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The link between peak oil and peak debt

The link between peak oil and peak debt – Part 1
by Gail Tverberg

The economy is closely linked with the physical resources that underly it. Most economists assume debt can rise endlessly, just as they assume GDP can rise endlessly. But if there really is a limit that prevents oil supply from rising endlessly, it seems to me that there is also a corresponding limit that prevents debt from rising endlessly.

As I analyze the situation, it seems to me that here is really a two-way link between peak oil and peak debt:

1. Peak oil tends to cause peak debt. Some will argue with me about this, because they believe it is possible to decouple economic growth from energy growth, and in particular oil growth. As far as I am concerned, though, this decoupling is simply an unproven hypothesis–the normal connection is that a flattening or decline in energy supply causes a slowdown or actual decline in economic growth, and this slowdown causes a shift from an increase in the amount of debt, to a decrease in the amount of debt, as it did for US non-governmental loans in 2009 and 2010 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. US Domestic Debt, split between government debt (excluding Social Security) and non-governmental debt. Based on Federal Reserve Z.1 data.
Governments try to step in and keep the growth rate in debt up, but the gap is too great for them to make up. This tendency of governments to take on new debt (together with problems related to the original slowdown in economic growth) are reasons many governments have been getting into financial difficulty recently, in my view.

2. Once debt growth peaks (shifts from growth to decline), we can expect a feed-back loop that will tend to make the peak oil decline even worse than it would otherwise be.

In the current post, called "Part 1", I will cover the first of these two issues; I will cover the second issue in Part 2.

The Relationship Between Growth and Debt

I have talked many times about the need for economic growth, in order to make our current system of borrowing money, and paying back loans with interest, work on the extensive basis that it is used today.

Figure 2. Two views of future growth
As long as the economy is expanding, as in Scenario 1, businesses feel confident that their future prospects will be better than they are today. As a result, businesses will borrow funds for new equipment and will be fairly confident they can pay back the loans with interest in the future. Governments will also borrow, knowing that they will likely have higher tax collections in the future. Because of these higher tax collections, the governments can expect to pay back the debt plus the interest on the debt.

In Scenario 1, even common citizens feel that debt is a reasonable prospect. If the individual loses his/her job, there is a good chance of getting a new one. With prospects for better wages in the future (or at least no worse wages in the future), it makes sense to take out an automobile loan, or a student loan, or even a loan on a new home.

If the economy is expanding, promising Social Security benefits to future retirees looks like a safe prospect, as does promising Medicare benefits. Just as a “rising tide lifts all boats,” an expanding economic circle leaves room for more and more types of payments (Figure 3).

Figure 3. A growing economy makes allows room for interest and other payments, without crimping budgets.
If the economy starts contracting as in Scenario 2 of Figure 2 (or even stays the same size) then it becomes much more difficult to repay debt with interest, and to fulfill promises of future benefits, as illustrated in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Paying promises becomes much more difficult after economic decline.
Of course, in a contracting economy, there may still be a few instances where debt “makes sense.” These might include very short-term business loans, for example, covering goods in transit. They would also include some business loans where the economic return is high enough so the loan would make “economic sense” even if the interest rate includes a fairly high charge for risk of default (because of the declining economy) as part of the interest rate.

This decline in the level of debt becomes a real problem for countries, because the availability of debt tends to add to reported GDP. For example, if a person takes out a car loan and buys a car, the cost of the car gets added to GDP, even though the car is not yet paid for. The availability of debt financing also makes it possible for businesses to obtain capital for expansion, so the business can, for example, build more cars, without waiting for sufficient profits to accrue to have enough revenue to finance the expansion. Both of these activities tend make it easier to increase reported GDP.

What has happened in recent years, at least for the US, is that it seems to be taking greater and greater increases in debt to create a given increase in GDP.

Figure 5. Relationship of change in debt (private and government combined) to change in GDP.
This changing relationship may reflect the greater headwinds the economy is encountering, now that oil supply is tighter and oil prices are higher.

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