EC World GDP In Current U.S. Dollars Seems To Have Peaked; This Is A Problem

World GDP in current US dollars is in some sense the simplest world GDP calculation that a person might make. It is calculated by taking the GDP for each year for each country in the local currency (for example, yen) and converting these GDP amounts to US dollars using the then-current relativity between the local currency and the US dollar.

To get a world total, all a person needs to do is add together the GDP amounts for all of the individual countries. There is no inflation adjustment, so comparing GDP growth amounts calculated on this basis gives an indication regarding how the world economy is growing, inclusive of inflation. Calculation of GDP on this basis is also inclusive of changes in relativities to the US dollar.

What has been concerning for the last couple of years is that World GDP on this basis is no longer growing robustly. In fact, it may even have started shrinking, with 2014 being the peak year.

Figure 1 shows world GDP on a current US dollar basis, in a chart produced by the World Bank.

Since the concept of GDP in current US dollars is not a topic that most of us are very familiar with, this post, in part, is an exploration of how GDP and inflation calculations on this basis fit in with other concepts we are more familiar with.

As I look at the data, it becomes clear that the reason for the downturn in Current US$ GDP is very much related to topics that I have been writing about. In particular, it is related to the fall in oil prices since mid-2014 and to the problems that oil producers have been having since that time, earning too little profit on the oil they sell. A similar problem is affecting natural gas and coal, as well as some other commodities. These low prices, and the deflation that they are causing, seem to be flowing through to cause low world GDP in current US dollars.

While energy products seem to be relatively small compared to world GDP, in fact, they play an outsized role. This is the case partly because the use of energy products makes GDP growth possible (energy provides heat and movement needed for industrial processes), and partly because an increase in the price of energy products indirectly causes an increase in the price of other goods and services. This growth in prices makes it possible to use debt to finance goods and services of all types.

A decrease in the price of energy products has both positive and negative impacts. The major favorable effect is that the lower prices allow the GDPs of oil importers, such as the United States, European Union, Japan, and China, to grow more rapidly. This is the effect that has predominated so far.

The negative impacts appear more slowly, so we have seen less of them so far. One such negative impact is the fact that these lower prices tend to produce deflation rather than inflation, making debt harder to repay. Another negative impact is that lower prices (slowly) push companies producing energy products toward bankruptcy, disrupting debt in a different way. A third negative impact is layoffs in affected industries. A fourth negative impact is lower tax revenue, particularly for oil exporting countries. This lower revenue tends to lead to cutbacks in governmental programs and to disruptions similar to those seen in Venezuela.

In this post, I try to connect what I am seeing in the new data (GDP in current US$) with issues I have been writing about in previous posts. It seems to me that there is no way that oil and other energy prices can be brought to an adequate price level because we are reaching an affordability limit with respect to energy products. Thus, world GDP in current dollars can be expected to stay low, and eventually decline to a lower level. Thus, we seem to be encountering peak GDP in current dollars.

Furthermore, in the years ahead the negative impacts of lower oil and other energy prices can be expected to start predominating over the positive impacts. This change can be expected to lead to debt-related financial problems, instability of governments of oil exporters, and falling energy consumption of all kinds.

Peak Per Capita Energy Consumption Is Part of the Problem, Too

One problem that makes our current situation much worse than it might otherwise be is the fact that world per capita energy consumption seems to have hit a maximum in 2013 (Figure 3).

Surprisingly, this peak in consumption occurred before oil and other energy prices collapsed, starting in mid-2014. At these lower prices, a person would think that consumers could afford to buy more energy goods per person, not fewer.

Per capita energy consumption should be rising with lower prices, unless the reason for the fall in prices is an affordability problem. If the drop in prices reflects an affordability problem (wages of most workers are not high enough to buy the goods and services made with energy products, such as homes and cars), then we would expect the pattern we are seeing today–low oil and other energy prices, together with falling per capita consumption. If the reason for falling per capita energy consumption is an affordability problem, then there is little hope that prices will rise sufficiently to fix our current problem.

One consideration supporting the hypothesis that we are really facing an affordability problem is the fact that in recent years, energy prices have been too low for companies producing oil and other energy products. Since 2015, hundreds of oil, natural gas, and coal companies have gone bankrupt. Saudi Arabia has had to borrow large amounts of money to fund its budget, because at current prices, tax revenues are too low to fund it. In the United States, investors are cutting back on their support for oil investment, because of the continued financial losses of the companies and evidence that approaches for mitigating these losses are not really working.

Which Countries Are Suffering Falling GDP in Current US Dollars?

With lower oil prices, Saudi Arabia is one of the countries with falling GDP in Current US$.

Saudi Arabia pegs its currency to the dollar, so its lower GDP is not because its currency has fallen relative to the US dollar; instead, it reflects a situation in which fewer goods and services of all kinds are being produced, as measured in US dollars. GDP calculations do not consider debt, so Figure 4 indicates that even with all of Saudi Arabia’s borrowing to offset falling oil revenue, the quantity of goods and services it was able to produce fell in both 2015 and 2016.

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