EC How Energy Shortages Really Affect The Economy

Many people expect energy shortages to lead to high prices. This is based on their view of what “running out” of oil might do to the economy.

In this post, I look at historical data surrounding inadequate energy supply. I also consider some of the physics associated with the situation. I see a strange coincidence between when coal production peaked (hit its maximum production before declining) in the United Kingdom and when World War I broke out. There was an equally strange coincidence between when the highest quality coal peaked in Germany and when World War II broke out. A good case can be made that inadequate energy supply is associated with conflict and fighting because leaders recognize how important an adequate energy supply is.

Some of my previous analysis has shown that if we view energy in terms of average energy supply per person, the world as a whole may be again entering into a period of inadequate energy supply. If my view is correct that inadequate energy supply leads to increased conflict, the recent discord that we have been seeing among world leaders may be related to today’s low supply of energy. (My energy analysis considers the combined energy supply available per person from fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewables. It is not simply an oil-based analysis.)

The physics of the low energy situation may be trying to “freeze out” the less efficient portions of the economy. If successful, the outcome might be analogous to the collapse of the central government of the Soviet Union in 1991, after oil prices had been low for several years. Total energy consumption of countries involved in the collapse dropped by close to 40%, on average. The rest of the world benefitted from lower oil prices (resulting from lower total demand). It also benefitted from the oil that remained in the ground and consequently was available for extraction in recent years, when we really needed it.

The idea that oil prices can rise very high seems to be based on the oil price increases of the 1970s and of the early 2000s. While oil prices can temporarily rise very high, it is hard to make a case that they can remain high for an extended period. For one thing, high oil prices tend to cause recessions and lower employment. In such an environment, the affordability of energy products is lower, and oil prices tend to fall. For another, it is easy for the Federal Reserve to get oil prices back down by raising interest rates. In fact, the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates right now.

In my opinion, we should be more concerned about low oil prices than high because we live in a world economy with huge debt bubbles. Debt bubbles are part of what enable today’s high employment. Debt bubbles support employers that are close to the edge financially; they also support buyers who would not be able to afford automobiles or college educations, if loans were to become more expensive because of higher interest rates. Employment in the affected industries would be cut back, leading to recession.

Because of these issues, pricking the debt bubble is likely to lead to a major recession and, indirectly, lower energy prices, as in late 2008 (Exhibit 12). These lower prices are not good news because energy providers of all kinds need fairly high energy prices to survive–probably equivalent to oil at $80 per barrel or higher. If energy prices stay persistently low, the world is likely to see much lower oil supply, in part because oil exporters need the tax revenue that they obtain from high-priced oil to fund their programs. 

A Self-Organizing Economy Needs Energy to Fulfill Its Promises

The problem that has arisen many times in the past is that energy supply becomes inadequate, relative to what the economy needs to operate. This energy shortfall is virtually never explained to the public. It is only apparent to the occasional researcher who realizes that this might be the issue.

The amount of energy that a networked economy needs to operate depends on:

  • The number of people alive at the time,
  • The industry that has been put in place, and
  • The promises, such as retirement promises, that have been made to citizens.

Adequate energy supply is important for jobs and their pay levels. A rising supply of energy per capita tends to add jobs. The Asian countries shown in Figure 1 are some examples of countries where rising energy supply has given rise to more non-agricultural jobs.

Figure 1. Energy consumption per capita based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 total energy consumption data and UN 2017 Population Estimates of three selected countries. Energy consumption includes oil, natural gas, coal, and many smaller types of energy consumption, including wind and solar.

The jobs added rarely pay high salaries compared to those in the developed world, but they have helped raise the standard of living of those who have obtained them.

A falling supply of energy consumption per capita tends to make jobs that are high-paying more difficult to obtain. If energy per capita falls, there may still be a reasonable number of jobs, but many of them won’t pay well. High energy jobs such as building new schools and resurfacing roads tend to disappear, while jobs requiring little energy consumption, such as waitress and bartender, are added. Figure 2 gives some examples of European countries that have seen declines in energy consumption per capita in recent years.

Figure 2. Energy consumption per capita based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 total energy consumption data and UN 2017 Population Estimates of three selected countries. Energy consumption includes oil, natural gas, coal, and many smaller types of energy consumption, including wind and solar.

When jobs that pay well become more difficult to find, a significant share of the population starts believing that there is no room for additional immigrants, regardless of how needy they may be. This seems to be part of the dynamic many countries have been encountering recently.

If growth in energy supply is inadequate, other physics-related issues also arise:

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Moon Kil Woong 3 weeks ago Contributor's comment

The Fed is less concerned about popping the bubble than making rates rise back towards some area of normalcy as well as clearing a little room for QE by lowering their current QE for the time being. They should have been doing this years ago. It is dangerous to be tightening this late in a cycle but their behavior has been illogical for so long they feel they must do it before another downturn.

As for downturn speculation, the US is inflating the deficit which is spurring economic growth for now with no major collapse in the dollar or over inflation for the time being. We should be safe for now as long as there isn't a big spike in oil prices, the trade war gets worse, or real war breaks out and affects things like oil.

Gary Anderson 3 weeks ago Contributor's comment

The Trump administration seeks to limit the success of China. China's economic success would profit American industry. Chinese people love American products. But perhaps Trump believes a China success would require too much energy. That is a dismal conclusion that needs a fix.

Gary Anderson 3 weeks ago Contributor's comment

This is certainly one of the most interesting articles published in Talkmarkets. The Fed prunes wages. I wrote about that. But it pops bubbles at the same time. It is having difficulty popping tech inspired housing bubbles, however. Tech may be insulated from this energy story, compared to other industry. Tech makes money without the need for as much energy. And it profits off of automation.