#193. Nothing for money


In the light of recent events, it’s hardly surprising that financial collapse has become an increasingly popular subject of debate.

There seems to be a dawning awareness that the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has loaded the system for inflation, because the support given to incomes has boosted demand at a time when the supply of goods and services has slumped. Meanwhile, markets in general – and Wall Street in particular – have taken on some truly bizarre characteristics, suggestive, perhaps, of the frenzied dying days of a bull market.

Those of us who understand the economy as an energy system have long known that an event far larger than the global financial crisis (GFC) is inescapable. Indeed, ‘GFC II’ was hard-wired into the system from the moment when the authorities decided to prevent market forces working through to their logical conclusions.  

If markets had been left to their own devices back in 2008-09, what would – and arguably should – have happened was that those who had taken on excessive risk would have paid the price in widespread defaults, whilst asset prices would have corrected back to levels preceding the debt binge which had started a decade before the GFC.

It’s ironic that we hear so much talk of “re-set” nowadays, even though the only real opportunity for resetting the financial system came – and went – more than ten years ago. Promises of a post-pandemic reset are proof – if proof were needed – that ‘hype springs eternal’.  

Properly understood, all that covid-19 has really done is to accelerate our advance along a pre-determined road to crisis.

There are two big differences between the coming crisis and its predecessor.  First, whilst 2008-09 was caused by reckless credit expansion, the coming crash will be a product of far more dangerous monetary adventurism. Second, a crisis previously confined largely to the banking sector will this time extend to the validity of money itself.

The best way to understand the looming crisis is to recognise that the financial system, and the economy itself, are distinct (though related) entities. The ‘real’ or material economy of goods and services is a product of the use of energy. The financial system acts as a proxy for the energy economy, and consists of monetary ‘claims’ on the economic output of today and tomorrow.

If finance and the economy diverge, so that a gap is created between the two, the restoration of equilibrium must involve the destruction of the ‘value’ represented by ‘excess claims’.

Our current predicament is that there now exists, not so much a gap, as a chasm between the material economy and the financial system. The emergence and scale of this chasm can best be depicted as a series of “wedges” that have been inserted between financial claims and underlying economic prosperity.

The debt wedge

The best place to start is with debt, which customarily – though mistakenly – is measured by reference to GDP.

Between 1999 and 2019, world GDP increased by 95%. Expressed in constant international dollars (converted from other currencies on the PPP – purchasing power parity – convention), this means that GDP grew by $66 trillion.

Over the same period, though, debt expanded by 177%, or $197tn. Put another way, this means that each dollar of reported “growth” was accompanied by $3 of net new borrowing.   

As the first set of charts illustrates, what happened was that a “wedge” was inserted between debt and GDP.

This was a product of deliberate policy. The predominant belief, back in the 1990s, was that economic growth could be furthered by “de-regulation”, which included relaxing rules that, hitherto, had limited the rate at which debt could expand.

At the same time, the process of globalisation created its own pressures for credit expansion. Essentially, the aim was to out-source production to lower-cost EM (emerging market) economies whilst maintaining (and preferably increasing) Western consumption.

This divergence between production and consumption created a gap that could only be bridged by making credit ever easier to obtain.  

An even more important factor then in play was an economic deceleration known as “secular stagnation”. The real reason for this deceleration was a relentless rise in the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE). But this causation wasn’t understood. Instead, policymakers thought that the hard-to-explain deterioration in economic growth could be ‘fixed’ by making credit easier to obtain.

This in turn meant that monetary stimulus, hitherto used for the perfectly reasonable purpose of smoothing out economic cycles, would now become a permanent feature of economic policy.

It seems to have been assumed that excessive debt was something that the economy could somehow “grow out of”, much as youngsters grow out of childhood ailments.     

Financialization – the second wedge

Debt is only one component of financial commitments. There are many other forms of monetary obligation, even without moving into the realms of assumed (rather than formal) commitments such as pensions expectations.

A broader measure, that of financial assets, gives us a better grasp of the extent to which the economy has been financialized. For the most part, these “assets” are the counterparts of liabilities elsewhere in the system, much as banking sector “assets” correspond to the liabilities of borrowers.

Financial assets data isn’t available for all economies, but the right-hand chart below shows the aggregates for twenty-three countries which, between them, account for three-quarters of the world economy. 

What this illustrates is that the “wedge” inserted between debt and GDP is part of a much bigger wedge that has been driven between the financial system itself and the economy.

Comparing 2019 with 2002 (the earliest year for which the data is available), the financial assets of these 23 countries increased by 158%, or $275tn, whilst their aggregated GDPs grew by only $44tn, or 77%.

On this basis, financial assets increased by $6.20 for each dollar of reported “growth”.

It’s a simplification, but a reasonable one, to say that, for these economies, each dollar of growth between 2002 and 2019 was accompanied, not just by net new debt of $2.70, but by a further $3.50 of additional financial commitments. 

What this really means, in layman’s terms, is that debt escalation has been accompanied by a broader – and faster – financialization of the economy. Essentially, ever more of the activity recorded as economic ‘output’ is really nothing more than moving money around.

This is represented in the aggregates by relentless increases in the scale of interconnected assets and liabilities.

The risk, of course, is that failure in one part of the financialised system triggers a cascade of failures throughout the structure.    

The third wedge – the ‘let’s pretend’ economy

By convention, both debt and broader financial commitments are measured against GDP. This would be reasonable if GDP was an accurate representation of the ability of the economy to carry these burdens.

Unfortunately, it is not.

Over the period between 1999 and 2019, trend GDP “growth” of 3.2% was a function of annual borrowing which averaged 9.6% of GDP. The mechanism is that we pour credit into the economy, count the spending of this money as economic “activity”, and tell ourselves that we can ‘grow out of’ our escalating debt burden.

As well as funding purchases of goods and services which could not have been afforded without it, relentless credit expansion also inflates the prices of assets, and this in turn inflates the apparent ‘value’ of all asset-related activities.

The SEEDS economic model strips out this credit effect, a process which reveals that underlying growth in the world economy averaged just 1.4% – rather than 3.2% – between 1999 and 2019. Accordingly, underlying or ‘clean’ output – which SEEDS calls ‘C-GDP’- is now very far below reported GDP. If net credit expansion were to cease, rates of “growth” would fall to barely 1%, and even that baseline rate is eroding. If we were, for any reason, to try to reduce aggregate debt, GDP would fall back towards the much lower level of C-GDP.

Neither is credit-injection the only major distortion in the story that we tell ourselves about economic output. More important still, ECoE – in its role as a prior call on output – is continuing to rise. Incorporating ECoE into the equation reveals that prosperity has stopped growing, whilst the number of people between whom aggregate prosperity is shared is continuing to increase.

In essence, this means that the world’s average person is getting poorer. This happened in most Western countries well before the GFC, and the EM economies have now reached their equivalent point of deterioration.

What began as “secular stagnation” has now become involuntary de-growth.  

We can’t make this hard reality go away by pouring ever more and ever cheaper liquidity into the system. All that monetary loosening really does is to create financial ‘claims’ that the economy cannot meet.

The combined effects of credit manipulation and rising ECoEs form the third wedge – the one that divides economic reality from comforting self-delusion.    


The fourth wedge – the quantum of instability

With the reality of flat-lining output and deteriorating prosperity understood, all that remains is to use this knowledge to recalibrate the relationship between a faltering economy and an escalating burden of financial obligations.

Even the ‘fourth wedge’, pictured below, excludes assumed (though not guaranteed) commitments, of which by far the largest is the provision of pensions.

The final set of charts compares debt and broader financial commitments with underlying prosperity. These charts reveal the drastic widening of the chasm between prosperity and the forward promises that the prosperity of the future is supposed to be able to meet. In SEEDS parlance, we are confronted by a massive crisis of ‘excess claims’ on the economy.

With these equations laid bare, we are entitled to wonder whether decision-makers are in blissful ignorance of this reality, or whether they have at least an inkling of what’s really happening and are simply nursing Micawber-like hopes that ‘something will turn up’. Based on the 2008-09 precedent, we can be pretty sure that the “soft default’ of inflation will play a starring role in the coming drama.  

The question of ‘how much do they know?’ must be left to readers to decide. The same applies to quite how soon you think this situation is going to unravel, and whether you want to label what’s coming as a ‘crisis’ or a ‘collapse’.  

#192. The Great Dilemma


Governments in general – and finance ministries in particular – face a tricky dilemma.

Simply stated, the dilemma runs like this. If governments don’t keep pouring liquidity into the economy, activity will slump, numerous businesses will collapse and voters will face extreme hardship.

But if they do carry on with gargantuan financial largesse they risk, not just a surge in inflation but, quite possibly, an associated rise in interest rates.

The only practicable line for finance ministers (and central bankers) to try to walk is a “Goldilocks” one, avoiding the extremes both of an overheating financial system and of an excessive cooling of the economy.

The theory is that, if they can tread this course adroitly, economies will enjoy the benefits of a return to growth, with inflation in due course falling back into a preferred range somewhere between 1% and 2%. If achieved, this would amount to a return to what was, in the 1990s, sometimes called “the great moderation”, describing a combination of solid growth and subdued inflation.

If conventional, ‘money-only’ economic interpretations were valid, it might just about be possible for them to walk this line – in reality more like a tightrope – and find solid ground on the other side of the crevasse opened up by the coronavirus crisis.

But energy-based interpretation reveals that no such solid ground exists. Rather, something not unlike stagflation has long been hard-wired into the system. Whilst global GDP expanded at a trend rate of 3.4% between 1999 and 2019, growth in underlying prosperity trended at only 1.25%, and has now ceased to grow at all. This disparity of itself suggests that broad inflation has long been far higher than reported levels. 

None of this should really come as too much of a surprise. After all, pouring cheap credit and cheaper money into the system has been going on for more than twenty-five years, and energy-referenced analysis, as provided by the SEEDS model, reveals that this has done no more than disguise the reality that relentless rises in ECoEs (the Energy Costs of Energy) have put prior growth in material prosperity into reverse.

The aim here is to start by explaining the fiscal and monetary dilemma as it appears on the surface before moving on to use SEEDS analysis to explain why the problems are in fact both structural and insurmountable. In doing so, we need to refer to market expectations, which makes it appropriate to remind readers that this site does not provide investment advice, and must not be used for this purpose     

Loaded for inflation

We should be clear that the balance right now is heavily tilted towards inflation. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, governments have been able to replace the incomes but not the output of idled workers and businesses.

This amounts to supporting demand at a time of extreme contraction in supply.

This is why we’re already seeing inflation spiking in a number of categories, affecting anything that might be in short supply during a vaccine-driven economic rebound. We can infer that official expectations are that this is a transitional effect, likely to ease as capacity is restored, and demand-side stimulus fades. Be that as it may, significant inflationary pressures are showing up across the board.

This perception may have influenced asset market participants, who have bought in to the “Goldilocks” plan but with a distinct bias towards the inflationary side of the equation.

If investors were to factor higher inflation into their calculations, we would expect them to favour those asset classes (such as equities and property) which could be counted on to – at the least – ride the rising inflationary tide. They would steer clear of cash, and be wary of bonds, because, in an inflationary climate, interest rates might rise enough to drive bond yields upwards (though not by enough to make cash a viable preference). They might look favourably on assets such as cryptocurrencies and precious metals which could be perceived as hedges against inflation.  

This, by and large, is what has been happening. Markets, it seems, are expecting policymakers to ‘talk hard and act soft’, combining hawkish homilies about debt and inflation with a continuation of generous support for households and businesses.

This stance echoes the prayer of St. Augustine, who called on the deity to make him virtuous – “but not yet”.

Furthermore, investors, no less than the authorities, must be aware of the delayed price-tags attached to some of governments’ covid response initiatives. For instance, granting interest and rent “holidays” has inflicted substantial losses on counterparties such as lenders and landlords, and these costs must in due course be made good, unless we’re prepared to accept failures in counterparty sectors.

We should, then, anticipate some virtue-signalling tax rises which, in sum, amount to little more than small down-payments on the enormous costs of combating the pandemic.  Not for nothing has inflation been called “the hard drug of the capitalist system” – it offers a beguiling short-term alternative to painful and unpopular adjustment to economic stresses.

The energy point meets the expectation bubble

Guided by conventional interpretation – whose faith in ‘perpetual growth’ is, as yet, unshaken by events or anomalies – governments and investors alike believe that there exists a ‘promised land’ which, if we can once reach it, combines real growth of at least 3% with inflation of less than 2%.

The fatal error on which this supposed nirvana is based is the belief that economics is nothing more than ‘the study of money’, such that energy and broader resource limits to material prosperity do not exist.

The reality, of course, is that everything (including other natural resources) which constitutes economic output is a product of the use of energy, whilst money is nothing more than a medium for the exchange of energy-enabled economic goods and services. The fly in this ointment isn’t that we might ‘run out of’ any form of primary energy, but that energy supply costs (measured as ECoEs) might undermine the dynamic by which energy is translated into economic value. 

As regular readers know, the undermining of this energy dynamic is exactly what we’ve been experiencing over a protracted period. Global trend ECoE has risen from 2.6% in 1990 to 9.2% now. Along the way, this pushed prior prosperity growth in the advanced economies of the West into reverse from 2006 (at an ECoE of 5.7%), and is now doing the same to less complex, less ECoE-sensitive EM countries. There’s a whole raft of flaws in the thesis that we can transition, seamlessly and painlessly, from increasingly costly (and climate-harming) fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy.   

The weakening energy dynamic is precisely why, globally, we’ve spent two decades borrowing $3 in order to deliver $1 of “growth”, and why the ratio of borrowing to GDP has averaged 9.6% to support “growth” of just over 3%.

We’re at the point now where, if they wish to sustain a simulacrum of ‘growth as usual’, the authorities will find it necessary to pour ever-increasing amounts of liquidity into the system. In so doing, they will be creating financial ‘claims’ on economic output that the economy of the future will be unable to meet at value.

At the point at which the ‘real’ economy of energy can no longer support even the illusory sustainability of the ‘financial’ economy of money and credit, the value supposedly contained in these financial “excess claims” will have to be destroyed. Whilst “hard” defaults cannot be ruled out, the balance of probability favours the “soft” default of rampant inflation.

Optimistic investors might, if they were aware of this, think that ‘real’ assets, like equities and property, can still maintain their real value by rising by at least as rapidly as inflation destroys the purchasing power of money.

This, though, is to ignore the effects of the involuntary de-growth induced by the decay of the energy dynamic. As prosperity recedes, consumers will be forced to choose between sinking into a quagmire of debt or adapting to the rising real cost of necessities by cutting back on discretionary purchases.

Whole sectors will suffer utilization rate erosion as prior gains from economies of scale go into reverse. De-complexification of the system will strip some sectors of critical mass, whilst simplification of products and processes will de-layer entire sub-sectors out of existence. Even the Fed cannot sustain the stock prices of businesses whose profitability has ebbed away

It was once famously said that inflation is “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”. In our current situation, inflation is likelier to be a ‘denial phenomenon’, if we insist on trying, financially, to engineer “growth” when the critical energy equation is heading in the opposite direction.