#155. The art of dark sky thinking

ECONOMICS, THE ENVIRONMENT AND THE PROBABILITY OF ‘DE-GROWTH’

One of the clichés much loved by business leaders and others is “blue sky thinking”. An implication of this term, it seems to me, is that there’s an infinity of possibility. Although the mainstream press has, in the past, dubbed me “Dr Gloom” and “Terrifying Tim”, I don’t discount the concept of infinite possibility. I’m an incurable optimist – when I’m not looking at the economic outlook, anyway.

However positive you are, though, if you set out on a lengthy expedition, it’s as well to take some wet weather clothing with you, because blue skies can turn dark grey pretty quickly. ‘Hoping for the best but preparing for the worst’ seems a pretty prudent way to think.

Before we address some of the financial, economic and broader issues which might darken our skies, I’d like to draw your attention to an important distinction, which is that ‘situations’ and ‘outcomes’ are different things. ‘Situations’ are circumstances calling for decisions, but, in themselves, they generally contain a multiplicity of possible results. ‘Outcomes’ are determined by the responses made to any particular set of ‘situations’.

This is important, because a lot of what I’m going to discuss here concerns ‘situations’. Many of these look pretty daunting, but the point about a multiplicity of possible ‘outcomes’ remains critical. Bad decisions turn difficult situations into malign outcomes, but wise choices can, at the very least, preclude the worst, and can even produce good outcomes from unpromising situations.

The gloomy non-science

Economics has been called “the gloomy science”. In fact, economics – as currently practised – may or may not be “gloomy”, but it isn’t a “science”. The fundamental flaw with conventional economics is that it assumes that the economy is a financial system, to be measured in dollars, pounds, euros and yen.

This, in reality, is a huge misconception. Throughout history, systems of money have come and gone. A collector might well buy a Roman coin from you, but you couldn’t use it in a café or a shop.  Money is simply a human artefact, often of temporary duration, which we can create or destroy at will.

The purpose of money is the facilitation of exchange, something more convenient than barter. Its other often-claimed functions (as “a store of value” and a “unit of account”) are flawed at best. The “store of value” concept is particularly unconvincing. If somebody in a Western country dug up some banknotes buried in the garden by his or her great-grandmother, their purchasing power would be dramatically lower than when the biscuit-tin containing them was interred between the cabbages and the carrots. Measured using the broad-basis GDP deflator, the US dollar has lost 62% of its purchasing power since 1980 alone, and the pound has shed 71% of its value. Moreover, many countries change their notes and coins at frequent intervals, invalidating older versions.

Money does have important characteristics – which we’ll come to – but it’s not in any sense coterminous with a ‘real’ economy that consists of goods and services. All of these are products of the use of energy. Once you grasp this fundamental point, a ‘science’ of economics becomes a possibility, but as a branch of the laws of thermodynamics, and not, as now, as ‘the study of money’.

The energy fundamentals

As regular readers will know, whenever energy is accessed, some of that energy is always consumed in the access process. This divides the totality of energy supply into two streams – the consumed component is known here as ECoE (the Energy Cost of Energy), and the remainder is surplus energy. Because this surplus energy powers all forms of economic activity other than the supply of energy itself, it is the determinant of prosperity.

The SEEDS model calculates that, over the last twenty years, global trend ECoE has more than doubled, from 3.6% in 1998 to 7.9% last year. That’s already taken a huge bite out of our ability to grow our prosperity, and there’s no likelihood of ECoE levelling out in the foreseeable future, let alone turning back downwards.

The ECoEs of renewables are falling, just as those of fossil fuels are rising exponentially. This is a topic that we’ve discussed before, and will undoubtedly return to in the future, but it seems unlikely that a full transition to renewables, utterly vital though it is, is going to stabilise overall ECoE at much below about 10%. For context, back in the 1960s, when real economic growth was robust (and when petroleum consumption was growing by as much as 8% annually, whilst car ownership was expanding rapidly), world trend ECoE was less than 2%.

There are two reasons – one obvious, one perhaps less so – why an understanding of ECoE is critical to the environmental debate.

Obviously, if we continue to tie our economic fortunes to fossil fuels, the relentless rise in their ECoEs is going to carry on making us poorer, so there’s a compelling economic (as well as environmental) case for transition to renewables.

Less obviously, whilst prosperity is a function of surplus (aggregate less-ECoE) energy, climate-harming emissions are tied to total (surplus plus ECoE) energy. Essentially, we need to reduce our emissions from fossil fuels at a rate which at least matches the rate at which their ECoEs are rising if we’re to stand any chance at all of overcoming climate risk.

It’s a dispiriting thought that, whilst energy-based economics could make a powerful contribution to the case for environmental action, conventional, money-fixated economics can only interact negatively, by telling us how much it’s going to “cost”. Unfortunately, mainstream economics can’t really tell us the cost of not transitioning.

These “costs”, to be sure, are dauntingly large numbers. IRENA – the International Renewable Energy Agency – has costed transition at between $95 trillion and $110tn. These equate to between 619 and 721 Apollo programmes at the current-equivalent cost ($153bn) of putting a man on the Moon.

Moreover, the Americans of the 1960s had a choice about whether or not to fund a space programme. In economic as well as in environmental terms, there is no choice at all about our imperative need to transition.

The invalidation of futurity

The gigantic costs that energy transition involve bring us back to money, where we need to note something that couldn’t really be done with barter, but is well facilitated by money. That concept is futurity.

Time itself has always formed part of economic transactions, and this was the case even before the invention of the first efficient heat-engine enabled us to tap the energy wealth of fossil fuels. When someone bought, say, a table, he or she was paying for the labour (which, of course, is energy) that had gone into making it. Hiring someone to plough a field was a payment for labour in the present, and engaging someone to build a barn was payment for labour in the future.

But futurity is something different. When someone invests, he or she is looking to the future, hoping that income from the investment, or its future saleable value, will exceed the initial outlay. When an insurance policy is agreed, both parties have in mind the likelihood, and possible cost, of some future eventuality. Perhaps most importantly of all, loan transactions make a lot of assumptions about the future in which the loan, and interest, are to be repaid. Very much the same applies to saving for a pension.

All of these transactions can make a positive contribution to the effective functioning of the economy. Vitally, though, they require making assumptions about conditions at some future date. To a large extent, these assumptions – which, collectively, form a consensus – are based on prior experience. To this extent, decisions taken about futurity are only as good as the consensus on which they are based.

Imagine that you’re an insurer, issuing a policy on a car. Historically, this type of car, and this category of driver, is likely to be involved in an accident once in ten years, so the policy is priced accordingly, remembering that competitor insurance companies are likely to be working on a very similar basis of calculation. Then, though, these cars start crashing, not once every ten years, but once in every three. You’ll lose money, because your futurity assumption has been invalidated.

This is a simple example, with corollaries in any transaction involving futurity. The danger arises when prior experience ceases to be a valid guide to the future.

A good real-world example involves the provision of pensions. Prior to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), historic long-run returns on American bonds and equities averaged 3.6% and 8.6%, respectively. Now, though, forward calculations need to be based, according to the World Economic Forum, on returns of only 3.45% for equities, and just 0.15% for bonds. Critically, this doesn’t just apply to funds invested after the fall in rates – it also cripples forward returns on capital accumulated before rates of return collapsed.

This, says the WEF, has helped created shortfalls so large that they amount to a “global pension timebomb”. Since, according to my calculations, a person investing 10% of his or her income in a pension fund before the GFC now needs to raise that to about 27% to get the same outcome – a percentage not remotely affordable for most people – we can almost say that private pension provision worldwide has been rendered inoperable by post-2008 monetary policy.

If my energy-based interpretation of the outlook for prosperity is correct – and I’d contend, simply, that its logic keeps getting more and more corroboration from events – then the entire basis of ‘consensus futurity’ has been invalidated. SEEDS shows prosperity growth petering out, not in the future, but now, and over a period which began roughly twenty years ago.

This invalidated the futurity consensus used during the massive issuance of debt before 2008, and, equally, destroys the assumptions on which subsequent monetary adventurism has been based.

Slow or negative growth – something which invalidates any projection based on pre-2000 experience – means that “secular stagnation” (or whatever euphemism you care to use) isn’t something that the economy will “grow out of”, much as youngsters grow out of childhood ailments. It’s the ‘new normal’, though it’s not the kind of thing that anyone is going to recognize as ‘normal’.

This, sooner or later, can be expected to cause a financial crash on a scale much larger than 2008, and this event (‘GFC II’) is going to hit, not just the banks, as in GFC I, but the financial system, and the very validity of fiat currencies.

Put another way, the ‘real’ and the ‘financial’ economies have moved so far apart that the latter is destined to topple over into the gap.

And this, remember, is the same financial system that needs to find the equivalent of more than 700 Apollo space programmes to finance energy transition.

I hope I’m wrong about financial crash risk, but I can see only one possible way out of the gigantic commitments – debt, pensions and much more – that we have made to a future that isn’t going to be what we thought it was going to be. The theme tune for this could be a song by the late, great Mickey Newbury – “The future’s not what it used to be”.

That only possible way out is the deliberate triggering of inflation. This would allow borrowers to ‘soft default’ their way out of unaffordable debt, ‘repaying’ lenders but in greatly devalued money. But it’s a medicine whose economic side-effects are at least as bad as the disease. High inflation has killed more currencies than any other cause.

‘De-coupling’ fiction and ‘de-growth’ fact

Rather than going into the implications of a financial crisis dwarfing that of 2008, my aim here is to look at the broader economic and environmental issues both before and after GFC II. Optimistically, one consequence of that event could be a general reappraisal of our situation – and this, of course, is where the logic of choices determining the ‘outcomes’ of ‘situations’ becomes all-important.

One set of possible choices is to try to recreate the status quo ante, but a more positive interpretation is that we will finally be forced to face a reality that, hitherto, few have understood, and fewer still have been prepared to confront.

Already, though, here have been some encouraging exceptions. In Britain, for example, chief environmental scientist Professor Sir Ian Boyd, has said recently that environmental objectives can be achieved only if people can be persuaded to move away from consumption.

This followed a report from a committee of legislators which concluded that, “[I]n the long-term, widespread personal vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation”. The committee said that the government should “aim to reduce the number of vehicles required”, promoting public transport and making it cheaper than car ownership. (In passing, it’s regrettable that the committee also advocated the inclusion of hybrids in the future ban on the sale of petrol- and diesel-powered cars, when it could instead have called for a near-term all-hybrids policy, and a limit on engine sizes).

The situation to be faced can be summarised as follows. Our obsession with “growth” has led us into behaviours which are destructive, not just of our environment and ecology, but in ways that we might term ‘social’, ‘political’ and ‘behavioural’. Now, though, energy-based interpretation suggests that the scope for further growth has ceased to exist. This compels us to change our thinking about the economy.

Of course, I don’t doubt that, even in extremis, a consensus based on conventional financial interpretation of the economy will express outright denial over this, and will come up with yet more hare-brained schemes to follow on from failed credit and monetary adventurism. These may well be attempted but, of course, they won’t work.

The fundamentals are that the surplus energy from fossil fuels which, hitherto, has driven economic growth is being squeezed, from two directions. Whilst the trend ECoE of fossil fuels is rising, our ability to try to counter this by increasing aggregate (pre-ECoE) supply is nearing its limits. The petroleum industry may indeed be guilty of having “cried wolf” in the past over the sorts of prices it needs to overcome depletion, but the reality of ECoE – especially where oil is concerned – suggests that the economics of the industry in many parts of the world really are in trouble. We can anticipate higher production from at least two OPEC countries – Iraq and Iran – and might extend this hope to Russia, though the costs of Russian production are far from encouraging. But US shale production alone is barely economic (if that), and has required, from the outset, subsidy, from optimistic investors and very insouciant lenders.

Whether ‘peak oil’ is brought about by cost-based supply constraint, or by the diminishing ability of customers to purchase petroleum, is something of a secondary consideration. But we do need to note that about 97% of all transport is powered by oil, with electric railways the only sizeable exception.

At the same time, we should dismiss the idea that we can somehow “decouple” the economy from energy. Fortunately, a quite superb recent report from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) has debunked the concept of “decoupling” so comprehensively that we can defer detailed consideration to a later discussion.

“Our finding is clear”, the EEB report concludes – “the decoupling literature is a haystack without a needle”.

There – political leaders please note – goes your cherished ambition to deliver “sustainable growth”. ‘Sustainable’ is something to which we can and must aspire. But “growth” is not.

Transition is vital – but at what scale?

This, of course, takes us back to transition. I’ve aimed to leave nobody in any doubt about my belief in the imperative need to make this transition. I share the experts’ concern about climate change, and am horrified by many broader issues, such as the loss of habitats and species.

All of these consequences are a price far too high to pay for an obsession, rooted in quite recent history, with ‘growth at all costs’.

But I do question, very seriously indeed, whether we can wholly replace today’s use of fossil fuels with renewables, let alone use them to increase the aggregate supply of primary energy to the economy.

Financially, a capital requirement of $95tn to $110tn, even spread over thirty years, suggests that we need to be investing an average of about $3,400bn annually, against which actual spending (last year, $304bn) simply doesn’t cut it. Unit costs will continue to decrease. But so too – in a world with diminishing prosperity, and with a near-manic prioritization of immediate consumption over long-term investment – will our capacity for investment.

Then there’s the sheer volumetric scale of what needs to be done. In 2018, the world consumed more than 11,740 million tonnes of oil equivalent (mmtoe) of oil, gas and coal. Replacing that, again over thirty years, requires annual additions of output from renewables averaging 390 mmtoe, from a current base of 561 mmtoe. Last year’s actual increase was only 71 mmtoe, and the rate of capacity expansion has stalled. Even the 390 mmtoe number assumes no further increases in energy supply.

The third consideration, in addition to capital requirements and volumetric scale, is resources. Transition to full like-for-like replacement of fossil fuels would require vast material inputs, most obviously steel, copper and plastics. Ironically, the supply of these inputs currently relies very heavily indeed on the use of fossil fuels.

Back in the 1960s, the television series Thunderbirds looked ahead to a near future in which nearly everything – from cars and trucks to aeroplanes, ships, space rockets and, perhaps, even the humble lawnmower – was going to be nuclear-powered. Some of today’s portrayals of the future as a bigger, cleaner, glossier version of today look like similar techno-dreaming.

The idea that we’ll be driving just as many (or more) cars as we do today (except that they’ll be electric), and that we’ll be taking just as many flights (but in aeroplanes powered by batteries) seems pretty implausible.

Both economic and environmental reality suggest a need to embrace the concept of de-growth. The trick will be so to manage it that an economy that is smaller in size is also more in tune with human needs.

#154. An autumn nexus

A CONVERGENCE OF STRESS-LINES

If you’ve been following our discussions here for any length of time, you’ll know that the main focus now is on the need for energy transition. This is a challenge made imperative, not just by environmental considerations but, just as compellingly, by the grim outlook for an economy which continues to rely on energy sources – oil, gas and coal – whose own economics are deteriorating rapidly.

These, of course, are long-term themes (though that’s no excuse for the gulf between official and corporate rhetoric and delivery). But the short term matters, too, and an increasing number of market participants and observers have started to notice that a series of significant stress-lines are converging on the months of September and October, much as railway lines converge on Charing Cross station.

The context, as it’s understood from an energy economics perspective, is that a fracture in the financial system is inevitable (though ‘inevitable’ isn’t the same thing as ‘imminent’). Properly understood, money has no intrinsic worth, but commands value only as a claim on the output of the ‘real’ economy of goods and services. Whilst the mountain of monetary claims keeps getting bigger, the real economy itself is being undermined by adverse energy economics.

Ultimately, financial crises happen as correctives, when the gap between the financial and the ‘real’ economies becomes excessive.

This is what happened with the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), which followed a lengthy period of what I call “credit adventurism”. A sequel to 2008, known here as “GFC II”, is the seemingly inevitable consequence of the “monetary adventurism” adopted during and after 2008. This, incidentally, is where the parallels end because, whilst credit adventurism put the banking system in the eye of the storm in 2008, the subsequent adoption of monetary recklessness implies that GFC II will be a currency event.   .

An understanding of the inevitability of GFC II doesn’t tell us when it’s likely to happen. All that I’ve ventured on this so far is that a ‘window of risk’ has been open since the third quarter of 2018. Whether that window has yet opened wide enough to admit GFC II is a moot point. But the converging stresses are certainly worthy of consideration.

Chinese burns

Three of the most important lines of stress originate in China.

As we’ve seen – and with the country’s Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE) now in the climacteric range at which prosperity growth goes into reverse – there’s no doubt at all that the Chinese economy is in trouble. After all (and expressed at constant 2018 values), China has added debt of RMB 170 trillion (+288%) over a period in which reported GDP has expanded by RMB 47 tn (+114%), and no such pattern can be sustained in perpetuity.

This is complicated by Sino-American trade tensions, and, given the huge divergence between Chinese and American priorities, there seems little prospect that these can be resolved in any meaningful way.

The third and newest component of the Chinese risk cocktail is unrest in Hong Kong. Few think it likely that Beijing would be reckless enough to make a forceful intervention there, but it’s a risk whose relatively low probability is offset by the extremity of consequences if it were to happen.

In this context, it’s interesting to note that markets initially responded euphorically to Mr Trump’s delaying of new sanctions, seemingly interpreting it as some kind of ‘wobble’ on his part. It looks a lot more like a Hong Kong-related cautionary signal, seasoned with a twist of gamesmanship and soupçon of characteristic showmanship.

Whilst I’m not one of Mr Trump’s critics, it does seem undeniable that he makes too much of the (actually very tenuous) relationship between economic performance and the level of the stock market. This adds his voice to the chorus of those advocating ever cheaper money.

When the next crash does, come, of course, this chorus will rise to a crescendo, but central bankers will in any case have started pouring ever larger amounts of liquidity into the system in an effort to prop up tumbling asset prices. This, in turn, is likely to lead to a flight to perceived safe havens, one of which is likely to be the dollar, whilst other currencies come under the cosh.

But this is to look too far ahead.

“Brexit” blues

The focus in Europe, of course, is on “Brexit”. I’m neither an admirer nor a critic of Boris Johnson, any more than I’m a supporter or an opponent of “Brexit” itself (a subject on which I’ve been, and remain, studiously neutral).

This said, Mr Johnson is surely right to assert that you’ll never get anything out of negotiations if you start off by committing yourself to accept whatever the other side deigns to offer. This does indeed look like brinkmanship on his part, but it’s remarkable how often negotiations, be they political or commercial, do go “right down to the wire”, being settled only when time presses hard enough on the parties involved.

I’ve said before that the EU negotiators worry me more than their British counterparts in this process. The British side has, of course, mishandled the “Brexit” situation, but this can have come as no great surprise to anyone familiar with Britain’s idiosyncratic processes of government.

Unfortunately, British floundering has been compounded by remarkable intransigence on the EU side of the table. The attitude of the Brussels apparatchiks, all along, has been ‘take it or leave it’, and this seems to have been based on two false premises.

The first is that the British have to be ‘punished’ to deter other countries from following a similar road. This is a false position, because influencing how French, Spanish, Italian and other citizens cast their votes in domestic elections is wholly outside Brussels’ competence.

In any case, ‘punishment’ should not be part of the lexicon of any adult participant in statesmanship.

The second false premise is that Britain attends the negotiating table as a supplicant, because a chaotic “Brexit” will inflict far more economic harm on the United Kingdom than on the other EU member countries.

My model suggests that this is simply not true. The country at single greatest risk is Ireland, whose economy is far weaker than its “leprechaun economics” numbers suggest, and whose exposure, both to debt and to the financial system, is as worrying as it is extraordinary.

Ireland is followed, probably in this order, by France, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany. The French economy looks moribund, despite its relentlessly-increasing debt, and the prosperity of the average French person has been subjected to a gradual but prolonged deterioration, a process so aggravated by rising taxes that it has led to popular unrest.

Though its economy is stronger, the Netherlands is exposed, by the sheer scale of its financial sector, to anything which puts the global financial system at risk.

Germany, whose own economy is stuttering, must be wondering how quite much of the burden of cost in the wider Euro Area it might be asked to bear.

Moreover, the European Central Bank’s actions endorse the perception that the EA economy is performing poorly. The ECB has made it clear that there is no foreseeable prospect of the EA being weened off its diet of ultra-cheap liquidity.

This makes it all the more remarkable (in a macabre sort of way) that none of the governments of the most at-risk EA countries have sought to demand some pragmatism from Brussels. What we cannot know – though it remains a possibility – is whether the ever-nearer approach of ‘B-Day’ will energise at least, say, Dublin or Paris into action.

Madness, money and moods

Long before the markets took fright at the inversion of the US yield curve, the financial system (in its broadest sense) has looked bizarre.

In America, the corporate sector is engaged in the wholesale replacement of flexible equity with inflexible debt, whilst investors queue up to support “cash burners”, and buy into the IPOs of deeply loss-making debutants. The BoJ (the Japanese central bank) now owns more than half of all Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) in issue, acquired with money newly created for the purpose.

Around the world, more than $15 trillion of bonds trade at negative yields, meaning that investors are paying borrowers for the privilege of lending them money. The only logic for holding instruments this over-priced is the “greater fool” theory. This states that you can profit from buying over-priced assets by selling them on to someone even more optimistic than yourself. There’s something deeply irrational about anything whose logic is founded in folly.

The same ultra-low interest rates that have prompted escalating borrowing have blown huge holes in pension provision – and have left us in a sort of Through the Looking Glass world in which we’re trying to operate a ‘capitalist’ system without returns on capital.

Until now, markets seem to have been insouciant about the bizarre characteristics of the system, for two main reasons.

First, they seem to assume that, whatever goes wrong, central banks will come to the rescue with a monetary lifeboat. To mix metaphors, this attitude portrays the system as some kind of kiddies-fiction casino, in which winners pocket their gains, but losers are reimbursed at the door.

If, as seems increasingly likely, we’ve started a ‘race to the bottom’ in currencies, this should act as a reminder that the value of any fiat currency depends, ultimately, entirely on confidence – and central bankers, at least, ought to understand that excessive issuance can be corrosive of trust.

The markets’ second mistake is a failure to recognize the concept of “credit exhaustion”. The assumption seems to be that, just so long as debt is cheap enough, people will load up on it ad infinitum. What’s likelier to happen – and may, indeed, have started happening now – is that borrowers become frightened about how much debt they already have, and refuse to take on any more, irrespective of how cheap it may have become.

A measured way of stating the case is that, as we look ahead to autumn, we can identify an undeniable convergence of stress-lines towards a period of greatly heightened risk.

This perception is compounded by a pervading mood of complacency founded on the excessive reliance placed on the seaworthiness of the monetary lifeboat.

I’m certainly not going to predict that a dramatic fracture is going to occur within the next two or three months at the nexus of these stress lines. We simply don’t know. But it does seem a good time for tempering optimism with caution.

 

#153. One for the sceptics

THE STRICTLY ECONOMIC CASE FOR ENERGY TRANSITION

We need to be rather careful about the term “opinion is divided”.

When English league champions Manchester City were drawn to play fourth-tier minnows Newport County in the F.A. Cup, the opinions of football-watchers over the expected outcome probably were “divided” – but only in the sense that, whilst 99% expected the giants to win, only 1% hoped (in vain, as it turned out) for a miracle.

The same caution should apply to any claim that informed opinion is “divided” over the threat to the environment. Even if you’re not convinced by the concept of climate change, or of human activity as one of its main causes, you’d struggle to dismiss species extinction, water supply exhaustion, land degradation, desertification, melting glaciers or simple pollution as figments of the imagination.

We don’t, after all, have to assume that absolutely everything ever stated by ‘the establishment’ or the mainstream media is a pack of porky-pies, even if quite a lot of it is.

There’s one point, though, which really does need to be addressed. This is the widespread assumption that environmental and economic objectives are opposed, and that tackling environmental imperatives will have an economic “cost”.

This is a wholly false dichotomy. Far from ensuring ‘business as usual’, continued reliance on fossil fuel energy would have devastating economic consequences. As is explained here, the world economy is already suffering from these effects, and these have prompted the adoption of successively riskier forms of financial manipulation in a failed effort to sustain economic ‘normality’.

If you take just one point from this discussion, it should be that a transition to sustainable forms of energy is every bit as important from an economic as from an environmental imperative.

“What if?” A contrarian hypothesis

To explain this, what follows begins from a hypothetical basis that ‘there’s no truth in the story of man-made climate damage’.

Just for the moment, I’d like you to suspend your disbelief – as, writing this, I’ve had to suspend mine – and adopt the starting position that human activity, and in particular our use of energy, isn’t threatening the planet.

If they were of this persuasion, what conclusions might be reached by decision-makers in government and business?

It’s probable that, stripped of the environmental imperative, the case for transitioning our supplies of energy, away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources such as solar and wind power, would either be dismissed altogether, or watered down to the point of irrelevance.

Even as things stand, efforts to transition to sustainable sources of energy are faltering.

Once persuaded that we could do so safely, there would be considerable support – reinforced by the human traits of self-interest, conservatism and inertia – for taking a “business as usual” approach, in which oil, gas and coal remained, as they are now, the source of fourth-fifths of the energy that we consume.

From this start-point, a great deal of inconvenience could be prevented. We wouldn’t need to change our practices, or our way of life. We could carry on travelling in gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles. Holidaying abroad would remain an activity with a future. We needn’t expend huge sums in plastering our countryside with wind turbines and solar panels. We’d be likely to abandon vastly-expensive, technically unproven plans to switch over almost entirely to EVs (electric vehicles), confining them instead to marginal urban use. By heading off the need for drastic increases in power supply, this in turn would make it easier for industry to keep on coming up with new products and processes (like drones and robotics) which call for increases in our use of electricity.

In short, in a purely hypothetical situation in which it could be proved that the environmental activists were wrong, there’d be a huge collective sigh of relief, from government, business and the general public alike. Few people, after all, really like change and disruption.

The energy reality of the economy

What has to be emphasized – indeed, it cannot be stressed too strongly – is that, even if it were environmentally safe to carry on relying on fossil fuels, doing so could be expected to cripple the economy within, at most, twenty-five years.

Indeed, the process of economic deterioration is already well under way.

That this is not generally understood results primarily from the mistaken view that the economy is ‘a financial system’.

It has long been traditional for us to think of the economy in this way. This, in part, is a legacy of the founders of economics, men like Adam Smith, David Ricardo and James Mill. They established what are called the “laws” of economics from a financial perspective. They demonstrated the way in which the pricing process determines supply and demand. Specifically, they contended that, if there’s a shortage of something, the solution is to raise its price, thereby encouraging increased supply. All of their work, then, was expressed in the notation of money.

We should be in no doubt that these founding fathers of economic interpretation have bequeathed us invaluable lessons, of which none is more important than the role of free, fair and uncluttered competition in promoting economic progress. The successors to the early pioneers have added new economic interpretations, of course, but almost all of these are money-based theories, which perpetuate the idea that the economy is a financial system.

But the founders of classical economics lived in a world totally different to that of today. Smith died in 1790, Ricardo in 1823, and Mill in 1836, and even Mill’s son, John Stuart passed away in 1873, which was 99 years before the publication of The Limits To Growth. In their era, there was little or no reason for anyone (other than the maverick Thomas Malthus) to think about physical limitations, still less of the environmental issues that have entered our consciousness over the last twenty-five years or so.

They were right to state that higher prices can stimulate the supply of shoes or beer – but no increase in price can conjure forth new, giant and low-cost oil fields where these do not exist.

There can be few, if any, other matters of twenty-first-century importance which are tackled on the basis of eighteenth-century precepts. Neither, logically considered, is there any reason for clinging on to monetary interpretations of the economy.

If, as in fig. 1, we look at the relationship between, on the one hand, global population numbers (and related economic activity), and, on the other, the use of energy, we can see an unanswerable case for linking the two. It’s no coincidence at all that the exponential upturn in the world’s population took off at the same time that, thanks to James Watt’s 1776  invention of the first effective heat-engine, we learned how to harness the vast energy potential contained in fossil fuels.

Not just the size of the world economy, but its prosperity and complexity, too, are products of the Prometheus unleashed by Watt and his fellow inventors.

Fig. 1.

Population and energy

Moreover, observation surely tells us that literally everything that constitutes the ‘real’ economy of goods and services relies entirely on energy. Without energy supplies, the economy would grind to a halt, and the society built on it would disintegrate.

After all, if you were adrift in a lifeboat in mid-Atlantic, and a passing aircraft dropped you a huge pile of banknotes, but no water or food, you’d soon realize that money has no intrinsic worth, but commands value only in terms of the things for which it can be exchanged.

Money, then, acts simply as a claim on the products of an economy which, itself, is an energy system.

The cost component

Anyone who understands the energy basis of the economy knows that the supply of energy is never cost-free, though the relevant measure of cost needs to be stated in energy rather than financial terms. Drilling a well, digging a mine, building a refinery or laying a pipeline requires the use of energy inputs, as, for that matter, does installing a wind-turbine or a solar panel, or constructing an electricity distribution grid.

This divides the aggregate of available energy into two streams – the energy which has to be consumed in providing a continuity of energy supply, and the remaining (“surplus”) energy which powers all other economic activity.

The cost component is known here as the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE). This is the critical determinant of the ability of surplus energy to drive economic activity. Low ECoEs provide a large surplus on which to build prosperity, but rising ECoEs erode this surplus, making us poorer.

Further investigation reveals that, where fossil fuels are concerned, four factors determine the level of ECoE.

One of these is geographic reach – by extending its operations from its origins in Pennsylvania to places as far afield as the Middle East and Alaska, the oil industry lowered ECoE by finding new, low-cost sources of supply.

A second is economies of scale – a plant handling 300,000 b/d (barrels per day) of oil is a lot more cost-efficient than one handling only 30,000 b/d.

Now, though, the maturity of the oil, gas and coal industries is such that the benefits of scale and reach have arrived at their limits. This is where the third factor steps in to determine ECoE – and that factor is depletion.

What depletion means is that the lowest-cost sources of any energy resource are used first, leaving costlier alternatives for later.

The crux of our current predicament is that ‘later’ has now arrived. There are no new huge, low-cost sources of oil, gas or coal waiting to be developed.

From here on, ECoEs rise.

To be sure, advances in technology can mitigate the rise in ECoEs, but technology is limited by the physical properties of the resource. Advances in techniques have reduced the cost of shale liquids extraction to levels well below the past cost of extracting those same resources, but have not turned America’s tight sands into the economic equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s al Ghawar, or other giant discoveries of the past.

Physics does tend to have the last word.

Unravelling economic trends

Once we understand the processes involved, we can see recent economic history in a wholly new way. The narrative since the late 1990s can be summarised, very briefly, as follows.

According to SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – world trend ECoE rose from 2.9% in 1990 to 4.1% in 2000. This increase was more than enough to stop Western prosperity growth in its tracks.

Unfortunately, a policy establishment accustomed to seeing all economic developments in purely financial terms was at a loss to explain this phenomenon, though it did give it a name – “secular stagnation”.

Predictably, in the absence of an understanding of the energy basis of the economy, recourse was made to financial policies in order to ‘fix’ this slowdown in growth.

The first such initiative was credit adventurism. It involved making debt easier to obtain than ever before. This approach was congenial to a contemporary mind-set which saw ‘deregulation’ as a cure for all ills.

The results, of course, were predictable enough. Expressed in PPP-converted dollars at constant 2018 values, the world economy grew by 36% between 2000 and 2008, adding $26.8 trillion to recorded GDP. Unfortunately, though, debt escalated by $61.5tn over the same period, meaning that $2.30 had been borrowed for each $1 of “growth”. At the same time, risk proliferated, and became progressively more opaque. Excessive debt and diffuse risk led directly to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC).

With depressing inevitability, the authorities once again responded financially, this time adding monetary adventurism to the credit variety that had created the GFC. In defiance of a minority who favoured letting market forces work through to their natural conclusions (and who probably were right), the authorities opted for ZIRP (zero interest rate policy). They implemented it by slashing policy rates to all-but-zero, simultaneously driving market rates down by using newly-created money to buy up the prices of bonds.

This policy bailed out reckless borrowers and rescued imprudent lenders, but did so at a horrendous price. Since 2008, we’ve been adding debt at the rate of $3.10 for each $1 of “growth”. The proper functioning of the market economy has been crippled by the distortions of monetary manipulation. The essential regenerative process of ‘creative destruction’ has been stopped in its tracks by policies which have allowed ‘zombie’ companies to stay afloat. Asset prices have soared to stratospheric levels, supported by a tide of debt which can never be repaid, and can be serviced only on the assumption of perpetual injections of negatively-priced credit. The collapse in returns on invested capital has blown a gigantic hole in pension provision. As the Federal Reserve is in the process of discovering, no route exists for a restoration of monetary normality. We are, in short, stuck with monetary adventurism until it reaches its point of termination.

The relentless rise of ECoE   

Back in the real economy, meanwhile, ECoEs keep rising. SEEDS calculates that global trend ECoE has risen from 4.1% in 2000, and 5.6% in 2008 (the year of the GFC), to 8.1% now. Critically, the upwards trajectory of ECoE has become exponential, with each incremental increase bigger than the one before.

As this trend has progressed, prosperity has turned downwards, initially in the advanced economies of the West.

To understand this process, we need first to look behind GDP figures which have been inflated by the simple spending of borrowed money. In the decade since 2008, an increase of $34tn in world GDP has been accompanied by a $106tn surge in debt. What this means is that most of the reported “growth” in GDP has been bogus. Rates of apparent “growth” would slump to, at best, 1.5% if we stopped pouring in new credit, and would go into reverse if we ever tried to deleverage the world’s balance sheet.

Once we’ve established the underlying rate of growth – as a “clean” measure of GDP which excludes the effects of credit injection – we can apply ECoE to see what’s really been happening to prosperity.

In the West, people have been getting poorer over an extended period. Prosperity per capita has fallen by 7.2% in the United States since 2005, and by 11.3% in Britain since 2003. Deterioration in most Euro Area economies has been happening for even longer. Not even resource-rich countries like Canada or Australia have been exempt. As an aside, this process of impoverishment, often exacerbated by taxation, can be linked directly to the rise of insurgent political movements sometimes labelled “populist”.

The process which links rising ECoE to falling prosperity is illustrated in figs. 2 and 3. In America, prosperity per person turned down when ECoE hit 5.5%, whereas the weaker British economy started to deteriorate at an ECoE of just 3.4%.

Fig. 2 & 3.

EcoE & prosp US UK

World average prosperity per capita has declined only marginally since 2007, essentially because deterioration in the West has been offset by continued progress in the emerging market (EM) economies. This, though, is nearing its point of inflexion, with clear evidence now showing that the Chinese economy, in particular, is in very big trouble.

As you’d expect, these trends in underlying prosperity have started showing up in ‘real world’ indicators, with trade in goods, and sales of everything from cars and smartphones to computer chips and industrial components, now turning down. As the economy of “stuff” weakens, a logical consequence is likely to be a deterioration in demand for the energy and other commodities used in the supply of “stuff”.

Simply stated, the economy has now started to shrink, and there are limits to how long we can hide this from ourselves by spending ever larger amounts of borrowed money.

Safe to continue?

Let’s revert now to our hypothetical situation in which, unconcerned about the environment, we remain resolutely committed to an economy powered by fossil fuels.

The critical question becomes that of what then happens to the economy moving forwards.

Unfortunately, the ECoEs of fossil fuels will keep rising. SEEDS puts the combined ECoE of fossil fuels today at 10.7%, a far cry from the level in 2008 (6.5%), let alone 1998 (4.2%). Projections show fossil fuel ECoEs hitting 12.5% by 2024, and 14.5% by 2030.

For context, SEEDS studies indicate that, in the advanced economies of the West, prosperity turns down once ECoEs reach a range between 3.5% and 5.5%. Because of their lesser complexity, EM countries enjoy greater ability to cope with rising ECoEs, but even they have their limits. SEEDS analysis identifies an ECoE band of between 8% and 10% within which EM prosperity turns down. Sure enough, China’s current travails coincide with an ECoE which hit 8.7% last year, and is projected to rise from 9.0% in 2019 to 10.0% by 2025. A similar climacteric looms for South Korea  (see figs. 4 & 5).

Figs. 4 & 5

EcoE & prosp CH KOR

In short, then, continued reliance on fossil fuels would condemn the world economy to levels of ECoE which would destroy prosperity.

Hidden behind increasingly desperate (and dangerous) financial manipulation, the world as a whole has been getting poorer since ECoE hit 5.5% in 2007. As more of the EM economies hit the “downturn zone” (ECoEs of 8-10%), the so-far-gradual impoverishment of the average person worldwide can be expected to accelerate.

After that, various adverse consequences start to impact the system. The financial structure cannot be expected to cope with much more of the strain induced by denial-driven manipulation. The political and geopolitical consequences of worsening prosperity, exacerbated perhaps by competition for resources, can be left to the imagination. Economic systems dependent on high rates of capacity utilization can be expected to fail.

This, then, is the grim outlook for a world continuing to rely on fossil fuels. Even if this continued reliance on oil, gas and coal won’t destroy the environment, it can be expected, with very high levels of probability, to wreck the economy.

Even as things stand today, the energy industries seem almost to have stopped trying to keep up. Capital investment in energy, stated at constant 2018 values, was 20% lower last year (at $1.59tn) than it was back in 2014 ($2tn), and is not remotely sufficient to provide continuity of supply. Even shale investment only keeps going courtesy of investors and lenders who are prepared to support “cash-burning” companies.

Critically, what this means is that the supposed conflict between environmental imperatives, on the one hand, and economic (“cost”) considerations, on the other, is a wholly false dichotomy.

For the economy, no less than for the environment, there is a compelling case for transition. But the implications of the future trend in ECoEs go a lot further than that.

As the ECoEs of fossil fuels have risen inexorably, those of renewable alternatives have fallen steadily. It is projected by SEEDS that these will intersect within the next two to three years, after which renewables will be “cheaper” (in ECoE terms) than their fossil alternatives.

At this point, it would be comforting to assume that, as the ECoEs of renewables keep falling, and the extent of their use increases, we can make a relatively painless transition.

Unfortunately, there are at least three factors which make any such assumption dangerously complacent.

First, we need to guard against the extrapolatory fallacy which says that, because the ECoE of renewables has declined by x% over y number of years, it will fall by a further x% over the next y. The problem with this is that it ignores the limits imposed by the laws of physics.

Second, renewable sources of energy remain substantially derivative of fossil fuels inputs. At present, we can only construct wind turbines, solar panels and their associated infrastructure by using energy sourced from fossil fuels.  Until and unless this can be overcome, sources termed ‘renewable’ might better be described as ‘secondary applications of primary energy from fossil fuels’.

Third, and perhaps most disturbing of all, there can be no assurance that the ECoE of a renewables-based energy system can ever be low enough to sustain prosperity. Back in the ‘golden age’ of prosperity growth (in the decades immediately following 1945), global ECoE was between 1% and 2%. With renewables, the best that we can hope for might be an ECoE stable at perhaps 8%, far above the levels at which prosperity deteriorates in the West, and ceases growing in the emerging economies.

Policy, reality and the false dichotomy

These cautions do not, it must be stressed, undermine the case for transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables. After all, once we understand the energy processes which drive the economy, we know where continued dependency on ever-costlier fossil fuels would lead.

There can, of course, be no guarantees around a successful transition to renewable forms of energy. The slogan “sustainable development” has been adopted by the policy establishment because it seems to promise the public that we can tackle environmental risk without inflicting economic hardship, or even significant inconvenience.

It is, therefore, far more a matter of assumption than of verifiable practicality.

Even within the limited scope of declared plans for “sustainable development”, efforts at transition are faltering. Here are some examples of this disturbing insufficiency of effort:

–   According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), additions of new renewable generating capacity have stalled, with 177 GW added last year, unchanged from 2017. Moreover, the IEA has stated that additions last year needed to be at least 300 GW to stay on track with objectives set out in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

–   The IEA has also said that capital investment in renewables, expressed at constant values, was lower last year (at $304bn) than it was back in 2011 ($314bn). Even allowing for reductions in unit cost, this reinforces the observation that renewables capacity simply isn’t growing rapidly enough.

–   In 2018, output of electricity generated from renewable sources increased by 314 TWH (terawatt hours), but total energy consumption grew by 938 TWH, with 457 TWH of that increase – a bigger increment than delivered by renewables – sourced from fossil fuels.

The latter observation is perhaps the most worrying of all. Far from replacing the use of fossil fuels in electricity supply, additional output from renewables is failing even to keep pace with growth in demand. Where power generation is concerned, this has worrying implications for our ability to transition road transport to EVs without having to burn a lot more oil, gas and coal in order to do so.

The deceleration in the rate at which renewables capacity and output are being added seems to be linked to decreases in subsidies. These, though affordable enough at very low rates of take-up, have been scaled back as the magnitude of the challenge has increased.

This calls for a thoroughgoing review of energy policy, and it seems bizarre that a system which can provide financial support for the banking system cannot do the same for the far more important matter of energy. Even within the fossil fuels arena, the continued growth of American shale production has relied on cheap capital, channelled into loss-making shale producers by optimistic investors and seemingly-complacent lenders.

We need to understand that, when an individual pays for electricity, or puts fuel in a car’s tank, this represents only a small fraction of what he or she spends on energy. The vast majority of energy expenditure isn’t undertaken as direct purchasing by the consumer, but is embedded in literally all of his or her outlays on goods and services. The scope for direct purchasing is determined by the scale of embedded use.

As prosperity deteriorates, then, the ability of the consumer to purchase energy is reduced. There is every likelihood that energy suppliers could find themselves trapped between the Scylla of rising costs and the Charybdis of impoverished customers.

We should, accordingly, be prepared for the failure of a system which relies almost entirely on commercial enterprise for the supply of energy. Far from prices soaring in response to tightening supplies, it’s likely that the impoverishment of consumers keeps prices below costs, resulting in a shrinkage of energy supply as part of a broader deterioration in economic activity.

As the situation develops, we may need to think outside the “comfort zone” of current policy parameters. For instance, the promise that the public can exchange their current vehicles for EVs may prove not to be capable of fulfilment, forcing us to evaluate alternatives, including electric trams and rail.

For now, though, one imperative predominates. It is that we must stop believing in the false dichotomy in which the environmental need for a transition to renewables is “moderated” by wholly false considerations of “cost”.

Simply put, we’re likely to pay a quite extraordinarily high price for a continuation of the assumption that the economy, demonstrably an energy system, is characterised by, and can be managed using, purely financial interpretation.

= = = = =

SEEDS environment report July 2019

 

 

#152: Stuffed

WHY THE MONETARY LIFEBOAT WON’T FLOAT

The global financial system has come to rest on a single complacent assumption, one which is seldom put explicitly into words, but is remarkably implicit in actions.

This assumption is that the authorities have, and are willing to deploy, a monetary ‘fix’ for all ills.

Accordingly, the system has come to be seen as a bizarre casino, in which winning punters keep their gains, but losers are sure that they’ll be reimbursed at the exit-door.

So ingrained has this assumption become that it’s almost heresy to denounce it for the falsity that it is.

The theme of this discussion is simply stated. It is that the complacent assumption of a monetary fix is misplaced. The authorities, faced with a crash, might very well try something along these lines, and might even adopt one or more of its most outlandish variants.

But it won’t work.

The reason why no monetary expedient can provide a “get out of gaol free” card is that the economy and the financial system are quite different things.

The complacent rush in  

You can see financial manifestations of mistaken complacency wherever you look.

It emboldens those who have lent most of the $2.9 trillion that, over the last five years, American companies have ploughed into the insane elimination of flexible equity in favour of inflexible debt.

It informs those who pile into the shares of cash-burners, or queue up to buy into overpriced IPOs.

It reassures those long of JPY, despite the monetization of more than half of all outstanding JGBs by the BoJ.

It tranquilizes those who, unable to see the contradiction between gigantic financial exposure and a stumbling economy, remain long of GBP.

It blinds those to whom the Chinese economic narrative remains a miracle, not a credit-fueled bubble.

The aim here is a simple one. It is to counter this complacency by explaining why economic problems cannot be solved with monetary tools, and to warn that efforts to do so risk, instead, the undermining of the credibility of currencies.

A casino which hands back losers’ money belongs in the realm of pure myth.

The secondary status of money

Money has no intrinsic worth. Someone adrift in a lifeboat in mid-Atlantic, or stranded in the Sahara, would benefit from an air-drop of food or water, but even a gigantic amount of money descending on a parachute would do nothing more than allowing him or her to die rich.

Conventionally, money has three roles, but only one of these is relevant. Fiat money has been an atrociously bad ‘store of value’, and money is a very flawed ‘unit of account’. Money’s only relevant role is as a ‘medium of exchange’.

For this to work, there has to be something for which money can be exchanged.

This means that money has no intrinsic worth, but commands value only as a claim on the products of the economy. If you build up a structure of claims that the economy cannot honour, then that structure must – eventually, and in one way or another – collapse.

Conceptually, it’s useful to think in terms of ‘two economies’. One of these is the ‘real’ economy of goods and services, its operation characterised by the use of labour and resources, but its performance ultimately driven by energy.

The other is the ‘financial’ economy of money and credit, a parallel or shadow of the ‘real’ economy, useful for managing the real economy, but wholly lacking in stand-alone substance.

To be sure, the early monetarists oversimplified things with the assertion that inflation could be explained in wholly quantitative monetary terms. The price interface between money and the real economy isn’t determined by the simple division of the quantity of economic goods into the quantity of money.

Rather, it’s the movement or use of money that matters. The quantitative recklessness of Weimar would not have triggered hyperinflation had the excess been locked up in a vault, or in some other way not put to use. It’s not hair-splitting, but an important distinction, that Weimar’s true downfall was not that excess money was created, but that it was created and spent.

The process of exchange, which really defines the role of money, makes the interface dynamic, and, as such, introduces behavioural considerations. The creation of very large amounts of new money needn’t destabilize the price equilibrium if people hoard it, but a lesser increment can be extremely destabilizing if is spent with exceptional rapidity. This is why the simple quantitative interpretation needs to be modified by the inclusion of velocity, making Q x V a much more useful monetary determinant.

Behaviourally, velocity falls when people turn cautious – they did this during and after the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), a tendency which reduced the inflationary risk of the loose money responses deployed at that time.

Even so, claims that the monetary adventurism unleashed at that time did not trigger inflation are simply untrue, unless you accept a narrow definition of inflation. To be sure, retail prices haven’t surged since 2008, but asset prices most certainly have, the truism being that the inflationary effects of the injection of money turn up at the point at which the money is injected.

Additionally, inflation is influenced by expectations – which have been low in an era of ’austerity’ – and by the performance of the economy. An economy which is performing weakly puts downwards pressure on inflation.

What it does not do, though, is to eliminate latent inflation. Any erosion of faith in the reliability of money would cause velocity to spike, as people rush out to spend it whilst it still has value.

Fiat fallacy

One of the analytically adverse side-effects of monetary manipulation is that it inflates apparent activity. Globally, and expressed in constant 2018 PPP dollars, the $34tn increase in recorded GDP since 2008 cannot be unrelated to the $110tn escalation in debt over the same period. According to SEEDS, most (67%) of the “growth” recorded over that period was nothing more than the simple effect of spending borrowed money.

This matters, first because a cessation in credit injection would undermine supposed rates of “growth” and, second, because a reversal would put much prior “growth” into reverse.

By falsifying GDP, this ‘credit effect’ also falsifies any relationships based on it – so the ‘comfortable’ 218% global ratio of debt-to-GDP masks a real ratio which is nearer to 340%, and higher by more than 100% than it was ten years ago (236%). It also distorts the measurement of financial exposure, so lulling us into misplaced insouciance about those countries (such as Ireland and Britain) whose financial assets stand at huge multiples to the real value of their economies.

Behind the mask of ‘the credit effect’, global economic performance is at best lacklustre, growing at about 0-9-1.3% annually whilst population numbers are growing by 1.0%.

Moreover, these numbers disguise regional disparities – whilst the average Chinese or Indian citizen continues to become more prosperous (for now, anyway), the average Westerner has been getting poorer for at least a decade.

Of course, there’s a countervailing ‘wealth effect’, giving false comfort to those whose assets have soared in price – and few, if any, of them appear to wonder what would happen if there was a rush to monetize inflated values.

But the drastic distortion in the relationship between asset values and incomes has real downsides exceeding its (illusory anyway) upside. Policymakers and their advisers may remain ignorant of the deterioration in Western prosperity, but to voters it is all too real, something which has been a major contributor to those changes in voter responses which have informed “Brexit”, Mr Trump’s ascent to the White House, and the rolling repudiation of established political parties across much of Europe.

The decline of “stuff”

The weakness of the underlying picture has now started showing up unmistakeably in weakening in demand for everything from cars, domestic appliances and smartphones to chips and drive-motors. Logically, deterioration in the economy of “stuff” will extend next into commodities because, if you’re making less “stuff”, you need less minerals, less plastics and, critically, less energy with which to make it.

Whilst all of this is going on in plain view, markets and policymakers alike are failing to recognize the risks implicit in the widening gap between a stumbling economy and escalating financial exposure. As well as borrowing an additional $110tn since 2008, we’ve blown a not-dissimilar-sized hole in pension provision, because the same low cost of capital which has incentivized borrowing has also crippled the rates of return on which pension accrual depends.

Additionally, of course, the prices of equities and property have reached heights from which any descent into rationality would have devastating direct and collateral consequences.

When the next crisis (GFC II) shows up, the complacent expectation is that everything can be ‘fixed’ with even looser monetary policy. Some of the more bizarre suggestions aired in 2008 – including ‘helicopter money’, and NIRP (negative interest rate policy, with its implicit need to outlaw cash) – will doubtless come to the fore again, accompanied by a whole crop of new ‘innovations’. The authorities are likely, in the stark despair which follows protracted denial, to act on at least some of these follies.

The trouble is that it won’t work.

You might as well try to rescue an ailing pot-plant with a spanner as try to revive an ailing economy with monetary innovation.

The form that failure takes need not necessarily involve massive inflation, though this is the only non-default route down from the debt mountain. Authorities capable of believing that EVs are “zero emissions”, or that we can overcome the environmental challenge with some form of “sustainable growth” (rather than degrowth), are perfectly capable of also believing that we can fix economic problems with monetary recklessness.

If inflation doesn’t spoil the party, two other factors might. One is credit exhaustion, in which massively indebted borrowers refuse to take on yet more debt, irrespective of how cheap the offer may be.

The other factor might well be a loss of faith in money, which might also be accompanied by a ‘flight to quality’, perhaps favouring the dollar (as ‘the prettiest horse in the knackers’ yard’), whilst hanging weaker currencies out to dry.

However it pans out, though, we know that an economy whose prosperity is faltering cannot indefinitely sustain an ever-growing burden of financial promises. By definition, whatever is unsustainable eventually fails, and this is as true of monetary systems as of anything else.

#151: The Great (brick) Wall of China

HOW SERIOUS IS THE CHINESE DOWNTURN?

For more than ten years, capital markets have had one perennial obsession, with Wall Street, in particular, rising or falling with the latest change of sentiment over Fed rate policy. Now, though, a new fixation has taken over, with stock markets reacting to every slightest positive or adverse nuance in trade talks between China and the United States.

These obsessions share an irony, which is that the outcome of neither has ever been in much doubt.

On rate policy, and even when Fed comments have been at their most bullish, there’s never been much real chance of rates rising back towards what, pre-2008, was considered “normal”. After a ten-year-long debt binge, followed by more than a decade of ultra-loose monetary policy, the American and world economies are locked into an abnormality which must continue until it reaches its culminating failure.

Pushing rates up to, say, 250bps above inflation would crash the economy, and everybody knows it. At each and every downturn in sentiment and performance, central banks are going to reach for the taps, until either credit exhaustion, and/or the loss of faith in money, puts the experiment of ‘financial adventurism’ out of its misery – and, if we’re lucky, triggers ‘the great reset’.

With Sino-American trade, the probabilities are equally loaded, and there’s never been any real chance at all of a meaningful agreement being reached between Washington and Beijing. The reality is that, for reasons seldom understood by Western observers,  but explained here, China simply cannot agree to terms that would satisfy the White House.

Through the wrong lens

Part of the perception problem is that outsiders habitually look at China through Western eyes, assuming that, like Western countries, China concentrates on the pursuit of profitable growth. This, unfortunately, simply isn’t the case. China’s priorities in economic policy are wholly different, with profitability mattering hardly at all, and the focus emphatically on volume.

The basis of government in China is “the mandate of heaven”, a term which translates as government by consent. To be sure, China has impressively comprehensive surveillance and coercion capabilities, but nobody should assume that these could keep the party (the CPC) in power if the public turned against it.

Rather, the relationship between governing and governed rests on a “grand bargain”. The public’s side of this bargain is the acceptance of civil rights which are a lot more restricted than has been the norm in the West. In return, the authorities are required to deliver prosperity.

This, undoubtedly, they have thus far succeeded in doing. According to SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System), the average Chinese person is 44% more prosperous now than he or she was just ten years ago. This achievement is all the more remarkable when set against the gradual but relentless deterioration of prosperity in the West.

Nobody should assume, though, that continuation of improvements in prosperity is assured. Rather, the bar keeps getting higher, and one of the themes explored here is the growing extent to which China has had to resort to increasingly dangerous financial expedients to keep prosperity growth on track.

The litmus-test of whether the government is keeping its side of the bargain is employment, especially in urban areas. Both theory and evidence illustrate that, whilst rural unemployment seldom brings about unmanageable unrest, urban unemployment both can, and has. The spectre which stalks the nightmares of the Chinese leadership is mass unemployment in the cities, a problem whose potential risk has grown steadily as millions have migrated from the countryside.

At all costs, then, China must sustain and grow urban employment. This in turn points to two criteria seldom recognized in the West – an emphasis on activity (rather than profit), and a single-minded concentration on volume (rather than value).

If China were to agree to restrict her exports of goods to the United States, her volume priority would take a huge hit – and meeting America stipulations on technology transfer could risk China’s goods falling so far behind competitor product specs that they would be barely saleable, almost irrespective of quite how far prices were allowed to fall.

These considerations indicate that China simply cannot afford to agree to the most important American demands over trade, which makes a deal implausible unless Washington backs down. The view taken here is that, whilst the United States can ‘win’ a trade war with China, such a victory could be Pyrrhic at best. Based on the analysis outlined here, the Chinese economy is already in very big trouble, and America can only lose if this predicament is worsened.

The paramount emphasis on volume goes along way towards explaining why China has built huge capacity, even where there are already excesses. Building residential property where there are no residents, shopping centres without retailers, unnecessary infrastructure and unneeded factory capacity may look irrational in the West, but what to Westerners may be a white elephant looks, in China, like a valuable source of employment.

Emphasis on volume does, though, come at a hefty cost. In industry, the creation of excess capacity necessarily crushes margins. As a result, profitability often falls to levels below the cost of capital, whilst cash flow is nowhere near sufficient to finance investment in additional capacity.

This, in turn, has forced a reliance on debt, which is used not just to fund capacity expansion, but to cover losses as well.

Overseas observers customarily ignore China’s reliance on debt, sometimes because they are simply dazzled by reported “growth”. Many people overseas marvel that China has more than doubled her GDP (+114%) since 2008, but far fewer recognize that doing this has required a near-quadrupling of debt (+284%) over the same period.

In the years since the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), annual net borrowing in China has averaged 24% of GDP, a ratio to which not even Ireland has come close.

Stated at constant 2018 values, a RMB 47.3 trillion expansion in GDP has been accompanied by RMB 162 tn escalation in debt. Tellingly, almost 60% of that borrowing has been undertaken by businesses, whose debt at constant values has climbed to RMB 134 tn, now from just RMB 38 tn ten years ago.

The cracks appear

Unfortunately, both in activity and in finance, China seems to have hit a brick wall in the second half of last year.

Financially, the first cracks in the system showed up with a catastrophe in P2P (peer-to-peer) lending, a boom-to-bust event with distinct parallels to the subprime mortgage disaster experienced in the US and in other Western countries in the lead-up to 2008.

Like subprime, P2P offers high-cost loans to borrowers unable to obtain credit from conventional (and much less expensive) sources. The very fact that borrower quality is so low ought to warn investors off these platforms, but the allure of high yields has proved irresistible to many Chinese savers.

First legalized in 2015, numbers of P2P platforms exploded, to a peak of over 8,000 by mid-2018, by which point the sums invested had reached the equivalent of $190bn. Then, with grim inevitability, P2P began to disintegrate, with some borrowers defaulting, whilst others simply absconded. By the end of July last year, after regulators had started to involve themselves, more than 4,700 P2P platforms had ceased to exist.

This in turn has had seriously adverse economic effects, some of which put the first visible dent into Chinese volumetric progression. The sectors hit first by the P2P crash have been the sales of vehicles and domestic appliances, both of which had benefited from P2P-funded purchasing.

Within corporate borrowing, China has followed the West in making ever greater use of bond finance rather than bank lending. From negligible levels ten years ago, Chinese corporate bond issuance soared to $590bn in 2016, and has remained at very high levels since then, dwarfing all other emerging market (EM) issuance put together. The number of issuers has soared to 1,451 from just 68 ten years earlier, whilst the outstanding aggregate has climbed from $4tn to almost $20tn.

Of course, China hasn’t been the only reckless user of bond issuance – indeed, the American use of bond finance for stock buybacks belongs in its own category of insanity – but, once again, cracks are starting to emerge, and are showing up in defaults.

According to US credit rating agency Fitch, defaults by Chinese companies soared to record levels last year, with 45 companies defaulting on a total of 117 bond issues. Of these companies, six were state-owned entities (SOEs), whose failures give the lie to the long-standing investor assumption that Beijing would never allow an SOE to default.

A particular complication in China is that domestic credit rating agencies seem to be ‘generous’ in the ratings that they confer. The inferred claim that most Chinese corporate bond issues are rated AA or above – with very few in junk territory – simply defies logic. A significant number of Chinese corporates enjoy AAA ratings, something that only two American companies have been accorded.

The risk here is not simply that rates of default will continue to accelerate, but that companies will face escalating debt service costs as their status slides from investment grade into junk.

An additional twist has been defaults by companies which, according to reported numbers, should have had cash holdings far exceeding the sums on which they defaulted. One company defaulted on bonds worth RMB 139 million despite supposedly having cash of about RMB 4 billion in cash holdings. A second, supposedly sitting on RMB 4.9 bn in cash, defaulted on a bond worth just RMB 300m. A third defaulted on a RMB 1bn bond even though cash had been reported at RMB 15bn.

Thus far in 2019, default rates are continuing to soar. In the first four months of this year, Chinese companies have defaulted on RMB 39.2 bn ($5.78bn) of domestic bonds, 3.4 times the total for the same period in 2018.

Tumbling volumes

These disturbing financial trends are showing up in some dramatic reversals in economic activity.

First to suffer were sales of vehicles and domestic appliances, both of which had hitherto been funded extensively with P2P credit. In comparison with year-earlier figures, sales of cars in China fell by nearly 12% in September and October last year, by 13.9% in November and by 13.0% in December. These falls constituted a dramatic reversal in hitherto uninterrupted, multi-year expansion in annual car purchasing, which had soared from 5.2 million units in 2006 to 24.7 million in 2017. Though foreign car-makers have suffered sharp decreases in sales, domestic manufacturers have borne the brunt of the slump, an event which has had very severe consequences for businesses which supply the vehicle industry.

Industries in China have also suffered from a sharp downturn in the market for consumer goods, ranging from smartphones to domestic appliances, the latter being hit further by tightened regulations on multiple home ownership. Overseas investors started to notice these trends when they were reported by companies operating in China, though, for the more observant, the sharp deterioration had been flagged already by troubled component suppliers.

Apple was one of many companies caught flat-footed by the reversal in the Chinese market, admitting ruefully that “we did not foresee the magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China”.

Even more significantly, suppliers of industrial components started to suffer from sharp falls in orders. The CEO of Nidec – a Japanese supplier of electric motors to manufacturers of products which include disc-drives, vehicles, robotics and domestic appliances – has said that “[w]hat we witnessed in November and December was just extraordinary”. In a letter to shareholders, Nidec called recent events “a real punch in the gut”.

FedEx, another company shocked by the Chinese turndown, has said that “no markets will be able to absorb more than a fraction of what China produces”.

The magnitude of the downturn in China is now showing up in global macroeconomic indicators – trade volumes have slumped with a rapidity not seen since 2008, whilst flows of FDI (foreign direct investment) have fallen far more sharply than can be explained by US tax changes alone.

There is growing evidence, too, that Chinese investors have started pulling out of property and other investments in overseas markets. Even before trade disputes really heated up, Chinese FDI in the United States had collapsed, whilst Chinese investors were also scaling back their investments in Europe. Towards the end of last year, in a clear reflection of economic deterioration, Chinese equity markets fell sharply, tumbling to levels last seen before the 2008 crash.

Turning on the taps

Inevitably – and despite prior commitments to do no such thing – the Chinese authorities have been pouring eye-watering amounts of new liquidity into the system since the start of this year. This has helped Chinese capital markets recover, of course, but seems to have done nothing more than buy some time for the economy itself, with key volume indicators (such as vehicle sales) continuing to fall sharply.

These interventions are starting to get noticed, puncturing much long-standing overseas complacency about China as an ‘unstoppable growth engine’. Pointedly, Forbes magazine recently asked why, if the Chinese economy really is growing at over 6%, “is the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) pumping money into the market like a drunken sailor?”

It may not be at all fanciful to detect a sense of near-panic in Beijing. Having already called on state banks to lend more to SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises), Premier Li Keqiang has now called for greater “flexibility” in the use of monetary policy to encourage lending. The word “flexibility”, of course, has a particular meaning when applied to monetary policy.

As well as implementing stock purchases, the PBOC has loosened reserve requirements – enabling banks to increase lending against any given amount of capital – and seems to be relaxing some of the rules previously put in place to restrain the bubble in residential property prices. Credit stimulus totalled RMB 4.64tn – more than 5% of annual GDP – in January alone, and has continued throughout the year so far at rates suggesting that 2019 will witness another big leap in Chinese indebtedness.

What now?

What we’re seeing, then, is the first major setback to an economic model targeted on volume and supported by ultra-rapid credit expansion. Though some of us have been warning about the pace of Chinese debt expansion over an extended period, Western markets seem only to have become aware of these risks since volumetric indicators turned down, a trend whose impact has been highlighted by its consequences for a string of overseas companies which, hitherto, had been riding the expansionary wave in Chinese economic activity.

Perhaps the single most disturbing feature of the Chinese predicament has been the sheer scale of the downturn across a string of product categories ranging from cars and smartphones to industrial components. What we’ve been witnessing, across a diverse and representative cross-section of activity, hasn’t been a minor reversal, still less a slowing of growth, but an alarmingly deep fall in activity.

It need hardly be said that China has played an absolutely pivotal role in the world economy since 2008, not just providing growth but acting as a hugely important market for everything from manufactured goods to critical commodities, including energy, minerals and food. Additionally, Chinese overseas investment has been hugely important for overseas asset prices, most obviously in real estate.

The risks from here are (a) that activity continues to fall rapidly, and (b) that the financial system that has funded the push for volume starts to decay.

We can be pretty sure that, in terms of stimulus, China will do anything and everything possible to arrest the downwards lurch. Even on a comparatively optimistic reading, however, trade, investment and demand, worldwide, are going to take a major hit from what has already happened in China.

The really big question, in China as elsewhere, is whether the efficacy of financial stimulus will weaken, something which could happen if credit exhaustion kicks in, or if faith in money is undermined.

It’s worth reminding ourselves of quite how far we have already gone in reliance on cheap debt and abundant liquidity. Over five years, only stock buybacks of $2.95tn, mostly debt-financed, have kept Wall Street buoyant in the face of net investor selling of $1.1tn, whilst the Bank of Japan has now acquired more than half of all outstanding JGBs (Japanese government bonds) using money newly created for the purpose.

Stirring Chinese economic and financial risk into the mix suggests that we may be measurably close to the point at which the seaworthiness of the ‘perpetual cheap money lifeboat’ meets its toughest test.

#150: The management of hardship

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS IN AN AGE OF DETERIORATING PROSPERITY

Though just over a month has passed since the previous article (for which apologies), work here hasn’t slackened. Rather, I’ve been concentrating on three issues, all of them important, and all of them topics where a recognition of the energy basis of the economy can supply unique insights.

The first of these is the insanity which says that no amount of financial recklessness is ever going to drive us over a cliff, because creating new money out of thin air is our “get out of gaol free card” in all circumstances.

This isn’t the place for the lengthy explanation of why this won’t work, but the short version is that we’re now trying to do for money what we so nearly did to the banks in 2008.

The second subject is the very real threat posed by environmental degradation, where politicians are busy assuring the public that the problem can be fixed without subjecting voters to any meaningful inconvenience – and, after all, anyone who can persuade the public that electric vehicles are “zero emissions” could probably sell sand to the Saudis.

And this takes us to the third issue, the tragicomedy that it is contemporary politics – indeed, it might reasonably be said that, between them, the Élysée and Westminster, in particular, offer combinations of tragedy, comedy and farce that even the most daring of theatre directors would blush to present.

From a surplus energy perspective, the political situation is simply stated.

SEEDS analysis of prosperity reveals that the average person in almost every Western country has been getting poorer for at least a decade.

Governments, which continue to adhere to outdated paradigms based on a purely financial interpretation of the economy, remain blind to the voters’ plight – and, all too often, this blindness looks a lot like indifference. Much of the tragedy of politics, and much of its comedy, too, can be traced to this fundamental contradiction between what policymakers think is happening, and what the public knows actually is.

Nowhere is the gap in comprehension, and the consequent gulf between governing and governed, more extreme than in France – so that’s as good a place as any to begin our analysis.

The French dis-connection

Let’s start with the numbers, all of which are stated in euros at constant 2018 values, with the most important figures set out in the table below.

Between 2008 and 2018, French GDP increased by 9.4%, equivalent to an improvement of 5.0% at the per capita level, after adjustment for a 4.2% rise in population numbers. This probably leads the authorities to believe that the average person has been getting at least gradually better off so, on material grounds at least, he or she hasn’t got too much to grumble about.

Here’s how different these numbers look when examined using SEEDS. For starters, growth of 9.4% since 2008 has increased recorded GDP by €201bn, but this has been accompanied by a huge €2 trillion (40%) rise in debt over the same decade. Put another way, each €1 of “growth” has come at a cost of €9.90 in net new debt, which is a ruinously unsustainable ratio. SEEDS analysis indicates that most of that “growth” – in fact, more than 90% of it – has been nothing more substantial than the simple spending of borrowed money.

#150 France SEEDS summary

This is important, for at least three main reasons.

First, and most obviously, a reported increase of €1,720 in GDP per capita has been accompanied by a rise of almost €27,500 in each person’s share of aggregate household, business and government debt.

Second, if France ever stopped adding to its stock of debt, underlying growth would fall, SEEDS calculates, to barely 0.2%, a rate which is lower than the pace at which population numbers are growing (about 0.5% annually).

Third, much of the “growth” recorded in recent years would unwind if France ever tried to deleverage its balance sheet.

Then there’s the trend energy cost of energy (ECoE), a critical component of economic performance, and which, in France, has risen from 5.9% in 2008 to 8.0% last year. Adjustment for ECoE reduces prosperity per person in 2018 to €27,200, a far cry from reported per capita GDP of €36,290. Moreover, personal prosperity is lower now than it was back in 2008 (€28,710 per capita).

Thus far, these numbers are not markedly out of line with the rate at which prosperity has been falling in comparable economies over the same period. The particular twist, where France is concerned, is that taxation per person has increased, by €2,140 (12%) since 2008. This has had the effect of leveraging a 5.3% (€1,510) decline in overall personal prosperity into a slump of 32% (€3,650) at the level of discretionary, ‘left in your pocket’ prosperity.

At this level of measurement, the average French person’s discretionary prosperity is now only €7,760, compared with €11,410 ten years ago.

And that hurts.

Justified anger

Knowing this, one can hardly be surprised that French voters rejected all established parties at the last presidential election, flirting with the nationalist right and the far left before opting for Mr Macron. Neither can it be any surprise at all that between 72% and 80% of French citizens support he aims of the gilets jaunes (yellow waistcoat) protestors. “Robust” law enforcement, whilst it might just temper the manifestation of this discontent, will have the almost inevitable side-effect of exacerbating the mistrust of the incumbent government.

Because energy-based analysis gives us insights not available to the authorities, we’re in a position to understand the sheer folly of some French government policies, both before and since the start of the protests.

From the outset, there were reasons to suspect that the gloss of Mr Macron’s campaign hid a deep commitment to failed economic nostrums. These nostrums include the bizarre belief that an economy can be energized by undermining the rights and rewards of working people – the snag being, of course, that the circumstances of these same workers determine demand in the economy.

After all, if low wages were a recipe for prosperity, Ghana would be richer than Germany, and Swaziland more prosperous than Switzerland.

Handing out huge tax cuts to a tiny minority of the already very wealthiest, though always likely to be at the forefront of Mr Macron’s agenda, looks idiotically provocative when seen in the context of deteriorating average prosperity. Creating a national dialogue over the protestors’ grievances might have made sense, but choosing a political insider to preside over it, at a reported monthly salary of €14,666, reinforced a widespread suspicion that the Grand Debat is no more than an exercise in distraction undertaken by an administration wholly out of touch with voters’ circumstances.

Whilst Mr Macron has appeared flexible over some fiscal demands, he has ruled out increasing the tax levied on the wealthiest. This intransigence is likely to prove the single biggest blunder of his presidency.

Even the tragic fire at Notre Dame has been mishandled by the government, in ways seemingly calculated to intensify suspicion. Rather than insisting that the restoration of the state-owned Cathedral would be funded by the government, the authorities made the gaffe of welcoming offers of financial support from some of the most conspicuously wealthy people in France.

This prompted some to wonder when corporate logos would start to appear on the famous towers, and others to ask why, if the wealthiest wanted to make a contribution, they couldn’t have been asked to do so by paying more tax. It didn’t help that the authorities rushed to declare the fire an accident, long before the experts could possibly have had evidence sufficient to rule out more malign explanations. After all, in an atmosphere of mistrust, conspiracy theories thrive.

The broader picture

The reason for looking at the French predicament in some detail is that the problems facing the authorities in Paris are different only in degree, and not in direction or nature, from those confronting other Western governments.

The British political impasse over “Brexit”, for instance, can be traced to the same lack of awareness of what is really happening to the prosperity of the voters – whilst “Brexit” itself divides the electorate, there is something far closer to unanimity over a narrative that politicians are as ineffectual as they are self-serving, and are out of touch with real public concerns. Similar factors inform popular discontent in many other European countries, even when this discontent is articulated over issues other than the deterioration in prosperity.

At the most fundamental level, the problem has two components.

The first is that the average person is getting poorer, and is also getting less secure, and deeper into debt.

The second is that governments don’t understand this issue, an incomprehension which, to increasing numbers of voters, looks like indifference.

It has to be said that governments have no excuses for this lack of understanding. The prosperity of the average person in most Western countries began to fall more than a decade ago, and any politician even reasonably conversant with the circumstances and opinions of the typical voter ought to be aware of it, even if he or she lacks the interpretation or the information required to explain it.

Governments whose economic advisers and macroeconomic models are still failing to identify the slump in prosperity need new advisers, and new models.

A disastrous consensus

Though incomprehension (and adherence to failed economic interpretations) is the kernel of the problem, it has been compounded by the mix of philosophies adopted since the 1990s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, an informal consensus was created in which the Left accepted the market economics paradigm, and the centre-Right tried to be ‘progressive’ on social issues.

Both moves robbed voters of choices.

Though the social policy dimension lies outside our focus on the economy, the creation of a pro-market ‘centre-Left’ has turned out to have been nothing less than a disaster. Specifically, it has had two, woefully adverse consequences.

The first was that the Left’s adoption of its opponents’ economic orthodoxy destroyed the balance of opposing philosophies which, hitherto, had kept in place the ‘mixed economy’, a model which aims to combine the best of the private and the public sector provision. The emergence of Britain’s “New Labour”, and its overseas equivalents, eliminated the checks and balances which, historically, had acted to rein in extremes.

Put another way, the traditional ‘Left versus Right’ debate created constructive tensions which forced both sides to hone their messages, as well as preventing a lurch into extremism which, whilst it might sometimes be good politics, is invariably very bad economics.

The second, of course, was that the new centre-ground – variously dubbed the “Washington consensus”, the “Anglo-American model” and “neoliberalism” – has proved to be an utterly disastrous exercise in economic extremism. One after another, its tenets have failed, creating massive indebtedness, huge financial risk and widening inequality before finally presiding over the wholesale replacement of market principles with the “caveat emptor” free-for-all of what I’ve labelled “junglenomics”.

As well as undermining economic efficiency, these developments have created extremely harmful divisions in society. Whilst Thomas Piketty’s thesis about the divergence of returns on capital and labour is not persuasive, the reality since 2008 has been that asset prices have soared, whilst incomes have stagnated. This process, which has been the direct result of monetary policy, has rewarded those who already owned assets in 2008, and has done nothing for the less fortunate majority.

There is a valid argument, of course, which states that the authorities’ adoption of ultra-cheap money during and after the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC I) was the only course of action available.

But the role of policymakers is to pursue the overall good within whatever the economic and financial context happens to be. So, when central bankers launched programmes clearly destined to create massive inflation in asset prices, governments should have responded with fiscal measures tailored to capture at least some of these gains for the unfavoured majority.

Simply put, the unleashing of ZIRP and QE made a compelling case for the simultaneous introduction of higher taxes on capital gains, complemented by wealth taxes in those countries where these did not already exist.

Failure to do this has hardened incompatible positions. Those whose property values have soared insist, often with absolute sincerity, that their paper enrichment is the product entirely of their own diligence and effort, owes nothing to the luck of being in the right place at the right time, has had nothing whatever to do with the price inflation injected into property markets (in particular) by ultra-cheap monetary policies, and hasn’t happened at the expense of others.

For any younger person, often unable to afford or even find somewhere to live, it is necessarily infuriating to be lectured by fortunate elders on the virtues of saving and hard work.

It’s a bit like a lottery winner criticizing you for buying the wrong ticket.

A workable future

The silver lining to these various clouds is that future policy directions have been simplified, with the paramount objectives being (a) the healing of divisions, and (b) managing the deterioration in prosperity in ways that maximise efficiency and minimise division.

Any government which understands what prosperity is and where it is going will also reach some obvious but important conclusions.

The first is that prosperity issues have risen higher on the political agenda, and will go on doing so, pushing other issues down the scale of importance.

The second conclusion, which carries with it what is probably the single most obvious policy implication, is that redistribution is becoming an ever more important issue. There are two very good reasons for this hardening in sentiment.

For starters, popular tolerance of inequality is linked to trends in prosperity – resentment at “the rich” is muted when most people are themselves getting better off, but this tolerance very soon evaporates when subjected to the solvent of generalised hardship.

Additionally, the popular narrative of the years since 2008 portrays “austerity” as the price paid by the many for the rescue of the few. The main reason why this narrative is so compelling is that, fundamentally, it is true.

The need for redistribution is reinforced by realistic appraisal of the fiscal outlook. Anyone who is aware of deteriorating prosperity has to be aware that this has adverse implications for forward revenues. By definition, only prosperity can be taxed, because taxing incomes below the level of prosperity simply drives people into hardships whose alleviation increases public expenditures.

In France, for example, aggregate national prosperity is no higher now (at €1.76tn) than it was in 2008, but taxation has increased by 17% over that decade. Looking ahead, the continuing erosion of prosperity implies that rates of taxation on the average person will need to fall, unless the authorities wish further to tighten the pressure on the typical taxpayer.

Even the inescapable increase in the taxation of the very wealthiest isn’t going to change a scenario that dictates lower taxes, and correspondingly lower public expenditures, as prosperity erodes.

A new centre of gravity?

The adverse outlook for government revenues is one reason why the political Left cannot expect power to fall into its hands simply as a natural consequence of the crumbling of failed centre-Right incumbencies. Those on the Left keen to refresh their appeal by cleansing their parties of the residues of past compromises have logic on their side, but will depart from logic if they offer agendas based on ever higher levels of public expenditures.

With prosperity – and, with it, the tax base – shrinking, promising anything that looks like “tax and spend” has become a recipe for policy failure and voter disillusionment. This said, so profound has been the failure of the centre-Right ascendancy that opportunities necessarily exist for anyone on the Left who is able to recast his or her agenda on the basis of economic reality.

Tactically, the best way forward for the Left is to shift the debate on equality back to the material, restoring the primacy of the Left’s traditional concentration on the differences and inequities between rich and poor.

On economic as well as fiscal and social issues, we ought to see the start of a “research arms race”, as parties compete to be the first to absorb, and profit from, the recognition of economic realities that are no longer (if they ever truly were) identified by outdated methods of economic interpretation.

Historically, the promotion of ideological extremes has always been a costly luxury, so is likely to fall victim to processes that are making luxuries progressively less affordable. Voters can be expected to turn away from the extremes of pro- public- or private-sector promotion, seeing neither as a solution to their problems.

This, it is to be hoped, can lead to a renaissance in the idea of the mixed economy, which seeks to get the best out of private and public provision, without pandering to the excesses of either. Restoration of this balance, from the position where we are now, means rolling back much of the privatization and outsourcing undertaken, often recklessly, over the last three decades.

Both the private and the public sectors will need to undergo extensive reforms if governments are to craft effective agendas for using the mixed economy to mitigate the worst effects of deteriorating prosperity.

In the private sector, governments could do a lot worse than study Adam Smith, paying particular attention to the explicit priority placed by him on promoting competition and tackling excessive market concentration, and recognizing, too, the importance both of ethics and of effective regulation, both of which are implicit in his recognition that markets will not stay free or fair if left to their own devices.

For the public sector, both generally and at the level of detail, there will need to be a renewed emphasis on the setting of priorities. With resource limitations set not just to continue but to intensify, health systems, for example, will need to become a lot clearer on which services they can, and cannot, afford to fund.

Starting from here

Though this discussion can be no more than a primer for discussion, there are two points on which we can usefully conclude.

First, a useful opening step in the crafting of new politics would be the introduction of “clean hands” principles, designed to prove that government isn’t, as it can so often appear, something conducted “by the rich, for the rich”.

Second, it would be helpful if governments rolled back their inclinations towards macho posturing and intimidation.

A “clean hands” initiative wouldn’t mean that elected representatives would be paid less than currently they are. There is an essential public interest in attracting able and ambitious people into government service, so there’s nothing to be said for hair-shirt commitments to penury. In most European countries, politicians are not overpaid, and it’s arguable that their salaries ought, in some cases at least, to be higher.

There is, though, a real problem, albeit one that is easily remedied. This problem lies in the perception that politics has become a “road to riches”, with policymakers retiring into the wealth bestowed on them by the corporate sponsors of ‘consultancies’ and “the lecture circuit”. This necessarily creates suspicion that rewards are being conferred for services rendered, a suspicion that is corrosive of public trust, even where it isn’t actually true.

The easy fix for this is to cap the earnings of former ministers and administrators at levels which are generous, but are well short of riches. The formula suggested here in a previous discussion would impose an annual income limit at 10x GDP per capita, which is about £315,000 in Britain, with not-dissimilar figures applying in other countries. It seems reasonable to conclude that anyone who thinks that £300,000, or its equivalent, “isn’t enough” is likely to have gone into politics for the wrong reasons.

Where treatment of the “ordinary” person is concerned, there ought, in the future, be no room for the intimidatory practices which have become ever more popular with governments whose real authority has been weakened by failure.

One illustrative example is the system by which council tax (local taxation) arrears are collected in Britain. At present, the typical homeowner pays £1,671 annually, in ten monthly instalments. If someone misses a payment, however, he or she is then required to pay the entire annual amount almost immediately, compounded by court costs of £84 and bailiff fees of £310. Quite apart from the inappropriateness of involving the courts or employing bailiffs, it’s hard to see how somebody struggling to pay £167 is supposed to find £2,067.

This same kind of intimidation occurs when people are penalized for staying a few minutes over a parking permit, or for exceeding a speed limit by a fractional extent. Here, part of the problem arises from providing financial incentives to those enforcing regulations, a practice that should be abandoned by any government aware of the need to start narrowing the chasm between governing and governed.

We cannot escape the conclusion that the task of government, always a thankless one even when confined to sharing out the benefits of growth, is going to become very difficult indeed as prosperity continues to deteriorate.

There might, though, be positives to be found in a process which ditches ideological extremes, uses the mixed economy as the basis for the equitable mitigation of decline, and seeks to rebuild relationships between discredited governments and frustrated citizens.

#149: The big challenges

HOW THE ECONOMICS OF ENERGY VIEWS THE AGENDA

As regular readers will know, this site is driven by the understanding that the economy is an energy system, and not (as conventional thinking assumes) a financial one. Though we explore a wide range of related issues (such as the conclusion that energy supply is going to need monetary subsidy), it’s important that we never lose sight of the central thesis. So I hope you’ll understand the need for a periodic restatement of the essentials.

If you’re new to Surplus Energy Economics, what this site offers is a coherent interpretation of economic and financial trends from a radically different standpoint. This enables us to understand issues that increasingly baffle conventional explanations.

This perspective is a practical one – nobody conversant with the energy-based interpretation was much surprised, for instance, when Donald Trump was elected to the White House, when British voters opted for “Brexit”, or when a coalition of insurgents (aka “populists”) took power in Rome. The SEE interpretation of prosperity trends also goes a long way towards explaining the gilets jaunes protests in France, protests than can be expected in due course to be replicated in countries such as the Netherlands. We’re also unpersuaded by the exuberant consensus narrative of the Chinese economy. The proprietary SEEDS model has proved a powerful tool for the interpretation of critical trends in economics, finance and government.

The aim here, though, isn’t simply to restate the core interpretation. Rather, there are three trends to be considered, each of which is absolutely critical, and each of which is gathering momentum. The aim here is to explore these trends, and share and discuss the interpretations of them made possible by surplus energy economics.

The first such trend is the growing inevitability of a second financial crisis (GFC II), which will dwarf the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), whilst differing radically from it in nature.

The second is the progressive undermining of political incumbencies and systems, a process resulting from the widening divergence between policy assumption and economic reality.

The third is the clear danger that the current, gradual deterioration in global prosperity could accelerate into something far more damaging, disruptive and dangerous.

The vital insight

The centrality of the economy is the delivery of goods and services, literally none of which can be supplied without energy. It follows that the economy is an energy system (and not a financial one), with money acting simply as a claim on output which is itself made possible only by the availability of energy. Money has no intrinsic worth, and commands ‘value’ only in relation to the things for which it can be exchanged – and all of those things rely entirely on energy.

Critically, all economic output (other than the supply of energy itself) is the product of surplus energy – whenever energy is accessed, some energy is always consumed in the access process, and surplus energy is what remains after the energy cost of energy (ECoE) has been deducted from the total (or ‘gross’) amount that is accessed.

This makes ECoE a critical determinant of prosperity. The distinguishing feature of the world economy over the last two decades has been the relentless rise in ECoE. This process necessarily undermines prosperity, because it erodes the available quantity of surplus energy. We’re already seeing this happen – Western prosperity growth has gone into reverse, and progress in emerging market (EM) economies is petering out. Global average prosperity has already turned down.

The trend in ECoE is determined by four main factors. Historically, ECoE has been pushed downwards by broadening geographical reach and increasing economies of scale. Where oil, natural gas and coal are concerned, these positive factors have been exhausted, so the dominating driver of ECoE now is depletion, a process which occurs because we have, quite naturally, accessed the most profitable (lowest ECoE) resources first, leaving costlier alternatives for later.

The fourth driver of ECoE is technology, which accelerates downwards tendencies in ECoE, and mitigates upwards movements. Technology, though, operates within the physical properties of the resource envelope, and cannot ‘overrule’ the laws of physics. This needs to be understood as a counter to some of the more glib and misleading extrapolatory assumptions about our energy future.

The nature of the factors driving ECoE indicates that this critical factor should be interpreted as a trend. According to SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – the trend ECoE of fossil fuels has risen exponentially, from 2.6% in 1990 to 4.1% in 2000, 6.7% in 2010 and 9.9% today. Since fossil fuels continue to account for four-fifths of energy supply, the trend in overall world ECoE has followed a similarly exponential path, and has now reached 8.0%, compared with 5.9% in 2010 and 3.9% in 2000.

For fossil fuels alone, trend ECoE is projected to reach 11.8% by 2025, and 13.5% by 2030. SEEDS interpretation demonstrates that an ECoE of 5% has been enough to put prosperity growth into reverse in highly complex Western economies, whilst less complex emerging market (EM) economies hit a similar climacteric at ECoEs of about 10%. A world economy dependent on fossil fuels thus faces deteriorating prosperity and diminishing complexity, both of which pose grave managerial challenges because they lie wholly outside our prior experience.

Mitigation, not salvation

This interpretation – reinforced by climate change considerations – forces us to regard a transition towards renewables as a priority. It should not be assumed, however, that renewables offer an assured escape from the implications of rising ECoEs, still less that they offer a solution that is free either of pain or of a necessity for social adaption.

There are three main cautionary factors around the ECoE capabilities of solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy.

The first cautionary factor is “the fallacy of extrapolation”, the natural – but often mistaken – human tendency to assume that what happens in the future will be an indefinite continuation of the recent past. It’s easy to assume that, because the ECoEs of renewables have been falling over an extended period, they must carry on falling indefinitely, at a broadly similar pace. But the reality is much more likely to be that cost-reducing progress in renewables will slow when it starts to collide with the limits imposed by physics.

Second, projections for cost reduction ignore the derivative nature of renewables. Building, say, a solar panel, a wind turbine or an electrical distribution system requires inputs currently only available courtesy of the use of fossil fuels. In this specialised sense, solar and wind are not so much ‘primary renewables’ as ‘secondary applications of primary fossil input’.

We may reach the point where these technologies become ‘truly renewable’, in that their inputs (such as minerals and plastics) can be supplied without help from oil, gas or coal.

But we are certainly, at present, nowhere near such a breakthrough. Until and unless this point is reached, the danger exists that that the ECoE of renewables may start to rise, pushed back upwards by the rising ECoE of the fossil fuel sources on which so many of their inputs rely.

The third critical consideration is that, even if renewables were able to stabilise ECoE at, say, 8% or so, that would not be anywhere near low enough.

Global prosperity stopped growing before ECoE hit 6%. British prosperity has been in decline ever since ECoE reached 3.6%, and an ECoE of 5.5% has been enough to push Western prosperity growth into reverse. As recently as the 1960s, in what we might call a “golden age” of prosperity growth, ECoE was well below 2%. Even if renewables could stabilise ECoE at, say, 8% – and that’s an assumption which owes much more to hope than calculation – it wouldn’t be low enough to enable prosperity to stabilise, let alone start to grow again.

SEEDS projections are that overall world ECoE will reach 9% by 2025, 9.7% by 2030 and 11% by 2040. These projections are comparatively optimistic, in that progress with renewables is expected to blunt the rate of increase in trend ECoE. But we should labour under no illusion that the downwards tendency in prosperity can be stemmed, less still reversed. Renewables can give us time to prepare and respond, but are not going to take us back to a nirvana of low-cost energy.

This brings us to the three critical issues driven by rising ECoE and diminishing prosperity.

Challenge #1 – financial shock

An understanding of the energy basis of the economy puts us in possession of a coherent narrative of recent and continuing tendencies in economics and finance. Financially, in particular, the implications are disquieting. There is overwhelming evidence pointing towards a repetition of the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), in a different form and at a very much larger scale.

From the late 1990s, with ECoEs rising beyond 4%, growth in Western prosperity began to peter out. Though “secular stagnation” was (and remains) the nearest that conventional interpretation has approached to understanding this issue, deceleration was noticed sufficiently to prompt the response known here as “credit adventurism”.

This took the form of making credit not only progressively cheaper to service but also much easier to obtain. This policy was also, in part, aimed at boosting demand undermined by the outsourcing of highly-skilled, well-paid jobs as a by-product of ‘globalization’. “Credit adventurism” was facilitated by economic doctrines which were favourable to deregulation, and which depicted debt as being of little importance.

The results, of course, are now well known. Between 2000 and 2007, each $1 of reported growth in GDP was accompanied by $2.08 of net new borrowing, though ratios were far higher in those Western economies at the forefront of credit adventurism. The deregulatory process also facilitated a dangerous weakening of the relationship between risk and return. These trends led directly to the 2008 global financial crisis.

Responses to the GFC had the effect of hard-wiring a second, far more serious crash into the system. Though public funds were used to rescue banks, monetary policy was the primary instrument. This involved slashing policy rates to sub-inflation levels, and using newly-created money to drive bond prices up, and yields down.

This policy cocktail added “monetary adventurism” to the credit variety already being practiced. Since 2007, each dollar of reported growth has come at a cost of almost $3.30 in new debt. Practices previously confined largely to the West have now spread to most EM economies. For example, over a ten-year period in which growth has averaged 6.5%, China has typically borrowed 23% of GDP annually.

Most of the “growth” supposedly created by monetary adventurism has been statistically cosmetic, consisting of nothing more substantial than the simple spending of borrowed money. According to SEEDS, 66% of all “growth” since 2007 has fallen into this category, meaning that this growth would cease were the credit impulse to slacken, and would reverse if we ever attempted balance sheet retrenchment. As a result, policies said to have been “emergency” and “temporary” in nature have, de facto, become permanent. We can be certain that tentative efforts at restoring monetary normality would be thrown overboard at the first sign of squalls.

Advocates of ultra-loose monetary policy have argued that the creation of new money, and the subsidizing of borrowing, are not inflationary, and point at subdued consumer prices in support of this contention. However, inflation ensuing from the injection of cheap money can be expected to appear at the point at which the new liquidity is injected, which is why the years since 2008 have been characterised by rampant inflation in asset prices. Price and wage inflation have been subdued, meanwhile, by consumer caution – reflected in reduced monetary velocity – and by the deflationary pressures of deteriorating prosperity. The current situation can best be described as a combination of latent (potential) inflation and dangerously over-inflated asset prices.

All of the above points directly to a second financial crisis (GFC II), though this is likely to differ in nature, as well as in scale, from GFC I. Because “credit adventurism” was the prime cause of the 2008 crash, its effects were concentrated in the credit (banking) system. But GFC II, resulting instead from “monetary adventurism”, will this time put the monetary system at risk, hazarding the viability of fiat currencies.

In addition to mass defaults, and collapses in asset prices, we should anticipate that currency crises, accompanied by breakdowns of trust in currencies, will be at the centre of GFC II. The take-off of inflation should be considered likely, not least because no other process exists for the destruction of the real value of gargantuan levels of debt.

Finally on this topic, it should be noted that policies used in response to 2008 will not work in the context of GFC II. Monetary policy can be used to combat debt excesses, but problems of monetary credibility cannot, by definition, be countered by increasing the quantity of money. Estimates based on SEEDS suggest that GFC II will be at least four orders of magnitude larger than GFC I.

Challenge #2 – breakdown of government

Until about 2000, the failure of conventional economics to understand the energy basis of economic activity didn’t matter too much, because ECoE wasn’t large enough to introduce serious distortions into its conclusions. Put another way, the exclusion of ECoE gave results which remained within accepted margins of error.

The subsequent surge in ECoEs, however, has caused the progressive invalidation of all interpretations from which it is excluded.

What applies to conventional economics itself applies equally to organisations, and most obviously to governments, which use it as the basis of their interpretations of policy.

The consequence has been to drive a wedge between policy assumptions made by governments, and underlying reality as experienced by individuals and households. Even at the best of times – which these are not – this sort of ‘perception gap’ between governing and governed has appreciable dangers.

Recent experience in the United Kingdom illustrates this process. Between 2008 and 2018, GDP per capita increased by 4%, implying that the average person had become better off, albeit not by very much. Over the same period, however, most (85%) of the recorded “growth” in the British economy had been the cosmetic effect of credit injection, whilst ECoE had risen markedly. For the average person, then, SEEDS calculates that prosperity has fallen, by £2,220 (9%), to £22,040 last year from £24,260 ten years previously. At the same time, individual indebtedness has risen markedly.

With this understood, neither the outcome of the 2016 “Brexit” referendum nor the result of the 2017 general election was much of a surprise, since voters neither (a) reward governments which preside over deteriorating prosperity, nor (b) appreciate those which are ignorant of their plight. This was why SEEDS analysis saw a strong likelihood both of a “Leave” victory and of a hung Parliament, outcomes dismissed as highly improbable by conventional interpretation.

Simply put, if political leaders had understood the mechanics of prosperity as they are understood here, neither the 2016 referendum nor the 2017 election might have been triggered at all.

Much the same can be said of other political “shocks”. When Mr Trump was elected in 2016, the average American was already $3,450 (7%) poorer than he or she had been back in 2005. The rise to power of insurgent parties in Italy cannot be unrelated to a 7.9% deterioration in personal prosperity since 2000.

As well as reframing interpretations of prosperity, SEEDS analysis also puts taxation in a different context. Between 2008 and 2018, per capita prosperity in France deteriorated by €1,650 which, at 5.8%, isn’t a particularly severe fall by Western standards. Over the same period, however, taxation increased, by almost €2,000 per person. At the level of discretionary, ‘left-in-your-pocket’ prosperity, then, the average French person is €3,640 (32%) worse off now than he or she was back in 2008.

This makes widespread popular support for the gilets jaunes protestors’ aims extremely understandable. Though no other country has quite matched the 32% deterioration in discretionary prosperity experienced in France, the Netherlands (with a fall of 25%) comes closest, which is why SEEDS identifies Holland as one of the likeliest locales for future protests along similar lines. It is far from surprising that insurgent (aka “populist”) parties have now stripped the Dutch governing coalition of its Parliamentary majority. Britain, where discretionary prosperity has fallen by 23% since 2008, isn’t far behind the Netherlands.

These considerations complicate political calculations. To be sure, the ‘centre right’ cadres that have dominated Western governments for more than three decades are heading for oblivion. Quite apart from deteriorating prosperity – something for which incumbencies are likely to get the blame – the popular perception has become one in which “austerity” has been inflicted on “the many” as the price of rescuing a wealthy “few”. It doesn’t help that many ‘conservatives’ continue to adhere to a ‘liberal’ economic philosophy whose abject failure has become obvious to almost everyone else.

This situation ought to favour the collectivist “left”, not least because higher taxation of “the rich” has been made inescapable by deteriorating prosperity. But the “left” continues to advocate higher levels of taxation and public spending, an agenda which is being invalidated by the erosion of the tax base which is a concomitant of deteriorating prosperity.

Moreover, the “left” seems unable to adapt to a shift towards prosperity issues and, in consequence, away from ideologically “liberal” social policy. Immigration, for example, is coming to be seen by the public as a prosperity issue, because of the perceived dilutionary effects of increases in population numbers.

The overall effect is that the political “establishment”, whether of “the right” or of the “the left”, is being left behind by trends to which that establishment is blinded by faulty economic interpretation.

The discrediting of established parties is paralleled by an erosion of trust in institutions and mechanisms, because these systems cannot keep pace with the rate at which popular priorities are changing. To give just one example, politicians who better understood the why of the “Brexit” referendum result would have been better equipped to recognize the dangers implicit in being perceived as trying to thwart or divert it.

The final point to be considered under the political and governmental heading is the destruction of pension provision. One of the little-noted side effects of “monetary adventurism” has been a collapse in rates of return on invested capital. According to the World Economic Forum, forward returns on American equities have fallen to 3.45% from a historic 8.6%, whilst returns on bonds have slumped from 3.6% to just 0.15%. It is small wonder, then, that the WEF identifies a gigantic, and rapidly worsening, “global pension timebomb”. As and when this becomes known to the public – and is contrasted by them with the favourable circumstances of a tiny minority of the wealthiest – popular discontent with established politics can be expected to reach new heights.

In short, established political elites are becoming an endangered species – and, far from knowing how to replace them, we have an institutionally-dangerous inability to appreciate the factors which have already made fundamental change inevitable.

Challenge #3 – an accelerating slump?

Everything described so far has been based on an interpretation which demonstrates an essentially gradual deterioration in prosperity. That, in itself, is serious enough – it threatens both a financial system predicated on perpetual growth, and political processes unable to recognise the implications of worsening public material well-being.

For context, SEEDS concludes that the average person in Britain, having become 11.5% less prosperous since 2003, is now getting poorer at rates of between 0.5% and 1.0% each year. EM economies, including both China and India, continue to enjoy growing prosperity, though this growth is now decreasing markedly, and is likely to go into reverse in the not-too-distant future.

Is it safe to assume, though, that prosperity will continue to erode gradually – or might be experience a rapid worsening in the rate of deterioration?

For now, no conclusive answer can be supplied on this point, but risk factors are considerable.

Here are just some of them:

1. The worsening trend in fossil fuel ECoEs is following a track that is exponential, not linear – and, as we have seen, there are likely to be limits to how far this can be countered by a switch to renewables.

2. The high probability of a financial crisis, differing both in magnitude and nature from GFC I, implies risks that there may be cross contamination to the real economy of goods, services, energy and labour.

3. Deteriorating prosperity poses a clear threat to rates of utilization, an important consideration given the extent to which both businesses and public services rely on high levels of capacity usage. Simple examples are a toll bridge or an airline, both of which spread fixed costs over a large number of users. Should utilization rates fall, continued viability would require increasing charges imposed on remaining users, since this is the only way in which fixed costs can be covered – but rising charges can be expected to worsen the rate at which utilization deteriorates.

4. Uncertainty in government, discussed above, may have destabilizing effects on economic activity.

There is a great deal more that could be said about “acceleration risk”, as indeed there is about the financial and governmental challenges posed by deteriorating prosperity.

But it is hoped that this discussion provides useful framing for some of the most important challenges ahead of us.