#114: Déjà vu, all over again


Adjectives such as ‘shocking’ and ‘astonishing’ have been applied to the recognition, in Britain’s recent budget, that growth is going to be extremely weak well into the 2020s, and that real earnings will remain lower in 2022 than they were back in 2008.

The favoured explanation for this weakness is the so-called “puzzle” of poor productivity. Solving this mystery will, supposedly, restore robust growth and reverse the long years of deteriorating prosperity.

In fact, there’s nothing too ‘astonishing’ about any of this. For a start, productivity is really nothing more than economic output divided by hours worked. The calculation uses GVA (gross value added) rather than GDP (gross domestic product), but the former is a subset of the latter, differing only through some modest technical adjustments. Hours worked don’t oscillate dramatically over time. So saying that ‘productivity is poor’ is another way of saying that ‘economic performance is weak’.

The latest hand-wringing over prosperity really amounts to official recognition that the British economy is feeble. In the years prior to 2008, productivity grew at an average annual rate of 2.1%. Ever since its inception in 2010, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), which advises government, has framed its forecasts on an assumed return to this previous rate.

In reality, trend growth in productivity since 2008 has been just 0.2%. The OBRs acceptance of this new reality was the cause of the sharp downgrades to growth assumptions announced by chancellor (finance minister) Philip Hammond in his budget.

If there’s a “puzzle” here at all, it is why the OBR has expected anything different, and why it has held to this assumption for so long. The shock and astonishment expressed about this by experts and the media is unlikely to be shared by the general public. They know all too well that prosperity has been deteriorating for a long time.

A second “puzzle”, far worthier of attention than the productivity conundrum, is why the-powers-that-be do not seem to understand the real issues involved. Essentially, the most constructive single thing that Britain could do would be to address serious imbalances in the economy.

And none of these is more important than the grave imbalance of incentives. Put another way, risk and return are extremely out-of-kilter, discouraging activities that would inject growth into the economy, and favouring those that do not.

Put yourself in the position of somebody with, say, £1m to invest. How does this person set out to increase this capital?

Essentially, there are two ways of doing this.

First, he or she can invest in an enterprise, bringing new goods or services to the market. This can be described as ‘innovation’, because the aim is to create value where it didn’t already exist.

The alternative is to buy existing assets, aiming to profit from a rise in their price. This can be termed ‘speculation’. This is not intended as a pejorative term. It simply means that anticipated rises in asset prices are speculative, because these increases might not happen, and prices might actually fall rather than rise.

For the investor, either strategy can prove equally efficacious. From a national, macroeconomic perspective, however, they are as different as chalk and cheese.

Investing in new goods and services adds value to the economy.

Investing in existing assets does not.

The trick for government is to favour the innovation route which delivers new streams of value, making it more attractive than the alternative, non-value-adding choice. By ‘more attractive’ is meant ‘offering a more favourable blend of risk and return’.

Britain, to a greater extent than most, has got this balance wrong. Moreover, successive governments, far from addressing this handicap, have gone to great efforts to make it even worse.

The person investing in a new enterprise necessarily faces significant risk. His new product might fail, or the economy might turn against him, making customers less willing or less able to buy his product. He might not have access to sufficient capital, at a low enough cost, to see him through the stages from research and development to marketing and impact. Competitors might undermine his efforts, perhaps through combination or predatory pricing, or perhaps simply by making a better offer to consumers.

Risk, then, is stacked against the innovator. It also requires a lot more effort than simply buying existing assets and hoping for a rise in prices.

Because of this, government needs to be pro-active in encouraging the innovative entrepreneur. This includes not making the alternative, speculative route too attractive.

This hardly describes British policy. The innovator faces hurdles at every stage of the process. He encounters a forest of regulation, some of which is necessary, a lot of which is simply gratuitous, and much of which bears proportionately more heavily on the entrepreneur than on larger, established competitors. Taxation is pretty onerous, including employment levies, the obligation to devote resources to collecting sales taxes, and the truly absurd Business Rates, absurd because it is unrelated even to turnover, let alone to profits.

The speculative route, on the other hand, gets a great deal of help from government. If asset prices, and most obviously those of property, threaten to fall, government will intervene with back-stops, most obviously with harmful gimmicks like “help to buy”, but more seriously with monetary policies calculated to inflate asset markets. No-one is going to back-stop the innovating entrepreneur in the same way. To cap it all, profits made on capital gains are taxed far more generously than income from creating new sources of value.

What successive British governments have said, in effect, is that ‘we favour speculative investment’. They have backstopped speculative activities, and have imposed low rates of tax, and pretty modest regulation, on those who want simply to buy existing assets and gain from increases in their price.

A more sensible route, surely, would be to redress the balance of incentives. This approach would favour innovation by granting some regulatory exemptions to small firms, removing some of the tax burdens imposed on them, perhaps providing advantageous lines of credit, and ensuring that bigger players do not act in ways detrimental to the small business, or otherwise benefit from a playing field that is far from level.

Complementary to this would be higher rates of tax on transactions and capital gains, combined with an avowed withdrawal from backstopping the prices of property and other assets.

These weaknesses are not unique to Britain, of course, but appear more serious there than in many comparable countries. Large allowances are given against taxes on capital gains, taxes which are often levied at rates lower anyway than on comparable amounts of income.

If a country sets out to favour the speculative over the innovative, it can hardly then complain if investors opt for speculation, and don’t put much effort into innovation.

The SEEDS model shows the real severity of the British economic malaise. Per capita prosperity, as measured by the system, has declined by 9.4% since it peaked in 2003, and continues to deteriorate. In the years since then, Britain has borrowed £5.50 for each £1 of recorded growth, and even the latter includes a sizeable component of simply boosting apparent output through the spending of borrowed money.

With energy costs rising, the crunch point of talks over post-“Brexit” trade looming, the currency at significant risk, and investors presumably questioning the wisdom of investing in an economy where customers are getting poorer, now is not the time to fiddle about with cosmetic incentives, and indulge in naval-gazing over a supposed “productivity puzzle” that is, in reality, no puzzle at all.


= = = =

Here’s how productivity looks on a basis adjusted for the “borrowed spending” impact on economic output:

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#113: Death of a high-fashion model


For a long time now, “sustainable development” has been the fashionable economic objective, the Holy Grail for anyone aiming to achieve economic growth without inducing catastrophic climate degradation. This has become the default position for two, very obvious reasons. First, no politician wants to tell his electorate that growth is over (even in countries where, very clearly, prosperity is now in decline). Second, policymakers prepared to invite ridicule by denying the reality of climate change are thin on the ground.

Accordingly, “sustainable development” has become a political article of faith. The approach seems to be to assume that sustainable development is achievable, and use selective data to prove it.

Where this comfortable assumption is concerned, this discussion is iconoclastic. Using the tools of Surplus Energy Economics, it concludes that the likelihood of achieving sustainable development is pretty low. Rather, it agrees with distinguished scientist James Lovelock in his observation that sustainable retreat might be the best we can expect.

This site is dedicated to the critical relationship between energy and economics, but this should never blind us to the huge threat posed by climate change. There seems no convincing reason to doubt either the reality of climate change science or the role that emissions (most obviously of CO²) are playing in this process. As well as counselling sustainable retreat, James Lovelock might be right, too, in characterising the earth as a system capable of self-regeneration so long as its regenerative capabilities are not tested too far.

False comfort

Economics is central to this debate. Here, comparing 2016 with 2001, are some of the figures involved;

Real GDP, 2016 values in PPP dollars:

2001: $73 trillion. 2016: $120tn (+65%)

Energy consumption, tonnes of oil equivalent:

2001: 9.5bn toe. 2016: 13.3bn toe (+40%)

Emissions of CO², tonnes:

2001: 24.3bn t. 2016: 33.4bn t (+37%)

If we accept these figures as accurate, each tonne of CO² emissions in 2001 was associated with $2,990 of GDP. By 2016, that number had risen to $3,595. Put another way, 17% less CO² was emitted for each $1 of GDP. By the same token, the quantity of energy required for each dollar of GDP declined by 15% over the same period.

This is the critical equation supporting the plausibility of “sustainable growth”. If we have really shown that we can deliver successive reductions in CO² emissions per dollar of GDP, we have options.

One option is to keep CO² levels where they are now, yet still grow the economy. Another is to keep the economy where it is now and reduce CO² emissions. A third is to seek a “goldilocks” permutation, both growing the economy and reducing emissions at the same time.

Obviously, the generosity of these choices depends on how rapidly we can continue our progress on the efficiency curve. Many policymakers, being pretty simple people, probably use the “fool’s guideline” of extrapolation – ‘if we’ve achieved 17% progress over the past fifteen years’, they conclude, ‘then we can expect a further 17% improvement over the next fifteen’.

Pretty lies

But what if the apparent ‘progress’ is illusory? The emissions numbers used as the denominator in the equation can be taken as accurate, as can the figures for energy consumption. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the economic numerator. As so often, we are telling ourselves comforting untruths about the way in which the world economy is behaving.

This issue is utterly critical for the cause of “sustainable development”, whose plausibility rests entirely on the numbers used to calculate recent trends.

And there are compelling reasons for suspecting the validity of GDP numbers.

For starters, apparent “growth” in economic output seems counter-intuitive. According to recorded numbers for per capita GDP, the average American was 6% better off in 2016 than in 2006, and the average Briton was 3% more prosperous. These aren’t big numbers, to be sure, but they are positive, suggesting improvement, not deterioration. Moreover, there was a pretty big slump in the early part of that decade. Adjustment for this has been used to suggest that people are growing more prosperous at rates faster than the trailing-10-year per capita GDP numbers indicate.

Yet the public don’t buy into the thesis of “you’ve never had it so good”. Indeed, it isn’t possible reconcile GDP numbers with popular perception. People feel poorer now than they did in 2006, not richer. That’s been a powerful contributing factor to Americans electing Donald Trump, and British voters opting for “Brexit”, crippling Theresa May’s administration and turning in large numbers to Jeremy Corbyn’s collectivist agenda. Much the same can be said of other developed economies, including France (where no established party made it to the second round of presidential voting) and Italy (where a referendum overwhelmingly rejected reforms proposed by the then-government).

Ground-level data suggests that the popular perception is right, and the per capita GDP figures are wrong. The cost of household essentials has outpaced both incomes and general inflation over the past decade. Levels of both household and government debt are far higher now than they were back in 2006. Perhaps worst of all – ‘though let’s not tell the voters’ – pension provision has been all but destroyed.

The pension catastrophe has been attested by a report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), and has been discussed here in a previous article. It is a topic to which we shall return in this discussion.

The mythology of “growth”

If we understand what really has been going on, we can conclude that, where prosperity is concerned, the popular perception is right, meaning that the headline GDP per capita numbers must be misleading. Here is the true story of “growth” since the turn of the century.

Between 2001 and 2016, recorded GDP grew by 65%, adding $47tn to output. Over the same period, however, and measured in constant 2016 PPP dollars, debt increased by $135tn (108%), meaning that each $1 of recorded growth came at a cost of $2.85 in net new borrowing.

This ratio has worsened successively, mainly because emerging market economies (EMEs), and most obviously China, have been borrowing at rates far larger than growth, a vice previously confined to the developed West.

This relationship between borrowing and growth makes it eminently reasonable to conclude that much of the apparent “growth” has, in reality, been nothing more substantial than the spending of borrowed money. Put another way, we have been boosting “today” by plundering “tomorrow”, hardly an encouraging practice for anyone convinced by “sustainable development” (or, for that matter, sustainable anything).

Nor is this all. Since the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008, we have witnessed the emergence of enormous shortfalls in society’s provision for retirement. According to the WEF study of eight countries – America, Australia, Britain, Canada, China, India, Japan and the Netherlands – pension provision was deficient by $67tn in 2015, a number set to reach $428tn (at constant values) by 2050.

Though the study covers just eight countries, the latter number dwarfs current GDP for the entire world economy ($120tn PPP). The aggregate eight-country number is worsening by $28bn per day. In the United States alone, the annual deterioration is $3tn, equivalent to 16% of GDP and, incidentally, roughly five times what America spends on defence. Moreover, these ratios seem certain to worsen, for pension gaps are increasing at annual rates far in excess of actual or even conceivable economic growth.

For the world as a whole, the equivalent of the eight-country number is likely to be about $124tn. This is a huge increase since 2008, because the major cause of the pensions gap has been the returns-destroying policy of ultra-cheap money, itself introduced in 2008-09 as a response to the debt mountain which created the GFC. Finally, on the liabilities side, is interbank or ‘financial sector’ debt, not included in headline numbers for debt aggregates.

Together, then, liabilities can be estimated at $450tn – $260tn of economic debt, about $67tn of interbank indebtedness and an estimated $124tn of pension under-provision. The equivalent number for 2001 is $176tn, expressed at constant 2016 PPP values. This means that aggregate liabilities have increased by $274tn over fifteen years – a period in which GDP grew by just $47tn.

The relationship between liabilities and recorded GDP is set out in the first pair of charts, which, respectively, set GDP against debt and against broader liabilities. Incidentally, the pensions issue is, arguably, a lot more serious than debt. This is because the real value of existing debt can be “inflated away” – a form of “soft default” – by governments willing to unleash inflation. The same cannot be said of pension requirements, which are, in effect, index-linked.

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Where climate change is concerned, what matters isn’t so much the debt or broader liability aggregates, or even the rate of escalation, but what they tell us about the credibility of recorded GDP and growth.

Here, to illustrate the issues involved, are comparative annual growth rates between 2001 and 2016, a period long enough to be reliably representative:

GDP: +3.4% per year

Debt: +5.0%

Pension gap and interbank debt: +9.1%

To this we can add two further, very pertinent indicators:

Energy consumption: +2.2%

CO² emissions: +2.1%

The real story

As we have seen, growth of $47tn in recorded GDP between 2001 and 2016 was accompanied – indeed, made possible – by a vast pillaging of the balance sheet, including $135tn in additional indebtedness, and an estimated $140tn in other liabilities.

The only realistic conclusion is that the economy has been inflated by massive credit injections, and by a comparably enormous unwinding of provisions for the future. It follows that, absent these expedients, organic growth would have been nowhere near the 3.4% recorded over the period.

SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – has an algorithm designed to ex-out the effect of debt-funded consumption (though it does not extend this to include pension gaps or interbank debt). According to this, adjusted growth between 2001 and 2016 was only 1.55%. As this is not all that much faster than the rate at which the population has been growing, the implication is that per capita growth has been truly pedestrian, once we see behind the smoke-and-mirrors effects of gargantuan credit creation.

This isn’t the whole story. The above is a global number, which embraces faster-than-average growth in China, India and other EMEs. Constrastingly, prosperity has actually deteriorated in Britain, America and most other developed economies. Citizens of these countries, then, are not imagining the fall in prosperity which has helped fuel their discontent with incumbent governing elites. The deterioration has been all too real.

The second set of charts illustrates these points. The first shows quite how dramatically annual borrowing has dwarfed annual growth, with both expressed in constant dollars. The second sets out what GDP would have looked like, according to SEEDS, if we hadn’t been prepared to trash collective balance sheets in pursuit of phoney “growth”. You will notice that the adjusted trajectory is consistent with what was happening before we ‘unleashed the dogs of cheap and easy credit’ around the time of the millenium.

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Flagging growth – the energy connection

As we have seen, then, the very strong likelihood is that real growth in global economic output over fifteen years has been less than 1.6% annually, slower than growth either in energy consumption (2.2%) or in CO² emissions (2.1%). In compound terms, growth in underlying GDP seems to have been about 26% between 2001 and 2016, appreciably less than increases in either energy consumption (+40%) or emissions (+37%).

At this point, some readers might think this conclusion counter-intuitive – after all, if technological change has boosted efficiency, shouldn’t we be using less energy per dollar of activity, not more?

There is, in fact, a perfectly logical explanation for this process. Essentially, the economy is fuelled, not by energy in the aggregate, but by surplus energy. Whenever energy is accessed, some energy is always consumed in the access process. This is expressed here as ECoE (the energy cost of energy), a percentage of the gross quantity of energy accessed. The critical point is that ECoE is on a rising trajectory. Indeed, the rate of increase in the energy cost of energy has been rising exponentially.

As mature resources are depleted, recourse is made to successively costlier (higher ECoE) alternative sources. This depletion effect is moderated by technological progress, which lowers the cost of accessing any given form of energy. But technology cannot breach the thermodynamic parameters of the resource. It cannot, as it were, ‘trump the laws of physics’. Technology has made shale oil cheaper to extract than shale oil would have been in times past. But what it has not done is transform shales into the economic equivalent of giant, technically-straightforward conventional fields like Al Ghawar in Saudi Arabia. Any such transformation is something that the laws of physics simply do not permit.

According to estimates generated on a multi-fuel basis by SEEDS, world ECoE averaged 4.0% in 2001, but had risen to 7.5% by 2016. What that really means is that, out of any given $100 of economic output, we now have to invest $7.50, instead of $4, in accessing energy. The resources that we can use for all other purposes are correspondingly reduced.

In the third pair of charts, the left-hand figure illustrates this process. The area in blue is the net energy that fuels all activities other than the supply of energy itself. This net energy supply continues to increase. But the red bars, which are the energy cost of energy, are rising too, and at a more rapid rate. Consequently, gross energy requirements – the aggregate of the blue and the red – are rising faster than the required net energy amount. This is why, when gross energy is compared with economic output, the energy intensity of the economy deteriorates, even though the efficiency with which net energy is used has improved.

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Here’s another way to look at ECoE and the gross/net energy balance. Back in 2001, we needed to access 104.2 units of energy in order to have 100 units for our use. In 2016, we had to access 108.1 units for that same 100 units of deployable energy. This process, which elsewhere has been called “energy sprawl”, means that any given amount of economic activity is requiring the accessing of ever more gross energy in order to deliver the requisite amount of net (surplus) energy. By 2026, the ratio is likely to have risen to 112.7/100.

The companion chart shows the trajectory of CO² emissions. Since these emissions are linked directly to energy use, they can be divided into net (the pale boxes), ECoE (in dark grey) and gross (the sum of the two). Thanks to a lower-carbon energy slate, net emissions seem to be flattening out. Unfortunately, gross emissions continue to increase, because of the CO² associated with the ECoE component of gross energy requirements.

Shot down in flames? The “evidence” for “sustainable development”

As we have seen, a claimed rate of economic growth (between 2001 and 2016) that is higher (65%) than the rate at which CO² emissions have expanded (37%) has been used to “prove” increasing efficiency. It is entirely upon these claims that the viability of “sustainable development” is based.

But, as we have also seen, reported growth has been spurious, the product of unsustainable credit manipulation, and the unwinding of provision for the future. Real growth, adjusted to exclude this manipulation, is estimated by SEEDS at 26% over that period. Crucially, that is less than the 37% rate at which CO² emissions have grown.

On this basis, a claimed 17% “improvement” in the amount of CO² per dollar of output reverses into a deterioration. Far from improving, the relationship between CO² and economic output worsened by 9% between 2001 and 2016. In parallel with this, the amount of energy required for each dollar of output increased by 11% over the same period.

The final pair of charts illustrate this divergence. On the left, economic activity per tonne of CO² is shown. The second chart re-expresses this relationship using GDP adjusted for the artificial “growth” injected by monetary manipulation. If this interpretation is correct – and despite a very gradual upturn in the red line since 2010 – the comforting case for “sustainable development” falls to pieces.

In short, if growth continues, rising ECoEs dictate that both energy needs, and associated emissions of CO², will grow at rates exceeding that of economic output.

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We are back where many have argued that we have been all along. The pursuit of growth seems to be incompatible with averting potentially irreversible climate change.

There is a nasty sting-in-the-tail here, too. The ECoE of oil supplies is rising particularly markedly, and there seems a very real danger that this will force an increased reliance on coal, a significantly dirtier fuel. A recent study by the China University of Petroleum predicted exactly such a trend in China, already the world’s biggest producer of CO². As domestic oil supply peaks and then declines because of higher ECoEs, the study postulates a rapid increase in coal consumption to feed the country’s voracious need for energy. This process is most unlikely to be confined to China.

Where does this leave us?

The central contention here is that the case for “sustainable development” is fatally flawed, because the divergence between gross and net energy needs is more than offsetting progress in greening our energy mix and combatting emissions of harmful gases. “Sustainable development” is a laudable aim, but may simply not be achievable within the laws of physics as they govern energy supply.

If this interpretation is correct, it means that growth in the global economy can be pursued only at grave climate risk. A (slightly) more comforting interpretation might that the super-heated rate of borrowing, and the seemingly disastrous rate at which pension capability is being destroyed, might well crash the system before our obsession with ‘growth at all costs’ can inflict irreparable damage to the environment.

#112: Will things go bang soon?


We may not be clear yet about when the next crash will come, but we understand a very great deal about the mechanism that will make it happen. Put another way, we have a narrative that puts all the pieces in the right places.

This narrative is telling us that a crash is highly likely – and that it may happen a lot sooner than we think.

Let’s start with the fundamentals. Contrary to conventional thinking, the economy isn’t really a monetary system at all, but a surplus energy dynamic. What drives the output of goods and services is the quantity of energy we can access, less the energy consumed in the access process. If the available quantity is constrained – or the energy cost of accessing it increases – the output of the economy will decrease.

Money, having no intrinsic worth, has value only as a “claim” on the output of the real economy, which means, ultimately, that money is a claim on surplus energy. Debt, as a ‘claim on future money’, is really a claim on future energy.

For more than two centuries, there has been sustained growth in available surplus energy. This has enabled total financial claims – the aggregate of money and credit – to increase as well, without toppling the financial system.

What we’ve been witnessing since the turn of the century, though, has been an increase in the energy cost of energy (ECoE), combined with emerging constraints on the quantity of accessible energy. This process makes the continued growth in aggregate money and credit dangerous, because we are creating claims that the real economy will not be able to meet.

Once understood, this process makes sense of what has been happening. Between 2000 and 2008, credit creation soared, but debt-financed growth drove up energy demand in a way that eventually brought the system to the brink of collapse. In 2001, when prices averaged $24/bbl, OECD consumers spent about $430bn on oil, of which around $240bn went on imports. By 2008, when oil averaged $97/bbl, these numbers had increased to $1,700bn and $1,050bn. Oil was now costing OECD customers $1,270bn more than it had just seven years earlier – and $810bn of that increase was being spent on the higher cost of imports.

Moreover, these huge liquidity drains are only those related to oil. Other forms of energy also soared in cost, as did energy-intensive commodities such as minerals and foodstuffs.

This was what brought the debt-financed party to an end.

Looking a little more closely at this, the increase in the cost of oil to the OECD quadrupled between 2001 and 2008. The increase in ECoE over the same period was much smaller than this. According to SEEDS, global ECoE for all energy sources rose from 4% in 2001 to 5.4% in 2008, a rise of one-third.

So the rise in market prices vastly over-cooked the underlying trend in ECoEs. In relation to this fundamental benchmark, oil was underpriced in 2001, and overpriced in 2008.

This tells us that something else was going on.

That ‘something else’ was supply constraint.

Just as westerners were bingeing on credit, emerging market economies (EMEs) were consuming more energy and other commodities, notably as exports ramped up. Rising energy demand was colliding with more pedestrian growth in supply. Investment in supply tracked market prices higher. When demand dropped after 2008, the ensuing fall in prices became inevitable.

In retrospect, we “got away with it” in 2008, for three main reasons.

First, governments’ balance sheets were strong enough for them to bail out the banks without forfeiting their own credibility, and that of their currencies.

Second, the authorities bought time by adding monetary adventurism to the established credit adventurism.

Third, the cooling of the economy took the heat out of energy markets.

To know when and if a second crash may happen, and what its results are likely to be, we need to test these three “get-outs” as they now are.

First, government balance sheets. On the basis of amounts owed (rather than the market value of bonds), the aggregate debt of advanced country governments was 67% of GDP in 2007. Now it is 102%, and still rising. Bailing out the banks now would be a lot harder than it was back in 2008. Not only are government balance sheets weaker, but bank exposure has increased as global debt has grown. To be sure, reserves ratios are higher now than they were back in 2007. But, because banks borrow short and lend long, no amount of reserving can render them immune from the consequences of a loss of faith.

Second, “monetary adventurism”. Back in 2008, typical rates were 5.25% in the United States and 4.3% in the European Union. Now, the equivalent numbers are around 1% and -0.25%. There’s no scope, then, for further monetary adventurism, unless central banks are prepared to go for deeply negative nominal rates, a policy which would be barking mad, even if it didn’t, very probably, necessitate helicopter money and the banning of cash.

So that leaves us with our third component, which is energy. Essentially, a big rise in oil prices would crash the system.

Is this likely? On balance, it is. Oil demand is growing at around 1.4 mmb/d each year. Supply has kept pace, mainly thanks to increased shale and other unconventional output, plus an increase in supply from OPEC. Neither may be sustainable. Shales are extremely capital intensive, because of the “drilling treadmill” caused by ultra-rapid decline rates. Few OPEC countries have much scope to deliver increased supplies. Underlying ECoE, SEEDS says, is 42% higher now than it was in 2007.

Put this higher ECoE together with the slump in investment caused by the fall in crude prices, and the implication is that crude prices could spike, and do so rather more quickly than is generally expected.

That, then, is what we should be watching for when looking out for another crash. All the other conditions are in place, including excessive debt, weak underlying growth (reflecting rising ECoEs), overstretched government balance sheets, and an inability to repeat the monetary adventurism of 2008-09.

All that we’re waiting for is an oil price spike, and a trigger equivalent to the “Lehman moment”.

Both may come sooner rather than later.


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