#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.

 

 

#148: Where now for energy?

WHY SUBSIDY HAS BECOME INESCAPABLE

What happens when energy prices are at once too high for consumers to afford, but too low for suppliers to earn a return on capital?

That’s the situation now with petroleum, but it’s likely to apply across the gamut of energy supply as economic trends unfold. On the one hand, prosperity has turned down, undermining what consumers can afford to spend on energy. On the other, the real cost of energy – the trend energy cost of energy (ECoE) – continues to rise.

In any other industry, these conditions would point to contraction – the amount sold would fall. But the supply of energy isn’t ‘any other industry’, any more than it’s ‘just another input’. Energy is the basis of all economic activity – if the supply of energy ceases, economic activity grinds to a halt. (If you take a moment to think through what would happen if all energy supply to an economy were cut off, you’ll see why this is).

Without continuity of energy, literally everything stops. But that’s exactly what would happen if the energy industries were left to the mercies of rising supply costs and dwindling customer resources.

This leads us to a finding which is as stark as it is (at first sight) surprising – we’re going to have to subsidise the supply of energy.

Critical pre-conditions

Apart from the complete inability of the economy to function without energy, two other, critical considerations point emphatically in this direction.

The first is the vast leverage contained in the energy equation. The value of a unit of energy is hugely greater than the price which consumers pay (or ever could pay) to buy it. There is an overriding collective interest in continuing the supply of energy, even if this cannot be done at levels of purchaser prices which make commercial sense for suppliers.

The second is that we already live in an age of subsidy. Ever since we decided, in 2008, to save reckless borrowers and reckless lenders from the devastating consequences of their folly, we’ve turned subsidy from anomaly into normality.

The subsidy in question isn’t a hand-out from taxpayers. Rather, supplying money at negative real cost subsidizes borrowers, subsidizes lenders and supports asset prices at levels which bear no resemblance to what ‘reality’ would be under normal, cost-positive monetary conditions.

In the future, the authorities are going to have to do for energy suppliers what they already do for borrowers and lenders – use ‘cheap money’ to sustain an activity which is vital, but which market forces alone cannot support.

How they’ll do this is something considered later in this discussion.

If, by the way, you think that the concept of subsidizing energy supply threatens the viability of fiat currencies, you’re right. The only defence for the idea of providing monetary policy support for the supply of energy is that the alternative of not doing so is even worse.

Starting from basics  

To understand what follows, you need to know that the economy is an energy system (and not a financial one), with money acting simply as a claim on output made possible only by the availability of energy. This observation isn’t exactly rocket-science, because it is surely obvious that money has no intrinsic worth, but commands value only in terms of the things for which it can exchanged.

To be slightly more specific, 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.

From this perspective, 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 growth in emerging market (EM) economies is petering out. Global average prosperity has already turned down.

From this simple insight, much else follows – for instance, our recent, current and impending financial problems are caused by a collision between (a) a financial system wholly predicated on perpetual growth in prosperity, and (b) an energy dynamic that has already started putting prosperity growth into reverse. Likewise, political changes are likely to result from the failure of incumbent governments to understand the worsening circumstances of the governed.

Essential premises – leverage and subsidy

Before we start, there are two additional things that you need to appreciate.

The first is that the energy-economics equation is hugely leveraged. This means that the value of energy to the economy is vastly greater than the prices paid (or even conceivably paid) for it by immediate consumers. Having (say) fuel to put in his or her car is a tiny fraction of the value that a person derives from energy – it supplies literally all economic goods and services that he or she uses.

The second is that, ever since the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC I) we have been living in a post-market economy.

In practice, this means that subsidies have become a permanent feature of the economic landscape.

These issues are of fundamental importance, so much so that a brief explanation is necessary.

First, leverage. The energy content of a barrel of crude oil is 5,722,000 BTU, which converts to 1,677kwh, or 1,677,022 watt-hours. BTUs and watt-hours are ‘measures of work’ applicable to any source or use of energy. Human labour equates to about 75 watts per hour, so a barrel of crude equates to 22,360 hours of labour. At the (pretty low) rate of $10 per hour, this labour would cost an employer $223,603. Yet crude oil changes hands for just $65 which, undeniably, is a bargain. If the price of oil soared to $1,000/b, it would wreck the economy – but it would still be an extremely low price, when measured against an equivalent amount of human effort.

The economy, then, could be crippled by energy prices that would still be ultra-cheap in purely energy-content terms. More to the point, this could happen at prices that were still too low to ensure profitability in the business of energy supply.

The comparison between petroleum and its labour equivalent is meant to be solely illustrative – the relevant point is that the economy is gigantically leveraged to the ‘work value’ contained in all exogenous energy sources.

Second, the end of the market economy. The market economy works on a system of impersonal rewards and penalties. If you make shrewd investments, you’re likely to make a profit – but, if you act recklessly (or simply have a run of bad lack), you stand to lose everything. Failure, as penalised impersonally by market forces, is the flip-side of reward, itself (in theory) equally impersonal. Logically, market forces don’t allow you to have reward without the risk of failure. Using debt to leverage your position acts to increase both the scope for profit and the potential for loss.

The 2008 crisis was a culminating failure of reckless financial behaviour, by individuals, businesses, banks, regulators and policymakers. Left simply to the workings of the market, the penalties would have been on a scale commensurate with the preceding folly. Individuals and businesses which had taken on too much debt would have been bankrupted, as would those who had lent recklessly to them. If market forces had been allowed to work through to their logical conclusions, 2008 would have seen massive failures, bankruptcies and defaults – spreading out from those who ‘deserved’ to be wiped out to take in ‘bystanders’ with varying degrees of ‘innocence’ – whilst asset prices would have collapsed, and much of the banking system, as the primary supplier of credit, would have been destroyed.

Some economic purists have argued that this is exactly what should have happened, and that we will in due course pay a huge price for the ‘moral hazard’ of rescuing the reckless from the consequences of their actions.

They might well be right.

Be that as it may, though,  the point is that market forces were not allowed to work out to their logical conclusions. As well as simply rescuing the banks, the authorities set out on the wholesale rescue of anyone who had taken on too much debt. This was done primarily by slashing interest rates to levels that are negative in real terms (lower than inflation). Though described at the time as “temporary” and “emergency” in nature, these interventions are, for all practical purposes, permanent.

There’s irony in the observation that, though idealists of ‘the Left’ have dreamed since time immemorial of overthrowing the ‘capitalist’ system, the market economy has not been destroyed by its foes, but abandoned by its friends.

The Age of Subsidy

Critically for our purposes, what began in 2008 and continues to this day is wholesale subsidy. ZIRP has provided emergency and continuing sustenance for everyone who had borrowed recklessly in the years preceding the crash. It has also multiplied the incentive to borrow. Negative real interest rates are nothing more nor less than a hand-out to distressed borrowers, not only sparing them from debt service commitments that they could no longer afford, but inflating the market value of their investments, too.

Though less obvious than its beneficiaries, this subsidy has turned huge numbers into victims. Savers, including those putting resources aside for pensions, have been only the most visible of these victims. We cannot know who might have prospered had badly-run, over-extended businesses gone to the wall rather than continuing, in subsidised, “zombie” form, to occupy market space that might more productively have gone to new entrants. We do know that the young are victims of deliberate housing cost inflation.

There’s nothing new about subsidies, of course, and governments have often subsidised activities, either because these are seen to be of national importance, or because they have pandered to the influential interests on whom the subsidies have been bestowed.

Purists of the free market persuasion have long castigated subsidies as distortions of economic behaviour and they are, theoretically at least, quite right to think this.

The point, though, is that, since 2008, the entire economy has been made dependent on the subsidy of money priced at negative real levels.

Anyone who is ‘paid to borrow’ is, of necessity, in receipt of subsidy.

That we live in ‘the age of subsidy’ has a huge bearing on the outlook for energy. With this noted, let’s return to the role of energy in prosperity.

Prosperity in decline – turning-points and differentials

As we’ve noted, once the Energy Cost of (accessing) Energy – ECoE – passes a certain point, the remaining energy surplus becomes insufficient to grow prosperity, or even to sustain it. This point has now been reached or passed in almost all Western economies, so prosperity in those countries has turned down. Efforts to use financial adventurism to counter this effect have done no more than mask (since they cannot change) the processes that are undercutting prosperity, but have, in the process, created huge and compounding financial risks.

In the emerging market (EM) economies, prosperity continues to improve, but no longer at rates sufficient to offset Western decline. Global prosperity per person has now turned downwards from an extremely protracted plateau, meaning that the world has now started getting poorer. Amongst many other things, this means that a financial system predicated on the false assumption of infinite growth is heading for some form of invalidation. It also poses political and social challenges to which existing systems are incapable of adaption.

How, though, does the energy-prosperity equation work – and what can this tell us about the outlook for energy itself?

According to SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System), global prosperity stopped growing when trend ECoE hit 5.4%. It might, at first sight, seem surprising that subsequent deterioration has been very gradual, even though ECoE has carried on rising relentlessly, now standing at 8.0%. This apparent contradiction is really all about the changing geographical mix involved – until recently, deterioration in Western prosperity had been offset by progress in EM countries, because the ECoE/growth thresholds differ between these two types of system.

Essentially, EM economies seem to be capable of continuing to grow their prosperity at levels of ECoE a lot higher than those which kill prosperity growth in Western countries.

The following charts illustrate the comparison, and show prosperity per capita (at constant 2018 values) on the vertical axis, and trend ECoE on the horizontal axis. For comparison with America, the China chart shows prosperity in dollars, converted at market exchange rates (in red) and on the more meaningful PPP basis of conversion (blue). For reference, ECoE at 6% is shown as a vertical line on both charts.

#148 energy comp US CH

As you can see, American prosperity had already turned down well before ECoE reached 6%. Chinese prosperity has carried on growing even though ECoE is now well above the 6% level.

How can China carry on getting more prosperous at levels of ECoE at which prosperity has already turned down, not just in America but in almost every other advanced economy?

There seem to be two main reasons for the different relationships between prosperity and ECoE in advanced and EM economies.

First, prosperity isn’t exactly the same thing in a Western or an EM economy – put colloquially, how prosperous you feel depends on where you live, and where you started from.

In America, SEEDS shows that prosperity per person peaked in 2005 at $48,660 per person (at 2018 values), and had fallen to $44,830 (-7.9%) by 2018. Over the same period, prosperity per person in China rose by an impressive 84% – but was still only $9,670 per person last year. Even that number is based on PPP conversion to dollars – converted into dollars at market exchange rates, prosperity per person in China last year was just $5,130.

Both numbers are drastically lower than the equivalent number for the United States. Not surprisingly, Chinese people feel (and are) more prosperous than they used to be, even at levels of prosperity that would amount to extreme impoverishment in America. Before anyone says that “America is a more expensive place to live”, conversion at PPP rates is supposed to take account of cost differentials – and, even in PPP terms, the average Chinese citizen is 78% poorer than his or her American equivalent.

The second critical differential lies in relationships between countries. Historically, trade relationships favoured Western over EM economies, though this has been changing, perhaps helping to explain the gradual narrowing in personal prosperity between developed and emerging countries.

Moreover, there are often quirks in the relationships between countries, even where they belong to the same broad ‘advanced’ or ‘emerging’ economic grouping. Germany is an example of this, having benefited enormously from a currency system which has been detrimental to other (indeed, almost every other) Euro Area country. For some time, Ireland, too, was a beneficiary of EA membership, though those benefits have eroded since the period of “Celtic Tiger” financial excess.

The conclusion, then, is that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the question of ‘where does ECoE kill growth?’, just as prosperity means different things in different types of economy.

It should also be noted that China’s ability to keep on growing prosperity at quite high levels of ECoE is not necessarily a good guide to the future. As things stand, China’s economy, driven as it by extraordinary levels of borrowing, is looking ever more like a Ponzi scheme facing a denouement.

The situation so far

Given how much ground we’ve covered, let’s take stock briefly of where we are.

We’ve observed, first, that the rise in trend ECoEs is in the process of undermining prosperity. Much of this has already happened – prosperity in most Western economies has now been deteriorating for at least a decade, whilst continued progress in EM economies is no longer enough to keep the global average stable. As ECoEs continue to rise, what happens next is that EM prosperity itself turns down, a process which will accelerate the rate at which global prosperity declines. SEEDS already identifies one major EM economy (other than China) where strong growth in prosperity will soon go into reverse.

Second, a world financial system predicated entirely on perpetual ‘growth’ in prosperity has become dangerously over-extended. Again, this observation isn’t something new. The inauguration, more than ten years ago, of mass subsidy for borrowers and lenders surely tells us that we’ve entered a new ‘era of abnormality’, in which subsidy is normal, and where historic principles (such as positive returns on capital) no longer apply.

If you stir energy leverage into this equation, an inescapable conclusion emerges. It is that we’re going to have to extend our current acceptance of ‘financial adventurism’ to the point where energy supply, just like borrowers and lenders, becomes supported by monetary subsidy.

The only way in which this might not happen would be if we could somehow escape from the implications of rising ECoE. Some believe that renewables will enable us to do this – after all, just as trend ECoEs for oil, gas and coal keep rising, those of wind and solar continue to move downwards.

This situation is summarised in the first of the following charts, which shows broad ECoE trends over the period (1980-2030) covered by SEEDS. As recently as 2000, the aggregate trend ECoE of renewables (shown in green) was above 13%, compared with only 4.1% for fossil fuels (shown in grey). Renewables are already helping to blunt the rise in ECoE, such that the overall number (in red) is lower than that of fossil fuels alone. We’re now pretty close to the point where the ECoE of renewables will be below that of fossil fuels.

On this basis, it’s become ‘consensus wisdom’ to assume that renewables will, like the 7th Cavalry, ‘ride to the rescue in the final reel’. Unfortunately, this comforting assumption rests on three fallacies.

The first is “the fallacy of extrapolation”, which is a natural human tendency to assume that what happens in the future will be an indefinite continuation of the recent past. (One of my mentors in my early years in the City called this “the fallacy of the mathematical dachshund”). The reality is much likelier to be that technical progress in renewables (including batteries) will slow when it starts to collide with the limits imposed by physics.

The second fallacy is that 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. This is illustrated in the second chart, which looks at what might happen beyond the current time parameters of SEEDS. In this projection, progress in reducing the ECoEs of renewables goes into reverse because of the continued rise in fossil-derived inputs.

#148 energy comp segments

The third problem 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 – when economies were expanding rapidly, and world use of cheap petroleum was rising at rates of up to 8% annually – ECoE was well below 2%.

In other words, even if renewables can stabilise ECoE at 8% – and that’s a truly gigantic ‘if’ – it won’t be low enough to enable prosperity to stabilise, let alone start to grow again.

Energy and subsidy –  between Scylla and Charybdis

The idea that we might need to subsidise energy ‘for the greater economic good’ is a radical one, but is not without precedent. Though the development of renewables has been accelerated in various countries by subsidies provided either by taxpayers or by consumers, the important precedent here doesn’t come from the solar or wind sectors, but from the production of oil from shales.

There can be no doubt that shale liquids, primarily from the United States, have transformed petroleum markets – without this production, it’s certain that supplies would have been lower, and prices could well have been a lot higher. Yet the supply of shale has owed little or nothing to the untrammelled working of the market. Rather, shale has received enormous subsidy.

Repeated studies have shown that shale liquids production isn’t ‘profitable’, because cash flow generated from the sale of production has never been sufficient to cover the industry’s capital costs, let alone to provide a return on capital as well. The economics of shale are too big a subject to be examined here, but the critical point is the rapidity with which production declines once a well is put on stream. This means that any company wanting to expand (or even to maintain) its level of production needs to keep drilling new wells – this is the “drilling treadmill” which, critically, has always needed more investment than cash flow from operations can supply.

Yet shale investment has continued, despite its record of generating negative free cash flow. It’s easy to attribute this to the support provided by gullible investors, but the broader picture is that shale producers, like ‘cash burners’ in other sectors, have been kept afloat by a tide of ultra-cheap capital made available by the negative real cost of capital.

In all probability, this is the pattern likely to be followed by the energy industries more generally, as profitability is crushed between the Scylla of rising costs and the Charybdis of straitened consumer circumstances.

In short, we’re probably going to have to ‘create’ the money to keep energy supplies flowing. If the argument becomes one in which energy is described as ‘too important to be left to the market’, energy will join a growing cast of characters – including borrowers, lenders and ‘zombie’ companies – kept in existence by the subsidy of cheap money.

 

#147: Primed to detonate

THE “WHAT?” AND “WHERE?” OF GLOBAL RISK

After more than a decade of worsening economic and financial folly, it can come as no surprise that we’re living with extraordinarily elevated levels of risk.

But what form does that risk take, and where is it most acute?

According to SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – the riskiest countries on the planet are Ireland, France, the Netherlands, China, Canada and the United Kingdom.

The risks vary between economies. Some simply have debts which are excessive. Some have become dangerously addicted to continuing infusions of cheap credit. Some have financial systems vastly out of proportion to the host economy. Some have infuriated the general public to the point where a repetition of the 2008 “rescue” would inflame huge anger. Many have combinations of all four sorts of risk.

Here’s the “top six” from the SEEDS Risk Matrix. Of course, the global risk represented by each country depends on proportionate size, so China (ranked #4 in the Matrix) is far more of a threat to the world economy and financial system than Ireland, the riskiest individual economy. It’s noteworthy, though, that the three highest-risk countries are all members of the Euro Area. It’s also noteworthy that, amongst the emerging market (EM) economies, only China and South Korea (ranked #9) make the top ten.

Risk 01 matrix top

Risk and irresponsibility

Before we get into methodologies and detailed numbers, it’s worth reflecting on why risk is quite so elevated. As regular readers will know, the narrative of recent years is that prosperity has been coming under increasing pressure ever since the late 1990s, mainly because trend ECoE (the energy cost of energy) has been rising, squeezing the surplus energy which is the source of all economic output and prosperity.

This is a trend which the authorities haven’t understood, recognizing only a vague “secular stagnation” whose actual root causes elude them.

Even “secular stagnation” has been unacceptable to economic and financial systems wholly predicated on “growth”. Simply put, there‘s been too much at stake for any form of stagnation, let alone deterioration, to be acceptable. The very idea that growth might be anything less than perpetual, despite the finite nature of the planet, has been treated as anathema.

If there isn’t any genuine growth to be enjoyed, the logic goes, then we’d better fake it. Essentially, nobody in authority has been willing to allow a little thing like reality to spoil the party, even if enjoyment of the party is now confined to quite a small minority.

Accordingly, increasingly futile (and dangerous) financial expedients, known here as adventurism, have been tried as “solutions” to the problem of low “growth”. In essence, these have had in common a characteristic of financial manipulation, most obvious in the fields of credit expansion and monetary dilution.

These process are the causes of the risk that we are measuring here, but risk comes in more than one guise. Accordingly, each of the four components of the SEEDS Risk Matrix addresses a different type of exposure.

These categories are:

– Debt risk

– Credit dependency risk

– Systemic financial risk

– Acquiescence risk

One final point – before we get into the detail – is that no attempt is made here to measure political risk in its broader sense. Through acquiescence risk, we can work out which populations have most to complain about in terms of worsening prosperity. But no purely economic calculation can determine exactly when and why a population decides to eject the governing incumbency, or when governments might be tempted into the time-dishonoured diversionary tactic of overseas belligerence. We can but hope that international affairs remain orderly, and that democracy is the preferred form of regime-change.

Debt risk

This is the easiest of the four to describe, and comes closest to the flawed, false-comfort measures used in ‘conventional’ appraisal. The SEEDS measure, though, compares debt, not with GDP but with prosperity, a very different concept.

Ireland, markedly the riskiest economy on this criterion, can be used to illustrate the process. At the end of 2018, aggregate private and public debt in Ireland is estimated at €963bn, a ratio of 312% to GDP (of €309 bn). Expressed at constant 2018 values, the equivalent numbers for 2007 (on the eve of the 2008 global financial crisis, which hit Ireland particularly badly) were debt of €493bn, GDP of €198bn and a debt/GDP ratio of 249%.

In essence, then, debt may be almost twice as big (+95%) now as it was in 2007, but the debt ratio has increased by ‘only’ 25% (to 312%, from 249%), because reported GDP has expanded by 56%.

Unfortunately, this type of calculation treats GDP and debt as discrete items, with the former unaffected by changes in the latter. The reality, though, is very different. Whilst GDP has increased by €111bn since 2007, debt has expanded by €470bn. Critically, much of this newly-borrowed money has flowed into expenditures, which serves to drive up the activity measured as GDP.

According to SEEDS, growth without this simple spending of borrowed money would have been only €13bn, not €111bn. Put another way, 89% of all “growth” reported in Ireland since 2007 has been nothing more substantial than the effect of pouring cheap credit into the system, helped, too, by the “leprechaun economics” recalibration of GDP which took place in 2015.

Of course, the practice of spending borrowed money and calling the result “growth” didn’t begin after the 2008 crash. Back in 2007, adjusted (“clean”) GDP in Ireland (of €172bn) was already markedly (13%) lower than headline GDP (€198bn), and the gap is even wider today, with “clean” GDP (of €184bn) now 40% lower than the reported number.

Even “clean” GDP isn’t a complete measure of prosperity, though, because it excludes ECoE – that proportion of output that isn’t available for other purposes, because it’s required to fund the supply of energy itself.

Where ECoE is concerned, Ireland is a disadvantaged economy whose circumstances have worsened steadily in recent years. Back in 2007, Ireland’s ECoE (of 6.7%) was already markedly worse than the global average (5.4%). By 2018, the gap had widened from 1.3% to 3.2%, with Ireland’s ECoE now 11.2% (and the world average 8.0%). An ECoE this high necessarily kills growth, which is why aggregate prosperity in Ireland now is only fractionally (2%) higher than it was in 2007, even though population numbers have grown by 10%.

The results of this process, where Ireland is concerned, have been that personal prosperity has declined by 7% since 2007, whilst debt per person has risen by 78%. The conclusion for Ireland is that debt now equates to 589% of prosperity (compared with 308% in 2007), and it’s hard to see what the country can do about it. If – or rather, when – the GFC II sequel to 2008 turns up, Ireland is going to be in very, very big trouble.

These are, of course, compelling reasons for the Irish authorities to bend every effort to ensure that Britain’s “Brexit” departure from the European Union happens as smoothly as possible. If the Irish government really understood the issues at stake, ministers would be exerting every possible pressure on Brussels to step back from its macho posturing and give Mrs May something that she can sell to Parliament and the voters.

There’s a grim precedent for Dublin not understanding this, though – in the heady “Celtic tiger” years before 2008, nobody seems to have batted an eyelid at the increasingly reckless expansion of the Irish banking system.

Risk 02 debt

Credit dependency

As we’ve seen, adding €111bn to Irish GDP since 2007 has required adding €470bn to debt. This means that each €1 of “growth” came at a cost of €4.24 in net new borrowing. It also means that annual net borrowing averaged 14% of GDP during that period. This represents very severe credit dependency risk – in short, the Irish economy would suffer very serious damage in the event even of a reduction, let alone a cessation, in the supply of new credit to the economy.

Remarkably, though, there is one country whose credit dependency problem is far worse than that of Ireland – and that country is China.

The Chinese economy famously delivers growth of at least 6.5% each year, and reported GDP has more than doubled since 2008, increasing by RMB 51 trillion, from RMB37.7tn to an estimated RMB89tn last year.

Less noticed by China’s army of admirers has been a quadrupling of debt over the same period, from RMB53tn (at 2018 values) in 2008 to RMB219tn now. There also seem to be plausible grounds for thinking that China’s debts might be even bigger than indicated by published numbers.

This means that, over the last ten years, annual borrowing has averaged an astonishing 23% of GDP. No other economy comes even close to this, with Ireland (14.1%) placed second, followed by Canada (9.5%) in third, and South Korea (8.6%) a distant fourth. To put this in context, the ratios for France (8.1%) and Australia (7.5%) are quite bad enough – the Chinese ratio is as frightening as it is astonishing.

The inference to be drawn from this is that China is a ‘ponzi economy’ like no other. The country’s credit dependency ratio represents, not just extreme exposure to credit tightening or interruption, but an outright warning of impending implosion.

There are signs that the implosion may now be nearing. As well as slumping sales of everything from cars to smartphones, there are disturbing signs that industrial purchases, of components ranging from chips to electric motors, are turning downwards. Worryingly, companies have started defaulting on debts supposedly covered very substantially by cash holdings, the inference being that this “cash” was imaginary. Worse still, the long-standing assumption that the country could and would stand behind the debts of all state-owned entities (SOEs) is proving not to be the case. In disturbing echoes of the American experience in 2008, there are reasons to question why domestic agencies accord investment grade ratings to such a large proportion of Chinese corporate bonds.

How has this happened? The answer seems to be that the Chinese authorities have placed single-minded concentration on maintaining and growing levels of employment, prioritizing this (and its associated emphasis on volume) far above profitability. Put another way, China seems quite prepared to sell products at a loss, so long as volumes and employment are maintained. This has resulted in returns on invested capital falling below the cost of servicing debt capital – and an attempt to convert corporate bonds into equity was a spectacular failure, coming close to crashing the Chinese equity market.

Risk 03 credit

Systemic exposure

Debt exposure and credit dependency are relatively narrow measures, in that both concentrate on indebtedness. Critical though these are, there is a broader category of exposure termed here systemic risk, and this is particularly important in terms of the danger of contagion between economies.

The countries most at risk here are Ireland (again), the Netherlands and Britain. All three have financial sectors which are bloated even when compared with GDP. But the true lethality of systemic risk exposure only becomes fully apparent when prosperity is used as the benchmark.

At the most recent published date (2016), Dutch financial assets were stated at $10.96tn (€10.4tn), or 1470% of GDP. The SEEDS model assumes that the ratio to GDP now is somewhat lower (1360%), which implies financial assets unchanged at €10.4tn.

As we’ve seen with Ireland, measurement based on GDP produces false comfort, because GDP is inflated by the spending of borrowed money, and ignores ECoE. In the Netherlands, growth in GDP of €82bn (12%) between 2007 and 2018 needs to be seen in the context of a €600bn (32%) escalation in debt over the same period. This means that each €1 of reported “growth” has required net new borrowing of €7.40. Without this effect, SEEDS calculates that organic growth would have been just €8bn (not €82bn), and that ‘clean’ GDP in 2018 was €619bn, not €767bn.

The further deduction of ECoE (in 2018, 10.5%) reduces prosperity to €554bn. This is lower than the equivalent number for 2007 (€574bn), and further indicates that the prosperity of the average Dutch person declined by 8% over that period.

Though aggregate prosperity is slightly (3.5%) lower now than it was in 2007, financial assets have expanded by almost 40%, to €10.4tn now from €7.47tn (at 2018 values) back in 2007. This means that financial assets have grown from 1303% of prosperity on the eve of GFC I to 1881% today.

As the next table shows, this puts Holland second on this risk metric, below Ireland (3026%) but above the United Kingdom (1591%). Japan (924%) and China (884%) are third and fourth on this list.

Needless to say, the Irish number looks lethal but, since Ireland is a small economy, equates to financial assets (of €4.9tn) that are a lot smaller than those of the Netherlands (€10.4tn). Likewise, British financial assets are put at £23.3tn, a truly disturbing number when compared with GDP of £2tn, let alone prosperity of £1.47tn.

The conclusion on this category of risk has to be that Ireland, Holland and Britain look like accidents waiting to happen. Something not dissimilar might be said, too, of Japan and China. Japan’s gung-ho use of QE has resulted in half of all JGBs (government bonds) being owned by the BoJ (the central bank), whilst huge financial assets (estimated at RMB417tn) underscore the risk perception already identified by China’s dependency on extraordinary rates of credit creation.

Risk 04 systemic

Acquiescence risk

The fourth category of risk measured by SEEDS concentrates on public attitudes rather than macroeconomic exposure. Simply put, we can assume that, when the GFC II sequel to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC I) hits, governments are likely to try to repeat the “rescue” strategies which bought time (albeit at huge expense) last time around. But will the public accept these policies? Or will there be a huge popular backlash, something which could prevent such policies from being implemented?

It’s not difficult to envisage how this happens. If we can picture some politicians announcing, say, a rescue of the banks, we can equally picture some of their opponents pledging to scrap the rescue at the earliest opportunity, and take the banks into public ownership, pointing out that stockholder compensation will not be necessary because, in the absence of  a taxpayer bail-out, the worst-affected banks have zero equity value anyway. Simply put, this time around there could be more votes in the infliction of austerity on “the wealthy” than there will be in bailing them out. It’s equally easy to picture, at the very least, public demonstrations opposing such a rescue.

Even at the time, and more so as time has gone on, the general public has nurtured suspicions, later hardening into something much nearer to certainties, that the authorities played the 2008 crisis with loaded dice. One obvious source of grievance has been the management of the banking crash. The public may understand why banks were rescued, but cannot understand why the rescue included the bankers as well, whose prior irresponsibility is assumed by many to have been the cause of the crisis – especially given the unwillingness of governments to rescue those in other occupations, such as manufacturing, retail and hospitality.

The 2008 crisis was followed by a fashion for “austerity”, in which the public was expected to accept lean times as part of a rehabilitation of national finances after debts and deficits had soared during GFC I. Unfortunately, the imposition of “austerity” has looked extremely one-sided. Whilst public services budgets have been cut, the authorities have operated policies which have induced extraordinary inflation in asset prices. These benefits, for the most part enjoyed by a small minority, haven’t even been accompanied by fiscal changes designed to capture at least some of the gains for the taxpayer.

The word ‘hypocrisy’ has been woven like a thread into the tapestry of post-2008 trends, which are widely perceived as having inflicted austerity on the many as the price of rescuing the few. It hardly helps when advocates of “austerity” seem not to practice it themselves. Policies since 2008 have been extraordinarily divisive, not just between “the rich” and the majority, but also between the old (who tend to own assets) and the young (who don’t).

In short, the events of 2008 have created huge mistrust between governing and governed. This might not have mattered quite so much had the prosperity of the average person continued to grow, but, in almost all Western countries, this has not been the case. Whatever might be claimed about GDP, individuals sense – rightly – that they’re getting poorer. We’ve already seen the results of this estrangement, in the election of Donald Trump, the “Brexit” vote in Britain and the rise of insurgent (aka “populist”) parties in many European countries. Latterly, France has witnessed the eruption of popular anger in the gilets jaunes movement, something which might well be replicated in other countries.

For reasons which vary between countries – but which have in common a complete failure to understand deteriorating prosperity – established policymakers have seemed blinded to political reality by “the juggernaut effect”.

Where, though, is acquiescence risk most acute? The answer to this seems to lie less in the absolute deterioration in average prosperity than in the relentless squeeze in discretionary (“left in your pocket”) prosperity – simply put, how much money does a person have left at the end of the week or month, after taxes have been paid, and essential expenses have been met?

This discretionary effect helps to explain why the popular backlash has been so acute in France. At the overall level, the decline in French prosperity per person since 2007 has been a fairly modest 6.3%, less severe than the experiences of a number of other countries such as Italy (-11.6%), Britain (-10.3%), Norway (-8.4%) and Greece (-8..0%). Canadians (-8.1%) and Australians (-9.0%), too, have fared worse than the French.

Take taxation into account, though, and France comes top of the league. Back in 2007, prosperity per person in France was €28,950, which after tax (of €17,350) left the average person with €11,600 in his or her pocket. Since then, however, whilst prosperity has declined by €1,840 per person, tax has increased (by €1,970), leaving the individual with only €7,790, a 33% fall since 2007.

In no other country has this rapidity of deterioration been matched, though discretionary prosperity has fallen by 28% in the Netherlands, by 24% in Britain, by 23% in Australia and by 18% in Italy. If this interpretation makes sense of the popularity of the gilets jaunes (and makes absolutely no sense of the French authorities’ responses), it also suggests that the Hague, London and perhaps Canberra ought to be preparing themselves for the appearance of yellow waistcoats on their streets.

Risk 05 acquiescence