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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

How high oil prices lead to financial collapse

Financial collapse is related to high oil prices, Tverberg writes, and also to higher costs for other resources as we approach their limits.

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Turchin and Nefedov found that during the Stagflation period, population growth slows and wages stop rising. Wage disparity increases, and debt grows. The cost of food and other resources becomes more variable, and begins to spike. The level of required taxes grows, as the number of government administrators grows and as armies increase in size. (Joseph Tainter refers to this growth in government services as a product of increased complexity.)

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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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Eventually, after 50 or 60 years, a Crisis Phase begins, when it is no longer possible to raise taxes enough to cover all of the governmental costs. In this period, wages of commoners drop to such a low level that nutrition declines, leading to epidemics and a higher death rate. Commoners often revolt, leading to government collapses. Wars for resources are sometimes fought. The Crisis Phase lasts a variable length of time, typically 20 to 50 years, with the length of time seeming to be shorter in the more recent cycles analyzed. There is considerable die-off from illness and warfare in the Crisis Phase.

It seems to me that the United States, most of Europe, and Japan are now very close to the point where they will enter the Crisis Phase of a similar cycle.

The Nature of the Financial Predicament We Are Reaching

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that rising investment costs lead to what I call an investment sinkhole problem, as we extract fuels and ores that require increasingly expensive inputs near the bottom of Figure 1. An examples might be tight oil, that is extracted using “fracking”. While we hear much about the hoped-for higher supply, we don’t hear that the newer types of oil are available only because oil prices are high. They can’t be expected to bring oil prices down. An investment sinkhole means that our dollar of investment doesn’t go as far; it is precisely the opposite of increased productivity.

When we were still far from reaching resource limits, efficiency improvements could more than make up for the loss of efficiency that comes from the Investment Sinkhole effect. But as we get closer to limits, the situation is reversed. Efficiency improvements are outweighed by the ratcheting up of extraction costs, because of the Investment Sinkhole effect. This means that instead of increased wealth being added to the system by efficiency improvements over time, we find the Sinkhole effect predominates. The common worker needs to spend an increasing proportion of his paycheck on necessities, leaving less for discretionary items. The result is recession, or very slow economic growth.

When the Investment Sinkhole problem starts to predominate, financial models suddenly don’t work very. Central banks react by cutting interest rates, in an attempt to stimulate economic growth. They also try to stimulate the economy by Quantitative Easing. This adds more money to the economy, and attempts to reduce longer-term interest rates. Of course, if the problem is really structural, there is no bounce-back to economic growth. The temporary fix becomes a bridge to nowhere.

A Long-Term View of our Financial Problems

In the previous section, we talked about our immediate problems. But what about our longer-term problems?

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