Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Milestone In The Dust

Earlier this month, according to several peak oil bloggers, the world passed a milestone worth noting: the point at which oil, in constant dollars, became more expensive than ever before in history. Plenty of us in the peak oil community have been expecting that milestone any time now, and the surge that pushed one widely watched price marker past $112 a barrel last week turned the expectation into reality.

Profit-taking and a flurry of margin calls driven by the wider economic crisis brought oil prices back down at the beginning of this week, at least for the moment. Meanwhile, though, the higher cost of oil is already starting to trickle down to the consumer level. Diesel fuel is up over $4 a gallon in many US markets, while gasoline, heating oil, and other petroleum products are following the same curve. Speculation, in several senses of the word, has begun to focus on the upcoming summer driving season and the likelihood of soaring prices at the pump.

Just now, however, it may be worth taking the long view. When Goldman Sachs suggested, not so long ago, that oil prices might rise above $110 a barrel, their analysts thought that it would take a crisis threatening some significant fraction of world oil production to drive such a “superspike.” (That warning was widely and, I think, correctly interpreted as an attempt by New York financial interests to talk the cowboys in Washington D.C. out of launching a war with Iran.) The crisis has so far failed to materialize, but the superspike showed up anyway.

Like any other economic phenomenon in the real world, that unexpected event had numerous causes. One factor not often given sufficient weight, at least in the peak oil community, is the role of speculation. The global economy these days is dominated by flows of speculative money that pour into any investment promising an above average rate of return. Just now, commodities – fossil fuels, grains, metals, and the like – yield better returns than most other investments, and so that’s where the money goes.

Monday’s events demonstrated that. The drastic declines in most stock markets that day resulted in a bumper crop of margin calls. For those of my readers who don’t follow the markets, a margin call is what happens when investments bought with borrowed money lose enough value that the lender demands more collateral for the loan. Since few speculators keep large amounts of ready cash on hand, that usually means that other investments have to be turned into cash in a hurry; this is one of the ways financial panics spread from market to market.

Hit with margin calls in the stock market, speculators unwound positions in the commodities market, and most commodities dropped sharply in Monday’s trading. Oil slumped from $111 to $106 in a matter of hours. They rallied after that, but today’s ticker shows another dive, with oil futures down near $104 a barrel as I write these words. With stock markets sliding again, further declines are tolerably likely. None of this ought to come as any kind of surprise; the role of speculation as a source of whipsaw motions in energy prices has been discussed here on The Archdruid Report, and elsewhere across the peak oil blogosphere.

Still, speculation is only one part of the picture. Another part, hard to miss just now, is the plunging value of the dollar. Since oil, like most commodities, is priced in US dollars – a circumstance that has given the United States some notable advantages – a portion of the price increases that have roiled commodities markets and startled American consumers in recent months are simply readjustments by which commodities retain their value against the measure of a weakening currency.

There are good reasons for the dollar to shed value just now, of course, but I sometimes wonder if deliberate policy may play a role as well. After a quarter century of reckless deficit spending, the United States is insolvent by any reasonable measure, saddled with debts it will never be able to pay off. Unlike other countries that have recently landed in the same bind, though, it has a notable advantage – all those debts are payable in a currency it controls. The other day, US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson made the usual ritual noises about upholding a strong dollar policy, but I suspect it has crossed his mind that the national debt would be a good deal less intimidating if the dollar were to slide to 5% of its current value over the next ten years or so. It’s hard to think of another policy, in fact, that will keep the United States from having to default on its sovereign debt sooner or later.

Whether or not this is on the official agenda, though, some such readjustment is inevitable. The imperial economics that enabled the five percent of the world’s population who are Americans to monopolize a third of the world’s resources have begun to unravel, with predictable results. Pundits who denounce “resource nationalism” and laud the alleged benefits of free trade have conveniently forgotten that America built the largest industrial economy in the world in the shelter of protective tariffs, and used its own natural resources as a political weapon whenever it had the chance – for example, against Japan in the years before the Second World War. We may not enjoy seeing the tables turned, but it’s not as though we have grounds for complaint.

Behind the wild swings of speculative excess and the tidal forces set in motion by a collapsing US dollar, in turn, lies a third factor – from a peak oil perspective, the signal half-hidden by a great deal of economic noise. This is the failure of world petroleum production to break out of the plateau it has occupied since 2004. Those who have been following the peak oil scene for more than a year or so will recall any number of confident predictions concerning improved secondary recovery, new discoveries, or alternative fuels, that would enable oil production to continue on its upward path once prices rose enough to make them economical.

That hasn’t happened. Instead, world oil production has continued to bump along at roughly the same level, while prices have soared through the skylight. The latest news from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that with ethanol, biodiesel, and every other source of liquid fuels added in, world production of petroleum and equivalents nudged just slightly over the records set in 2006, while production of conventional petroleum continues to wobble downward from its May 2005 peak. Demand remains strong and prices have soared, but supply has barely budged – and plenty of technologies and energy sources supposedly poised to surge onto the market once oil broke $30, or $40, or $50 a barrel are still pie in the sky.

What this implies is that for all practical purposes, peak oil has arrived. Pinpointing the peak precisely in time quickly becomes an exercise in quibbling over definitions; petroleum is not a single thing but a diverse assemblage of chemically related resources, extracted in many ways and traded in a baroque diversity of markets. Should tar sand extractives, which require huge energy inputs to bring to market, be counted alongside light sweet crude, which requires little? What about ethanol from American corn, cultivated by energy-intensive methods that burn more fuel than the corn itself yields? Should the ethanol and the oil used to produce it both be included in total production, even though this amounts to counting the same energy twice?

Still, there’s another way to think about peak oil that’s less difficult to define: the point along the curve of petroleum production at which geology trumps market forces, and all the price adjustments in the world can’t make supply increase to meet the potential demand. Set aside the whipsaw motions of speculative excess and the impact of a disintegrating currency, and this is what the rising price of petroleum seems to be telling us. Unless events in the very near future offer a different message, it’s fair to suggest that the milestone of record oil prices fading into the dust behind us may mark the end of the age of cheap abundant energy, and the coming of a new world of limits and scarcities for which most of us are hopelessly unprepared.

24 comments:

upendra said...

Do you really mean 5% of loss?
I don't see 5% as plunging value.

>> if the dollar were to slide to 5% of its current value over the next ten years or so

John Michael Greer said...

I wondered how many people would miss that. No, I'm talking 95% loss -- that's what 5% of current value works out to: your dollar bills worth five cents each.

upendra said...

My bad blurred eyes missed the one word "to".

If you put it as "95% loss" it sounds implausible compared to saying 5% of value. Thanks

feonixrift said...

Rather like they've become over the last century or so, only considerably faster.

Danby said...

The problem with inflation as a monetary policy is that, like the tiger held by the tail, it is very difficult to control.

The value of a fiat currency (like the Dollar or the Euro) is dependent more on psychology than on monetary policy. Since it has no hard value of it's own, the value of the dollar depends on what people think it's worth. Once Americans' confidence in the value of the dollar is broken, how do we rebuild it? The only way to do that is by restricting the creation of dollars by the banking system. That can be done, but only at enormous political cost. Once currency traders in foreign markets lose confidence in the dollar, how can it be recaptured? It can't, except by a policy of fiscal restraint, and encouraging the public to save. Does anyone else remember the whole "defeat the terrorists by shopping" campaign of 2001/2002? Since our economy has become dependent on spending borrowed money, what would be the economic impact?

Will "not worth a greenback" enter the American lexicon alongside the now forgotten "not worth a continental"?

In the end though, the particular perturbations of the commodities markets even out. It's the decisions people make based on those perturbations that have a lasting impact. Right now, farmers in Oregon's Willamette valley are planting soft white spring wheat to replace production of grass seed. Why?, wheat is over $10/bushel, 4 times it's normal price over the last 10 years. I think it's a good thing, and illustrates the point I keep reiterating, people will respond to changes in their circumstances by adapting their behavior.

FARfetched said...

The phrase "peak oil" has been interpreted in several ways. The actual definition is a peak in production (followed by a slide down the bell curve). I've also seen mis-descriptions, such as the point where demand overtakes available supply — which, IMO, is the *real* problem; if your post-peak demand drops faster than the post-peak supply, what's the problem? A third one is simply "record oil prices," which is a third-order result of steady or declining supply & rising demand.

Upendra, if it makes you feel any better, I also misread the "5%" comment and interpreted it as "sliding 5% per year over the next ten years or so)," which would be a 50% plunge (give or take compounding).

Panidaho said...

It occurred to me this week, as I've been watching the DOW seesaw all over the place (but still on a most definite downward trend, nonetheless) that this must be a little bit like what the catabolic collapse you've been predicting would look like. Down today, back up a bit tomorrow - not all the way back up, just enough to make some folks think the worst is over - then down some more again. People scrambling to adjust before the next free-fall occurs. Everything that was considered a given being turned on its head - shortages, closed businesses, jobs lost, homes lost. But not lost all at once - lost by increments as things slide inexorably downhill.

If nothing else, watching this all unfold has certainly helped me learn to stop thinking so "linearly" about complex systems.

Iconoclast421 said...

I dont think you can look at total liquids. Got to look at crude oil only. If we go by total liquids, then you have to account for feedback. Take this scenario for example. Lets say you take 1000 barrels of crude oil, use it to power the machines to dig up a million tons of coal, and then take that coal and produce 1000 barrels of synthoil with it. You now have 2000 barrels of total liquids produced, even though obviously a net 2000 barrels wasnt actually produced. That sort of thing is happening with a large portion of ethanol and biofuels. Not to mention the cost of bringing new fields online, in terms of barrels of oil. If it were possible to make a truly accurate chart of NET oil production, I believe it would show a peak at 2004, and it would also show us currently about 10-15% past peak right now. Which is why the economy is unraveling. Just because we cant see the real peak, doesnt mean its not there. We're going to feel the effects of it, whether we can do all the math or not.

John Michael Greer said...

Upendra, I probably should have phrased it more clearly!

Feonix, er, I have no clear notion what the "they" you're talking about might be.

Danby, granted, it's always a challenge to rein in inflation. If a government chooses hyperinflation as an monetary policy, though, they can always replace the currency once it's become worthless -- rather the way Reichsmarks were replaced by Rentenmarks, and then by new Reichsmarks, after Germany hyperinflated its war debt out of existence.

Farfetched, granted, peak production is the technical definition of peak oil. I'm interested in the point where it starts to hit home.

Teresa, you get today's gold star. This is exactly what catabolic collapse looks like -- quite probably, I'd guess, because we're in the early stages of catabolic collapse right now.

Iconoclast, no argument there. I think they ought to subtract the BOE (barrels of oil equivalent) of all that natural gas being burned to produce Alberta tar sands from the total production before incorporating it in total oil production.

Kris said...

I think what Feonixrift meant by "they" is "dollars." I remember seeing an old Sears catalogue from early 20th C with an entire house for sale (materials and plans, I guess) for around $5,000. The house was a standard large two-story with the wrap-around porch. That means each 2008 "dollar" is worth even less (on average, depending on location)than a 1908 nickel now. Is that what you are getting at? How about a "buck"? Could you buy a deerskin for a dollar now? It is reminiscent of the "Red Queen hypothesis" (from Alice in Wonderland) in biology, that in order to "stay in the same place" you have to keep running faster and faster.

yooper said...

Hello John! Gee, is there no end to this catabolic collapse? I was thinking in terms of months, seasons, years and not day to day occurances. It simply never occured to me, that this is happening, mini cycles gauged in days and weeks, that make up the larger cycle.

Without a doubt the market reflects this process, down, down and then before the end of the day the plunge protection team comes to the rescue, time and again. You bet, I'm still struggling to put linear models behind me.

What troubles me,(perhaps, not viewing from a better angle), is history is almost repeating itself. The situation is unfolding much like Japan in the early 90's. Damned if we do, damned if we don't. We cannot "produce" our way out of this. This country is like a cornered animal, ready to lash out, much like Germany of years past.

Btw, great article and I knew exactly what you meant by the 5%, however I think came across this thought before.

Thanks, yooper

Panidaho said...

Danby said:

The value of a fiat currency (like the Dollar or the Euro) is dependent more on psychology than on monetary policy. Since it has no hard value of it's own, the value of the dollar depends on what people think it's worth.

Exactly. That's a part of what makes the whole thing so unstable. People change their minds all the time, and often not for logical reasons.

I like to say that the economy we have now (and especially the stock market, which has become our defacto measure of "economic health" lately...) is really based on "rainbows" (feelings) and "chicken guts" (wild @ss guesses.)

Personally, I think we've likely "Peter Principled" ourselves into a fine mess. We've created a monster of an economy so complex that hardly anyone even really knows how it all works. We've effectively risen to our own level of economic incompetence.

Panidaho said...

JMG said:

"Teresa, you get today's gold star. This is exactly what catabolic collapse looks like -- quite probably, I'd guess, because we're in the early stages of catabolic collapse right now."

Thanks for the star!

Well, on one hand that sort of slow collapse would be a good thing - it would give folks longer to adjust to what is going to be a HUGE change in lifestyle.

But on the other hand, wow - talk about slow agony! I certainly don't *want* the stock market and our economy to collapse, but sometimes I already have the insane urge to scream "JUST DO IT AND GET IT OVER WITH, WILL YA?" these days when reading the news.

FARfetched said...

JMG, I think we're in agreement on this one — like I said, the important point is where demand passes supply. If we're not there now, we're dang close.

Danby, everything you said about "fiat" currency can be said about any other kind — money is basically whatever people say it is, and is worth whatever people agree it's worth. In various times & cultures, money has taken the form of: cattle, salt (Latin: salarium, from which comes the word "salary"), shiny metal, pretty pieces of paper, big round stone disks with a hole in the middle, and (in continental America) nails. The city of Ithaca, NY accepts scrip backed by labor; IMO this is one of the more logical economic ideas I've seen. (Most of us work for money, why shouldn't our work *define* money?)

marielar said...

While there is some speculations in the value of a currency, there is also some dose of reality at work. At some point, good financial management make a difference, but assets also make a significant contribution to the confidence people have. Its not all psychological and behavioral. The US has dilapidated lots of its natural ressource without a thought to replace them and dismantled a fair portion of its industrial complex, with corporations shipping their manufactures in the third world countries. The leftover is mostly devoted to build war paraphinelia. What does it have of real value as collateral? You dont build an economy solely on fast food outlets and McMansions in the suburbs. The military industrial complex is so important because it is

Farfetched wrote:
I've also seen mis-descriptions, such as the point where demand overtakes available supply — which, IMO, is the *real* problem; if your post-peak demand drops faster than the post-peak supply, what's the problem?

The demand is one only half of the real problem. The other is that most of the capital has been invested in large infrastructures which works on fossil fuels (even a large part of the electricity produced in the States depend on natural gas and coal). What does it worth without energy supply? Suddenly you realize you have invested your future in a pile of junk which lost all its value. Why do people stick to their old rusted gas guzzler? Usually because it does not have resale value and they cant afford to buy a new one.

The US has been developped on a very crappy blue print, with centralization of energy and production in big factories and dispersion of the population far from services and production centres. Centralized energy production depends on expensive distribution infrastructure. Just take a peek at the pipeline system which pumps oil and gas from Alberta to Canada, or the electric grid from Northern Quebec to North Eastern US. Those came with a big price tag and huge environmental impacts. This means that if energy production plummets, a fair chunck of the US assets will worth close to nothing.

What will be left for people to trade? Who will want your SUV or your 3000 squares house in the suburb? Or your trinkets factory?
The country is just like a big ship. Yes, you can change direction, but only if you have anticipated in time. It has a big momentum and wont turn on a dime. People will hold to their old way of life because so much has been invested in it. Changing means loosing most everything. What skills or assets does a suburban electric toothbrush salesman have to cope with the changing time? Hopefully he does have a productive hobby such as woodworking.

We tend to focus on suburbs as a major problem. But centralization has created its own set of issues. One being its resultant unequalled distribution of richness and services. Big money was put into infrastructures which serve cities and suburbs while lots of country and small town folks still live in place where there is not even a decent health clinic. Where will the capital to build scale appropriate infrastructures be found?

Dwig said...

Here's an interesting quote from Thomas Homer-Dixon (the "Upside of Down" guy) via Mish Shedlock's Global Economic Trend Analysis":

The rules of the game have now changed. Our global financial system has become so complex and opaque that we've moved from a world of risk to a world of uncertainty. In a world of risk, we can judge dangers and opportunities by using the best evidence at hand to estimate the probability of a particular outcome. But in a world of uncertainty, we can't estimate probabilities, because we don't have any clear basis for making such a judgment. In fact, we might not even know what the possible outcomes are. Surprises keep coming out of the blue, because we're fundamentally ignorant of our own ignorance. We're surrounded by unknown unknowns.

Commentators and policy-makers are still talking in terms of risk. Markets, they say, need to reassess and reassign risk across securities and companies. But, in reality, markets are now operating under uncertainty. No one really knows where the boundaries of the problem lie, what surprises are in store, or what measures will be adequate to stop the bleeding. And the U.S. Fed is making policy on the fly.

We do know, however, that we're not dealing with a liquidity problem. We face a massive solvency problem: Banks and investment firms aren't so much worried about financing their next investment; instead, they fear for their survival, because core assets - particularly loans on their books - have been suddenly and dramatically devalued. In this environment, the tools available to central bankers may not work. You can encourage people to borrow by pumping money into the economy, but you can't force people to lend.


Shedlock's comment: Without lending there is no economic expansion and there is no job creation. And while there may be world of uncertainty about what debt instruments are worth, there is still this certainty: The great unwind is in progress, it is nowhere near complete, and the entire process is going to be both long and painful.

Think about that for a while; what would an economy look like that didn't depend on lending? We'll probably find out ...

Bill Pulliam said...

"The value of a fiat currency (like the Dollar or the Euro) is dependent more on psychology than on monetary policy."

Actually this is true of any currency, not just fiat money; you might even say it is the very definition of currency. All currency is a representation of subjectively assigned "value" in arbitrary units. The value of gold is no less arbitrary or psychological than that of a paper dollar or electronic euro. The practical values of gold are small compared to its monetary value. It's not edible or medicinal, and its structural uses are highly specialized and limited to a few specific applications. It is valued because it is valued, essentially. Just like the greenback.

jenab6 said...

I seem to remember that the UN had a computer model of the world's economy (World3) that predicted a collapse of industrial civilization and a massive human dieoff from resource depletion. Have there been any updates to World3, any refinements that were done for the sake of improving the accuracy of prediction? I'd like to see the results of a World4 or World5 reference run, if such exist.

yooper said...

Hello John! Over the weekend, I found myself once again going back to your,"How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse". For me, this has been an extremely hard concept to comprehend. It seems, I'm only getting parts of it at a time and looking for examples such as http://www.energybulletin.net/16649.html. Putting all this together and making something of it, for me has been and is a daunting task. This is not an easy concept to master, to say the least.

However, everytime I go back and reread this(I've read it no less than 25 times), I'm coming away with a better understanding of what you're trying to allude to.

Could it be your, "A Milestone In The Dust" article, be actually refering to a time when our society cannot further the maintenanace factor of this model?

Thanks, yooper

Panidaho said...

I know Farfetched and Marielar are right about the "rainbow" aspect being an intrinsic part of nearly all monetary systems. I'm not saying I have anything better in mind to replace ours with - and I sure don't want to go back to lugging cows around! - but I think that when the time comes that our currency collapses (and I firmly believe it will at some point) it would be nice if what replaces it is something that the average person can understand. If not, we're just opening ourselves up to another round of mass manipulation by the large contingent of folks who want to "work the system" so they can increase their wealth at other people's expense - ie, without commensurate increases in their own productivity or solid assets. IMO, what we have going right now isn't just the normal level of hallucination common to all currencies, fiat or otherwise - it's insanity. It's tulip-mania, it's our modern day "Mississipi Scheme."

I suppose one could make the case, however, that the economy the developed world has grown over the past few decades is a perfect reflection of our philosophy of living - and what provides us the means, if not the intrinsic motivation, for living in overshoot at the expense of others.

John Michael Greer said...

Just got back from a speaking gig to find the usual lively discussion, to which I have very little to add! Two comments, though...

Jenab, it wasn't the United Nations who ran the World3 simulations, it was a team from MIT sponsored by the Club of Rome; you can find their results in the book The Limits To Growth and its two sequels, Beyond the Limits and Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. The original book is less political, and less obsessed with massaging the data to find some way to avoid collapse, than the sequels, but they're all worth reading.

Yooper, bingo. My best guess is that, in terms of the jargon from the article, we're entering a phase in which maintenance costs can no longer be met, and so a large amount of social capital of all kinds will be converted into waste. Welcome to catabolic collapse.

Panidaho said...

Dwig said:
Think about that for a while; what would an economy look like that didn't depend on lending? We'll probably find out ...

I've been wondering along those lines lately, myself. It all started with questioning why we feel we always have to have growth? Is it tied to our rapidly growing population? What's so great about growth, anyway?

The only thoughts I have come up with on this is that growth has become an addiction for our species, because otherwise we have to face our limitations. We have to either voluntarily reign in our procreative activities or watch our children die because we cannot support them. People in general are not psychologically/evolutionarily wired to voluntarily restrict the number of children they have - and indeed, some cultures and religions consider doing so to be taboo no matter what methods are used. So the option chosen by our species is continued growth to support the ever increased population needed by our continued growth! It's a self-perpetuating cycle that on a finite planet can only eventually lead to a crash. But a crash is unthinkable, so we - just don't think about it. We just keep growing and using now the resources that could and should be saved for future generations - and out competing any other species that gets in the way.

But, back to lending. Lending is basically a way to borrow from the future to pay for having more today. It works only if we can "grow" our way out of having to fully pay back the debt - which is why I think growth must continue if lending/borrowing as a lifestyle is to continue. So the end of lending would likely mean the end of much of the growth we've come to expect, and the reintroduction of the problem stated above - that is, if we don't stop growing our population. What is more likely is that people will continue to have more children than their countries/economies/natural resources can support and an increase in resource wars will be the end result. If that happens, then of course people will die anyway, but not before some have tried to avoid the real issue (population overshoot) by doing their level best to out-compete their neighbors to death.

Anyway, just some thoughts from someone who probably doesn't know enough about any of this to be justified in running her mouth (fingers) on the subject. ;-)

Panidaho said...

Dwig said:
Think about that for a while; what would an economy look like that didn't depend on lending? We'll probably find out ...

Oh, one last thought from the peanut gallery - continual growth and extravagant lending are also probably necessary for some folks to pursue their goals of accumulating way more than they need to live comfortably. So if we stop most lending and that seriously cuts back on growth, I think there will be a food chain reaction rippling through the wealthy stratas of society that will mimic the resource wars that I see increasing at global levels. I think there will always be a section of the population that has the drive to acquire much more than everyone else around them, but the members of that group, during a crash, will also be doing their level best to out-compete each other to death.

Dwig said...

I've been slowly browsing the literature on alternative and community currencies. I don't have much to say as of yet, but here's a few observations:

- There's several lively dialogues going on across the net concerning them.

- They tend to arise, almost spontaneously, when the "official" currency begins to fail the need of local groups, e.g., in Austria during the 1920s and in Argentina after the IMF-provoked economic crash.

- They tend not to last, once a stable official currency returns. I'm not sure whether Ithaca is a counterexample; if so, it might well be due to the force of Paul Glover's personality.

- We're likely to see them arise again during the present decline; they might have the advantage this time of a lot of knowledge and prior experience readily available.

If anyone's strongly motivated to pursue this area, let me know. I can probably dig up a good handful of references to get you started.