DE-GROWTH AND DENIAL IN THE UNITED KINGDOM
Now that a general election has become the latest twist in the saga of “Brexit” – Britain’s ‘on-off-maybe’ withdrawal from the European Union – it seems appropriate to review the situation and outlook for the United Kingdom from a Surplus Energy Economics perspective.
The aim here is to set out an appraisal of the British economy, concentrating on performance and prospects.
No attempt is made, though, to suggest future policy directions, since the likelihood of a wholesale awakening to the realities of de-growth seems remote.
Before we start, I hope I can take it that the ‘energy, not money’ interpretation of economics is familiar to readers (though, given the accelerating pace of change in the world economy, it might be desirable to publish an updated introduction to this in the near future).
The understanding that the economy is an energy system, and not a financial one, can provide insights denied to those wedded to the ‘conventional’ interpretation which states that the economy can be understood, and managed, in monetary terms alone. It is becoming clearer, almost by the day, that this simply is not true.
Long-standing visitors won’t need reminding, either, that, beyond believing that everyone should respect the democratic decision, I’m avowedly neutral on whether British voters made the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ choice in the 2016 “Brexit” referendum.
There can be no doubt, though, that “Brexit” has been a huge distraction – indeed, it’s “the excuse that keeps on giving” – and has induced something very close to complete paralysis of the decision-making process.
Policy paralysis is particularly unfortunate in the economic sphere, where “Brexit” has prevented debate over a deteriorating economy and a rising level of financial risk. Even on the basis of official data, Britain’s financial assets ratio – a measure of exposure to the financial system – stands at more than 1300% of GDP. This compares with 480% in the United States, and is a dangerous place to be as a GFC II sequel to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) becomes ever more probable.
The place to start is with the economic situation as interpreted by SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System) which, for Britain as for any other economy, lays bare the realities behind the published statistics.
Growth, output and debt – coming clean
If you were to believe official figures, British economic output increased by 11% between 2008 and 2018, adding £212bn (at 2018 values) to recorded GDP. This in itself is far from impressive and, since population numbers increased by 7% over that decade, left GDP per capita just 3.6% ahead.
Even these uninspiring figures flatter to deceive. Over a decade in which GDP has increased by £212bn, debt has risen by £890bn, meaning that each £1 of recorded “growth” has been accompanied by £4.18 in net new borrowing.
This, to be sure, is an improvement over the 2000-08 period, which witnessed a reckless, credit-driven bubble in which debt increased by £5.63 for each £1 of “growth”. But the UK economy remains excessively dependent on continuing increases in debt.
The numbers are summarised in fig. 1, which shows how far annual growth has been exceeded by net borrowing, particularly in the period of policy insanity which preceded 2008.
As a result of a continuing addiction to cheap and easy credit, most (83%) of the recorded growth in British GDP since 2008 has been a function of the simple spending of borrowed money.
SEEDS calculations show that, if net new borrowing ceased as of now, trend growth would fall to between 0.1% and 0.4%, well adrift of the 0.6% rate at which population numbers are increasing.
If the United Kingdom hadn’t joined in the pan-Western (and, latterly, pan-global) debt binge in the first place, output last year would have been £1.63 trillion, 22% below the recorded £2.08tn.
Where underlying realities are concerned, SEEDS indicates that, rather than ‘output of £2.08tn, growing at 1.4% annually’, Britain has underlying, ‘clean’ GDP (C-GDP) of £1.63tn, growing by between 0.1% and (at best) 0.4% – and this is even before we turn to the critically-important energy situation. Comparisons between recorded GDP and the credit-adjusted equivalent are set out in fig. 2.
Like so many others, the British economy shows all the hallmarks of “activity” created artificially by the injection of credit – high value-adding activities (like manufacturing) have stagnated at best, displaced by “growth” coming mostly from minimally value-adding sectors which are characterised by low wages and worsening insecurity of employment.
Replacing, say, £1bn of hard-priced manufacturing output with £1bn of residually-priced manicures and fast food deliveries isn’t progressive, least of all if this change has been financed with rising debt, most obviously in the household sector.
The mistaken idea, held as tenaciously in London as it is in the Élysée, that lowering wages somehow makes an economy ‘more competitive’, ignores one rather obvious fact – if low labour costs were an economic positive, Ghana would be more prosperous than Germany, and Swaziland richer than Switzerland.
The energy dimension
Because all economic activity is a function of energy, the cost of energy supply is a vital determinant of prosperity. This cost is calibrated here as ECoE – the Energy Cost of Energy – which measures, within any given quantity of energy accessed and put to use, how much of that energy is consumed in the access process.
For reference, SEEDS indicates that, for complex developed economies, prior growth in prosperity goes into reverse at ECoEs between 3.5% and 5.5%. In Britain, prosperity has been shrinking since trend ECoE hit 4.2% back in 2003. The subsequent rise in trend ECoE – to 9.5% last year – has tightened the screw relentlessly.
This goes a long way towards explaining why the average British person is 10.8% (£2,673) worse off than he or she was back in 2003 (as well as being nearly £27,000, or 49%, deeper in debt).
These calculations also do a lot to explain both popular discontent and the “productivity puzzle” which so baffles the authorities.
At 9.5%, Britain’s trend ECoE is significantly worse than the global average (7.9%) (fig. 3). This competitive disadvantage is of comparatively recent origin since, back in 2003, Britain’s ECoE (of 4.2%) was rather lower than the global average (4.6%). Whereas world trend ECoE has risen by 3.3 percentage points (+71%) since then, the British equivalent has more than doubled (+127%), increasing by 5.3 percentage points.
Part of this relative slippage is due to a shrinkage in domestic energy supply – output of primary energy has declined by 56%, to 119 million tonnes of oil-equivalent last year from 272 mmtoe in 1999. Most of this decrease results from declines in output from the mature oil and gas production operations in the North Sea, though output from coal and nuclear has fallen as well. Against a 162 mmtoe decrease in fossil fuels production, supply from renewables has grown by just 23 mmtoe.
Over the same period, energy consumption, too, has fallen, by 15% or 33 mmtoe. Though often claimed as a sign of improved energy efficiency, this decline is indicative, rather, both of deteriorating prosperity and of the offshoring of energy-intensive (but important) industrial activities.
Perhaps because of complacency induced by the past largesse of North Sea oil and gas, British energy policy has seldom seemed particularly astute. Right back in the 1980s, ‘quick-buck’ thinking permitted both the export of gas and its use in the generation of cheap electricity, both of which were short-term expedients which made excessive demands on a resource which was never huge. Latterly, the authorities dithered for more than a decade over the future of nuclear before making the wrong technology choice for the wrong reasons. The current commitment to renewables, though commendable in principle, does not seem to be well-thought-out, and is likely to impose excessive costs on industry and households alike.
Whatever the local causes, ECoE is projected to rise from 10.0% this year to 12.0% by 2025 and 13.8% by 2030. These numbers indicate irreversible de-growth in the economy, and are markedly worse than those faced by significant competitors – by 2025, when British ECoE is projected to hit 12%, that of the United States is likely to be 10.8%, with France at 8.9%, resource-deficient Japan at 12.5%, and the world average at 9.6%.
When adverse trends in ECoE are set against essentially stagnant output as measured by C-GDP, the aggregate prosperity of the United Kingdom is actually slightly lower now (at £1.47tn) than it was back in 2003 (£1.48tn).
Over that same period, though, the population has increased by 11.4%, from 59.6 million to 66.4 million. Taken together, these figures explain why the average person is 10.8% worse off now (£22,191) than he or she was fifteen years ago (at 2018 values, £24,832).
Rises in taxes have exacerbated this deterioration, with a £2,673 fall in prosperity compounded by a £2,240 (24%) increase in taxation per person. Accordingly, discretionary (‘left in your pocket’) prosperity is £4,913 (32%) lower now (£10,432) than it was in 2003 (£15,345). This isn’t as bad as what has happened in France (-40% over the same period), but the French experience is extreme, and Britain is not far behind in the league-table of impaired prosperity.
Where pre-tax prosperity is concerned, British citizens have suffered more than most over an extended period (see fig. 4). The outlook is for further erosion of prosperity, making the average person 15% worse off by 2024 than he or she was in 2003.
This continuing deterioration in prosperity poses a huge policy problem for decision-makers and opinion-influencers, few (if any) of whom even understand what is really happening to the economy.
Risk and response
If you were to put the foregoing points either to decision-makers or to practitioners of ‘conventional’ economics, the probable reactions would be denial and disbelief.
Additionally, you’d probably be told that the national balance sheet shows net assets at an all-time high of £10.4tn, which sounds impressive – until you realise that 83% of this (£8.6tn) consists of land and buildings, whose nominal values have been inflated by ultra-low interest rates, and which cannot be monetised because the only people to whom they could ever be sold are the same people to whom they already belong.
In fact, corroboration of the cautionary conclusions of the SEEDS analysis of the United Kingdom is particularly easy to find. In recent years, the British economy has been characterised by real and worsening hardship, evident in homelessness, the millions ‘just about managing’, highly elevated levels of household debt, rising recourse to food banks and a dearth of well-paid job opportunities and affordable accommodation for the young. High-profile corporate failures in the retailing and leisure sectors attest to the severe downwards pressure on consumers’ discretionary prosperity.
When calibration is switched from credit-inflated GDP to underlying prosperity, the true extent of financial risk becomes apparent. The debt ratio rises from 263% of GDP to 370% of prosperity, and even this excludes off-balance-sheet “quasi-debts” such as unfunded public sector pension commitments. Worse still, financial exposure – measured as the ratio of financial assets to income – rises from an already-dangerous 1300% of GDP to a frightening 1870% on a prosperity basis.
The sharp fall in prosperity has created significant acquiescence risk, meaning that public support for economic and financial policy initiatives can no longer be taken for granted. The decrease in discretionary prosperity over the past ten years hasn’t been as severe in Britain as in France (-29.3%), but, at -20.9% the United Kingdom ranks third out of the 30 countries modelled by SEEDS, just behind second-ranked Denmark (-23.4%), just ahead of the Netherlands (-20.7%) and Australia (-20.6%), and a long way ahead of Canada (-16.6%), Japan (-14.1%), Italy (-13.6%) and the United States (-12.9%).
This does not mean that Britain faces the imminent arrival of an equivalent of the French gilets jaunes movement, but it does help to explain both the result of the “Brexit” vote and the steadily worsening public disenchantment with the elites. It also means that any attempt to repeat the 2008 banking rescues would be likely to meet with huge popular opposition.
These considerations are set to recast the political agenda entirely, with economic and welfare issues coming to the fore, and non-economic subjects falling ever further down the public’s order of priorities. In the coming years it’s likely that popular demands for redistribution will increase to the point where any party not adopting this agenda will find scant electoral support.
Meanwhile, and despite growing. political pressure for the imposition of much higher taxes on the wealthiest, it should be assumed that the tax base will start to shrink. Tax may account for ‘only’ 37.6% of British GDP, but it already takes a 53% bite out of the prosperity of the average person, up from 44% back in 2008. Any promises based on “tax and spend” are losing credibility, which might be one reason why both major parties are now promoting policies predicated, not on higher taxation, but on sizeable increases in government debt.
The reality, though, is likely to be a growing need for the prioritising of public services, emphasising those services deemed to be essential whilst withdrawing from activities of lesser importance.
The big question from here is whether the elites recognise deteriorating prosperity and act on its implications, or try to ‘tough it out’ and wait for an economic ‘recovery’ that isn’t going to happen.
There are ways of managing a society in economic de-growth, but the first imperatives – a recognition that this is what’s happening, and a preparedness for debate on the issue – still seem as far away as ever.