LOOKING BACK AND LOOKING FORWARD
As we near the end of a year that can certainly be called ‘interesting’, I’d like to reflect on what’s happened, what’s happening now, and what we might expect to happen going forward. I can’t be sure that this is the last article for 2018 but, in case it is, I’d like to thank everyone for their interest, their comments and their many invaluable contributions to the themes we discuss here – and, of course, to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy and successful New Year.
Where Surplus Energy Economics, this site and SEEDS are concerned, this has been a memorable year. SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – was finally completed in early 2018, and, amongst other things, this has freed up time for more thematic analysis. It’s both humbling and gratifying to know that about 44,000 people have visited the site this year, another big increase over the preceding twelve months. Most importantly – though this is for you to judge – I like to think we’ve developed a pretty persuasive narrative of how the economy works, and how things are trending.
We can take less satisfaction in what we see around us. According to SEEDS, most of the Western economies have now been getting poorer for at least a decade – and, ominously, the ability of the emerging market economies to grow enough to offset this deterioration, and keep global prosperity static, seems to have ended. World prosperity per person has been on a remarkably long plateau at around $11,000 (constant values, PPP-converted), but has now started to erode.
Deteriorating prosperity might be ‘a new fact’ in the world as a whole, but it’s an established reality in the West – with the single exception of Germany (rather a special case), no developed economy covered by SEEDS has enjoyed any improvement in prosperity at all since 2007. In most cases, the decline in personal prosperity has been happening for longer than that. But our societies seem to have learned almost nothing about what’s going on – and, until the processes are understood, crafting effective responses is impossible.
Historians of the future are likely to be bemused by our futile efforts to escape from the energy dynamic in the economy. From the turn of the millennium, we started pouring ever larger amounts of debt into the system. This led, with utter inevitability, to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC I).
Undeterred, we then compounded cheap and abundant debt with ever cheaper money, yet the inevitable consequences of this process will still, no doubt, be declared both ‘a surprise’ and ‘a shock’ when they happen. We surely should know by now that we have an “everything bubble” propped up by ultra-cheap money, and that bubbles always burst. If there’s any sense in which “this time is different”, it is that, since 2008, we’ve taken risks not just with the banking system, but with money itself.
The death of debt?
There’s one theme which, though we’ve touched on it before, really needs to be spelled out. Throughout the era of growth, we’ve come to accept the process of borrowing and lending as a natural component of our economic system. Indeed, this practice long pre-dates the industrial age, when borrowing and lending, which then was more commonly called “usury” (the lending of money for interest), began to be de-criminalised after Christian Europe had been shaken up by the Reformation.
Leaving theological and ethical issues aside, we need to be clear that the process of borrowing and lending is a product of growth, because debt can only ever be repaid (and, indeed, serviced) where the prosperity of the borrower grows over time.
For simplicity, we can divide debt into two categories. If someone borrows money to expand a successful business, it is the growth in the income of the business which alone enables interest to be paid and the capital amount, too, to be reimbursed in due course. This is termed “self-liquidating debt”.
“Non-self-liquidating debt”, on the other hand, is typified by the loans consumers take out to pay for a holiday, buy a car or replace a domestic appliance. Here, the borrower is buying something which he or she cannot afford out of current income, and the only way in which this can be repaid is if the borrower’s prosperity increases over time.
Take away the assumed growth in prosperity, however, and both forms of borrowing cease to be viable. “Self-liquidating” debt assumes that an expanded business can earn greater profits, but it’s hard to count on this when potential customers are getting poorer. As for “non-self-liquidating” debt, the all-important rise in the borrower’s means can no longer be relied upon when people generally are getting poorer.
In short, the very process of borrowing and lending is likely to be stripped of its viability as prosperity declines. This should be an extremely sobering thought in a world which is awash with debt, and where supplying cheap credit is seen as a panacea for economic stagnation.
You might well ponder at least two things about this. First, what happens to the large quantities of debt owed by those Western economies whose prosperity has already moved significantly along the downwards curve? Second, what happens to asset prices in a world where the credit impetus goes into reverse?
Reflecting on the essential linkage between debt and growth, you might also wonder why we’re not already seeing the debt edifice crumbling. There are two main answers to this. The first is that the debt structure has been buttressed by de-prioritising another form of futurity – simply put, we’ve already created huge (and burgeoning) gaps in pension provision as part of the price of preserving the edifice of debt.
The second answer is simpler still – we’ve not seen the debt edifice start to crumble yet……
Feeling the pain
People across the Western world certainly seem to know that their prosperity is eroding, and they’re far from happy about it. We can see the effects both in political choices and in rising popular discontent. If you understand deteriorating prosperity, then you understand political events in America, Britain, Italy, France and far beyond – events which, if you didn’t understand the economic process, must seem both baffling and malign.
Though understandable, anger isn’t a constructive emotion, and what we really need is coolly analytical interpretation, understanding and planning. If it’s true that we’re not getting this from government, then it’s equally true that government reflects the climate of opinion. We can hardly expect governments to understand the economic realities when opinion-formers stick resolutely to conventional interpretation. It’s more surprising that conventional methods still command adherence as outcomes continue to diverge ever further from expectations.
Making glib promises is part and parcel of politics and, in fairness, those who don’t do this can expect to lose out to those who do. What is more disturbing is the continued promotion of economic extremism. Nationalising everything in sight won’t work, and neither will dismantling the state and turning the economy into a deregulated, ‘law of the jungle’ free-for-all.
Over the years, we’ve tried both, and should know by now that the lot of the ‘ordinary person’ isn’t bettered by these extremes. At least, when prosperity was still growing, we could live with the price of ideological purity – now that prosperity (in the West, at least) has turned down, though, these consequences are something that we can no longer afford.
If you think about it, the extremes either of collectivism or of ‘laissez faire’ have always been absurdly simplistic. Have we ever really believed that benign apparatchiks can manage things better than people can do for themselves? Or that unfettered ‘capitalism’, which concentrates wealth and power just as surely as collectivism, can do things better? Perhaps most importantly, why do so many of us persist in the view that possessions, material wealth and nebulous ideas of relative ‘status’ are a definition of happiness?
Logically, deteriorating prosperity means that we concentrate on necessities and dispense with some luxuries. Amongst the luxuries that we can no longer afford are ideological extremes, and an outlook founded wholly or largely on ownership and consumerism.
The need for ideas
The good news is that we’re not going into this new era wholly lacking in knowledge. The trick is to understand what that knowledge really is. Keynes teaches us how to manage demand – or can teach us this, so long as we don’t turn him into a cheerleader for ever bigger public spending. Likewise – if we can refrain from caricaturing him as a rabid advocate of unregulated and unscrupulous greed – Adam Smith tells us that competition, freely, fairly and transparently conducted, is the great engine of innovation. More humbly, or perhaps less theoretically, but surely more pertinently, experience tells us that the “mixed economy” of optimised private and public provision works far better than any extreme.
Going forward, we should anticipate the collapse of the “everything bubble” in asset prices, and should hope that we don’t, this time, go so far into economic denial as to think we can cure this with a purely financial “fix”. I’m fond of saying that “trying to fix an energy-based economy with financial fixes is like trying to cure an ailing pot-plant with a spanner”. We should understand popular concerns, which seem to point unequivocally towards a mixed economy, extensive redistribution and an economic nationalism that needs to be channelled, not simply vilified.
Another, positive point on which to finish is that a deterioration in prosperity needn’t prevent us – indeed, should compel us – to make better use of the prosperity that we do have. There’s no situation which can’t be made worse by rash decisions, or made better by wise ones. The forces described here – economic trends, and their political and social corollaries – all contain the seeds (no pun intended…) of divisiveness. This being so, cohesion and common purpose have never been so important.
Togetherness, and concern for the welfare of others, are, and certainly should be, part of the fabric of Christmas. Seldom can these characteristics have been more important than they are now.