Oil and The Changing World Order

U.S. oil inventories have fallen every week for two months yet WTI has averaged less than $40 per barrel since the end of August. That is because oil has been re-priced and markets are unwilling to pay more for it.

Those who expect a return to 2019 price levels acknowledge that the oil-demand recovery has stalled. They believe that this is because of Covid-19 and that things will be return to normal once there is a vaccine.

Perspective

“I don’t think the severity of this downturn has been well understood yet.”

Sophia Koropeckyj, Moody’s Analytics

What is happening to oil markets and to the global economy is not because of a virus. The virus greatly accelerated what was already happening. Things won’t go back to normal when the virus ends. I wrote that a month ago and nothing has happened since then to change my mind.

The world is in a debt cycle that began fifty years ago. World orders change when debt cycles approach their end. Ray Dalio has studied how and why world orders have changed over the last 1500 years. These are the requisites that changing world orders have in common:

  • High levels of indebtedness.
  • Low interest rates that limit the ability of central banks to stimulate the economy.
  • Large wealth gaps and political divisions that lead to social an political conflicts.
  • A rising world power that challenges the over-extended leading power.

These criteria have clear relevance to the present world order as China challenges U.S. hegemony. Discord created by debt, interest rates and income inequality have been aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic but will not be resolved when the virus is controlled.

What Recovery?

The U.S. oil consumption recovery is getting worse, not better. U.S. oil consumption recovered to 65% of normal in July and has since decreased to 61% (Figure 1).

Figure 1. U.S. oil consumption recovery is getting worse, not better.
Recovery fell from 65% (18.32 mmb/d) in July to 58% (17.81 mmb/d) in September.
Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Some analysts report a much more optimistic recovery of about 90%.

Figure 2 shows EIA consumption data for September. September consumption of 17,815 mmb is 90% of the 5-year average of 19,834 but that is not a measure of recovery. Recovery must be measured between two datums.

Recovery is determined by comparing the current level (90%) with the 2020 minimum (74%) and the 5-year average (100%). The current level is 16% of the 26% gap between the April minimum and the average. Sixteen divided by twenty-six is sixty-two so recovery is 62%, not 90% (These are rounded to an even percent so the true recovery is as shown in Figure 1 as 61%).

Figure 2. U.S. oil consumption calculation method.
Source: Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The consumption recovery continues to be dominated by gasoline which was 8.74 mmb/d in September or 84% between its minimum and five-year average (Figure 3). That is not surprising since gasoline accounts for about 45% of refined products produced from every barrel of oil. Jet fuel’s recovery is only 30% and diesel’s is only 17%.

Figure 3. U.S. refined product consumption recovered to 61% of the 5-year average in September.
Gasoline has recovered to 84%, jet fuel to 30% and diesel to 17%.
Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Gasoline use is important but driving around to see friends and make small purchases contributes little to economic activity.

Diesel is the barometer of the economy and its use is normally fairly insensitive to price. As long as there are orders, trucks, trains and ships run. When diesel use is down, it is because there are few orders. With recovery at 17%, it is difficult to be very optimistic about the state of the economy.

It took 4 1/2 years for oil consumption to return to the five-year average after the 2008 Financial Collapse (Figure 4). The present collapse is far greater and September use was lower than all but the worst two months of the last recovery from 2009 to 2013.

This is very significant. Why should we expect this recovery to proceed any faster than the last one?

Figure 4. It took 4.5 years after 2008 Financial Collapse for U.S. refined product use to recover.
The magnitude of the 2020 consumption collapse is far greater than in 2008.
September use was lower than all but the 2 worst months of the 2008 contraction.
Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Paradigm Change

Much of the thinking about oil markets and the economy assumes that what is happening now is a temporary anomaly and that things will return to the previous state at some time.

We are in a depression—not a recession, but a depression. And I think the dynamics of a depression are different than they are in a recession because depressions invoke a secular change in behavior. Classic business cycle recessions are forgotten about within a year after they end—the scars from this one will take years to heal.

David Rosenberg, Rosenberg Research

We should pay attention to what David Rosenberg says but even his stern message suggests a return to normal after a number of years. Return is never a useful or valid assumption for the future but particularly not now. A new paradigm is needed.

A paradigm is a model that for a time seems to explain the state of the world better than competing theories (Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Economic growth has been the ruling paradigm since the end of World War II. Technological innovation, capitalism and democracy have evolved as possible causes for the growth paradigm. The problem is that they were hardly unique to the second half of the twentieth century.

Energy is the economy. Money is a call on energy. Debt is a lien on future energy.

The extraordinary growth after 1945 was because of the widespread shift to petroleum as the primary energy source for the world. Because a barrel of oil contains the equivalent of about 4 1/2 years of human work, the resulting increase in productivity was the true cause for economic growth.

Early empires rose by enslaving conquered populations and capturing their work, and by taking their gold—a claim on work. World War I was fought initially over coal. Germany challenged England’s energy dominance by sinking ships like the Lusitania that was carrying coal. World War II was fought largely over oil. Germany’s first attacked Poland because it produced oil. Japan took Indonesia for its oil and then attacked the United States for denying it oil exports.

The United States rose initially on the backs of negro slaves. It became a major power first on the back of coal and then petroleum, the most productive slave in human history.

Great states fall when they reach the limits of their resources or they are defeated in wars trying to obtain more. The rise and fall of world powers is closely related to their access to credit which, in turn, is a call on future energy resources.

The world order has changed. U.S. dominance is declining and China’s is rising. Producing countries largely determined oil prices until 2014. Since then, consuming countries led by China have begun to assert their power.

Many people tell me, “I agree with everything you say but the difference between you and me is that you’re a pessimist and I’m an optimist.”

I am neither an optimist or a pessimist. I am a scientist. I use data to best describe the present state of things. If someone prefers a different story, I understand. Stories are good for entertainment but rarely lead to a clear view of what the future may bring much less good investment decisions.

The growth paradigm is dead or dying. Most future energy scenarios do not acknowledge slow growth. They imagine that technology will allow the world to simply switch from fossil to renewable energy without sacrificing living standards. The physics of that simply don’t work.

Most analysts incorrectly assume that slowing oil demand signals the end of the oil age. They don’t understand that all growth is slowing because of unmanageable debt and a weakening economy. Covid-19 brought that grim future to us a decade or so earlier than expected.

The world order is changing. The world will need oil more than ever because of its unparalleled productivity. Oil was responsible for the singular economic growth after World War II. It is the only thing that can prevent slow growth from becoming negative growth in that new world order.

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