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COVID-19 and oil at $1: Is there a way forward?

COVID-19 and oil at $1: Is there a way forward?

Many people are concerned today with the low price of oil. Others are concerned about slowing or stopping COVID-19. Is there any way forward?

I gave a few hints regarding what is ahead in my last post, Economies won’t be able to recover after shutdowns. We live in a world with a self-organizing economy, made up of components such as businesses, customers, governments and interest rates. Our basic problem is a finite world problem. World population has outgrown its resource base.

Some sort of economy might work with the current resource base, but not the present economy. The COVID-19 crisis and the lockdowns used to try to contain the crisis push the economy farther along the route toward collapse. In this post, I suggest the possibility that some core parts of the world economy might temporarily be saved if they can be made to operate fairly independently of each other.

Let’s look at some parts of the problem:

[1] The world economy works like a pump.

To use a hand water pump, a person forces a lever down, and the desired output (water) appears. Human energy is required to power this pump. Other versions of water pumps use electricity, or burn gasoline or diesel. However the pump operates, there needs to be some form of energy input, for the desired output, water, to be produced.

An economy follows a similar pattern, except that the list of inputs and outputs is longer. With an economy, we need the following inputs, including energy inputs:

  • Human energy
  • Supplemental energy, such as burned biomass, animal power, electricity, and fossil fuel.
  • Other resources, including fertile land, fresh water and raw materials of various kinds.
  • Capital goods, built in previous cycles of the “pump.” These might include factories and machines to put into the factories.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Economies won’t be able to recover after shutdowns

Economies won’t be able to recover after shutdowns

Citizens seem to be clamoring for shutdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19. There is one major difficulty, however. Once an economy has been shut down, it is extremely difficult for the economy to recover back to the level it had reached previously. In fact, the longer the shutdown lasts, the more critical the problem is likely to be. China can shut down its economy for two weeks over the Chinese New Year, each year, without much damage. But, if the outage is longer and more widespread, damaging effects are likely.

A major reason why economies around the world will have difficulty restarting is because the world economy was in very poor shape before COVID-19 hit; shutting down major parts of the economy for a time leads to even more people with low wages or without any job. It will be very difficult and time-consuming to replace the failed businesses that provided these jobs.

When an outbreak of COVID-19 hit, epidemiologists recommended social distancing approaches that seemed to be helpful back in 1918-1919. The issue, however, is that the world economy has changed. Social distancing rules have a much more adverse impact on today’s economy than on the economy of 100 years ago.

Governments that wanted to push back found themselves up against a wall of citizen expectations. A common belief, even among economists, was that any shutdown would be short, and the recovery would be V-shaped. False information (really propaganda) published by China tended to reinforce the expectation that shutdowns could truly be helpful. But if we look at the real situation, Chinese workers are finding themselves newly laid off as they attempt to return to work. This is leading to protests in the Hubei area.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Easily overlooked issues regarding COVID-19

Easily overlooked issues regarding COVID-19

We read a lot in the news about the new Wuhan coronavirus and the illness it causes (COVID-19), but some important points often get left out.

[1] COVID-19 is incredibly contagious.

COVID-19 transmits extremely easily from person to person. Interpersonal contact doesn’t need to be very long; a taxi driver can get the virus from a passenger, for example. The virus may be transmissible even before an infected person develops symptoms. It may also be transmissible for a few days after a person seems to be over the virus; it is possible to get positive virus tests, even after symptoms disappear. Some people may have the disease, but never show symptoms.

[2] The virus likely remains active on inanimate surfaces such as paper, plastic, or metal for many days. 

There haven’t been tests on the COVID-19 virus per se, but studies on similar virusessuggest that human pathogens may remain infectious for up to eight days. Some viruses that only infect animals can survive for more than 28 days. China is reported to be destroying paper currency from the hardest hit area, because people do not want to accept money which may have viruses on it. Clearly, surfaces in airplanes, trains and buses may also harbor viruses, long after a passenger with the virus has left, unless they have been thoroughly wiped down with disinfectant.

[3] Given Issues [1] and [2], about the only way to avoid spreading COVID-19 seems to be geographic isolation. 

With all of today’s travel, geographic isolation doesn’t work very well in practice. People need food and medical supplies. They need to keep basic services such as electricity and garbage collection operating. Suppliers of food and other services need to come and leave the area and that tends to spread COVID-19.

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It Is Easy to Overreact to the Chinese Coronavirus

It Is Easy to Overreact to the Chinese Coronavirus

Recently, a new coronavirus has been causing many illnesses and deaths. The virus first became active in Wuhan, China, but it has already spread to the rest of China. Scattered cases have been identified around the rest of the world as well.

There are two important questions that are already being encountered:

  • How much of an attempt should be made to limit the spread of the new virus? For example, should businesses close to prevent the spread of the virus?
  • Should this disease be publicized as being far worse than flu viruses that circulate each year and cause many deaths among the elderly and people in poor health? The median age of those dying from the new coronavirus seems to be about 75.

Unfortunately, there aren’t easy answers. We can easily see the likely outcome of under reaction. More people might die of the disease. More people might find themselves out of work for a couple of weeks or more with the illness. We tend to be especially concerned about ourselves and our own relatives.

The thing that is harder to see is that reacting too vigorously can have a hugely detrimental impact on the world economy. The world economy depends on international trade and tourism. China plays a key role in the world economy. Quarantines of whole regions that last for weeks and months can have a very detrimental impact on the wages of people in the area and profits of local companies. Problems with debt can be expected to spike. The greater the reaction to the coronavirus, the more likely the world economy will be pushed toward recession and job loss.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Expect low oil prices in 2020; tendency toward recession

Expect low oil prices in 2020; tendency toward recession

Energy Forecast for 2020

Overall, I expect that oil and other commodity prices will remain low in 2020. These low oil prices will adversely affect oil production and several other parts of the economy. As a result, a strong tendency toward recession can be expected. The extent of recessionary influences will vary from country to country. Financial factors, not discussed in these forecasts, are likely also to play a role.

The following are pieces of my energy forecast for 2020:

[1] Oil prices can be expected to remain generally low in 2020. There may be an occasional spike to $80 or $90 per barrel, but average prices in 2020 are likely to be at or below the 2019 level. 

Figure 1. Average annual inflation-adjusted Brent equivalent oil prices in 2018 US$. 2018 and prior are as shown in BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy. Value for 2019 estimated by author based on EIA Brent daily oil prices and 2% expected inflation.

Figure 2 shows in more detail how peaks in oil prices have been falling since 2008. While it doesn’t include early January 2020 oil prices, even these prices would be below the dotted line.

Figure 2. Inflation adjusted weekly average Brent Oil price, based on EIA oil spot prices and US CPI-urban inflation.

Oil prices can temporarily spike because of inadequate supply or fear of war. However, to keep oil prices up, there needs to be an increase in “demand” for finished goods and services made with commodities. Workers need to be able to afford to purchase more goods such as new homes, cars, and cell phones. Governments need to be able to afford to purchase new goods such as paved roads and school buildings.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Recession Ahead: An Overview of Our Predicament

Recession Ahead: An Overview of Our Predicament

Many people have the impression that recessions come from financial missteps, such as the US subprime loan fiasco. If energy is involved at all, the problem comes from high oil prices as supply becomes inadequate to meet demand.

The real situation is different. We already seem to be on the road toward a new crisis; this crisis is likely to be much worse than the Great Recession of 2008-2009. This time, a major problem is likely to be energy prices that are too low for producers. Last time, a major problem was oil prices that were too high for consumers. The problem is different, but it is in some ways symmetric.

Last time, the United States seemed to be the epicenter; this time, my analysis indicates China is likely to be the epicenter. Last time, the world economy was coming off a high growth period; this time, the world economy is already somewhat depressed, even before hitting headwinds. These differences, plus the strange physics-based way that the world economy is organized, explain why the outcome seems likely to be worse this time than in 2008-2009.

I recently explained what I see as happening in a presentation for actuaries: Recession Likely: Expect a Bend in Trend Lines. This post is based on this presentation, omitting the strictly insurance-related portions.

The big thing that the vast majority of people do not understand is how important energy is to the economy. Because of this issue, I started my presentation with this slide:

Slide 3

After an opportunity for discussion, I offered the explanation that the role of food for humans is very much parallel to the need for energy of various types for the world economy. Food provides people with the energy required if they are to have the ability to think, move and speak.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Understanding Why the Green New Deal Won’t Really Work

Understanding Why the Green New Deal Won’t Really Work

The reasons why the Green New Deal won’t really work are fairly subtle. A person really has to look into the details to see what goes wrong. In this post, I try to explain at least a few of the issues involved.

[1] None of the new renewables can easily be relied upon to produce enough energy in winter. 

The world’s energy needs vary, depending on location. In locations near the poles, there will be a significant need for light and heat during the winter months. Energy needs will be relatively more equal throughout the year near the equator.

Solar energy is particularly a problem in winter. In northern latitudes, if utilities want to use solar energy to provide electricity in winter, they will likely need to build several times the amount of solar generation capacity required for summer to have enough electricity available for winter.

Figure 1. US daily average solar production, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

Hydroelectric tends to be a spring-dominated resource. Its quantity tends to vary significantly from year to year, making it difficult to count on.

Figure 2. US daily average hydroelectric production, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

Another issue with hydroelectric is the fact that most suitable locations have already been developed. Even if additional hydroelectric might help with winter energy needs, adding more hydroelectric is often not an option.

Wind energy (Figure 3) comes closest to being suitable for matching the winter consumption needs of the economy. In at least some parts of the world, wind energy seems to continue at a reasonable level during winter.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Our Energy and Debt Predicament in 2019

Our Energy and Debt Predicament in 2019

Many people are concerned that we have an oil problem. Or they are concerned about recession and the need to lower interest rates.

As I see the situation, we have a problem of a networked economy that is not functioning well. A big part of this problem is energy-related. Strange as it may seem, energy prices (including oil prices) are too low for producers. If debt levels were growing more rapidly, this low-price problem would go away. 

The “standard way” of encouraging more debt-based purchases is by lowering interest rates. But we are running out of room to do this now. We also seem to be running out of economic investments to make with debt. If expected returns on investment were greater, interest rates would be higher.

Without economic investments, demand for commodities of all kinds, including energy products, tends to stay too low. This is the problem we have today. Our debt problem and our energy problem are really different aspects of a networked economy that is no longer generating enough total return. History suggests that these periods tend to end badly.

In the following sections, I will explain some of the issues involved.

[1] Our problem is not just that oil prices that are too low. Prices are too low for practically every type of energy producer, and in many parts of the globe.

Oil: OPEC oil producers have cut back production because they view oil prices as too low. OPEC reports a cutback in production of 2.7 million barrels per day between November 2018 and July 2019 (from 32.3 million bpd to 29.6 million bpd).

In the US, there has been an increase in bankruptcies of oil producers during 2019, relative to 2018. There has also been a reduction in the number of oil drilling rigs of 17% since the week of November 16, 2018, according to reports by Baker Hughes. These are signs of producer distress.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Debunking ‘Lower Oil Supply Will Raise Prices’

Debunking ‘Lower Oil Supply Will Raise Prices’

We often hear the statement, “When oil supply is lower, oil prices will rise because of scarcity.” Now, we are getting to see firsthand whether oil prices really do rise, as oil supplies become more scarce.

Figure 1. Figure from the OPEC Monthly Oil Market Report for August 2019 showing world and OPEC oil production by month.

Figure 1 shows that world oil supply hit a peak in November 2018 and has declined since then, mostly because of a decline in OPEC’s production. So, total oil production seems to be down for about eight months, relative to the peak in November 2018.

Despite this big cutback by OPEC in its oil production, prices have not responded as OPEC had hoped:

Figure 2. Average monthly spot Brent Oil prices, based on EIA data.

In fact, as I write this, Brent oil price is currently quoted as $60.48, which is back in the range of December 2018 and January 2019 low prices. Also, reducing production doesn’t seem to be reducing inventories. Figure 3 suggests that they are now higher than they were before the reduction in oil supply took place.

Figure 3. Figure from the OPEC Monthly Oil Market Report for August 2019 showing OECD commercial oil stocks.

Why aren’t oil prices rising and oil inventories falling, if oil production has fallen?

The basic issue is that the economy is very much interconnected under the laws of physics, because energy is required for every activity that is considered part of GDP. Energy is required for any kind of heat or any kind of movement. Energy is even required for electricity. Without energy from the sun, food can’t grow; without supplemental energy of some kind (such as using electricity to heat an electric stove or burning animal dung or sticks), it becomes impossible to cook food or smelt metals.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Why stimulus can’t fix our energy problems

Why stimulus can’t fix our energy problems

Economists tell us that within the economy there is a lot of substitutability, and they are correct. However, there are a couple of not-so-minor details that they overlook:

  • There is no substitute for energy. It is possible to harness energy from another source, or to make a particular object run more efficiently, but the laws of physics prevent us from substituting something else for energy. Energy is required whenever physical changes are made, such as when an object is moved, or a material is heated, or electricity is produced.
  • Supplemental energy leverages human energy. The reason why the human population is as high as it is today is because pre-humans long ago started learning how to leverage their human energy (available from digesting food) with energy from other sources. Energy from burning biomass was first used over one million years ago. Other types of energy, such as harnessing the energy of animals and capturing wind energy with sails of boats, began to be used later. If we cut back on our total energy consumption in any material way, humans will lose their advantage over other species. Population will likely plummet because of epidemics and fighting over scarce resources.

Many people appear to believe that stimulus programs by governments and central banks can substitute for growth in energy consumption. Others are convinced that efficiency gains can substitute for growing energy consumption. My analysis indicates that workarounds, in the aggregate, don’t keep energy prices high enough for energy producers. Oil prices are at risk, but so are coal and natural gas prices. We end up with a different energy problem than most have expected: energy prices that remain too low for producers. Such a problem can have severe consequences.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Why it (sort of) makes sense for the US to impose tariffs

Why it (sort of) makes sense for the US to impose tariffs

Nearly everyone wonders, “Why is Donald Trump crazy enough to impose tariffs on imports from other countries? How could this possibly make sense?”

As long as the world economy is growing rapidly, it makes sense for countries to cooperate with each other. With the use of cooperation, scarce resources can become part of supply lines that allow the production of complex goods, such as computers, requiring materials from around the world. The downsides of cooperation include:

(a) The use of more oil to transport goods around the world;

(b) The more rapid exhaustion of resources of all kinds around the world; and

(c) Growing wage disparity as workers from high-wage countries compete more directly with workers from low-wages countries.

These issues can be tolerated as long as the world economy is growing fast enough. As the saying goes, “A rising tide raises all boats.”

In this post, I will explain what is going wrong and how Donald Trump’s actions fit in with the situation we are facing. Strangely enough, there is a physics aspect to what is happening, even though it is likely that Donald Trump and the voters who elected him would probably not recognize this. In fact, the world economy seems to be on the cusp of a shrinking-back event, with or without the tariffs. Adding tariffs is an indirect way of allowing the US to obtain a better position in the new, shrunken economy, if this is really possible.

The upcoming shrinking-back event is the result of too little energy consumption in relation to total world population. Most researchers have completely missed the possibility that energy limits could manifest themselves as excessive wage disparity. In fact, they have tended to assume that energy limits would manifest themselves as high energy prices, especially for oil.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The climate change story is half true

The climate change story is half true

The climate change story is true is some respects: The climate is indeed changing. And CO2 emissions do seem to affect climate. Burning fossil fuels does indeed make a difference in CO2 levels.

The problem I have with the climate change story is that it paints a totally inaccurate story of the predicament the world is facing. The world’s predicament arises primarily from too little affordable resources, especially energy resources; climate change models tend to give the illusion that our problem is one of a superabundance of fossil fuels.

Furthermore, the world economy has no real option of using significantly less energy, because the economy tends to collapse when there is not enough energy. Economists have not studied the physics of how a networked economy really works; they rely on an overly simple supply and demand model that seems to suggest that prices can rise endlessly.

Figure 1. Supply and Demand model from Wikipedia.
Attribution: SilverStar at English Wikipedia CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The quantity of energy supply affects both the supply and demand of finished goods and services. History shows that the result of inadequate energy supplies is often collapse or a resource war, in an attempt to obtain more of the necessary resources.

Climate scientists aren’t expected to be economists, but have inadvertently picked up the wrong views of economists and allowed them to affect the climate models they produce. This results in an over-focus on climate issues and an under-focus on the real issues at hand.

Let’s look at a few issues related to the climate change story.

[1] Growth in energy consumption and in world GDP are very closely linked. In fact, energy consumption seems to be the cause of GDP growth.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The true feasibility of moving away from fossil fuels

The true feasibility of moving away from fossil fuels

One of the great misconceptions of our time is the belief that we can move away from fossil fuels if we make suitable choices on fuels. In one view, we can make the transition to a low-energy economy powered by wind, water, and solar. In other versions, we might include some other energy sources, such as biofuels or nuclear, but the story is not very different.

The problem is the same regardless of what lower bound a person chooses: our economy is way too dependent on consuming an amount of energy that grows with each added human participant in the economy. This added energy is necessary because each person needs food, transportation, housing, and clothing, all of which are dependent upon energy consumption. The economy operates under the laws of physics, and history shows disturbing outcomes if energy consumption per capita declines.

There are a number of issues:

  • The impact of alternative energy sources is smaller than commonly believed.
  • When countries have reduced their energy consumption per capita by significant amounts, the results have been very unsatisfactory.
  • Energy consumption plays a bigger role in our lives than most of us imagine.
  • It seems likely that fossil fuels will leave us before we can leave them.
  • The timing of when fossil fuels will leave us seems to depend on when central banks lose their ability to stimulate the economy through lower interest rates.
  • If fossil fuels leave us, the result could be the collapse of financial systems and governments.

[1] Wind, water and solar provide only a small share of energy consumption today; any transition to the use of renewables alone would have huge repercussions.

According to BP 2018 Statistical Review of World Energy data, wind, water and solar only accounted for 9.4% 0f total energy consumption in 2017.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

A Different View of Venezuela’s Energy Problems

A Different View of Venezuela’s Energy Problems

It would be easy to write a story about Venezuela’s energy problems and, in it, focus on the corruption and mismanagement that have taken place. This would make it look like Venezuela’s problems were different from everyone else’s. Taking this approach, it would be easy to argue that the problems wouldn’t have happened, if better leaders had been elected and if those leaders had chosen better policies.

I think that there is far more behind Venezuela’s financial and energy problems than corruption and mismanagement.

As I see the story, Venezuela realized that it had huge oil resources relative to its population, back as early as the 1920s. While these oil resources are substantial, the country misestimated how high a standard of living that these resources could support. To try to work around the issue of setting development goals too high, the country chose the path of distributing the benefits of oil exports in an almost socialistic manner. This socialistic approach, plus increased debt, hid the problem of a standard of living that could not really be supported for many years. Recent problems in Venezuela show that these approaches cannot be permanent solutions. In fact, it seems likely that Venezuela will be one of the first oil-exporting nations to collapse.

How the Subsidy from High-Priced Exported Oil Works 

Oil is a strange resource. The cost of oil production tends to be quite low, especially for oil exporters. The selling price is based on a world oil price that changes from day to day, depending on what some would call “demand.” The difference between the selling price and the cost of extraction can make oil exporters rich. In a sense, this difference might be considered an “energy surplus” that is being distributed to the economies of oil exporters.

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Have We Already Passed World Peak Oil and World Peak Coal?

Have We Already Passed World Peak Oil and World Peak Coal?

Most people expect that our signal of an impending reduction in world oil or coal production will be high prices. Looking at historical data (for example, this post and this post), this is precisely the opposite of the correct price signal. Oil and coal supplies decline because prices fall too low for producers. These producers make voluntary cutbacks because the prices they receive fall below their cost of production. There often are supply gluts at the same time.

This strange situation arises because prices must be high enough for the producersat the same time that goods and services made by oil (and other energy products) are inexpensive enough for consumers to afford. There is a two way battle taking place:

(1) Prices producers require tend to rise over time, because of depletion. The easiest to extract portion of any resource (such as oil, coal, copper, or lithium) tends to be removed first. What is left tends to be deeper, lower quality, or otherwise more difficult to extract cheaply.

(2) Prices consumers can afford for discretionary goods (such as cell phones and automobiles) tend to fall for a combination of reasons:

  • Wages of many workers fall because of competition from lower cost labor in other countries.
  • Some jobs are eliminated through the use of computers or robots.
  • Young people are increasingly being required to pay for higher education (beyond that which is provided free), leaving many with loans to repay, reducing their discretionary income.
  • Changes to US healthcare law (mostly starting January 1, 2014) lead to required health insurance premiums. While some citizens find cost savings in this approach, healthy young people often experience cutbacks in discretionary income as a result.
  • Rents and home prices keep rising faster than incomes.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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