Are Gilets Jaunes the new guillotine?

8 12 2018

POPULAR UNREST IN AN AGE OF FALLING PROSPERITY

Between my French origins and the opinions expressed within this little blog, I have taken more than a passing interest in the events happening in France, especially when it’s fuelled by passionate and restless wwoofers who come from there too! As you will or should know, I believe the real economy runs on energy, not money, and surplus energy in particular…… as a result, I have been following Tim Morgan’s Surplus Energy Economics blog for a while, which I would encourage you all to follow too. This is Tim’s latest gem, which proves that when you do the math…….  the truth comes out!

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This weekend, the authorities plan to field 89,000 police officers across France in response to anticipated further mass protests by the ‘gilets jaunes’. In the capital, the Eiffel Tower will be closed and armoured cars deployed, whilst restaurateurs and shopkeepers are being urged to close their businesses at one of the most important times of their trading year.

Though the government has climbed down on the original cause célèbre – the rises in fuel taxes planned for next year – there seems to be no reduction in the worst protests experienced in the country since the 1960s. Reports suggest that as many as 70% of French citizens support the protestors, and that the movement may be spreading to Belgium and the Netherlands.

For the outside observer, the most striking features of the protests in France have been the anger clearly on display, and the rapid broadening of the campaign from fuel prices to a wider range of issues including wages, the cost of living and taxation.

The disturbances in France should be seen in a larger context. In France itself, Emmanuel Macron was elected president only after voters had repudiated all established political parties. Italians have entrusted their government to an insurgent coalition which is on a clear collision-course with the European Union over budgetary matters. The British have voted to leave the EU, and Americans have elected to the White House a man dismissed by ‘experts’ as a “joke candidate” throughout his campaign.

Obviously, something very important is going on – why?

Does economics explain popular anger?

There are, essentially, two different ways in which the events in France and beyond can be interpreted, and how you look at them depends a great deal on how you see the economic situation.

If you subscribe to the conventional and consensus interpretation, economic issues would seem to play only a supporting role in the wave of popular unrest sweeping much of the West. You would concede that the seemingly preferential treatment of a tiny minority of the very rich has angered the majority, and that some economic tendencies – amongst them, diminishing security of employment – have helped fuel popular unrest.

Beyond this, though, you would note that economies are continuing to grow, and this would force you to look for explanations outside the purely economic sphere. From this, you might conclude that ‘agitators’, from the right or left of the political spectrum, might be playing a part analogous to the role of “populist” politicians in fomenting public dissatisfaction with the status quo.

If, on the other hand, you subscribe to the surplus energy interpretation of the economy professed here, your view of the situation would concentrate firmly on economic issues.

Though GDP per capita may be continuing to improve, the same cannot be said of prosperity. According to SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System), personal prosperity in France has deteriorated by 7% since 2000, a trend starkly at variance with the growth (of 12%) in reported GDP over the same period.

Not only is the average French person poorer now than he or she was back in 2000, but each person’s share of the aggregate of household, business and government debt has increased by almost 70% since 2000. These findings are summarised in the following table, sourced from SEEDS.

France prosperity snapshot

Two main factors explain the divergence between the conventional and the surplus energy interpretations of the economy. One of these is the pouring of enormous quantities of cheap debt and cheap money into the system, a process which boosts recorded GDP without improving prosperity (for the obvious reason that you can’t become more prosperous just by spending borrowed money). The other is the exponential rise in the energy cost of energy (ECoE), a process which impacts prosperity by reducing the share of output which can be used for all purposes other than the supply of energy itself.

In France, and with all sums expressed in euros at constant 2017 values, GDP grew by 23% between 2000 and 2017. But this growth, whilst adding €433bn to GDP, was accompanied by a €3.07tn increase in aggregate debt. This means that each €1 of reported growth in the French economy has come at a cost of more than €7 in net new debt. Put another way, whilst French GDP is growing at between 1.5% and 2.0%, annual borrowing is running at about 9.5% of GDP.

Cutting to the chase here, SEEDS concludes that very little (about €100bn) of the reported €433bn rise in GDP since 2000 has been sustainable and organic, with the rest being a simple function of the spending of borrowed money. Shorn of this credit effect, underlying or clean GDP per capita is lower now (at €29,550) than it was in 2000 (€30,777).

Meanwhile, trend ECoE in France is put at 7.8%. Though by no means the worst amongst comparable economies, this nevertheless represents a relentless increase, rising from 4.6% back in 2000. At the individual or household level, rising ECoE is experienced primarily in higher costs of household essentials. In the aggregate, ECoE acts as an economic rentdeduction from clean GDP.

Between 2000 and 2017, clean GDP itself increased by only 5.7%, and the rise in ECoE left French aggregate prosperity only marginally (2.2%) higher in 2017 than it was back in 2000. Over that same period, population numbers increased by 10%, meaning that prosperity per person is 7.1% lowernow than it was at the millennium.

In France, as elsewhere, the use of credit and monetary adventurism in an effort to deliver “growth” has added markedly to the aggregate debt burden, which is €3.1tn (86%) higher now than it was in 2000. The per capita equivalent has climbed by 69%, making the average person €41,800 (69%) more indebted than he or she was back in 2000.

The prosperity powder-keg

Gilets Jaunes Acte 3 – Samedi 1er Décembre – Perpignan

To summarise, then, we can state the economic circumstances of the average French citizen as follows.

First, and despite a rise in official GDP per capita, his or her personal prosperity is 7.1% (€2,095) lower now than it was as long ago as 2000.

Second, he or she has per capita debt of €102,200, up from €60,400 back in 2000.

Third, the deterioration in prosperity has been experienced most obviously in costs of household essentials, which have outpaced both wages and headline CPI inflation over an extended period.

This is the context in which we need to place changes in the workplace, and a perceived widening in inequality.

On this latter point, part of the explanation for the anger manifested in France can be grasped from this chart, published by the Institut des Politiques Publiques.

In the current budget, policy changes hurt the disposable incomes of the poorest 10% or so (on the left of the scale), but ought to be welcomed by most of the rest – and perhaps might be, were it not for the huge handouts seemingly being given to the very wealthiest. Moreover, these benefits aren’t being conferred on a large swathe of “the rich”, but accrue only to the wealthiest percentile.

French budget 2

This is part of a pattern visible throughout much of the West. Unfortunately, perceptions of hand-outs to a tiny minority of the super-rich have arisen in tandem with a deteriorating sense of security. Security is a multi-faceted concept, which extends beyond security of employment to embrace prosperity, wages, living costs and public services.

Even in the euphoric period immediately following his election, it seemed surprising that French voters would back as president a man committed to ‘reform’ of French labour laws, a process likely to reduce workers’ security of employment. Add in further deterioration in prosperity, and an apparent favouring of the super-rich, and the ingredients for disaffection become pretty obvious.

Where next?

The interpretation set out here strongly indicates that protests are unlikely to die down just because the government has made some concessions over fuel taxes – the ‘gilet jaunes’ movement might have found its catalyst in diesel prices, but now embraces much wider sources of discontent.

Given the context of deteriorating prosperity, it’s hard to see how the government can respond effectively. Even the imposition of swingeing new taxes on the super-rich – a wildly unlikely initiative in any case – might not suffice to assuage popular anger. It seems likelier that the authorities will ramp up law enforcement efforts in a bid to portray the demonstrators as extremists. The scale of apparent support for the movement – if not for some of its wilder excesses – suggests that such an approach is unlikely to succeed.

Of course, it cannot be stressed too strongly that the French predicament is by no means unique. Deteriorating prosperity, a sense of reduced security and resentment about the perceived favouring of the super-rich are pan-European trends.

In the longer term, trends both in prosperity and in politics suggest that the West’s incumbent elites are fighting a rear-guard action. The credibility of their market economics mantra suffered severe damage in 2008, when market forces were not allowed to run to their logical conclusions, the result being a widespread perception that the authorities responded to the global financial crisis with rescues for “the rich” and “austerity” for everyone else.

This problem is exacerbated by the quirks of the euro system. In times past, a country like Italy would have responded to hardship by devaluation, which would have protected employment at the cost of gradual increases in the cost of living. Denied this option, weaker Euro Area countries – meaning most of them – have been forced into a process of internal devaluation, which in practice means reducing costs (and, principally, wages) in a way popularly labelled “austerity”. The combination of a single monetary policy with a multiplicity of sovereign budget processes was always an exercise in economic illiteracy, and the lack of automatic stabilisers within the euro system is a further grave disadvantage.

Finally, the challenge posed by deteriorating prosperity is made much worse by governments’ lack of understanding of what is really happening to the economy. If you were to believe that rising GDP per capita equates to improving prosperity – and if you further believed that ultra-low rates mean that elevated debt is nothing to worry about – you might really fail to understand what millions of ordinary people are so upset about.

After all, as somebody might once have said, they can always eat brioche.

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The Bumpy Road Down

18 12 2017

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IrvMills

Irv Mills

The term “bumpy road down” refers to the cyclic pattern of crash and partial recovery that I believe will characterize the rest of the age of scarcity and make for a slow step by step collapse, rather than a single hard and fast crash. Indeed, that is where the “step-by-step” in the title of this series of posts comes from. And yes, many of the individual steps down will happen quite quickly and seem quite harsh. But it will likely take many steps and many decades before we can say collapse is essentially complete, and between those steps down there will (in many areas) be long periods when things are stable or even actually improving somewhat.

The fast collapse is a favourite trope of collapse fiction and makes for some exciting stories, in which stalwart heroes defend their group from hungry hordes and evil strong men. And if the story happens in the U.S. the characters get to do their best to stop a whole lot of ammunition from going stale. But it seems to me that in most parts of the world things will progress quite differently when disaster strikes. Indeed there is a branch of sociology which studies how people and societies respond to disaster, and it has identified a set of incorrect beliefs, known as “the disaster mythology” that much of the general public holds on the subject. In particular, the expectation of looting, mass panic and violence is not borne out in really. Here are some further links on the subject: 1234.

Dysfunctional as today’s world may seem to many of us, it is working fairly well for those who are in power. They have a great deal invested in maintaining the “status quo”, and in making sure that whatever changes do happen don’t have any great effect on them. They also have a lot of resources to bring to bear on pursuing those ends, and a lot of avenues to go down before they run out of alternatives.

The other 80% of us, who are just along for the ride so to speak, still rely on industrial society for the necessities of life. We are hardly self sufficient at all, dependent on “the system” to a degree that is unprecedented in mankind’s history and prehistory. As unhappy as we may be with the way things are at present, it’s hard to imagine collapse without a certain amount of trepidation. Denial is a very common response to this situation.

Some of us, though, aren’t very good at denial. Even if we only follow the news on North American TV, which largely ignores the rest of the world, we’ve seen lots of disturbing events in the last year or two and it is hard not to wonder if they are leading up to something serious. Many people in the “collapse sphere” are predicting a major disturbance in the next few years, and some think that this will be the one that takes us down—all the way.

I definitely agree that something is about to happen, but I don’t think it is going be the last straw. Just one more step along the way.

As always, I am directing this mainly to those who are not highly “collapse aware”, so a closer look at what’s going on and what this next big bump might look like would seem to be a good idea. And of course I am making generalizations in what follows. As always, things will vary a good bit between different areas and at different times, and all of this will affect people of the various social classes differently. Also beware that I am not an economist, just a layman who has been watching the field with keen interest for some time. What follows is a summary of what I have learned, in a field where there is lots of disagreement and where the experts themselves have been wrong again and again.

Despite all the optimistic talk about renewable energy, we are still dependent on fossil fuels for around 87% of our energy needs, and those needs are largely ones that cannot be met by anything other than fossil fuels, especially oil. While it is true that fossil fuels are far from running out, the amount of surplus energy they deliver (the EROEI—”energy returned on energy invested”) has declined to the point where it no longer supports robust economic growth. Indeed, since the 1990s, real economic growth has largely stopped. What limited growth we are seeing is based on debt, rather than an abundance of surplus energy. And various adjustments to the way GDP is calculated have made the situation seem less serious that it really is.

Because of the growth situation, investors looking for good returns on their money have been hard pressed to find any and so have turned to riskier investments, which has resulted in speculative bubbles and subsequent crashes. The thing about bubbles is they are based on trust. Trust in some sort of investment that in saner times would be recognized for the risky proposition it really is. But always there comes a day when the risk becomes obvious, people rush to get out, and the bubble crashes.

The dot com bubble was the first to burst in this century, and the real estate bubble in the US was the next, leading to the crash of 2008.

After 2008 many governments borrowed money to bailout financial institutions (banks) which were in danger of failing, since that failure would have had a very negative effect on the rest of the economy. To control the cost of that borrowing and stimulate the economy, they lowered interest rates. These low interest rates have made it possible to use debt as a temporary replacement for surplus energy as the driver of the economy. Unfortunately this is pretty inefficient—it takes several dollars of debt to create a dollar’s worth of growth, and the result has been debt increasing to totally unprecedented levels.

Meanwhile, much of the ill advised risk taking in the financial industry that led to the crash in 2008 has continued on unabated. You may wonder why responsible governments didn’t enact regulations to stop that sort of thing. And indeed they did, to a limited extent. I suspect, though, that really effective regulations would have stopped growth cold, and no one was willing to accept the negative results of that. Better to let things to go on as they are, leaving future governments to worry about the consequences.

So, in 2017 we are deep into what might be called a “debt bubble.” It relies on trust that interest rates will remain low and that any day now there will be a return to robust growth so that we can all make some money and pay off our debts. Those are risky propositions, to say the least.

On top of that, low interest rates have made it much more of a challenge for pension funds to raise enough money to meet their obligations, a vital concern for retired baby boomers like myself.

Those same low interest rates have made it possible for many non-viable or barely viable businesses to continuing operating on borrowed money, where under more normal circumstances they would have been forced out of business. This makes for a weaker economy, not a stronger one.

Here in Canada we still have a real estate bubble going on, especially in cities like Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, and that despite recent government efforts to cool the real estate market by making it more difficult to get a mortgage, and by applying a tax on foreign real estate investors.

And over the last year that have been a long list of natural disasters which have increased the financial stress on governments, insurance companies and even re-insurance companies (who insure the insurance companies themselves).

The more conventional economists have come to think that all this is a normal situation and that it can just keep on keeping on. But there are others who think that this will lead to a crash of even greater magnitude that 2008. And many kollapsniks think this crash will mean the end of industrial civilization.

Some commentators expect this crash to take the form of a rash of debt defaults by governments who can no longer carry the debt loads they have built up. And a similar wave of bankruptcies of those shaky businesses I was just talking about, when they finally get to the point where they can no longer hold on. Tim Morgan, one of my favourite economists (who is certainly aware of the possibility of collapse), speculates that this bubble may burst in a different way than those of the past, with the collapse of one or more currencies. He points to the British pound as a prime candidate for the first to go and thinks that the U.S. dollar may follow it.

Other experts I’ve asked say that while the U.S government does have huge debts, they are not so large in comparison to the size of its economy—an economy that is strong enough that trust in it is unlikely to fail. I am not so sure. Much of the strength of the U.S. dollar comes from the fact that all trading of oil is done in it. If you want to buy oil then you need U.S. dollars, so the demand for them is always high. But a number of countries who are not allies of the US have proposed abandoning this system, suggesting that they are willing to accept other currencies for their oil. If this were to happen on a large scale it would significantly weaken the US dollar.

But it takes some sort of unusual event to start a crash like this, to initiate the loss of trust. And that brings us back to the fossil fuel industry.

While the falling EROEIs of fossil fuels have hurt economic growth, it is a mistake to think that those fuels are not still the life blood of our civilization. The success of modern industry is based on the productivity boost provided by cheap energy. The price of oil, for many years, was a fraction of its worth in terms of what could be made with the energy embodied in that oil. But when the price of energy goes up, it reduces the profitability of industry, often leading to a recession.

The oil prices I quote here are for Brent crude, just to keep things simple. In fact, oil trades at a dizzying variety of different prices, depending on where it comes from and its quality, among other things. If you look back over the history of recessions since the 1950s it is interesting to note almost all of them were preceded by a spike in the price of oil. In the summer of 2008 the price of oil, which had been going up for several years, topped out just before the crash at almost $140 per barrel.

After the crash, the economy slowed down significantly, and the price of oil dropped to around $30 per barrel due to falling demand. Starting in mid-2009 the economy began to recover and the price of oil increased to over $100. This appeared to be a straight forward case of supply and demand—an indication that the supply of oil was barely keeping up and suppliers were being forced to turn to more expensive sources of oil to meet the demand.

Then in mid 2014 something surprising happened— the price of oil and many other bulk commodities began to go down. By early 2016 the price of oil was under $40/barrel, and it stayed in the range between $40 and $60 until quite recently when it edged up over $60.

All kinds of ideas have been put forth as to why this drop in the price of oil happened, many of them contradictory. It is my thought that two things have been happening. First, demand destruction—a slowing down of the world economy caused by high energy prices. Second, a temporary increase in the supply of oil, mainly from fracking in the continental US and tapping of unconventional oil—tar sands in Canada, heavy oil in Venezuela, and deep offshore oil in various place around the world, that were suddenly profitable when the price was around $100 per barrel.

Whatever is the cause, it is clear that we have had a surplus of oil for the last few years, and this has kept the price down. OPEC discussed limiting supply to force the price back up, but very little came of it, even though the lower price was severely hurting the economies of the OPEC nations.

In the short run, lower oil prices have had a beneficial effect on economic growth. But unfortunately, the big oil companies were making so little profit that they couldn’t afford to invest much in oil discovery.

Regardless of what you may think of the idea of “peak oil” on a global basis, it is a simple fact that the output of any individual oil field declines as it ages. Exploration for new oil aims to match that natural decline with new discoveries. For conventional oil, that has not happened since 1963 and by the start of this century this was becoming a problem. A problem that likely had something to do with the run up of oil prices prior to 2008.

Following 2008, higher prices and improved technology (like fracking and the syncrude process for getting oil out of the tar sands) made more oil accessible. But with the current lower prices, that is no longer the case. Furthermore the wells opened up by fracking are proving to have very high decline rates.

So it seems that sometime in the next year or two, the decline rate of the world’s oil fields will have eaten up the surplus of oil. Discovery of new oil fields doesn’t happen overnight, so there will be a crunch in oil supply. Not that there will be no oil available, but oil suppliers will be hard pressed to keep up with the demand and the price will spike upward. There may even be shortages of some petroleum products until those higher prices pull demand back to match the available supply.

It seems very likely that such a spike in the price of oil will touch off a loss of trust leading to a recession of such severity as to make 2008 look minor.

In my next post in this series I’ll look at how that recession—might as well call it a crash—might proceed and what will likely be done to mitigate its effects.





A Market Collapse Is On The Horizon

18 02 2016

The bit that worries me the most is this……:
The many problems of 2016 (including rapid moves in currencies, falling commodity prices, and loan defaults) are likely to cause large payouts of derivatives, potentially leading to the bankruptcies of financial institutions, as they did in 2008. To prevent such bankruptcies, most governments plan to move as much of the losses related to derivatives and debt defaults to private parties as possible. It is possible that this approach will lead to depositors losing what appear to be insured bank deposits.
I better spend that money quick smart.  Just had a quote for $17,000 for the blocks to go into the retaining wall.  By the time I’ve bought the double glazing and the roof, most of my big expenses, apart from the footings and slab, will have gone…..
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By

tverberg

Gail Tverberg

Posted on Sat, 13 February 2016

What is ahead for 2016? Most people don’t realize how tightly the following are linked:

1. Growth in debt
2. Growth in the economy
3. Growth in cheap-to-extract energy supplies
4. Inflation in the cost of producing commodities
5. Growth in asset prices, such as the price of shares of stock and of farmland
6. Growth in wages of non-elite workers
7. Population growth

It looks to me as though this linkage is about to cause a very substantial disruption to the economy, as oil limits, as well as other energy limits, cause a rapid shift from the benevolent version of the economic supercycle to the portion of the economic supercycle reflecting contraction. Many people have talked about Peak Oil, the Limits to Growth, and the Debt Supercycle without realizing that the underlying problem is really the same–the fact the we are reaching the limits of a finite world.

There are actually a number of different kinds of limits to a finite world, all leading toward the rising cost of commodity production. I will discuss these in more detail later. In the past, the contraction phase of the supercycle seems to have been caused primarily by too high a population relative to resources. This time, depleting fossil fuels–particularly oil–plays a major role. Other limits contributing to the end of the current debt supercycle include rising pollution and depletion of resources other than fossil fuels.

The problem of reaching limits in a finite world manifests itself in an unexpected way: slowing wage growth for non-elite workers. Lower wages mean that these workers become less able to afford the output of the system. These problems first lead to commodity oversupply and very low commodity prices. Eventually these problems lead to falling asset prices and widespread debt defaults. These problems are the opposite of what many expect, namely oil shortages and high prices. This strange situation exists because the economy is a networked system. Feedback loops in a networked system don’t necessarily work in the way people expect.

I expect that the particular problem we are likely to reach in 2016 is limits to oil storage. This may happen at different times for crude oil and the various types of refined products. As storage fills, prices can be expected to drop to a very low level–less than $10 per barrel for crude oil, and correspondingly low prices for the various types of oil products, such as gasoline, diesel, and asphalt. We can then expect to face a problem with debt defaults, failing banks, and failing governments (especially of oil exporters).

The idea of a bounce back to new higher oil prices seems exceedingly unlikely, in part because of the huge overhang of supply in storage, which owners will want to sell, keeping supply high for a long time. Furthermore, the underlying cause of the problem is the failure of wages of non-elite workers to rise rapidly enough to keep up with the rising cost of commodity production, particularly oil production. Because of falling inflation-adjusted wages, non-elite workers are becoming increasingly unable to afford the output of the economic system. As non-elite workers cut back on their purchases of goods, the economy tends to contract rather than expand. Efficiencies of scale are lost, and debt becomes increasingly difficult to repay with interest. The whole system tends to collapse.

How the Economic Growth Supercycle Works, in an Ideal Situation

In an ideal situation, growth in debt tends to stimulate the economy. The availability of debt makes the purchase of high-priced goods such as factories, homes, cars, and trucks more affordable. All of these high-priced goods require the use of commodities, including energy products and metals. Thus, growing debt tends to add to the demand for commodities, and helps keep their prices higher than the cost of production, making it profitable to produce these commodities. The availability of profits encourages the extraction of an ever-greater quantity of energy supplies and other commodities.

The growing quantity of energy supplies made possible by this profitability can be used to leverage human labor to an ever-greater extent, so that workers become increasingly productive. For example, energy supplies help build roads, trucks, and machines used in factories, making workers more productive. As a result, wages tend to rise, reflecting the greater productivity of workers in the context of these new investments. Businesses find that demand for their goods and services grows because of the growing wages of workers, and governments find that they can collect increasing tax revenue. The arrangement of repaying debt with interest tends to work well in this situation. GDP grows sufficiently rapidly that the ratio of debt to GDP stays relatively flat.

Over time, the cost of commodity production tends to rise for several reasons:

1. Population tends to grow over time, so the quantity of agricultural land available per person tends to fall. Higher-priced techniques (such as irrigation, better seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides) are required to increase production per acre. Similarly, rising population gives rise to a need to produce fresh water using increasingly high-priced techniques, such as desalination.

2. Businesses tend to extract the least expensive fuels such as oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium first. They later move on to more expensive to extract fuels, when the less-expensive fuels are depleted. For example, Figure 1 shows the sharp increase in the cost of oil extraction that took place about 1999.

Figure 1. Figure by Steve Kopits of Westwood Douglas showing the trend in per-barrel capital expenditures for oil exploration and production. CAGR is “Compound Annual Growth Rate.”

3. Pollution tends to become an increasing problem because the least polluting commodity sources are used first. When mitigations such as substituting renewables for fossil fuels are used, they tend to be more expensive than the products they are replacing. The leads to the higher cost of final products.

Related: The Hidden Agenda Behind Saudi Arabia’s Market Share Strategy

4. Overuse of resources other than fuels becomes a problem, leading to problems such as the higher cost of producing metals, deforestation, depleted fish stocks, and eroded topsoil. Some workarounds are available, but these tend to add costs as well.

As long as the cost of commodity production is rising only slowly, its increasing cost is benevolent. This increase in cost adds to inflation in the price of goods and helps inflate away prior debt, so that debt is easier to pay. It also leads to asset inflation, making the use of debt seem to be a worthwhile approach to finance future economic growth, including the growth of energy supplies. The whole system seems to work as an economic growth pump, with the rising wages of non-elite workers pushing the growth pump along.

The Big “Oops” Comes when the Price of Commodities Starts Rising Faster than Wages of Non-Elite Workers

Clearly the wages of non-elite workers need to be rising faster than commodity prices in order to push the economic growth pump along. The economic pump effect is lost when the wages of non-elite workers start falling, relative to the price of commodities. This tends to happen when the cost of commodity production begins rising rapidly, as it did for oil after 1999 (Figure 1).

The loss of the economic pump effect occurs because the rising cost of oil (or electricity, or food, or other energy products) forces workers to cut back on discretionary expenditures. This is what happened in the 2003 to 2008 period as oil prices spiked and other energy prices rose sharply. (See my article Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.) Non-elite workers found it increasingly difficult to afford expensive products such as homes, cars, and washing machines. Housing prices dropped. Debt growth slowed, leading to a sharp drop in oil prices and other commodity prices.

Figure 2. World oil supply and prices based on EIA data.

It was somewhat possible to “fix” low oil prices through the use of Quantitative Easing (QE) and the growth of debt at very low interest rates, after 2008. In fact, these very low interest rates are what encouraged the very rapid growth in the production of US crude oil, natural gas liquids, and biofuels.

Now, debt is reaching limits. Both the US and China have (in a sense) “taken their foot off the economic debt accelerator.” It doesn’t seem to make sense to encourage more use of debt, because recent very low interest rates have encouraged unwise investments. In China, more factories and homes have been built than the market can absorb. In the US, oil “liquids” production rose faster than it could be absorbed by the world market when prices were over $100 per barrel. This led to the big price drop. If it were possible to produce the additional oil for a very low price, say $20 per barrel, the world economy could probably absorb it. Such a low selling price doesn’t really “work” because of the high cost of production.

Debt is important because it can help an economy grow, as long as the total amount of debt does not become unmanageable. Thus, for a time, growing debt can offset the adverse impact of the rising cost of energy products. We know that oil prices began to rise sharply in the 1970s, and in fact other energy prices rose as well.

Figure 3. Historical World Energy Price in 2014$, from BP Statistical Review of World History 2015.

Looking at debt growth, we find that it rose rapidly, starting about the time oil prices started spiking. Former Director of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman, talks about “The Distastrous 40-Year Debt Supercycle,” which he believes is now ending.

Figure 4. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods. See post on debt for explanation of methodology.

In recent years, we have been reaching a situation where commodity prices have been rising faster than the wages of non-elite workers. Jobs that are available tend to be low-paid service jobs. Young people find it necessary to stay in school longer. They also find it necessary to delay marriage and postpone buying a car and home. All of these issues contribute to the falling wages of non-elite workers. Some of these individuals are, in fact, getting zero wages, because they are in school longer. Individuals who retire or voluntarily leave the work force further add to the problem of wages no longer rising sufficiently to afford the output of the system.

The US government has recently decided to raise interest rates. This further reduces the buying power of non-elite workers. We have a situation where the “economic growth pump,” created through the use of a rising quantity of cheap energy products plus rising debt, is disappearing. While homes, cars, and vacation travel are available, an increasing share of the population cannot afford them. This tends to lead to a situation where commodity prices fall below the cost of production for a wide range of types of commodities, making the production of commodities unprofitable. In such a situation, a person expects companies to cut back on production. Many defaults may occur.

China has acted as a major growth pump for the world for the last 15 years, since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. China’s growth is now slowing, and can be expected to slow further. Its growth was financed by a huge increase in debt. Paying back this debt is likely to be a problem.

Figure 5. Author’s illustration of problem we are now encountering.

Thus, we seem to be coming to the contraction portion of the debt supercycle. This is frightening, because if debt is contracting, asset prices (such as stock prices and the price of land) are likely to fall. Banks are likely to fail, unless they can transfer their problems to others–owners of the bank or even those with bank deposits. Governments will be affected as well, because it will become more expensive to borrow money, and because it becomes more difficult to obtain revenue through taxation. Many governments may fail as well for that reason.

The U. S. Oil Storage Problem

Oil prices began falling in the middle of 2014, so we might expect oil storage problems to start about that time, but this is not exactly the case. Supplies of US crude oil in storage didn’t start rising until about the end of 2014.

Related: Why Today’s Oil Bust Pales In Comparison To The 80’s

Figure 6. US crude oil in storage, excluding Strategic Petroleum Reserve, based on EIA data.

Cushing, Oklahoma, is the largest storage area for crude oil. According to the EIA, maximum working storage for the facility is 73 million barrels. Oil storage at Cushing since oil prices started declining is shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7. Quantity of crude oil stored at Cushing between June 27, 2014, and June 1, 2016, based on EIA data.

Clearly the same kind of run up in oil storage that occurred between December and April one year ago cannot all be stored at Cushing, if maximum working capacity is only 73 million barrels, and the amount currently in storage is 64 million barrels.

Another way of storing oil is as finished products. Here, the run-up in storage began earlier (starting in mid-2014) and stabilized at about 65 million barrels per day above the prior year, by January 2015. Clearly, if companies can do some pre-planning, they would prefer not to refine products for which there is little market. They would rather store unneeded oil as crude, rather than as refined products.

Figure 8. Total Oil Products in Storage, based on EIA data.

EIA indicates that the total capacity for oil products is 1,549 million barrels. Thus, in theory, the amount of oil products stored can be increased by as much as 700 million barrels, assuming that the products needing to be stored and the locations where storage are available match up exactly. In practice, the amount of additional storage available is probably quite a bit less than 700 million barrels because of mismatch problems.

In theory, if companies can be persuaded to refine more products than they can sell, the amount of products that can be stored can rise significantly. Even in this case, the amount of storage is not unlimited. Even if the full 700 million barrels of storage for crude oil products is available, this corresponds to less than one million barrels a day for two years, or two million barrels a day for one year. Thus, products storage could easily be filled as well, if demand remains low.

At this point, we don’t have the mismatch between oil production and consumption fixed. In fact, both Iraq and Iran would like to increase their production, adding to the production/consumption mismatch. China’s economy seems to be stalling, keeping its oil consumption from rising as quickly as in the past, and further adding to the supply/demand mismatch problem. Figure 9 shows an approximation to our mismatch problem. As far as I can tell, the problem is still getting worse, not better.

Figure 9. Total liquids oil production and consumption, based on a combination of BP and EIA data.

There has been a lot of talk about the United States reducing its production, but the impact so far has been small, based on data from EIA’s International Energy Statistics and its December 2015 Monthly Energy Review.

Figure 10. US quarterly oil liquids production data, based on EIA’s International Energy Statistics and Monthly Energy Review.

Based on information through November from EIA’s Monthly Energy Review, total liquids production for the US for the year 2015 will be about 700,000 barrels per day higher than it was for 2014. This increase is likely greater than the increase in production by either Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Perhaps in 2016, oil production of the US will start decreasing, but so far, increases in biofuels and natural gas liquids are partly offsetting recent reductions in crude oil production. Also, even when companies are forced into bankruptcy, oil production does not necessarily stop because of the potential value of the oil to new owners.

Figure 11 shows that very high stocks of oil were a problem, way back in the 1920s. There were other similarities to today’s problems as well, including a deflating debt bubble and low commodity prices. Thus, we should not be too surprised by high oil stocks now, when oil prices are low.

(Click to enlarge)

Figure 11. US ending stock of crude oil, excluding the strategic petroleum reserve. Figure by EIA.

Many people overlook the problems today because the US economy tends to be doing better than that of the rest of the world. The oil storage problem is really a world problem, however, reflecting a combination of low demand growth (caused by low wage growth and lack of debt growth, as the world economy hits limits) continuing supply growth (related to very low interest rates making all kinds of investment appear profitable and new production from Iraq and, in the near future, Iran). Storage on ships is increasingly being filled up and storage in Western Europe is 97% filled. Thus, the US is quite likely to see a growing need for oil storage in the year ahead, partly because there are few other places to put the oil, and partly because the gap between supply and demand has not yet been fixed.

What is Ahead for 2016?

1. Problems with a slowing world economy are likely to become more pronounced, as China’s growth problems continue, and as other commodity-producing countries such as Brazil, South Africa, and Australia experience recession. There may be rapid shifts in currencies, as countries attempt to devalue their currencies, to try to gain an advantage in world markets. Saudi Arabia may decide to devalue its currency, to get more benefit from the oil it sells.

Related: OPEC-Russia Rumors Persist After Comments From Rosneft Chief

2. Oil storage seems likely to become a problem sometime in 2016. In fact, if the run-up in oil supply is heavily front-ended to the December to April period, similar to what happened a year ago, lack of crude oil storage space could become a problem within the next three months. Oil prices could fall to $10 or below. We know that for natural gas and electricity, prices often fall below zero when the ability of the system to absorb more supply disappears. It is not clear the oil prices can fall below zero, but they can certainly fall very low. Even if we can somehow manage to escape the problem of running out of crude oil storage capacity in 2016, we could encounter storage problems of some type in 2017 or 2018.

3. Falling oil prices are likely to cause numerous problems. One is debt defaults, both for oil companies and for companies making products used by the oil industry. Another is layoffs in the oil industry. Another problem is negative inflation rates, making debt harder to repay. Still another issue is falling asset prices, such as stock prices and prices of land used to produce commodities. Part of the reason for the fall in price has to do with the falling price of the commodities produced. Also, sovereign wealth funds will need to sell securities, to have money to keep their economies going. The sale of these securities will put downward pressure on stock and bond prices.

4. Debt defaults are likely to cause major problems in 2016. As noted in the introduction, we seem to be approaching the unwinding of a debt supercycle. We can expect one company after another to fail because of low commodity prices. The problems of these failing companies can be expected to spread to the economy as a whole. Failing companies will lay off workers, reducing the quantity of wages available to buy goods made with commodities. Debt will not be fully repaid, causing problems for banks, insurance companies, and pension funds. Even electricity companies may be affected, if their suppliers go bankrupt and their customers become less able to pay their bills.
5. Governments of some oil exporters may collapse or be overthrown, if prices fall to a low level. The resulting disruption of oil exports may be welcomed, if storage is becoming an increased problem.

6. It is not clear that the complete unwind will take place in 2016, but a major piece of this unwind could take place in 2016, especially if crude oil storage fills up, pushing oil prices to less than $10 per barrel.

7. Whether or not oil storage fills up, oil prices are likely to remain very low, as the result of rising supply, barely rising demand, and no one willing to take steps to try to fix the problem. Everyone seems to think that someone else (Saudi Arabia?) can or should fix the problem. In fact, the problem is too large for Saudi Arabia to fix. The United States could in theory fix the current oil supply problem by taxing its own oil production at a confiscatory tax rate, but this seems exceedingly unlikely. Closing existing oil production before it is forced to close would guarantee future dependency on oil imports. A more likely approach would be to tax imported oil, to keep the amount imported down to a manageable level. This approach would likely cause the ire of oil exporters.

8. The many problems of 2016 (including rapid moves in currencies, falling commodity prices, and loan defaults) are likely to cause large payouts of derivatives, potentially leading to the bankruptcies of financial institutions, as they did in 2008. To prevent such bankruptcies, most governments plan to move as much of the losses related to derivatives and debt defaults to private parties as possible. It is possible that this approach will lead to depositors losing what appear to be insured bank deposits. At first, any such losses will likely be limited to amounts in excess of FDIC insurance limits. As the crisis spreads, losses could spread to other deposits. Deposits of employers may be affected as well, leading to difficulty in paying employees.

9. All in all, 2016 looks likely to be a much worse year than 2008 from a financial perspective. The problems will look similar to those that might have happened in 2008, but didn’t thanks to government intervention. This time, governments appear to be mostly out of approaches to fix the problems.

10. Two years ago, I put together the chart shown as Figure 12. It shows the production of all energy products declining rapidly after 2015. I see no reason why this forecast should be changed. Once the debt supercycle starts its contraction phase, we can expect a major reduction in both the demand and supply of all kinds of energy products.

Figure 12. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

Conclusion

We are certainly entering a worrying period. We have not really understood how the economy works, so we have tended to assume we could fix one or another part of the problem. The underlying problem seems to be a problem of physics. The economy is a dissipative structure, a type of self-organizing system that forms in thermodynamically open systems. As such, it requires energy to grow. Ultimately, diminishing returns with respect to human labor–what some of us would call falling inflation-adjusted wages of non-elite workers–tends to bring economies down. Thus all economies have finite lifetimes, just as humans, animals, plants, and hurricanes do. We are in the unfortunate position of observing the end of our economy’s lifetime.

Most energy research to date has focused on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. While this is a contributing problem, this is really not the proximate cause of the impending collapse. The Second Law of Thermodynamics operates in thermodynamically closed systems, which is not precisely the issue here.

We know that historically collapses have tended to take many years. This collapse may take place more rapidly because today’s economy is dependent on international supply chains, electricity, and liquid fuels–things that previous economies were not dependent on.





The more we consume, the less we care about the living planet.

18 05 2014

monbiotGeorge Monbiot has just published a most fascinating article about the environmental impact of various nations, their feelings of guilt over the matter and so on, with terrific charts to clearly explain the sordid state of affairs we have now reached..

George reminds us of the famous quote perhaps mistakenly attributed to Gandhi. When asked by a journalist during a visit to Britain, “What do you think of Western civilization?”, he’s reputed to have replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”

Not unexpectedly…….:

mapping climate change commitmentsAs for the US, Australia and Canada, they are ranked among the worst of all: comprehensively failing to limit their massive contribution to a global problem. We justify our foot-dragging with a mistaken premise. Our refusal to stop pumping so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is pure selfishness. [click on map for larger view]

The fact that the poorer nations are doing more, far more in fact, than we are to combat manmade climate change and feel more guilt than Australians (or other Anglophone nation!) blew me away……  we truly don’t care.  It seems that Western Civilisation is in fact a bad idea…..

“Why” asks George “is it so difficult to persuade people to care about our wonderful planet, the world that gave rise to us and upon which we wholly depend? And why do you encounter a barrage of hostility and denial whenever you attempt it (and not only from the professional liars who are paid by coal and oil and timber companies to sow confusion and channel hatred)?”

“The first thing to note, in trying to answer this question,” writes George “is that the rich anglophone countries are anomalous. In this bar chart (copied from the website of the New York Times) you can see how atypical the attitudes of people in the US and the UK are. Because almost everything we read in this country is published in rich, English-speaking nations, we might get the false impression that the world doesn’t care very much.”

bar chart from New York TimesAustralians obviously don’t care much either.  After all, we elected the most uncaring government ever.  They don’t care about the aged, the weak, the sick, the unemployed, and they sure as hell don’t give a stuff about the environment.

Both the map and the bar chart overlap to some degree with the fascinating results of the Greendex survey of consumer attitudes.

For years we’ve been told that people cannot afford to care about the natural world until they become rich; that only economic growth can save the biosphere, that civilisation marches towards enlightenment about our impacts on the living planet. The results suggest the opposite.

Greendex graphNotice how there are no nations in the Low Greendex/Very guilty corner…….??  “The more we consume,” says George, “the less we feel. And maybe that doesn’t just apply to guilt.”

Perhaps that’s the point of our otherwise-pointless hyperconsumption: it smothers feeling. It might also be the effect of the constant bombardment of advertising and marketing. They seek to replace our attachments to people and place with attachments to objects: attachments which the next round of advertising then breaks in the hope of attaching us to a different set of objects.

So the perennially low level of concern, which flickers upwards momentarily when disaster strikes, then slumps back into the customary stupor, is an almost inevitable result of a society that has become restructured around shopping, fashion, celebrity and an obsession with money. How we break the circle and wake people out of this dreamworld is the question that all those who love the living planet should address. There will be no easy answers.

http://www.monbiot.com

 





Warsaw – Day 7: World ‘neglects climate impact on food’

19 11 2013

Alex Kirby

By Alex Kirby

With the UN climate talks in Warsaw at their mid-point, a fringe meeting is debating the future of agriculture in a warming world. A senior scientist tells the Climate News Network of her deep misgivings for the future.

LONDON, 17 November – Global leaders are failing to respond to the threat posed by climate change to the growing challenge of feeding the world, a leading agricultural researcher says.

They do not treat the problem seriously, and they are ignoring the warnings of science about what is liable to happen.

Yet, she says, there is much more evidence available than there was a few years ago, and the future it describes is cause for great concern.

The criticism comes from Dr Sonja Vermeulen, who heads the CGIAR research programme on climate change, agriculture and food security (CCAFS).

She was speaking to the Climate News Network as the UN climate negotiations – the 19th conference of the parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP 19 – got under way in the Polish capital, Warsaw.

Unsettling prospect

Dr Vermeulen said: “I think the COPs are moving too slowly, and global leaders are not taking the problem of food security under climate change seriously enough.

“They’re not sitting up and taking notice of Working Group II of the IPCC. I know that what we’ll get from that this time is a much larger body of evidence than in 2007 on food production – and the picture is not rosy.”

The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released the first part of its Fifth Assessment Report, AR5, two months ago. The second part to be published will be a summary for policy makers of a report by the Panel’s Working Group II, on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change. It is due to be published in early 2014.

A draft copy of the summary was leaked before the Warsaw COP began. It is liable to amendment before publication. The draft says that “climate change will reduce median yields [of the major crops, wheat, rice and maize] by 0 to 2% per decade for the rest of the century…in a context of rising crop demand projected to increase by about 14% per decade until 2050″.

Dr Vermeulen said some low-income countries now saw less hope of financial flows from richer countries through the Climate Convention process to help them to adapt to climate change. But CCAFS had published a report describing the success some of them had achieved in adapting by their own and their partners’ efforts.

“I believe a certain amount can be achieved by going it alone in this way”, she said. “But we do need to reduce emissions, otherwise there will always be a temptation, without an international agreement, to freeload on others’ actions.

Selective science

“We still hope the UNFCCC process will come up with a programme on agriculture. We need that guidance globally, and some areas – like the food trade – just can’t be tackled at a national level.
“I’m trying all the time to be optimistic. There are some international funds available for smallholders, for example through the International Fund for Agricultural Development. It’s about US$300 m – not a lot, but there’s something there.

“Science does inform discussion at the COPs, but when politicians debate they cherry-pick what parts of the science to talk about.”

Delegates to the Warsaw conference, now in its second and final week, have expressed dismay at the failure to include agriculture and forestry in the current climate change negotiations.

They want people to move out of their silos of climate change, agriculture, forestry and urban land use and to address the question of how the world can produce enough food for nine billion people by 2050 without destroying the Earth’s forests and accelerating climate change. – Climate News Network