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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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Another issue is the one illustrated in Figure 3, that of food prices tending to rise as oil prices rise. The Middle East is an oil exporter, but a food importer. If food prices rise at the same time as oil prices, the government finds it necessary to cushion this cost increase for the poor. To do this, they must raise food subsidies, or increase the level of payments to those who are unemployed. Making these changes quickly is not necessarily easy. There is considerable evidence that the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings were related to high food prices (Lagi, 2011).

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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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So even for oil exporters, high oil prices may lead to problems.

In Summary

In summary, we are running short of cheap energy, especially cheap oil. High priced oil (or high priced energy of any type) tends to slow down the economy, leading to economic contraction. Our financial system is not made for contraction. Ben Bernanke and others have used artificially low interest rates and Quantitative Easing to try to cover up our current problems, but this is not a long-term solution. At some point, the underlying problems will become evident, and some type of discontinuity will take place. The economic situation will change from one of growth to decline.

Our system of benefits and taxes to pay for those benefits is based on the cost structure that was possible with cheap energy, and the growth that was possible with cheap energy. Very major changes will be needed, if government outgo is to made to match income. Basic programs such as  unemployment, Medicare, and Social Security will either have to be reduced, or taxes raised substantially. Maintenance of huge amounts of infrastructure (such as roads, water and sewer pipelines, electricity transmission lines, and schools) can be expected to be increasingly expensive as well.

It is not clear exactly how the current situation will play out, but a return to cheap energy and robust economic growth seems very unlikely. A more likely outcome is a serious discontinuity, with affected countries much poorer afterward.

References: 

Bernanke, B. S., The Subprime Mortgage Market, Speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s 43rd Annual Conference on Bank Structure and Competition, May 17, 2007. Available at http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/bernanke20070517a.htm

Hamilton JH. Causes and consequences of the oil shock of 2007-08. Brook-
ings Papers on Economic Activity:215e61. Accessible at http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/Programs/ES/BPEA/2009_spring_bpea_papers/2009a_bpea_hamilton.pdf; Spring 2009.

Lagi M., Bertrand, K., and Bar-Yam, Y. The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East, Complex Systems Institute, 2012 Available at http://arxiv.org/pdf/1108.2455v1.pdf

Ludlum, S. Further Evidence of the Influence of Energy on the US Economy – Part 2, The Oil Drum, April 23, 2009. Available at http://www.theoildrum.com/node/5326

Tverberg, G. Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis, Energy, 2012, 37 (27-34).

Voss S. and Patel, T. Total, Shell Executives Say ‘Easy Oil’ Is Gone (Update 1), Bloomberg, April 5, 2007 Available at http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aH57.uZe.sAI

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