EC 2017: The Year The World Economy Starts Coming Apart

Some people would argue that 2016 was the year that the world economy started to come apart, with the passage of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Whether or not the “coming apart” process started in 2016, in my opinion we are going to see many more steps in this direction in 2017. Let me explain a few of the things I see.

[1] Many economies have collapsed in the past. The world economy is very close to the turning point where collapse starts in earnest.  

Figure 1

The history of previous civilizations rising and eventually collapsing is well documented.(See, for example, Secular Cycles.)

To start a new cycle, a group of people would find a new way of doing things that allowed more food and energy production (for instance, they might add irrigation, or cut down trees for more land for agriculture). For a while, the economy would expand, but eventually a mismatch would arise between resources and population. Either resources would fall too low (perhaps because of erosion or salt deposits in the soil), or population would rise too high relative to resources, or both.

Even as resources per capita began falling, economies would continue to have overhead expenses, such as the need to pay high-level officials and to fund armies. These overhead costs could not easily be reduced, and might, in fact, grow as the government attempted to work around problems. Collapse occurred because, as resources per capita fell (for example, farms shrank in size), the earnings of workers tended to fall. At the same time, the need for taxes to cover what I am calling overhead expenses tended to grow. Tax rates became too high for workers to earn an adequate living, net of taxes. In some cases, workers succumbed to epidemics because of poor diets. Or governments would collapse, from lack of adequate tax revenue to support them.

Our current economy seems to be following a similar pattern. We first used fossil fuels to allow the population to expand, starting about 1800. Things went fairly well until the 1970s, when oil prices started to spike. Several workarounds (globalization, lower interest rates, and more use of debt) allowed the economy to continue to grow. The period since 1970 might be considered a period of “stagflation.” Now the world economy is growing especially slowly. At the same time, we find ourselves with “overhead” that continues to grow (for example, payments to retirees, and repayment of debt with interest). The pattern of past civilizations suggests that our civilization could also collapse.

Historically, economies have taken many years to collapse; I show a range of 20 to 50 years in Figure 1. We really don’t know if collapse would take that long now. Today, we are dependent on an international financial system, an international trade system, electricity, and the availability of oil to make our vehicles operate. It would seem as if this time collapse could come much more quickly.

With the world economy this close to collapse, some individual countries are even closer to collapse. This is why we can expect to see sharp downturns in the fortunes of some countries. If contagion is not too much of a problem, other countries may continue to do fairly well, even as individual small countries fail.

[2] Figures to be released in 2017 and future years are likely to show that the peak in world coal consumption occurred in 2014. This is important, because it means that countries that depend heavily on coal, such as China and India, can expect to see much slower economic growth, and more financial difficulties.

While reports of international coal production for 2016 are not yet available, news articles and individual country data strongly suggest that world coal production is past its peak. The IEA also reports a substantial drop in coal production for 2016.

Figure 2. World coal consumption. Information through 2015 based on BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data. Estimates for China, US, and India are based on partial year data and news reports. 2016 amount for "other" estimated based on recent trends.

The reason why coal production is dropping is because of low prices, low profitability for producers, and gluts indicating oversupply. Also, comparisons of coal prices with natural gas prices are inducing switching from coal to natural gas. The problem, as we will see later, is that natural gas prices are also artificially low, compared to the cost of production, So the switch is being made to a different type of fossil fuel, also with an unsustainably low price.

Prices for coal in China have recently risen again, thanks to the closing of a large number of unprofitable coal mines, and a mandatory reduction in hours for other coal mines. Even though prices have risen, production may not rise to match the new prices. One article reports:

. . . coal companies are reportedly reluctant to increase output as a majority of the country’s mines are still losing money and it will take time to recoup losses incurred in recent years.

Also, a person can imagine that it might be difficult to obtain financing, if coal prices have only “sort of” recovered.

I wrote last year about the possibility that coal production was peaking. This is one chart I showed, with data through 2015. Coal is the second most utilized fuel in the world. If its production begins declining, it will be difficult to offset the loss of its use with increased use of other types of fuels.

Figure 3. World per capita energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

[3] If we assume that coal supplies will continue to shrink, and other production will grow moderately, we can expect total energy consumption to be approximately flat in 2017. 

Figure 5. World energy consumption forecast, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy data through 2015, and author's estimates for 2016 and 2017.

In a way, this is an optimistic assessment, because we know that efforts are underway to reduce oil production, in order to prop up prices. We are, in effect, assuming either that (a) oil prices won’t really rise, so that oil consumption will grow at a rate similar to that in the recent past or (b) while oil prices will rise significantly to help producers, consumers won’t cut back on their consumption in response to the higher prices.

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Gary Anderson 5 months ago Contributor's comment

There have been huge finds in Russia, of oil reserves. It is madness that the world would just ignore it by using globalization as a sledgehammer to bury perceived enemies. As long as the US considers Russia an enemy, and the neocons want a cold war with Russia, which is part of the reason Hillary lost the election, we will not benefit from the wealth of Russian oil reserves. It is madness.