#165. To catch a falling knife


Unless you’ve been in a dealing-room on Wall Street or in the City of London (or, as in my own case, in both) during a market crash, it’s almost impossible to imagine quite how febrile and frenetic the atmosphere becomes. Rumours flourish and wild theories proliferate, whilst facts are scarce. Analysts are expected to provide instant answers, perhaps on the principle that even an answer which turns out to be wrong is of more immediate use than no answer at all.

It’s a sobering thought that the only financial market participants with any prior crash experience at all are those who’ve been working there for at least twelve years – and even they may have been lulled into complacency by a decade and more in which the working assumption has been that, thanks to the omnipotence and the omniscience of central bankers, ‘stock prices only ever go up’.

This complacency, a dozen years in the making, is a resilient force, and showed signs of staging a come-back in the final trading minutes of a tumultuous week. The logic, if such it can be called, is that the Federal Reserve and the other major central banks will spend the weekend concocting a solution.

For once, this rumour is almost certainly founded in reality, and my strong hunch is that the central banks will have announced co-ordinated measures before the weekend is over. These measures are likely to include further rate cuts, a resumption of the Fed’s $400bn “not QE” programme that ended in December, and statements of intent by all of the central bankers. The likelihood of something along these lines, even if it achieves nothing of substance, will have raised expectations to fever pitch by the time that the markets reopen.

We should be in no doubt that this central bank intervention will be ultra-high-risk. For starters, there are plenty of reasons why it might not work. The Fed, for instance, cannot “print antibodies”, as someone remarked on the superb Wolf Street blog, in which Wolf Richter reminded us that “if you don’t want to get on a plane in order to avoid catching the virus, you’re not going to change your mind because T-bill yields dropped 50 basis points”.

Critically, if the central bankers try something and – beyond a brief “dead cat bounce” – it doesn’t work, then their collective credibility as supporters of equity markets will be shot to pieces, which would overturn market assumptions to such an extent that a correction could turn into a full-blown crash. Their only real chance of success will rest on persuading investors that whatever happens in the real economy has no relevance whatsoever for the markets.

My own preference would be for central bankers decide to do nothing, or, as they might express it themselves, ‘conserve their limited ammunition for a more apposite moment’. This, though, is a preference based almost wholly on hope rather than expectation. We might or might not over-estimate the powers of the central bankers, but we should never underestimate their capacity for getting things wrong.

The double dénouement      

From personal experience, analysts are pulled in two directions at once in circumstances like these. Whilst one part of you wants to provide the instant answers which everyone demands, the other wants to find a physically and mentally quiet space in which to think through the fundamentals. It’s fair to say that, at times like this, it’s enormously important to step back and produce a coldly objective interpretation.

Seen from this sort of ‘top-down’ perspective, current market turmoil is symptomatic of the uncertainty caused by the simultaneous ending of two eras, not one.

The first of these ‘ending eras’ is a chapter, four-decades long, that we might label ‘neoliberal’ or ‘globalist’.

The other, which we can trace right back to the invention of the first effective heat-engine in 1760, is the long age of growth powered by the enormous amount of energy contained in fossil fuels.

Whilst environmental issues are the catalyst bringing our attention to ‘the end of growth’, the Wuhan coronavirus is acting, similarly, to crystallise an understanding that ‘the chapter of globalist neoliberalism’, too, is drawing to a close.

The best way to understand and interpret these intersecting dénouements is to start with some principles, and then apply them to the narrative of how we got to where we are.

Here, with no apology for brief reiteration, are the three core principles of surplus energy economics.

First, the energy economy principle – all economic activity is a function of energy, since literally nothing of any economic utility whatsoever can be produced without it.

Second, the ECoE principle – whenever energy is accessed for our use, some of that energy is always consumed in the access process.

Third, the claim principle – having no intrinsic worth, money commands value only as a ‘claim’ on the output of the energy economy.

Together, these principles – previously described here as “the trilogy of the blindingly obvious” – provide the essential insights required if we’re to make sense of how the economy works, how it got to where it is now, and where it’s going to go in the future.

The ECoE trap

Critically, the energy cost component (known here as the Energy Cost of Energy, or ECoE) has been rising relentlessly since its nadir in the two decades after 1945. Since surplus energy, which is the quantity remaining after the deduction of ECoE, drives all economic activity other than the supply of energy itself, rising ECoEs necessarily compress the scope for prosperity.

The way in which we handle this situation in monetary terms determines the distribution of prosperity, and informs the economic narrative that we tell ourselves, but it doesn’t  – and can’t – change the fundamentals.

Where fossil fuels are concerned (and these still account for more than four-fifths of all energy supply), the factors determining trend ECoE are geographical reach, economies of scale, the effects of depletion and the application of technology.

These can usefully be expressed graphically as a parabola (see fig. 1). As you can see, the beneficial effects of geographical reach and economies of scale have long since been exhausted, making depletion the main driver of fossil fuel ECoEs. Technology, which hitherto accelerated the downwards trend, acts now as a mitigator of the rate at which ECoEs are rising. But we need to recognise that the scope for technology is bounded by the envelope of the physical properties of the primary resource.

Fig. 1

Fig. 4 parabola

Analysis undertaken using the Surplus Energy Economics Data System (SEEDS) indicates that, where the advanced economies of the West are concerned, prior growth in prosperity goes into reverse when ECoEs reach levels between 3.5% and 5.0%. Less complex emerging market (EM) economies are more ECoE-tolerant, and don’t encounter deteriorating prosperity until ECoEs are between 8% and 10%.

With these parameters understood, we’re in a position to interpret the true nature of the global economic predicament. The inflexion band of ECoEs for the West was reached between 1997 (when world trend ECoE reached 3.5%) and 2005 (5.0%). For EM countries, the lower bound of this inflexion range was reached in 2018 (7.9%), and it’s set to reach its upper limit of 10% in 2026-27, though prosperity in most EM countries is already at (or very close to) the point of reversal.

Desirable though their greater use undoubtedly is, renewable energy (RE) alternatives offer no ‘fix’ for the ECoE trap, since the best we can expect from them is likely to be ECoEs no lower than 10%. That’s better than where fossil fuels are heading, of course, but it remains far too high to reverse the trend towards “de-growth”.  In part, the limited scope for ECoE reduction reflects the essentially derivative nature of RE technologies, whose potential ECoEs are linked to those of fossil fuels by the role of the latter in supplying the resources required for the development of the former.

The energy-economic position is illustrated in fig. 2, in which American, Chinese and worldwide prosperity trends are plotted against trend ECoEs. Whilst the average American has been getting poorer for a long time, Chinese prosperity has reached its point of reversal and, globally, the ‘long plateau’ of prosperity has ended.

Fig. 2

Fig. 6a regional & world prosperity & ECoE

Response – going for broke

As well as explaining what we might call the ‘structural’ situation – where we are at the end of 250 years of growth powered by fossil fuels – the surplus energy interpretation also frames the context for the ending of a shorter chapter, that of ‘globalist neoliberalism’.

Regular readers will know (though they might not share) my view of this, which is that the combination of ‘neoliberalism’ with ‘globalization’ (in the form in which it has been pursued) has been a disaster.

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with spreading the benefits of economic development to emerging countries, this was never the aim of the ‘globalizers’. Rather, the process hinged around driving profitability by arbitraging the low production costs of the EM nations and the continuing purchasing power of Western consumers, the clear inference being that this purchasing power could only be sustained by an ever-expanding flow of credit.

The other, ‘neoliberal’ component of this axis was based on an extreme parody which presents the orderly and regulated market thesis as some kind of justification for a caveat emptor, rules-free, “law of the jungle” system which I’ve called “junglenomics”.

From where we are now, though, what we need is analysis, not condemnation. As we’ve seen from the foregoing energy-based overview of the economy, ‘neoliberalism’ was as much an inevitable reaction to circumstances as it was a malign and mistaken theory.

Essentially, and for reasons which energy-based interpretation can alone make clear, a process of “secular stagnation” had set in by the late 1990s, as the Western economies moved ever nearer to ECoE-induced barriers to further growth. At this juncture, policymakers were compelled to do something because, just as never-ending growth is demanded by voters, the very viability of the financial system is wholly predicated on perpetual growth. The contemporary penchant for ‘globalist neoliberalism’ simply determined the form that this intervention would take.

Since our interest here is in the present and the immediate future rather than the past, we can merely observe that, after the failure of ‘credit adventurism’ culminated in the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), the subsequent adoption of ‘monetary adventurism’ simply upped the stakes in a gamble that couldn’t work. What this in turn means is that the probability of truly gargantuan value destruction is poised, like Damocles’ sword, over the financial system. If it hadn’t been the Wuhan coronavirus which acted as a catalyst, it would have been something else.

Conclusions and context

As we await the next twists in some gripping economic and financial dramas, it’s well worth reminding ourselves that stock markets, and the economy itself, are very different things. High equity indices are not hall-marks of a thriving economy, least of all at a time when market processes have been hijacked by monetary intervention.

In so far as there’s an economic case for propping up markets, that case rests on something economists call the “wealth effect”. What this means is that, whilst stock prices remain high, the accompanying optimistic psychology makes people relaxed about taking on more credit. The inverse of this is that, if prices slump, the propensity to borrow and spend can be expected to fall sharply.

The snag with this is straightforward – unless you believe that debt can expand to infinity, perpetual expansion in credit is a very dubious (and time-limited) plan on which to base economic policy. If the central banks do succeed in reversing recent market falls, the only real consequence is likely to be a deferral, to a not-much-later date, of the impact of the forces of disequilibrium which must, in due course, redress some of the enormous imbalances between asset prices, on the one hand, and, on the other, all forms of income.

Ultimately, we don’t yet know how serious and protracted the economic consequences of the coronavirus will turn out to be. My belief is that these consequences are still being under-estimated, even if, as we all hope, the virus itself falls well short of worst-case scenarios. It’s hard to see how, for example, Chinese companies can carry on paying workers, and servicing their debts, with so much of the volume-driven Chinese economy in lock-down.

Within the broader context, which includes environmental considerations in addition to the onset of “de-growth” in prosperity, we may well have reached ‘peak travel’, which alone would have profound consequences. Other parts of the financial system – most of which are far more important than equity markets – seem poised for a cascade. If it isn’t ‘Wuhan, and now’, the likelihood is that it will be ‘something else, and soon’.

#164. A bolt from the grey


Where the purely biological prognosis for the Wuhan coronavirus is concerned, there’s at least a ton of speculation for every pinch of fact, and there would be no merit at all in adding to that speculation here. One of the few things that can be said about this with any confidence at all is that somehow, sometime, the epidemic will end.

The expectation then will be that, in the purely economic and financial spheres, what the economic and financial consensus likes to call “normality” will be restored.

As people and businesses go back to work, as the flow of goods and services resumes, and as ravaged supply lines are repaired, the economy will be expected to stage a full recovery. People wary of travelling will, we’ll be told, start boarding aircraft again, and even the cruise liner industry might start to shrug off the tag of “floating petri-dishes”.

Capital markets, too, will be expected to bounce back, even if takes a long time to restore them to their full pomp, hubris and folly. Investors will be expected to go back to wasting their money propping up “cash-burners” again, and queueing up to get a piece of the latest moonbeam IPO.

But the reality, from a surplus energy perspective, is that this definition of “normality” is highly unlikely to be restored. In economic terms, the relentless rise in the energy cost of energy (ECoE) had already started making people poorer, long before the name ‘Wuhan’ had any connotation beyond the geographical.

It cannot be stressed too strongly that global trade in goods had already turned down, as had sales of everything from cars and smartphones to chips and components. Financial stresses had already become severe, and investors had already started to view cash-burning and over-hyped sectors with new caution.

Nasty though it is in purely human terms, and real though its economically disruptive effects undoubtedly are, the coronavirus didn’t strike out of cloudless economic skies.

Rather, it’s been a bolt from the grey.

It’s too soon to say whether the epidemic will act as a catalyst for a full-blown financial crash but, if it does, the authorities will have tough decisions to make, and we can only hope that the disastrous mistakes made during the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) will not be repeated.

In the sound and fury of that crisis, the imbecility of ‘monetary adventurism’ was piled on top of the prior folly of ‘credit adventurism’. The blithe assumption was made that, left to its own devices – and, of course, bailed out by taxpayers from the consequences of its previous failures – ‘de-regulated’ finance could get back to driving economic progress.

Back in 2008, the ‘global’ crisis was presented as something that somehow had happened out of the blue, without human agency, and that ‘nobody could have known’ that a credit-driven bubble was going to end in a bust. The reality, though, was that we’d been using $2 of new debt to buy each $1 of highly dubious “growth”.

Since then, and whilst reported “growth” has become even more cosmetic and insubstantial, the debt cost of each dollar of it has risen to over $3. Along the way, the worsening imbalance between asset prices, on the one hand, and all forms of income, on the other, has inflicted enormous damage. This imbalance has blown huge holes in pension and other saving provision, has prevented the proper functioning of markets in pricing risk, has stripped the economy of “creative destruction” and has saddled us with far too much of the speculative and the outright exploitative.

Siren voices to the contrary, spending borrowed money has never been a cure-all for a process of “secular stagnation” driven by a structural deterioration in an economy in which the prior spurt in prosperity delivered by fossil fuels was coming to an end, and had started to go into reverse.

Nobody would envy the choices that are going to imposed on governments and central banks if – or, to be realistic about it, when – the 2008 crisis is repeated, but this time in the much larger and more menacing shape that has always been a virtual inevitability.

But the analogy that can most usefully be made here might be one which compares 1945 with 1918. After the first “war to end all wars”, the rallying-cry was “business as usual”, but no equivalent delusion could persuade the people of 1945 that there were merits in re-creating the inter-war world, be it the financial the excesses of the 1920s or the mass misery of the Great Depression.

This time, a similar catharsis might – just might – persuade us to start taking a realistic view of the economy, not as a monetary construct capable of perpetual growth through financial manipulation, but as an energy system whose prior ability to make us more prosperous has gone into reverse.