THE CORONAVIRUS AS DRESS REHEARSAL
As recently as January, the word coronavirus would have conveyed no meaning to the vast majority of the general public, whilst outside China very few, other than geographers, would ever have heard of Wuhan. All this has changed, of course, since the pandemic spread around the world in the early months of 2020.
Those of us who understand the economy as an energy system, and those people who are most concerned about environmental risk, had no reason to be any more prescient about this than anybody else.
Almost nobody saw this coming.
But energy and environmental understanding does serve to cast the current crisis into a very different light.
In short, and unless you believe in perpetual growth, the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the main event. That ‘main event’ is the onset of “de-growth”. One of the most interesting aspects of the pandemic is the light that it sheds on our ability – or, in a disturbing number of cases, our inability – to cope with fundamental change.
The energy economics perspective puts our situation into long-term context. Simply stated, the modern world was created when, in the late 1700s, the invention of the first efficient heat-engines enabled us to access the vast energy resources contained in coal, oil and natural gas. Population numbers, and the economic means of their support, have expanded exponentially since we ceased to depend entirely on the energy of food and the labour of humans and animals. This relationship, illustrated below, surely demonstrates, beyond dispute, the relationship between energy use and the quantum of population and economic activity.
Whether or not this relationship is understood defines the differences between two schools of thought.
For the majority of those who comment on these things, and who influence commercial and policy decisions, the economy is an entirely monetary system. Since we can create money at will, this means that there need be no limit to the scale of our economic activity (and the numbers of people which that activity sustains).
For a minority of us, though, the finite nature of the Earth and its resources implies an eventual cessation of economic and population growth. Some think that environmental considerations put limits to the scope for ‘carrying on as we are’. Others, recognising that low-cost energy is a finite resource, observe that the energy cost of energy (ECoE) is now rising in a way that is putting an end to “growth”, however much we might try to fake continuity by pouring cheap credit and cheaper money into the system.
In recent weeks, the main effort here has been to quantify, so far as is possible, the potential impact of the coronavirus crisis on economic activity and the financial system.
The detailed conclusions of these studies would probably give you far more information than you need or want to know, though the outlook for sixteen advanced economies, fourteen EM countries and the global average is illustrated here:
The bottom line is that economic activity – and the prosperity of the average person around the world – are going to be savaged by the coronavirus crisis, and that any subsequent recovery is going to be painfully slow, and incomplete. It’s by no means clear that a financial system wholly predicated on perpetual growth can survive this severe check to continuity.
This much is probably common ground with the ‘conventional’ interpretation. The difference is that, from an energy or an environmental perspective, the pandemic crisis isn’t a stand-alone incident.
It’s the first instalment of “de-growth”.
Rational responses to risk?
Members of the medical profession provide an excellent service in diagnosing our ailments and, when appropriate, prescribing treatment, but few of us would expect or want them to give economic advice. Simple courtesy suggests that we should reciprocate, confining ourselves here to economic and related issues, and leaving health matters to the experts.
It’s interesting, though, that there seems to have emerged an open rift between the British authorities and some, at least, of the experts advising them on coronavirus policy. Simply put, and with new infections continuing at a daily rate of about 8,000, some scientists think that the government is exercising insufficient caution as it lifts lockdown restrictions. It’s probable that similar debates are taking place elsewhere, though few countries seem to be as deeply enmeshed in the pandemic, or to be handling it quite as ineptly, as Britain and the United States.
Scientific interpretation is best left to the experts, and governments have other (including economic) considerations to weigh in the balance. From a lay-person’s point of view, the issue seems to be whether or not relaxation of restrictions risks triggering a serious “second wave” of infections, which could in turn force a return to lockdowns.
The operative term here is “risk”. We cannot accurately calibrate the probability of a second wave, but we can reach a pretty effective estimation of the consequences should it happen.
The subsidiary question is whether there are “right” and “wrong” – “prudent” or “irresponsible” – ways of emerging from lockdown.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the economic implications of a second wave. China aside, the coronavirus struck most countries’ economies in late March, so first quarter output was only reduced by about 3-5%. In a second quarter wholly overshadowed by the pandemic, activity is likely to have fallen by between 40% and 50%.
A cautious, incremental approach might see this year-on-year gap narrowed to perhaps -30% by the fourth quarter, with something close to normality being restored by the end of 2021. This might only be “close to” normal, because there are some sectors which it would be imprudent to reopen until the virus risk is very largely behind us.
Unduly rapid exit, on the other hand, risks triggering a second wave of infections, at which point economies would be forced back into lockdown.
Any ‘lockdown 2.0’ would be far worse than the original one. It would probably have to last a lot longer than the first version. As well as forcing economic activity sharply back downwards, this would strip people of much of the hope that has sustained them through the period of restriction. It would throw government and commercial planning into disarray, and would risk both severing supply lines and triggering a full-blown financial crash.
Any recovery thereafter would be very gradual indeed, and might take too long to avoid permanent, perhaps even existential, economic and financial damage.
Issues of responsibility
It cannot be emphasised too strongly that no encroachment on the preserves of the medics is intended here. The world already has more than enough ‘instant experts’ on the coronavirus, and certainly doesn’t need any more.
The aim is simply to examine the possible economic consequences of allowing the system to risk being hit by a second wave of infections. The implication, though, is that purely economic probabilities favour caution.
Of course, it can be objected – and quite correctly – that official consideration needs to be given to matters that are neither medical nor economic. Lockdowns restrict freedoms, are stressful, and have extremely painful human consequences, including physical (though not, strictly speaking, social) isolation from relatives and friends. Nobody wants to stay in lockdown any longer than is necessary.
This doesn’t mean, though, that exit strategies can’t be prudent, and nuanced to remove the worst human and economic consequences whilst also minimising the risk of a second wave. It seems logical that the authorities could decide what should, and what should not, be reopened, on the combined basis of importance, and of comparative safety. If people can work, or meet, at safe distances, there seems no reason for stopping them from doing so. Cramming people onto beaches or into aircraft seems far less advisable.
This discussion has probably reached – or passed – the point at which some readers riposte that the coronavirus ‘is no worse than flu’, ‘only affects the elderly’ and ‘leaves no lasting health impairments’ (though each of these points seems unproven). Others might reference ‘herd immunity’ (although, even in badly-hit England, official survey data indicates that only 6.78% of the public have antibodies).
These are opinions, to which anyone is entitled. But the problem with such arguments is that none of us makes decisions for himself or herself alone. We might, as individuals, think that risk is low, so we’re relaxed about crowded spaces, and pay little attention to precautionary guidelines. It can be argued that we have a right to make that choice, always presupposing that we accept the risk that we might be wrong.
But the risks of such decisions are not confined to those who take them. During the Second World War, night-time blackouts were imposed, to make it harder for enemy bombers to find their targets. This would have been pointless if even a small minority, disagreeing with the blackout policy, had kept their homes lit up like Christmas trees.
At issue here is collective responsibility, and the question of adhering to rules with which we, as individuals, might disagree.
The intelligence factor
The merits or demerits of rapid or cautious “exit strategies” from lockdown are not intended to be the main focus of discussion here.
Rather, the issue of greatest significance is the way in which, collectively, we have responded to this ‘dress rehearsal’ for de-growth.
The view expressed here is that de-growth has become very probable indeed. For purposes of explanation – and with a new downloadable summary of surplus energy economics in preparation – it might suffice to note that all economic activity is a function of energy, and that the energy cost of energy (ECoE) determines how much of any accessed energy is consumed in the access process, and how much remains for all economic purposes other than the supply of energy itself. Needless to say, no tinkering with the financial system of ‘claims’ on economic output can change the fundamental energy (not financial) dynamic which determines our prosperity.
Analysis of these trends indicates that de-growth had already started, well before the economy was hit by the pandemic. During 2018-19, sales of everything from cars and smartphones to chips and components had turned down. Unmistakable signs of stress were already starting to appear right across the financial system.
The arrival of de-growth finds us with a financial system that has been rendered unnecessarily fragile by futile efforts to counter “secular stagnation” – and, latterly, de-growth – with monetary gimmickry. Not content with allowing escalating debt to create cosmetic activity and “growth”, the authorities had already resorted to monetary policies which, as well as paying people and businesses to borrow, had destroyed returns on invested capital, with particularly adverse consequences for pensions. The following charts illustrate the extent of financial exposure.
You can take your pick between escalating ECoEs and worsening environmental risk as the primary drivers, but the onset of de-growth looks inescapable.
This, simply put, poses a challenge unprecedented since the start of the Industrial Age. There have always been recessions, of course, and depressions have occurred at longer intervals. But these events, however severe, have never amounted to a permanent cessation and reversal of economic growth.
Another way to state the case is that de-growth has put an end to ‘business as usual’. Have we the intelligence, individually and collectively, to adapt to this drastic change? Moreover, do our societies and our institutions have the systemic intelligence to respond rationally?
This isn’t the place to revisit what de-growth is likely to mean, but we can expect fundamental change in economic, political and other areas. Economically, products and services are likely to be simplified, with the same happening to supply processes (as part of a wider trend towards unwinding the complexity created during more than two centuries of growth). Whole sub-sectors are likely to be de-layered out of existence. Any culture in which people derive their sense of self-worth from material affluence is likely to be undermined. Current distributions of income and wealth might not be tenable in a shrinking economy.
It remains to be discovered whether we have the intelligence (which is not the same thing as cleverness) to adapt ourselves to such fundamental changes.
Seen as a dress rehearsal for de-growth, the coronavirus crisis gives us scant reason to trust that “it’ll be alright on the night”.