#17. Finance, the economy and bomb disposal

Preparedness and the Coming Crunch

To me (and, I imagine, to many readers here), the comparatively imminent detonation of a financial time-bomb seems pretty obvious. Unable to find real growth, the economy is living instead on printed and borrowed money, and the merest whisper that the money-printing, credit-creating sausage-machine might be turned off can be enough to create panic in capital markets.

In a way, this situation is analogous to bomb disposal, except that no-one knows how to defuse this type of bomb, and few have yet acknowledged that the bomb exists at all.

Once upon a time, American comic Bob Newhart mused about how bombs are always dealt with by experts. In the ensuing sketch, a bomb is dealt with by “a team of non-experts”, with particularly hilarious results. A few years earlier, British comedy giant Tony Hancock had found himself in a similar position in an episode in which the Army sends an officer from the Catering Corps to defuse a bomb in his cellar.

In both cases, the bomb explodes.

Minus the humour, that’s where we are now, because there are few if any experts where our kind of bomb is concerned. Worse still, many of those in charge of world economic affairs don’t appear to know a bomb from a broomstick.

In the Hancock episode, Tony suggested wrapping the bomb in Hattie Jacques’ thick treacle pudding. Today, we’re doing much the same as we wrap our economic bomb in the treacle of created money and credit.

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Since most readers will know this bit, I’ll explain the underlying rationale very briefly. Contrary to widespread belief, the economy is an energy system, not a monetary one. The output of the economy is a function of surplus energy, which is the difference between (a) energy extracted or otherwise accessed, and (b) energy consumed in the access process.

Energy, of course, is not just oil, gas or electricity, but nutrition and human labour as well. The first energy surplus was created by agriculture, when the ability of 20 people to live on the labour of 19 enabled the 20th person to do other things, be it government, education, the military or – most importantly – the creation of capital goods such as ploughs, roads, barns and bridges.

The only value that money commands lies in its acceptability as a “claim” on the goods and services produced by the real (energy) economy. In the agrarian era, all transactions involved payment for labour – past labour, if you were buying an existing house or plough; current labour, if you employed someone to plant a field; or future labour, if you commissioned someone to build you a barn. “Labour”, “energy” and “capacity to do work” are interchangeable terms. Anything bought or sold today is the product of energy, but in our modern society that energy is far likelier to be provided by fuel than by human effort.

Just as money is “a claim on goods and services” – put more simply, “a claim on energy” – debt, as “a claim on future money”, is really “a claim on future energy”. That’s fine, so long as we do not create “claims” (in the form of money and debt) that exceed the real goods and services that will be available when the claims fall due. If this happens, all claims cannot be met, so the excess has to be eliminated via one or more forms of “value destruction” (of which the most obvious are default and inflationary devaluation).

The energy surplus has been weakening for some years, because the energy consumed in accessing energy – in the jargon, the “energy cost of energy”, or “ECOE” – is rising as the most efficient energy sources are displaced by costlier and more marginal alternatives.

The equation here is the “energy return on energy invested”, or “EROEI”. Back in 1990, the global EROEI was about 37:1 (38 units were accessed, 1 unit was consumed in the access process, and 36 units remained for us to use). Now, my work suggests that the global average EROEI has fallen to less than 14:1 (15 units are accessed, 1 unit is consumed in the access process, and 14 units remain for us to use).

This means that the energy cost of energy has risen from 2.6% (1/38) to 6.7% (1/15), and could soar to over 9% by 2020.

In short, our economy is becoming less productive. Real growth has stopped, and is going into reverse. Our answer has been to create money (and credit) in ever larger quantities.

Lastly, an economy probably cannot afford capital investment below an EROEI of about 14:1. That’s where we are now, and this, fundamentally, is why real (post-inflation) interest rates are being kept negative by the authorities. Negative real interest rates logically mean that nobody saves. If nobody saves, no net capital is formed, and no net investment in capital assets takes place. Many countries simply cannot afford to invest, since output is barely sufficient to meet current needs.

What happens next is that, in one way or another, money loses its value.

Are you with me so far?

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So, the challenge for us now is to prepare ourselves. This depends on where (both geographically and organisationally) we are now. If you’re reading this in Riyadh or Oslo, don’t worry about it – scarcity is going to drive up the value of your energy resources (though don’t put too much faith in any investments that you may have that are denominated in other people’s currencies).

For the rest of us, our societies have to adapt. To clear the decks, let’s rid ourselves of what might be called the “juvenilia” of transition. For the most part, biofuels are idiotic. Out of each three or so units of energy accessed, one unit is used up in the access process – and we have 7 billion mouths to feed with finite amounts of land (and increasingly expensive inputs). Electric vehicles are another form of idiocy – the process of converting other fuel forms into electricity loses roughly two-thirds of the initial energy content. The same applies to hydrogen.

Renewables are the future. Historically, they have had lower EROEIs (and higher ECOE energy costs) than fossil fuels, though this differential is now disappearing. Converting waste into heat is imperative. Systems need to be redesigned, with shorter supply lines (stop shipping food half way around the world and grow it locally instead), and we need far greater energy efficiencies (scrap the SUV and get on the bus).

In most of countries – other than the net energy producers – we’re getting poorer. That’s not necessarily the disaster that you might suppose, since the idea of a linear equation linking happiness directly to the material ability to consume is nonsense (and if you doubt that, please re-read Affluenza).

The distribution of income and wealth is going to become even more critical (and controversial) than it’s ever been before. We need to reward initiative and effort, but we will be unable to afford what I might call “fossilised wealth structures”.

We need to be flexible, and the society of the future will not be able to afford the collective indulgence of ideology. There are some things that private enterprise does far better than the dead hand of the state, but there are some services which are better provided collectively.

Our societies will need to be open-minded, pragmatic, efficient, non-ideological, fairer and – if I may put it this way – more modern.

Now, can your society change, or is the weight of tradition, consumerism, vested interests, ideology and irrationality simply too great? Are family and community values strong enough to let adaptation happen without too much social or political disorder? If your society can adapt, that’s good. If adaptation requires persuasion, involvement and effort, do it. If the prospects seem really bad – and depending, of course, on your own circumstances – you might need to move to somewhere else.

Don’t put too much faith in money, as the value of money will be trashed if we keep on creating it to sustain the illusion of normality. Farm-land is good, but only if input requirements are low-intensity. There should be no lack of opportunities, since solar and wind developments are imperative, as is waste conversion to heat. 

Forgive me for finishing this way, but – please – think things through. Try to be open-minded, and don’t believe everything you’re told. We don’t need a bunker mentality, but we do need flexibility.       

#16. Tapers and frightened tapirs

The Global Economy

An unfair critic of an ultra-cautious admiral once said that he looked like “a frightened tapir”.

Change one letter and you’ve got today’s capital markets – most seem to resemble a “frightened taper”.

But does anyone really understand what’s happening?

My aim here is to spell out just some aspects of the economy that seldom, if ever, receive coverage. This may be because they’re just too simple. Or it might be because they’re just too frightening.

Let’s start with “growth” in the US economy. For a start, what growth? America seems to be growing at an “impressive” rate of around 3%. That adds getting on for $500bn to recorded GDP. But the Fed is printing an annualised $900bn at the moment, equivalent to about 5.5% of GDP, and underlying government borrowing is about 6%. So QE, plus the deficit, are injecting about 11.5% of GDP into one end of the sausage machine, and what’s coming out of the other end is barely 3%. And that’s supposed to be “growth”?

Then there’s GDP itself, supposedly about $16 trillion. Investors and commentators tend to accord this figure the validity of Holy Writ, ignoring the fact that it contains about $2 trillion of “imputations”. These arise from assigning rents to houses that no one is renting, putting a price on services provided by banks to their customers free of charge, and adding the cost of healthcare and other employee benefits which employers provide for free.

In short, about 16% of US GDP consists of these non-existent dollars – dollars, that is, that nobody receives, nobody can spend and nobody can tax. You won’t need me to tell you that the inflation calculations used to measure “real” growth (and “real” incomes) look, shall we say, a tad low, or to remind you that the US unemployment rate would be well into double figures if the numbers didn’t exclude categories such as “discouraged workers” (who, by the way, might be discouraged, but they certainly aren’t working). Then there’s the Federal debt, which tends to rise even more quickly than Congress can agree to raise the ceiling. Meanwhile, experts reckon that about $3.6 trillion (and rising) needs to be spent on putting America’s roads, bridges, water supply systems, levees and so on into good nick.

And this is one of the world’s “strongest” economies? If that’s what a “strong” economy looks like, I wouldn’t want to see a “weak” one (so I’ll ignore Japan, where the plan to improve trade by undermining the yen has just created a record deficit….)

It’s not just the US or Japan, of course. Pending fuller data, UK growth may exceed increases in personal and public debt, but I doubt it. Eurozone growth is negligible, despite bail-outs, on-going deficits and cash injections. I would be amazed if China isn’t sitting on a mountain of debt, especially property-related debt at the provincial level.

Then there’s “the taper”. This doesn’t mean that the Fed is reversing QE. It doesn’t even mean that the Fed has stopped printing liquidity into the system. It just means that the rate of printing is slowing.

Even that has been enough to make capital markets wobble, and to shake economies as different as those of Turkey and India, forcing a wave of interest rate rises as central bankers fear capital flight.

A great recovery, huh?

I don’t want to push the surplus energy thesis of economics at you on each and every occasion, but I’ll just remind you of two things.

First, the price of oil is a lot higher now than its average in 2007, before the biggest output slump in living memory. Why hasn’t it cratered, as it did after much smaller recessions in the not-too-distant past?      

Second, modelling using SEEDS (the surplus energy economics data system) indicates that the system is awash with more than US$60 trillion of claims that the real economy cannot meet.

Far from tackling the value destruction that has to happen, we’re adding to it all the time, by creating money and creating credit.

This looks like nothing more or less than macro-scale denial. Some might call it the last chance saloon. To me it feels more like the Galactic Hitchhiker’s restaurant at the end of the universe.