Headed For A Collapsing Debt Bubble

A $1.9 billion stimulus package was recently signed into law in the United States. Can such a stimulus bill, plus packages passed in other countries, really pull the world economy out of the downturn it has been in 2020? I don’t think so.

The economy runs on energy, far more than it operates on growing debt. Our energy problems don’t appear to be fixable in the near-term, such as six months or a year. Instead, the economy seems to be headed for a collapse of its debt bubble. Eventually, we may see a reset of the world financial system leading to fewer interchangeable currencies, far less international trade, and falling production of goods and services. Some governments may collapse.

What Is Debt?

I understand debt to be an indirect promise for future goods and services. These future goods and services can only be created if there are adequate supplies of the right kinds of energy and other materials, in the right places, to make these future goods and services.

I think of debt as being a time-shifting device. Indirectly, it is a promise that the economy will be able to provide as many, or more, goods and services in the future compared to what it does at the time the loan is taken out.

Common sense suggests that it is much easier to repay debt with interest in a growing economy than in a shrinking economy. Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff unexpectedly ran across this phenomenon in their 2008 working paper, This Time Is Different: A Panoramic View of Eight Centuries of Financial Crises. They reported (p. 15), “It is notable that the non-defaulters, by and large, are all hugely successful growth stories.” In other words, their analysis of 800 years of governmental debt showed that default was almost inevitable if a country stopped growing or started shrinking.

The IMF estimates that the world economy shrank by 3.5% in 2020. There are many areas with even worse indications: Euro Area, -7.2%; United Kingdom, -10.0%; India, -8.0%; Mexico, -8.5%; and South Africa, -7.5%. If these situations cannot be turned around quickly, we should expect to see collapsing debt bubbles. Even the US, which shrank by 3.4%, needs a rapid return to growth if it is to keep its debt bubble inflated.

The Inter-Relationship Among Growing Debt, Growing Energy Consumption, and a Growing Economy

When we are far from energy limits, growing debt seems to pull the economy along. This is a graphic I put together in 2018, explaining the situation. A small amount of debt is helpful to the system. But, if there gets to be too much debt, both oil prices and interest rates rise, bringing the braking system into action. The bicycle/economy rapidly slows.

Figure 1. The author’s view of the analogy of a speeding upright bicycle and a speeding economy.

Just as a two-wheeled bicycle needs to be going fast enough to stay upright, the economy needs to be growing rapidly enough for debt to do what it is intended to do. It takes energy supply to create the goods and services that the economy depends on.

If oil and other energy products are cheap to produce, their benefit will be widely available. Employers will be able to add more efficient machines, such as bigger tractors. These more efficient machines will act to leverage the human labor of the workers. The economy can grow rapidly, without the use of much debt. Figure 2 shows that the world oil price was $20 per barrel in 2020$, or even less, prior to 1974.

Figure 2. Oil price in 2020 dollars, based on amounts through 2019 in 2019$ from BP’s 2020 Statistical Review of World Energy, the inflationary adjustment from 2019 to 2020 based on CPI Urban prices from the US Department of Labor and the average spot Brent oil price for 2020 based on EIA information.

Figure 3 below shows the historical relationship between the growth in US energy consumption (red line) and the dollar increase in US debt growth required to add a dollar increase in GDP (blue line). This chart calculates ratios for five-year periods because ratios for individual years are unstable.

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