should be expecting? We really have two kinds of headwinds: (1) higher oil prices, and (2) cheaper competition for jobs from Asia and other developing countries.

As far back as 2001, we read about Greenspan stimulating the economy by lowering interest rates. Various other approaches were used as well, including encouraging more home ownership through subprime loans in the 2002 to 2006 period. The greater demand for homes helped create jobs in the construction industry and helped raise home prices. By refinancing their homes, consumers were able to have funds for purchases they could not otherwise afford. In recent years, we have added a whole list of new stimulus approaches.

I would ask: Aren’t we kidding ourselves if we think a small increase in miles per gallons on new cars is going to fix the problem of another upward bounce in oil prices? Aren’t there some much more basic issues “out there” that need to be fixed as well? Aren’t we fighting two kinds of downside risks to the economy with increasing stimulus, and only marginal success? If oil prices rise some more, aren’t we likely to need “more stimulus”? Where would it possibly come from?

Originally posted at Our Finite World.

Evidence that Oil Limits are Leading to Limits to GDP Growth

The usual assumption that economists, financial planners, and actuaries make is that future real GDP growth can be expected to be fairly similar to the average past growth rate for some historical time period. This assumption can take a number of forms–how much a portfolio can be expected to yield in a future period, or how high real (that is, net of inflation considerations) interest rates can be expected to be in the future, or what percentage of GDP the government of a country can safely borrow.

But what if this assumption is wrong, and expected growth in real GDP is really declining over time? Then pension funding estimates will prove to be too low, amounts financial planners are telling their clients that invested funds can expect to build to will be too high, and estimates of the amounts that governments of countries can safely borrow will be too high. Other statements may be off as well–such as how much it will cost to mitigate climate change, as a percentage of GDP–since these estimates too depend on GDP growth assumptions.

If we graph historical data, there is significant evidence that growth rates in real GDP are gradually decreasing. In Europe and the United States, expected GDP growth rates appear to be trending toward expected contraction, rather than growth. This could be evidence of Limits to Growth, of the type described in the 1972 book by that name, by Meadows et al.


Figure 1. World Real GDP, with fitted exponential trend lines for selected time periods. World Real GDP from USDA Economic Research Service. Fitted periods are 1969-1973, 1975-1979, 1983-1990, 1993-2007, and 2007-2011.

Trend lines in Figure 1 were fitted to time periods based on oil supply growth patterns (described later in this post), because limited oil supply seems to be one critical factor in real GDP growth. It is important to note that over time, each fitted trend line shows less growth. For example, the earliest fitted period shows average growth of 4.7% per year, and the most recent fitted period shows 1.3% average growth.

In this post we will examine evidence regarding declining economic growth and discuss additional reasons why such a long-term decline in real GDP might be expected.

Connection of GDP Growth with Oil Supply Growth

It should not be surprising to find that there is a close tie between GDP growth and oil supply growth. Oil is used in many ways, from the manufacture of goods (synthetic cloth, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, asphalt for roads), to transport of goods and people, to food production (plowing, harvesting, weed killers, diesel irrigation), to operating construction equipment, to mining. While it is possible to substitute away from oil in some situations, or to find more efficient ways of using the oil, we have literally trillions of dollars of machinery in the world that uses oil right now. Because of this, the rate of substitution away from oil is necessarily very slow.

James Hamilton has shown that in the United States, 10 out of 11 post-World War II recessions were associated with oil price spikes. He has also published a paper specifically linking the recession of 2007-2008 with stagnating world oil production and the resulting spike in oil prices. I wrote an academic paper, Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis, explaining some of the connections I see involved.

One connection between oil supply and the economy is the fact that when oil prices rise, indicating short supply, salaries don’t rise at the same time. Fuel for commuting and food (which is grown and transported using oil) are necessities, and their prices tend to rise as oil prices rise. Consumers cut back on buying discretionary goods and services, so as to have enough money for these necessities. This leads to people being laid off from work in “discretionary” industries, and a whole host of other effects we associate with recession.

Figure 2, below, shows world oil supply (broadly defined, including biofuels) with trend lines fitted to periods exhibiting similar growth patterns. It is these same time periods that I fit trend lines to in Figure 1, with one small exception. I had consistent real GDP data going back only to 1969, so stopped at 1969 rather than 1965 with GDP.


Figure 2. World oil supply with exponential trend lines fitted by author. Oil consumption data from BP 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

What we see in Figure 2 is a pattern of falling growth rates in oil supply rates, similar to the declining pattern we saw for real GDP in Figure 1. In Figure 2, the growth in oil supply falls from 7.8% per year in the first fitted period, to 0.4% per year in the last fitted period. The “gaps” that I didn’t fit lines to were periods of falling oil consumption. A glance up at Figure 1 shows that these periods where no line was fit (that is, the places where the black “actual” data shows through on Figure 1) correspond to relatively flat GDP periods–as a person would expect, if high prices/short supply are associated with recession.

A person wouldn’t expect the two types of growth rates (oil supply and real GDP growth) to be exactly the same. The GDP growth rate would likely be higher than the oil growth rate because the oil growth rate is theoretically depressed for several reasons: continued switching from oil to cheaper fuel (often electricity); improvements in energy efficiency; and a gradual change to more of a service economy. (Services use less energy per unit of GDP than the manufacturing of goods.)

If we compare the two fitted growth rates (world oil consumption and world real GDP), this is what the comparison looks like:


Figure 3. World Oil Supply Growth vs Growth in World GDP, based on exponential trend lines fitted to values for selected groups of years. World GDP based on USDA Economic Research Service data. Earliest time-period uses 1969 to 1973 for both oil and GDP for consistency.

Downtrend in Real GDP May Be Understated

The last thing governments want to do is to let their constituents know that the economy is currently doing less well than in the past. There are (at least) two ways that governments can increase real GDP:

1. Understate their inflation estimates. The way “real GDP” is calculated involves first figuring GDP based on how much goods and services increased during the period in question, and then “backing out” the amount of the GDP increase that was due to inflation. There is latitude in figuring out how much inflation to reflect. For example, in the early years, my understanding is that if the price of beef went up, it directly affected the calculation of the inflation rate; now, there is an implicit assumption that they buyer will be willing substitute chicken to some extent instead, keeping the inflation assumption lower and the real GDP increase (as calculated) higher. There are many other things that be manipulated as well–for example, how the cost of housing goes into the calculation. The site Shadowstats gives one view of how changes since 1983 distort reported US real GDP amounts.

2. Encourage lots of additional debt. Real GDP looks at the amount of goods and services are produced and sold, not how they are paid for. If the government sponsors a program to provide mortgages to people who have no chance of ever paying them back, and this results in the sale of more houses, this will help real GDP–at least until the borrowers start defaulting on their loans. Increases in other types of loans work to increase real GDP too, including auto loans, student loans, and government debt.

Besides increasing real GDP, increasing debt also acts to increase employment, since it takes workers to build the things that people who get the loans can now afford. In other worlds, the higher loan amounts increase employment of people who build new cars or new houses, or who teach at universities.

The problem with encouraging additional debt is that it at some point the amount of debt becomes too much for holders of the debt to service, and they start cutting back on other purchases. For example, recent graduates with a lot of debt are likely not to be in the market for new homes unless they have very high-paying jobs. So, at some point, additional debt becomes self-defeating, especially when the economy is not growing very quickly. Too much debt seems to be one of the limits, besides oil limits, we are reaching now.

Other Factors Holding Down Real GDP Growth

We live in a finite world, and this fact imposes limits. The amount of land suitable for cultivation is not expanding over time. There is limited fresh water for irrigation and other uses. In many areas, water tables are dropping. Ores are declining in quality because the highest quality ore tends to be extracted first.

Pollution, including carbon dioxide pollution, leads to attempted substitution by higher cost alternatives. It also leads to the addition of devices such as expensive filters. Both of these add costs, without increasing the amount of usable goods and services (in the usual definition) produced. Peoples’ funds for discretionary goods can be expected to drop as a result, (since funding through taxes or other approaches is mandatory) putting downward pressure on real GDP growth.

There is also the issue of how many new entrants are added to the paid labor force. If, for example, in the early years, many homemakers are being added to the paid labor force, their addition will tend to raise GDP growth, because the goods or services the homemaker creates will be added to real GDP, as well as the cost of daycare for her children, if this is purchased. Once homemakers have been pretty well absorbed into the labor force, that positive influence on real GDP will disappear. If the number of people employed starts declining (because of more retirees, or because people can’t find jobs), or fails to rise as quickly, this will tend to slow economic growth.

Oil Importers are Likely to Have Lower Economic Growth than Others

There are a couple of reasons why oil importers can be expected to have lower economic growth than other countries, especially when oil prices are high. First, oil importers have the problem of needing to pay exporters for crude oil or oil products. The revenue that is spent on higher priced crude oil could have been spent on discretionary expenditures. It is unlikely that the oil exporters will reinvest the money in the economy of the buyer of its oil–they are just as likely to reinvest it in their own country.

The second reason is that oil importers tend to be the countries like the United States and Europe that “developed their economies” early on. Since these countries have hired women in large numbers since World War II, most homemakers who want jobs already have them. If birth rates have slowed, these countries may be seeing disproportionate growth in the retiree population and fewer workers in ages where employment usually takes place.

In the United States, if we do curve fitting (of the type shown in Figures 1 and 2) to the reported number of non-farm workers employed in the United States (from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), and compare these employment trend rates with the corresponding trend rate in US GDP growth, we find a high correlation:


Figure 4. US growth in number of non-farm workers versus growth in real GDP. US real GDP from US Bureau of Economic Activity; Non-Farm Employment from US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fitted periods are 1969-1973, 1975-1979, 1983-1990, 1993-2007, and 2007-2011.

Note that decreased growth in the number of employees could be taking place for any number of reasons–less growth in illegal immigrants, fewer homemakers going back to work, more people going to college, or more people retiring or taking disability coverage, or just generally discouraged.

It is my observation that the number of workers in the US today seems to depend on the number of jobs available. If jobs in some fields are being increasingly shipped to lower-cost countries–the ones we will see in Figure 7 are now using a disproportionate share of the world’s oil–these jobs will not be available, no matter how many workers might be willing to take them, if they were available.

If we look at the trend in real GDP growth for three major areas (United States, European Union-27, and Remainder = World minus the US and EU-27) , we discover that indeed, all three of the areas show a downward trend in real GDP over time (Figure 4, above). The GDP growth of the EU-27 and the US start from a lower level, and drop off more in the 2007-2011 period, (when the price of oil imports was more of an issue) than the “Remainder” grouping.


Figure 5. Annual growth in world oil supply compared to annual growth in real GDP, both based on exponential trend fits to values for selected years. Oil supply data from BP oil consumption data in 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy; real GDP from USDA Economic Research Service.

One reason why the Remainder-GDP may be doing better than the others is that heavy manufacturing, and the jobs that go with heavy manufacturing, are finding their way to lower cost countries. High oil prices may also be discouraging oil importers from purchasing oil. If we look at oil consumption for the three groups, this is what we see:


Figure 6. Comparison of oil consumption by area (United States, European Union -27, and rest of the world), based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy

Much of heavy manufacturing has been moved out of the United States and the European Union. Figure 7 below shows that the rest of the world is now using well over half of the world’s oil:


Figure 7. Percentage shares of world oil consumption based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Going Forward

We have seen (Figure 5, above) that all three grouping shown (United States, EU-27, and the rest of the world) are showing declining real GDP patterns, similar to the world pattern. GDP growth rates of the United States and EU-27 are both at lower levels than the World and Remainder, for reasons explained.

It is hard to see why current trends wouldn’t continue, with growth in real GDP continuing to decrease for all three groups. Regardless of the hoopla in the United States press about supposed growth in oil supply, the fact remains that growth in world oil supply has been worrisome for many for roughly 40 years, since US oil production started decreasing in 1970. It is hard to believe that the latest “fix” is going to turn things around. The typical pattern in oil supply is for extraction in an area to hit a maximum (or perhaps a plateau) and then decline.


Figure 8. Crude oil production in the US 48 states (excluding Alaska and Federal Offshore), Canada, and Europe, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

Figure 8 shows (among other things) how steep the US drop in oil production in the contiguous 48 states was starting in 1970. This decline set the stage for the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, since oil-producing countries now had the upper hand. Production in Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico eventually helped offset part of the drop, but the Alaska production (not shown) is now declining as well. Change in the balance of power regarding oil production following the decline in US production, and recognition that increased imports would cause balance of payments problems, seem to have influenced the US and Europe’s decision to focus on service industries and on industries with little oil usage, holding their oil usage down (Figure 6).

Figure 8 also shows how new onshore techniques–fracking and other enhanced oil recovery–are affecting US crude oil production. While US-48 states crude oil production has shown a 25% increase since 2006, this production is still only 39% of the 1970 amount, and about equal to 1942 production. Oil production in Canada (which includes the oil sands) is rising, but not very rapidly, from a low base. It is hard for small increases such as those of Canada and the US-48 to make up for major declines in production occurring in Europe and elsewhere. World oil supply would be increasing by more than a fraction of 1% per year if changes frequently noted in the US press were really making an important difference in world supply.

Analysis of Annual Change Percentages for Oil and Real GDP:

It is also possible to look at annual percentage changes, corresponding to the ranges analyzed above. (Some people may be more familiar with this approach.) In this approach, we "lose a year." For example, the first range is five years, 1969 to 1973. But if we use annual percentage increases, the first percentage increase occurs in 1970, and there are only four percentage changes in total, 1970 to 1973. To calculate some sort of an indication (similar to, but not equivalent, to that above), we calculate the simple average of the four increases. The resulting graphs are as follows:

Figure 9. Annual percentage increases in world real GDP with simple averages for the ranges indicated, corresponding to Figure 1.

Note that percentage changes are slightly different, but follow the same pattern as in Figure 1.

Figure 10. Annual percentage increases in world oil supply with simple averages for the ranges indicated, corresponding to Figure 2. (except 1966 to 1969 us omitted to correspond to GDP ratios and amounts shown on Figure 3.)

Here again, we note a very similar pattern. Thus, the analysis on this basis seems to be similar to that using the fitted exponential trend lines.

Tentative Indications for the Future

We can use the relationships between the individual year changes in oil supply and real GDP to build a simple model showing how much of an increase in GDP can be expected to take place for a given increase in oil supply.

If we graph the annual percentage changes in real GDP versus the annual percent changes, what we see is the following:


Figure 11. An "X Y" graph showing the percentage changes in world real GDP that correspond to percentage changes in world oil supply, for the years 1970 to 2011.

It is clear in looking at the data that the pattern in the earliest part of the period is different from that in the later periods. In the very earliest period (1970 to 1973), oil use increased more rapidly than GDP. Once we realized we had a problem, there was a mad dash to try to reduce usage. If we look at only the period since 1983, when there was more of a sustained attempt to transfer to lower priced fuel, this is what the graph looks like.


Figure 12. An "X Y" graph showing the percentage changes in world real GDP that correspond to percentage changes in world oil supply, for the years 1983 to 2011.

Using only the recent data, the R2 is similar (.53 for 1983-2011 data vs. .52 for 1970 to 2011), but the slope of the line is a little steeper. While at R2 of .52 or .53 is not exceptionally high, it does explain a significant portion of the total variance, so let's look at what the indications of the trend lines are.

If the annual percent change in oil supply is 0.4% (as it seems to be now), the predicted annual increase in world real GDP is 2.5% per year using the 1970-2011 fit, or 2.2% using the 1983-2011 fit. Thus, both fits suggest that with the small increases we are seeing in oil supply currently (about 0.4% per year), we are already at a point where world real GDP can be expected to be much lower than most economists would prefer (2.2% or 2.5% per year).

The Figure 12 fit (using 1983 to 2011 data) would seem to be slightly better for predictive purposes, since it is more representative of the current situation.

If we want world real GDP to grow by 4.0% per year, the fit from Figure 12 (based on the equation y = 0.741 x + 0.0193) would suggest that world oil supply needs to rise by 2.8% per year. If we want world real GDP to grow by 3.0% per year, we need oil supply to grow by 1.4% per year.

We can also look at what theoretically would happen if world oil supply starts declining (but here we are on shakier ground, because of many follow-on effects). If oil supply declines by 1.0% per year, the regression line in Figure 12 would suggest that world real GDP can be expected still be expected to increase, but by only 1.2% per year. If world oil supply declines by 2.0% per year, the model would suggest world GDP can be expected to increase by only 0.4% per year. If world oil supply declines by 4.0% per year, the model would suggest that world real GDP can be expected to decline by 1.0% per year.

These are very tentative amounts. Clearly, if world oil supply or world real GDP starts decreasing, there will be many follow on effects, including political changes, and these may have effects of their own. Also, if it is clear that we again have a serious oil problem, there will be a mad dash to eliminate unnecessary use, and this may have a favorable impact on real world GDP.

But it is clear from these calculated amounts that we are entering a very challenging period.

This post combines two Our Finite World posts: Evidence that Oil LImits are Leading to Declining Economic Growth and How Much Oil Growth do We Need to Support World GDP Growth?

Lower Oil Prices – Not a Good Sign!

Are lower oil prices good news? Not really, if it means the world is sinking into recession.

We know from recent past experience and from common sense that higher oil prices are a drag on oil importing economies, because if more $$$ are spent on the same amount of oil, there is less to spend on discretionary goods and services. In addition, oil money sent to oil exporting countries is likely to be spent within those economies, rather than being reinvested in the oil importing country that the funds came from.


Figure 1. A rough calculation of expenditure (in 2011$) associated with oil imports or exports, based on 2012 BP Statistical Review data, for three areas of the world: the Former Soviet Union (FSU), the sum of EU-27, United States, and Japan, and the Remainder of the World. (Negative values are revenue from exports.)

A rough calculation based on 2012 BP Statistical Review data indicates that the combination of the EU-27, the United States, and Japan spent a little over $1 trillion dollars in oil imports in 2011–roughly the same amount as in 2008. Governments have been running up huge deficits and have been keeping interest rates very low to cover up this damage, but it is hard to make this strategy work. The deficit soon becomes unmanageable, as the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) countries in Europe have recently been recently been discovering. The US government is facing automatic spending cuts, as of January 2, 2013, because of its continuing deficits.

Furthermore, lower interest rates aren’t entirely beneficial. With low interest rates, pension funds need much larger employer contributions, if they are to make good on their promises. Retirees who depend on interest income to supplement their Social Security checks find themselves with less income. The lower interest rates don’t necessarily have a huge stimulatory impact on the economy, either, if buyers don’t have sufficient discretionary income to buy the additional services that new investment might provide.

Below the fold, we will discuss what is really happening with oil prices, and consider reasons why lower oil prices may be a signal that the world is again headed for deep recession.

Oil Supply is Not Rising Enough

The big issue is that oil supply is not rising enough–and hasn’t been for a long time.


Figure 2. Actual and fitted oil consumption, based on BP 2012 Statistical Review. Fitted trend value of 2.0% is based on 1983 to 1989 actual data; fitted trend value of 1.6% is based on 1993 to 2005 actual data.

When oil supply doesn’t rise fast enough, there are two opposite effects that can take place:


Figure 3. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Brent oil prices, in US dollars, based on weekly average spot prices from the US Energy Information Administration.

(1) The most common effect is that prices will go higher. This can be seen in the upward trend in prices in the last eight years.

(2) The other effect is that prices can drop quite sharply, as they did in late 2008. This happens when parts of the world are entering recession, and their demand is decreasing.

It seems to me that this second effect may be happening this time around, as well. The down-leg we are seeing in the prices may have farther to go, as the recession plays out.

One Problem Area: PIIGS Oil Consumption is Declining

If we look at three-year average growth rates for the PIIGS, we find that there is a close correlation between oil growth, energy growth, and GDP growth. Furthermore, in recent years, a growth (or drop) in energy use seems to proceed a growth (or drop) in GDP. Not all of this energy is oil, but for the PIIGS countries, even natural gas is a relatively high-priced import. Recently, oil consumption has been declining sharply, which could imply further economic contraction.


Figure 4. A comparison of average three-year growth rates on three bases: GDP, oil consumption, and total energy consumption. GDP from USDA Research Real GDP database; oil and energy consumption from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review.

Furthermore, data from the Joint Organizations Data Initiative (JODI) shows that recent PIIGS oil demand is down even more. Comparing oil demand for February-April 2012 with February-April 2011, demand is down by 10% for the five PIIGS countries combined. This would suggest that these countries are sliding more deeply into recession.

US Oil Consumption Is Also Shrinking

US oil consumption is also shrinking.


Figure 5. US average consumption of petroleum products, during the months January to April, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

US oil consumption shrank by 3.2%, comparing the first four months of 2012 with a similar period of 2011. This is concerning, because based on Figure 5, it looks much like a repeat of the pattern that took place in the 2005 to 2009 time period. Oil consumption was stable during the period 2005 through 2007, then dropped in early 2008 by an amount not too different from the decrease in oil consumption from 2011 to 2012. The bigger step-down in oil consumption came in 2009, after oil prices dropped, and the follow-on effects (reduced credit availability, layoffs) had started. Now oil consumption has been relatively stable in 2009 to 2011, but there has been a step down in consumption in 2012, similar to the step-down in early 2008.

If Oil Prices Stay Down, or Drop Further, Not All Oil is Economic

Oil prices make a difference in a company’s willingness to drill new wells. For example, oil sands production in Canada is quoted as being not economic below $80 barrel, and the West Texas Intermediate price is below that level today. In most instances, existing production will be continued, but new production will be stopped. There are quite a few other types of oil extraction elsewhere (for example, arctic extraction, new very small fields, very deep oil wells, steam extraction outside Canada) that may not be economic at lower prices.

Saudi Arabia makes frequent statements about offering its production to keep prices down, but if a person looks at production patterns in the past few years, they have been highest when oil prices have been highest. Production has dropped as oil prices drop. So a rational person might conclude that oil wells which cannot be operated continuously (of which there are some in Saudi Arabia) tend to be operated when prices are highest, and turned off when prices are lower, thus maximizing profits. As oil prices drop this time around, we can expect Saudi Arabia and others to find excuses to save production until prices are higher.

Countries exporting oil depend on the revenue from the sale of oil, plus taxes on this revenue, to help support country budgets. As oil prices drop, governments find themselves with less money to fund promised public welfare programs. This dynamic can cause lower oil prices to lead to political instability in some oil exporting nations.

Thus, any drop in oil prices tends to be self-correcting, but not until oil production drops, prices of other commodities drop, and many workers have been laid off from work. We saw in 2008-2009 that this kind of recession can be very disruptive.

What’s Ahead?

We can’t know for certain, but the big issue is chain reactions, as one problem causes other problems around the globe. We are dealing with an interconnected international economy. If countries are in financial difficulty, their banks are likely to be downgraded as well. Other banks hold debt of the bank, or of the country in difficulty, or derivates relating to a possible default of the country or bank. If default occurs, these other banks may be affected as well. Thus one default may start a chain of defaults.

Banks that are facing difficulty (inadequate capital, poor ratings), are likely to become more selective in their lending. This makes it even more difficult for small businesses to obtain loans, and may lead to layoffs.

A country which appears to be near default is likely to face higher interest rates, making its cost of borrowing higher. The higher interest costs, by themselves, push the country closer to default.

One of the issues with high oil prices is that the higher prices, especially among oil importers, give rise to a kind of systemic risk that affects many kinds of businesses simultaneously. High oil prices tend to do several things at once: lower the real growth rate, make it more difficult to repay loans, and increase the unemployment rate. All of these issues make it more difficult for governments to function, because governments play a back up role. If workers are laid off from work, governments are expected to compensate laid-off workers at the same time they are collecting less in taxes and bailing out distressed banks. This type of systemic risk leads to the possibility of multiple government failures.

Promises of Future Oil Capacity Growth Aren’t Very Helpful

We keep reading articles claiming that world oil production will grow by some large amount by some future date. One of the latest of these is by Harvard Kennedy School researcher (and former oil company executive) Leonardo Maugeri, called Oil: The Next Revolution. According to the report, “Oil production capacity is surging in the United States and several other countries at such a fast pace that global oil output capacity is likely to grow by nearly 20 percent by 2020, which could prompt a plunge or even a collapse in oil prices”.

Even if the forecast were true (which I am doubtful), the problem is that this is simply too late. We have been having oil supply problems for quite some time–since the 1970s. The rate of oil supply growth keeps ratcheting downward, and the world keeps trying to adapt, with recessions to show for its efforts. (James Hamilton has shown that 10 out of 11 recent recessions were associated with oil price spikes.)

We don’t have time to wait until 2020 to see whether the supposed additional capacity (and production) will actually materialize. We have a problem right now. The downturn in oil prices and the reduction in demand in the US and PIIGS is looking more and more like the current oil price spike (of 2011 and early 2012) may give rise to yet another recession. Based on our experience in 2008-2009, and our difficulties since then, this recession may be severe.

This post originally appeared on Our Finite World.

Greasing the Wheel: Oil’s Role in the Global Crisis

This is a guest post by Lucas Chanel, Research Fellow in economics, and Thomas Spencer, Research Fellow in climate and energy policies, both at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations. This article originally appeared on vox.eu.

Between January 2002 and August 2008, the nominal oil price rose from $19.7 to $133.4 a barrel. This led to a large increase in oil revenues for oil exporters and a deterioration of the current account for oil importers (Figure 1). Between 2002 and 2006, net capital outflows from oil exporters grew by 348%, becoming the largest global source of net capital outflows in 2006 (McKinsey 2007).

Capital outflows from oil exporters therefore played an important role in the global liquidity glut during the build-up to the US subprime crisis. Analysis of direct capital flows is hampered by the lack of reporting transparency and the use of foreign financial intermediaries. Indirect recycling also took place, i.e. direct oil-revenue investment in a given financial market led to corresponding knock-on flows towards the ultimate net borrower. Nonetheless, analysis from the US Federal Reserve suggests that “…most petrodollar investments [found] their way to the United States, indirectly if not directly” (Federal Reserve Bank of New York 2006). In short, the US was the ultimate net borrower, in order to finance its growing current account deficit.


Figure 1. Merchandise and fuel current account: US and major oil and gas exporters (MOGE) Source: UNCTAD.

Such capital flows were invested in US treasuries, corporate bonds, equities, and asset markets. In turn, this placed downward pressure on US interest rates and helped fuel further borrowing. Quantifying the specific contribution of oil-revenue inflows is difficult. Nonetheless, oil revenues do seem to have reduced US interest rates (see IMF 2006 for a discussion). In sum, the direct and indirect recycling of oil revenues was a factor in the global liquidity glut that helped to fuel the US subprime mortgage crisis.

Bursting the bubble

Oil prices also played a role in eventually bursting the US subprime bubble. As we document in a recent working paper (Spencer et al. 2012), this occurred via a number of channels which are difficult to disentangle. It is also next to impossible to identify the threshold of mortgage delinquencies, which led to the meltdown in the subprime market and then global financial markets. Nonetheless, one can examine the individual channels through which oil prices contributed:

  • Direct impacts on discretionary spending. Between 2002 and 2008, average household expenditure on gasoline rose 120%, from $1,235 to $2,715, or by 2 percentage points of overall household expenditure (CES 2011). For (poorer) suburban households this effect was even more pronounced. In 2003, the average suburban household spent $1,422 a year on gasoline, which rose to $3,196 in 2008 (Freilich et al. 2010). Kaufman et al. (2010) show, using VAR analysis, that rising household energy prices constrained household budgets and increased mortgage delinquency rates, once other factors are controlled for.
  • Indirect impacts of interest rate increases. The federal fund rate rose from 1% in May 2005 to 5.26% in March 2007. A quick read of the Fed’s Monetary Policy Reports shows the recurring importance of energy price concerns in the Fed’s decisions to raise the fund rate. Annual mortgage repayments for an average household increased by 33% between 2004 and 2007 (CES 2011).

A number of contextual factors also interacted with the oil price increase to potentially worsen vulnerabilities:

  • Labour market interactions. Peersman and Van Robays (2009) show that the inflationary impact of the oil price shock from 2004-8 was reduced in the US due to the structure of the labour market. Producers used a strong bargaining position to pass the cost burden onto consumers through a reduction in real wages. Thus, while second-round inflationary impacts were mitigated, this was at the expense of a decline in real wages. This had negative impacts on aggregate demand (see below), and constrained household budgets.
  • Distributional impact of energy prices. Energy price shocks have strong distributional effects, mostly impacting energy expenses of suburban households and low-income households spending a greater income share on energy. Subprime mortgage loans were also concentrated on poorer households, leading to a confluence of risk factors.
  • Maladapted urban planning. Between 1969 and 2001, the annual average distance driven per licensed driver increased 90%, from 5,411 to 10,244 miles per year (NHTS 2009). The heavy reliance on personalised vehicle transport increased oil price risk exposure among US households.
  • Fuel inefficiency of the vehicle fleet. Sivak and Tsimhoni (2009) show that the fuel efficiency of the US vehicle fleet barely improved from 1991 to 2006, increasing from 16.9 to 17.2 miles per gallon. The figures for Europe are 31.2 in 1991 and 35 in 2006.

Finally, increasing oil prices had an impact on aggregate demand. This operates via a number of channels – reduced discretionary income, increased precautionary savings, and operating cost effects, whereby consumers are deterred from purchasing energy-intensive goods, and reallocation effects. In particular, the auto sector played an important role in transmitting the shock. Between the peak in 2003 and the last pre-crisis year, 2007, household expenditure on vehicle purchases fell 13%. Expenditure on more energy-intensive, domestically produced autos likely fell further, as indicated by Edelstein and Kilian (2009). The decline of the US auto sector was an important contributing factor in tipping the US into recession in 2007Q4, although there was clearly a mutually reinforcing interaction between the recessionary slide, which began in 2007Q3, and the subsequent further decline of the auto sector in 2008.

Outlook

Taking IEA (2011) projections, we calculate the size and distribution of oil revenues (petrodollars) from net oil trade to 2035 (Figure 2). The US starts the period in 2010 as the largest source of petrodollars, at -$296 billion using the average 2010 price of $79 a barrel. The EU27 is next with -$281 billion. The Middle East gains net oil revenues of $539 billion.


Figure 2. Average annual net oil revenues 2010-2035 Source: IEA 2011

US oil-import dependence declines towards 2035, due to improved energy efficiency particularly in the transport sector and increased domestic production, in particular from shale oil. The EU27 overtakes the US as the largest source of petrodollars by 2020. China and India become the largest and third largest source of petrodollars respectively by 2035; China assumes premier position by 2025. The figures are based on the IEA New Policies Scenario, which assumes further energy efficiency and oil substitution. The Current Policies Scenario sees oil prices 8% and 16% higher in 2020 and 2035 respectively, increasing petrodollar flows correspondingly. A more disaggregated picture, focusing on major oil-exporting countries within the Middle East and African region would show an even stronger concentration of oil revenues.

Conclusion

From this analysis we draw a number of suggestions for further consideration.

  • The oil price appears to have played a role in the subprime crisis. Understanding macro impacts of oil prices also requires considering in detail the exposure and interactions of micro channels, such as the housing or auto sector.
  • Oil prices played a key role in worsening the balance-of-payment imbalance leading up to the crisis. This will continue to strengthen, and China and India will play an increasing role as net exporters of petrodollars. The efficient intermediation of petrodollars represents a large challenge to the financial sector, and potentially economic stability in general.
  • Policies to address oil dependency via substitution, efficiency, and conservation can reduce micro- and macro-level exposure to oil price risks, and contribute to addressing global imbalances.

References

Consumer Expenditure Survey, US Bureau of Labour Statistics
Edelstein, P and L Kilian (2009), “How sensitive are consumer expenditures to retail energy prices?”, Journal of Monetary Economics 56(6).

Federal Reserve Bank of New York (2006), Current Issues in Economics and Finance 12(9).

Freilich, R, R Sitkowsky and S Mennillo (2010), From Sprawl to Sustainability: Smart Growth, New Urbanism, Green Development, and Renewable Energy, 2nd ed, Chicago: ABA Books.

International Monetary Fund (2006), "Oil Prices and Global Imbalances", World Economic Outlook, Chapter 2 .

Spencer, Thomas, Lucas Chancel, and Emmanuel Guérin (2012) “Exiting the EU crises in the right direction: towards a sustainable economy for all”, IDDRI Working Paper
09/ 12.

International Energy Agency (2011), World Energy Outlook, Paris: IEA.

Kaufman, R, N Gonzalez, T Nickerson and Y Nesbit (2010), “Do household energy expenditures affect mortgage delinquency rates?”, Energy Economics 33(2).

McKinsey (2007), The New Power Brokers: How Oil, Asia, Hedge Funds and Private Equity Are Shaping Global Capital Markets, McKinsey Global Institute.

Peersman, G and I Van Robays (2009), “Oil and the Euro area economy”, Economic Policy.

Sivak, M and O Tsimhoni (2009), “Fuel efficiency of vehicles on US roads: 1923–2006”, Energy Policy 37(8).

New IMF Working Paper Models Impact of Oil Limits on the Economy

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently issued a new working paper called “The Future of Oil: Geology versus Technology” (free PDF), which should be of interest to people who are following “peak oil” issues. This is a research paper that is being published to elicit comments and debate; it does not necessarily represent IMF views or policy.

The paper considers two different approaches for modeling future oil supply:

  1. The economic/technological approach, used by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) and others, and
  2. The geological view, used in peak oil forecasts, such as forecasts made by Colin Campbell and forecasts made using Hubbert Linearization.

The analysis in the IMF Working Paper shows that neither approach has worked perfectly, but in recent years, forecasts of oil supply using the geological view have tended to be closer than those using the economic/technological approach. Since neither model works perfectly, the new paper takes a middle ground: it sets up a model of oil supply where the amount of oil produced is influenced by a combination of (1) geological depletion and (2) price levels.

This blended model fits recent production amounts and recent price trends far better than traditional models. The forecasts it gives are concerning though. The new model indicates that (1) oil supply in the future will not rise nearly as rapidly as in the pre-2005 period and (2) oil prices are likely to nearly double in “real” (inflation-adjusted) terms by 2020. The world economy will be in uncharted territory if this happens.

It seems to me that this new model is a real step forward in looking at oil supply and the economy. The model, as it is today, points out a definite problem area (namely, the likelihood of oil high prices, if growth in oil production continues to be constrained below pre-2005 rates of increase). The researchers also raise good questions for further analysis.

At the same time, I am doubtful that the world GDP forecast of the new model is really right–it seems too high. The questions the authors raise point in this direction as well. Below the fold, I discuss the model, its indications, and some shortcomings I see.

The Two Models

Economic /Technological Approach. With the economic/ technological approach, the assumption is made that high oil prices will encourage substitution and/or new oil production. Because of this, high oil prices are not expected to persist. Instead, the most important consideration in determining future oil supply is the level of future demand. The level of future demand, in turn, is primarily driven by anticipated GDP growth, since world GDP growth and world oil production growth tend to be highly correlated.

In effect, models of this type assume that whatever oil supply is needed will be available; they don’t consider the possibility that geological considerations may limit oil supply over the long term. As an example of how well these models have worked for prediction, the paper shows a graph of historical EIA forecasts (Figure 1, below).


Figure 1. Graph showing that oil production forecasts by the US Energy Information Administration have been revised downward, year after year, from paper.

Each year, EIA’s forecasts have been adjusted downward, because actual oil supply growth was lower than forecast.

Models Based on the Geological View. The paper considers forecasts of oil supply such as those of Colin Campbell (shown in ASPO-Ireland Newsletters) and forecasts based on Hubbert Linearization to be models based on the Geological View. The paper observes that forecasts of oil supply based on geological view have tended to be too low, but not by as big a margin as those made using the economic/technological approach. As an example, it gives the following graph of changes in forecasts by Colin Campbell.


Figure 2. Colin Campbell Forecasts of Future Oil Supply, from paper.

A review of the two methods by the IMF group indicates that neither works precisely as hoped, but each has some validity. While oil production did not rise as fast as the economic/technological view would predict, higher oil prices have allowed oil production to stay on more or less a plateau after 2005, rather than declining as predicted by geological methods. The new model in the IMF Working Paper combines indications from both points of view, using an approach that allows them to estimate the relative contribution of geological impacts vs higher prices.

How the Two Methods are Combined

The oil supply equation in the new model is set up so that there are two different ways that the forecast oil supply can change. There is a downward tug from oil depletion at the same time that there is an upward tug from oil prices. It is expected that in the short run, high prices will get producers to utilize spare capacity, and over a longer period (estimated at 4 to 6 years), it will get producers to add new capacity. I will not try to explain all the variables and coefficients, but the blended supply equation is


Figure 3. Oil Supply Equation

In the above equation, qt is the quantity of oil produced in year t and Qt is the cumulative quantity produced in year t, so the ratio qt / Qt produces the familiar downward-sloping line one sees in charts used for Hubbert Linearization. The first two terms to the right of the equal sign are the ones based on the geological approach to depletion. The later terms depend on pt, which is price of oil at the time “t”. Adding the pt terms tends to raise the line at later periods so it does not slope downward as quickly as if depletion were the only factor affecting the relationship.

Growth Rate of GDP

In the model, high oil prices have some impact on GDP, but as we will see in Figure 5, below, not very much. There are two places in modeling GDP where high oil prices come into play. The first is in the Potential Growth Rate of GDP. According to the paper,

The growth rate of potential world GDP is specified as fluctuating around an exogenous long-run trend, with oil price changes making the fluctuations more severe. Oil prices are allowed to have persistent but not permanent effects on the growth rate of GDP. . . The estimated steady state world potential growth rate of potential GDP equals four percent. The average annual growth rate of real oil prices, which is the growth in oil prices at which the model assumes zero effect of oil prices on output growth, is seven percent. The results indicate that an oil price growth that is higher than that historical average has a small but significant negative effect on the growth rate of potential. [emphasis added]

Interesting–the model assumes real oil price growth of 7% per year has no impact growth rate of GDP. Perhaps this is supposed to be picked up by the second place where high oil prices come into forecasting GDP, called Output Gap. This is an excerpt from what the paper says about Output Gap:

Apart from allowing for an effect of higher oil prices on the growth rate of potential output, the model also allows for the possibility that higher oil prices can cause fluctuations in the amount of excess demand in the economy. . . . Similar to the equation for potential, the coefficient estimates show that high oil prices have a small but significant negative effect on excess demand, and that this effect is highly persistent.

Model Output

When all is said and done, what does the IMF model forecast?


Figure 4. Oil Output Forecast with Error Bands, (in gigabarrels per year), from report.

The forecast for future world oil supply, shown in Figure 4 above, is similar to EIA’s most recent forecast of world oil supply (but lower than earlier EIA estimates). Oil supply is expected to rise a 0.9% per year. An alternate tighter oil supply forecast is given as well.

The forecast for world GDP growth (shown in Figure 5 below) is not too much different from standard estimates, either. The point forecast is about four percent per year.


Figure 5. World GDP (in logs) forecast with error bands, with 2011 world GDP normalized to 1.00, from report.

The thing that is different in this analysis is oil prices (in inflation adjusted dollars). Forecast oil prices are expected to be much higher that what the EIA is estimating.


Figure 6. Oil price forecast with error bands (in 2011 Real $) from report.

The report points out that these high oil prices are a real concern. The report says:

The predicted average annual growth rates of oil output are well below the historical forecasts of EIA, but above the forecasts of proponents of the geological view. . . . However, this projected positive trend in oil production comes at a steep cost, because the model finds that it requires a large increase in the real price of oil, which would have to nearly double over the coming decade to maintain an output expansion that is modest in historical terms. Such prices would far exceed even the highest prices seen in 2008, which according to Hamilton (2009) may have played an important roll in driving the world economy into a deep recession.

Need for Enhancements /Areas of Concern Pointed Out by Authors of Paper

The authors raise of the IMF Working Paper raise the following issues:

1. Impact of high oil prices on GDP growth. The expected impact of a continued rise in oil prices on forecast GDP is small, according to the model as constructed. Perhaps the relationship should be non-linear (convex) instead of linear. More generally, what is the importance of the availability of oil inputs for continued overall GDP growth? The report mentions studies showing the close connection between energy growth and GDP growth, such as by Ayers and Warr.

2. Substitutability for oil. What is the substitutability between oil and other factors of production? Is it reasonable to assume that elasticities of substitution will become greater over time? Or is there a possibility that there are limits to the extent of substitutability of machines and labor for energy?

3. Is there a pain barrier? At some point, does the effect of high oil prices on the economy change, and become much worse?

4. Independence of Technology from Fossil Fuel Availability. Perhaps a reduction in fossil fuel availability will negatively affect the availability of future technology improvements since, for example, it takes fossil fuels to make new more efficient cars. This has not been reflected in the model.

5. Smaller Amounts of “Spare” Oil Capacity Available in the Future. The model reflects amounts of OPEC spare oil production capacity available in the past. In the future, less spare production capacity seems likely.

My Comments on the Paper

The IMF is to be commended on putting together this analysis. To me, the big step forward is that questions about the impact of geological depletion of oil on the economy are starting to be addressed. The fact that the paper also points out the level to which oil prices will need to rise, if oil production is to rise at 0.9% a year between now and 2020, is important as well.

Some of the issues I see that aren’t addressed in the paper:

1. Factors underlying world long term growth rate, other than energy. It would seem to me that there are a number of factors which have permitted long term world economic growth, over and above the economic growth enabled by fossil fuels. Some of the following seem to be diminishing in importance, so perhaps the forecast of a 4% world GDP growth rate going forward is too high, apart from oil supply issues:

a. Trend Toward Globalization. The trend toward globalization has allowed greater synergies to occur, and thus has contributed to world GDP growth. The trend toward globalization started over 4,000 years ago, with trade from northwest India to the Mediterranean region (Chew). In recent years, we seem to be approaching a maximum level of world globalization. In fact, higher price of oil has been raised as an issue cutting back on trade of bulky, low valued items (Rubin). Higher cost of oil may also have an adverse impact of commercial airline flights for international companies to oversee their distant operations, because the costs of these flights is now supported by a large number of international tourists, and this international tourist trade may dry up. Thus, the trend toward globalization that has been supporting world GDP growth in the past may not persist, and may even reverse.

b. Growth in Education. Part of what has supported world GDP growth is likely growth in education, since literate workers are better able to use technology. There is evidence that the advanced economies are now plateauing in terms of educational level of new workers, relative to the existing work force. Even less advanced economies, such as China, are showing much higher levels of literacy. (See this post). To the extent that educational levels are reaching a plateau, the “boost” to historical GDP rates that came from this factor can be expected to be lessened.

c. Growth in Debt. GDP growth is enabled by debt growth. Consumers are able to purchase more goods and services, with increased levels of debt; businesses are able to increase their investment in new plants and equipment through more debt; and governments are able to undertake the development of new construction, roads, and other development, through the addition of more debt. But we seem to be reaching limits on debt growth. Theory also suggests that higher levels of debt are enabled by higher economic growth rates (Tverberg). Governments have been aware that increased borrowing can be used to pump up economic growth, but limits are being reached on the amount of debt that can be added. To the extent that debt fails to grow as quickly in the future as it has in the past, this can be expected to have an adverse impact on world GDP growth rates.

d. Quantitative Easing and Extraordinarily Low Interest Rates. An argument can be made that GDP growth of advanced economies in recent years has been held up by quantitative easing and extraordinarily low interest rates. These would seem to be a temporary fixes that cannot be continued long-term. If this is the case, world GDP rates can be expected to be lower in the future, regardless of oil supply growth.

2. Limits on Substitutability of Other Fossil Fuels for Oil. The paper does not address the issue of whether there are limits of substitutability of other fossil fuels for oil. Stationary (as opposed to transportation) uses of oil have been substituting away from oil for years. There are millions of vehicles and other machines that use oil currently in operation. There will be a high cost in replacing these before the end of their normal lifetimes. Also, significant fossil fuels will be required for making vehicles and supporting infrastructure that use another fossil fuel source.

3. Limits on Capital Available for New Investment in Substitutes for Oil, and in New Oil Production. In recent years, we have made heavy use of debt financing for new investment. Government subsidies have also been used. To the extent that debt financing and government subsidies are less available, less investment can be expected in the future.

4. Impact of High Oil Prices on Diverse Parts of the Economy, Not Reflected in the Model. For example, prices of homes may be affected by high oil prices. People with less discretionary income are less likely to “trade up” to a more expensive homes, so high oil prices seem to be one of the reasons for the decline in home prices (Tverberg). Lower home prices affect ability of homeowners to borrow against the value of their homes for new purchases, so affect GDP, apart from oil price’s direct impact on the number of new homes built.

5. Which comes first: Oil Growth or Economic Growth? The assumption in the model is that GDP growth drives oil growth. While this is true, it is to some extent a “chicken” and “egg” situation. Perhaps the availability of inexpensive oil and other fossil fuels is one of the main drivers of economic growth (in addition to the other drivers I mention in the subparts of Item 1 above). Perhaps the cycle is started by the availability of cheap fossil fuels for industrial use and continued by the increased demand to which this growth gives rise.

* * *

I appreciate the work that has been done by the IMF in putting together this model and look forward to seeing further enhancements to the model. The work that has been done and the questions that are being raised are important ones.

I expect that commenters to this post will be able to point out other plusses and minuses of the model. The report itself is very interesting. Again, it can be found at The Future of Oil: Geology versus Technology.

This article originally appeared on Our Finite World.

The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations

Michael Ross talks to Viv Davies about his recent book ‘The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations’. They discuss the irony of how those countries with the greatest social and economic deficits are also the most vulnerable to the oil curse and as a result grow less quickly than might be expected given their wealth. The video interview and original transcript originally appeared on the VoxEU.org website here.

Viv Davies: Hello and welcome to Vox Talks. I'm Viv Davies from the Centre for Economic Policy Research. It's the 20th of March, 2012, and I'm at the London School of Economics, talking to Michael Ross, Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, about his recent book on "The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations." We discuss the analytical basis for this study and how a country's mineral wealth is not necessarily the blessing it might seem.

Professor Ross describes how the irony of oil wealth is that those countries with the greatest social and economic deficits are often the most vulnerable to the curse.

He also points out the fact that countries that are rich in petroleum have less democracy, less economic stability and more frequent civil wars. The question Ross tries to answer in the book is how oil can be turned from a curse into a blessing.

Michael Ross: There's been an explosion of research on this issue in the last 12 years or so and even though there are some popular accounts I didn't feel like there's one book that is kind of relatively comprehensive and that tries to identify the most robust findings in the literature. I realized that, like any issue, what exactly is going on in the oil rich countries is kind of a moving target but I thought it would be useful to have an effort to craft a comprehensive analysis that could hopefully then be used for further research. It also seemed to me useful from a policy perspective because we're at a point when growing demand for oil is leading to the lateral spread of production to new low income countries.

For the last 20 years or so, the number of oil producing countries in the world has been more or less flat. It's begun to rise now and it's projected to rise by maybe one or two dozen states in the next five years or ten years. And so, if there's a time to figure out interventions that can mitigate the resource curse, the oil curse, this is that time.

Viv: OK. So, could you perhaps give us a sense of the sort of data and type of analysis that was involved in the study?

Michael: The study is based on a quantitative analysis of observational data from all countries, basically 170 countries, from 1960 to 2006. So, I've tried to kind of take in the full scope of the last 50 years. I think one of the innovations in the project is to use what I think is a better measure of a country's oil wealth. Early studies would measure it by looking at a country's dependence on oil exports but I and others have noticed that sometimes being dependent on oil exports can itself be a sign of some underlying proceeding ailment. And so it's not a very good way to measure a country's geological wealth, which I think is closer to the core of the idea that some sort of exogenous environmental factor has an effect on a country's political and economic development.

So I look at oil income per capita and try to follow the effects, not just in the whole 50 year period as looking as a unit, but also to look at how the effects have changed over time. I think one of the innovations in the book, or one of the messages in the book, is that the oil curse really only emerged in the 1970s. Before the 1970s you didn't have the kinds of problems that we see today. And when we go back and look, of course, at what happened in that period, it's not surprising because that was the period of nationalization.

Not that things were all rosy during the era when the petroleum world was controlled by the seven sisters, the big oil companies. But the fact that you had major international oil companies scooping up the rents and repatriating them in oil-producing companies meant that the governments were more or less insulated from, unaffected by, the geological riches underneath their soil.

After nationalization, however, the full consequences of their oil wealth became apparent as the governments collected much, much greater windfalls and the market much less stable.

Viv: And they channeled a lot of their spending through these nationalized industries.

Michael: That's right. If national oil companies were simply national oil companies, I think we'd see many fewer problems, but they became vehicles for all kinds of projects, often patronage, corruption, transfers to the military. And politicians, incumbent leaders, realized that they can use their control over national oil companies to circumvent other political checks and balances. That's made them, I think, a central, core part of the problem of the oil curse.

Viv: So it's an issue of governance in many ways?

Michael: I think it mostly comes down to governance. The initial idea of a resource curse, which was sort of popularized in 1995 in this famous paper by Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner, was that there was an economic curse. That if you had more resource wealth, you would grow more slowly. I think that's not really right, and in the book I show that that may have been true during the specific period looked at by Sachs and Warner, but that's partly because this was the period of falling commodity prices, so commodity-dependent countries naturally saw their incomes fall as well.

If you expand and look before and after, you find that the oil producing companies have done really not much better, not much worse than other countries. The mystery is not why they've grown slowly, the mystery is why they've grown at a relatively normal rate when they should be growing faster given the access to capital that they have.

Viv: So I guess that's one of the key questions of your book. It's not that oil producing countries are growing less slowly relative to other countries, but they're not growing as quickly as you might have expected, given their wealth.

Michael: That's right. I call it disappointingly normal growth. Now, some dimensions of this are relatively well understood, and many people have written quite insightfully about it. I focus on two dimensions that I think are not well explored. One is why it is that governments have such a hard time stabilizing the revenue streams and why oil stabilization funds typically don't work. The second is how economic growth is undermined by unusually high fertility rates, that is, high population growth, in the oil-producing countries. If, instead of looking at income per capita, you look at total income, the oil-producing states have done quite well. The problem is that their populations are growing faster than populations in the rest of the world.

And I have developed an argument in the book about why this is so, suggesting that oil wealth tends to crowd women out of the labor force. It creates jobs for men but not women, under certain conditions, and the result is with fewer women in the labor force, you have higher fertility rates. Higher fertility rates mean less growth per capita over the long run.

Viv: Is this what you mean when you state in the book that "the irony of oil wealth is that those countries with the greatest social and economic deficits are also the most vulnerable to the oil curse"?

Michael: Yes. I think many studies show, and mine confirms this, that the poorer you are ex ante when you discover oil, the more difficult it's going to be to manage and invest those resources well. There's a whole variety of reasons, some political, some fairly straightforward and technical. The absorptive capacity of the domestic economy may be limited, and the revenues may grow much, much faster than the economy's ability to absorb reasonably efficient new investments. And even though, in theory, you could park the surplus in a stabilization fund, in fact, those funds just don't work very well, and usually the surplus disappears through inefficiencies or corruption.

As you get richer and richer and you tend to have better and more effective institutions and greater checks and balances ex ante, this becomes less of a problem. It's much easier to invest a lot of capital. Typically, oil wealth is a smaller fraction of your total economy, even if the number of barrels produced is quite large. And you have generally more effective institutions for dealing with some of the problems that arise from large windfalls.

Viv: So what is it about the nature of the problems associated with oil revenues that's different from those sort of problems that are associated, or as a result of, other natural resource curses?

Michael: The evidence seems to show that the curse is most strongly associated with petroleum and not with other kinds of hard rock minerals. Now, that's not a very precise evaluation, because we don't measure other kinds of mineral production as well as we measure oil production. And on top of that, oil is far and away the dominant mineral resource in international trade. Something like between 90 and 95 percent of all traded minerals are made up of petroleum and its by-products.

So, there aren't so many economies that are dominated by mineral production that is not oil production. So, we don't have as many observations, as many cases. And it could be a statistical fluke.

Having said all that, I would guess that oil is particularly problematic because the rents it tends to generate are huge. Because it is capital-intensive, typically more than extraction of other hard rock minerals. And very little of the rent is diffused through labor costs and spillovers to the regional economy.

Instead, the vast majority of the rents accrue to the government directly. And hence, the ultimate economic consequences for the economy depend heavily on the quality of the government and the government's ability to spend and manage this money.

Viv: So is the oil curse an inescapable fate or are there particular policy recommendations or conclusions that you make in the book which will help towards finding a solution for this issue?

Michael: I do argue there are quite a few policy interventions that could make a difference. Having said that, they're often based on…they're not based on the same kind of careful analysis, because we don't have that many examples of countries that have done well, even though they have considerable oil wealth. So, a lot of it is sort of theory and speculation. But having said that, I think there's quite a bit that can be done. Particularly, you can change what I think is the heart of the problem, that is the unusual qualities of oil revenues, their size and speed with which they accrue to the government. You can change the volatility, and I have some suggestions, some ideas about better ways to offset volatility than the standard stabilization funds.

And I think transparency plays a big role, a bigger role than I appreciated when I first began to do the analysis. And transparency is important also because it gives the oil importing countries a role.

And in fact, there's some important initiatives under way, both in Europe and in the US, to force companies, extractive industry companies, to disclose much more specifically the payments they make to governments in the territories they do business. And that would be an important step towards triggering greater accountability.

Viv: Well, it's a great book. It's a great read, very accessible. Michael Ross, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Michael: Thanks very much. It's a pleasure.
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World Energy Consumption Since 1820 in Charts

Figure 1 shows the huge increase in world energy consumption that has taken place in roughly the last 200 years. This rise in energy consumption is primarily from increased fossil fuel use.


Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent

With energy consumption rising as rapidly as shown in Figure 1, it is hard to see what is happening when viewed at the level of the individual. To get a different view, Figure 2 shows average consumption per person, using world population estimates by Angus Maddison.


Figure 2. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption shown in Figure 1 by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

On a per capita basis, there is a huge spurt of growth between World War II and 1970. There is also a small spurt about the time of World War I, and a new spurt in growth recently, as a result of growing coal usage in Asia.

In this post, I provide additional charts showing long-term changes in energy supply, together with some observations regarding implications. One such implication is how economists can be misled by past patterns, if they do not realize that past patterns reflect very different energy growth patterns than we will likely see in the future.

World per Capita Energy Consumption

Let’s look first at Figure 2. Prior to 1900, energy per capita did not rise very much with the addition of coal energy, suggesting that the early use of coal mostly offset other fuel uses, or permitted larger families. There was a small increase in energy consumption per capita during World War I, but a dip during the depression prior to World War II.

Between World War II and 1970, there was a huge ramp-up in energy consumption per capita. There are several reasons why this might happen:

  • During this period, European countries and Japan were rebuilding after World War II.
  • There was a need to find jobs for returning US soldiers, so that the country would not fall back into the recession it was in prior to World War II.
  • The US had a large oil industry that it wanted to develop, in order to provide jobs and tax revenue.
  • Major infrastructure development projects were put into place during this period, including the Eisenhower Interstate System and substantial improvements to the electrical transmission system.
  • To facilitate purchases both by companies and by consumers, the government encouraged the use of debt to pay for the new good. Figure 3, below, from my post, The United States’ 65-Year Debt Bubble, shows that non-governmental debt did indeed rise during this period.


Figure 3. US Non-Governmental Debt, Divided by GDP, based on US Federal Reserve and US Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

World population also expanded greatly during the period from 1820 to 2010:


Figure 4. World Population, based primarily Angus Maddison estimates, interpolated where necessary.

Figure 4 shows that there is a distinct “bend” in the graph about 1950, when population started rising faster, at the same time that energy consumption started rising more quickly.

If we look at 10-year percentage changes in world population and energy use, this is the pattern we see:


Figure 5. Decade percentage increases in energy use compared to population growth, using amounts from Figures 2 and 4.

Figure 5 shows that the first periods a large percentage increases in energy use occurred about the time of World War I. A second spurt in energy use started about the time of World War II. Population increased a bit with the first spurt in energy use, but did not really take off until the second spurt. Part of the population rise after World War II may be related to the invention of antibiotics–Penicillin (1942), Streptomycin (1943), and Tetracycline (1955). Use of energy to upgrade water and sewer services, and to sterilize milk and to refrigerate meat, may have made a difference as well. Life expectancy in the US grew from 49 in 1900 to 70 in 1960, contributing to population growth.

Since 1970, the rate of increase in world population has declined. One reason for this decline may be the use of oral contraceptives. These were first approved for use in the United States in 1960. Other reasons might include more education for women, and more women entering into the paid work force.

A person can see that in the most recent decade (2000 to 2010), per capita energy use is again rising rapidly. Let’s look at some detail, to see better what is happening.

Detail Underlying Growth in World Energy

Figure 2 above shows energy from the various fuels “stacked” on top of each other. It is easier to see what is happening with individual fuels if we look at them separately, as in Figure 6, below. In Figure 6, I also make a change in the biofuel definition. I omit broadly defined biofuels (which would include animal feed and whale oil, among other things) used in Figure 2, and instead show a grouping of modern energy sources from BP statistical data. What I show as “BP-Other” includes ethanol and other modern biofuels, wind, geothermal, and solar.


Figure 6. Per capita consumption of various fuels, separately, rather than stacked, as in Figure 2.

We can see from Figure 6 that per capita consumption of oil peaked in the 1970 to 1980 time period, and has since been declining. The fuel that has primarily risen to take its place is natural gas, and to a lesser extent, nuclear. Substitution was made in several areas including home heating and electricity generation.

Coal consumption per capita stayed pretty much flat (meaning that coal consumption rose about fast as population growth) until the last decade, namely the period after 2000. In the period since 2000, there has been a huge rise in coal consumption in China and in other developing nations, particularly in Asia. This increase in coal consumption seems to be related to the increase in manufacturing in Asia following the liberalization of world trade that began with the formation of the World Trade Organization in 1995, and the addition of China to the organization in 2001.

If we look at per capita energy consumption since 1965 by country based on BP data, we find very different patterns:


Figure 7. Per capita energy consumption for selected countries, based on BP Statistical Data energy consumption and Angus Maddison population estimates. FSU refers to the Former Soviet Union. Europe refers to a list of 12 large countries.

Figure 7 shows that since the 1970s, energy patterns have patterns have varied. US energy consumption per capita has declined, while Europe’s energy consumption per capita has tended to remain relatively flat. China’s energy consumption per capita has greatly increased in recent years. The passage of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 may have contribute to rising Asian coal consumption because it encouraged countries to reduce their own CO2 emissions, but did not discourage countries from importing goods made in countries using coal as their primary fuel for electricity.

Correlations with Employment

If we look at the United States line on Figure 7, we can see that the most recent peak in US per capita consumption of energy was in the year 2000. It is striking that the percentage of the US population with jobs also peaked in 2000 (Figure 8).


Figure 8. US number of people employed divided by population. Two series are shown: One is for non-farm employment from the Bureau of Labor Statistics; the other is from the Social Security administration.

A person would expect energy consumption to be correlated with the number of jobs for a couple of reasons. First, jobs often involve using vehicles or machines that require fuels of some sort, so the jobs themselves require energy. In addition, people with jobs have the income to buy goods that require energy. Thus, the fact that people in the US have jobs raises the demand for goods and services requiring energy.

If we look at US median wages through 2010 from the Social Security administration, we see a flattening since 2000, and an actual decrease in inflation adjusted wages since 2007 (Figure 9):


Figure 9. US Median Wages based on Social Security data.

If changes in international trade caused US wage earners to be more in direct competition with wage earners from other countries, it would not be surprising if a smaller percentage of the US population has jobs, and that median wages dropped in real terms between 2007 and 2010.

Annual per Capita Increases in World Energy Consumption

Figure 10 (below) shows world per capita energy consumption on a year-by-year basis, similar to Figure 7.


Figure 10. Year by year per capita energy consumption, based on BP statistical data, converted to joules.

Figure 10 shows that world per capita energy consumption was increasing until the late 70s, hitting a peak in 1977. There was a fairly long period until about 2000 where per-capita energy consumption was on a plateau. This was a period where consumers were shifting from oil to electricity where possible, a process that was typically more efficient. It was only in the last decade when production goods of many sorts started shifting to Asia and living standards in Asia starting rising that world energy consumption per capita has again begun increasing.

CO2 Emissions per Capita

I wrote a couple of posts earlier about why CO2 emissions seem to be rising as fast as GDP since 2000 (Is it really possible to decouple GDP growth from CO2 emissions growth? and Thoughts on why energy use and CO2 emissions are rising as fast as GDP), and the increase in per capita consumption would seem to be related. One of the graphs from the second post is shown below as Figure 11.


Figure 11. Carbon dioxide emissions by the three major areas described (Southeast Asia, Middle East, Remainder), based on BP Statistical Data

These emissions are not on a per-capita basis, but the graph illustrates what happens when the production of goods and services is increasingly outsourced to Asia, where coal is used as the primary fuel. Emissions tend to rise there, even if they remain flat in other countries.

If we compare the growth of CO2 emissions and the growth of energy use, both on a per capita basis (Figure 12), we see that the CO2 emissions grew more slowly than energy consumption in the 1970 to 1990 period, so the lines increasingly diverged.


Figure 12. Per capita energy consumption and CO2 emissions, based on BP statistical data.

This divergence appears to result from the changing fuel mix (more nuclear and more natural gas, relative to coal) during the period. Since 2000, the two lines are approximately parallel, indicating no further CO2 savings given the greater use of coal again. Wind and solar contributions are not large enough to make an appreciable difference in CO2 levels.

How an Economist Might Be Misled

If an economist views the period between World War II and 1970 as “normal” in terms of what to expect in the future, he/she is likely to be misled. The period of rapid energy growth following World War II is not likely to be repeated. The rapid energy growth allowed much manual work to be performed by machine (for example, using a back hoe instead of digging ditches by hand). Thus, there appeared to be considerable growth in human efficiency, but such growth is not likely to be repeated in the future. Also, the rate of GDP growth was likely higher than could be expected in the future.

Even the period between 1980 and 2000 may be misleading for predicting future patterns because this period occurred before the huge increase in international trade. Once international trade with less developed nations increases, we can expect these nations will want to increase their energy consumption in any way that is possible, including using more coal.

Another false inference might be that per capita oil consumption has declined in the past (Figure 6), so future declines should not be a problem. For one thing, the past drop in oil availability may very well have contributed to the employment issues noted above during the 2000 to 2010 period in the United States. For another, oil issues may very well have contributed to the Iraq war, and even to World War II. Furthermore, there may be Liebig’s Law of the Minimum issues, because most vehicles use gasoline or diesel for fuel and cannot run without it. Figure 2 also illustrates that a transition from one fuel to another takes many, many years–we have not at this point transitioned from away coal, and nuclear is still only a small percentage of world energy consumption.

The small amounts of new renewables to date should be of concern to economists if they are counting on these for the future. For one thing, ramping up new renewables to amounts which can be expected to make a significant contribution is likely to take many years. For another, new renewables require fossil fuels for their creation, so they are very much tied to the current system.

The fact that things haven’t fallen apart so far doesn’t give the assurance that things never will fall apart. Individual countries behave very differently. While some countries may continue to grow using coal, other countries will flounder when hit by high oil and natural gas prices. It is quite possible that some countries will encounter major difficulties in the years ahead, even though they have so far been untouched. The precarious debt situations of a number of countries leave them vulnerable to disruptions.

This post originally appeared on Our Finite World.