WHY A CRISIS IS GETTING NEARER
In The Arabian Nights, the heroine Scheherazade told one thousand and one tales. We, on the other hand, need only choose between two songs.
The first, cheerfully whistled by the consensus, is that the world economy is enjoying “synchronised growth”. We needn’t worry about debt and other measures of financial exposure, because a financial crash is very unlikely – and, even if it happened, the authorities would know what to do about it.
The alternative refrain is that most of the “growth” claimed by the authorities is cosmetic; that we really should worry about financial stress indicators; that a crash will happen, because it’s hard-wired into the system; and that plans for dealing with it probably won’t work.
Which of these is the true music – and which is off-key?
The aim here is to weigh the evidence, which comes in many shapes and sizes. The first conclusion is that the consensus view is a Pollyanna song (and Pollyanna, you might remember, found “something to be glad about in every situation, no matter how bleak it may be”). The optimistic consensus is every bit as complacent now as it was back in 2007, when growth was to be celebrated – and debt, we were told, didn’t matter.
The second conclusion is that the odds are shortening on a crisis happening a lot sooner than most people think – it could, indeed, happen latter this year.
Third, and from what we can surmise about them, the plans for responding to a crisis probably won’t work.
GDP – eggs in one basket
When you come down to it, the optimistic consensus is based on a single indicator – growth in GDP. This puts a lot of eggs in one basket, but the conventional line is that GDP is the only basket which matters.
If GDP is growing – and is expanding at a rate faster than population numbers, so that per capita GDP is rising, too – then people are becoming more prosperous. (It’s worth remembering that, for an individual or a household, prosperity increases when income grows more rapidly than essential outgoings such as housing, food and the cost of energy and travel – in short, prosperity is that “discretionary” income which you can spend as you choose).
Rising GDP serves to offset fears about expanding debt, because what matters about debt isn’t the quantum amount, but the ability of the borrower to service and repay it.
Put simply, the assumption – and an article of faith in conventional economics – is that growth in per capita GDP makes people better off. This means that productive output is increasing. Rising GDP gives people more money to spend on things that they want, rather than simply need.
This is great for anyone supplying these wants, so retailers, restauranteurs and other ‘customer-facing’ businesses are in clover when consumers are getting more prosperous. Growing prosperity also means that demand is expanding, which, if you’re a producer, makes a compelling case for investing in expansion. As well as spending more day-to-day, the prospering consumer is likely to buy more capital items, like cars or domestic appliances. The prospering person may or may not increase how much he or she saves for the future, but is certainly unlikely to need to take on more credit.
All in all, then, growth in prosperity, as betokened by increasing GDP per capita, is a cheerful situation. Consumers are happy, having (and spending) more money. It’s great for producers of anything from cars to chocolate bars, whilst shopkeepers, restauranteurs and others have “never had it so good”. Happy and prospering citizens may not express gratitude towards politicians – and politics is a thankless task – but they’re unlikely to turn rebelliously against the establishment that has presided over all this prosperity.
A true note?
It’s interesting, to put it mildly, that this happy refrain, played on the magic flute of growing GDP, isn’t exactly what we’re seeing in the world around us.
Far from raking in bigger profits, customer-facing businesses like shops and restaurants are going through a firestorm, with even the survivors typically closing sites, laying off workers and renegotiating rents downwards. New York’s Madison Avenue hasn’t had this many vacant storefronts since 2008.
This, by the way, cannot be blamed on rising on-line purchases – the numbers don’t add up, and no one has yet found a way to eat or drink through a laptop or a smartphone. Incidentally, too, sales of smartphones themselves seem to have peaked.
Sales of cars, meanwhile, aren’t expanding – indeed, are shrinking in many markets. Car makers are cutting their production lines and trimming their rosters of distributors. The boom in car purchases fuelled by specialised credit seems to have peaked.
If customer demand is increasing, as growth in GDP says it must be, then commercial space should be rising in cost, but evidence strongly suggests the onset of severe downwards pressure on rents – and this, moreover, is bad news for any investment or debt predicated on future streams of rental incomes.
Meanwhile, business should be in an expansionary mood. In fact, the trend now is towards cost-cutting and “zero-based budgeting”, something particularly evident in advertising expenditure, which is an important lead-indicator.
The growth in prosperity indicated by rising GDP should have financial as well as commercial implications. People should be putting aside more money for the future, yet a ground-breaking report by the WEF (World Economic Forum), studying a group of eight large economies, identifies an unprecedented shortfall in pension provision, a “global pension timebomb” set to expand from $67tn in 2015 to $428tn by 2050. In the United States alone, says the WEF report, the gap is worsening by $3tn annually, which is 17% of 2015 GDP, and roughly five times what the US spends on defence.,
Politically, the West’s happy and prospering voters, far from letting the establishment get on with building a materialist’s nirvana, are kicking that establishment in the teeth whenever they get the chance, be it Mr Trump, “Brexit”, votes in France and Italy, or even in Germany. The establishment, of course, routinely derides its insurgent opponents as “populists” – which, presumably, means acceptance that established politicians and parties have become unpopulist.
Governments, too, are acting in ways consistent with hardship, not prosperity. Protectionism and trade wars are a hallmark of seeking someone else to blame, whilst geopolitical belligerence is a time-dishonoured way of distracting the domestic electorate from hardship. Both protectionism and belligerence were rife in the depression conditions of the 1930s. Additionally, and as Charles Hugh Smith has explained in an excellent article, protectionism is a wholly logical consequence of “financial repression” as incorporated into the policy responses to the GFC.
A numbers racket
How, then, can we square the evidence around us with the claim that, because of rising GDP, people are prospering? After all, final data for 2017 is likely to confirm that the world economy (measured in PPP dollars at constant values) has grown by 29% since 2008, equivalent to growth of 17% at the per capita level after allowing for the 11% increase in population numbers over that period.
Regular readers, of course, will know the answers, which needn’t be spelled out in detail here. (Anyone wanting a refresher should read Interpreting the post-growth economy, a guide to Surplus Energy Economics which you can download here).
Essentially, we’ve been faking “growth” by pouring ultra-cheap credit into the economy. Each $1 of growth since 2008 has been accompanied by $3.40 of net new debt, and has also been accompanied, according to SEEDS estimates, by $3.40 of erosion of pension provision. We’ve been keeping up the illusion of “growth” by spending borrowed money and raiding our savings.
Anyone who thinks that this is sustainable needs to re-imagine economic reality.
As we’ve seen, hardly any (in America, less than 1%) of this “growth” has shown up in manufacturing, construction, agriculture or the extractive industries put together. We’re moving money around more rapidly, through finance, real estate and insurance activities. Government is spending more, and people increasingly are “taking in each others’ washing” through low-value service activities, which are saleable only at home.
This pattern of activity is wholly consistent with boosting statistical measures of activity using borrowed money. It is not consistent with “growth” in any meaningful sense of that word.
This cheap money, of course, has created huge bubbles in asset markets such as stocks, bonds and property. These are no offset to debt, of course, because they cannot be monetised. The only people to whom a nation’s housing stock can be sold are the same people to whom it already belongs, so you can’t turn the theoretical value of that stock into money. Using marginal transaction prices to put a value on the aggregate stock of assets is pure sleight of hand.
As regular readers will also know, the SEEDS system generates underlying output numbers, and these are diverging ever further from reported GDP. According to SEEDS, the estimated end-2017 measure, which puts world debt at about 218% of GDP, rises to 336% when debt is measured against aggregate prosperity.
We can’t really predict the timing of economic or financial shocks, because they wouldn’t be shocks if we could. We may not get advance warning from stock markets, because debt-financed buy-backs, and relaxed investor attitudes towards “cash-burn”, might not change until after the roof has started to cave in.
But the strong likelihood now is that hardship in sectors like retailing and restaurants will broaden out into other customer-facing activities, perhaps including travel bookings, car rentals, hotel occupancy and other areas of “discretionary” spending.
A strong downtrend may already have set in where commercial rents are concerned, and we need to watch for vulnerabilities in commercial as well as consumer debt.
The critical point, however, is that what is already happening is likely to prove to be enough to discredit the “growth and prosperity” mantra underpinning consensus complacency.
It’s also worth remembering that complacency reached its previous peak in 2007. It may be, in the natural world, “always darkest just before the dawn” but, in the economy, it can often seem “brightest just before the crash”.
……and what (can be done)?
Finally, what might the authorities do if the GDP-based ballad of complacency gives way to the discordant reality of weakening prosperity and escalating debt?
It seems reasonable to surmise that policy rates will be cut, though rates are now so close to zero that cuts of the magnitude of 2008-09 are no longer possible. We can expect a lot more QE, though, like most drugs, its effectiveness diminishes as doses rise. Governments can also be expected to try to underpin the banks, but this is made harder by sharp increases in governments’ own indebtedness since the GFC.
Additionally, this time, we might expect “bail-ins”, which amount to taking money from depositors to plug gaps left by failed borrowers. If implemented, bail-ins would probably have lower limits (to protect the poor), and upper limits (to protect the rich). The authorities might also resort to the blatant monetisation of their debts (and it’s worth remembering that the Japanese central bank has already purchased almost half of all outstanding Japanese government bonds, using money newly created for the purpose).
If these are the plans for coping with a crisis, there are at least two reasons why they won’t work.
First, the assumption is likely to be that the main stresses will be confined largely to banks, as they were in 2008. But the GFC put the pressure on banks because it was a crisis caused by “credit adventurism”.
This time around, though, the main cause of a crisis is likely to be the “monetary adventurism” practised since 2008. The implication is that, in the next crisis, fiat currencies might be in the front line – especially if bail-ins and debt monetisation are invoked.
Second, governments are likely to assume public acquiescence in their rescue plans. But politics has changed fundamentally since 2008 – and any government which thinks it can sell another “rescue of the bankers” to the public is probably practising one of the worst types of complacency imaginable.