Dr. Ehrlich, call your office

Michael Giberson

I ended my semester in “Energy and Environmental Economics” talking about resource optimism and resource pessimism, framed mostly as a big picture debate between Julian Simon and others against Paul Ehrlich and Neo-Malthusians. Simon reports being puzzled at how folks could look at data showing human health and well-being getting better and better and come to the conclusion we were all doomed and it was probably too late to do anything about it.

I’m sure upon reading this New York Times story the pessimists will be as troubled as ever: “Life Expectancy Rises Around the World, Study Finds.”

The energy price version of “this time it’s different”

Michael Giberson

David Wessel’s economics column at the Wall Street Journal takes a look at an IMF analysis of commodities prices since 1973. In the process, he makes an odd claim about energy prices.

CHART: Commodity prices since 1973 from the IMF World Economic Outlook

Commodity prices since 1973 from the IMF World Economic Outlook.

Wessel writes:

To help distinguish temporary trends from long-lasting ones, International Monetary Fund economists recently charted the inflation-adjusted prices of four baskets of commodities—energy, metals, food and agricultural raw materials (such as logs, cotton, rubber, wool and others) since the 1970s. For what it’s worth, the IMF’s bottom line: “The weak global economic outlook suggests that commodity prices are unlikely to increase at the pace of the last decade.”

But the IMF charts illuminate a bigger story.

• Something significant did happen in the 2000s: a sea change in what had been a downward drift in prices of commodities (other than energy) for decades. The consensus explanation: Demand from China, India and other emerging markets grew very rapidly as these big economies sprang to life….

• Energy prices are truly different. For one thing, they are much more volatile than other commodity prices for all sorts of reasons, including recurring geopolitical risks that oil supplies will be disrupted. For another, they are clearly rising—up 163% over the past four decades. The consensus explanation of energy’s exceptionalism: Rising oil prices depress economic growth and that depresses prices of other commodities.

• Metals prices have risen significantly in the past several years, as the IMF chart shows… Still, metals prices are roughly where they were in 1973, a clear contrast to the price of energy, which appears unlikely to ever be as cheap as it was then.

• Over the past several decades, the price of food is down substantially—despite the growth in the world’s population and the well-discussed change in the diets of the increasingly prosperous Chinese, and even after the uptick of the late 2000s. Food prices are roughly half what they were in 1973. Half. That long-lived trend is likely to continue.

Why should we believe “this time it’s different” about energy prices?

It seems an especially odd claim given the near two-decade period from about 1985-2003 during which energy prices were essentially the same as in 1973. That can’t happen again?

Maybe we’ve reached the global limits on energy-resource productive capability, but I doubt it. Instead I think we’ve seen significant growth in energy demand over the last decade or so, more or less exhausting any excess capacity (or, in economics jargon, the energy demand curve is now intersecting with a relatively inelastic portion of the energy supply curve). Energy supply has been increasing in response, but the effort is slow-moving, so we get higher and more volatile prices in the meantime.

My guess is that we will see inflation-adjusted oil prices back at 1973 levels within the next five years.

RELATED: The recent IMF World Economic Outlook analysis that inspired Wessel’s column.