#106: Crisis – a forum

IDENTIFYING FORWARD RISK

The previous article suggested that money, rather than banks, might be in the eye of the next storm. That discussion produced a great deal of comment, and many questions and predictions. Here, and perhaps in society more generally, there does seem to be a widespread feeling that some kind of crisis looms, though opinions differ widely on what kind of crisis this might be.

The aim of this article is to invite discussion on what kind of crisis event we might face – always supposing that there is a crisis, of course. Naturally, the focus here will be on economics, finance and energy, but readers are welcome to drive the conversation in different directions. National and global politics, social unrest and climate change are amongst the more obvious areas in which a crisis might happen.

What follows here isn’t – and cannot be – a comprehensive assessment of crisis risk. Rather, it is simply “a canter over the ground”. It is a sketch, intended as a framework for discussion.

Background

It seems clear that, in or around 2000, organic growth in the world economy began to peter out. The explanation favoured here is that this was caused by increases in the trend energy cost of energy (ECoE). An alternative (or complementary) thesis might be that globalization, which began by giving Western consumers cheaper goods and services, then started to undermine their wages.

Whatever the cause, an increasing recourse was made to credit in order to sustain living standards. Between 2000 and 2007, when global GDP (at 2016 prices) expanded by $25 trillion, debt increased by $52tn. This meant that, worldwide, $2.08 of debt was added for each $1 of growth, though ratios were a lot worse than this in the developed economies of the West. This process was facilitated by financial deregulation, which also contributed to the increase and dispersal of risk.

As a result of escalating debt and diffuse risk, confidence in banks wavered during the “credit crunch” of 2007 and, briefly, collapsed altogether in 2008. This triggered the global financial crisis (GFC), which was only resolved (temporarily, anyway) when governments intervened to prevent the collapse of the banking system.

A critical policy since 2008 has been ZIRP (zero interest rate policy), implemented both by lowering policy rates and by using QE to drive bond prices up, and yields down.

Partly in response to the policy of ultra-cheap money, debt has continued to escalate, and the rate at which we borrow has accelerated markedly. Comparing 2016 with 2007, debt has increased by a further $89tn, or $3.62 for each $1 of the $25tn of growth recorded since then.

In contrast to the pre-2008 period, debt escalation is no longer solely a Western phenomenon. Emerging market economies (EMEs), most obviously China, are now piling on debt, though a few (including India) have not been sucked into the debt treadmill.

Financial risk

Given the accelerated pace of debt creation, it is tempting to suppose that ultra-cheap money has raised the spectre of a repeat of the banking crisis. This may indeed be the case. Banks’ reserve ratios have been increased, but not by very much – and, because banks are in the business of lending long but borrowing short, there is no level of reserves which guarantees safety in the face of a bank run triggered by a loss of confidence.

But monetary adventurism also carries risks specific to itself. This is necessarily the case when the stock of money expands much more rapidly than underlying economic activity. This policy has boosted asset prices (including bonds, stocks and property), whilst depressing returns. Essentially, there exists a clear risk that trust in one or more currencies may have been put at risk by reckless monetary policies.

We should never forget that the viability of fiat currencies, just like the solvency of banks, rests entirely on confidence.

The crushing of returns has created huge shortfalls in the provision for pensions. A recent study of just eight countries identified pension shortfalls of $67tn, which are rising at $28bn per day, and are set to reach $428tn (at constant values) by 2050.

SEEDS analysis suggests that the global pension shortfall today might be of the order of $114tn, and could reach $177tn by 2026. By the latter date, global debt could have reached $390tn, compared with $259tn today.

Additionally, and not included in the debt aggregates, inter-bank or “financial” sector debt is a lot higher now ($109n) than it was in 2007 ($72tn, at 2016 values), and might reach $181tn by 2026. This debt component is often excluded from “real economy debt” aggregates, probably because of the assumption that it would net off to zero if each bank paid what it owed. This ceases to be the case, though, if significant banks fail.

In total, then, over the coming decade we could expect aggregate forward liabilities to increase by perhaps $260tn. This number comprises about $130tn of additional debt, an increase of around $70tn in financial debt, and at least $60tn in incremental pension deficits.  Against this, GDP might grow by perhaps $46tn.

For each dollar of that growth, then, we can anticipate:

  • new debt of about $2.80
  • incremental financial debt of $1.60; and
  • additional pension shortfalls of $1.35.

These ratios are, of course, completely unsustainable. Given current tendencies towards acceleration, they might also prove to be unduly conservative projections.

Finally, where financial risk is concerned, it is necessary to dismiss the false comfort that is sometimes derived from an escalation in the theoretical value of assets such as stocks, bonds, property and – even – cash.

Taking property as an example, establishing the gross value of a nation’s housing stock by multiplying up from marginal transactions is entirely misleading. In practice, the only people to whom the housing stock can be sold are the same people to whom it already belongs.

This means that this stock cannot be monetized – and any attempt to convert even a modest proportion of the stock into cash would cause prices to collapse.

The same applies to stocks and bonds.

Even cash holdings are of limited relevance. Unless we postulate that cash is held by the same people who are in debt – or that the holders of cash would be willing to donate it to those in debt – cash cannot be netted off against debt.

Economic risk

Given the scale of financial risk outlined above, it might seem inevitable that a financial shock would have economic consequences. This is indeed the case. Although, in the aggregate, the values of stocks, bonds and property are meaningless, sharp changes in asset prices undoubtedly affect, for good or ill, the willingness of consumers to spend (the “wealth effect”).

Moreover, financial shocks also depress the velocity of money, meaning how long each dollar, euro or pound is held by the consumer before it spent.

But, quite aside from damage that might be inflicted by a financial shock, there are fundamental factors, too, which might drive economic output downwards.

The most important of these is underlying weakness. Since 2008 – and as we have seen – growth of $25tn has come at a cost of $89tn in net new borrowing. This raises the legitimate suspicion that much of the “growth” recorded in recent years has in fact amounted to nothing more than the simple spending of borrowed money.

Data for 2016 illustrates this issue. At constant prices, global GDP increased by $3.9tn, or 3.4%. But debt increased by $12.6tn during the year. Even if, say, only 20% of that new debt was used for consumption, then $2.5tn of the $3.9tn of “growth” was funded by borrowing. Logically, therefore, if – for any reason – consumers had been unable (or simply unwilling) to borrow in order to spend, then growth would have been only $1.38tn, or just 1.2%.

This problem is compounded by the fact that “borrowing to spend” didn’t start last year – SEEDS analysis of the GDP and debt data suggests that this phenomenon has been in place since at least 2000. So, if we ceased to take on additional debt for consumption, it wouldn’t be just the 2016 increment to growth that would be lost.

A counter-argument, of course, might be that activity is activity, irrespective of how it is funded. But consideration surely reveals that this isn’t the case. For a start, as – and it really is as, not “if” – people become aware, not just of how much debt they have, but of quite how precarious their old age is likely to be, we can expect them to become a great deal less willing to spend borrowed money.

The structure of the economy underpins this observation. Consumer spending, which in Western countries typically accounts for between 60% and 70% of GDP, divides into two broad categories. The first are things we must have, which are essential or “non-discretionary” purchases. These remain a minority share of the economy, though their share is increasing.

The other, larger category are “discretionaries”, which are things that we want, but don’t need.

In hard times, consumers are able to scale back on these discretionary purchases. People must eat, but they needn’t go to restaurants to do so. They need transport, but they needn’t replace their cars as often as they do now. They might want to move to a larger house, but they can choose to stay where they are. A British holidaymaker might choose Margate instead of Monaco. In short, the structure of the modern economy permits a great deal of retrenchment on discretionary purchases.

A reluctance to go further into debt, combined with misgivings about retirement, are not the only reasons why discretionary spending is capable of shrinking. Another is an increase in the cost of non-discretionary, essential purchases. Ever since 2000, the cost of essentials has tended to rise a lot more rapidly either than wages or general inflation. One reason for this is the rising real cost of energy, to which many essentials are extensively leveraged.

Taken together, a rising cost of essentials plus a reluctance (or an inability) to go on borrowing could exert very serious downwards pressure on demand. In some of the weaker economies, there are already clear signs that non-discretionary spending may be decreasing.

Energy risk

Quite apart from finance and structural weaknesses in the economy, energy is an area in which crisis is perfectly possible. This isn’t a matter of “running out of” any particular form of energy. Rather, it’s a matter of cost. This cost needs to be measured, not in money – which we can always create – but in terms of energy.

Whenever energy is accessed, some of that energy is consumed in the access process. This cost is described in Surplus Energy Economics as ECoE (the energy cost of energy).

What matters here is the trend, which is determined by the interaction of depletion and technology. Depletion reflects the way in which the lowest-cost resources are accessed first, leaving higher-cost sources until the cheaper ones have been exhausted. Technology can counter the process of depletion, but cannot overcome it, because technology operates within the envelope of what is physically possible within the resource context.

ECoE is not a “cost” in the conventional sense of ‘money going out’, because the global economy is a closed system. Rather, it is an economic rent – put simply, the more resources we are forced to spend on energy, the less we have to spend on other things.

This economic rent, incidentally, is why Surplus Energy Economics concentrates, not on incomes, but on the more fundamental issue of prosperity. This is defined as how much discretionary spending capacity we have. Even a seemingly-massive income doesn’t make someone prosperous, if all of it has to be spent on essentials.

The long-term trend in ECoE is almost wholly unrelated to market prices at any given time. These prices are cyclical, and are driven primarily by investment cycles. After 2000, high prices led to very large investment in capacity. Since 2014, the capacity created by this investment has resulted in over-supply. This over-supply will, in due course, be eroded by a combination of depletion and under-investment.

But the trend in ECoEs remains emphatically upwards. Furthermore, this upwards trend is exponential. A doubling of ECoE from, say, 1% to 2% doesn’t have much of an impact. Doubling ECoE from 7% to 14% is a very much more serious matter.

According to SEEDS, global trend ECoE doubled between 1980 and 1998, rising from 1.8% to 3.5%. It doubled again between 1998 and 2015, but this time to 7%, which is much more serious. By 2026, global ECoE is likely to rise to 10.5%. Well before this date, the effects of this economic rent are likely to force themselves on our attention. The numbers are already much worse in most developed economies than they are at a global average level.

There is a widespread assumption that society can transition pretty smoothly and painlessly from carbon-based to renewable energy sources. This assumption is almost certainly over-sanguine. The share of global consumption provided by renewables will undoubtedly continue to rise, but currently stands at barely 3%. The impact of renewables can be exaggerated by reference to capacities rather than actual output. Petroleum alone still accounts for 97% of all energy used for transport.

Scenarios

Thus far, we’ve looked at three broad categories of risk – finance, the economy and energy – but this by no means exhausts even reasonably plausible risk.

These three problems themselves could bring others in their wake. Downwards pressure on living standards could create political change or social unrest at the national level. Resource competition could heighten geopolitical conflict, particularly if diminishing prosperity has helped put extremists in power.

Current inequalities of income and wealth, tolerable when most people are getting better off, may quickly become politically toxic if general prosperity deteriorates. Migration flows seem likely to increase as prosperity weakens, and this may in turn prompt discontent and unrest in the migrants’ destination countries.

On top of these risks, there is the issue of climate change. We do not need to predicate any kind of environmental disaster to see how the economic rent of climate-dictated restrictions to human activities are piled on top of the increasing economic rent created by rising trend ECoEs.

To conclude, it’s reasonable to mention, in outline, just some scenarios in the economic and financial sphere.

One, of course, is a re-run of the banking crisis.

Another is the collapse of one or more major currencies. In this event, the affected countries would have little option but to default on foreign loans, increasing stresses on other currency areas in a rolling “domino effect”.

Both of these are reasonably likely events. So too, are political radicalism and social unrest, both of which have strong correlations with precisely the situation we have now.

That situation blends resource stresses with diminishing prosperity, severe inequality, over-extended credit, and monetary recklessness.

Historically, even one or two of these characteristics has been enough to trigger a crisis.

 

#105: Anticipating the next crash

THIS TIME IT COULD BE MONEY – NOT BANKS

Because the global financial crisis (GFC) was caused by a collapse of trust in banks, it can be all too easy to assume that the next crash, if there is one, must take the same form.

In fact, it’s more likely to be different. Whilst the idiocy-of choice before 2008 had been irresponsible lending, by far the most dangerous recklessness today is monetary adventurism.

So it’s faith in money, rather than in banks, that could trigger the next crisis.

Introduction – mistaken confidence

Whenever we live through a traumatic event, such as the GFC of 2008, the authorities ‘close the stable door after the horse has bolted’. They put in place measures that might have countered the previous crisis, if only they had they known its nature in advance.

The reason why such measures so often fail to prevent another crash is simple – the next crisis is never the same as the last one.

That’s where we are now. We might be slightly better-placed to combat a GFC-style event today than we were back in 2008, though even that is doubtful. But we are dangerously ill-prepared for what is actually likely to happen.

Put at its simplest, the GFC resulted from the reckless accumulation of debt over the previous 8-10 years. Debt creation has continued – indeed, accelerated – since 2008, but the new form of recklessness has been monetary adventurism.

So it’s likely to be money, not debt, which brings the house down this time. Where 2008 was triggered by a collapse of faith in banks, a loss of faith in currencies could be the trigger for the next crisis.

And, judging by their actions, the authorities seem not to have spotted this risk at all.

Unfinished business?

Where the likelihood of a sequel to 2008 is concerned, opinion divides into two camps.

Some of us are convinced that the GFC is unfinished business – and that another crisis has been made more likely by the responses adopted back then. That we’re in a minority shouldn’t worry us because, after all, change happens when the majority (‘consensus’) view turns out to be wrong.

Others, probably the majority, believe that normality has now been restored.

But this is view, frankly, is illogical. To believe that what we have now is “normality”, you would have to accept each of these propositions as true.

1. Current monetary conditions, with interest rates that are negative (lower than inflation), are “normal”

2. It is “normal” for people to be punished for saving, but rewarded for borrowing

3. It is also “normal” for debt to be growing even more rapidly now than it did before 2008

4. Buying $1 of “growth” with $3 or more of borrowing is “normal”

5. QE – the creation of vast sums of new money out of thin air – is also “normal”

6. Vastly inflated asset values, and extremely depressed incomes, are “normal”

7. Policies which hand money to the already-wealthy, at the expense of everyone else, are another aspect of “normal”

8. It is quite “normal” for us to have destroyed the ability to save for pensions, or for any other purpose.

To be sure, Lewis Carroll’s White Queen famously managed to believe “six impossible things before breakfast”, but even she would have struggled to swallow this lot with her croissants and coffee.

When we consider, also, the continued stumbling global economy – which, nearly a decade after the crisis, remains nowhere near “escape velocity” – the case for expecting a second crash becomes pretty compelling.

But this does not mean that we should expect a re-run of 2008 in the same form.

Rather, everything suggests that the sequel to 2008 will be a different kind of crisis. The markets won’t be frightened by something familiar, but will be panicked by something new.

This means that we should expect a form of crisis that hasn’t been anticipated, and hasn’t been prepared for.

2008 – a loss of trust in banks

We need to be clear that the GFC had two real causes, both traceable in the last analysis to reckless deregulation.

First, debt had escalated to unsustainable levels.

Second, risk had proliferated, and been allowed to disperse in ways that were not well understood.

Of these, it was the risk factor which really triggered the crash, because nobody knew which banks and other financial institutions were safe, and which weren’t. This put the financial system into the lock-down known as “the credit crunch”, which was the immediate precursor to the crash.

Ultimately, this was all about a loss of trust. Even a perfectly sound bank can collapse, if trust is lost. Because banks are in the business of borrowing short and lending long, there is no way that they can call in loans if depositors are panicked into pulling their money out.

This also means – and please be in no doubt about this – that there is no amount of reserves which can prevent a bank collapse.

So – and despite claims to the contrary – a 2008-style banking crisis certainly could take place again, even though reserve ratios have been strengthened. This time, though, banks are likely to be in the second wave of a crash, not in the front line.

Coming next – a loss of trust in money?

The broader lesson to be learned from the financial crisis is that absolute dependency on faith is by no means unique to banks.

Trust is a defining characteristic of the entire financial system – and is particularly true of currencies.

Modern money, not backed by gold or other tangible assets, is particularly vulnerable to any loss of trust. The value of fiat money depends entirely on the “full faith and credit” of its sponsoring government. If that faith and creditworthiness are ever called into serious question, the ensuing panic can literally destroy the value of the currency. It’s happened very often in the past, and can certainly happen again.

Loss of faith in a currency can happen in many ways. It can happen if the state, or its economy, become perceived as non-viable. In fact, though, this isn’t the most common reason for currency collapse. Rather, any state can imperil the trustworthiness of its currency if it behaves irresponsibly.

Again, we can’t afford to be vague about this. Currency collapse, resulting from a haemorrhaging of faith, is always a consequence of reckless monetary policy. Wherever there is policy irresponsibility, a currency can be expected to collapse.

In instances such as Weimar Germany and modern-day Zimbabwe, the creation of too much money was “route one” to the destruction of the trust. But this isn’t the only way in which faith in a currency can be destroyed. Another trust-destroying practice is the monetizing of debt, which means creating money to “pay” government deficits.

So the general point is that the viability of a currency can be jeopardized by any form of monetary irresponsibility. The scale of risk is in direct proportion to the extent of that irresponsibility.

The disturbing and inescapable reality today is that the authorities, over an extended period, have engaged in unprecedented monetary adventurism. As well as slashing interest rates to levels that are literally without precedent, they have engaged in money creation on a scale that would have frightened earlier generations of central bankers out of their wits.

Let’s be crystal clear about something else, too. Anyone who asserts that this adventurism isn’t attended by an escalation in risk is living in a fantasy world of “this time is different”.

Here is a common factor linking 2008 and 2017. In the years before the GFC, reckless deregulation created dangerous debt excesses. Since then, recklessness has extended from regulation into monetary policy itself. Now, as then, irresponsible behaviour has been the common factor.

A big difference between then and now, though, lies in the scope for recovery. In 2008, the banks could be rescued, because trust in money remained. This meant that governments could rescue banks by pumping in money. There exist few, if any, conceivable responses that could counter a haemorrhage of faith in money.

Obviously, you can’t rescue a discredited currency by creating more of it.

If a single currency loses trust, another country or bloc might just bail it out. But even this is pretty unlikely, because of both sheer scale, and contagion risk.

So there is no possible escape route from a systemic loss of trust in fiat money. In that situation, the only response would be to introduce wholly new currencies which start out with a clean bill of health.

An exercise in folly

To understand the current risk, we need to know how we got here. Essentially, we are where we are because of how the authorities responded to the GFC.

In 2008, the immediate threat facing the financial system wasn’t the sheer impossibility of ever repaying the debt mountain created in previous years. Most debt doesn’t have to be repaid immediately, and can often be replaced or rolled-over.

Rather, the “clear and present danger” back then was an inability to keep up interest payments on that debt. Because the spending of borrowed money had given an artificial boost to apparent economic activity, there was widespread complacency about how much debt we could actually afford to service. When the crash unmasked the weakness of borrowers, it became glaringly apparent that the debt mountain simply couldn’t be serviced at a ‘normal’ rate of interest (with ‘normal’, for our purposes, meaning rates in the range 4-6%).

The obvious response was to circumvent this debt service problem by slashing rates. Cutting policy rates was a relatively straightforward, administrative exercise for central bankers. But prevailing rates aren’t determined by policy alone, because markets have a very big say in rate-setting. This, ultimately, was why QE (quantitative easing) was implemented. QE enabled central banks to drive down bond yields, by using gigantic buying power to push up the prices of bonds.

Beyond the mistaken assurance that QE wasn’t the same as “printing money” – so wouldn’t drive inflation up – little or no thought seems to have been devoted to the medium- or longer-term consequences of monetary adventurism.

In essence, ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) was a medicine employed to rescue a patient in immediate danger. Even when responding to a crisis, however, the wise physician is cognisant of two drug risks – side-effects, and addiction.

The financial physicians considered neither of these risks in their panic response to 2008. The result is that today we have addiction to cheap money, and we are suffering some economic side-effects that are very nasty indeed.

The inflation delusion

Even the assurance about inflation was misleading, because increasing the quantity of money without simultaneously increasing the supply of goods and services must create inflation. This is a mathematical certainty.

Rather, the only question is where the inflation is going to turn up.

As has been well explained elsewhere, handing new money to everyone would drive up general inflation. Giving all of it to little girls, on the other hand, would drive up the price of Barbie dolls. Since QE handed money to capital markets, its effect was to drive up the price of assets.

That much was predictable. Unfortunately, though, when policymakers think about inflation, they usually think only in terms of high street prices. When, for example, the Bank of England was given a degree of independence in 1997, its remit was framed wholly in CPI terms, as though the concept of asset inflation hadn’t occurred to anyone.

This is a dangerous blind-spot. The reality is that asset inflation is every bit as ‘real’ as high street inflation – and can be every bit as harmful.

Massive damage

In itself, though, inflation (asset or otherwise) is neither the only nor the worst consequence of extreme monetary recklessness. Taken overall, shifting the basis of the entire economy onto ultra-cheap money must be one of the most damaging policies ever adopted.

Indeed, it is harmful enough to make Soviet collectivism look almost rational.

The essence of a cheap money is policy is to transform the relationship between assets and incomes through the brute force of monetary manipulation.

Like communism before it, this manipulation seeks to over-rule market forces which, in a sane world, would be allowed to determine this relationship.

By manipulating interest rates, and thereby unavoidably distorting all returns on capital, this policy has all but destroyed rational investment.

Take pensions as an example. Historically, a saver needing $10,000 in twenty-five years’ time could achieve this by investing about $2,400 today. Now, though, he would need to invest around $6,500 to attain the same result.

In effect, manipulating rates of return has crippled the ability to save, raising the cost of pension provision by a factor of about 2.7x.

Therefore, if (say) saving an affordable 10% of income represented adequate provision in the past, the equivalent savings rate required now is 27%. This is completely unaffordable for the vast majority.  In effect, then – and for all but the very richest – policymakers have destroyed the ability to save for retirement.

Small wonder that, for eight countries alone, a recent study calculated pension shortfalls at $67 trillion, a number projected to rise to $428 trillion (at 2015 values) by 2050.

What this amounts to is cannibalizing the economy. This is a good way to think about what happens when we subsidise current consumption by destroying the ability to provide for the future.

Savings, of course, are a flip-side of investment, so the destruction of the ability to save simultaneously cripples the capability to invest efficiently as well. The transmission mechanism is the ultra-low rate of return that can now be earned on capital.

A further adverse effect of monetary adventurism has been to stop the necessary process of “creative destruction” in its tracks. In a healthy economy, it is vital that weak competitors go under, freeing up capital and market share for new, more dynamic entrants. Very often, the victims of this process are brought down by an inability to service their debts. So, by keeping these “zombies” afloat, cheap money makes it difficult for new companies to compete.

Obviously, we also have a problem with inflated asset values in classes such as stocks, bonds and property. These elevated values build in crash potential, and steer investors towards ever greater risk in pursuit of yield. Inflated property prices are damaging in many ways. They tend towards complacency about credit. They impair labour mobility, and discriminate against the young.

More broadly, the combination of inflated asset values and depressed incomes provides adverse incentives, favouring speculation over innovation. And this is where some of the world’s more incompetent governments have stepped in to make things even worse.

In any economic situation, there’s nothing that can’t be made worse if government really works at it. The problems created by “zombie” companies are worsened where government fails to enforce competition by breaking up market domination. Though the EU is quite proactive over promoting competition, the governments of America and Britain repeatedly demonstrate their frail grasp of market economics when they fail to do the same.

Worse still, the US and the UK actually increase the shift of incentives towards speculation and away from innovation. Having failed to tax the gains handed gratuitously to investors by QE, these countries follow policies designed to favour speculation. Capital gains are often taxed at rates less than income, and these gains are sheltered by allowances vastly larger than are available on income.

The United Kingdom has even backstopped property markets using cheap credit, apparently under the delusional belief that inflated house prices are somehow “good” for the economy.

How will it happen?

As we’ve seen, monetary recklessness – forced on central bankers by the GFC, but now extended for far too long – has weakened economic performance as well as intensifying risk. In some instances, fiscal policy has made a bad problem worse.

In short, the years since the crash have been characterised by some of the most idiotic policies ever contemplated.

All that remains to consider is how the crash happens. The prediction made here is that, this time around, it will be currencies, rather than banks, which will be first suffer the crisis-inducing loss of trust (though this crisis seems certain to engulf the banks as well, and pretty quickly).

The big question is whether the collapse of faith in currencies will begin in a localized way, or will happen systemically.

The former seems likelier. Although Japan has now monetized its debt to a dangerous scale (with the Bank of Japan now owning very nearly half of all Japanese government bonds), by far the most at-risk major currency is the British pound.

In an earlier article, we examined the case for a sterling crash, so this need not be revisited here. In short, it’s hard to find any reason at all for owning sterling, given the state of the economy. On top of this, there are at least two potential pitfalls.  One of these is “Brexit”, and the other is the very real possibility than an exasperated public might elect a far-left government.

Given a major common factor – the fatuity of the “Anglo-American economic model” – it is tempting to think that the dollar might be the next currency at risk. There are, pretty obviously, significant weaknesses in the American economy. But the dollar enjoys one crucial advantage over sterling, and that is the “petro-prop”. Because oil (and other commodities) are priced in dollars, anyone wanting to purchase them has to buy dollars first. This provides support for the dollar, despite America’s economic weaknesses (which include cheap money, and a failure to break up market-dominating players across a series of important sectors).

Conclusion

Once the loss of trust in currencies gets under way, many different weaknesses are likely to be exposed.

The single most likely sequence starts with a sterling crash. By elevating the local value of debt denominated in foreign currencies, this could raise the spectre of default, which could in turn have devastating effects on faith in the balance sheets of other countries. Moreover, a collapse in Britain would, in itself, inflict grave damage on the world economy.

Of course, how the next crisis happens is unknowable, and is largely a secondary question. Right now, there are two points which need to be taken on board.

First, the sheer abnormality of current conditions makes a new financial crisis highly likely.

Second, and rather than assume that banks will again be in the eye of the storm, we should be looking instead at the most vulnerable currencies.

Losing faith in banks, as happened in 2007-08, was bad enough.

But a loss of faith in money would be very, very much worse.

 

#104. Why Mr Trump can’t raise American prosperity

 

THE US ECONOMY – A SEEDS APPRAISAL

With SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – nearing public release, this article has two purposes. It assesses the outlook for the American economy, and uses this investigation to demonstrate how SEEDS is applied to economic interpretation.

It concludes that American prosperity is in decline, and has been falling ever since it ‘peaked’ way back in 1999. This doesn’t make America unique – prosperity has long been falling across much of the developed West. But it does mean that the central economic task of President Trump, which is to make the average American more prosperous, simply is not possible.

Two main factors are driving the deterioration in prosperity. First, the underlying economy has been deteriorating, a trend disguised by the spending of borrowed money.

Second, in America as elsewhere, the trend cost of energy continues to increase markedly, even while market prices are trapped in a cyclical low. This cost acts as an “economic rent”, and translates into individual experience primarily through the cost of essentials, which are energy-intensive.

Essentially, two things are happening to the average American. First, his or her income is rising less rapidly than the cost of essentials, squeezing the “discretionary” income which is the real definition of prosperity. Second, increases in income are being far exceeded by increases in debt, and also by growing shortfalls in pension provision. So the citizen feels both less prosperous and less secure.

As SEEDS measures it, per capita prosperity was 10% lower in 2016 than it was back in 2000. Neither is this trend likely to reverse – by 2025, the average American is likely to have seen his or her prosperity decline by a further 8% in comparison with 2016. At the same time, per capita debt has increased by almost $54,000, in real terms, since 2000, a problem now being compounded by a rapidly-growing systemic shortfall in pension provision.

‘Conventional’ economics cannot capture any of this. A perspective which ignores both “borrowed consumption” and the trend cost of energy is baffled by popular discontent, in America and elsewhere. Moreover, ‘conventional’ analysis tends to be misled by the apparently-buoyant values of stocks, bonds and property. These values are misleading, because they cannot be monetized – the only buyers for homes, for example, are the same people to whom they already belong.

For as long as these issues are overlooked, popular anger is likely to go on taking ‘the experts’ by surprise.

Context – the politics of waning prosperity

There were two main factors which combined to put Donald Trump in the Oval Office last year. The first was widespread popular contempt for the political process, something which Mr Trump addressed with his promise to “drain the swamp”. The second was the economic hardship being experienced by millions of Americans in a system which they increasingly perceive as benefiting only a wealthy minority.

On this second point, the challenge for Mr Trump is crystal-clear – to be successful, he must improve the material well-being of the average American. But this analysis concludes that there is no possibility of Mr Trump – or, for that matter, of anyone else – increasing per capita prosperity in the United States.

Mr Trump could, of course, try to offset this by redistribution, but there is no indication whatsoever that he will even contemplate doing this. The danger is that, if he decides against ‘taking from the rich to give to the rest’, voters may opt for somebody else who will.

Economic conditions are only one input to political decisions, of course, but their role can often be decisive. If this analysis is correct in concluding that the decline in the prosperity of ‘Middle America’ cannot be reversed, Mr Trump is going to struggle to be re-elected. Though a challenge might be mounted by the self-same establishment that he defeated in 2016, a likelier scenario might be a leftward tilt in the centre of gravity of American politics.

The economy – an energy dynamic, not a financial one

The basis of the surplus energy approach is recognition that the economy is an energy dynamic, not a monetary one. This much should be obvious, because money has no intrinsic worth – it commands value only to the extent that it can be exchanged for goods and services. Energy is central to the supply of all these goods and services.

The value that the economy generates, therefore, is a function of how much energy we can access. But, whenever we access energy, some of that energy is consumed in the access process. The term ‘surplus energy’ describes the difference between the gross quantity of energy available, and the cost of accessing it. That difference or ‘surplus’ is the foundation of prosperity.

The concept of prosperity needs to be understood clearly. Prosperity is not simply the size of someone’s income. Rather, it is the sum left over after essentials have been paid for. This means that prosperity equates to “discretionary” income, which is the sum that he or she can choose how to spend.

The fundamentally energy-based nature of all output creates a natural distinction between “two economies” – the real economy of goods and services, and the financial economy of money and credit. Used properly, the financial system can deliver many benefits. Equally, though, it can be harmful, if it diverges too far from the real economy.

The potential for harm is simple. Money functions only as a “claim” on goods and services, which really makes it a claim on surplus energy. Likewise, since credit is a claim on future money, it is really a claim on future energy.

Financial “claims” – money and credit – can be manufactured out of thin air, and we can create as many of these claims as we like. But, if we create claims that exceed what the real economy can deliver, the excess cannot be honoured. Therefore, it must be destroyed. Inflation is one way of doing this, though default is another.

Energy in America

The consumption of primary energy in the United States has been in gentle decline for a number of years. In 2016, Americans consumed 2.28 bntoe (billion tonnes of oil-equivalent), 2% less than in 2006. Over that period, the population increased by 8%, so energy consumption per person is in a somewhat steeper decline. This is often assumed to indicate greater efficiency. But the alternative possibility – that it may simply reflect deteriorating prosperity – seems disturbingly consistent with the facts.

The supply of indigenous energy increased by 24% over the decade to 2016, and much of this increase has been supplied by unconventional oil and gas, extracted from shale formations using hydraulic fracturing. Reflecting this, the US imported only 11% of its energy needs in 2016, compared with 30% in 2006.

The dramatic increase in unconventional hydrocarbons production has created much hype, tending to disguise a rather more prosaic reality. Shales are costly to produce, not so much in operating expenses but, rather, in capital costs, which are themselves a function of depletion.

The output from shale wells declines far more quickly than conventional production, creating a constant need to drill new wells simply to sustain output, let alone increase it. This puts operators on a “drilling treadmill”, something evident both in huge capital expenditures, and in the inability of the industry to cover its capital costs from operating cash flow.

Moreover, a peak in shale output now looms, and this peak is assumed here to occur in 2021. If some of the more sanguine claims for shale were true, the United States would be scaling back its ability to ensure safe delivery of petroleum from the Middle East. It is clear that the Pentagon has no such intention, and the US remains as interested as ever in political developments in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

What really matters, where the economy is concerned, isn’t the aggregate amount of energy available, but the cost of accessing it. This is cost expressed in energy terms, not financially. SEEDS estimates the ECoE – the Energy Cost of Energy – of the American demand mix in 2016 as 7.9%, which rises to 9.2% after adjustment for net energy trade. This latter number has been on a rising trend – it was 7.2% in 2006, and only 4.2% in 1996 – and is projected to reach 13.5% by 2026.

The 2016 number is higher than the global average (8.2%), but better than those of competitors including Britain (10.5%), France (11%), China (14.3%) and Germany (15%). So America does enjoy a significant energy advantage over some of its principal competitors, even if that advantage is not as great as is sometimes claimed.

The financial economy

American GDP in 2016 was $18.6 trillion, a real-terms increase of 33% since 2000. Over that period, however, the population has increased by 15%, so the gain in per capita terms has been rather more modest, at 16%. Theoretically, this should have made most Americans markedly more prosperous, but there is a big snag involved in accepting GDP numbers at face value.

Comparing 2016 with 2000, and using constant 2016 values throughout, American GDP increased by $4.6tn. But, and again at constant values, aggregate debt grew by $21trn over the same period. This means that each dollar of recorded growth was accompanied by $4.60 of new debt.

This issue is often overlooked, by economists and policymakers alike. But its relevance should be obvious because, if America goes on adding $4.60 of debt for every $1 of growth, a point must be reached, eventually, at which further growth becomes impossible, because debt has reached a practical maximum.

Another way to look at this is that a significant proportion of reported growth has really amounted to nothing more than the spending of borrowed money. If the ability to keep “borrowing to spend” was to be curtailed, this borrowed element would fall away, resulting in a sharp fall in GDP.

The scale of this problem is evidenced by the way in which America, like other countries, has effectively been forced into a policy of ultra-cheap money by the sheer impossibility of paying a ‘normal’ rate of interest on debts of this size.

ZIRP – meaning zero interest rate policy – has hefty economic costs. Just one of these is that it stymies the essential process of “creative destruction”, by keeping afloat weak players who, in a ‘normal’ interest rate environment, would have gone under, freeing up capital and market share for new, more innovative competitors. Cheap money also incentivizes speculative over innovative activities, as well as deterring saving, and encouraging borrowing.

Another consequence of cheap money is that it destroys the ability to provide for the future. Saving becomes pointless when interest earned is less than inflation. This has particular relevance for pensions. According to a recent report, the deficiency in American pension provision stood at $27.8tn in 2015, and is growing at a rate of $3tn per year.

To put this in context, it is about 5x what America spends on defence. In 2016, the US economy expanded by $0.3tn, a number obviously dwarfed by the deepening pension chasm, as well as by a net increase of $1.4tn in debt. When income is growing by $0.3tn annually, but liabilities are increasing by $4.4tn, something is clearly very wrong indeed.

The underlying economy

Since the “borrowing to spend” issue obviously cannot be ignored, SEEDS uses an algorithm to calculate how much economic output is accounted for by the simple spending of borrowed money. Of the $21tn borrowed since 2000, $4.0tn is deemed to be “borrowing for consumption”. This is only 19% of the total borrowed, so might be a conservative estimate. Even so, it has dramatic implications for underlying (borrowing-free) GDP.

According to SEEDS, American underlying GDP in 2016 was only $14.5tn, a number which is 22% below the reported $18.6tn. This underlying number is an estimate of where GDP would be if Americans ceased “borrowing to spend”. It represents an increase of only 7% (rather than the recorded 33%) since 2000. Moreover, it equates to a fall (of 6%) in underlying output per capita.

This analysis goes some way towards explaining a big political (as well as economic) conundrum – the reason why the average American feels poorer is that he or she really is poorer. This deterioration in underlying income, then, is extremely indicative. It becomes even more so when we consider the role of energy, which plays a critical part in determining prosperity.

The real economy

Thus far, we have looked at two measures of American economic output. One of these is recorded GDP, and the other is a borrowing-adjusted calculation of underlying GDP. The third stage in this process is to factor-in energy costs, described earlier as ECoE. This calculation is critical if we are to identify trends in prosperity, rather than simply in income.

The trend cost of energy is quite different from the market price at any given time. Whilst prices are cyclical, cost is a long-term trend, determined by the interplay between depletion and technology. Moreover, cost needs to be considered, not initially in monetary terms, but as the proportion of accessed energy that is consumed in the access process.

The term “cost” can be misleading, because it is not directly analogous to the costs incurred running a home or a business. Those costs leave the home or business but, globally, the energy economy is a closed system, so the cost of energy does not leave it.

Rather, energy cost is an “economic rent” – it is not a sum deducted from income, but an amount that we are forced to use in a particular way. This means that it reduces the amount that can be spent as we choose, and this “discretionary” income is what determines prosperity.

Where America is concerned, SEEDS estimates the 2016 ECoE of the United States at 9.2%, up from 5.5% back in 2000. The main impact of this energy cost “drag” on prosperity is experienced through escalation in the cost of essentials.

In per capita terms, this trend has paralleled the deterioration in underlying GDP. Stripped of borrowed spending, this underlying measure of income declined by 6% between 2000 and 2016. Adding the ECoE component into the mix indicates that per capita prosperity has declined at roughly the same rate. In the future, though, a continuing rise in ECoE is set to exacerbate the erosion of prosperity.

The future

In America, as elsewhere across much of the Western world, organic growth in economic output petered out around 2000. Since then, and again like many other countries, America has been ‘faking’ economic growth by spending borrowed money.

As a result, debt has grown much more rapidly than GDP. In the years between 2000 and the global financial crisis (GFC) in 2008, each $1 of reported growth was accompanied by a $5.20 rise in debt.

Since then, this ratio has improved, averaging $3.85 of borrowing for each growth dollar between 2008 and 2016. Unfortunately, though, this has been compounded by two other trends. First, the ratio of debt-to-GDP is higher now (251%) than it was at the end of 2008 (234%).

Worse still, the policy of ultra-cheap money has created huge and growing shortfalls in pension provision, a structural shortfall now standing at over $29tn, or 157% of GDP, and increasing by $3tn annually.

When we balance out trends in income with trends in debt and other forms of liability, the picture which emerges is one of steadily deteriorating prosperity. As trend ECoE continues to rise, the squeeze on prosperity will tighten further.

America is by no means unique in experiencing downwards pressure on prosperity – the same is happening in many other countries, often more severely than in the United States.

The problems posed for America are twofold. First, the deterioration in prosperity makes it impossible for the President to improve the material prosperity of the average American – in attempting to do so, he is about as powerless as was King Canute when he tried to turn back the tide.

Second, the use of cheap money to ‘manufacture’ nominal economic growth is already creating an escalating level of forward risk. Just as Americans are getting less prosperous, they are also becoming ever more indebted, and face ever greater insecurity as provision for pensions deteriorates.

The time cannot be too far off, for America as for the world more generally, where the future (represented by the collective balance sheet) overwhelms the present.

 

 

#103: Down and running?

STERLING UNDER THE COSH

Some months have now elapsed since the warning here about the very real risk of a run on the pound sterling (GBP). Though – thus far, anyway – the currency’s value has eroded rather than crashed, the relentless, almost daily setting of new lows is starting to look ominous.

This process has an importance reaching far beyond Britain itself. As will be explained in a forthcoming discussion, the next financial crash is likely to differ from the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) in at least one crucial respect – this time, it’s likely to be currencies, rather than banks, which are hit by a traumatic haemorrhaging of trust.

And, if you’re looking for the likeliest candidate for a crisis, sterling stands out from all other major traded currencies.

The real problem, frightening in its implications, is that there are almost no fundamental grounds for holding the pound. The economy is weak, depending entirely on the spending of borrowed money to deliver any growth at all. The current administration has been left in office, but stripped of power, by an electoral debacle which could hardly have been worse-timed, given the immediacy of post-“Brexit” trade talks.

Even before this setback, the United Kingdom was suffering the consequences of two decades of poor leadership. Not just in economic policy, but in other areas too – ranging across the gamut from defence and foreign policy to energy, public administration and civil liberties – it’s impossible to fathom what the British people could have done to deserve such woeful governments.

In economics, where it matters most, the leadership of the UK has, time and again, proved itself almost wholly detached from reality. To a greater extent even than the United States, successive administrations have turned Britain into a poster-child for extreme ‘laissez-faire’ economics, championing the very same mistakes (such as “light touch” regulatory negligence) that led directly to the 2008 crash.

Successive promises to “rebalance” have come to nothing, leaving the economy dangerously skewed towards speculation rather than innovation. Reflecting this, productivity is dire, and vulnerabilities now include an unsustainable deficit on the current account. Hitherto, inward investment has kept the wolf from the door, but reasons for keeping capital in the UK, let alone adding to it, have become very hard to find.

After severe forex losses since the June 2016 “Brexit” vote, overseas investors must now be wondering whether putting yet more capital into the UK amounts to pouring good money after bad. If that logic becomes a consensus view, sterling could crash, in a panic dash for the exit.

A sterling slump could easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, most notably through the escalating local level of debt denominated in foreign currencies. Further sharp falls in the value of the pound could push debt up to unsustainable levels.

In such situations, the standard response is to raise interest rates, in order both to defend the currency and to attract foreign capital. But there are at least two reasons why this might not be workable.

First, the sheer scale of debt might make a meaningful rise in rates unaffordable.

Second, markets might interpret rate increases as a panic measure, confirming some of their doubts about the health of the economy.

The best hope for sterling in the short term is that the authorities show at least a preparedness to consider rate rises, and – above all – that foreign investors keep putting in more capital.

The trouble with this is that incentives to invest are few and far between. Most seriously, the long-standing deterioration in average earnings, with wage rises remaining adrift of inflation, doesn’t point to vibrant customer demand. This makes it hard for an investor to expect growth in sales and profits.

Moreover, there has to be a very real danger that the British will fail to secure a worthwhile post-“Brexit” trade deal with Europe. Additionally, the fractured nature of British politics makes the election of a left-leaning, pro-nationalization Labour administration a possibility too plausible to be discounted.

When negatives outweigh positives to this extent, a relentless downwards momentum can set in. If the pound continues to deteriorate, and unless government gets a grip and puts pragmatism ahead of ideology, the risk of a sterling crisis could quickly become very real indeed.

 

 

#102: The great divide

THE EMERGING SCHISM IN CAPITALISM

In comparison with most articles here, this discussion is unusually lengthy. It has also taken longer than usual to put together, and covers some complex issues. It does, however, highlight an emerging split within the “capitalist” world – a split that we cannot afford to ignore.

In essence, it describes how a fanatical extreme has controlled “free-market” or “capitalist” economics for far too long. This fanaticism is described here as “laissez-faire”, to distinguish it from the more moderate, “popular” form of capitalist thinking which recognizes both the value of the private-public “mixed economy”, and the importance of regulation and of a strong ethical code.

If you want a shorthand term for “laissez-faire”, ‘junglenomics’ is suggested. It describes a form of near-anarchic, “survival of the fittest” thinking which is close to “law of the jungle”.

It puts its faith in “caveat emptor” rather than regulation.

It argues that private ownership (rather than free and fair competition) is the essence of the market economy.

And it scorns government (except when it needs to be rescued by the taxpayer, of course).

This thinking, manifested through deregulation, created the debt explosion and the escalation in risk which caused the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008. We are still paying for that crisis, and should anticipate a sequel, especially if the supporters of laissez-faire succeed in repeating the recklessness of deregulation.

Given President Trump’s deregulatory agenda, such a repetition seems increasingly likely.

This time, however, some perfectly decent “capitalists” are likely to pursue a very different course, with Europe providing the lead. In the European Union (EU), the emphasis increasingly is on macroprudential regulation, enforcement of competition, and the protection of consumers and workers.

As this schism widens, the previously-consensus “Anglo-American economic model” could become exactly that – a model supported only by America and Britain (and, conceivably, by the United States alone, if British voters oust the economic “liberals”).

In memoriam

Perhaps because so many of my forebears went off to fight in the First World War – though fewer returned – I’ve been more than usually interested in the commemorations that have been taking place since 2014. Last year we had the Somme and Jutland, and this year, Passchendaele.

But another anniversary looms a couple of years ahead, and it’s to be hoped that this one is celebrated to the full, not least because of its huge contemporary significance. That anniversary is the bicentenary of the first Factory Act, which became part of British law in 1819.

The scope of that law was extremely limited, and its enforcement left a great deal to be desired. It’s important, though, because it is established the principle that the state has a duty to protect working people from the worst excesses of unscrupulous employers.

Over the intervening years, in Britain and around the world, this principle has been extended, to the point where workers in most advanced economies enjoy substantial protection from exploitation and unfair treatment, as well as from hazards in the workplace. In parallel with this, we have enacted a great deal of legislation to protect customers from unscrupulous practices.

The result is that, today, both workers and consumers benefit from extensive protection. Safety at work is part of this, as are entitlements such as sick-pay and paid holidays, and provisions guarding against unfair dismissal. On the consumer side, protection is equally extensive. For example, the roadworthiness of taxis is generally tested to levels more demanding than those which apply to private cars, and the licensing of drivers includes criminal records checks. Hotels, too, are extensively inspected, over vital issues such as food hygiene and fire precautions.

All of this adds costs, which taxi firms, hoteliers, and employers in general, must pass on to their customers. We pay a little more, but what we get in return is worth it. We can step into a taxi knowing that its brakes work properly, and the driver isn’t a convicted rapist. The hotel that we choose for our holiday or city break mightn’t be perfect, but we can be pretty sure it isn’t a twin of Grenfell Tower.

For the proprietor, this regulation can be irksome – but is made less so by the knowledge that all his competitors, too, are regulated in exactly the same way. If some players could evade the regulations, of course, they could cash in, offering lower prices to attract unwary customers, and putting the law-abiding supplier at an unfair competitive disadvantage.

A further stage in the protection of the consumer has become topical in recent years, and that is the regulation of financial services. When we buy a fridge or a car, we have the assurance that the product is safe, but, beyond that, most of us also have a pretty good idea of what the product does, and how it does it. Even the most informed lay person has much less knowledge of financial products, though, so additional protection is required. This extends into macroprudential regulation, because a dishonest or reckless financial firm can endanger, not just the customer, but the broader economy as well.

So customary are these protections that we take them for granted. They’re not perfect, of course – nothing can be. But, when something does go wrong, the focus immediately falls on regulation, and three questions tend to be asked.

Did someone break the law?

Was enforcement faulty?

Or do we need to tighten the rules?

The fact that the focus automatically turns to regulation shows quite how ingrained our assumptions about the benevolent role of oversight have become.

Turning back the clock

There are, however, some who don’t share the widespread acceptance that regulation is a good thing. Bizarre though this may seem, it doesn’t seem to matter to these people whether your hotel is safe, your taxi is driven by a convicted criminal, your employer tramples all over you, or a bank or insurer exploits your comparative ignorance of financial products. Neither, it seems, are they much concerned about practices which create a systemic threat to the system.

This viewpoint, which we can label “laissez-faire”, is the fanatical end of the capitalist spectrum. It states, mistakenly, that private ownership (rather than free and fair competition) is the core principle of market economics, and that government is, in effect, a necessary evil, to be minimized wherever possible. This makes advocacy of privatization a matter of principle, coupled with a sometimes visceral dislike of the public sector.

With private enterprise, always and everywhere, labelled “good” – and the public sector labelled “bad” – this is a very black-and white worldview. In fact, if capitalism can be likened to a faith (which, for extremists, it can), the “laissez-faire” persuasion is a hard-line sect within that faith. Though philosophically a sect, laissez-faire puritanism has long since ceased to be a fringe group. Indeed, it has dominated capitalist thinking for far too long.

To extend the faith analogy a little further, the laissez-faire domination of capitalism is equivalent to the Inquisition taking over the sixteenth-century Vatican. That never happened, of course. But, if it had, Protestants would not have been the only victims of Torquemada’s wrath – equal venom would have been directed at “compromisers”, meaning anyone having the temerity to suggest that the Lutherans might not be wholly bad, and that an accommodation could be reached with the followers of Calvin.

Where this is particularly relevant right now is in the field of regulation. For the zealots of laissez-faire, minimizing government also means minimizing regulation.

In particular, they argue that no good can ever come of government interference in contractual arrangements between employers and employees. Customers, meanwhile, don’t need the sort of protection they have today, because self-interest, in the form of caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”), is a better defence than regulation.

Over an extended period, the hard-line laissez-faire persuasion has taken over the commanding heights of capitalism. Sometimes known as “the Washington consensus” and “the Anglo-American economic model”, it has long been established as orthodoxy, not just in America and Britain, but in many other countries, and in important transnational organizations as well.

Trump and the zealots

The United States has long been the home of laissez-faire extremism, and never has this been the case more emphatically than under Donald Trump. The wave of deregulation which rolled on under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush was stemmed by the Obama administration, which favoured a more proactive role for government. To the zealots, this was tantamount to betrayal, and many of them regard “Obamacare” as something not far short of treason.

With Mr Trump in the Oval Office, economic zealotry is back – with a vengeance. Most significantly, the emphasis is on weakening regulatory oversight, including rolling back the 2009 Dodd-Frank Act, and the related “Volcker rule”. Instead of doing something really useful – like, for example, “trust-busting” market-dominating players in the tech space – the focus is firmly back on “deregulation”.

In anyone who understands how economics and finance really work, hearing gleaming-eyed fanatics talking about “deregulation” provokes a frisson of fear – because it means that the lunatics, far from being chastened by past experience, are on the loose again.

Because, of course, we’ve been down this road before.

We’ve heard all the gibberish about “light-touch” regulation.

We’ve heard how banks can be trusted to be the wisest custodians of their shareholders’ best interests.

We’ve heard the rabid advocacy of “animal spirits”.

Worst of all, we’ve heard the rants about how all things government are bad – rants which didn’t stop until the laissez-faire zealots found themselves on their knees, begging for rescue from the very same state which they had spent a decade and more denigrating.

The peril of extremes

If there is a single lesson that we should all have learned by now, it is that all forms of economic extremism lead to disaster.

After collectivism crippled the Soviet Union and its eastern bloc satellites, most sensible people thought we’d learned a decisive lesson about the dangers of fanaticism. It turned out, however, that the laissez-faire extremists were plotting catastrophe on a scale dwarfing the localised disaster of Soviet communism.

This really got under way in the second half of the late 1990s, and the tragedy is that so many were taken in by the fanatics.

We accepted the nonsense that low wages could make an economy prosperous, an imbecility addressed in the previous discussion.

We believed the gibberish which said that there was no danger in using cheap and easy credit to fill the gap between high consumption and low wages.

We listened open-mouthed, in the midst of the biggest credit-fuelled bubble in history, to declarations that “boom and bust” had finally been buried.

And we watched as the fanatical pursuit of debt-financed “growth” brought the world financial system to the brink of catastrophe.

No-one should be in any doubt that “deregulation”, and related excesses, caused the global financial crisis of 2008. Deregulation undermined the monitoring of what banks were up. A more robustly-regulated system simply wouldn’t have tolerated sub-prime mortgages, the packaging of toxic debt products, and other techniques for driving a wedge between risk and return. “Cash-back” mortgages, and excessive loan-to-value and debt-to-income ratios, would not have been acceptable in an earlier era of more robust oversight.

As we now know, taxpayers around the world had to step in to rescue the laissez-faire fanatics from the consequences of their own hubris. This showed up their self-serving hypocrisy for what it was, because, if they had really put their faith in market forces alone, they would have accepted the wipe-out of banks and bankers as the logical consequence of “animal spirits”.

Instead, of course, they ran for whatever cover the much-derided state could provide.

The continuing high price of folly

Moreover, the billions spent by governments rescuing banks was just the tip of an iceberg of consequences created by deregulatory madness. Worst of all, the sheer scale of the debt burden created by these fanatics has forced us into an era of unprecedented low interest rates, with no prospect whatsoever of restoring normality any time soon.

By ‘normality’ is meant interest rates that are at least two percentage points higher than inflation, giving investors a real return on their capital. Anything less than that is both abnormal and destructive – and an unacceptable price to pay for allowing the lunatics to take over the asylum.

Of course, policies of ultra-cheap money have pushed debt to levels far higher than they were in 2008 – but the damage has extended very much further than that. For a start, cheap money has stymied ‘creative destruction’, keeping alive businesses which really ought to have disappeared to free up both capital and market space for new, more dynamic players.

The effect on saving, and on the broader issue of futurity, has been devastating. Just as debt has escalated, pension provision has collapsed. According to a recent report, the aggregate pensions shortfall in eight economies – Australia, Canada, China, India, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States – stood at $67 trillion in 2015, and is set to reach a mind-boggling $428 trillion (at 2015 prices) by 2050.

The eight-country pension shortfall is growing by $28bn per day, and, in the United States alone, is expanding at the rate of $3 trillion per year, roughly five times what America spends on defence.

Essentially, what this means is that the recklessness of the past fifteen years has made it impossible for people to save sufficiently for retirement.

Calculations for this paper indicate that the collapse in returns on investment has multiplied savings requirements by about 2.7x. So, to get the same return that he or she would have earned by putting aside 10% of income before the crash, someone now has to save 27% – and that’s simply impossibly unaffordable.

The shortfalls in provision which have arisen so far represent just the slump in returns on investment made previously, during the pre-crash era. The dramatic rate at which shortfalls are escalating, on the other hand, reflects the sheer impossibility of saving enough in an environment in which returns have been crushed.

Economic distortion

Another dire consequence of the policies forced on the authorities by previous madness is the distortion of the relationship between assets and income. Because asset values have soared – into, and arguably beyond, bubble territory – whilst returns have crashed, the balance of incentives has tilted dramatically, in favour of speculation rather than innovation and investment.

Given the sheer inability of many governments to understand this concept, it needs to be spelled out.

Imagine you have, say, $500,000 to invest. If you put this into a business, you’ll struggle to earn a decent return in a depressed economy in which demand is dependent on ever-expanding credit.

In certain pivotal sectors, the struggle is made even harder, for two reasons. First, cheap money is keeping afloat competitors who really ought to have gone under.

Second, some governments are unwilling to break up either cartels or market-controlling giants, which – amongst other negatives – have enormous predatory pricing power. To cap it all, if you do make a success of your investment, you’ll be taxed pretty heavily on the income that it generates.

Given this, wouldn’t it be better – and easier – just to put your capital into property or other assets? Their values are unlikely to fall – because governments shamelessly back-stop them – and the capital gains that you accumulate will be taxed at rates lower than income.

Many governments are incapable of understanding this process – let alone of doing anything about it – so are baffled by the resulting symptoms. As the centre of gravity of activity swings from the innovative to the speculative, sectors like real estate and financial services expand, whilst activities like manufacturing shrink. Because of the growth in sectors which generate money but don’t add much value, both real wages and productivity trend downwards. Debt escalates as both households and governments struggle to make ends meet. In the worst cases, the current account deteriorates as outward flows of income to overseas investors escalate.

The country’s exchange rate slumps as investors start to question the validity of a national business model based on the speculative use of cheap capital. This in turn sparks inflation – and will in due course force up interest rates, finally killing the cheap-money economic fallacy.

This is now happditening to Britain. If the dollar were not supported by the “commodity prop” of dollar-denominated commodity markets – which means you have to buy dollars before you can purchase commodities – it would probably be happening already to the United States as well.

Wisdom fights back

The good news is that some countries are beginning to recognize the folly of laissez-faire and the finance-based economy. Chief amongst these realists are the Europeans. The EU has shown itself prepared to support what really matters in free-market economics, which isn’t private ownership, or a small state, but free and fair competition. That’s why Europe’s regulators are toughening their stance over market distortion – and the investigation of alleged cartel activity between German car manufacturers underlines that this policy isn’t specifically anti-American.

The next thing that Europe is likely to do is to clamp down hard on the “gig” economy.

Its supporters like us to call it the “sharing” economy, but then the laissez-faire camp need no lessons from George Orwell on the usefulness of euphemism.

When the aim is to drive down wages and undermine working conditions, this is called “reform” of the labour market. “Liberalization” is the laissez-faire term for undermining consumer regulation, and going soft on market concentration. “Light-touch regulation” means turning a blind eye to dangerous practices in the financial sector. “Freedom”, as the laissez-faire camp uses the word, means allowing the powerful to trample roughshod over everyone else.

We should be in no doubt about what the “sharing” concept really amounts to. On the labour side, it means taking away both job security and the protections which, over two centuries, have become synonymous with working conditions in a civilized economy.

For the customer, it means circumventing regulations designed to protect the public, simultaneously under-cutting traditional businesses operating under established rules.

Though some European leaders – such as M. Macron in France – might hold out for laissez-faire, they’re unlikely to succeed.

As far as Europe is concerned, laissez-faire – or economic “liberalism” – has been rumbled.

The politics of sanity

This, of course, also highlights political choices. Voters – who are also both consumers and, usually, workers as well – have three main choices.

The first is to defy recent experience and enlightened self-interest by letting the laissez-faire camp swing the wrecking ball again.

The second is to ignore precedent and elect collectivist politicians.

The third, rational choice is surely to choose a “popular capitalist” form of free-enterprise politics which dismisses both laissez-faire and collectivism, and puts the emphasis on tight regulation, robust ethics, the mixed economy, and a fearless defence of free and fair competition.

Unfortunately, because the label “capitalist” is applied without discrimination to both the laissez-faire and the popular strands of market-favouring thought, the probabilities are likely to swing increasingly towards collectivism.

In America, it was Wall Street excess which took Bernie Sanders remarkably close to the Democratic nomination and, in Britain, it is laissez-faire fanaticism which could put Jeremy Corbyn in power.

Faced with an incumbency which wants to give the green light to undercutting wages, taking away employment rights, undermining consumer protection and scaling back public services, a vote for Labour can seem highly rational. Mr Corbyn must be cheered every time he reads an article praising the “gig economy”, or advocating yet more privatization.

Finally, in this context, the negotiation of post-“Brexit” trade deals gives the British authorities a temptingly easy way to make matters even worse than they already are. A trade deal with the United States, if slanted towards laissez-faire, could make it impossible to reach a constructive agreement with Europe.

If, for example, the British decide to admit chlorinated chicken, genetically-modified produce and hormone-treated meat – even after a transitional period – their farmers would find themselves barred from European markets.

Much more seriously, the British (and the Americans) already completely fail to understand European intentions on financial services, where the aim is not to rival London and New York in third-party markets.

Rather, the erection of compliance barriers to Anglo-American finance would create more than enough scope for Frankfurt, Paris and other European financial centres to expand to the point where they supply the entire internal needs of European commerce.

World-changing

What we are witnessing, then, is an emerging schism within the “capitalist” world.

Whilst America (and perhaps Britain) persist with laissez-faire “junglenomics”, Europe is opting for a “popular capitalist” version, with the emphasis on regulation, ethics, free and fair competition, and the mixed economy.

Ironically, the result is likely to be that “the Anglo-American economic model” becomes exactly what it says on the tin – a model supported by Britain, America, and hardly anybody else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#101: The pay paradox

WHY GOOD BUSINESS CAN BE BAD ECONOMICS

Though we’re past the #100 mark, there’s a string of topics crying out to be discussed. Future articles might look at what the market economy really is – and what it isn’t – and perhaps take in the “gig” or “sharing” economy as well. I’m also thinking about doing something rather outside normal parameters, looking at where businesses should (and shouldn’t) seek to invest.

Here, though, we look at a critical paradox. It’s critical, because it goes a long way towards explaining why countries like Germany prosper whilst countries like Britain don’t.

Economics is full of paradoxes. Perhaps the most famous is the “paradox of thrift”. If you save or I save, that’s prudent and commendable. But if we all save, and do too much of it, that’s bad, because demand will slump, to the detriment of the economy. Actually, what this really means is that we want a “Goldilocks” amount of saving. If there’s too much of it, we’re stifling demand – but if there’s too little, we’re not investing enough.

Here’s another paradox, less widely recognized (indeed, seemingly hardly recognized at all), but actually much more important. Let’s call it “the paradox of pay”. This is important, and certainly merits discussion, because it’s a major factor depressing performance in a number of Western economies.

The pay paradox

Here’s how it works. If you’re running a business, keeping down pay can be a good thing. As a business, wages are likely to be one of your biggest costs, indeed very probably the biggest of the lot. So, if you keep your wage bill as low as you possibly can, your profits will increase.

That sounds good.

If all employers do this, however, business, and the economy, are the losers. Small pay packets mean weak consumer spending, and the consumer typically accounts for 60-70% of the GDP of a Western developed economy. If you undermine wages, then, you undermine sales.

No so good.

Henry Ford famously understood this. That’s why he paid his workers more than the bare minimum. If he didn’t, reasoned Mr Ford, how would they ever be able to buy his cars?

There’s a revealing story about this, in a different car plant in a different era. A manager proudly unveils the first production robot, and says to a trades union leader: “try to persuade that to join your union!”

To which, of course, the union man replies: “try persuading it to buy a car!”

The truism, of course, is that workers and consumers are the same people.

Micro and macro

Actually, the “paradox of pay” really amounts to the difference between microeconomics (the economics of the firm) and macroeconomics (the study of the whole economy). Low pay can be good microeconomics, but is always bad macroeconomics.

It can make sense for a company to minimise its wage bill. But it is idiotic for a country to do the same.

There are, however, simpletons who think that an economy should be run like a business. So, if it’s good for businesses to minimise wages, it must be good for a country to do the same. The theory – a pretty half-baked one – is that, if we can keep down the wages of people making (say) cars in our country, we keep those cars cheap, thereby increasing our ability to sell them on the world market.

Actually, this theory is worse than half-baked. Observation reveals that low wages don’t make for national competitiveness or prosperity. If they did, Ghana would be richer than Germany, and Swaziland more prosperous than Switzerland.

In reality, there are perfectly good reasons why a high-wage economy like Germany is more prosperous than a low-wage country like Ghana. For a start, demand is stronger. The German worker has more money in his or her pocket than his Ghanaian counterpart, increasing his ability to buy goods and services produced by other German firms. Moreover, the higher the average level of pay, the higher both quality and productivity are likely to be.

From this, an obvious truism follows. A company like Mercedes or BMW can never turn out cars cheaper than a plant in a, say, Vietnam. If Germany’s car-makers (or any other German sector) tried to compete on price, they’d fail.

So, being sensible people, they don’t. They compete, instead, on quality. This is the obvious (indeed, the only rational) course of action for a developed economy. Competing on quality makes sense.

Trying to compete on price is, frankly, pretty crazy.

The price of a fallacy

Some countries – the obvious examples being America and Britain – don’t seem to grasp what, to a German, seems perfectly obvious. Instead, they assume that getting wages down must be a good thing. Pursuing this policy involves maximising the supposed “openness” of your economy, and backing “globalization” to the hilt. By all means ship out skilled jobs from Derby to Delhi, if profits increase. Go ahead and outsource work from Cleveland to Calcutta for a short-term boost to the bottom line. “What’s good for American (or British) business”, the slogan runs, “is good for America (or Britain!)”

It’s a persuasive slogan.

It’s also, in economic terms, drivel.

The point, you see, is that running a country isn’t the same as running a business. Businesses can benefit from low wages. A country can’t.

This said, a lot of businesses are too smart to succumb to the low-wage mantra.  Many enlightened firms recognize that getting good staff – skilled, innovative, productive, dedicated and committed employees – can’t be done on the cheap. The pay-off in terms of quality and productivity can far outweigh the cost of paying good wages to attract and retain the best.

A fool’s paradise

If a country follows the low-wage route, a string of adverse consequences quickly follows. It’s a chain-reaction process.

For starters, outsourcing skilled jobs undermines consumption. One seductively-easy way of countering this is to fill the consumption gap with credit. Countries that follow the low-wage mantra tend to succumb pretty soon to a policy of making credit both cheap and easy to obtain. This involves both low interest rates and “deregulation” of the lending industry. This in turn results in soaring indebtedness and escalating risk.

It also depresses tax revenues, and undermines productivity, whilst skewing the economy away from activities at the high end of the value-added spectrum. You end up with very little manufacturing, but plenty of pedicurists and pizza-deliverers.

What results is an economy with low skills, feeble productivity, and too much debt (does that remind you of anywhere?). You find yourself in a position where each incremental unit of GDP comes at a high cost in additional borrowing (say, getting on for £6 of new debt for each £1 of growth). Tax revenue weakens, resulting in big fiscal deficits and escalating debt.

You can try to offset the deficit by cutting public spending, of course, but even a passing familiarity with Keynes should convince you that voluntary “austerity”, by depressing demand, is likely to be counter-productive. Some of the weaker Eurozone countries have had austerity imposed on them by their inability to devalue. Other countries have embraced austerity voluntarily, out of sheer folly or desperation.

As well as depressing the economy, too much austerity is likely to depress voters, the end result being that you’re out on your ear. Frankly, if you’ve been following the fool’s mantra of a low wage strategy, that’s nothing more than you deserve.

At some point, meanwhile, someone notices that people are struggling to cope with servicing their bloated debts, so you cut rates even further, now to levels that are a long way below inflation. Doing this might be unavoidable, but it’s still akin to handing a bottle of gin to an alcoholic.

One consequence is that, whilst asset prices balloon, returns collapse. This opens up huge chasms in pension and other provision, which can be impossible to bridge even with a high savings ratio, let alone with a savings ratio that has crumbled under the onslaught of impoverishment.

At this point, with foreigners wondering whether to go on bailing you out with capital infusions, and the locals beginning to wonder whether inflated house prices don’t amount to realizable riches after all, hopefully some nice people turn up with a waistcoat that laces up at the back.

Wisdom and folly

So there you have it. Paying low wages might, at the micro level, help you to make cheaper washing-machines (though whether it’ll help you to make high quality ones that people actually want to buy might be a different question).

At the macro level, though, low wages have a string of adverse effects. They undermine quality and productivity. They’re likely to push debt up sharply, inflate asset prices and depress returns. They’ll certainly undermine demand, stifle growth and undercut tax revenues, and they’re highly likely to degrade the value-adding profile of the economy.

The Germans, amongst others, clearly understand this. The British authorities, equally clearly, don’t. It will be interesting to find out whether Mr Trump and M. Macron understand it, too.

#100: Defining times

BUILDING THE NEXT CRISIS

Reaching the 100th article in the series seems a good time to provide an overall “wrap” of the economic situation, as seen through the prism of Surplus Energy Economics. The conclusions may not be particularly cheering, but they should at least have the merit of clarity.

We can now be pretty sure of at least three things.

First, the long rise in world prosperity is over. Real economic output does continue to increase, but only very gradually, and is now being matched by the rate at which the population is expanding.

Second, prosperity will carry on rebalancing towards the emerging economies. Citizens of China and India, for instance, continue to enjoy increasing prosperity, though not at rates as high as reported levels of growth in per capita GDP. By contrast, and with very few exceptions, prosperity in the Western developed economies has passed its peak, and is now declining, albeit at rates which vary markedly between countries.

Third, the financial crash of 2008 is unfinished business. Essentially, the burden of debt forced central banks into policies of ultra-cheap money, and these have had precisely the effect that could (and should) have been anticipated – indebtedness continues to rise, provision for the future has been sabotaged, and bubbles are emerging across a broad range of asset classes. As well as adding huge amounts of debt, we are pillaging futurity, because of policies which cripple returns on pension and other provision.

We cannot yet know when the sequel to the global financial crisis (GFC) will occur. It is in the nature of the system that seemingly-unsustainable conditions can last for a lot longer than seems logically possible. Equally, however, a crash can occur with very little prior warning, and in ways that may not be predictable.

We may, though, be inching towards greater visibility about how and where the catalyst is likely to emerge. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the United Kingdom is much the most vulnerable domino in the series. If you’re looking for a single lead indicator for the next crunch, the value of Sterling may be the one to watch.

Overview – the two economies

If you understand the surplus energy approach, you’ll appreciate that we need to think in terms of two economies. The first is the real economy of goods and services, and is an energy system, not a monetary one. The cost at which energy can be accessed determines the level of prosperity that we can achieve.

In tandem with this is the financial economy of money and credit. Obviously, money has no intrinsic worth. It commands value only as a “claim” on the output of the real economy. Creating money doesn’t add prosperity – it merely dilutes existing claims on that prosperity. Expanding the sum of credit simply creates claims on a future economy that will not be able to honour them. This establishes an inevitability of claims destruction – in other words, a crash.

The following chart illustrates the energy situation. What the chart shows is the ECoE – the energy cost of energy – for petroleum, renewables and the overall energy mix. If 20 units of energy are accessed, but one unit is consumed in the access process, then the ECoE is 1/20, or 5%. What this means for prosperity will be addressed shortly.

#100 01 ECoEjpg_Page1

ECoEs move in ultra-long-term trends, almost wholly unrelated to the market price of energy at any given time.

Prices are subject to both short- and long-term cyclicality.

Cost, on the other hand, is driven by a combination of depletion and technology. Depletion pushes cost upwards, because we exploit the highest-quality, lowest-cost sources of energy first, only moving on to costlier sources once the cheaper ones have been exhausted.

Technology operates to reduce costs, but it does so within the envelope set by depletion. New techniques can improve how we operate within the laws of physics, but cannot overcome those laws. Thus, hydraulic fracturing enables us to extract oil from shales far more cheaply than we could have extracted those same resources in the past. Technology does not turn a marginal resource like shale oil into the equivalent of a giant, simple field in the sands of Arabia. That is simply not possible.

Overall ECoEs seem to have been rising since the mid-1960s. Back in 1965, the average ECoE was probably only about 1%, meaning that we consumed a single unit of energy in accessing 100 units. Those days of abundance are long gone. For oil alone, ECoE is estimated to have risen from 2% in 1980 to 8.8% by 2010, and could hit 15% by 2020. Oil is a premium fuel, and is therefore worth using even when it is costlier than some other sources.

The cost of renewables has fallen sharply, making the best renewables cost-competitive with fossil fuels. But renewables still account for only 3% of world energy consumption. This proportion is set to go on rising markedly, but there are locations and applications which will remain extremely challenging. Similarly, technological progress will continue, but it would be a mistake to extrapolate forward a rate of progress that has been achieved from a very low base.

The nature of energy cost

As the preceding chart illustrates, the overall ECoE cost of energy is rising pretty exponentially. But, because the world economy is a closed system – after all, we’re not trading with Mars – this cost doesn’t leave the system. So it isn’t directly analogous to the “cost” of running a home or a business.

Rather, it is an economic rent, which means that it restricts choice. Prosperity is the residual between economic output and the required level of investment in energy supply. (This is “required”, of course, because without energy there wouldn’t be an economy). If, out of each $100 of output, we had to spend $2 on energy, we would be left with $98 to use as we wish. If the energy cost rose to $10, we’d still have our $100, but could exercise choice over only $90 of it.

In the same way, someone can become poorer if the cost of essentials (such as food, water and energy) rises more rapidly than his or her income. This is why prosperity is not the same thing as per capita GDP. This analogy is a good one, because the cost of energy plays a big role in the supply of essentials. The energy content in the food or water that we must have is higher than in things that we don’t need, but simply want. From this, it follows that the cost of essentials is a major transmission mechanism between ECoE and prosperity as we experience it.

The financial economy

From this, you might think that we can measure prosperity simply by deducting ECoE from GDP. Alas, it isn’t quite that simple, because the financial economy (recorded by GDP) isn’t the same as the real economy of goods and services.

The existence of the financial system enables us to time-phase activities in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a hand-to-mouth economy based on barter. We don’t just live in the present, but inherit from the past, and must provide for the future.

This time element is a great virtue of finance but, in the wrong hands, it is equally capable of becoming a serious vice.

It has now been in the wrong hands for a dangerously long time.

Beyond immediate consumption, an economy perpetually undertakes futurity activities. These include investment (which should increase future productivity) and the related concept of saving, which we need to do, not just to tide us over hard times, but also to prepare us for old age. On the other hand, we can borrow (or otherwise incur future obligations) if it seems beneficial for us to do so.

To work effectively, all of these ‘futurity’ activities need both long-term thinking and a properly functioning market.

Unfortunately, the powers that be have, over two decades and more, evolved a system in which neither of these predicates applies.

First, planning for the future has been weakened by an ideology of short-termism.

Second, a functioning market in futurity has been undermined – indeed, virtually destroyed – by monetary policies geared solely to the management of existing debt. Obviously, manipulated interest rates block the signals that the market is supposed to transmit. This leads us into making faulty decisions.

“Triple D” – plundering the future

It’s important to note that debt isn’t the only (or even the most important) component of our relationship with futurity. Taking the United Kingdom as an example (albeit rather an extreme one), the factor that poses the greater economic threat could be unfunded forward pension (and other) commitments well in excess of £2.5 trillion, rather than aggregate debt of £4.9 trillion.

Debt can be inflated away, if you don’t mind the costs of inflation – and if your creditors don’t take umbrage over being bilked through “soft default”. But you can’t inflate away futurity deficits like pensions in the same way, because they are effectively index-linked.

As well as encouraging borrowing by making it cheap, slashing interest rates – in Britain, from 5.75% ten years ago to just 0.25% now – has destroyed the ability of pension funds (for example) to make the sort of returns required to match current contributions to future needs.

The whole theory of pension provision is that, having invested X amount now, returns on this investment give us a lot more than X in the future. If, during his or her working life, someone had to put aside exactly the amount that they would need in retirement, the process simply wouldn’t work. The demands made on us in our working years would just not be affordable.

Artificially low rates, therefore, destroy the equilibrium between the present and the future. (They also block the essential process of “creative destruction”, miss-price risk, and manufacture bubbles).

Moreover, artificially low rates mean that our provision for the future deteriorates at exactly the same time as our future obligations to repay debts increase. If you add to this a third ingredient – an inability to organise the provision of care for an ageing population – the result is a potentially lethal cocktail.

We can call this toxic mix “triple D” – debt, deficits and demographics.

The great self-delusion

Obviously, mortgaging the future (by plundering our futurity reserve) boosts the present at the expense of the future. This means that recorded GDP figures are inflated by this process.

This is analogous to the way in which banks behaved in the years preceding 2008. By selling toxic instruments to themselves via off-balance-sheet SPVs (special purpose vehicles), banks created “profits” (and hence bonuses) at the expense of their own balance sheets.

Entire economies are now replicating this practice.

To work out what is really happening to the economy behind the smokescreen of plundered futurity, we need to calculate the extent to which recorded GDP has been flattered by the cannibalization of the collective balance sheet. What we are looking for is the proportion of GDP that would remain if the credit taps were turned off. That’s the underlying, “organic” or sustainable level of output.

The SEEDS system has an algorithm for measuring this. Its results are very probably conservative, because they conclude that, over the last decade, only about 19% ($18 trillion) of global borrowing ($98 trillion) has been used to inflate consumption at the expense of futurity.

Even so, this is enough to suggest that world GDP (in PPP dollars) was only $88 trillion last year, 25% below the reported $117 trillion. It also means, of course, that aggregate debt as a percentage of underlying GDP is probably nearer 300% than the reported 220%. In any case, measurement of debt isn’t by any means the same thing as measuring futurity.

Prosperity and the coming denouement

Having adjusted GDP for the plundering of futurity, we can deduct the economic rent of ECoE to measure prosperity. “Prosperity” is defined for the individual as ‘income, after essentials, that the person can choose how to use’. For the economy as a whole, prosperity is sustainable (borrowing-adjusted) GDP, less the economic rent of ECoE.

Globally, and in inflation-adjusted dollars, prosperity per capita was almost 4% higher in 2016 than it had been in 2006, but this rate of improvement has been decelerating towards zero. Aggregate world prosperity is still growing, but now only at a trend rate of around 1% annually, which is roughly the same rate at which the global population is expanding. So individual prosperity, on a worldwide basis, has stopped growing.

The next chart illustrates this, setting out – in per capita terms – three measures of economic output. The first, in blue, is the financial economy as recorded by GDP. The black line adjusts this for the estimated impact of “plundering futurity”, with the accompanying trend in debt shown by the yellow columns. Finally, the economic rent of ECoE is deducted to arrive at prosperity, shown in red.

#100 02 per capitajpg_Page1

 

These, of course, are aggregate measures, covering wide disparities of experience. At the positive end of the spectrum, citizens of China and India became, respectively, 58% and 48% more prosperous between 2006 and 2016. Prosperity in these countries is continuing to grow, albeit at rates a lot lower than in the not-too-distant past.

At the other extreme, individual prosperity in the United Kingdom declined by 13% between 2006 and 2016. British prosperity can now be seen to have peaked as long ago as 2000, since when the total decline has been 17%. Over the last decade, prosperity has also fallen by 9% in Italy and Spain, by 8% in the Netherlands, and by 7% in both the United States and France.

Some of these national circumstances repay investigation. Spanish prosperity fell sharply because the country was more exposed than most to the ravages of debt-fuelled expansion in the years before 2008, but has now returned to stability. The Italian economy has suffered from decades of declining competitiveness, something which – before Italy joined the Euro – was customarily cushioned by gradual devaluation of the lire. Membership of the single currency effectively forced Italy into painful internal devaluation (a.k.a. “austerity”) instead.

The outlook for France will hinge on the as-yet unclear direction of policy under President Macron. The risk here is that M. Macron will opt for the wage-depressing policies that pass for “reform” in the neoliberal lexicon. In other words, he might follow Britain in trying to create a low-wage economy. Doing this necessarily undermines demand, impairs productivity and increases household dependency on credit.

The continuing decline in American prosperity means that Mr Trump simply cannot deliver on his commitment to improve the lot of the average household. Mr Trump is an outsider, but this does not guarantee that he will not pursue the same policies that have failed in the past.

The most significant (and worsening) decline in prosperity, however, is that of the United Kingdom. For at least two decades, the British economy has been managed with remarkable incompetence. The UK just about dodged a bullet in 2008, but may not manage to do the same next time – and that next bullet could now be pretty close. Exactly why Britain is quite so vulnerable will have to be left to another article, but there are plenty of reasons to question the sustainability of the British economy.

Conclusion

As we have seen, the world has ceased becoming more prosperous, because increasing ECoEs (experienced in the rising cost of essentials) have dragged down growth in the real economy to a rate matched by population expansion. Within this, countries like China and India continue to become more prosperous whilst, in much of the West, people will keep getting poorer.

We’ve been trying to buck this trend by plundering futurity, spending borrowed money whilst running policies which cripple returns on pension and other provision for the future. This has been an exercise in futility, and must in due course lead to a sharp correction in the form of claims destruction.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Britain, so anyone seeking a single lead-indicator for the next crash could do a lot worse than watch the value of Sterling.