PUTTING IT TOGETHER – HOUSEHOLDS AND THE FINANCIAL SYSTEM
In the previous article, we sought out a logical and evidential alternative to the continuity assumption that the economy can shrug off resource and environmental limitations in order to grow in perpetuity.
We demonstrated that the economy is an energy system – not a financial one – and that the fossil fuel dynamic on which the vast and complex economy of modern times was built is fading away, with no fully sufficient alternative in sight. The equation which calibrates prosperity in terms of energy use, value and cost has become a constrained equation, the constraints being (a) the relentless rise in the ECoEs of fossil fuels, and (b) the limits of environmental tolerance.
This does not, of itself, vindicate collapse theories, but it does mean that the world is getting poorer. The downturn in prosperity per person was preceded by a long period of deceleration, first identified (though not explained) in the 1990s, when it was labelled “secular stagnation”. Much of our economic experience in the intervening quarter-century has been characterized by failed efforts to use financial policies to ‘fix’ an economic problem which is not financial in nature, and thus cannot be countered using credit or monetary adventurism.
The onset of involuntary “de-growth” has profound implications for the four components of the economy which we can categorize as the household, business, government and financial sectors. Of these, the most important – and the easiest to project into the future using the SEEDS model – is the household sector. Simply stated, the average person will get poorer, on a continuing rather than a temporary basis, and his or her discretionary prosperity will be eroded by relentless rises in the real cost of essentials. At the same time, he or she enters this era with uncomfortably elevated levels of debt and quasi-debt commitments.
Through its effects on households as consumers, producers, savers, borrowers and voters, this process will shape the future development of the financial system, business and government.
The faith mistakenly placed in the ‘perpetual growth’ assumption has been strong enough to ensure that there has, thus far, been little awareness of, and even less planning for, the downtrend in global prosperity. Decision-makers in government, business and finance still seem to think that we can muddle through using denial, wishful thinking and a cocktail of things that Smith and Keynes didn’t actually say.
Financial – the high price of failed fixes
The immediate battleground for the conflict between continuity and reality is the financial system. Efforts to use financial policies to ‘fix’ the process of economic deceleration and decline have driven an enormous wedge between the ‘real’ economy of goods and services and the ‘financial’ economy of money and credit. Between 2000 and 2020, each dollar of reported “growth” was accompanied by more than $3 of net new debt creation and an increase of nearly $4 in broader financial commitments – and even these numbers exclude the emergence of enormous “gaps” in the adequacy of pension provision. Buying $1 of largely cosmetic “growth” with upwards of $7 of forward financial promises is not a sustainable way of managing an economy.
This has put the authorities between the Scylla of runaway inflation and the Charybdis of sharp rises in the cost of money. To be clear, finance ministries can run enormous fiscal deficits, and central banks can monetize the ensuing increases in debt, but neither can create the new sources of low-ECoE energy without which the economy must contract.
When we understand money as a claim on the output of the real economy, it becomes clear that the rampant creation of money and credit can only result in the accumulation of excess claims. These cannot, by definition, be met ‘at value’ by a contracting economy. This means that the value supposedly incorporated in these excess claims must be eliminated, either through the soft default of inflation or the hard default of repudiation.
The conundrum facing the authorities is simply stated. If they continue with negative real interest rates, which deter saving and encourage borrowing – and if they carry on believing that ever-larger injections of stimulus can somehow return the real economy to “growth” – they will drive the system into an inevitable process by which inflation destroys the purchasing power of money.
If, on the other hand, they decide to defend the value of money by raising rates into positive real territory, they will trigger slumps in the values of assets, and set a cascade of defaults running through the system.
The current policy is one of ‘hoping for the best’, assuring the public that the current spike in inflation is a “transitory” phenomenon caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
There are two main reasons for knowing that this explanation is false. First, ‘we’ve heard it all before’. The term “transitory” is the 2021 equivalent of the promise that the introduction of QE and ZIRP back in 2008-09 were “temporary” and “emergency” expedients. The more direct analogy is with the 1970s, when inflation was deemed a “temporary” problem, and governments even introduced the concept of “core” inflation, which excluded those very items (energy and food) whose prices were rising most dramatically at that time.
The second factor arguing against the “transitory” description of inflation is that soaring prices take on a momentum of their own. Rises in the cost of living prompt demands for higher wages, which in turn raise producer costs and push prices higher. To a significant extent, inflation is a product of expectation, a form of self-fulfilling prophecy that gives the authorities a rationale for understating what’s really happening in an effort to damp down public expectations. This, though, cannot work when consumers can see the prices of goods and services rising. This time around, the long-standing inflation in the prices of assets reinforces perceptions of inflation at the consumer level.
Where the inflationary issue is concerned, we need to be clear about causation. The chain of events began with a deterioration in the energy equation which determines prosperity. The authorities sought to counter this deterioration in ways which have led, with grim inevitability, to where we are now.
The policy of ‘credit adventurism’ – of making debt more readily available than at any time in the past – started a rise in asset prices, and created a surge in debt. When these trends crystalized in the 2008-09 GFC, the authorities responded with ‘monetary adventurism’, taking the real cost of money into negative territory.
This boosted asset prices still further, and created yet more debt, much of it channelled through the shadow banking system rather than through the more regulated channel of mainstream banking. Now we are in the grip of reckless stimulus, being carried out in the desperate hope that injecting ever more deficit finance, and persuading central banks to monetize most or all of it, will somehow reinvigorate the real economy (which it won’t), without triggering runaway inflation (which it will).
The outcome of the inflationary conundrum is likely to follow the pattern set in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. First, the authorities dismiss inflation as a passing phase, and refuse to raise rates to counter it. Latterly, they take a reluctant and belated decision to act, raising rates in a macho demonstration of resolve.
That’s when asset prices collapse, and a wave of defaults rips through the system.
Back in the 1980s, this process triggered a sharp recession, but this proved temporary, because ECoEs remained low, and the economy remained capable of growth.
Neither condition prevails today. ECoEs have risen from 1.8% in 1980 to 9.2% now. Recovery in the 1980s involved the restoration of positive trends which had driven prosperity steadily upwards between 1945 and the disruptive and inflationary first oil crisis of 1973-74. Today, by contrast, inflation risk comes in the context of a long period of economic deceleration which, in the West, segued into deterioration between 1997 and 2007.
The first set of charts illustrates the magnitude of financial imbalances, comparing debt – and broader financial assets, which include the shadow banking system – with reported GDP and underlying prosperity. Full financial assets data isn’t available for the global economy as a whole, so the left-hand chart illustrates a group of 23 countries for which numbers are available and which, between them, represent four-fifths of the World economy.
Households – leveraged hardship
In any case, the financial system faces challenges which are far broader than the comparatively straightforward (though daunting) choice between inflation and rises in rates. This is where trends in the critically-important household sector shape the outlook.
The average person in the West has been getting poorer over an extended period, though this reality has been masked by financial manipulation. Trends in prosperity, set against debt per capita, illustrate this situation as it has affected France, Britain and Canada (see fig. 2). Debt, it must be emphasised, has to be considered in the aggregate, including the government and business sectors, not just household indebtedness. Even these debt numbers exclude per capita shares both of broader financial assets and of off-balance-sheet commitments such as the underfunding of pensions.
In France, prosperity per person reached its zenith in 2000, since when the average person has become poorer by 8% (€2,540), whilst his or her share of debt has increased by 91% (€59,500). The inflexion-point in Britain occurred in 2004, since when prosperity has fallen by £4,600 (16%) whilst debt per person has increased by £23,800 (39%). The average Canadian has become 12% poorer, and 60% deeper in debt, since 2007.