EC The Approaching US Energy-Economic Crisis

[1] Some of this low interest debt can be used by governments to provide funding for unemployment benefits and projects such as road building.

[2] Some of this low interest debt can be used by businesses to open new factories, and thus hire more workers.

[3] Some of this low interest debt can be used by individual citizens to purchase a home, a car, or a college education.

It is the pumping up of the economy with low interest debt that seems to stimulate the economy in a way that raises oil prices. When the US discontinued its third and last phase of QE in late 2014 (shown as “End US QE3” in Slide 7), the pumping up action began to disappear, and oil prices again fell.

The figure in Slide 8 may seem a little exaggerated, but I wanted to make a point. Our wages can roughly be divided into three pieces:

[1] Essential goods whose prices are very much influenced by the price of oil, such as food and gasoline. Besides food and gasoline, the cost of replacing a road, particularly with asphalt, very much depends on the price of oil. Higher costs for roads will be reflected in taxes that we are required to pay. Almost any kind of product that is shipped is affected by the price of oil, because oil is the usual transport fuel. Oil is typically used in the extraction of metal ores, so the price of metals used in making cars, appliances, and other goods is affected by the price of oil. Thus, an oil price increase indirectly leads to inflation in the cost of a wide range of essential goods and services.

To make matters worse, fluctuations in the price of oil can be very large. Between 2000 and 2008, we saw monthly average oil price fluctuate from under $20 per barrel to over $130 per barrel. Thus, while the growth in the food and gasoline segment is somewhat exaggerated, the impact of price changes is much larger than a person might expect, looking only at the impact of higher gasoline prices for a consumer’s vehicle.

[2] Repayment of loans, such as mortgage payments and auto payments. Loan repayments of these types tend to make up a large portion of most people’s spending. If people don’t own their own home, they have rent payments to make. These rent payments are in some ways similar to loan payments, because they indirectly cover the cost of someone else’s mortgage. These costs tend to be fixed, even if the price of oil goes up.

[3] Everything else. These are the non-essential items that we cut back on when budgets are too tight. Examples include charitable contributions, visits to restaurants, and vacation trips.

Looking at Slide 8, it becomes clear that if a government wants to “counteract” high oil prices, it needs to lower interest rates. This will tend to make car payments, mortgage payments, educational loans, and even rents somewhat more affordable, at least for people whose loans are affected by the new low interest rates. Often, homeowners are allowed to refinance, to take advantage of the new lower interest rates.

The plan this year is to raise, rather than lower, interest rates. Needless to say, this has the opposite effect; it tends to reduce the size of the “everything else” segment of our income. This effect tends to be recessionary.

Monarch Air is a British airline that failed recently. It boasted very low fares. One of the problems leading to its failure was a falling pound relative to the US dollar, raising both the price of oil and the price of new airplanes.

Today, the price that oil producers need, including adequate funds for (a) reinvestment and (b) the high taxes that governments need to continue their programs, is likely $100 per barrel or more. Such a price would likely cause recession, because purchases in the “Everything Else” category on Slide 8 would be squeezed.

Most people don’t think about the possibility of oil prices falling too low for producers, but this is a major problem today. When prices are too low, oil companies need to borrow money to continue to operate. They are likely to cut back on developing new extraction sites. With low prices, the tax revenue that the governments of oil-exporting countries are able to collect tends to fall too low, leading to cutbacks in government programs and a need for more debt. Saudi Arabia is running into this difficulty.

The problems that arise from low oil prices can be hidden for quite a while, because investors are likely to see the low prices as a great opportunity. They think, “Surely, oil prices will rise again.” So investors are eager to buy more shares of stock, and banks are willing to issue more debt. At some point, the situation becomes unsustainable, and no more loans are offered.

It has now been about three years since prices fell to a level that is clearly too low for oil producers. It cannot be many more years before something has to “break.” Venezuela is an oil exporter that cannot collect enough revenue from oil exports to afford needed goods, such as food. Other oil exporters may eventually encounter similar problems.

A major reason for falling oil prices is growing wage disparity and the resulting loss in purchasing power for the bottom 90% of workers. In the United States, the bottom 90% obtained about 62% of total income as recently as 1992. In a 2016 Federal Reserve survey, only 49.7% of total income went to the bottom 90%.

The reason why wage disparity is important is because the wealthiest 1% (or even the wealthiest 10%) can’t purchase very much of the goods created using oil. The wealthiest 1% can’t eat very much more food than everyone else. They can only drive one car at a time. In order to have adequate demand for oil, the bottom 90% must have adequate purchasing power for goods such as homes and cars. If young people live with their parents longer, and aren’t able to afford homes, this holds down demand for oil. So does transferring manufacturing to countries where wages are so low that few people can afford cars and other manufactured goods.

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James Hanshaw 1 year ago Contributor's comment

Very interesting and comprehensive article. I do not think oil prices are headed too high or too low and my reasons have just been published here