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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

Is the world economy suffering from 'high-priced fuel syndrome'?

The major issue for many countries is that oil is becoming too expensive for the economy to afford, Tverberg writes.

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A major reason for Quantitative Easing (besides the stated business reasons for decreasing interest rates) seems to be lowering the amount of interest payments that the government itself would need to pay. This would help reduce the big gap between governmental outgo and income (Figure 4, above).

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Gail Tverberg, an actuary with a background in math, analyzes energy and financial matters from a perspective that the world has limited resources. For more of Gail's posts, click here.

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A second reason for Quantitative Easing is that it was a way of enabling the huge amount of deficit spending taking place. Without Quantitative Easing, the government would have had to go, “hat in hand”, to the world market, asking for additional loans. There might be a possibility of not all of the loans being sold, or of higher interest rates being required. By buying back a large share of the US’s own debt, it was able to make certain that interest rates would stay low, and that there would be an adequate market for the debt.

Impacts of Government Cover-up

One problem with artificially low interest rates is that the interest rates, in effect, steal from one segment of society, and use it to subsidize a different segment of the economy. The segment of the economy that is “stolen from” consists of pension plans, and people who would otherwise be saving their money, perhaps for retirement, and would benefit from interest income. Part of the reason that pension plans are having so much difficulty with funding now is because of artificially low interest rates. Pensions plans will need to be bailed out, or contributions will need to be much higher, if the system continues with artificially low interest rates.

Another even more major problem is that without a return to growth, there is no nice way to end the low interest rate/Quantitative Easing policy. One possibility is that at some point, the dollar will drop relative to other currencies, and the price of imported oil will become even higher. This will make the situation worse.

Somehow the situation must be resolved. One possibility is that the government will greatly reduce benefits and raise taxes, so as to balance its budget. Alternatively, there could be a major governmental change, perhaps leading to a totally new governmental structure and different currencies. It is possible that there will be hyperinflation, or some type of break in international trade. Countries may trade more with trusted partners, or may require collateral for trade.

Impact of High-Priced Fuel Syndrome on Exporters

This post has mostly been about the impact of High-Price Fuel Syndrome on energy importers, such as the United States, Europe, and Japan. The situation isn’t quite as bad for energy exporters, but they are not completely spared.

Energy exporters are usually in a better position financially than importers, because they collect funds from the oil or other type of high priced energy they sell. These funds can be used to fund government programs. If the energy exporter is fortunate to still have some “cheap to extract” oil left, the energy exporter can perhaps subsidize oil prices for its own people. This approach works much better when population is relatively small, such as Saudi Arabia, than when population is large, such as Russia, because with subsidy, internal use tends to rise, and exports decline.

Even when a country is an energy exporter, high oil prices or other high energy prices can be a problem. One issue is that those who benefit from high oil prices (oil companies, oil workers, local economies, governments that tax oil production) are not the same as the economy in general. For example, if oil prices are high, the major producing areas, such as Alberta, Canada can benefit, even as the rest of Canada behaves much like an oil importer, with job losses.

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