Sunday, February 15, 2015

A new theory of energy and the economy

By Gail Tverberg
Posted on January 21, 2015

– Part 1 – Generating economic growth


What if oil prices are artificially low, on a temporary basis? The catch is that not all costs of oil producing companies can be paid at such low prices. Perhaps the cost of operating oil fields still in existence will be fine, and the day-to-day expenses of extracting Middle Eastern oil can be covered. The parts of the chain that get squeezed first seem to be least essential on a day to day basis–taxes to governments, funds for new exploration, funds for debt repayments, and funds for dividends to policyholders.

Unfortunately, we cannot run the oil business on such a partial system. Businesses need to cover both their direct and indirect costs. Low oil prices create a system ready to crash, as oil production drops and the ability to leverage human labor with cheaper sources of energy decreases. Raising oil prices back to the full required level is likely to be a problem in the future, because oil companies require debt to finance new oil production. (This new production is required to offset declines in existing fields.) With low oil prices–or even with highly variable oil prices–the amount that can be borrowed drops and interest costs rise. This combination makes new investment impossible.

If the rising cost of energy products, due to diminishing returns, tends to eliminate economic growth, how do we work around the problem? In order to produce economic growth, it is necessary to produce goods in such a way that goods become cheaper and cheaper over time, relative to wages. Clearly this has not been happening recently.

The temptation businesses face in trying to produce this effect is to eliminate workers completely–just automate the process. This doesn’t work, because it is workers who need to be able to buy the products. Governments need to become huge, to manage transfer payments to all of the unemployed workers. And who will pay all of these taxes?

The popular answer to our diminishing returns problem is more efficiency, but efficiency rarely adds more than 1% to 2% to economic growth. We have been working hard on efficiency in recent years, but overall economic growth results have not been very good in the US, Europe, and Japan.

Read more at Our Finite World.
Part 2
Part 3

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