Peak Oil and the Meltdown (1): the role of oil scarcity as trigger

Richard Heinberg has published a crucially important guest post at the “Peak-Oil thesis” related Oil Drum website.

This excerpt explains how the subprime trigger was preceded by an oil price crisis, which should be seen as the real cause of the current meltdown.

Richard Heinberg:

“Continual increases in population and consumption cannot continue forever on a finite planet. This is an axiomatic observation with which everyone familiar with the mathematics of compounded arithmetic growth must agree, even if they hedge their agreement with vague references to “substitutability” and “demographic transitions.”

This axiomatic limit to growth means that the rapid expansion in both population and per-capita consumption of resources that has occurred over the past century or two must cease at some particular time. But when is this likely to occur?

The unfairly maligned Limits to Growth studies, published first in 1972 with periodic updates since, have attempted to answer the question with analysis of resource availability and depletion, and multiple scenarios for future population growth and consumption rates. The most pessimistic scenario in 1972 suggested an end of world economic growth around 2015.

But there may be a simpler way of forecasting growth’s demise.

Energy is the ultimate enabler of growth (again, this is axiomatic: physics and biology both tell us that without energy nothing happens). Industrial expansion throughout the past two centuries has in every instance been based on increased energy consumption.

More specifically, industrialism has been inextricably tied to the availability and consumption of cheap energy from coal and oil (and more recently, natural gas). However, fossil fuels are by their very nature depleting, non-renewable resources. Therefore (according to the Peak Oil thesis), the eventual inability to continue increasing supplies of cheap fossil energy will likely lead to a cessation of economic growth in general, unless alternative energy sources and efficiency of energy use can be deployed rapidly and to a sufficient degree.

Of the three conventional fossil fuels, oil is arguably the most economically vital, since it supplies 95 percent of all transport energy. Further, petroleum is the fuel with which we are likely to encounter supply problems soonest, because global petroleum discoveries have been declining for decades, and most oil producing countries are already seeing production declines.

So, by this logic, the end of economic growth (as conventionally defined) is inevitable, and Peak Oil is the likely trigger.

Why would Peak Oil lead not just to problems for the transport industry, but a more general economic and financial crisis? During the past century growth has become institutionalized in the very sinews of our economic system. Every city and business wants to grow. This is understandable merely in terms of human nature: nearly everyone wants a competitive advantage over someone else, and growth provides the opportunity to achieve it. But there is also a financial survival motive at work: without growth, businesses and governments are unable to service their debt. And debt has become endemic to the industrial system. During the past couple of decades, the financial services industry has grown faster than any other sector of the American economy, even outpacing the rise in health care expenditures, accounting for a third of all growth in the U.S. economy. From 1990 to the present, the ratio of debt-to-GDP expanded from 165 percent to over 350 percent. In essence, the present welfare of the economy rests on debt, and the collateral for that debt consists of a wager that next year’s levels of production and consumption will be higher than this year’s.

Given that growth cannot continue on a finite planet, this wager, and its embodiment in the institutions of finance, can be said to constitute history’s greatest Ponzi scheme. We have justified present borrowing with the irrational belief that perpetual growth is possible, necessary, and inevitable. In effect we have borrowed from future generations so that we could gamble away their capital today.

Until recently, the Peak Oil argument has been framed as a forecast: the inevitable decline in world petroleum production, whenever it occurs, will kill growth. But here is where forecast becomes diagnosis: during the period from 2005 to 2008, energy stopped growing and oil prices rose to record levels. By July of 2008, the price of a barrel of oil was nudging close to $150—half again higher than any previous petroleum price in inflation-adjusted terms—and the global economy was beginning to topple. The auto and airline industries shuddered; ordinary consumers had trouble for buying gasoline for their commute to work while still paying their mortgages. Consumer spending began to decline. By September the economic crisis was also a financial crisis, as banks trembled and imploded.

Given how much is at stake, it is important to evaluate the two diagnoses on the basis of facts, not preconceptions.

It is unnecessary to examine evidence supporting or refuting the Conventional Diagnosis, because its validity is not in doubt—as a partial explanation for what is occurring. The question is whether it is a sufficient explanation, and hence an adequate basis for designing a successful response.

What’s the evidence favoring the Alternative? A good place to begin is with a recent paper by economist James Hamilton of the University of California, San Diego, titled “Causes and Consequences of the Oil Shock of 2007-08,” which discusses oil prices and economic impacts with clarity, logic, and numbers, explaining how and why the economic crash is related to the oil price shock of 2008.

Hamilton starts by citing previous studies showing a tight correlation between oil price spikes and recessions. On the basis of this correlation, every attentive economist should have forecast a steep recession for 2008. “Indeed,” writes Hamilton, “the relation could account for the entire downturn of 2007-08…. If one could have known in advance what happened to oil prices during 2007-08, and if one had used the historically estimated relation [between price rise and economic impact]… one would have been able to predict the level of real GDP for both of 2008:Q3 and 2008:Q4 quite accurately.”

Again, this is not to ignore the role of the financial and real estate sectors in the ongoing global economic meltdown. But in the Alternative Diagnosis the collapse of the housing and derivatives markets is seen as amplifying a signal ultimately emanating from a failure to increase the rate of supply of depleting resources. Hamilton again: “At a minimum it is clear that something other than housing deteriorated to turn slow growth into a recession. That something, in my mind, includes the collapse in automobile purchases, slowdown in overall consumption spending, and deteriorating consumer sentiment, in which the oil shock was indisputably a contributing factor.”

Moreover, Hamilton notes that there was “an interaction effect between the oil shock and the problems in housing.” That is, in many metropolitan areas, house prices in 2007 were still rising in the zip codes closest to urban centers but already falling fast in zip codes where commutes were long.

Why Did the Oil Price Spike?

Those who espouse the Conventional Diagnosis for our ongoing economic collapse might agree that there was some element of causal correlation between the oil price spike and the recession, but they would deny that the price spike itself had anything to do with resource limits, because (they say) it was caused mostly by speculation in the oil futures market, and had little to do with fundamentals of supply and demand.

In this, the Conventional Diagnosis once again has some basis in reality. Speculation in oil futures during the period in question almost certainly helped drive oil prices higher than was justified by fundamentals. But why were investors buying oil futures? Was the mania for oil contracts just another bubble, like the stock frenzy of the late ’90s or the real estate boom of 2003 to 2006?

During the period from 2005 to mid-2008, demand for oil was growing, especially in China (which went from being self-sufficient in oil in 1995 to being the world’s second-foremost importer, after the U.S., by 2006). But the global supply of oil was essentially stagnant: monthly production figures for crude oil bounced around within a fairly narrow band between 72 and 75 million barrels per day. As prices rose, production figures barely budged in response. There was every indication that all oil producers were pumping flat-out: even the Saudis appeared to be rushing to capitalize on the price bonanza.

Thus a good argument can be made that speculation in oil futures was merely magnifying price moves that were inevitable on the basis of the fundamentals of supply and demand. James Hamilton (in his publication previously cited) puts it this way: “With hindsight, it is hard to deny that the price rose too high in July 2008, and that this miscalculation was influenced in part by the flow of investment dollars into commodity futures contracts. It is worth emphasizing, however, that the two key ingredients needed to make such a story coherent—a low price elasticity of demand, and the failure of physical production to increase—are the same key elements of a fundamentals-based explanation of the same phenomenon. I therefore conclude that these two factors, rather than speculation per se, should be construed as the primary cause of the oil shock of 2007-08.”

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