This is how Big Oil will die

From WHMP / clipart.com

It’s 2025, and 800,000 tons of used high strength steel is coming up for auction.

The steel made up the Keystone XL pipeline, finally completed in 2019, two years after the project launched with great fanfare after approval by the Trump administration. The pipeline was built at a cost of about $7 billion, bringing oil from the Canadian tar sands to the US, with a pit stop in the town of Baker, Montana, to pick up US crude from the Bakken formation. At its peak, it carried over 500,000 barrels a day for processing at refineries in Texas and Louisiana.

But in 2025, no one wants the oil.

The Keystone XL will go down as the world’s last great fossil fuels infrastructure project. TransCanada, the pipeline’s operator, charged about $10 per barrel for the transportation services, which means the pipeline extension earned about $5 million per day, or $1.8 billion per year. But after shutting down less than four years into its expected 40 year operational life, it never paid back its costs.

The Keystone XL closed thanks to a confluence of technologies that came together faster than anyone in the oil and gas industry had ever seen. It’s hard to blame them — the transformation of the transportation sector over the last several years has been the biggest, fastest change in the history of human civilization, causing the bankruptcy of blue chip companies like Exxon Mobil and General Motors, and directly impacting over $10 trillion in economic output.

And blame for it can be traced to a beguilingly simple, yet fatal problem: the internal combustion engine has too many moving parts.  

The Cummins Diesel Engine, US Patent #2,408,298, filed April 1943, awarded Sept 24, 1946

Let’s bring this back to today: Big Oil is perhaps the most feared and respected industry in history. Oil is warming the planet — cars and trucks contribute about 15% of global fossil fuels emissions — yet this fact barely dents its use. Oil fuels the most politically volatile regions in the world, yet we’ve decided to send military aid to unstable and untrustworthy dictators, because their oil is critical to our own security. For the last century, oil has dominated our economics and our politics. Oil is power.

Yet I argue here that technology is about to undo a century of political and economic dominance by oil. Big Oil will be cut down in the next decade by a combination of smartphone apps, long-life batteries, and simpler gearing. And as is always the case with new technology, the undoing will occur far faster than anyone thought possible.

To understand why Big Oil is in far weaker a position than anyone realizes, let’s take a closer look at the lynchpin of oil’s grip on our lives: the internal combustion engine, and the modern vehicle drivetrain.

BMW 8 speed automatic transmission, showing lots of fine German engineered gearing. From Euro Car News.

Cars are complicated.

Behind the hum of a running engine lies a carefully balanced dance between sheathed steel pistons, intermeshed gears, and spinning rods — a choreography that lasts for millions of revolutions. But millions is not enough, and as we all have experienced, these parts eventually wear, and fail. Oil caps leak. Belts fray. Transmissions seize.

To get a sense of what problems may occur, here is a list of the most common vehicle repairs from 2015:

  1. Replacing an oxygen sensor — $249
  2. Replacing a catalytic converter — $1,153
  3. Replacing ignition coil(s) and spark plug(s) — $390
  4. Tightening or replacing a fuel cap — $15
  5. Thermostat replacement — $210
  6. Replacing ignition coil(s) — $236
  7. Mass air flow sensor replacement — $382
  8. Replacing spark plug wire(s) and spark plug(s) — $331
  9. Replacing evaporative emissions (EVAP) purge control valve — $168
  10. Replacing evaporative emissions (EVAP) purging solenoid — $184

And this list raises an interesting observation: None of these failures exist in an electric vehicle.

The point has been most often driven home by Tony Seba, a Stanford professor and guru of “disruption”, who revels in pointing out that an internal combustion engine drivetrain contains about 2,000 parts, while an electric vehicle drivetrain contains about 20. All other things being equal, a system with fewer moving parts will be more reliable than a system with more moving parts.

And that rule of thumb appears to hold for cars. In 2006, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimated that the average vehicle, built solely on internal combustion engines, lasted 150,000 miles.

Current estimates for the lifetime today’s electric vehicles are over 500,000 miles.

The ramifications of this are huge, and bear repeating. Ten years ago, when I bought my Prius, it was common for friends to ask how long the battery would last — a battery replacement at 100,000 miles would easily negate the value of improved fuel efficiency. But today there are anecdotal stories of Prius’s logging over 600,000 miles on a single battery.

The story for Teslas is unfolding similarly. Tesloop, a Tesla-centric ride-hailing company has already driven its first Model S for more 200,000 miles, and seen only an 6% loss in battery life. A battery lifetime of 1,000,000 miles may even be in reach.

This increased lifetime translates directly to a lower cost of ownership: extending an EVs life by 3–4 X means an EVs capital cost, per mile, is 1/3 or 1/4 that of a gasoline-powered vehicle. Better still, the cost of switching from gasoline to electricity delivers another savings of about 1/3 to 1/4 per mile. And electric vehicles do not need oil changes, air filters, or timing belt replacements; the 200,000 mile Tesloop never even had its brakes replaced. The most significant repair cost on an electric vehicle is from worn tires.

For emphasis: The total cost of owning an electric vehicle is, over its entire life, roughly 1/4 to 1/3 the cost of a gasoline-powered vehicle.

Of course, with a 500,000 mile life a car will last 40–50 years. And it seems absurd to expect a single person to own just one car in her life.

But of course a person won’t own just one car. The most likely scenario is that, thanks to software, a person won’t own any.


Here is the problem with electric vehicle economics: A dollar today, invested into the stock market at a 7% average annual rate of return, will be worth $15 in 40 years. Another way of saying this is the value, today, of that 40th year of vehicle use is approximately 1/15th that of the first.

The consumer simply has little incentive to care whether or not a vehicle lasts 40 years. By that point the car will have outmoded technology, inefficient operation, and probably a layer of rust. No one wants their car to outlive their marriage.

But that investment logic looks very different if you are driving a vehicle for a living.

A New York City cab driver puts in, on average, 180 miles per shift (well within the range of a modern EV battery), or perhaps 50,000 miles per work year. At that usage rate, the same vehicle will last roughly 10 years. The economics, and the social acceptance, get better.

And if the vehicle was owned by a cab company, and shared by drivers, the miles per year can perhaps double again. Now the capital is depreciated in 5 years, not 10. This is, from a company’s perspective, a perfectly normal investment horizon.

A fleet can profit from an electric vehicle in a way that an individual owner cannot.

Here is a quick, top-down analysis on what it’s worth to switch to EVs: The IRS allows charges of 53.5¢ per mile in 2017, a number clearly derived for gasoline vehicles. At 1/4 the price, a fleet electric vehicle should cost only 13¢ per mile, a savings of 40¢ per mile.

40¢ per mile is not chump change — if you are a NYC cab driver putting 50,000 miles a year onto a vehicle, that’s $20,000 in savings each year. But a taxi ride in NYC today costs $2/mile; that same ride, priced at $1.60 per mile, will still cost significantly more than the 53.5¢ for driving the vehicle you already own. The most significant cost of driving is still the driver.

But that, too, is about to change. Self-driving taxis are being tested this year in Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and Boston, as well as Singapore, Dubai, and Wuzhen, China.

And here is what is disruptive for Big Oil: Self-driving vehicles get to combine the capital savings from the improved lifetime of EVs, with the savings from eliminating the driver.

The costs of electric self-driving cars will be so low, it will be cheaper to hail a ride than to drive the car you already own.


Today we view automobiles not merely as transportation, but as potent symbols of money, sex, and power. Yet cars are also fundamentally a technology. And history has told us that technologies can be disrupted in the blink of an eye.

Take as an example my own 1999 job interview with the Eastman Kodak company. It did not go well.

At the end of 1998, my father had gotten me a digital camera as a present to celebrate completion of my PhD. The camera took VGA resolution pictures — about 0.3 megapixels — and saved them to floppy disks. By comparison, a conventional film camera had a nominal resolution of about 6 megapixels. When printed, my photos looked more like impressionist art than reality.

However, that awful, awful camera was really easy to use. I never had to go to the store to buy film. I never had to get pictures printed. I never had to sort through a shoebox full of crappy photos. Looking at pictures became fun. 

Wife, with mildly uncooperative cat, January 1999. Photo is at the camera’s original resolution.

I asked my interviewer what Kodak thought of the rise of digital; she replied it was not a concern, that film would be around for decades. I looked at her like she was nuts. But she wasn’t nuts, she was just deep in the Kodak culture, a world where film had always been dominant, and always would be.

This graph plots the total units sold of film cameras (grey) versus digital (blue, bars cut off). In 1998, when I got my camera, the market share of digital wasn’t even measured. It was a rounding error.

By 2005, the market share of film cameras were a rounding error.

A plot of the rise of digital cameras (blue) and the fall of analog (grey). Original from Mayflower via mirrorlessrumors, slightly modified for use here.

In seven years, the camera industry had flipped. The film cameras went from residing on our desks, to a sale on Craigslist, to a landfill. Kodak, a company who reached a peak market value of $30 billion in 1997, declared bankruptcy in 2012. An insurmountable giant was gone.

That was fast. But industries can turn even faster: In 2007, Nokia had 50% of the mobile phone market, and its market cap reached $150 billion. But that was also the year Apple introduced the first smartphone. By the summer of 2012, Nokia’s market share had dipped below 5%, and its market cap fell to just $6 billion.

In less than five years, another company went from dominance to afterthought.A quarter-by-quarter summary of Nokia’s market share in cell phones. From Statista.

Big Oil believes it is different. I am less optimistic for them.

An autonomous vehicle will cost about $0.13 per mile to operate, and even less as battery life improves. By comparison, your 20 miles per gallon automobile costs $0.10 per mile to refuel if gasoline is $2/gallon, and that is before paying for insurance, repairs, or parking. Add those, and the price of operating a vehicle you have already paid off shoots to $0.20 per mile, or more.

And this is what will kill oil: It will cost less to hail an autonomous electric vehicle than to drive the car that you already own.

If you think this reasoning is too coarse, consider the recent analysis from the consulting company RethinkX (run by the aforementioned Tony Seba), which built a much more detailed, sophisticated model to explicitly analyze the future costs of autonomous vehicles. Here is a sampling of what they predict:

  • Self-driving cars will launch around 2021
  • A private ride will be priced at 16¢ per mile, falling to 10¢ over time.
  • A shared ride will be priced at 5¢ per mile, falling to 3¢ over time.
  • By 2022, oil use will have peaked
  • By 2023, used car prices will crash as people give up their vehicles. New car sales for individuals will drop to nearly zero.
  • By 2030, gasoline use for cars will have dropped to near zero, and total crude oil use will have dropped by 30% compared to today.

The driver behind all this is simple: Given a choice, people will select the cheaper option.

Your initial reaction may be to believe that cars are somehow different — they are built into the fabric of our culture. But consider how people have proven more than happy to sell seemingly unyielding parts of their culture for far less money. Think about how long a beloved mom and pop store lasts after Walmart moves into town, or how hard we try to “Buy American” when a cheaper option from China emerges.

And autonomous vehicles will not only be cheaper, but more convenient as well — there is no need to focus on driving, there will be fewer accidents, and no need to circle the lot for parking. And your garage suddenly becomes a sunroom.

For the moment, let’s make the assumption that the RethinkX team has their analysis right (and I broadly agree[1]): Self-driving EVs will be approved worldwide starting around 2021, and adoption will occur in less than a decade.

How screwed is Big Oil?


Perhaps the metaphors with film camera or cell phones are stretched. Perhaps the better way to analyze oil is to consider the fate of another fossil fuel: coal.

The coal market is experiencing a shock today similar to what oil will experience in the 2020s. Below is a plot of total coal production and consumption in the US, from 2001 to today. As inexpensive natural gas has pushed coal out of the market, coal consumption has dropped roughly 25%, similar to the 30% drop that RethinkX anticipates for oil. And it happened in just a decade.

Coal consumption has dropped 25% from its peak. From the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.

The result is not pretty. The major coal companies, who all borrowed to finance capital improvements while times were good, were caught unaware. As coal prices crashed, their loan payments became a larger and larger part of their balance sheets; while the coal companies could continue to pay for operations, they could not pay their creditors.

The four largest coal producers lost 99.9% of their market value over the last 6 years. Today, over half of coal is being mined by companies in some form of bankruptcy.

The four largest coal companies had a combined market value of approximately zero in 2016. This image is one element of a larger graphic on the collapse of coal from Visual Capitalist.

When self-driving cars are released, consumption of oil will similarly collapse.

Oil drilling will cease, as existing fields become sufficient to meet demand. Refiners, whose huge capital investments are dedicated to producing gasoline for automobiles, will write off their loans, and many will go under entirely. Even some pipeline operators, historically the most profitable portion of the oil business, will be challenged as high cost supply such as the Canadian tar sands stop producing.

A decade from now, many investors in oil may be wiped out. Oil will still be in widespread use, even under this scenario — applications such as road tarring are not as amenable to disruption by software. But much of today’s oil drilling, transport, and refining infrastructure will be redundant, or ill-fit to handle the heavier oils needed for powering ships, heating buildings, or making asphalt. And like today’s coal companies, oil companies like TransCanada may have no money left to clean up the mess they’ve left.


Of course, it would be better for the environment, investors, and society if oil companies curtailed their investing today, in preparation for the long winter ahead. Belief in global warming or the risks of oil spills is no longer needed to oppose oil projects — oil infrastructure like the Keystone XL will become a stranded asset before it can ever return its investment.

Unless we have the wisdom not to build it.

The battle over oil has historically been a personal battle — a skirmish between tribes over politics and morality, over how we define ourselves and our future. But the battle over self-driving cars will be fought on a different front. It will be about reliability, efficiency, and cost. And for the first time, Big Oil will be on the weaker side.

Within just a few years, Big Oil will stagger and start to fall. For anyone who feels uneasy about this, I want to emphasize that this prediction isn’t driven by environmental righteousness or some left-leaning fantasy. It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.



[1] Thinking about how fast a technology will flip is worth another post on its own. Suffice it to say that the key issues are (1) how big is the improvement?, and (2) is there a channel to market already established? The improvement in this case is a drop in cost of >2X — that’s pretty large. And the channel to market — smartphones — is already deployed. As of a year ago, 15% of Americans had hailed a ride using an app, so there is a small barrier to entry as people learn this new behavior, but certainly no larger than the barrier to smartphone adoption was in 2007. So as I said, I broadly believe that the roll-out will occur in about a decade. But any more detail would require an entirely new post.

Source: https://medium.com/@sethmiller_59231/this-is-how-big-oil-will-die-38b843bd4fe0

 

Why Globalization Reaches Limits

Gail Tverberg writes:

We have been living in a world of rapid globalization, but this is not a condition that we can expect to continue indefinitely.

Figure 1. Ratio of Imported Goods and Services to GDP. Based in FRED data for IMPGS.

Figure 1. Ratio of Imported Goods and Services to GDP. Based in FRED data for IMPGS.

Each time imported goods and services start to surge as a percentage of GDP, these imports seem to be cut back, generally in a recession. The rising cost of the imports seems to have an adverse impact on the economy. (The imports I am showing are gross imports, rather than imports net of exports. I am using gross imports, because US exports tend to be of a different nature than US imports. US imports include many labor-intensive products, while exports tend to be goods such as agricultural goods and movie films that do not require much US labor.)

Recently, US imports seem to be down. Part of this reflects the impact of surging US oil production, and because of this, a declining need for oil imports. Figure 2 shows the impact of removing oil imports from the amounts shown on Figure 1.

Figure 2. Total US Imports of Goods and Services, and this total excluding crude oil imports, both as a ratio to GDP. Crude oil imports from https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/historical/petr.pdf

Figure 2. Total US Imports of Goods and Services, and this total excluding crude oil imports, both as a ratio to GDP. Crude oil imports from https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/historical/petr.pdf

If we look at the years from 2008 to the present, there was clearly a big dip in imports at the time of the Great Recession. Apart from that dip, US imports have barely kept up with GDP growth since 2008.

Let’s think about the situation from the point of view of developing nations, wanting to increase the amount of goods they sell to the US. As long as US imports were growing rapidly, then the demand for the goods and services these developing nations were trying to sell would be growing rapidly. But once US imports flattened out as a percentage of GDP, then it became much harder for developing nations to “grow” their exports to the US.

I have not done an extensive analysis outside the US, but based on the recent slow economic growth patterns for Japan and Europe, I would expect that import growth for these areas to be slowing as well. If fact, data from the World Trade Organization for Japan, France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, and the United Kingdom seem to show a recent slowdown in imported goods for these countries as well.

If this lack of demand growth by a number of industrialized countries continues, it will tend to seriously slow export growth for developing countries.

Where Does Demand For Imports Come From?

Many of the goods and services we import have an adverse impact on US wages. For example, if we import clothing, toys, and furniture, these imports directly remove US jobs making similar goods here. Similarly, programming jobs and call center jobs outsourced to lower cost nations reduce the number of jobs available in the US. When US oil prices rose in the 1970s, we started importing compact cars from Japan. Substituting Japanese-made cars for American-made cars also led to a loss of US jobs.

Even if a job isn’t directly lost, the competition with low wage nations tends to hold down wages. Over time, US wages have tended to fall as a percentage of GDP.

Figure 3. Ratio of US Wages and Salaries to GDP, based on information of the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Figure 3. Ratio of US Wages and Salaries to GDP, based on information of the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Another phenomenon that has tended to occur is greater disparity of wages. Partly this disparity represents wage pressure on individuals doing jobs that could easily be outsourced to a lower-wage country. Also, executive salaries tend to rise, as companies become more international in scope. As a result, earnings for the top 10% have tended to increase since 1981, while wages for the bottom 90% have stagnated.

Figure 4. Chart by economist Emmanuel Saez based on an analysis IRS data, published in Forbes.

Figure 4. Chart by economist Emmanuel Saez based on an analysis IRS data, published in Forbes. “Real income” is inflation-adjusted income.

If wages of most workers are lagging behind, how is it possible to afford increased imports? I would argue that what has happened in practice is greater and greater use of debt. If wages of American workers had been rising rapidly, perhaps these higher wages could have enabled workers to afford the increased quantity of imported goods. With wages lagging behind, growing debt has been used as a way of affording imported goods and services.

Inasmuch as the US dollar was the world’s reserve currency, this increase in debt did not have a seriously adverse impact on the economy. In fact, back when oil prices were higher than they are today, petrodollar recycling helped maintain demand for US Treasuries as the US borrowed increasing amounts of money to purchase oil and other goods. This process helped keep borrowing costs low for the US.

Figure 5. US Increase in Debt as Ratio to GDP and US imports as Ratio to GDP. Both from FRED data: TSMDO and IMPGS.

Figure 5. US Increase in Debt as Ratio to GDP and US imports as Ratio to GDP. Both from FRED data: TSMDO and IMPGS.

The problem, however, is that at some point it becomes impossible to raise the debt level further. The ratio of debt to GDP becomes unmanageable. Consumers, because their wages have been held down by competition with wages around the world, cannot afford to keep adding more debt. Businesses find that slow wage growth in the US holds down demand. Because of this slow growth in the demand, businesses don’t need much additional debt to expand their businesses either.

Commodity Prices Are Extremely Sensitive to Lack of Demand

Commodities, by their nature, are things we use a lot of. It is usually difficult to store very much of these commodities. As a result, it is easy for supply and demand to get out of balance. Because of this, prices swing widely.

Demand is really a measure of affordability. If wages are lagging behind, then an increase in debt (for example, to buy a new house or a new car) can substitute for a lack of savings from wages. Unfortunately, such increases in debt have not been happening recently. We saw in Figure 5, above, that recent growth in US debt is lagging behind. If very many countries find themselves with wages rising slowly, and debt is not rising much either, then it is easy for commodity demand to fall behind supply. In such a case, prices of commodities will tend to fall behind the cost of production–exactly the problem the world has been experiencing recently. The problem started as early as 2012, but has been especially bad in the past year.

The way the governments of several countries have tried to fix stagnating economic growth is through a program called Quantitative Easing (QE). This program produces very low interest rates. Unfortunately, QE doesn’t really work as intended for commodities. QE tends to increase the supply of commodities, but it does not increase the demand for commodities.

The reason QE increases the supply of commodities is because yield-starved investors are willing to pour large amounts of capital into projects, in the hope that commodity prices will rise high enough that investments will be profitable–in other words, that investments in shares of stock will be profitable and also that debt can be repaid with interest. A major example of this push for production after QE started in 2008 is the rapid growth in US “liquids” production, thanks in large part to extraction from shale formations.

Figure 6. US oil and other liquids production, based on EIA data. Available data is through November, but amount shown is estimate of full year.

Figure 6. US oil and other liquids production, based on EIA data. Available data is through November, but amount shown is estimate of full year.

As we saw in Figure 5, the ultra-low interest rates have not been successful in encouraging new debt in general. These low rates also haven’t been successful in increasing US capital expenditures (Figure 7). In fact, even with all of the recent shale investment, capital investment remains low relative to what we would expect based on past investment patterns.

Figure 7. US Fixed Investment (Factories, Equipment, Schools, Roads) Excluding Consumer Durables as Ratio to GDP, based in US Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

Figure 7. US Fixed Investment (Factories, Equipment, Schools, Roads) Excluding Consumer Durables as Ratio to GDP, based in US Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

Instead, the low wages that result from globalization, without huge increases in debt, make it difficult to keep commodity prices up high enough. Workers, with low wages, delay starting their own households, so have no need for a separate apartment or house. They may also be able to share a vehicle with other family members. Because of the mismatch between supply and demand, commodity prices of many kinds have been falling. Oil prices, shown on Figure 9, have been down, but prices for coal, natural gas, and LNG are also down. Oil supply is up a little on a world basis, but not by an amount that would have been difficult to absorb in the 1960s and 1970s, when prices were much lower.

Figure 9. World oil production and price. Production is based on BP, plus author's estimate for 2016. Historical oil prices are calculated based on a higher than usual recent inflation rate, assuming Shadowstats' view of inflation is correct.

Figure 9. World oil production and price. Production is based on BP, plus author’s estimate for 2016. Historical oil prices are calculated based on a higher than usual recent inflation rate, assuming Shadowstats’ view of inflation is correct.

Developing Countries are Often Commodity Exporters 

Developing countries can be greatly affected if commodity prices are low, because they are often commodity exporters. One problem is obviously the cutback in wages, if it becomes necessary to reduce commodity production.  A second problem relates to the tax revenue that these exports generate. Without this revenue, it is often necessary to cut back funding for programs such as building roads and schools. This leads to even more job loss elsewhere in the economy. The combination of wage loss and tax loss may make it difficult to repay loans.

Obviously, if low commodity prices persist, this is another limit to globalization.

Conclusion

We have identified two different limits to globalization. One of them has to do with limits on the amount of goods and services that developed countries can absorb before those imports unduly disrupt local economies, either through job loss, or through more need for debt than the developed economies can handle. The other occurs because of the sensitivity of many developing nations have to low commodity prices, because they are exporters of these commodities.

Of course, there are other issues as well. China has discovered that if its coal is burned in great quantity, it is very polluting and a problem for this reason. China has begun to reduce its coal consumption, partly because of pollution issues.

Figure 10. China's energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Figure 10. China’s energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

There are many other limiting factors. Fresh water is a major problem, throughout much of the developing world. Adding more people and more industry makes the situation worse.

One problem with globalization is a long-term tendency to move manufacturing production to countries with ever-lower standards in many ways: ever-lower pollution controls, ever-lower safety standards for workers, and ever-lower wages and benefits for workers. This means that the world becomes an ever-worse place to work and live, and the workers in the system become less and less able to afford the output of the system. The lack of buyers for the output of the system makes it increasingly difficult to keep prices of commodities high enough to support their continued production.

The logical end point, even beyond globalization, is for automation and robots to perform nearly all production. Of course, if that happens, there will be no one to buy the output of the system. Won’t that be a problem?

Adequate wages are critical to making any system work. As the system has tended increasingly toward globalization, politicians have tended to focus more and more on the needs of businesses and governments, and less on the needs of workers. At some point, the lack of buyers for the output of the system will tend to bring the whole system down.

Thus, at some point, the trend toward globalization and automation must stop. We need buyers for the output from the system, and this is precisely the opposite of the direction in which the system is trending. If a way is not found to fix the system, it will ultimately collapse. At a minimum, the trend toward increasing imports will end–if it hasn’t already.

Source:  https://ourfiniteworld.com/2016/03/01/why-globalization-reaches-limits/

Crude Oil Lows?

We are still waiting confirmation that crude oil prices have completed their forecast lows. Notwithstanding one more low, potentially down to our target of US$12 per barrel, we anticipate the recovery of the oil market.

We expect oil prices to recover slowly, reaching as high as US$80 – $95 per barrel before entering a stagnating, equilibrium phase lasting many years and keeping oil prices in a long term trading range between US$30 per barrel and US$60 per barrel. Long term over supply will continue to keep this market under pressure despite the potential for geopolitical shocks occurring from time to time.

The coming oil price movement is typical of a commodity market that has been through a major boom and bust phase. Once we have confirmed the lows are in, we can more accurately define the next phase of the crude oil market.

Oil Oversupply

National Commercial Bank looks at the impact of oversupply of oil.

Elevated production levels, decelerating demand, and record high inventories will suppress oil prices to an average of $50/bbl in 2016, the National Commercial Bank (NCB) said in its latest monthly “Views on Saudi Economic and Developments”.

It said growth dynamics pertaining to emerging markets, in particular China, and production factors relating to OPEC have underpinned the bearish view.

The lack of compliance among OPEC members that produced above the 30MMBD quota for the 18th month in a row will be an important drag, especially that the group lacks a unified front.

Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran are adamant in producing as much as they can. The Kingdom’s production peaked at 10.6 MMBD in June, while Iraq has increased output over the year by around 0.7 MMBD, reaching 4.2 MMBD in November. Additionally, lifting the sanctions imposed in July 2012 on Iran is expected to bring an additional 500 thousand barrels a day during 1H2016, which will keep OPEC’s production above the 32 MMBD mark. Even though non-OPEC members and high-cost producers will continue to be pressured this year, the anticipated decline in their production will not offset OPEC’s over quota strategy. The IEA, EIA and OPEC have forecasted a decline in non-OPEC supply between 400-600,000 barrels a day, the first annual decrease since 2008, largely due to the steeper decline in US shale production.

The EIA predicted in its latest report that companies operating in US shale formations will reduce production by a record 570,000 barrels a day, which underscores the challenging environment even after slashing capital spending, laying off workers and focusing on the most productive areas.

On the demand side, China is expected to have the weakest economic performance since 1990, with growth falling below 7% for 2015 and 2016 despite the myriad attempts to reduce interest rates, reserve requirements and devalue the yuan in order to spur business activity.

Furthermore, emerging markets are expected to expand at 4%, the slowest pace since 2010 and well below their 10-year average of 7%. Generally, the three eminent organizations are forecasting oil demand to rise between 1.2 and 1.4 MMBD in 2016, much slower than last year that saw demand grow by as much as 1.8 MMBD, a five-year high.

The record US and global crude oil inventories will also continue to weigh on oil markets. The end of year US crude oil inventory at 487.4 MMbbls is 27% more than the level recorded in 2014, which was 388 MMbbls, and is also at an 80-year high for this time of year.

Additionally, the OECD’s commercial total oil inventories rose to around 2.971 billion barrels, near a record level that is equivalent to 60 days of consumption and above the five-year average. Given these aforementioned dynamics, NCB forecast the market to remain unbalanced in 2016.

Source: Saudi Gazette

Oil Consumption Forecast

Barry Norman forecasts oil consumption.

Crude Oil added 45 points as traders bought up the cheap commodity taking advantage of low prices and the hopes that OPEC members will cut production now that Iran has returned to the marketplace combating US exports. Brent Oil added $1.08 to 29.64. Crude oil prices continued to be hurt by bearish sentiments across the globe as markets remain nervous as to how low oil prices can go. Besides, the supply side remains intact further exerting downside pressure on oil prices.

Low oil prices, weak investment demand and low physical demand are push factors for gold prices to trade lower while bargain hunting will provide a push for gold prices in the near term.

The EIA (U.S. Energy Information and Administration) had reported that the global crude oil production will rise to 95.9 million barrels per day (MMbpd) in 2016 and 96.7 MMbpd in 2017. The global crude oil production was at 95.7 MMbpd of crude oil in 2015. The global oil consumption is expected to average 95.2 MMbpd in 2016 and 96.6 MMbpd in 2017.

Meanwhile, the JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs suggested that crude oil prices could test $20 per barrel in 2016. Royal Bank of Scotland suggests that crude oil prices could test $16 per barrel, while Standard Chartered suggests that oil prices could hit $10 per barrel in the worst-case scenario.

Source: FX EMPIRE

How will falling Oil Prices impact the Economy?

Gail Tverberg is a researcher on subjects related to energy and the economy and writes for OurFiniteWorld.com. Gail Tverberg raises an interesting question on the impact of falling Oil Prices on the growth of the economy. With popular perception being that the significant decline in oil prices will bring about a positive change in the growth of the economy but is that likely? Gail lays out the reasons as to why this might not be the case with the following reasons:

Reasons

1. Oil producers can’t really produce oil for $30 per barrel.

2. Oil producers really need prices that are higher than the technical extraction costs, making the situation even worse.

3. When oil prices drop very low, producers generally don’t stop producing.

4. Oil demand doesn’t increase very rapidly after prices drop from a high level.

5. The sharp drop in oil prices in the last 18 months has little to do with the cost of production.

6. One contributing factor to today’s low oil prices is a drop-off in the stimulus efforts of 2008.

7. The danger with very low oil prices is that we will lose the energy products upon which our economy depends.

8. The economy cannot get along without an adequate supply of oil and other fossil fuel products.

9. Many people believe that oil prices will bounce back up again, and everything will be fine. This seems unlikely.

10. The rapid run up in US oil production after 2008 has been a significant contributor to the mismatch between oil supply and demand that has taken place since mid-2014.

Conclusion

Things aren’t working out the way we had hoped. We can’t seem to get oil supply and demand in balance. If prices are high, oil companies can extract a lot of oil, but consumers can’t afford the products that use it, such as homes and cars; if oil prices are low, oil companies try to continue to extract oil, but soon develop financial problems.

Decision makers thought that peak oil could be fixed simply by producing more oil and more oil substitutes. It is becoming increasingly clear that the problem is more complicated than this. We need to find a way to make the whole system operate correctly. We need to produce exactly the correct amount of oil that buyers can afford. Prices need to be high enough for oil producers, but not too high for purchasers of goods using oil. The amount of debt should not spiral out of control. There doesn’t seem to be a way to produce the desired outcome, now that oil extraction costs are high.

Unfortunately, what we are facing now is a predicament, rather than a problem. There is quite likely no good solution. This is a worry.

Source:Why oil under $30 per barrel is a major problem

Oil Selling Climax

As crude oil falls below US$28.00 per barrel we see a selling climax developing. The final low on this sell off could be anywhere between $12.00 to $27.00 and would lead to a major turning point for the beleaguered oil market. This will complete our oil market predictions first made in 2011 when we predicted US$12.00 per barrel. The final oil market low may well occur in conjunction with a bottom in US stock markets.

Once the lows are in we will release our predictions for oil for the next couple of years. We will also shortly update our “End of the Long Game 2009-2018” scenario.

The world’s awash in oil, but that’s not what’s driving crude toward $20 a barrel.

William Watts, deputy markets editor for Marketwatch writes:

The oil-in-the-$20s club just got a new member. But Morgan Stanley’s case for another leg lower has less to do with a global glut of crude than it does with a strengthening U.S. dollar.

In a Monday note by analysts including Adam Longson, head of energy commodity research, Morgan Stanley argues that traders have put too much of the blame for recent weakness in commodities, especially oil, on market fundamentals. Instead, they contend that the primary driver over the last several months has been a strengthening U.S. dollar.

Oil futures last week tumbled to their lowest levels in more than a decade, extending a selloff that has seen West Texas Intermediate crude CLG6, -2.23% the U.S. benchmark, and Brent LCOG6, -1.77% the global benchmark, drop by around 70% from their mid-2014 highs.

And with China likely to further devalue its yuan currency and the Federal Reserve in tightening mode, further dollar strength seems likely, the analysts said.

While oil markets are undoubtedly oversupplied, after a certain point, deteriorating fundamentals have little to do with the price action. “Oversupply may have pushed oil prices under $60, but the difference between $35 oil and $55 oil is primarily the USD (U.S. dollar), in our view,” they wrote.

That’s because there is “no intrinsic value” for crude oil in an oversupplied market, they argued:
The only guide posts are that the ceiling is set by producer hedging while the floor is set by investors and consumer appetite to buy. As a result, nonfundamental factors, such as the USD, were arguably more important price drivers in 2015. In fact, when we assess the [more than] 30% decline in oil since early November, much of it is attributable to the appreciation in the trade-weighted USD (not the DXY). With the oil market likely to remain oversupplied throughout 2016, we see no reason for this trading paradigm to change.

So given the prospect for further dollar appreciation, scenarios with oil in the $20 to $25 a barrel range are possible “simply due to currency”, they write.

They calculate that a 15% devaluation of the yuan would boost the trade-weighted dollar by 3.2%. In turn, that could send oil down by 6% to 15%, or $2 to $5 a barrel,” they said, which would leave crude in the high $20s. If other currencies move as well, the move could be even more pronounced, they said.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts on Monday also said oil prices could drop below $30 and offered the dollar as one reason. They lowered their 2016 forecast for the average price of the U.S. benchmark to $45 a barrel from $48, and cut their Brent call to $46 a barrel from $50.

Source: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/oil-could-fall-to-20-but-not-for-the-reason-you-think-2016-01-11

Oil Prices 2016

Yesterday crude oil prices fell briefly below their December 2008 Financial Crisis lows before recovering. Our target of US$12.00+/- a few dollars per barrel remains on track having made this prediction in 2011. We had predicted that oil would consolidate between US$40 – $75 per barrel which it did albeit briefly before resuming it’s slide.

So as we approach our long term target what can we expect from here?

Oil will bounce out of its lows near $12.00 per barrel sometime in 2016. It has the capacity to rally back towards the consolidation phase US$40-$70 per barrel. This bounce will coincide with a strong US dollar and a stronger US economy over the course of 2016-2017. We anticipate however this will not be the birth of a new oil bull market but the beginning of a sideways long term basing formation lasting many years before commencing a move towards US$100 per barrel.

Middle East Turning Net Borrowers?

By Martin Armstrong of Armstrong Economics:

SovTimeBomb

Further evidence that 2015.75 is really the peak in a Massive Debt Bubble: The Middle East has always been on a cash basis as their revenues from oil exempted them from ever borrowing money – that is not the case today.

As oil prices rose, spending programs also anticipated no end in sight. So as oil peaked and has begun a technology-shift bear market, those spending programs are causing budget deficits to appear in the Middle East for the first time. Not only has Saudi Arabia issued its first bond issue of $4 billion to cover budget deficits, other countries may follow in the region.

The May turning point has indeed been a profound turn on the long-term setting the stage for the reversal in the short-term come 2015.75. If you can comprehend how everything is connected, you can see these events coming. Since May, Saudi Arabia’s foreign assets have entered crash mode. In May, foreign asset holdings fell over $672 billion. Saudi Arabia sold assets drawing down its reserves to cover the budget deficit.

Source: http://www.armstrongeconomics.com/archives/34916

Six Game Changers in Six Years

In no set order:

  1. Solar costs are set to drop with new technologies and manufacturing techniques. This will  impact on the energy industry with relief of burden on coal, oil and gas sources of energy and their resultant impact on the environment. There will still be a need for electricity utilities but their role will be reduced.
  2. Online education is already making rapid inroads into traditional education processes .at university and school levels. For government this is extremely challenging as technology is rapidly ripping central control away and placing it firmly in the hands of the consumer. Education costs will decline and we will witness the old institutions crumble in the face of emerging competition and new delivery methods.
  3. Blockchain based technologies will make a huge impact on decentralizing and revolutionizing the way transactions in banking, finance and law happen. Not to mention computer programming, scientific research and communications. Blockchain technology came to public awareness with the emergence of Bitcoin. Its roots extend however from cryptography – the science of coding and decoding messages for the purposes of privacy.
  4. Climate change will not be a social or political issue in the minds of the public within 5 years. That’s not to say that change does not need to happen – a lot still needs to change to improve the quality of environment and human and planetary sustainability. Emerging technologies will help a lot and education of people in the way they treat their environment will result in significant environmental improvement even in the next 6 years.
  5. A digital healthcare revolution is commencing now where people will soon be able to monitor their own health and respond as needed. New technologies controlled from a smart phone will be able to monitor all major health aspects including ‘wet’ analysis of blood, heart, breath, urine and other sampling tests. If results warrant, your device will be able to recommend various responses including taking yourself to hospital if required or calling an ambulance in extreme cases. Once again competition and technology are making old modes of doing things irrelevant. Often these shifts are occurring where government has taken over an industry and underfunding and lack of adaption have made the industry inefficient and ineffective.
  6. The coming global depression lasting 8 to 13 years commencing anytime between now and 2018. The coming together of many factors including the level of indebtedness of liberal democratic countries, aging demographics, the inability of global economic growth to accelerate and the crushing level of regulation facing most societies. Cyclically we are also witnessing the peaking of a cycle that spans the massive growth of the west – the Industrial Revolution. As this cycle peaks after some 230 years of growth so we enter the down phase of the cycle in which contraction and liquidation of all the dead wood of that growth phase gets swept away. Thus the path is cleared allowing the birth of a new phase of human growth and development. These cycles occur at many different levels of human existence –  at the individual, societal, ethnic and nation state levels.

Financial Markets Updates

Updating and revising our financial markets forecasts (here and on our Financial Markets Predictions page):

US Stock Markets

As per our 3/23 update, US stocks peaked just 5 days later and has since entered a series of lower lows punctuated with short rallies. Its still to early to determine if a major top is in place but we wait and watch.

The downward move targets DJIA 17,721 (already achieved), 17460, 17,037 to potentially test the mid October lows at 15,855. (S&P500 2061 (already achieved), 2045, 1980 & the October lows at 1820).

Gold

It appears gold will bottom at or around the previous 11/07/15 low at US$1131 this coming week. If confirmed we can anticipate a resumption of the counter rally from the September 2011 highs at US$1920. Our target of US$1430-1440 remains in place.

US Dollar

The US dollar has rallied strongly in the last few months. The US$ may already peaked and begun a consolidation phase lasting many months. Specifically:

– US$/Yen: We are anticipating one more high to 124.50+/- before beginning a consolidation phase lasting months.

– Eur/USD: From here or slightly new lows (1.02-1.0495) we view the market has completed its move down and anticipate a major bounce. We anticipate a test of the 1.60 Eur/USD level.

– Aud/USD: anticipating marginal new lows below 0.7560 before a move back towards 0.9500.

Crude Oil

Oil is continuing its consolidation phase before resuming its down move to our US$12/barrel target we first determined in 2011. Short term we view the market making equal lows (US$43.58) to slightly new lows before rallying back to continue its consolidation phase. Our upside focus is US$68.00 with an extreme case push to US$75.54.

Interest rates

US interest rates have the potential to also spike sharply in the near future. Using futures as our proxy a move on 10 year notes to 110 -115 in 2015 is very doable.

The potential for some markets to rally (gold, silver, oil, Euro, Au$ (US$ weakening) suggests inflationary pressures emerging in 2015 in the US. This is in line with our money supply analysis and Austrian Business Cycle Theory. Alternatively, a crisis in the next 6 months may cause markets to spike in response to some international political event. Several scenarios are potential: a Greek default and/or Grexit in the summer months, Ukraine/Russia troubles and China.

Oil Price Predictions

In 2011 we forecast that crude oil prices would in the long term move towards US$12.00 per barrel. Oil prices just touched US$50.00 per barrel, well on our way towards our target.

Whilst oil has considerable potential for a counter rally we believe this rally will only relieve the oversold nature of the market.

Implications for the oil price collapse are profound with business and consumers benefiting from the lower prices. This may stimulate low consumer price inflation, strong stock markets and real estate prices as consumers take advantage of increased disposable income. Our Bull Market Argument outlines how this phase reflects the 1921 – 1929 period in US economic history, also known as the “Roaring 20’s”.

Debt based on high oil prices will suffer of course and could trigger banking issues. If perceived by markets as a negative phenomenon, the impact is highly deflationary and could pull the world into a global deflationary spiral and depression. This is in line with our Bear Market Argument.

We anticipate oil prices to consolidate between US$40.00 to US$80.00 for the rest of 2015 and potentially into 2016 before the long term downtrend carries prices down towards our target. (More specific consolidation targets to be posted later).

Ten Reasons Why a Severe Drop in Oil Prices is a Problem

Gail Tverberg blogs on ourfiniteworld.com

Not long ago, I wrote Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices are a Problem. If high oil prices can be a problem, how can low oil prices also be a problem? In particular, how can the steep drop in oil prices we have recently been experiencing also be a problem?

Let me explain some of the issues:

Issue 1. If the price of oil is too low, it will simply be left in the ground.

The world badly needs oil for many purposes: to power its cars, to plant it fields, to operate its oil-powered irrigation pumps, and to act as a raw material for making many kinds of products, including medicines and fabrics.

If the price of oil is too low, it will be left in the ground. With low oil prices, production may drop off rapidly. High price encourages more production and more substitutes; low price leads to a whole series of secondary effects (debt defaults resulting from deflation, job loss, collapse of oil exporters, loss of letters of credit needed for exports, bank failures) that indirectly lead to a much quicker decline in oil production.

The view is sometimes expressed that once 50% of oil is extracted, the amount of oil we can extract will gradually begin to decline, for geological reasons. This view is only true if high prices prevail, as we hit limits. If our problem is low oil prices because of debt problems or other issues, then the decline is likely to be far more rapid. With low oil prices, even what we consider to be proved oil reserves today may be left in the ground.

Issue 2. The drop in oil prices is already having an impact on shale extraction and offshore drilling.

While many claims have been made that US shale drilling can be profitable at low prices, actions speak louder than words. (The problem may be a cash flow problem rather than profitability, but either problem cuts off drilling.) Reuters indicates that new oil and gas well permits tumbled by 40% in November.

Offshore drilling is also being affected. Transocean, the owner of the biggest fleet of deep water drilling rigs, recently took a $2.76 billion charge, among a “drilling rig glut.”

3. Shale operations have a huge impact on US employment. 

Zero Hedge posted the following chart of employment growth, in states with and without current drilling from shale formations:

Jobs in States with and without Shale Formations, from Zero Hedge.

Figure 1. Jobs in States with and without Shale Formations, from Zero Hedge.

Clearly, the shale states are doing much better, job-wise. According to the article, since December 2007, shale states have added 1.36 million jobs, while non-shale states have lost 424,000 jobs. The growth in jobs includes all types of employment, including jobs only indirectly related to oil and gas production, such as jobs involved with the construction of a new supermarket to serve the growing population.

It might be noted that even the “Non-Shale” states have benefited to some extent from shale drilling. Some support jobs related to shale extraction, such as extraction of sand used in fracking, college courses to educate new engineers, and manufacturing of parts for drilling equipment, are in states other than those with shale formations. Also, all states benefit from the lower oil imports required.

Issue 4. Low oil prices tend to cause debt defaults that have wide ranging consequences. If defaults become widespread, they could affect bank deposits and international trade.

With low oil prices, it becomes much more difficult for shale drillers to pay back the loans they have taken out. Cash flow is much lower, and interest rates on new loans are likely much higher. The huge amount of debt that shale drillers have taken on suddenly becomes at-risk. Energy debt currently accounts for 16% of the US junk bond market, so the amount at risk is substantial.

Dropping oil prices affect international debt as well. The value of Venezuelan bonds recently fell to 51 cents on the dollar, because of the high default risk with low oil prices.  Russia’s Rosneft is also reported to be having difficulty with its loans.

There are many ways banks might be adversely affected by defaults, including

  • Directly by defaults on loans held be a bank
  • Indirectly, by defaults on securities the bank owns that relate to loans elsewhere
  • By derivative defaults made more likely by sharp changes in interest rates or in currency levels
  • By liquidity problems, relating to the need to quickly sell or buy securities related to ETFs

After the many bank bailouts in 2008, there has been discussion of changing the system so that there is no longer a need to bail out “too big to fail” banks. One proposal that has been discussed is to force bank depositors and pension funds to cover part of the losses, using Cyprus-style bail-ins. According to some reports, such an approach has been approved by the G20 at a meeting the weekend of November 16, 2014. If this is true, our bank accounts and pension plans could already be at risk.1

Another bank-related issue if debt defaults become widespread, is the possibility that junk bonds and Letters of Credit2 will become outrageously expensive for companies that have poor credit ratings. Supply chains often include some businesses with poor credit ratings. Thus, even businesses with good credit ratings may find their supply chains broken by companies that can no longer afford high-priced credit. This was one of the issues in the 2008 credit crisis.

Issue 5. Low oil prices can lead to collapses of oil exporters, and loss of virtually all of the oil they export.

The collapse of the Former Soviet Union in 1991 seems to be related to a drop in oil prices.

Figure 2. Oil production and price of the Former Soviet Union, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

Figure 2. Oil production and price of the Former Soviet Union, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

Oil prices dropped dramatically in the 1980s after the issues that gave rise to the earlier spike were mitigated. The Soviet Union was dependent on oil for its export revenue. With low oil prices, its ability to invest in new production was impaired, and its export revenue dried up. The Soviet Union collapsed for a number of reasons, some of them financial, in late 1991, after several years of low oil prices had had a chance to affect its economy.

Many oil-exporting countries are at risk of collapse if oil prices stay very low very long. Venezuela is a clear risk, with its big debt problem. Nigeria’s economy is reported to be “tanking.” Russia even has a possibility of collapse, although probably not in the near future.

Even apart from collapse, there is the possibility of increased unrest in the Middle East, as oil-exporting nations find it necessary to cut back on their food and oil subsidies. There is also more possibility of warfare among groups, including new groups such as ISIL. When everyone is prosperous, there is little reason to fight, but when oil-related funds dry up, fighting among neighbors increases, as does unrest among those with lower subsidies.

Issue 6. The benefits to consumers of a drop in oil prices are likely to be much smaller than the adverse impact on consumers of an oil price rise. 

When oil prices rose, businesses were quick to add fuel surcharges. They are less quick to offer fuel rebates when oil prices go down. They will try to keep the benefit of the oil price drop for themselves for as long as possible.

Airlines seem to be more interested in adding flights than reducing ticket prices in response to lower oil prices, perhaps because additional planes are already available. Their intent is to increase profits, through an increase in ticket sales, not to give consumers the benefit of lower prices.

In some cases, governments will take advantage of the lower oil prices to increase their revenue. China recently raised its oil products consumption tax, so that the government gets part of the benefit of lower prices. Malaysia is using the low oil prices as a time to reduce oil subsidies.

Most businesses recognize that the oil price drop is at most a temporary situation, since the cost of extraction continues to rise (because we are getting oil from more difficult-to-extract locations). Because the price drop this is only temporary, few business people are saying to themselves, “Wow, oil is cheap again! I am going to invest a huge amount of money in a new road building company [or other business that depends on cheap oil].” Instead, they are cautious, making changes that require little capital investment and that can easily be reversed. While there may be some jobs added, those added will tend to be ones that can easily be dropped if oil prices rise again.

Issue 7. Hoped for crude and LNG sales abroad are likely to disappear, with low oil prices.

There has been a great deal of publicity about the desire of US oil and gas producers to sell both crude oil and LNG abroad, so as to be able to take advantage of higher oil and gas prices outside the US. With a big drop in oil prices, these hopes are likely to be dashed. Already, we are seeing the story, Asia stops buying US crude oil. According to this story, “There’s so much oversupply that Middle East crudes are now trading at discounts and it is not economical to bring over crudes from the US anymore.”

LNG prices tend to drop if oil prices drop. (Some LNG prices are linked to oil prices, but even those that are not directly linked are likely to be affected by the lower demand for energy products.) At these lower prices, the financial incentive to export LNG becomes much less. Even fluctuating LNG prices become a problem for those considering investment in infrastructure such as ships to transport LNG.

Issue 8. Hoped-for increases in renewables will become more difficult, if oil prices are low.

Many people believe that renewables can eventually take over the role of fossil fuels. (I am not of view that this is possible.) For those with this view, low oil prices are a problem, because they discourage the hoped-for transition to renewables.

Despite all of the statements made about renewables, they don’t really substitute for oil. Biofuels come closest, but they are simply oil-extenders. We add ethanol made from corn to gasoline to extend its quantity. But it still takes oil to operate the farm equipment to grow the corn, and oil to transport the corn to the ethanol plant. If oil isn’t around, the biofuel production system comes to a screeching halt.

Issue 9. A major drop in oil prices tends to lead to deflation, and because of this, difficulty in repaying debts.

If oil prices rise, so do food prices, and the price of making most goods. Thus rising oil prices contribute to inflation. The reverse of this is true as well. Falling oil prices tend to lead to a lower price for growing food and a lower price for making most goods. The net result can be deflation. Not all countries are affected equally; some experience this result to a greater extent than others.

Those countries experiencing deflation are likely to eventually have problems with debt defaults, because it will become more difficult for workers to repay loans, if wages are drifting downward. These same countries are likely to experience an outflow of investment funds because investors realize that funds invested these countries will not earn an adequate return. This outflow of funds will tend to push their currencies down, relative to other currencies. This is at least part of what has been happening in recent months.

The value of the dollar has been rising rapidly, relative to many other currencies. Debt repayment is likely to especially be a problem for those countries where substantial debt is denominated in US dollars, but whose local currency has recently fallen in value relative to the US dollar.

Figure 3. US Dollar Index from Intercontinental Exchange

Figure 3. US Dollar Index from Intercontinental Exchange

The big increase in the US dollar index came since June 2014 (Figure 3), which coincides with the drop in oil prices. Those countries with low currency prices, including Japan, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa, find it expensive to import goods of all kinds, including those made with oil products. This is part of what reduces demand for oil products.

China’s yuan is relatively closely tied to the dollar. The collapse of other currencies relative to the US dollar makes Chinese exports more expensive, and is part of the reason why the Chinese economy has been doing less well recently. There are no doubt other reasons why China’s growth is lower recently, and thus its growth in debt. China is now trying to lower the level of its currency.

Issue 10. The drop in oil prices seems to reflect a basic underlying problem: the world is reaching the limits of its debt expansion.

There is a natural limit to the amount of debt that a government, or business, or individual can borrow. At some point, interest payments become so high, that it becomes difficult to cover other needed expenses. The obvious way around this problem is to lower interest rates to practically zero, through Quantitative Easing (QE) and other techniques.

(Increasing debt is a big part of pumps up “demand” for oil, and because of this, oil prices. If this is confusing, think of buying a car. It is much easier to buy a car with a loan than without one. So adding debt allows goods to be more affordable. Reducing debt levels has the opposite effect.)

QE doesn’t work as a long-term technique, because it tends to create bubbles in asset prices, such as stock market prices and prices of farmland. It also tends to encourage investment in enterprises that have questionable chance of success. Arguably, investment in shale oil and gas operations are in this category.

As it turns out, it looks very much as if the presence or absence of QE may have an impact on oil prices as well (Figure 4), providing the “uplift” needed to keep oil prices high enough to cover production costs.

Figure 4. World

Figure 4. World “liquids production” (that is oil and oil substitutes) based on EIA data, plus OPEC estimates and judgment of author for August to October 2014. Oil price is monthly average Brent oil spot price, based on EIA data.

The sharp drop in price in 2008 was credit-related, and was only solved when the US initiated its program of QE started in late November 2008. Oil prices began to rise in December 2008. The US has had three periods of QE, with the last of these, QE3, finally tapering down and ending in October 2014. Since QE seems to have been part of the solution that stopped the drop in oil prices in 2008, we should not be surprised if discontinuing QE is contributing to the drop in oil prices now.

Part of the problem seems to be differential effect that happens when other countries are continuing to use QE, but the US not. The US dollar tends to rise, relative to other currencies. This situation contributes to the situation shown in Figure 3.

QE allows more borrowing from the future than would be possible if market interest rates really had to be paid. This allows financiers to temporarily disguise a growing problem of un-affordability of oil and other commodities.

The problem we have is that, because we live in a finite world, we reach a point where it becomes more expensive to produce commodities of many kinds: oil (deeper wells, fracking), coal (farther from markets, so more transport costs), metals (poorer ore quality), fresh water (desalination needed), and food (more irrigation needed). Wages don’t rise correspondingly, because more and more labor is needed to provide less and less actual benefit, in terms of the commodities produced and goods made from those commodities. Thus, workers find themselves becoming poorer and poorer, in terms of what they can afford to purchase.

QE allows financiers to disguise growing mismatch between what it costs to produce commodities, and what customers can really afford. Thus, QE allows commodity prices to rise to levels that are unaffordable by customers, unless customers’ lack of income is disguised by a continued growth in debt.

Once commodity prices (including oil prices) fall to levels that are affordable based on the incomes of customers, they fall to levels that cut out a large share of production of these commodities. As commodity production drops to levels that can be produced at affordable prices, so does the world’s ability to make goods and services. Unfortunately, the goods whose production is likely to be cut back if commodity production is cut back are those of every kind, including houses, cars, food, and electrical transmission equipment.

 Conclusion

There are really two different problems that a person can be concerned about:

  1. Peak oil: the possibility that oil prices will rise, and because of this production will fall in a rounded curve. Substitutes that are possible because of high prices will perhaps take over.
  2. Debt related collapse: oil limits will play out in a very different way than most have imagined, through lower oil prices as limits to growth in debt are reached, and thus a collapse in oil “demand” (really affordability). The collapse in production, when it comes, will be sharper and will affect the entire economy, not just oil.

In my view, a rapid drop in oil prices is likely a symptom that we are approaching a debt-related collapse–in other words, the second of these two problems. Underlying this debt-related collapse is the fact that we seem to be reaching the limits of a finite world. There is a growing mismatch between what workers in oil importing countries can afford, and the rising real costs of extraction, including associated governmental costs. This has been covered up to date by rising debt, but at some point, it will not be possible to keep increasing the debt sufficiently.

The timing of collapse may not be immediate. Low oil prices take a while to work their way through the system. It is also possible that the world’s financiers will put off a major collapse for a while longer, through more QE, or more programs related to QE. For example, actually getting money into the hands of customers would seem to be temporarily helpful.

At some point the debt situation will eventually reach a breaking point. One way this could happen is through an increase in interest rates. If this happens, world economic growth is likely to slow greatly. Oil and commodity prices will fall further. Debt defaults will skyrocket. Not only will oil production drop, but production of many other commodities will drop, including natural gas and coal. In such a scenario, the downslope of all energy use is likely to be quite steep, perhaps similar to what is shown in the following chart.

Figure 5. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

Figure 5. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.