Posted on July 1, 2013 by Gail Tverberg
A question that seems to come up quite often is, “Are we going to have inflation or deflation?” People want to figure out how to invest. Because of this, they want to know whether to expect a rise in prices, or a fall in prices, either in general, or in commodities, in the future.
Up and Down Escalator Economies
It seems to me that economies operate on two kinds of escalators–an up escalator, and a down escalator. The up escalator is driven by a favorable feedback cycle; the down escalator is driven by an unfavorable feedback cycle.
For a long time, the US economy has been on an up escalator, fueled by growth in the use of cheap energy. This growth in cheap energy led to rising wages, as humans learned to use external energy to leverage their own meager ability to “perform work”–dig ditches, transport goods, perform computations, and do many other tasks that machines (powered by electricity or oil) could do much better, and more cheaply, than humans.
Debt helped lever this growth up even faster than it would otherwise ramp up. Continued growth in debt made sense, because growth seemed likely for as far in the future as anyone could see. We could borrow from the future, and have more now.
Unfortunately, there is also a down escalator for economies, and we seem to be headed in that direction now. Such down escalators have hit local economies before, but never a networked global economy. From this point of view, we are in uncharted territory.
Many economies have grown for many years, hit a period of stagflation, and ultimately collapsed. According to research of Turchin and Mefedov documented in the book Secular Cycles, such economies have typically gotten their start by learning to exploit a new resource, such as using land cleared for farming, or learning to use irrigation, or in our case more recently, learning to use fossil fuels. These economies typically start out by growing for many years, thanks to the opportunity for more population and more goods and services from the new resource.
After a while, a period of stagflation is reached. Population catches up to the new resource, and job opportunities for young people become less plentiful. Wage disparity grows, with wages of the common worker lagging behind. The cost of government rises. Because of the low wages of workers, it becomes increasingly difficult to collect enough taxes from workers to pay for rising government costs. To work around these problems, use of debt grows. Needless to say, this scenario tends to end very badly.
Our situation today sounds a great deal like the down escalator situation.
The General Price Trend: Downward, with Discontinuities
Each year, an economy produces various kinds of goods and services. It grows crops, and extracts minerals. It uses energy products to process the crops and minerals into finished goods, and to transport them to their final destination. The amount produced depends on the amount of goods and services potential buyers can afford. If wages are stagnant, and the government’s share keeps rising, the amount wage-earners can afford (in inflation adjusted dollars) keeps falling.
Since the early 2000s, the cost of extracting oil products has been rising, because the oil that was cheapest to extract was extracted first, and the “easy oil” is now gone.
Chance of Discontinuity
In order for the models to work in the expected way, business as usual must continue. A few obvious problems come into play:
(1) “Demand,” as defined by economists, is what consumers can afford to pay. Therefore, a jobless individual without any type of government compensation, would have no demand for food, clothing or shelter–at least using the term in the way economists use the word. All of us know that in the real world, lack of a job and lack of government benefits causes problems. At some point, marginalized people will riot and overthrow governments. Civil war may take place, or war against another country.
(2) Part of Business as usual is continuing availability of debt. At some point, it will start to become clear that the economy has gotten off the up escalator, and moved to the down escalator. On the down escalator, much less debt makes sense. It probably still makes sense to use debt on a short-term basis to cover goods in transit, and it may make sense to use debt to finance investments with a high expected rate of return. But in general, debt is likely to become much less common, greatly worsening the down escalator problem.
(3) As long as the economy was on an up escalator, increasing economies of scale were part of what caused a positive feedbacks. When the economy is on a down elevator, we have the reverse effect–higher fixed costs relative to production. This is even an issue when reduction in sales are intentional–for example, increased water conservation tends to lead to higher fixed costs, per unit of water sold, and greater use of high-efficiency light bulbs leads to greater electricity fixed costs (such as grid costs) per kWh sold. These higher fixed costs tend to push up prices for services further, increasing the down escalator effect.
(4) Investment in a capitalistic system does not work on a down economic escalator. Who wants to invest, if it is probable that the economy will shrink, leading to increasing diseconomies of scale?
What Happens to Government and Business Promises?
There are many kinds of promises currently outstanding:
1. Government promises
Continued maintenance of roads
Free education for all through high school
Government debt (Federal, state, and local)
Financial help after hurricane damage
Guarantees of bank accounts and pension plans
2. Insurance and bank promises
Life insurance policies
Long term care policies
Auto and homeowners policies, etc.
Bank account balances
3. Promises by companies of all types
Stock – implied promise it will be worth more in the future
Loans borrowed will be paid back (to banks or on bonds)
Implied guarantee of future 24/7 electricity availability; grid maintenance
What happens to these promises? Over time, it is clear that pretty much all of them will disappear. They are up-escalator benefits that work when there are plenty of fossil fuels and the economy is expanding. They don’t work for very long on a down escalator.
Promises to Individuals
At the level of the individual, one of the implied promises has been is that an individual who gets a good education will be able to get a good paying job. This is one of the promises that is already disappearing.
There is also a second implied promise–people who actually perform the work, will be compensated for it. This promise is falling by the wayside, as wages fall (partly due to globalization, and partly due to other down escalator effects). At the same time, governments need higher tax rates, to pay for all the promises made to those who are retired, unemployed, or have wages that are too low to support a family.
Goods and Services Produced in a Given Year
In any year, there will be a mixture of people buying goods and services:
People who are currently in the work force
People who own assets and want to sell them
One thing that may not be obvious without thinking about it, is that all of the people wanting goods and services have to compete for the same set of goods and services that are available at that time.
For example, we grow a certain amount of corn and rice, and we extract a certain amount of oil and coal and copper, and we make a certain amount of electricity in electric power plants. Because of inventories, there is a little flexibility in these amounts, but basically, the amount that is available is determined by market prices and availability of supply lines. If the amount of goods and services produced is decreasing, because we are on a down escalator economy, this smaller quantity of goods and services needs to be shared by the entire population.
If there is relatively little available in total, and those who produced it don’t want to part with it, a person trying to trade accumulated “assets” for current production will not receive very much scarce production in return for his accumulated wealth, no matter what form it may take. In the case of most assets (stocks, bond, gold, silver, etc,) this means that the value of the asset tends toward $0. If currency is viewed as another asset, its value may go to close to zero as well. In fact, if there has been a government change, its value of the currency may be exactly zero.