EC The World’s Fragile Economic Condition

Where is the world economy heading? In my opinion, a large portion of the story that we usually hear about how the world economy operates and the role energy plays is not really correct. In this post (to be continued in Part 2 in the near future), I explain how some of the major elements of the world economy seem to function. I also point out some relationships that tend to make the world’s economic condition more fragile.

Trying to explain the situation a bit further, the economy is a networked system. It doesn’t behave the way nearly everyone expects it to behave. Many people believe that any energy problem will be signaled by high prices. A look at history shows that this is not really the case: fighting and conflict are also likely outcomes. In fact, rising tariffs are a sign of energy problems.

The underlying energy problem represents a conflict between supply and demand, but not in the way most people expect. The world needs rising demand to support the rising cost of energy products, but this rising demand is, in fact, very difficult to produce. The way that this rising demand is normally produced is by adding increasing amounts of debt, at ever-lower interest rates. At some point, the debt bubble created to provide the necessary demand becomes overstretched. Now, we seem to be reaching a situation where the debt bubble may pop, at least in some parts of the world. This is a very concerning situation.

Context. The presentation discussed in this post was given to the Casualty Actuaries of the Southeast. (I am a casualty actuary myself, living in the Southeast.) The attendees tended to be quite young, and they tended not to be very aware of energy issues. I was trying to “bring them up to speed.” This is a link to the presentation:  The World’s Fragile Economic Condition.

Slide 1

 

Slide 2

This post covers only Items 1, 2, and 3 from the Outline in Slide 2. I will save Items 3 through 6 for a post called “The World’s Fragile Economic Condition-Part 2.”

 

Slide 3

 

Slide 4

The audience was able to guess that the situation for humans and the economy are parallel. Energy in some sense powers the economy, in a way similar to how food powers humans.

 

Slide 5

On Slide 5, I am pointing out that changes in the red line, denoting energy consumption growth, tend to come before the corresponding changes in the blue line. This is one way of confirming that energy consumption causes GDP growth, rather than vice versa.

In recent years, countries have found ways of creating GDP growth, without adding true value. This may explain why GDP growth is higher than Energy growth since 2013 on Slide 5. As an example of GDP growth with overstated value, a large share of young people are now being encouraged to purchase advanced education, at considerable cost. This would make sense if there were suitable high-paying jobs for all of those graduating. It is questionable whether this is the case.

 

Slide 6

Of course, the issue is not only energy consumption, just as our health is influenced by more than simply what food we eat.

 

Slide 7

At one time, the emphasis in physics was on systems that are “closed” from an energy point of view. Such systems never grow; they simply decline toward “heat death.”

The real world is made up of many structures that grow and change over time. This growth and ability to change is possible because the energy system we live in is thermodynamically “open,” thanks to flows of energy from the sun, and thanks to fossil fuel energy, which represents stored solar energy from long ago.

 

Slide 8

The answers to the questions on Slide 8 are easy to guess.

 

Slide 9

The economy adds new businesses, as citizens see new needs and set up companies to meet those needs. Customers make choices regarding which goods and services to buy, based on their income (primarily wages) and the prices of available goods and services. Governments gradually add new laws, including changes to the way taxes, are assessed. The system gradually grows and changes, as the population grows, and as the quantity of goods and services created to meet the needs of that population increases.

One thing to note is that the goods and services produced by the system will eventually be divided among the various players in the system. If one group gets more (say, those receiving interest income), then other groups will necessarily receive less.

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Comments

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William K. 2 months ago Member's comment

"Energy Limit" is what folks can afford to pay for energy. It has very little to do with availability. Previous energy shortages were exclusively the result of a concerted effort to boost energy prices, and those efforts were indeed very successful. But the higher prices did not really benefit the 90% of the population at all. The economy expended in spite of the increase, not because of it.

And the unfortunate thing about debt is that it must be repaid, it is not a sustainable resource, as claimed.

Stock Profit 2 months ago Member's comment

Good points.