SHAPING THE AGENDA
The project entitled Fire & Ice has had two very definite objectives. One is to make a synopsis of the economic and financial situation. The other is to start a debate about what the most appropriate responses might be. By “responses”, I wasn’t thinking of what individuals might do in preparation, though suggestions on this could be most valuable. Rather, the focus is on how the authorities might react to circumstances as they develop.
Of course, who “the authorities” might be when the challenge arises is less obvious than it might once have seemed. After more than three decades in the ascendancy, the ‘liberal globalist’ elites are in retreat. Political insurgents – a term which I prefer to the more loaded “populist” label – are bringing fresh ideas and new energy to the debate.
But it is far from clear that these newcomers have a grasp of economic reality that is any better than that of their ‘establishment’ opponents. They’re good at knowing what the public doesn’t like, but sketchy, at best, about what can realistically be offered instead.
I like to think that energy-based analysis of the economy provides answers to questions which baffle ‘conventional’ economic interpretation. I also like to think that we have both a coherent narrative and an effective model.
But where do we go from here?
The best place to start might be with a short list of the issues most demanding current attention. Five subjects dominate this list, and these are:
– The almost tangible pace of economic deterioration, most obviously (though by no means exclusively) in China.
– The complete bafflement of ‘the powers that be’ about the processes that are dismantling the established economic, social and political world-view.
– The looming crisis of a financial structure built on reckless credit and monetary adventurism.
– The rising anger of ‘ordinary’ people who, without knowing exactly how or why, suspect that they’ve been ‘taken for a ride’ by ‘the establishment’.
– The impending revelation that’s likely to boost popular anger to levels dwarfing anything yet experienced.
The big one – ‘hidden in plain sight’
The latter, highly incendiary issue is the unfolding failure of the ability to provide pensions to any but a super-wealthy minority. The collapse of returns on investment has crippled the viability of most employer and individual savings provision. Meanwhile, Tier 1 provision (which is financed directly out of taxation, rather than funded like private schemes) is already well on the way to becoming unaffordable, not least because – as we’ve seen in a previous discussion – tax revenues are leveraged to the ongoing deterioration in prosperity in almost all Western economies.
The disintegration of pension provision is a crisis ‘hidden in plain sight’. Back in 2017, the World Economic Forum called attention to a “global pensions timebomb”, calculating that, for a group of eight countries, a gap already standing at $67 trillion was set to reach $428tn by 2050. (You can find the WEF press release here, and it links to the report itself. Both should be mandatory reading).
The WEF made various worthy suggestions – including delaying retirement ages, and enhancing popular understanding of pensions systems – but these can do no more than scratch the surface of a problem caused by a collapse in returns which is itself a direct consequence of deliberate (though not necessarily voluntary) economic policy.
Broadly speaking, people in Western countries have a long-established expectation, which is that they’ll retire in their early 60s, and then receive a pension equivalent to about 70% of their final in-work incomes. We’re close to a point at which retirement before the age of 70 will become impossible to finance and, even then, it’s unlikely that the 70%-of-income benchmark will be affordable.
We’ll return to this subject later in this discussion. But the critical point is that the anger that will erupt when the public finds out about this is likely to be extreme.
The central issue
The best way to impose a structure on these disparate issues is to start with their common cause – a deterioration in prosperity that’s becoming impossible to disguise, and which the authorities themselves seem wholly unable to comprehend.
If you’re a regular visitor to this site, you’ll know that the central contention here is that the economy is an energy system, not a financial one. This interpretation is so obviously in keeping with the facts that it can be hard to comprehend the inability of ‘conventional’ thinkers to understand it.
For example, anyone who thinks that energy is ‘just another input’ should try picturing what would happen if the supply of energy to an economy was cut off, just for a few days, let alone for several months. Even an outage lasting days would bring the economy to a halt – and a few months without energy would induce economic and social collapse.
Those who contend that energy is ‘just a small percentage’ of economic output might reflect, first, that the foundations are ‘just a small percentage’ of a tower-block, but we wouldn’t build one without them. They might also try to name anything within the gamut of goods and services that can be produced without energy. Moreover, if energy did absorb a large proportion of the economy, the obvious inference is that the non-energy remainder would have to have shrunk dramatically. Additionally, of course, it’s becoming ever harder to believe that GDP numbers swelled by the spending of borrowed money are any kind of realistic denominator for calculating the proportionate role played by energy.
To be sure, it’s highly unlikely that energy supply to an economy would be cut off in its entirety (though it’s rather less unlikely that an economy could lose the ability to pay for it). But the point here is the centrality of energy to literally all economic activity. Equally, it’s surely obvious that the energy which drives all economic activity (other than the supply of energy itself) is surplus energy – that is, the energy to which we have access after we’ve deducted the energy consumed in the access process.
That equation is measured here using ECoE (the energy cost of energy). It is no coincidence at all that an exponential rise in the trend ECoEs of fossil fuels has paralleled the increasing use of financial adventurism – the less generous might call it ‘manipulation’ – in futile efforts to stave off economic stagnation.
Of course, you can’t fix the ECoE problem by pouring cheap credit and cheaper money into the system, but what you can achieve is the creation of enormous bubbles which are destined to burst, scattering debris right across the financial and economic landscape.
Optimists assert that we needn’t worry about the ECoE problem with oil, gas and coal, because we can transition to renewable energy sources. This claim might be a valid one, though the weight of evidence strongly suggests otherwise. Where the optimists do depart completely from reality is in the assertion that this transition can happen seamlessly, without any check to “growth”, without any noticeable disruption and, needless to say, without any hardship which might weaken the economic or social status quo.
Irrespective of where transition to renewables might take us in the future, the issues now are twofold. The first is that the rising trend in ECoEs is being reflected in a squeeze in prosperity, a process which is often labelled “secular stagnation”, but which is proving impossible to counter using the conventional tool of financial stimulus.
The second is that exercises in denial have created ever-growing imbalances within the financial system, imbalances which are manifesting themselves, not just in asset price bubbles and in excessive indebtedness, but in credit dependency, and in the destruction of pension provision.
These constitute specific risks, which are modeled by SEEDS, and might be addressed in a subsequent analysis. For now, though, here are the risk categories identified by the model:
– Debt risk. This is calibrated by comparing debt with prosperity, rather than with the increasingly unrealistic GDP benchmark.
– Credit dependency. This is a measure of annual rates of borrowing, and identifies exposure to any squeeze in, or cessation of, the continuity of credit.
– Systemic exposure. This assesses contagion risk by measuring the scale of financial assets in proportion to prosperity.
– Acquiescence risk. This measure looks at how rapidly personal prosperity has fallen, and is continuing to fall. The aim here is to assess the extent to which arduous ‘rescue plans’, which might be labelled ‘restorative austerity’, are likely to meet with popular opposition.
Primed to detonate
The pensions problem is critical here, for two quite distinct reasons. The first is that the creation of the pensions “timebomb” tells us a very great deal about economic abnormality, and the grotesque failure of policy.
The second is that this “timebomb” might detonate in the foundations of the current system of governance. It certainly has the potential to dwarf all other popular grievances.
According to the WEF study, the pensions gap in the United States stood at $27.8tn in 2015. It is growing at a real compound rate of about 4.7% annually, and is likely to have reached almost $32tn by the end of last year. In Britain, a number stated at $8tn (£5.25tn) for 2015 is growing by more than 4% each year, and is likely now to be well over £7tn. In both instances, the rate at which the gap is widening far exceeds any remotely realistic rate of growth in GDP.
As regular readers know, reported GDP is flattered by the spending of huge amounts of borrowed money, and ignores the critical issue of ECoE. For 2018, SEEDS estimates American aggregate prosperity at $14.7tn, significantly smaller than GDP of $20.5tn. British prosperity is calculated at £1.47tn last year, compared with GDP of £2tn.
This means that, in the United States, the pension gap has already reached 210% of prosperity (and 155% of GDP), and is likely to reach 300% of prosperity by 2026.
In Britain, it’s likely that the gap is already over 470% of prosperity, and will reach 660% by 2026. This financial ‘hostage to the future’ is in addition to debt put at 365% of prosperity. Moreover, financial assets (a measure of the size of the financial system) are estimated at close to 1600% of British prosperity (and about 1125% of GDP). This looks a potentially lethal cocktail for any economy founded on ultra-cheap credit and a fiat monetary system
There are two main reasons for the truly frightening rates at which pension gaps have emerged, and the equally worrying rates at which they are increasing. First, the ability to fund state-provided pensions is coming under tightening pressure because of the leveraged impact of adverse prosperity trends on the scope for taxation.
The second is the collapse of returns on invested capital. According to the WEF report, historic returns of 8.6% on US equities and 3.6% on bonds have now slumped to, respectively, 3.45% and just 0.15% on a forward basis. This makes it wholly impossible, not just in America but across the world, for private investment to fill any part of the widening chasm in state provision.
The collapse in rates of return is the clincher here, and is a direct consequence of the adoption of ZIRP (zero interest rate policy). Put simply, the pensions “timebomb” is something that we’ve wished on ourselves through monetary policy. Introduced back in 2008, the supposedly “temporary” and “emergency” policy expedient of ZIRP has already long-outlasted the duration of the Second World War, and there’s no prospect, now or later, of a return to “normal” rates (which can be thought of as rates exceeding inflation by at least 2.5%).
Policies like ZIRP need to be interpreted as economic signals, sometimes (as now) determined less by voluntary policy decision than by the force of circumstances. The ‘force of circumstances’ which dictated the adoption of ZIRP was a debt mountain which borrowers had become wholly unable to service at normal rates of interest.
It’s vital to note that ZIRP wasn’t something chosen capriciously by the authorities. Rather, it was an expedient forced upon them by economic conditions. Behind the apparent “borrow, don’t save” signal represented by ZIRP lies a structural signal, which is that “the economy can no longer afford saving”. When that happens, it’s the economic equivalent of the way in which some ships or aeroplanes can be kept operational by cannibalizing others.
Politically, there’s no way out of this which doesn’t inflame popular anger. Historically, as mentioned earlier, people in Western countries have assumed that they will retire in their early 60s, receiving, in retirement, roughly 70% of the income they earned at the close of their working lives. The sums here suggest that even raising retirement ages to 70 won’t keep the 70% target affordable.
I’ll leave you to reflect on what the reaction is likely to be when the plight of the “ordinary” person becomes known, and is contrasted with the circumstances of a privileged minority. However, any political establishment which supposes that, whilst pensions become unaffordable for most, a minority can continue retire on generous incomes, and with the cushion of substantial accumulated wealth, is guilty of very dangerous self-deception.
The harsh reality is that we’ve built systems – financial, economic, social and political – which can only function when prosperity is growing. These systems can survive recessions, or even depressions, presupposing that neither is unduly protracted, and is followed by a return to growth. When – as now – that doesn’t happen, the promises that we made to ourselves in order to weather the bad times rapidly become incapable of being honoured.
Ultimately, any financial system is a set of promises, and functions only if those promises can be kept.
It has to be glaringly obvious, too, that the historic cushion of growing prosperity has enabled us to indulge in luxuries that are now becoming unaffordable. The term “luxuries” doesn’t refer to trinkets like gadgets, expensive holidays and the two- or three-car family. Rather, it refers to assumptions and practices that can no longer be afforded.
High on this list lies the indulgence of ideological extremism in economic organisation. If there was ever a time when society could afford either the fanaticism of “nationalising everything”, or the contrary fanaticism of “privatising everything”, that time passed at least two decades ago. What is required now is the pragmatism which surely leads to the “horses for courses” preference for a mixed economy, in which both the state and private enterprise concentrate on what each does best.
Other luxuries that we can no longer afford include massive gaps between the poorest and the wealthiest. This was an affordable luxury when everyone was getting a little more prosperous with each passing year. When your own circumstances are improving, it’s not difficult to accept the extreme wealth of your neighbour – but this tolerance will dissolve very quickly indeed when exposed to the solvent of generally deteriorating prosperity.
This, through its direct link to political insurgency (aka “populism”), brings us back to the immediate situation. Public dissatisfaction has thus far been fueled by discontents likely to be dwarfed by anger yet to come, as inflated asset prices explode and the reality of deteriorating prosperity can no longer be disguised. The Chinese economy, which has accounted for 36% of all global growth since 2008, is now deteriorating markedly, the inevitable fate of any system founded on truly reckless rates of borrowing. “Growth” of 6-7% ceases to impress when you have to borrow about 25% of GDP each year to make it happen.
Few Western economies are in much better condition, yet politicians continue to promise “growth”, and remain in ignorance about the trends that are making such promises an absurdity. Perhaps the greatest risk of all is that lessons not learned in 2008 will be no better understood in the next (and much larger) crisis described here as GFC II.
Stir the pensions reality into that mix and the result is an inflammable cocktail. We may know that current incumbencies cannot adapt to the new realities, but the insurgents have yet to demonstrate a better grasp of reality.
Where we need to go next is to start helping craft a programme which, whilst it cannot remove impending challenges, might at least enable us to adjust to them.
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