2017: The Year When the World Economy Starts Coming Apart

20 01 2017

Conclusion

The situation is indeed very concerning. Many things could set off a crisis:

  • Rising energy prices of any kind (hurting energy importers), or energy prices that don’t rise (leading to financial problems or collapse of exporters)
  • Rising interest rates.
  • Defaulting debt, indirectly the result of slow/negative economic growth and rising interest rates.
  • International organizations with less and less influence, or that fall apart completely.
  • Fast changes in relativities of currencies, leading to defaults on derivatives.
  • Collapsing banks, as debt defaults rise.
  • Falling asset prices (homes, farms, commercial buildings, stocks and bonds) as interest rates rise, leading to many debt defaults.

FOLLOWING ON from my last post exposing HSBC’s forecast of a peak oil caused economic collapse, along comes this piece from Gail Tverberg predicting it may all start this year…….

Most of this article is a rehash of things she’s said before all consolidated in one lengthy essay, and some of them were published here before. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to not recognise all our ducks are lining up on the wall…….

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Some people would argue that 2016 was the year that the world economy started to come apart, with the passage of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Whether or not the “coming apart” process started in 2016, in my opinion we are going to see many more steps in this direction in 2017. Let me explain a few of the things I see.

[1] Many economies have collapsed in the past. The world economy is very close to the turning point where collapse starts in earnest.  

Figure 1

The history of previous civilizations rising and eventually collapsing is well documented.(See, for example, Secular Cycles.)

To start a new cycle, a group of people would find a new way of doing things that allowed more food and energy production (for instance, they might add irrigation, or cut down trees for more land for agriculture). For a while, the economy would expand, but eventually a mismatch would arise between resources and population. Either resources would fall too low (perhaps because of erosion or salt deposits in the soil), or population would rise too high relative to resources, or both.

Even as resources per capita began falling, economies would continue to have overhead expenses, such as the need to pay high-level officials and to fund armies. These overhead costs could not easily be reduced, and might, in fact, grow as the government attempted to work around problems. Collapse occurred because, as resources per capita fell (for example, farms shrank in size), theearnings of workers tended to fall. At the same time, the need for taxes to cover what I am calling overhead expenses tended to grow. Tax rates became too high for workers to earn an adequate living, net of taxes. In some cases, workers succumbed to epidemics because of poor diets. Or governments would collapse, from lack of adequate tax revenue to support them.

Our current economy seems to be following a similar pattern. We first used fossil fuels to allow the population to expand, starting about 1800. Things went fairly well until the 1970s, when oil prices started to spike. Several workarounds (globalization, lower interest rates, and more use of debt) allowed the economy to continue to grow. The period since 1970 might be considered a period of “stagflation.” Now the world economy is growing especially slowly. At the same time, we find ourselves with “overhead” that continues to grow (for example, payments to retirees, and repayment of debt with interest). The pattern of past civilizations suggests that our civilization could also collapse.

Historically, economies have taken many years to collapse; I show a range of 20 to 50 years in Figure 1. We really don’t know if collapse would take that long now. Today, we are dependent on an international financial system, an international trade system, electricity, and the availability of oil to make our vehicles operate. It would seem as if this time collapse could come much more quickly.

With the world economy this close to collapse, some individual countries are even closer to collapse. This is why we can expect to see sharp downturns in the fortunes of some countries. If contagion is not too much of a problem, other countries may continue to do fairly well, even as individual small countries fail.

[2] Figures to be released in 2017 and future years are likely to show that the peak in world coal consumption occurred in 2014. This is important, because it means that countries that depend heavily on coal, such as China and India, can expect to see much slower economic growth, and more financial difficulties.

While reports of international coal production for 2016 are not yet available, news articles and individual country data strongly suggest that world coal production is past its peak. The IEA also reports a substantial drop in coal production for 2016.

Figure 2. World coal consumption. Information through 2015 based on BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data. Estimates for China, US, and India are based on partial year data and news reports. 2016 amount for "other" estimated based on recent trends.

The reason why coal production is dropping is because of low prices, low profitability for producers, and gluts indicating oversupply. Also, comparisons of coal prices with natural gas prices are inducing switching from coal to natural gas. The problem, as we will see later, is that natural gas prices are also artificially low, compared to the cost of production, So the switch is being made to a different type of fossil fuel, also with an unsustainably low price.

Prices for coal in China have recently risen again, thanks to the closing of a large number of unprofitable coal mines, and a mandatory reduction in hours for other coal mines. Even though prices have risen, production may not rise to match the new prices. One article reports:

. . . coal companies are reportedly reluctant to increase output as a majority of the country’s mines are still losing money and it will take time to recoup losses incurred in recent years.

Also, a person can imagine that it might be difficult to obtain financing, if coal prices have only “sort of” recovered.

I wrote last year about the possibility that coal production was peaking. This is one chart I showed, with data through 2015. Coal is the second most utilized fuel in the world. If its production begins declining, it will be difficult to offset the loss of its use with increased use of other types of fuels.

Figure 3. World per capita energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

[3] If we assume that coal supplies will continue to shrink, and other production will grow moderately, we can expect total energy consumption to be approximately flat in 2017. 

Figure 5. World energy consumption forecast, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy data through 2015, and author's estimates for 2016 and 2017.

In a way, this is an optimistic assessment, because we know that efforts are underway to reduce oil production, in order to prop up prices. We are, in effect, assuming either that (a) oil prices won’t really rise, so that oil consumption will grow at a rate similar to that in the recent past or (b) while oil prices will rise significantly to help producers, consumers won’t cut back on their consumption in response to the higher prices.

[4] Because world population is rising, the forecast in Figure 4 suggests that per capita energy consumption is likely to shrink. Shrinking energy consumption per capita puts the world (or individual countries in the world) at the risk of recession.

Figure 5 shows indicated per capita energy consumption, based on Figure 4. It is clear that energy consumption per capita has already started shrinking, and is expected to shrink further. The last time that happened was in the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Figure 5. World energy consumption per capita based on energy consumption estimates in Figure 4 and UN 2015 Medium Population Growth Forecast.

There tends to be a strong correlation between world economic growth and world energy consumption, because energy is required to transform materials into new forms, and to transport goods from one place to another.

In the recent past, the growth in GDP has tended to be a little higher than the growth in the use of energy products. One reason why GDP growth has been a percentage point or two higher than energy consumption growth is because, as economies become richer, citizens can afford to add more services to the mix of goods and services that they purchase (fancier hair cuts and more piano lessons, for example). Production of services tends to use proportionately less energy than creating goods does; as a result, a shift toward a heavier mix of services tends to lead to GDP growth rates that are somewhat higher than the growth in energy consumption.

A second reason why GDP growth has tended to be a little higher than growth in energy consumption is because devices (such as cars, trucks, air conditioners, furnaces, factory machinery) are becoming more efficient. Growth in efficiency occurs if consumers replace old inefficient devices with new more efficient devices. If consumers become less wealthy, they are likely to replace devices less frequently, leading to slower growth in efficiency. Also, as we will discuss later in this  post, recently there has been a tendency for fossil fuel prices to remain artificially low. With low prices, there is little financial incentive to replace an old inefficient device with a new, more efficient device. As a result, new purchases may be bigger, offsetting the benefit of efficiency gains (purchasing an SUV to replace a car, for example).

Thus, we cannot expect that the past pattern of GDP growing a little faster than energy consumption will continue. In fact, it is even possible that the leveraging effect will start working the “wrong” way, as low fossil fuel prices induce more fuel use, not less. Perhaps the safest assumption we can make is that GDP growth and energy consumption growth will be equal. In other words, if world energy consumption growth is 0% (as in Figure 4), world GDP growth will also be 0%. This is not something that world leaders would like at all.

The situation we are encountering today seems to be very similar to the falling resources per capita problem that seemed to push early economies toward collapse in [1]. Figure 5 above suggests that, on average, the paychecks of workers in 2017 will tend to purchase fewer goods and services than they did in 2016 and 2015. If governments need higher taxes to fund rising retiree costs and rising subsidies for “renewables,” the loss in the after-tax purchasing power of workers will be even greater than Figure 5 suggests.

[5] Because many countries are in this precarious position of falling resources per capita, we should expect to see a rise in protectionism, and the addition of new tariffs.

Clearly, governments do not want the problem of falling wages (or rather, falling goods that wages can buy) impacting their countries. So the new game becomes, “Push the problem elsewhere.”

In economic language, the world economy is becoming a “Zero-sum” game. Any gain in the production of goods and services by one country is a loss to another country. Thus, it is in each country’s interest to look out for itself. This is a major change from the shift toward globalization we have experienced in recent years. China, as a major exporter of goods, can expect to be especially affected by this changing view.

[6] China can no longer be expected to pull the world economy forward.

China’s economic growth rate is likely to be lower, for many reasons. One reason is the financial problems of coal mines, and the tendency of coal production to continue to shrink, once it starts shrinking. This happens for many reasons, one of them being the difficulty in obtaining loans for expansion, when prices still seem to be somewhat low, and the outlook for the further increases does not appear to be very good.

Another reason why China’s economic growth rate can be expected to fall is the current overbuilt situation with respect to apartment buildings, shopping malls, factories, and coal mines. As a result, there seems to be little need for new buildings and operations of these types. Another reason for slower economic growth is the growing protectionist stance of trade partners. A fourth reason is the fact that many potential buyers of the goods that China is producing are not doing very well economically (with the US being a major exception). These buyers cannot afford to increase their purchases of imports from China.

With these growing headwinds, it is quite possible that China’s total energy consumption in 2017 will shrink. If this happens, there will be downward pressure on world fossil fuel prices. Oil prices may fall, despite production cuts by OPEC and other countries.

China’s slowing economic growth is likely to make its debt problem harder to solve. We should not be too surprised if debt defaults become a more significant problem, or if the yuan falls relative to other currencies.

India, with its recent recall of high denomination currency, as well as its problems with low coal demand, is not likely to be a great deal of help aiding the world economy to grow, either. India is also a much smaller economy than China.

[7] While Item [2] talked about peak coal, there is a very significant chance that we will be hitting peak oil and peak natural gas in 2017 or 2018, as well.  

If we look at historical prices, we see that the prices of oil, coal and natural gas tend to rise and fall together.

Figure 6. Prices of oil, call and natural gas tend to rise and fall together. Prices based on 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

The reason that fossil fuel prices tend to rise and fall together is because these prices are tied to “demand” for goods and services in general, such as for new homes, cars, and factories. If wages are rising rapidly, and debt is rising rapidly, it becomes easier for consumers to buy goods such as homes and cars. When this happens, there is more “demand” for the commodities used to make and operate homes and cars. Prices for commodities of many types, including fossil fuels, tend to rise, to enable more production of these items.

Of course, the reverse happens as well. If workers become poorer, or debt levels shrink, it becomes harder to buy homes and cars. In this case, commodity prices, including fossil fuel prices, tend to fall.  Thus, the problem we saw above in [2] for coal would be likely to happen for oil and natural gas, as well, because the prices of all of the fossil fuels tend to move together. In fact, we know that current oil prices are too low for oil producers. This is the reason why OPEC and other oil producers have cut back on production. Thus, the problem with overproduction for oil seems to be similar to the overproduction problem for coal, just a bit delayed in timing.

In fact, we also know that US natural gas prices have been very low for several years, suggesting another similar problem. The United States is the single largest producer of natural gas in the world. Its natural gas production hit a peak in mid 2015, and production has since begun to decline. The decline comes as a response to chronically low prices, which make it unprofitable to extract natural gas. This response sounds similar to China’s attempted solution to low coal prices.

Figure 7. US Natural Gas production based on EIA data.

The problem is fundamentally the fact that consumers cannot afford goods made using fossil fuels of any type, if prices actually rise to the level producers need, which tends to be at least five times the 1999 price level. (Note peak price levels compared to 1999 level on Figure 6.) Wages have not risen by a factor of five since 1999, so paying the prices that fossil fuel producers need for profitability and growing production is out of the question. No amount of added debt can hide this problem. (While this reference is to 1999 prices, the issue really goes back much farther, to prices before the price spikes of the 1970s.)

US natural gas producers also have plans to export natural gas to Europe and elsewhere, as liquefied natural gas (LNG). The hope, of course, is that a large amount of exports will raise US natural gas prices. Also, the hope is that Europeans will be able to afford the high-priced natural gas shipped to them. Unless someone can raise the wages of both Europeans and Americans, I would not count on LNG prices actually rising to the level needed for profitability, and staying at such a high level. Instead, they are likely to bounce up, and quickly drop back again.

[8] Unless oil prices rise very substantially, oil exporters will find themselves exhausting their financial reserves in a very short time (perhaps a year or two). Unfortunately, oil importerscannot withstand higher prices, without going into recession. 

We have a no win situation, no matter what happens. This is true with all fossil fuels, but especially with oil, because of its high cost and thus necessarily high price. If oil prices stay at the same level or go down, oil exporters cannot get enough tax revenue, and oil companies in general cannot obtain enough funds to finance the development of new wells and payment of dividends to shareholders. If oil prices do rise by a very large amount for very long, we are likely headed into another major recession, with many debt defaults.

[9] US interest rates are likely to rise in the next year or two, whether or not this result is intended by the Federal reserve.

This issue here is somewhat obscure. The issue has to do with whether the United States can find foreign buyers for its debt, often called US Treasuries, and the interest rates that the US needs to pay on this debt. If buyers are very plentiful, the interest rates paid by he US government can be quite low; if few buyers are available, interest rates must be higher.

Back when Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters were doing well financially, they often bought US Treasuries, as a way to retain the benefit of their new-found wealth, which they did not want to spend immediately. Similarly, when China was doing well as an exporter, it often bought US Treasuries, as a way retaining the wealth it gained from exports, but didn’t yet need for purchases.

When these countries bought US Treasuries, there were several beneficial results:

  • Interest rates on US Treasuries tended to stay artificially low, because there was a ready market for its debt.
  • The US could afford to import high-priced oil, because the additional debt needed to buy the oil could easily be sold (to Saudi Arabia and other oil producing nations, no less).
  • The US dollar tended to stay lower relative to other currencies, making oil more affordable to other countries than it otherwise might be.
  • Investment in countries outside the US was encouraged, because debt issued by these other countries tended to bear higher interest rates than US debt. Also, relatively low oil prices in these countries (because of the low level of the dollar) tended to make investment profitable in these countries.

The effect of these changes was somewhat similar to the US having its own special Quantitative Easing (QE) program, paid for by some of the counties with trade surpluses, instead of by its central bank. This QE substitute tended to encourage world economic growth, for the reasons mentioned above.

Once the fortunes of the countries that used to buy US Treasuries changes, the pattern of buying of US Treasuries tends to change to selling of US Treasuries. Even not purchasing the same quantity of US Treasuries as in the past becomes an adverse change, if the US has a need to keep issuing US Treasuries as in the past, or if it wants to keep rates low.

Unfortunately, losing this QE substitute tends to reverse the favorable effects noted above. One effect is that the dollar tends to ride higher relative to other currencies, making the US look richer, and other countries poorer. The “catch” is that as the other countries become poorer, it becomes harder for them to repay the debt that they took out earlier, which was denominated in US dollars.

Another problem, as this strange type of QE disappears, is that the interest rates that the US government needs to pay in order to issue new debt start rising. These higher rates tend to affect other rates as well, such as mortgage rates. These higher interest rates act as a drag on the economy, tending to push it toward recession.

Higher interest rates also tend to decrease the value of assets, such as homes, farms, outstanding bonds, and shares of stock. This occurs because fewer buyers can afford to buy these goods, with the new higher interest rates. As a result, stock prices can be expected to fall. Prices of homes and of commercial buildings can also be expected to fall. The value of bonds held by insurance companies and banks becomes lower, if they choose to sell these securities before maturity.

Of course, as interest rates fell after 1981, we received the benefit of falling interest rates, in the form of rising asset prices. No one ever stopped to think about how much of the gains in share prices and property values came from falling interest rates.

Figure 8. Ten year treasury interest rates, based on St. Louis Fed data.

Now, as interest rates rise, we can expect asset prices of many types to start falling, because of lower affordability when monthly payments are based on higher interest rates. This situation presents another “drag” on the economy.

In Conclusion

The situation is indeed very concerning. Many things could set off a crisis:

  • Rising energy prices of any kind (hurting energy importers), or energy prices that don’t rise (leading to financial problems or collapse of exporters)
  • Rising interest rates.
  • Defaulting debt, indirectly the result of slow/negative economic growth and rising interest rates.
  • International organizations with less and less influence, or that fall apart completely.
  • Fast changes in relativities of currencies, leading to defaults on derivatives.
  • Collapsing banks, as debt defaults rise.
  • Falling asset prices (homes, farms, commercial buildings, stocks and bonds) as interest rates rise, leading to many debt defaults.

Things don’t look too bad right now, but the underlying problems are sufficiently severe that we seem to be headed for a crisis far worse than 2008. The timing is not clear. Things could start falling apart badly in 2017, or alternatively, major problems may be delayed until 2018 or 2019. I hope political leaders can find ways to keep problems away as long as possible, perhaps with more rounds of QE. Our fundamental problem is the fact that neither high nor low energy prices are now able to keep the world economy operating as we would like it to operate. Increased debt can’t seem to fix the problem either.

The laws of physics seem to be behind economic growth. From a physics point of view, our economy is a dissipative structure. Such structures form in “open systems.” In such systems, flows of energy allow structures to temporarily self-organize and grow. Other examples of dissipative structures include ecosystems, all plants and animals, stars, and hurricanes. All of these structures constantly “dissipate” energy. They have finite life spans, before they eventually collapse. Often, new dissipative systems form, to replace previous ones that have collapsed.

Advertisements




This is bigger…….

17 01 2016

That was big………  but this is bigger.

Whilst I admit to not hearing it for some time, the MSM has been spreading its usual nonsense in the form of “the fundamentals” [of the economy] are spot on, there’s nothing to worry about. Which I’ve been calling for years as crap, and now there’s a chart that explains everything regarding why I feel this way.

chart says it all

(Richard Koo: The ‘struggle between markets and central banks has only just begun’, Business Insider)

Why is the economy barely growing after seven years of zero rates and easy money? Why are wages and incomes sagging when stock and bond prices have gone through the roof? Why are stocks experiencing such extreme volatility when the Fed increased rates by a mere quarter of a percent?

It’s the policy, stupid. And here’s the chart that explains exactly what the policy is.

What this chart clearly shows is that the monumental increase in money printing had almost zero effect on lending, nor did it trigger the credit expansion the Fed were hoping for…… In other words, the Fed’s insane pump-priming of the economy experiment (aka– QE) both failed to stimulate growth and put the economy back on the so called ‘path to recovery’ we’ve been told was on, but everyone else has been saying for years never happened. For all intents and purposes, the policy was a complete flop.

Mind you, had it worked, I think we would have seen massive inflation. Basically, the fundamentals went AWOL way back in 2008. And no one wants to admit to it.lifestyle_banksy-500x332

The latest news from the US is that Walmart are closing 269 stores, which will probably leave some small towns with nowhere to buy anything,  and thousands of people out of work. If you need signs that economic collapse is now well underway, look no further than that little curler…..

The upside is that we might even see CO2 emissions starting to fall.





This is big…….

13 01 2016

Saudi Arabia state-owned oil firm Aramco slated for sale as crude prices tumble

Saudi Arabia is considering selling part of the giant state-owned Aramco oil company, with at least ten times the oil reserves of Exxon Mobil. Well……..  nobody really knows, because Aramco inexplicably revised its reserves numbers upwards by a factor of almost two in 1988.  Then, even though they’ve been pumping some 10 million barrels a day from their wells, the numbers just kept on creeping up, like magic…..

SAoilreserves

But if they’re selling, someone’s starting to feel the pinch of the oil price dropping like a stone. And who will buy?  With what money?  With Royal Bank of Scotland predicting $16 a barrel, and even worse, someone on the TV news last night talking about $10 (!), who in their right mind would buy Aramco, unless it was a fire sale?

From Peak Oil Barrel:

Saudi has the world’s largest oil field, Ghawar, and it is severely depleted. This 2004 paper, Selected Features of Giant Fields, Using Maps and Histograms, has a wealth of information on the discovery and depletion of giant oil and gas fields

Do the math, this 2004 chart says Ghawar started with 97 billion barrels of oil and was, in 2004, over 81% depleted. Of course the rest of Saudi is not that depleted. They have three fields that have been producing only a few years, Khurais, Manifa and Shaybah. These three fields, along with their other old giants, have enabled Saudi to keep production between 9 and 10 million barrels a day. But it is highly likely that they are about two thirds depleted.

Then, this just hit the news this morning:

Arch Coal, the second largest mining company in the US, filed for bankruptcy on Monday.

It is another blow for the ailing fossil fuel sector, as it struggles to adapt to environmental regulations dampening demand.

US coal production fell to 900 million short tons in 2015, the Energy Information Administration revealed on Friday, a 10% decline on the previous year.

Normally at this time of year, nothing much happens on economic fronts, but all this unraveling is a bit nerve wracking……  It’s easy to play up the idea that this is the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era, yet it’s hard to say with any certainty that that’s not what’s happening…….

As I write, West Texas crude is trading at $30.50.





Richard Wolff on the coming crash…….

30 05 2015

Of course, zero mention of Limits to Growth here………





2015: what is in store?

27 12 2014

2014 is as good as over; while most people look back on the past year for world shaking events, achievements, and which celebrity got divorced, I as usual look to the future…. and 2015 could be the decisive year for Western Civilisation, not that some people ever notice mind you.

Christmas has a habit of bringing people nearer to you that you might not otherwise associate with.  Since losing faith in humanity many years ago, I’m very choosy about whom I associate with, because people more often than not just depress me with their absolute lack of foresight.  One such person who shall remain nameless proudly told me on Boxing Day about how he was going to demolish the house he’s lived in most of his life to build a two story 400 m² 6 bedroom McMansion with three phase airconditioning…… his excitement was palpable, and frankly I don’t even understand why he was showing his plans off to me, I was totally underwhelmed and it took all of my self control to not tell him what I thought of his stupid plans.  Just to make matters worse, the building company he’s planning to use is American based, so the profits won’t even stay here in Australia.  When I sarcastically mentioned that his 50 inch TV would be too small for such a house…. he agreed!  I asked him if he realised that by having three phase power he would get a triple bill, likely attached to the three service fees I would guess such a connection would entail.  It never occurred to him of course, ignorance is bliss…  Be blowed if I would pay the utility $225 a quarter even before using a single one of their electrons.  He had no idea of what I was talking about, and I can see him copping quarterly bills well in excess of $1000 in this idiotic plan.

What does this have to do with 2015?  Well folks, it’s just amazing how many of the bloggers I follow are predicting this current oil price crash is the beginning of the deflationary spiral Nicole Foss has been predicting for years….  commenting on a recent post by her writing partner Ilargi, Nicole wrote on Facebook:

We’ve been saying this would happen for a long time, that oil prices would drop as demand falls on a move into economic depression. A temporary supply glut opens up, price support evaporates, prices fall to those of the lowest cost producer and all the expensive and complex production goes out of business. No one invests in exploration or drilling or production, or probably even maintenance, for years, meaning that supply will follow demand to the downside over time. Any kind of economic recovery way down the line will then be energy supply-constrained. First financial crisis buys you time in terms of peak oil, because you burn through remaining high energy profit ratio energy sources less quickly, but then it aggravates the situation later, but collapsing supply more quickly. We are headed into a much lower energy future, and that means life is going to change.

So you see why I think my non blood relation’s timing is way off!  He of course is not the least bit interested in anything I have to say, I even discovered yesterday that he has completely disconnected me from his cyber existence, my grim readings obviously clashing with his future expectations.  Buoyed by statements like “I can’t really overcapitalise in my suburb” and “property values can only go up where I live”, he was justifying everything in his own blissfully unaware mind that life was going to change alright, only it would be for the better.  What’s a deflationary spiral he may well have asked, should he even have known to ask such a question…  And stuff his three children’s future climate too!  Ah well, you can’t save everybody, especially when they are unwilling to help themselves.

If the global economy unravels, then unemployment, underemployment, and fear will combine to reduce consumption.  Investment and GDP will decline.  The economy will deflate.  Just like the 1930s.  And Australia will not fare anywhere near as well this time as it did after GFC MkI when commodity prices were still high and Chinese demand was strong.

If the world economy deflates, fixed asset values will decline.  Rental properties are especially vulnerable.  Stagnant incomes, increasing unemployment, and credit card debt guarantee consumers will prioritize spending decisions based on urgent need: food, fuel, and then rent (or mortgage payments).  This last Christmas binge could be the last.  In periods of declining economic activity, rental property owners (houses, apartment buildings, supermarkets and so on) face potential bankruptcy because of higher vacancy rates.  It will also become increasingly difficult for rents to keep up with maintenance costs.

Meanwhile, over at Zero Hedge, Tyler Durden wrote:

One key indicator of deflation that seems to be even more worrisome to investors, however, is global commodity prices and what commodity price weakness suggests for demand. Copper fell over 12% in 2014, largely due to slumping demand in China and other industrial economies. Natural gas prices have fallen more than 12% this year. And oil prices have fallen by over 40% due to a glut of new supply and weak demand growth in many developing economies. The International Energy Agency has cut its estimates for demand for crude five times in the past six months, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The negative impact on incomes due to the decline in oil prices is a global issue, with nations such as Russia, Nigeria and Venezuela in visible financial distress.  The price of the Russian Ruble has declined in tandem with oil prices, raising concerns about whether Russia will be able to service its hard currency debt.  But the decline in oil prices is more than just a supply phenomenon.  The lack of growth in the demand for oil, coupled with rising supplies in the U.S. and elsewhere, has raised concerns about the overall health of the global economy.

We believe that the weakness in U.S. equity and debt markets stems from a more fundamental problem than concerns about future growth, namely that investors are once again starting to seriously question the disclosure from the largest banks and investment houses regarding their credit exposure to highly leveraged borrowers.  This concern is evidenced by weakness in the equity market valuations of lenders with exposure to the oil sector as well as the recent changes in the relative position of spreads in the U.S.bond markets.

Click the link below to access the full copy of the note.  Free registration is required. https://www.krollbondratings.com/show_report/1815

For an economy reliant on numbers coming from the commodity sectors (while all the other sectors are doing very poorly), Australia’s near term future looks a bit grim.  Especially as we have a government whose only economic theory is to blame the one they just replaced for all its woes and get as many people on the dole queues as fast as possible.  Then we have this:

The Dow - 1999 To The Present

Hmmmm  don’t crashes occur in seven year cycles?  Watch this space….





The collapse of oil prices and energy security in Europe

17 11 2014

This is a written version of the brief talk I gave at the hearing of the EU parliament on energy security in Brussels on Nov 5, 2014. It is not a transcription, but a shortened version that tries to maintain the substance of what I said. In the picture, you can see the audience and, on the TV screen, yours truly taking the picture.

Ladies and gentlemen, first of all, let me say that it is a pleasure and an honour to be addressing this distinguished audience today. I am here as a faculty member of the University of Florence and as a member of the Club of Rome, but let me state right away that what I will tell you are my own opinions, not necessarily those of the Club of Rome or of my university.

This said, let me note that we have been discussing so far with the gas crisis and the Ukrainian situation, but I have to alert you that there is another ongoing crisis – perhaps much more worrisome – that has to do with crude oil. This crisis is being generated by the rapid fall in oil prices during the past few weeks. I have to tell you that low oil prices are NOT a good thing for the reasons that I will try to explain. In particular, low oil prices make it impossible for many oil producers to produce at a profit and that could generate big problems for the world’s economy, just as it already happened in 2008.

So, let me start with an overview of the long term trends of oil prices. Here it is, with data plotted from the BP site.

These data are corrected for inflation. You see strong oscillations, but also an evident trend of growth. Let’s zoom in, to see the past thirty years or so:

These data are not corrected for inflation, but the correction is not large in this time range. Prices are growing, but they stabilized during the past 4-5 years at somewhere around US 100 $ per barrel. Note the fall during the past month or so. I plotted these data about one week ago, today we are at even lower prices, well under 80 dollars per barrel.

The question is: what generates these trends? Obviously, there are financial factors of all kinds that tend to create fluctuations. But, in the end, what determines prices is the interplay of demand and offer. If prices are too high, people can’t afford to buy; that’s what we call “demand destruction”. If prices are too low, then it is offer that is destroyed. Simply, producers can’t sell their products at a loss; not for a long time, at least. So there is a range of prices which are possible for oil: too high, and customers can’t buy, too low, and companies can’t sell. Indeed, if you look at historical prices, you see that when they went over something like 120 $/barrel (present dollars) the result was a subsequent recession and the collapse of the economy.

Ultimately, it is the cost of production that generates the lower price limit. Here, we get into the core of the problem. As you see from the price chart above, up to about the year 2000, there was no problem for producers to make a profit selling oil at around 20 dollars per barrel. Then something changed that caused the prices to rise up. That something has a name: it is depletion.

Depletion doesn’t mean that we run out of oil. Absolutely not. There is still plenty of oil to extract in the world. Depletion means that we gradually consume our resources and – as you can imagine – we tend to extract and produce first the least expensive resources. So, as depletion gradually goes on, we are left with more expensive resources to extract. And, if extracting costs more, then the market prices must increase: as I said, nobody wants to sell at a loss. And here we have the problem. Below, you can see is a chart that shows the costs of production of oil for various regions of the world. (From an article by Hall and Murphy on The Oil Drum)

Of course, these data are to be taken with caution. But there are other, similar, estimates, including a 2012 report by Goldman and Sachs, where you can read that most recent developments need at least 120 $/barrel to be profitable. Here is a slide from that report.

So, you see that, with the present prices, a good 10% of the oil presently produced is produced at a loss. If prices were to go back to values considered “normal” just 10 years ago, around 40 $/barrel, then we would lose profitability for around half of the world’s production. Production won’t collapse overnight: a good fraction of the cost of production derives from the initial investment in an oil field. So, once the field has been developed, it keeps producing, even though the profits may not repay the investment. But, in the long run, nobody wants to invest in an enterprise at so high risks of loss. Eventually, production must go down: there will still be oil that could be, theoretically, extracted, but that we won’t be able to afford to extract. This is the essence of the concept of depletion.

The standard objection, at this point, is about technology. People say, “yes, but technology will lower costs of extraction and everything will be fine again”. Well, I am afraid that it is not so simple. There are limits to what that technology can do. Let me show you something:

That object you see at the top of the image is a chunk of shale. It is the kind of rock out of which shale oil and shale gas can be extracted. But, as you can imagine, it is not easy. You can’t pump oil out of shales; the oil is there, but it is locked into the rock. To extract it, you must break the rock down into small pieces; fracture it (this is where the term “fracking” comes from). And you see on the right an impression of the kind of equipment it takes. You can be sure that it doesn’t come cheap. And that’s not all: once you start fracking, you have to keep on fracking. The decline rate of a fracking well is very rapid; we are talking about something like a loss of 80% in three years. And that’s expensive, too. Note, by the way, that we are speaking of the cost of production. The market price is another matter and it is perfectly possible for the industry to have to produce at a loss, if they were too enthusiastic about investing in these new resources. It is what’s happening for shale gas in the US; too much enthusiasm on the part of investors has created a problem of overproduction and prices too low to repay the costs of extraction.

So, producing this kind of resources, the so called “new oil” is a complex and expensive task. Surely technology can help reduce costs, but think about that: how exactly can it reduce the energy that it takes to break a rock into fine dust? Are you going to hammer on it with a smartphone? Are you going to share a photo of it on Facebook? Are you going to run it through a 3D printer? The problem is that to break and mill a piece of rock takes energy and this energy has to come from somewhere.

Eventually, the fundamental point is that you have a balance between the energy invested and the energy returned. It takes energy to extract oil, we can say that it takes energy to produce energy. The ratio of the two energies is the “Net Energy Return” of the whole system, also known as EROI or EROEI (energy return of energy invested). Of course, you want this return to be as high as possible, but when you deal with non renewable resources, such as oil, the net energy return declines with time because of depletion. Let me show you some data.

As you see, the net energy return for crude oil (top left) declined from about 100 to around 10 over some 100 years (the value of 100 may be somewhat overestimated, but the trend remains the same). And with lower net energies, you get less and less useful energy from an oil well; as you can see in the image at the lower right. The situation is especially bad for the so called “new oil”, shale oil, biofuels, tar sands, and others. It is expected: these kinds of oil (or anyway combustible liquids) are the most expensive ones and they are being extracted today because we are running out of the cheap kinds. No wonder that prices must increase if production has to continue at the levels we are used to. Then, when the market realizes that prices are too high to be affordable, there is the opposite effect; prices go down to tell producers to stop producing a resource which is too expensive to sell.

So, we have a problem. It is a problem that appears in the form of sudden price jumps; up and down, but which is leading us gradually to a situation in which we won’t be able to produce as much oil as we are used to. The same is true for gas and I think that the present crisis in Europe, which is seen today mainly as a political one, ultimately has its origin in the gradual depletion of gas resources. We still have plenty of gas to produce, but it is becoming an expensive resource.  It is the same for coal, even though so far there we don’t see shortages; for coal, troubles come more from emissions and climate change; and that’s an even more serious problem than depletion. Coal may (perhaps) be considered abundant (or, at least, more abundant than other fossil resources) but it is not a solution to any problem.

In the end, we have problems that cannot be “solved” by trying to continue producing non renewable resources which in the long run are going to become too expensive. It is a physical problem, and cannot be solved by political or financial methods. The only possibility is to switch to resources which don’t suffer of depletion. That is, to renewable resources.

At this point, we should discuss what is the energy return of renewables and compare it to that of fossil fuels. This is a complex story and there is a lot of work being done on that. There are many uncertainties in the estimates, but I think it can be said that the “new renewables“, that is mainly photovoltaics and wind, have energy returns for the production of electrical energy which is comparable to that of the production of the same kind of energy from oil and gas. Maybe renewables still can’t match the return of fossil fuels but, while the energy return of fossil energy keeps declining, the return of renewables is increasing because of economies of scale and technological improvements. So, we are going to reach a crossing point at some moment (maybe we have already reached it) and, even in terms of market prices, the cost of renewable electric power is today already comparable to that of electric power obtained with fossil fuels.

The problem is that our society was built around the availability of cheap fossil fuels. We can’t simply switch to renewables such as photovoltaics, which can’t produce, for instance, liquid fuels for transportation. So, we need a new infrastructure to accommodate the new technologies, and that will be awfully expensive to create. We’ll have to try to do our best, but we cannot expect the energy transition – the “energiewende” – to be painless. On the other hand, if we don’t prepare for it, it will be worse.

So, to return to the subject of this hearing, we were discussing energy security for Europe. I hope I provided some data for you that show how security is ultimately related to supply and that we are having big problems with the supply of fossil energy right now. The problem can only increase in the future because of the gradual depletion of fossil resources. So, we need to think in terms of supplies which are not affected by this problem. As a consequence, it is vital for Europe’s energy security to invest in renewable energy. We shouldn’t expect miracles from renewables, but they will be immensely helpful in the difficult times ahead.

Let me summarize the points I made in this talk:

Thank you very much for your attention and if you want to know more, you can look at my website “Resource Crisis”. www.cassandralegacy.blogspot.com


Ugo Bardi teaches at the University of Florence, Italy. He is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of “Extracted, how the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet” (Chelsea Green 2014)





Crash on Demand

6 01 2014

As 2014 opens the window to our uncertain future, David Holmgren, with whom I had the great pleasure of having dinner in Richard Heinberg’s company in 2006 when they toured Australia together, has published a new essay (a 24 page pdf download), which is an update of his Future Scenarios, and which continues to build on “Money Vs. Fossil Fuels”, and expands on money and the economy.  This essay titled “Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future” is a must read piece……..

energy_descent_scenarios-300x207

Holmgren is seeing the Brown Tech scenario as the one currently in play from the four outlined in Future Scenarios, where the decline of fossil fuels unfolds slowly; “but the severity of global warming symptoms is at the extreme end of current mainstream scientific predictions” says David….  The political system is Corporatist, and emphasis is placed on replacing declining conventional fossil fuels with lower grade fossil fuels, which are both more expensive and also release more GGE (Greenhouse Gas Emissions), exacerbating Climate Change even further.  David’s argument is essentially that radical, but achievable, behaviour change from dependent consumers to responsible self-reliant producers (by some relatively small minority of the global middle class) has a chance of stopping the juggernaut of consumer capitalism from driving the world over the climate change cliff.  It maybe a slim chance, but a better bet than current herculean efforts to get the elites to pull the right policy levers; whether by sweet promises of green tech profits or alternatively threats from mass movements shouting for less consumption.

browntech_logosmlw_bt

In the extensive discussions about money and economy, the influence of systems analyst Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh -The Automatic Earth) and economist Steve Keen (Debt Deflation) are strong and freely acknowledged.  David believes that deflationary economics is the most powerful factor shaping our immediate future.

The basic recommendation (as noted in the quote above) is not much different from what David Holmgren and I have been recommending for 20 years or more…: to engage in a shift away from the Matrix, and toward being a responsible self-reliant producer for your household and community, to shift a significant portion of assets out of the Matrix economy, and move them into building household and community resilience. Such actions not only put you in a more secure position, they also, if engaged by perhaps 10% of the population of affluent countries, might be just what’s needed to shift our economies away from the perpetual growth paradigm we’ve been suffering since at least the end of WWII , and is now only hanging on via an unsustainable debt bubble…….  The collapse of the current bubble economy will be ugly.  However, given that current growth is no longer fuelled by oil but only being made possible by rising debt, we are not doing ourselves (or anybody else) any favours by perpetuating it.  As David has previously pointed out in Future Scenarios:

…without radical behavioural and organizational change that would threaten the foundations of our growth economy, greenhouse gas emissions along with other environmental impacts will not decline. Economic recession is the only proven mechanism for a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and may now be the only real hope for maintaining the earth in a habitable state.

David makes the case that even though it might be too late for the Green Tech scenario to materialise, it may, just

David Holmgren

David Holmgren

may, still be possible to avoid the worst effects of the Brown Tech scenario (a 4 to 6 degree “Climate Cooker” Lifeboats scenario).

A severe global economic collapse might switch off enough GGE to begin reversing climate change, so that the Earth Steward scenario of bioregional economies based on frugal rural agrarian living, assisted by resources salvaged from the collapsed global economy and the defunct national governments, could possibly emerge in the long term future……..

It’s not a rose coloured future, I grant you…..  The last 10 pages or so, however, I found to be quite invigorating (even in the current heat wave), and opened up some possibilities for positive engagement….  Topics discussed are ‘Nested Scenarios’ (different scenarios co-existing at different scales); Investment and Divestment; Formal and Informal Economies; Alternative and Non-monetary Economies; Labour and Skill Vs Fossil Fuel and Technology; Brown Tech Possibilities; Actors at the Fringe; and Not Financial Terrorists (but Terra-ists with hands in the soil).  There are also tons of great footnotes/links worth following up on……

David is one of the few people around with his head screwed on properly, and like much of the rest of his writings, this is essential reading for those of us trying to make sense of whatever long term future we may have to face, or how we can best make a positive difference.

Today though, I learned a new word….:  exhaustipated.  Too tired to give a shit!  Maybe tomorrow when it’s supposed to cool down and rain……  Enjoy the read, I did….