The Connection Between Oil Prices, Debt Levels, And Interest Rates

The Connection Between Oil Prices, Debt Levels, And Interest Rates

The substitution of debt for additional salary isn’t necessarily a very good one, even with very low interest rates. For example, the maximum length of new car loans has increased from five years to six years to seven years, allowing people to afford more expensive cars. The catch is that loans are “underwater” longer, and it becomes harder to buy a replacement car. So ultimately, buyers tend to keep their cars longer, reducing the demand for new cars. The problem isn’t entirely solved; to some extent it is just delayed.

It is hard to see a way out of our current predicament. The ability of consumers to pay higher prices for goods and services under normal circumstances requires higher wages. But if higher wages are not available, higher debt plus very low interest rates can “sort of” substitute. This cannot be a permanent solution, because there are too many things that will disturb this equilibrium.

As we have seen, rising interest rates will bring an end to our current equilibrium, by raising costs in many ways, without raising salaries. It will also reduce equity values and bond prices. A rise in the cost of extraction of oil, if it isn’t accompanied by high oil prices, will also put an end to our equilibrium, because oil producers will stop drilling the number of wells needed to keep production up.  If oil prices rise (regardless of reason), this will tend to put the economy into recession, leading to job loss and debt defaults.

The only way to keep things going a bit longer might be negative interest rates. But even this seems “iffy.” We truly live in interesting times.

Figure 8. Growth in world GDP, compared to growth in world of oil consumption and energy consumption, based on 3 year averages. Data from BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy and USDA compilation of World Real GDP.


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