EC Falling Interest Rates Have Postponed “Peak Oil”

Falling interest rates have huge power. My background is as an actuary, so I am very much aware of the great power of interest rates. But a lot of people are not aware of this power, including, I suspect, some of the people making today’s decisions to raise interest rates. Similar people want to sell securities now being held by the Federal Reserve and by other central banks. This would further ramp up interest rates. With high interest rates, practically nothing that is bought using credit is affordable. This is frightening.

Another group of people who don’t understand the power of interest rates is the group of people who put together the Peak Oil story. In my opinion, the story of finite resources, including oil, is true. But the way the problem manifests itself is quite different from what Peak Oilers have imagined because the economy is far more complex than the Hubbert Model assumes. One big piece that has been left out of the Hubbert Model is the impact of changing interest rates. When interest rates fall, this tends to allow oil prices to rise, and thus allows increased production. This postpones the Peak Oil crisis, but makes the ultimate crisis worse.

The new crisis can be expected to be “Peak Economy” instead of Peak Oil. Peak Economy is likely to have a far different shape than Peak Oil–a much sharper downturn. It is likely to affect many aspects of the economy at once. The financial system will be especially affected. We will have gluts of all energy products, because no energy product will be affordable to consumers at a price that is profitable to producers. Grid electricity is likely to fail at essentially the same time as other parts of the system.

Interest rates are very important in determining when we hit “Peak Economy.” As I will explain in this article, falling interest rates between 1981 and 2014 are one of the things that allowed Peak Oil to be postponed for many years.

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These falling interest rates allowed oil prices to be much higher than they otherwise would have been, and thus allowed far more oil to be extracted than would otherwise have been the case.

Since mid 2014, the big change that has taken place was the elimination of Quantitative Easing (QE) by the US. This change had the effect of disrupting the “carry trade” in US dollars (borrowing in US dollars and purchasing investments, often debt with a slightly higher yield, in another currency).

As a result, the US dollar rose, relative to other currencies. This tended to send oil prices to a level that is too low for oil producers to make an adequate profit (Figure 2). In addition, governments of oil exporting countries (such as Venezuela, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia) cannot collect adequate taxes. This kind of problem does not lead to immediate collapse. Instead, it “sets the wheels in motion,” leading to collapse. This is a major reason why “Peak Economy” seems to be ahead, even if no one attempts to raise interest rates.

The problem is not yet very visible, because oil prices that are too low for producers are favorable for importers of oil, such as the US and Europe. Our economy actually functions better with these low oil prices. Unfortunately, this situation is not sustainable. In fact, rising interest rates are likely to make the situation much worse, quickly.

In this post, I will explain more details relating to these problems.

Low interest rates are extremely beneficial to the economy; high interest rates are a huge problem.

Low interest rates allow consumers to purchase high-priced goods with affordable monthly payments. With low interest rates, consumers can afford to buy more consumer goods (such as homes and cars) than they could otherwise. Thus, low interest rates tend to lead to high demand for commodities of all kinds, thus raising the price of commodities, such as oil.

Low interest rates are also good for businesses and governments. Their borrowing costs are favorable. Because consumers are doing well, business revenues and tax revenues tend to grow at a brisk pace. It becomes easier to afford new factories, roads, and schools.

While low interest rates are good, a reduction in interest rates is even better.

A reduction in interest rates tends to make asset prices rise. The reason this happens is because if someone already owns an asset (examples: a home, factory, a business, shares of stock) and interest rates fall, that asset suddenly becomes more affordable to other people, so the price of that asset rises because of increased demand. For example, if the monthly mortgage payment for a house suddenly drops from $600 per month to $500 per month because of a reduction in interest rates, many more potential homeowners can afford to buy the house. The price of the house may be bid up to a new higher level–perhaps to a price level where the monthly payment is $550 per month–higher than previously, but still below the old payment amount.

Furthermore, if interest rates fall, owners of homes that have risen in value can refinance their mortgages and obtain the new lower interest rate. Often, they can withdraw the “excess equity” and spend it on something else, such as a new car or home improvements. This extra spending tends to stimulate the economy, and thus tends to raise commodity prices. Suddenly, investments in oil fields that previously looked too expensive to extract, and mines with ores of very low grade, start looking profitable. Businesses hire workers to staff the investments that are now profitable, stimulating the economy.

Businesses receive other benefits, as well, when interest rates fall. Their borrowing cost on new loans falls, making new investment more affordable. Demand for their products tends to rise. The additional demand that results from lower interest rates allows economies of scale to work their magic, and thus allows profits to rise.

Companies that have large portfolios of investments, such as insurance companies and pension funds, find that the values of their assets (stocks, bonds, and other investments) rise when interest rates fall. Thus, their balance sheets look better. (Of course, the low interest payments when interest rates are low provide a different problem for these companies. Here, we are talking about the impact of falling interest rates.)

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