We all know one thing that Greece, Cyprus, and Puerto Rico have in common–severe financial problems. There is something else that they have in common–a high proportion of their energy use is from oil. Figure 1 shows the ratio of oil use to energy use for selected European countries in 2006.
Greece and Cyprus are at the bottom of this chart. The other ‘PIIGS’ countries (Ireland, Spain, Italy, and Portugal) are immediately above Greece. Puerto Rico is not European so is not on Figure 1, but it if were shown on this chart, it would between Greece and Cyprus-its oil as a percentage of its energy consumption was 98.4% in 2006. The year 2006 was chosen because it was before the big crash of 2008. The percentages are bit lower now, but the relationship is very similar now.
Why would high oil consumption as a percentage of total energy be a problem for countries? The issue, as I see it, is competitiveness (or lack thereof) in the world marketplace. Years ago, say back in the early 1900s, when countries built up their infrastructure, oil price was much lower than today-less than $20 a barrel (even in inflation-adjusted dollars). Between 1985 and 2000 there was another period when prices were below $40 barrel. Back then, the price of oil was not too different from the price of other types of energy, so an energy mix slanted toward oil was not a problem.
Oil prices are now in the $60 barrel range. This is still high by historical standards. Furthermore, much of the financial difficulty countries have gotten into has occurred in the recent past, when oil prices were in the $100 per barrel range.
While countries with a large share of oil in their energy mix tend to fare poorly, at least some countries with a preponderance of cheap energy fuels in their energy mix have tended to do very well. For example, China’s economy has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2006, its share of oil in its energy mix was only 23.0%, putting it below Norway but above Poland, if it were included in Figure 1.
Let’s look a little at what it takes for an economy to produce economic growth, and what goes wrong in countries with high energy costs. I should mention that high energy costs can occur for any number of reasons, not just because a country’s energy mix includes a large proportion of oil. Other causes might include a high percentage of high-priced renewables or high-priced liquefied natural gas (LNG) in a country’s energy mix. The reason doesn’t really matter-high price is a problem, whatever its cause.
What Is Needed for an Economy to Grow
The following reflects my view regarding what is needed for an economy to grow:
1. A growing supply of energy products, either internally produced or purchased on the world market, is needed for an economy to grow.
The reason why a growing supply of these energy products is needed is because it takes energy (human energy plus supplemental energy) to make goods and services.
The availability of today’s jobs is also tied to the use of supplemental energy. High-paying jobs such as operating a bull-dozer, producing large quantities of food on a farm using modern equipment, or operating a computer, require supplemental energy in addition to human energy. While jobs can be created that use little supplemental energy to leverage human energy (for example, manual accounting without electricity or computers, growing food without modern equipment, or digging ditches with shovels), these jobs tend to pay very poorly because output per hour worked tends to be low.
To obtain growth in the number of jobs available to workers, a growing supply of energy products to leverage human energy is needed. Looking at the world economy, we can see that historically, growth in energy consumption is highly correlated with economic growth.
In fact, we tend to need an increasing percentage growth in energy supply to produce a given percentage growth of GDP because the y intercept of the fitted line is -17.394, rather than 0.000. Back in 1969, 1.0% growth in the consumption of energy products produced 2.2% GDP growth. The fitted line implies that recently, the amount of GDP growth associated with one percentage growth in energy consumption is only 1.2% of GDP. This poor result is taking place, despite all of our efforts toward increased efficiency. Thus, as time goes on, we need more and more energy growth to produce the same level of GDP growth. This is a rather unfortunate situation that world leaders don’t mention. They tend to focus instead on the fact that the growth in GDP tends to be at least a little higher than the growth in energy use.
2. This growing energy supply must be inexpensive, in order to be able to create goods that are competitive in the world market.
Human energy is by its nature expensive energy. Humans require food, water, clothing, and housing to support their biological needs-we are not adapted to eating entirely uncooked food, or to living in climates that get very cold in winter, unless we have protection from the elements. Thus, wages must be high enough to cover these costs.
Cheap supplemental energy provides a great deal more leveraging power than expensive supplemental energy. If we can leverage human energy with cheap energy such as wood or fossil fuels, it is easy to bring down the average cost of energy. (This calculation is made on a Calorie or Btu basis, for the sum of the energy provided by human labor plus that provided by supplemental energy.) If we are dealing with supplemental energy that is by itself high-cost, it is very difficult to bring down this weighted average cost. This is why high-cost oil, or for that matter high-cost supplemental energy of any kind, is a problem.
If human energy can be leveraged with increasing amounts of cheap energy, it can produce an increasing amount of goods and services, ever more cheaply. In fact, this seems to be where economic growth comes from. These goods and services can be shared with many parts of the economy, including government funding, wages for elite workers, wages for non-elite workers, payback of loans with interest, and dividends to stockholders. If there are enough goods and services produced thanks to this increased leverage, all of the various parts of the economy can get a reasonable share, and all can adequately prosper.
If there is not enough to go around, then there are likely be shortfalls in many parts of the economy at once. It is likely to be hard to find good paying jobs, for ordinary ‘non-elite’ workers. Governments are likely to find it difficult to collect enough taxes. Governments may lower interest rates, or may take other steps to make it easier for businesses to continue their operations. Even with lower interest rates, debt defaults may become a problem. See my post, Why We Have an Oversupply of Almost Everything. The entire economy tends to do poorly.
Ayres and Warr provide an illustration of how an increasingly inexpensive supply of energy can lead to greater consumption of that energy-in this case electricity-in their paper Accounting for Growth: The Role of Physical Role of Physical Work.
There is a logical reason why falling energy prices would lead to rising use of an energy product. If a person can afford to buy, say, $100 worth of energy and the cost is $1 per unit, the person can afford to buy 100 units. If the cost is $5 per unit, the person can afford to buy 20 units of energy. If it is the energy itself that aids growth in economic output (by moving a truck farther, or operating a machine longer), then lower energy prices lead to more energy consumed. This higher amount of energy consumed in turn leads to more economic output. This greater economic output is frequently shared with workers in the form of higher wages because of the workers’ ‘higher productivity’ (thanks to the leveraging of cheap supplemental energy).
When it comes to the cost of energy production, there are ‘tugs’ in two different directions. In one direction, there is the savings in costs that technology can provide. In the other, there is the trend toward higher extraction costs because companies tend to extract the cheapest resource of a given type first. As the inexpensive-to-extract resources are exhausted, the cost of resource extraction tends to rise. We can see from Figure 2 that oil prices first began to spike in the 1970s. After some temporary ‘fixes’ (shifting much electrical production away from oil to cheaper fuels, shifting home heating from oil to other fuels, and starting new extraction in Alaska, Mexico, and the North Sea), the problem was more or less solved for a while. The problem came back in the early 2000s, and hasn’t really been solved. Thus, most of the tug now is in the direction of higher costs of production.
Once oil prices rose, Greece and other countries that continued to use a high percentage of oil in their energy mix were handicapped because their products tended to become too high-priced for customers. Wages of customers did not rise correspondingly. Potential tourists could not afford the high cost of airline tickets and cruise ship tickets, because these prices depended on the price of oil. Even when oil prices dropped recently, airline companies have not reduced airline ticket prices to reflect their savings.
Because of the high-cost energy structure, manufacturing costs have tended to be high as well. With fewer tourism jobs and few possibilities for making goods for exports, the number of good-paying jobs has tended to shrink. Without enough good-paying jobs, Greek demand for fuel products of all kinds dropped rapidly. (Demand reflects the amount of goods a person wants and can afford. Young people without jobs live with their parents, and thus do not buy new homes or cars, lowering consumption.)
Other countries that were positioned to add huge amounts of inexpensive energy were able to continue to continue to grow. The country that did this best was China. It was able to cheaply and rapidly ramp up its coal supply, once it entered the World Trade Organization in 2001. If Greece now adds production of goods, it needs to be able to compete in price with China and other goods-producers.