#169. At the zenith of complexity

THE ONSET OF “DE-GROWTH” AND “THE GREAT SECTOR EXTINCTION”

In the previous article, we examined the scope for tangible value destruction in the global financial system. In some future discussion, we might look at the very substantial empowerment that is being handed to environmental causes by some of the direct and indirect consequences of the Wuhan coronavirus crisis.

Here, though, the issue is the economy itself, and readers will understand that this interpretation is framed by the understanding that the economy is an energy dynamic, and not a financial one.

For those who like their conclusions up front, the single most important takeaway from what follows is that the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has triggered two fundamental changes that were, in reality, due to happen anyway.

One of these is a systemic financial crisis, and the other is the realisation that an era of increasingly-cosmetic economic “growth” has come to a decisive end.

The term which best describes what happens from here on is “de-growth”. This is a concept that some have advocated as a positive choice, but it is, in fact, being forced upon us by a relentless deterioration in the energy-driven equation which determines prosperity.

At its simplest, this means that the near-universal expectation of a future “economy of more” has been invalidated. We’re not, for example – and as so much planning has hitherto assumed – going to be driving more cars on yet more roads, and taking more flights between yet more airports. A seemingly-assured future of more consumption, more leisure, more travel, more wealth, more gadgets and more automation has, almost at a stroke, ceased to exist.  Economic considerations aside, the energy supply outlook alone has long since ceased to support any such assumptions.

More fundamentally, an economy which is shrinking is also one that will become progressively less complex. Whole sectors of activity will disappear through processes of simplification and de-layering. The pace of economic deterioration, and the rate at which the system de-complexifies, will be determined by identifiable factors which include falling utilization rates and the loss of critical mass in economic activities.

The inevitable arrives

Seen from the perspective of the energy-driven economy, the crisis is unveiling much that we already understood. Essentially, relentless increases in the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE) are the constant in an economic (and financial) narrative that has been unfolding ever since the 1990s, and which has long pointed, unequivocally, towards both falling prosperity and a “GFC II” sequel to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC).

Between 1990 and 2000, global trend ECoE rose from 2.6% to 4.1%, entering a level (between 3.5% and 5%) at which prior growth in the prosperity of the western Advanced Economies started to go into reverse. By 2008, when the world banking system was taken to the brink by the GFC, ECoE had already reached 5.6%.

The next critical point occurred during 2018-19, when trend ECoEs entered a higher band (between 8% and 10%) at which less complex, less ECoE-sensitive emerging market (EM) nations, too, start to experience a reversal of prior growth in prosperity. This latter event has confirmed that, after a remarkably long plateau, the prosperity of the world’s average person has turned down.

The financial and economic ‘high command’ has never understood this energy-based interpretation, and this incomprehension has created a parallel narrative of futile (and increasingly dangerous) financial adventurism.

This is why we can expect a GFC II-type event to coincide with a decisive downturn in the economy. Though the coronavirus crisis is acting as a trigger for these events, we should be in no doubt that both of them were due to happen anyway.

Welcome to de-growth

The term which best describes a downwards trajectory in prosperity is “de-growth”. Many have advocated de-growth as something that society ought voluntarily to adopt in its own best environmental and broader interests.

The surplus energy interpretation, though is that de-growth isn’t a choice that we might or might not make, but an economic inevitability.

Critically, de-growth doesn’t simply mean that the economy will become quantitatively smaller. It also means that much of the complexity which has developed in parallel with past economic expansion will go into reverse.

This de-complexifying process will have profound consequences. As well as determining the pace at which the economy shrinks, the retreat from complexity will impose changes on the shape, as well as the size, of the economy of the future.

Where the rate of prosperity deterioration is concerned, the interplay of two factors is going to prove critical.

One of these is the utilization effect, which describes changes in the relationship between the fixed and variable costs of the supply of goods and services. As utilization rates fall, the per-user share of fixed costs rises, and any attempt to pass such increases on to consumers is likely to accelerate the pace at which utilization rates fall.

The second operative trend is the critical mass effect. This describes the way in which supply processes are undermined by the lack of access to critical inputs. To a certain extent, suppliers of goods and services can work around this effect, by altering (and, in general, simplifying) both their products and their processes. Even so, there are limits to the ability to circumvent critical mass effects, and the likelihood is that capacity will decline, resulting in a corresponding reduction in the range of goods and services on offer to consumers.

Both the utilization and the critical mass factors introduce considerable uncertainty into the rate at which prosperity will deteriorate, but an even bigger imponderable is the combined impact of utilization and critical mass effects. It is easy to picture how these are likely to interact, with, for example, falling utilization rates removing inputs in a way that accelerates the loss of critical mass.

The end of “more”

One of the practical implications of this interpretation is that the current consensus about our economic future – a consensus which we might call ‘the economy of more’ – is becoming ever less plausible.

Until now, virtually all planning assumptions have been framed by this expectation of continuous expansion. We’re assured, for example, that by 2040, there will have been be a billion-unit (75%) rise in the world’s vehicle fleet (requiring more roads), whilst aviation passenger miles will have increased by about 90% (so we’ll need a lot more airport capacity).

These and similar projections are based on assumptions that we can consume about 28% more energy in 2040 than we do now, with petroleum and natural gas supply rising by, respectively, 10-12% and 30-32%. All of these consensus projections seem extremely unlikely to be realised, not least because of the crumbling economics of energy supply itself.

The miss-match between, on the one hand, the assumption of extrapolatory expansion in virtually all economic activities and, on the other, the improbability of the requisite growth in energy supply, seems never to have occurred to those whose plans inform the economic consensus.

What all of this means in practice is that projected rates of prosperity deterioration are conjectural, with probabilities favouring an acceleration in the pace of decline.

With this caveat understood, the base-case generated by SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System) provides a useful reference-point for discussion. The model indicates that the average person worldwide will be poorer by 9.5% in 2030, and by fully 20% by 2040, than he or she is today. It follows from this, of course, that his or her ability to carry debt and other financial burdens – and to pay taxes – will be correspondingly impaired.

Fig. 1:

#169 03 prosperity regional

Simplification and de-layering

Two further trends, both of which are of fundamental importance, can be anticipated as consequences of the de-complexifying process.

One of these is simplification, which describes a rolling contraction in the breadth of choice on offer to consumers, and a corresponding contraction in systems of supply.

The second is de-layering, meaning the removal of intermediate economic processes.

The de-layering effect can be illustrated using food supply as a comparatively simple example (though the issues involved extend right across the gamut of products and services).

The pre-industrial system for supplying food had few stages between farmer and ultimate consumer. There were, to be sure, millers, carters, coopers, green-grocers, butchers and a number of other trades operative between producer and customer, but there was nothing on the scale of today’s plethora of intervening layers, which run from fertilizer suppliers and agricultural consultants at one end of the spectrum through to packaging and marketing consultants at the other.

Looking ahead, the application of simplification and delayering to the chain of food supply suggests that, whilst product choices will narrow (ten sorts of breakfast cereal, perhaps, rather than fifty), some of the intervening layers will contract, whilst others will disappear altogether. Simpler products and simpler product ranges require fewer intermediate stages.

Extended across the economy as a whole, the implication is that we face what might be called a “great extinction” of trades, specialisations and, indeed, of whole sectors. As and when this forward trend gains recognition, it’s likely that businesses and individuals will endeavour to withdraw from activities which are at high risk of being de-layered out of existence.

Surveying new horizons

The economic processes described here are going to have far-reaching implications, most of which will be matters for subsequent discussion. First, though, it makes sense to recap the critical points of the foregoing.

The fundamental change now in prospect is that economic de-growth will set in, and will eliminate most of the expectations hitherto covered by the term “the economy of more”. The rate at which the economy shrinks (and the average person becomes less prosperous) will be influenced by a number of variables, of which critical mass and utilization effects are amongst the most important.

A reasonable working assumption, generated by SEEDS, is that people are going to get poorer at annual rates of about 1%, though there will, needless to say, be major regional and national variations around this trend.

This rate may not sound all that dramatic – though we need to bear in mind that it might worsen – but the shock effects of the onset of de-growth are likely to be profound, not just in the economic and financial spheres, but socially and politically as well.

As the economy gets smaller, it will also become less complex. Central strands here are likely to include both simplification (of products and of processes) and de-layering. The latter will involve contraction in some areas of activity, and the elimination of others.

The coronavirus crisis itself is providing us with a foretaste of some of these anticipated trends. In economic terms, the most important effect of the crisis is the hiatus in the cash flows of businesses and households. The consequent need to conserve cash (and to avoid going further into debt under circumstances of extreme uncertainty) is inducing conservatism into economic behaviour.

Companies and families alike are imposing new and tougher criteria on their expenditures, meaning that households are cutting back on “discretionary” (non-essential) spending, whilst businesses are minimising outgoings wherever they can. Companies are likely to make severe cuts in their marketing spend (because there’s not much point in advertising things that customers can’t or won’t buy), and will seek to renegotiate (meaning reduce) rents, outsourcing costs and other overhead expenses.

If – as seems very likely – this event marks (though it will not have caused) the onset of de-growth, it’s probable that newly conservative attitudes will continue. Consumers are unlikely to go back to “splashing the cash”, even when (or if) something nearer to “normality” is restored. Businesses which have, for example, downsized promotional expenditures and simplified their operations, are unlikely to revert to former spending patterns.

In short, this crisis may well have kick-started the processes of simplification and de-layering described above. Both of these processes can be expected to shrink some areas of economic activity and, in some cases, to eliminate them altogether.

Finally, these effects are highly likely to be reflected in other spheres, causing major attitudinal changes. Voters can, for example, be expected to be more supportive of essential public services, and less tolerant of perceived excesses in the private sector.

Governments themselves are likely, in due course, to recognise the risk of contraction in their tax bases and will, in any case, have gone much further into debt as a direct consequence of the crisis. Pressure for redistribution, and a generally heightened emphasis on economic issues, were pre-existing political consequences of deteriorating discretionary (“in your pocket”) prosperity.

At the same time, it is surely self-evident that governments cannot risk repeating policies which, rightly or wrongly, have been encapsulated into a popular post-GFC narrative of “rescue for the wealthiest, austerity for everyone else”.

CORONAVIRUS – THE ECONOMICS OF DE-GROWTH

#168. Polly and the sandwich-man

SCOPING FINANCIAL RISK

By their very nature, events like the Wuhan virus epidemic (or whatever the history-books end up calling it) polarise opinions, some of which become ever more extreme as the crisis unfolds.

At one end of the spectrum, those who claimed that the coronavirus was just some kind of minor variant on ‘normal’ seasonal ailments are being taught a harsh lesson in reality.

At the other extreme, though, many continue to insist that this is an ‘existential’ event, from which neither the economy nor the financial system (or anything else that we hitherto took for granted) is going to emerge, at least in any recognizable form.

If you believed either of these things, you probably wouldn’t bother trying to plan, or, as is the case here, to try to ‘scope’ the course that economic and financial trends might take.

Generally, though, extremes, whether of optimism or of pessimism, usually turn out to be wrong. Neither the Pollyanna nor the Sandwich-Board Man approach is going to help. Whistling a cheerful tune isn’t going to give us greater visibility on the post-crisis situation, but neither is walking around wearing a placard proclaiming that “The End is Nigh”.

The rational and practical response is to reason from what we do know to what we need to know. This is why, in economics and finance, we do need to try to scope this crisis.

To do this effectively, it makes sense to adopt two working principles.

One of these is that we bring new thinking to bear, so that we’re not just playing new tunes on the broken fiddle of ‘conventional’ economics.

The other is that we’re clear about the limitations imposed by the uncertainties implicit in the situation.

This is where ‘scoping’ differs from prediction. What follows doesn’t try to forecast what will happen, just to set some parameters on what might.

From troubled skies

Though the epidemic itself couldn’t have been anticipated, many of us have long recognised that trends and conditions pointing towards “GFC II” – a different and more extreme sequel to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) – were already in place.

A condensed version of this narrative is that the authorities responded to the “secular stagnation” of the late 1990s, first with ‘credit adventurism’, and latterly with ‘monetary adventurism’ as well. Where the former put the credit (banking) system at risk, the latter called into question the viability of the entire fiat monetary structure. Beyond buying some time (at a very hefty price), neither expedient has achieved anything worthwhile, but has inflicted an enormous amount of damage along the way.

It is, indeed, reasonable to conclude that we’ve spent more than two decades packing dynamite into the foundations of the financial structure.

Signs that economic reality might have started to break through had become apparent well before the current crisis erupted. Sales of everything from cars and smartphones to chips and components had already turned down, world trade in goods was already shrinking, and severe financial stresses were already emerging, particularly in China, and in some of the more irrational parts of the global ‘cheap money’ economy.

This is why, rather than having hit us out of blue skies, this crisis is really a bolt from the grey. Whether people had noticed these gathering dark clouds largely depended on whether they were looking at the situation from a point of view founded in reality, or were still persuaded by the ‘conventional’ tarradiddle that there was nothing too abnormal in the situation (or, at any rate, nothing so abnormal that it couldn’t be handled by our omnipotent, omniscient central bankers).

The energy perspective

These past exercises in ‘adventurism’ have had a shared assumption, which has resulted from a fundamental misconception about how the economy really works.

In order to believe that we can boost the performance of the economy by financial gimmickry – whether by pouring cheap credit into the system, or by flooding it with even cheaper liquidity – you’d have to start by assuming that the economy is a wholly financial system. If this assumption was correct, you could conclude that fiscal and monetary policy are the effective levers of control.

In reality, of course, these assumptions are mistaken. An economy that exists wholly in the realm of the human artefact of money – and is unrelated to the physical world in which we live – is a fiction.

As regular readers will know, my approach is based on the understanding that the economy is not a financial system, but an energy dynamic.

Briefly stated, the surplus energy interpretation of the economy has three central tenets.

The first is that nothing of any economic utility whatsoever can be produced without the use of energy.

The second is that, whenever energy is accessed for our use, some of that energy is always consumed in the access process (with the consumed-during-access component known here as the Energy Cost of Energy, or ECoE).

The third part of this “trilogy of the blindingly obvious” is that money has no intrinsic worth, and commands value only as a ‘claim’ on the output of the ‘real’ (energy) economy.

The credit connection

From this understanding, we can start with the observation that financial ‘claims’ have grown far more rapidly than the ‘real’ economy on which such claims can be honoured. Comparing data for 2018 with the numbers from 2008 reveals that each $1 of reported “growth” in the global economy over that decade was accompanied by $3 of net new borrowing.

The crucial interconnectedness in this situation is that pouring money and credit into the system doesn’t just increase the aggregate of financial claims, but also inflates the apparent size of the economy itself.

The ways in which this happens can be re-visited at a later date, but what we need to know now is that it happens.

The chart below illustrates this relationship. The vertical axis shows percentage growth in GDP during the years since the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), whilst the horizontal shows annual borrowing, as a percentage of GDP, over the same period.

The clear outlier here is China, whose annual growth has been around 7%, but whose annual rate of borrowing has been about 25% of GDP. This is why slightly more than doubling Chinese GDP (+115%) required a near-quadrupling of debt (+290%), and why borrowing has exceeded growth in the ratio 3.6:1.

The numbers for India look a lot better (though they’ve been worsening for some time), because the country has achieved strong growth without a dramatic recourse to borrowing. Both France and Japan are on the negative side of the trend-line, borrowing a lot, but getting precious little growth in return.

Fig. 1

#167 Value Destruction 01B

Individual economies aside, though, the critical observation which emerges from this is that ‘the more you borrow, the more apparent growth you can report’.

Most of the countries shown on the chart – and the world and regional aggregates, too – are at, or close to, a trend-line which connects the extent of borrowing with the quantity of GDP growth that has been reported.

What this means, as it applies to current circumstances, is that the numerator of debt (and, for that matter, of broader commitments), and the denominator of GDP, are not discrete, but are linked together.

Upwards tendencies in debt have had an inflationary effect on apparent GDP. This means that a straightforward ratio which compares debt with GDP is extremely misleading because, when you increase the one, you simultaneously increase the other.

This in turn means that debt/GDP ratios operate in ways which tend towards complacency.

The prosperity benchmark

Energy-based calibration of prosperity, as undertaken by the SEEDS model, is designed to provide a measure of economic output which, as well as taking ECoE into account, is distinct from this ‘credit pull’.

The result is to revise the interpretation of economic trends, indicating that, rather than ‘an economy of $87tn, growing at 3% annually’, we entered this crisis with ‘an economy of $53tn, that is hardly growing at all’.

Taking non-government debt as an example, let’s examine the implications of this approach.

During 2009, nominal world GDP was $60tn, whilst private debt was $85tn, for a debt/GDP ratio of 141%. Since then, both debt and GDP are supposed to have grown by just over 20% in real terms, which means that the ratio between them (shown in blue in fig. 2) seems hardly to have changed at all.

When we shift the basis of calibration from GDP to prosperity, though, the resulting calculus is both very different, and a great deal more cautionary.

Compared with a real increase of 23% in private debt, aggregate world prosperity hasn’t actually grown at all since the GFC. One reason why this is so different from the narrative of “growth” is that most of the headline increases in GDP have been the simple consequence of spending borrowed money.

The other is that ECoEs have risen relentlessly, long since passing levels at which prior growth in Western prosperity goes into reverse, and, more recently, entering a band where the same thing starts to happen to the EM (emerging market) economies as well.

This means that the ratio which expresses GDP as a percentage of prosperity (shown in red) has expanded markedly, from 183% in 2009 (and 125% back in 2000) to a current level of just over 230%.

A reasonable inference from this is that the debt-to-prosperity ratio has moved a long way out of equilibrium, leaving it poised to fall back to a prior, much lower level.

Departure from debt equilibrium is, of course, exactly what you would expect to have happened after more than a decade in which people have been paid to borrow. But quirks in the calculations which use GDP as a measure of debt exposure have served to disguise this critical trend.

Indeed, when you take this enormous process of subsidised borrowing into account, any suggestion that proportionate indebtedness hasn’t increased becomes wholly counter-intuitive.

An understanding of this principle enables us to scroll back across the years of financial excess in search of ratios which might represent a sustainable equilibrium.

This same calculation, when expressed as debt aggregates in constant dollars (as in the right-hand chart), suggests that a sharp decrease in outstanding non-government debt might have become inescapable.

Unless we’re prepared to assume that dramatic inflationary effects will destroy the real value of debt (a ‘soft default’), the implication is that we may be facing a process of extensive default, for which the term used here is a default cascade.

Fig. 2

#167 Value Destruction 05

The bigger picture

Before we move on (in future discussions) to consider what a default cascade might look like in practice, it’s important to note that formal debt doesn’t, by any means, capture the full extent of financial exposure. A better way to look at this is to reference financial assets or, more specifically, the aggregate of such assets excluding those of the central banks.

Financial asset exposure, always important, has taken on renewed significance during the uncertainties of the epidemic, and a causal link can be identified between, for example, the extremity of British financial exposure and recent sharp falls in the value of Sterling. Private financial assets stand at 1100% of British GDP, whereas the ratio for the United States is only 460%, so a fall in the value of the pound against the dollar is a wholly logical response to extreme financial uncertainty.

At the global level, financial assets data for countries accounting for about 80% of the world economy is available, and this data puts private financial assets at 450% of GDP. This a number which, like the debt/GDP ratio, hasn’t worsened since 2009.

Expressed against prosperity, however, this metric has expanded, because real financial assets have grown (by about 15%) over a decade in which prosperity hasn’t increased at all.

If, as we did with debt, we track back across the years of excess in search of the equilibrium ratios towards which a return might seem likely, the inference is that, like debt, the broader class of financial assets may face a severe retrenchment and this, again, points to various forms of default.

Clear and present danger

In what is intended as a scoping exercise, attaching numbers to these interpretations requires the caveat that our conclusions must recognise the extremity of uncertainty implicit in current conditions.

Indications from SEEDS-based analysis suggest that we should not be too surprised if debt of $60tn, and broader financial assets of an additional $100tn, are at risk.

These, as stated earlier, are scoping numbers, not forecasts.

Even so – and given the sheer scale of what we know is happening to the economy – these numbers need not seem all that surprising. The Pollyannas out there might say that little or none of this is actually going to happen, whilst the words “Told you so!” might be added to the doomsters’ sandwich-boards. The strong likelihood is that, in finance at least, the sandwich-boarders are a lot nearer the reality than the ditty-whistlers.

On the basis of this scoping exercise, we can anticipate that the global financial system could be facing a hit of $160tn, which is 185% of GDP.

That might be something from which the economy itself could recover, albeit in a battered and bruised form.

But you’d have to be a long way towards the Pollyanna end of the axis of optimism to think that the financial system could survive without either severe inflationary effects or a systemically-dangerous process of default.

CORONAVIRUS – THE SCOPE OF FINANCIAL RISK

 

#167. Tests and correctives

VALUE AT RISK, OIL PRICES CRUSHED – A SYSTEM ON TRIAL

In any moment of crisis, it’s easy to be pulled two ways, between the immediate and the fundamental. But it helps when, as now, we can recognise that both themes meet at the same point.

In this sense, “the 2020 Wuhan crisis” (or whatever it ends up being called) has acted as a catalyst for severe risks built into the system over a protracted period of mismanagement, incomprehension, self-interest, hubris and sheer folly.

Just so that you know what’s coming, this discussion is going to concentrate on two issues.

The first of these is the scope for value destruction in the current situation. Here I believe that the use of an independent benchmarking system – based on energy economics – provides an advantage over the monocular, ‘the economy is money’, way of looking at these things.

The main theme here, though, is energy in general, and oil in particular.

On the one hand, the consensus assumption is that we’ll be doing more of every sort of activity (including driving and flying) that depends on having more energy (and more petroleum) in the future than we have now.

On the other, however – and even before the recent slump in oil markets – crude prices simply can’t support even the maintenance of oil supply, let alone the 10-12% increase seemingly required by consensus expectations.

What I aim to do here is to explore this contradiction.

Before we start, though, I’d like to apologise to anyone who, over the past two weeks or so, has wondered why their comments seem to have vanished into the ether, or why there seems to have been much less debate here than usual. What appears to have happened – for no apparent reason, and wholly outside my control – has been that most notifications of comments awaiting approval have ceased to reach me. For the time being, and as frequently as possible, I’m going to review the list of outstanding comments manually.

Short shock, long folly, value exposed

Right now, as markets and sentiment gyrate wildly, we’re watching a fascinating intersection between the immediate and the fundamental playing out before our eyes.

The system that’s being shocked by the coronavirus crisis was a system that was already in very bad shape, and we can be pretty certain that, if the catalyst hadn’t (or maybe hasn’t yet) come from Wuhan, it would have (or assuredly will) come from somewhere else.

As somebody might have said, ‘if you build a monster, don’t be surprised if it bites you’ – and as somebody once did say, “some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you, and other days you both go hungry”. I’ll leave it to you to decide what roles greed, incomprehension and sheer folly have played in the building of the financial monster.

One of the critical issues now has to be the potential for ‘value destruction’ in the current crisis. Amongst the advantages of having an alternative, non-financial (energy) approach to economics is that it provides a second basis of measurement (in this case, the SEEDS prosperity benchmark) for just this kind of contingency.

‘Value’ really falls into two categories. The first is largely ‘notional’, and covers assets such as equities and property. Since nobody could ever monetise the entirety of either asset class, these ‘values’ are functions of the changing narratives that we tell ourselves about what things are ‘worth’. No money actually leaves somebody’s bank account because of a slump in the market price of his or her property or share portfolio.

‘Real’ value, on the other hand, consists of defined commitments which may become incapable of being honoured. The obvious example now is debt, on which businesses or households may be forced to default because their sources of income have dried up.

My approach here has been to use the Surplus Energy Economics Data System (SEEDS) to scroll back through the long years of financial excess in search of reference point ratios more sustainable than those of today.

Without burdening you with too much detail on this, SEEDS-based calculations suggest that up to 60% of the world’s private debt could be at risk, with the exposure of the broader structure of other financial assets at about 70%. My calculations are that up to $70 trillion of debts, and as much as $190tn of broader financial commitments, may be exposed.

Huge though they are, it must be emphasised that these are estimates of the scope for ‘value destruction’ – and how much of this scope turns into real losses depends upon many variables, chief amongst them being the duration and severity of the virus crisis, and the policies adopted by the monetary and fiscal authorities.

Assuming that these authorities act with more wisdom than they’ve exhibited so far – and stop firing off their scant remaining rate policy ammunition before the target comes over the hill – then the outcome isn’t likely to be anywhere nearly this bad, and a full-blown cascade of defaults can be avoided. Meanwhile, it’s possible to see stock markets settling perhaps 40% below their pre-crisis levels, with property prices down by 30%.

This, of course, presupposes that decision-makers don’t resort to putting so much gas back into the balloon that it really does detonate, leaving us scattered with the fragments of exploded hubris. In essence, do we use this event to re-group, or do we insist on ‘irrationality as usual’, regardless of cost?

After all, with the levers of the system in the hands of people who actually think that over-inflated stock markets, and over-priced property markets, are both ‘good’ things, there’s almost no degree of folly that can wholly be ruled out.

Energy – cutting away the foundations

Properly considered, there are two separate market crises happening now, both of them linked to the Wuhan coronavirus event.

One of these is the wave of falls in global stock markets, which the Fed and other central banks are trying, Canute-style, to stem. It would be far better if markets were left to get on with it, with the official effort concentrated on getting businesses and households through the hiatus in their cash flows.

The other crisis – linked to the epidemic by the anticipated sharp fall in petroleum demand, though triggered by a spat between major producers – is the sharp fall in the price of crude oil.

Some observers have suggested that the fall in oil prices will offer some relief for consuming economies, whilst others point out that the oil sector itself is going to be hit by a wave of financial failures, just as much the same thing might be poised to happen across vast swathes of the rest of the economy. The real issue, though, is how much damage this is going to inflict on the oil and gas industry, and where it leaves the industry’s ability to invest.

For those of us who understand that the economy is an energy system, the link between these events takes on a fundamental significance. Oil may be “only” 34% of global primary energy consumption, but it continues to account for a lot more than 90% of all energy used in transport applications. Fossil fuels (FFs), meanwhile, still provide more than four-fifths of world energy supply, a number that has changed only fractionally over decades.

Enthusiasts and idealists might talk about a post-fossil economy, just as the airline industry tells us that it can continue to grow whilst moving towards zero net carbon emissions. But, in both of these instances, as in others, there’s a very big gap between aspiration and actuality.

In search of neutral ground, we can do worse than look at long-range energy demand projections from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and OPEC.

All three publish central case forecasts, essentially mixing consensus-based economic assumptions with the mix of policies in place around the world. In broad terms, all three are agreed that, unless there are changes to these central parameters, we’re going to be using 10-12% more oil in 2040 than we use today.

‘Please sir, can I have some more?’

If you look at these projections in greater detail, it further emerges that we’re going to be doing a lot more of the things for which oil, and energy more broadly, are pre-requisites.

We are, for example, going to be driving more, even though electrification should keep the rise in oil demand for road use pegged at single-digit percentages. By 2040, there are expected to be more than a billion (74%) more vehicles on the world’s roads than there are today. It seems to be assumed that, by then, about 40% of the global fleet will have been converted to EVs, but that will still see us using more oil on our roads – not less.

We’re also, it seems, going to be flying a lot more than we already do, requiring a lot more petroleum, despite an assumed pace of energy efficiency gains seemingly running at about 1.5% annually. My interpretation suggests that passenger-miles flown are expected to rise by about 90% over that same period, though, thanks to compounding efficiency gains, petroleum use in aviation is expected to rise by “only” about 38%.

Within the overall energy position, the expectation is that our consumption of primary energy will be about 28% greater in 2040 than it was in 2018. Within this increment (of 3,900 million tonnes of oil equivalent), about 12% (450 mmtoe) is expected to come from hydro, and 44% (1,720 mmtoe) from wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy (RE). Nuclear might chip in another 5% of the extra energy that we’re going to need.

But the remaining 39% or so of the required increase is going to have to come from expanded use of fossil fuels, some of it from oil though most of it from gas (though it’s also noteworthy that no reduction in our consumption of coal seems to be anticipated). From the above, it will hardly be a surprise (though it is certainly disturbing) that annual rates of CO2 emissions from the use of energy are expected to carry on rising.

If any of this is remotely likely, though, why are oil prices languishing around $30/b?

To be sure, we know that demand is going to be impacted by Wuhan, and that producers including Saudi and Russia are scrapping over who should absorb this downside. But oil prices were hardly robust, typically around $65/b, even before the epidemic became a significant factor.

The fact of the matter is that we simply cannot square oil prices of $30, or $60, or even $100, for that matter, with any scenario calling for increases in supply.

We all know that global oil supply has been supported by American shale production, which has in turn relied on subsidies from investors and lenders. Now, though, it’s becoming ever more apparent (as was set out in a recent official report from Finland) that even ‘conventional’ oil supply is in big economic trouble.

It’s a sobering thought that, were capital flows to dry up to the point where there was a complete cessation of new drilling, US shale liquids output would fall by about 50% within twelve months. But it’s an even more disturbing thought that, unless capital investment can be ramped up dramatically, conventional oil supply is going to erode, less spectacularly, perhaps, but relentlessly.

So here’s the question – how, under this scenario, are we supposed to find sources for an increase in oil supply going forward? More broadly, and with oil and gas generally produced by the same companies, can we really increase the supply of natural gas by more than 30% over the coming twenty years? And can we – and, for that matter, should we – be using just as much coal in 2040 as we do now?

No ‘get out of gaol free’ cards

Two suggestions tend to be offered in answer to such questions, so let’s get both of them out of the way now.

One of these is that the use of renewables – whose output is currently projected to rise from 560 mmtoe in 2018 to more than 2,280 mmtoe by 2040 – can grow even more rapidly than is currently assumed.

But the reality seems to be that meeting current assumptions – boosting hydro-electricity supply by 50%, and quadrupling power from other renewable sources – is already a tough ask. The unlikelihood of these ambitious targets being beaten is underscored in the figures.

Energy transition has been costed by IRENA at between $95 trillion and $110tn, the latter equivalent to 720x today’s equivalent of what it cost America to put a man on the Moon. This time, of course, it isn’t just rich countries that have somehow to find this level of investment, but poorer and middle-income nations, too.

Annual capital investment in REs was, in real terms, lower in 2018 than it had been back in 2011, mainly because prior subsidy regimes have tended not to be scalable in line with expansion. Yearly capacity additions, too, stalled in 2018.

The really critical snag with “big bang” transition is simple, but fundamental. RE technology has yet to prove itself truly “renewable”, because capacity creation, and the building of the related infrastructure, cannot yet be undertaken without the extensive use of fossil fuel energy in the supply of materials and components.

The second notion – which is that we can somehow “de-couple” the economy from the use of energy – is risible, even in an era in which we often seem to have “de-coupled” economic policy from reality. The EEB was surely right to liken the search for “de-coupling” to “a haystack without a needle”.

Until somebody can demonstrate how we can drive more, fly more, manufacture more goods and ship them around the world, build more capital equipment, and supply more of basics such as food and water, without using more energy, “de-coupling” will continue to look like a punch-line in search of a gag.

This is really a matter of physical limitations – and there’s no “app” for that.

Stand back………….

On the principle that “what can’t happen won’t happen”, we need to stand back and consider the strong possibility that the consensus of expectations for future energy supply is simply wrong.

Let’s assume, for working purposes, that RE supply does, as expected, expand by 2,170 mmtoe by 2040, and that hydro and nuclear, too, perform in line with consensus projections. In this scenario, supply of non-fossil fuel energy would, as specified, be higher by about 2,370 mmtoe in 2040 than it was in 2018.

At the same time, though, let’s make some rather more cautious assumptions, well supported by probabilities, about fossil fuels.

For starters, let’s assume that shale oil production doesn’t slump, and that other forms of oil production remain robust enough to keep total supplies roughly where they are now. This would mean that oil supply won’t have fallen by 2040, but neither will it have delivered the widely-assumed increase of 10-12%. Let’s further assume that gas availability rises by 15%, rather than by 30%, and that the use of coal falls by 10%.

In this illustrative scenario, fossil fuels supply remains higher in 2040 than it was in 2018, but by only about 300 mmtoe (+3%), instead of the generally-expected increase of 1,540 mmtoe (+13%). This in turn would mean that, comparing 2040 with 2018, total energy supply would be higher, not by the projected 28%, but by only about 19%.

…..and do less?

My belief is that this is a more realistic set of parameters than the ‘more of everything’ consensus about our energy future. If energy supply does grow by less than is currently assumed, growth in many of the things that we do with energy is going to fall short of expectations, too.

Let’s unpack this somewhat, to see where it might lead. First, if expectations for RE are achieved, we can carry on using more electricity, though not at past annual rates of expansion.

But less-than-expected access to oil would have some very specific consequences. With population numbers still growing, we’ll need to keep on increasing the supply of petroleum products to essential activities, such as the production, processing and distribution of food. You’ll know that my expectations for “de-growth” anticipate a lot of simplification and ‘de-layering’ of industrial processes, and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t apply to food supply. But it remains hard to see how we can supply more food from less oil.

In short, there are reasons to suppose that oil supply constraint is going to have a disproportionate and leveraged impact on the discretionary (non-essential) applications in which petroleum is used. At the same time, faltering energy supply – and a worsening trend in surplus energy, reflecting the rise in ECoEs – is likely to leave us a lot less prosperous than conventional, ‘economics is money’ projections seem to assume.

From here, it’s a logical progression to question, in particular, whether the assumption of continued rapid expansion in travel might, in reality, not happen. We could take – but, so far, haven’t taken – ameliorative actions, including limiting car engine sizes, and promoting a transition to public transport. My conclusion – which is tentative, but firming – is that we might be a lot nearer to ‘peak travel’ than anyone yet supposes.

The assumption right now seems to be that, as and when the virus crisis is behind us, we’ll go back to buying more cars and using them more often, flying more each year than we did the year before and, perhaps, rediscovering a taste for taking cruise-ship holidays.

Let’s just say that such an assumption might well prove to be a long way wide of the mark.

 

#166. Lines of contagion

COULD THIS BECOME A BANKING CRISIS?  

Whilst the world watches the wild gyrations in stock markets, and investors try to absorb the economic implications of the Wuhan coronavirus, it’s important to remember that market falls are neither the only, nor indeed the most important, financial effects of this situation.

It doesn’t take all that much joined-up thinking to spot the lines of financial contagion that threaten to transition this from an industrial problem into a threat to the banking system.

What matters now isn’t how much theoretical asset value investors may have lost, but the real, cash-flow consequences for businesses and, by extension, to their lenders.

Essentially, slumps in equity prices simply reduce the amount that owners could get for their shares now, compared with those that they could have realised a week or so ago. Except where stocks have been acquired using debt, there are few immediate, cash-outflow effects. Shares that were once worth $50 might now be worth only $40, but no money has actually flowed out of the typical investor’s bank account.

The real (and systemically-hazardous) damage being inflicted by the epidemic is happening, not in stock prices, but in business activities ‘at ground level’. With systems in lock-down, workers idled and supply-chains ruptured, a large and growing proportion of the world’s businesses are unable to produce, sell or deliver goods and services – which also means that they don’t get paid.

Just because revenues dry up, obligations do not. These include wages, rents, administrative overheads, sums owed to trade creditors, maintenance costs, tax payments and – in this context, most critically of all – the servicing of debt. Fundamentally, then, what looks to a watching world like an asset pricing drama is, in reality, a cash flow or liquidity crisis.

This in turn puts the banking system in the eye of the storm.

What affected businesses need now is financial support. They need lenders to give them more time to pay and, for the duration of what might turn out to be a very protracted loss of revenue, they also need additional funds to cover their various outgoings.

Firms which do not get this support face collapse, either because they can’t meet their debt service obligations, or because they simply run out of money. This is where the notional losses of value on the market’s ticker-boards turn into a real, systemically-damaging destruction of value.

This doesn’t mean that firms are powerless supplicants over whose fortunes their lenders sit in judgment. If businesses do start to fail, the banks could face rapid and crippling losses. Slashing interest rates, the central bankers’ prior preferred tool, can do little or nothing to resolve this issue.

Rather, governments and central banks have to find ways to ‘support the support’ that businesses need from commercial lenders, and they need to do it urgently.

A reduction in the rate of interest that you’ll be paying in the future doesn’t help you to pay wages, creditors, taxes and overheads now, and neither does it solve a liquidity crisis compounded by scheduled debt service outgoings.

It may be obvious that lower borrowing costs aren’t going to tempt frightened travellers back on to aeroplanes or into the shops, but it’s equally true, and even more important, that the simple lowering of rates doesn’t, and can’t, keep businesses going. Banks, then, need to be lending more – and this at the very time when both inclination and prudence might be counselling them to lend less.

Decision-makers in government and central banking need now to be asking themselves two critical questions.

The first of these, of course, involves working out ways to push support through the commercial banking system to the businesses that need it.

But the second is what do to if ‘operation support’ either fails, or is only a partial success. If cash-strapped companies start to fail to any significant extent, the inevitable consequence will be a compounding cascade of defaults.

This isn’t a problem that can be solved by putting yet more borrowers into the limbo of “zombie-ism” – being allowed to add owed interest to outstanding capital balances doesn’t enable firms to meet their ongoing cash needs.

The likeliest outcome at this point is that the authorities will recognise and react to the business liquidity crisis, but won’t be able to do so in ways that are sufficiently comprehensive, and which meet the urgency of the situation.

This, I suspect, is when a lot of recent history starts to be regretted. The scale of stock buy-backs in the United States, for example, has effectively replaced large amounts of shock-absorbing equity capital with inflexible debt. China has spent ten years almost quadrupling its debt in order to slightly more than double its GDP. Globally, monetary policies adopted during the GFC, and then kept in place for far too long, have paid people (and businesses) to borrow. Cheap liquidity has created huge areas of exposure, with stock markets just one example amongst many.

Anyone who thought that over-inflated asset prices were the only hostages handed to fortune by credit and monetary adventurism could now be drawn face to face with an uncomfortable reality.

= = = = = = =

PLEASE NOTE

11th March 2020

As you’ll have seen, there’s been a big jump in the number of comments posted here.

This has happened because I’ve just found out that the system which notifies me of comments awaiting approval has stopped working, seemingly a couple of weeks or so ago.

Please accept my apologies for this (and my grateful thanks go to the person who worked out what was causing this glitsch).

Until this is sorted, I’m going to do the approvals process manually, looking regularly at the list rather than waiting to be notified. I hope this won’t be much slower than the normal process.

#165. To catch a falling knife

AT THE END OF TWO ERAS, HOT MARKETS NEED COOL THINKING  

Unless you’ve been in a dealing-room on Wall Street or in the City of London (or, as in my own case, in both) during a market crash, it’s almost impossible to imagine quite how febrile and frenetic the atmosphere becomes. Rumours flourish and wild theories proliferate, whilst facts are scarce. Analysts are expected to provide instant answers, perhaps on the principle that even an answer which turns out to be wrong is of more immediate use than no answer at all.

It’s a sobering thought that the only financial market participants with any prior crash experience at all are those who’ve been working there for at least twelve years – and even they may have been lulled into complacency by a decade and more in which the working assumption has been that, thanks to the omnipotence and the omniscience of central bankers, ‘stock prices only ever go up’.

This complacency, a dozen years in the making, is a resilient force, and showed signs of staging a come-back in the final trading minutes of a tumultuous week. The logic, if such it can be called, is that the Federal Reserve and the other major central banks will spend the weekend concocting a solution.

For once, this rumour is almost certainly founded in reality, and my strong hunch is that the central banks will have announced co-ordinated measures before the weekend is over. These measures are likely to include further rate cuts, a resumption of the Fed’s $400bn “not QE” programme that ended in December, and statements of intent by all of the central bankers. The likelihood of something along these lines, even if it achieves nothing of substance, will have raised expectations to fever pitch by the time that the markets reopen.

We should be in no doubt that this central bank intervention will be ultra-high-risk. For starters, there are plenty of reasons why it might not work. The Fed, for instance, cannot “print antibodies”, as someone remarked on the superb Wolf Street blog, in which Wolf Richter reminded us that “if you don’t want to get on a plane in order to avoid catching the virus, you’re not going to change your mind because T-bill yields dropped 50 basis points”.

Critically, if the central bankers try something and – beyond a brief “dead cat bounce” – it doesn’t work, then their collective credibility as supporters of equity markets will be shot to pieces, which would overturn market assumptions to such an extent that a correction could turn into a full-blown crash. Their only real chance of success will rest on persuading investors that whatever happens in the real economy has no relevance whatsoever for the markets.

My own preference would be for central bankers decide to do nothing, or, as they might express it themselves, ‘conserve their limited ammunition for a more apposite moment’. This, though, is a preference based almost wholly on hope rather than expectation. We might or might not over-estimate the powers of the central bankers, but we should never underestimate their capacity for getting things wrong.

The double dénouement      

From personal experience, analysts are pulled in two directions at once in circumstances like these. Whilst one part of you wants to provide the instant answers which everyone demands, the other wants to find a physically and mentally quiet space in which to think through the fundamentals. It’s fair to say that, at times like this, it’s enormously important to step back and produce a coldly objective interpretation.

Seen from this sort of ‘top-down’ perspective, current market turmoil is symptomatic of the uncertainty caused by the simultaneous ending of two eras, not one.

The first of these ‘ending eras’ is a chapter, four-decades long, that we might label ‘neoliberal’ or ‘globalist’.

The other, which we can trace right back to the invention of the first effective heat-engine in 1760, is the long age of growth powered by the enormous amount of energy contained in fossil fuels.

Whilst environmental issues are the catalyst bringing our attention to ‘the end of growth’, the Wuhan coronavirus is acting, similarly, to crystallise an understanding that ‘the chapter of globalist neoliberalism’, too, is drawing to a close.

The best way to understand and interpret these intersecting dénouements is to start with some principles, and then apply them to the narrative of how we got to where we are.

Here, with no apology for brief reiteration, are the three core principles of surplus energy economics.

First, the energy economy principle – all economic activity is a function of energy, since literally nothing of any economic utility whatsoever can be produced without it.

Second, the ECoE principle – whenever energy is accessed for our use, some of that energy is always consumed in the access process.

Third, the claim principle – having no intrinsic worth, money commands value only as a ‘claim’ on the output of the energy economy.

Together, these principles – previously described here as “the trilogy of the blindingly obvious” – provide the essential insights required if we’re to make sense of how the economy works, how it got to where it is now, and where it’s going to go in the future.

The ECoE trap

Critically, the energy cost component (known here as the Energy Cost of Energy, or ECoE) has been rising relentlessly since its nadir in the two decades after 1945. Since surplus energy, which is the quantity remaining after the deduction of ECoE, drives all economic activity other than the supply of energy itself, rising ECoEs necessarily compress the scope for prosperity.

The way in which we handle this situation in monetary terms determines the distribution of prosperity, and informs the economic narrative that we tell ourselves, but it doesn’t  – and can’t – change the fundamentals.

Where fossil fuels are concerned (and these still account for more than four-fifths of all energy supply), the factors determining trend ECoE are geographical reach, economies of scale, the effects of depletion and the application of technology.

These can usefully be expressed graphically as a parabola (see fig. 1). As you can see, the beneficial effects of geographical reach and economies of scale have long since been exhausted, making depletion the main driver of fossil fuel ECoEs. Technology, which hitherto accelerated the downwards trend, acts now as a mitigator of the rate at which ECoEs are rising. But we need to recognise that the scope for technology is bounded by the envelope of the physical properties of the primary resource.

Fig. 1

Fig. 4 parabola

Analysis undertaken using the Surplus Energy Economics Data System (SEEDS) indicates that, where the advanced economies of the West are concerned, prior growth in prosperity goes into reverse when ECoEs reach levels between 3.5% and 5.0%. Less complex emerging market (EM) economies are more ECoE-tolerant, and don’t encounter deteriorating prosperity until ECoEs are between 8% and 10%.

With these parameters understood, we’re in a position to interpret the true nature of the global economic predicament. The inflexion band of ECoEs for the West was reached between 1997 (when world trend ECoE reached 3.5%) and 2005 (5.0%). For EM countries, the lower bound of this inflexion range was reached in 2018 (7.9%), and it’s set to reach its upper limit of 10% in 2026-27, though prosperity in most EM countries is already at (or very close to) the point of reversal.

Desirable though their greater use undoubtedly is, renewable energy (RE) alternatives offer no ‘fix’ for the ECoE trap, since the best we can expect from them is likely to be ECoEs no lower than 10%. That’s better than where fossil fuels are heading, of course, but it remains far too high to reverse the trend towards “de-growth”.  In part, the limited scope for ECoE reduction reflects the essentially derivative nature of RE technologies, whose potential ECoEs are linked to those of fossil fuels by the role of the latter in supplying the resources required for the development of the former.

The energy-economic position is illustrated in fig. 2, in which American, Chinese and worldwide prosperity trends are plotted against trend ECoEs. Whilst the average American has been getting poorer for a long time, Chinese prosperity has reached its point of reversal and, globally, the ‘long plateau’ of prosperity has ended.

Fig. 2

Fig. 6a regional & world prosperity & ECoE

Response – going for broke

As well as explaining what we might call the ‘structural’ situation – where we are at the end of 250 years of growth powered by fossil fuels – the surplus energy interpretation also frames the context for the ending of a shorter chapter, that of ‘globalist neoliberalism’.

Regular readers will know (though they might not share) my view of this, which is that the combination of ‘neoliberalism’ with ‘globalization’ (in the form in which it has been pursued) has been a disaster.

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with spreading the benefits of economic development to emerging countries, this was never the aim of the ‘globalizers’. Rather, the process hinged around driving profitability by arbitraging the low production costs of the EM nations and the continuing purchasing power of Western consumers, the clear inference being that this purchasing power could only be sustained by an ever-expanding flow of credit.

The other, ‘neoliberal’ component of this axis was based on an extreme parody which presents the orderly and regulated market thesis as some kind of justification for a caveat emptor, rules-free, “law of the jungle” system which I’ve called “junglenomics”.

From where we are now, though, what we need is analysis, not condemnation. As we’ve seen from the foregoing energy-based overview of the economy, ‘neoliberalism’ was as much an inevitable reaction to circumstances as it was a malign and mistaken theory.

Essentially, and for reasons which energy-based interpretation can alone make clear, a process of “secular stagnation” had set in by the late 1990s, as the Western economies moved ever nearer to ECoE-induced barriers to further growth. At this juncture, policymakers were compelled to do something because, just as never-ending growth is demanded by voters, the very viability of the financial system is wholly predicated on perpetual growth. The contemporary penchant for ‘globalist neoliberalism’ simply determined the form that this intervention would take.

Since our interest here is in the present and the immediate future rather than the past, we can merely observe that, after the failure of ‘credit adventurism’ culminated in the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), the subsequent adoption of ‘monetary adventurism’ simply upped the stakes in a gamble that couldn’t work. What this in turn means is that the probability of truly gargantuan value destruction is poised, like Damocles’ sword, over the financial system. If it hadn’t been the Wuhan coronavirus which acted as a catalyst, it would have been something else.

Conclusions and context

As we await the next twists in some gripping economic and financial dramas, it’s well worth reminding ourselves that stock markets, and the economy itself, are very different things. High equity indices are not hall-marks of a thriving economy, least of all at a time when market processes have been hijacked by monetary intervention.

In so far as there’s an economic case for propping up markets, that case rests on something economists call the “wealth effect”. What this means is that, whilst stock prices remain high, the accompanying optimistic psychology makes people relaxed about taking on more credit. The inverse of this is that, if prices slump, the propensity to borrow and spend can be expected to fall sharply.

The snag with this is straightforward – unless you believe that debt can expand to infinity, perpetual expansion in credit is a very dubious (and time-limited) plan on which to base economic policy. If the central banks do succeed in reversing recent market falls, the only real consequence is likely to be a deferral, to a not-much-later date, of the impact of the forces of disequilibrium which must, in due course, redress some of the enormous imbalances between asset prices, on the one hand, and, on the other, all forms of income.

Ultimately, we don’t yet know how serious and protracted the economic consequences of the coronavirus will turn out to be. My belief is that these consequences are still being under-estimated, even if, as we all hope, the virus itself falls well short of worst-case scenarios. It’s hard to see how, for example, Chinese companies can carry on paying workers, and servicing their debts, with so much of the volume-driven Chinese economy in lock-down.

Within the broader context, which includes environmental considerations in addition to the onset of “de-growth” in prosperity, we may well have reached ‘peak travel’, which alone would have profound consequences. Other parts of the financial system – most of which are far more important than equity markets – seem poised for a cascade. If it isn’t ‘Wuhan, and now’, the likelihood is that it will be ‘something else, and soon’.

#164. A bolt from the grey

WHY “BUSINESS AS USUAL” WILL NOT BE RESTORED

Where the purely biological prognosis for the Wuhan coronavirus is concerned, there’s at least a ton of speculation for every pinch of fact, and there would be no merit at all in adding to that speculation here. One of the few things that can be said about this with any confidence at all is that somehow, sometime, the epidemic will end.

The expectation then will be that, in the purely economic and financial spheres, what the economic and financial consensus likes to call “normality” will be restored.

As people and businesses go back to work, as the flow of goods and services resumes, and as ravaged supply lines are repaired, the economy will be expected to stage a full recovery. People wary of travelling will, we’ll be told, start boarding aircraft again, and even the cruise liner industry might start to shrug off the tag of “floating petri-dishes”.

Capital markets, too, will be expected to bounce back, even if takes a long time to restore them to their full pomp, hubris and folly. Investors will be expected to go back to wasting their money propping up “cash-burners” again, and queueing up to get a piece of the latest moonbeam IPO.

But the reality, from a surplus energy perspective, is that this definition of “normality” is highly unlikely to be restored. In economic terms, the relentless rise in the energy cost of energy (ECoE) had already started making people poorer, long before the name ‘Wuhan’ had any connotation beyond the geographical.

It cannot be stressed too strongly that global trade in goods had already turned down, as had sales of everything from cars and smartphones to chips and components. Financial stresses had already become severe, and investors had already started to view cash-burning and over-hyped sectors with new caution.

Nasty though it is in purely human terms, and real though its economically disruptive effects undoubtedly are, the coronavirus didn’t strike out of cloudless economic skies.

Rather, it’s been a bolt from the grey.

It’s too soon to say whether the epidemic will act as a catalyst for a full-blown financial crash but, if it does, the authorities will have tough decisions to make, and we can only hope that the disastrous mistakes made during the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) will not be repeated.

In the sound and fury of that crisis, the imbecility of ‘monetary adventurism’ was piled on top of the prior folly of ‘credit adventurism’. The blithe assumption was made that, left to its own devices – and, of course, bailed out by taxpayers from the consequences of its previous failures – ‘de-regulated’ finance could get back to driving economic progress.

Back in 2008, the ‘global’ crisis was presented as something that somehow had happened out of the blue, without human agency, and that ‘nobody could have known’ that a credit-driven bubble was going to end in a bust. The reality, though, was that we’d been using $2 of new debt to buy each $1 of highly dubious “growth”.

Since then, and whilst reported “growth” has become even more cosmetic and insubstantial, the debt cost of each dollar of it has risen to over $3. Along the way, the worsening imbalance between asset prices, on the one hand, and all forms of income, on the other, has inflicted enormous damage. This imbalance has blown huge holes in pension and other saving provision, has prevented the proper functioning of markets in pricing risk, has stripped the economy of “creative destruction” and has saddled us with far too much of the speculative and the outright exploitative.

Siren voices to the contrary, spending borrowed money has never been a cure-all for a process of “secular stagnation” driven by a structural deterioration in an economy in which the prior spurt in prosperity delivered by fossil fuels was coming to an end, and had started to go into reverse.

Nobody would envy the choices that are going to imposed on governments and central banks if – or, to be realistic about it, when – the 2008 crisis is repeated, but this time in the much larger and more menacing shape that has always been a virtual inevitability.

But the analogy that can most usefully be made here might be one which compares 1945 with 1918. After the first “war to end all wars”, the rallying-cry was “business as usual”, but no equivalent delusion could persuade the people of 1945 that there were merits in re-creating the inter-war world, be it the financial the excesses of the 1920s or the mass misery of the Great Depression.

This time, a similar catharsis might – just might – persuade us to start taking a realistic view of the economy, not as a monetary construct capable of perpetual growth through financial manipulation, but as an energy system whose prior ability to make us more prosperous has gone into reverse.

 

 

 

#163. Tales from Mount Incomprehension

THE FALSE DICHOTOMY CLINGS ON

There was more than a grain of logic in the observation by US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin that climate activist Greta Thunberg should save her advice until “[a]fter she goes and studies economics in college”. If the authorities were to consent to her demand for the immediate cessation of the use of fossil fuels, the economy would crash and, quite apart from the misery that this would inflict on millions, we would have abandoned any capability to invest in a more sustainable way of life.

This said, taking a course in economics, as it is understood and taught conventionally, would not enhance, in the slightest, her understanding of the critical issues. Conventional economics teaches that economics is ‘the study of money’, and that energy is ‘just another input’. These claims cannot be called ‘contentious’. They are simply wrong.

Worse still, her audience at Davos – the Alpine pow-wow of the world’s political and economic high command – are almost wholly persuaded by a false interpretation which states that action on climate risks carries a “cost”, meaning that doing what she asks would be costlier than carrying on as we are, with an economy powered by oil, gas and coal.

This is a folly every bit as absolute as the argument that we must immediately cease all use of the energy sources on which the economic growth of the past two centuries has been based. Continued reliance on fossil fuels might or might not destroy the environment, but it would certainly condemn the economy to collapse.

A commonality of interests

Because I have an extensive ‘to-do’ list – and in the hope that readers might appreciate some brevity on this issue – let me be absolutely clear that neither side of the debate over the economy and the environment understands how these processes really work. Worse still, it seems that neither side wants to understand this reality.

There’s a hugely damaging false dichotomy around the assumption that there’s some kind of trade-off between our environmental and our economic best interests. If “Davos man” thinks that the economy can prosper so long as we cherry-pick the profitable bits of the environmental agenda (like carbon trading, and forcing everyone to buy a new car), and pour bucket-loads of greenwash over the rest of it, he (or she) could not be more wrong

Because literally none of the goods and services which comprise the economy could be produced without energy, it should hardly be necessary to point out that the economy is an energy system. Equally, it should be obvious that, whenever energy is accessed for our use, some of that energy is always consumed in the access process. This access component is known here as the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE), and it forms a critical part of the equation which determines our prosperity.

The third part of this ‘trilogy of the blindingly obvious’ is that money has no intrinsic worth, and commands value only as a ‘claim’ on the products of energy. I make no apology for repeating that air-dropping cash (or any other form of money) to a person stranded in the desert, or cast adrift in a lifeboat, would bring him or her no assistance whatsoever.

Money is simply a medium of exchange, valid only when there is something for which it can be exchanged.

The complexity trap

The modern industrial economy is not only enormous by historic standards, but is extraordinarily complex as well. Scale and complexity make the modern economy high-maintenance in energy terms. Output grew rapidly in the period (roughly between 1945 and 1965) when trend ECoEs were at their historic nadir, but has struggled since then, as ECoEs have risen.

Analysis undertaken using SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System) indicates that prosperity in the Advanced Economies (AEs) of the West ceased to grow when ECoEs hit a range between 3.5% and 5%. Less complex Emerging Market (EM) economies have greater ECoE tolerance, but they, too, start to become less prosperous once ECoEs reach levels between 8% and 10%. Both China and India have now entered this ‘growth killing ground’.

Back in the high-growth post-War decades, ECoEs were between 1% and 2%. By 2000, though, global trend ECoE had reached 4.1%, which is why the advanced West was already encountering something which bewildered economists labelled “secular stagnation”, though they were at a loss to explain why it was happening. By 2008 – when ECoE had reached 5.6% – efforts at denial based on credit adventurism had achieved nothing other than an escalation in risk which brought the credit (banking) system perilously close to the brink.

Since then, and whilst futile exercises in denial have segued into monetary adventurism, ECoE has continued its relentless rise. Last year, world trend ECoE broke through the 8% threshold at which prior growth in EM prosperity goes into reverse. This, ultimately, explains why global trade in goods is deteriorating, and why sales of everything from cars and smartphones to chips and components are sliding.

The average person in the West has been getting poorer for more than a decade, and, increasingly, he or she knows it, whatever claims to the contrary are made by decision-makers who, for the most part, still don’t understand how the economy really works.

Something very similar now looms for EM countries and their citizens – and, when evidence of EM economic deterioration becomes irrefutable, the myth of “perpetual growth” in the world economy will be exploded once and for all.

When that happens, all of the false assumptions on which a bloated financial system relies will crumble away.

Tenacious irrationality

The irony here is that, far from avoiding economy-damaging “costs”, continued reliance on fossil fuels would be a recipe for economic oblivion. The destructive upwards ratchet in ECoEs is driven by fossil fuels, which still provide four-fifths of our energy supply, and whose costs are rising exponentially now that depletion has taken over from scale and reach as the primary driver of cost. Far from imposing “costs” that will push us towards economic impoverishment, transitioning away from fossil fuels is the best way of minimising future hardship.

This means that economic considerations, when they are properly understood, support, rather than undermine, the arguments put forward by environmentalists.

But we should be equally wary of claims that renewable energy (RE) can usher in some kind of economic nirvana. The ECoEs of REs are highly unlikely ever to fall below 10%, a point far above prosperity maintenance thresholds (of 3.5-5% in the West, and 8-10% in the EMs), let alone give us a return to the ultra-low ECoEs of the post-1945 era of high growth.

Critically, transition to REs would require vast amounts of inputs whose supply relies almost entirely on the use of FFs. The idea that we can somehow “de-couple” economic activity from the use of energy, meanwhile, is utterly asinine.

The only logical conclusion is that we should indeed transition towards REs, but should not delude ourselves that doing this can spare us from deteriorating prosperity, or from other processes (such as de-complexification and de-layering) associated with it. The one-off gift of vast surplus energy from fossil sources is fading away, which, from an environmental point of view, might be just as well. What matters now is that we manage, in a pragmatic and equitable way, the transition to lower levels of energy use and gradually eroding prosperity.

It’s a disturbing thought that our economic and environmental futures are trapped in a slanging match between green fanaticism and Davos-typified cynicism. It’s a truism, of course, that people tend to believe what they want to believe – but this is a point at which the reality of energy as the critical link between prosperity and the planet needs to force its way to the fore.

If there’s cause for optimism here, it is that reality usually triumphs over wishful thinking. The only real imponderables about this are the duration of the transition to reality, and the scale of the damage that protracted delusion will inflict.