#135: Still not (wholly) about “Brexit”

BRITAIN, EUROPE AND GFC II

A little less than two months ago, we made an effort here to look past the sound and fury of the “Brexit” debate to assess the real state of prosperity and risk in the United Kingdom.

Now, as the world marks the tenth anniversary of the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC I), it’s being reported that Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has warned government that “a chaotic no-deal Brexit could crash house prices and send another financial shock through the economy”.

Risks identified by Mr Carney apparently include a slump in the value of GBP, sharp rises in interest rates and a 35% fall in property prices. Whilst he is right about these risks – and right, too, to warn about the consequences of a mishandled “Brexit” – we need to reiterate that these risks are likely to eventuate anyway, because British prosperity is continuing to deteriorate, whilst financial risk remains highly elevated.

Some updates

As I’m off travelling for much of next week, what I’d like to do here is to pause, as it were, and posit a few things for thought and comment. “Brexit” risk, and the likelihood of GFC II, have to be high on that list.

First, though, I’d like to thank the first two followers of Surplus Energy Economics who’ve made donations towards the upkeep and development of the project. I’m new to the donation process, so I don’t know what the courtesies are for expressing gratitude – but I really do appreciate your support.

While I’m away, please do carry on posting your comments, but please also note that moderation is going to be intermittent for the next week or so. The best way to get comments posted is to leave out links, as any comment including them is automatically placed in the moderation queue.

On “Brexit”

Throughout the debate about Britain leaving the European Union, no view has been taken here about the merits and demerits of “Brexit” itself. There are, though, a number of points which do need to be made.

First, the debate about “Brexit” was extraordinarily nasty and divisive.

Second, it’s vital that the expressed view of the voters is respected.

Third, surplus energy analysis gave us a strong lead on how the referendum was likely to turn out. According to SEEDS, per capita prosperity in Britain was already 10% lower by 2016 than it had been at its peak in 2003. This has to have been a major factor motivating the anti-establishment component of the vote.

Finally, “Brexit” is best considered as a ‘situation’ rather than an ‘event’. A ‘situation’ is something which creates a multiplicity of possible outcomes. The biggest risk with “Brexit” has always been that the British and EU negotiating teams would agree (or disagree) to choose the worst possible result. As things stand, that outcome is looking ever more ominously likely, thoroughly justifying Mark Carney’s warnings.

The British predicament

It would be a mistake, though, to assume, either that “Brexit” alone has created these risks, or that an alternative decision by the voters would have taken these threats away. Neither should risk on the EU side be downplayed.

Expressed at constant values, British GDP was £386bn larger in 2017 than it had been back in 2003. This translates to a gain of 11% at the per capita level, after adjustment for the increase (also 11%) in population numbers over that period.

But any suggestion that British citizens are 11% better off now than they were fourteen years ago is obviously bogus, an observation surely self-evident in a range of indicators spanning real incomes, the cost of household essentials, spiralling debt, sharp downturns in customer-facing sectors such as retailing and hospitality, maxed-out consumer credit and the worsening and widening hardship of the millions struggling to make ends meet. The national housing stock might be ‘worth’ £10 trillion, but that number is meaningless when the only potential buyers of that stock are the same people to whom it already belongs.

SEEDS analysis shows how we can reconcile claimed “growth” with evident hardship. First, growth of £386bn (23%) between 2003 and 2017 was accompanied by a 62% (£2 trillion) increase in aggregate debt. Put simply, Britain has been pouring credit into the system at a rate of £5.20 for each £1 of “growth”.

In the short term, you can have pretty much any amount of statistical “growth” in GDP if you’re prepared to pour this much credit into the system. The problem comes when you cannot carry on doing this, and this is especially the case when you’ve also been a huge net seller of assets to overseas investors as part of a process of consuming at levels far in excess of economic output.

Compounding this, of course, has been an escalating trend energy cost of energy (ECoE) and this, in Britain, has soared from 3.4% in 2003 to a projected 9.2% this year. The latter number is close to a level at which increasing prosperity becomes impossible.

“Stalling between two fools”

This makes Mr Carney’s risks all too real. According to SEEDS, aggregate prosperity in the UK last year was £1.45tn, a number 29% below recorded GDP of £2.04tn. When measured against prosperity rather than GDP, the British debt ratio rises to 361% (rather than 258%), whilst financial assets now stand at 1577% of prosperity (compared with about 1130% of GDP).

Bearing these exposure ratios in mind – and noting the ongoing deterioration in per capita prosperity – the likelihood of a currency slump, spiralling interest rates and a severe fall in property prices has to be rated very highly indeed.

But “Brexit” is by no means the only possible catalyst for a crash. Perhaps the single most depressing aspect of the British predicament is the paucity of understanding of, and response to, structural economic weaknesses.

This is not to say, of course, that EU negotiators have played this situation well. The assumption that the EU holds all the high cards in “Brexit” talks is absurd, and the extreme risk to Ireland is just one of many reasons for caution. The guiding principle, which seems to be to punish British voters’ temerity as a warning to others, appears not just pompous but, given the spread of support for insurgent (a.k.a. “populist”) parties, extremely short-sighted.

On the horizon – GFC II

For the British and the Europeans, “Brexit” has been a massive distraction from broader financial and economic risk. Though we cannot know when GFC II will eventuate, there can be very little doubt that a crash, of greater-than-2008 proportions, is looming ever closer.

As regular readers will know, there is a clear narrative which points unequivocally to GFC II. This narrative is so important, and so seemingly absent from mainstream interpretation, that little apology seems required for reiterating it in brief.

The narrative can be expressed as three very simple propositions:

1. From the late 1990s, the secular capability for growth began to erode.

2. Instead of accepting (or even recognising) this deceleration, the authorities embarked on credit adventurism, making debt cheaper, and easier to obtain, than at any previous time in modern history. Not surprisingly, this led directly to GFC I, and ensured that it would be a debt-centred event, primarily threatening the banks.

3. Rather than take the hit for reset, the authorities then moved on to monetary adventurism, pouring huge amounts of ultra-cheap liquidity into the system. This must lead to GFC II, and GFC II must be a monetary event.

There are plenty of things to debate about this sequence. First, what caused the secular deceleration which triggered the whole process? The explanation favoured here is the rising trend in the energy cost of energy (ECoE), but there are certainly some candidates for ‘best supporting actor’. These include ideological commitment to reckless deregulation, badly mishandled globalisation, and the impact of climate change.

Second, why didn’t we choose reset in 2008? With hindsight, the choice made was the wrong one, as many experts pointed out at the time. By playing ‘extend and pretend’, the authorities made huge mistakes, which included moral hazard, creating massive asset bubbles, all but halting creative destruction, and destroying returns on investment (to the particular detriment of pension provision).

One of the lesser-known consequences was that the market economy, properly understood, became inoperable – after all, positive returns on capital are something of a prerequisite in any ‘capitalist’ economy.

Likewise, when the relationship between asset prices and income was bent completely out of shape, immense divisions were created between those who already owned assets and those (generally younger) people whose aim is to accumulate them.

Lastly, is there anything we can do now about GFC II? Frankly, prevention now looks impossible, but there might still be quite a lot of mitigation that we can implement (without going to the extremes of stockpiling tinned food, bottled water and ammunition).

We cannot know whether the coming explosion is going to be ‘chemical’ (requiring a catalyst) or ‘nuclear’ (requiring only critical mass). But there’s plenty of combustible material around, a huge array of potential catalysts – and an inexorable progression towards critical mass.

Abroad thoughts from home

I hope that, despite a short hiatus in moderation and response, readers can carry on debating these and other issues, and will forgive this brief restatement – which to me seems necessary on grounds of imminence and importance – of issues around “Brexit” and GFC II.

It is hoped that, after the intermission, we can get back to pushing the boundaries.

#134: An extremity of risk

A SEEDS VIEW OF THE IRISH ECONOMY

Last year, GDP per capita in the Republic of Ireland was €62,560, far higher than in Germany (€39,450) or the Netherlands (€42,820), let alone France (€35,310).

If you find this rather hard to take seriously, you’re right. And, whilst you’re in disbelief mode, you should forget any idea that Ireland has made a spectacular recovery since the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC I), or that the country is less at risk now than it was back then. Likewise, you might note that Ireland is at even greater risk from a mishandled “Brexit” than is Britain herself (though you’d never guess this from watching the course of the negotiations).

Let’s clear the decks by getting the official numbers out of the way first. In 2017, Ireland reported GDP of €296 billion, up 50% since 2007 (€197bn at 2017 values). The per capita equivalent for last year was €62,560, a real-terms improvement of 41% over a decade.

At the end of last year, debt totalled €938bn (or a hefty 317% of GDP) – lower than in 2016 (€1,021bn) but still €449bn (92%) higher than it was in 2007, on the eve of the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC I). Financial assets (a key measure of the size of a country’s banking system) totalled 1751% of GDP at the end of 2016, but might be down to about 1500% – or €4.4tn – now. The latter compares with €3.44tn in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available.

Even on a reported basis, there are some negatives here. Quantitatively, both debt and financial assets are a lot bigger now than they were when GFC I struck. Neither a debt ratio of 317% of GDP, nor banking exposure anywhere near 1500%, is remotely comfortable. The saving grace, of course, is GDP, and the robust pace at which it seems to be growing.

Put simply, we can be moderately relaxed about Ireland if – but only if – we accept recorded GDP as an accurate reflection of economic output and prosperity, which are the criteria which really determine the ability of an economy to carry any given level of debt or banking exposure.

Exposing the reality

Unfortunately, official GDP isn’t a meaningful reflection of either. According to SEEDS, GDP (of €296bn) seriously overstates real economic output (€193bn), and is dramatically higher than prosperity (just €173bn).

Obviously, such a drastic overstatement of output means that reported rates of growth are correspondingly meaningless. More seriously, it disguises exposure ratios that are drastically worse than official numbers which, even in themselves, are risky enough. For instance, debt may be ‘only’ 317% of GDP, but equates to about 544% of prosperity. More seriously still, financial assets rise from an estimated 1493% of GDP to 2560% of prosperity, a number which, as well as being truly scary – and unmatched by any other significant economy – means that Ireland has bloated banking exposure from which seemingly there can be no escape.

Put bluntly, Ireland is one setback away from disaster – just as both Britain and her European partners are in the process of crystallising “Brexit” risk……

Seeing through the numbers

How, then, can GDP so drastically misrepresent Ireland’s economic output, her prosperity and her resilience in the event of a shock?

There are three main explanations for the divergence between Irish GDP and the country’s prosperity, as the latter is calculated by SEEDS.

First, the basis on which Ireland calculates GDP was changed in 2015, creating single-year growth of more than 25%, and helping to push reported GDP per capita to levels which are, frankly, ludicrous.

Second, and in keeping with the widespread practice of “credit adventurism”, Ireland has pushed huge amounts of debt into the system, boosting recorded activity in ways which are wholly a function of an unsustainable expansion in credit.

Third – and particularly seriously where Ireland is concerned – reported GDP takes no account of the trend energy cost of energy (ECoE), a trend whose exponential rate of increase has already put Western prosperity growth into reverse.

Leprechauns and lenders

Back in 2015, Ireland adopted a new method for incorporating into GDP the activities of the multinational corporations which form such a big component of the Irish economy. Reflecting this, real GDP (expressed at 2017 values) increased by 25.5%, or €53bn, in a single year, from €208bn in 2014 to €261bn in 2015.

Dubbed “leprechaun economics” by Paul Krugman, this methodological change remains controversial. It is seldom noted that, reflecting this change, the €53bn increase in GDP was accompanied by a much bigger (€204bn) rise in debt, with PNFC (private non-financial corporate) indebtedness actually increasing by €242bn in a year in which both government and households were deleveraging.

A side-effect of “leprechaun economics” was a small decrease in the ratio of debt-to-GDP, which happened because reported GDP grew by slightly more (25.4%) than the increase in debt (24.2%). When debt expands by this much – and when almost €4 of debt is added for each €1 of claimed “growth” – it is clear, beyond a doubt, that any apparent fall in this widely-watched ratio has to amount to a mathematical quirk.

“Leprechaun economics” aside, the reported increase of 50% in GDP between 2007 and 2017 equated to incremental activity of €99bn, a number dwarfed by the €449bn (92%) escalation in debt over the same period.

Borrowing just over €4.50 for each €1 of “growth” is not a particularly outlandish number by the standards of Western economies (though it remains a lot higher than a global average of 3.3:1). Even so, it is clear that, in addition to helpful statistical restatement, Ireland has boosted GDP through a process of spending very large amounts of borrowed money.

This process of credit-created “growth” did not start in 2007, of course. In the seven years preceding GFC I, growth (at 2017 values) of €62bn (46%) in Irish GDP was accompanied by an expansion in debt of €267bn (120%), meaning that Ireland was already habituated to borrowing well over €4 for each incremental euro of “growth”.

According to SEEDS, GDP in 2007 (of €197bn) already materially overstated ‘clean’ (credit-adjusted) output of €181bn. By 2017, the gap had widened to the point where reported GDP (of €296bn) overstated clean output (€193bn) by more than 50%.

And this is even before we take the all-important matter of energy trends into account.

The energy dimension

As regular readers will know, the central working premise of surplus energy economics is that, ultimately, the economy is an energy system, not a financial one – money and credit are simply claims on the output of the energy-driven economy.

Rather than the absolute quantity of energy available, the really critical issue is how much of any energy accessed is consumed in the access process. Put simply, the higher this cost is, the less energy that remains for all purposes other than the supply of energy itself.

Globally, ECoE – the energy cost of energy – is on an exponentially rising trend, having climbed from 4% in 2000 to 5.4% in 2007 (just before GFC I) and 7.7% last year. Across developed economies as a group, ECoE has already risen to levels high enough to put previous growth in prosperity into reverse.

This, ultimately, is why these economies have adopted credit and monetary adventurism in an ultimately futile attempt to maintain a semblance of ‘growth as usual’.

Ireland is more affected than most by the relentless escalation in ECoEs, mainly because of the paucity of indigenous energy resources. Last year, consumption of energy totalled 16.8 million tonnes of oil equivalent, but production was just 3.6 mmtoe, forcing Ireland to rely on imports for almost 80% of her primary energy needs. All of Ireland’s petroleum and gas requirements are imported, making the country particularly exposed both to rising world ECoEs and to energy supply risk.

According to SEEDS, Ireland’s ECoE as long ago as 2000 (4.8%) was already higher than the global average (4.0%). By 2007, this differential had widened, to 6.7% versus a global 5.4%. Today, Ireland’s trend ECoE is put at 11.2%, far higher than a world average of 8.0%.

In other words, the gap keeps getting worse.

Levels of ECoE above 10% make growth in prosperity almost impossible, and Ireland’s high ECoEs are already having a swingeing impact on prosperity. Deducting 2017 ECoE (of 10.7%) from clean GDP of €193bn leaves aggregate prosperity at just €173bn. This number is barely (2%) higher than it was in 2007, but population numbers increased by 6.4% between those years.

This means that prosperity per person last year was €36,510, nowhere remotely near reported GDP per capita of €62,560. Irish prosperity actually peaked in 2005, at €38,780, and it is a sobering thought that debt per capita is 134% (€114,000) higher now (at €198,440 per person) than it was back then (€84,830).

The extremity of risk

What we have seen is that the Irish economy is an extreme, amplified version of adverse trends observable across most of the developed economies. For over a decade, high and rising energy costs have been driving prosperity downwards – indeed, Ireland is fortunate that the post-peak fall in prosperity has been just 5.9%, rather than the 10.8% decline experienced by Britain, or the 12.3% fall suffered by Italy. At the same time, debt has soared.

Quite aside from the “leprechaun” recalibration of GDP, this relentless weakening in prosperity has been masked from reported numbers by the infusion of huge amounts of credit-funded activity into the Irish economy. Since prosperity hit its peak in 2005, aggregate debt has expanded from €356bn to €938bn, and only in the last two years has there been evidence of meaningful efforts at deleveraging. How far these efforts can continue – with prosperity deteriorating at rates of between 0.6% and 0.8% annually – has to be conjectural.

It is only when prosperity (rather than increasingly meaningless GDP) is used as the denominator that the full magnitude of Ireland’s financial risk becomes apparent. Debt of €938bn might be ‘only’ 317% of GDP, but it is 544% of prosperity. More disturbingly still, banking exposure, as measured by financial assets, now stands at an estimated (and truly frightening) 2560% of prosperity.

With a per-capita share of debt of more than €198,000 – and with prosperity continuing to erode – the very last thing that Irish citizens need now is a “Brexit” process mishandled by British vacillation and European posturing.

 

 

#133: An American hypothesis

IS DONALD TRUMP THE FIRST ‘ECONOMIC REALIST’?

When the historians of the future get around to writing up our current era, one of the things likeliest to strike them will be the difference between what is actually happening and what most decision-makers think is happening. Historically, it is fascinating to speculate on how many of the worst decisions of governments have sprung from false interpretation and incorrect information.

From a contemporary perspective, what is evident now is an ever-widening chasm between conventional economic evaluation and the actual trend of events. Where conventional interpretation sees growing prosperity and contained financial risk, you don’t have to step very far outside the box to see a process of economic deterioration, elevated risk and, most seriously of all, a growing threat to the stability of currencies.

For regular readers, of course, this is familiar fare. We know that an economy hampered by a rising trend in the energy cost of energy (ECoE) is being subjected to an ultimately-futile process of denial based on credit and monetary adventurism.

Rather than revisiting this strategic theme, the aim here is to pose a theoretical question, and see where it leads.

Here is the question – what would a government do if it did recognise these realities, and came to understand that prosperity is already declining in the West, and may, before long, turn downwards in the emerging market (EM) economies, too?

It is beyond doubt that such a recognition would bring about drastic changes, both in assumptions and in policy. What follows is an examination of what those changes might be. It’s also safe to assume that these changes would be resented by those still wedded to the conventional, and that their mystification would lead rapidly to anger, suspicion and hostility.

It is suggested here that, if any government anywhere in the world is behaving in ways which are consistent with this pattern, it is the Trump administration. To what extent can Mr Trump be credited with – or, by some, accused of – acting on the basis of ‘new reality’?

What if understanding dawned somewhere?

If a government did discover the processes that are at work in the economy, the first conclusion that such a government would reach is that prosperity has become, at best, a zero-sum game. This would mean that, instead of the world becoming more prosperous in shared progression, the prosperity of one country can only be enhanced at the expense of others.

This, of course, is anathema to conventional economics, which pins its faith in David Ricardo’s “comparative advantage” theory. Essentially, Ricardo argues that we all get richer if we all concentrate on what we’re, so to speak’, ‘most best at’. From this, it follows that maximising trade between nations is to the benefit of all. This has long been an article of faith for economists.

What Ricardo did not have to consider, though, was the concept of a world with finite characteristics. It’s a reasonable hypothesis that constraints on the maximum availability of resources (such as land, water and, above all, energy) might render the law of comparative advantage inoperable. In short, once you postulate limits to potential prosperity, ‘all in it together’ quickly becomes ‘every man for himself’.

Trade, currencies and national advantage

If a government did arrive at the ‘zero-sum prosperity’ conclusion, it would concentrate on pursuing national advantage in trade. Governments already do this, of course, but they are in general influenced sufficiently by the Ricardian calculus to pursue national advantage in a mutual context. Whilst they want to skew trade agreements in their own favour, they do so from an assumption that there are mutual benefits to be accrued from such agreements.

The various trade deals pursued by the Obama administration illustrate this. Though these deals undoubtedly had a pro-American bias, they were nevertheless framed in an ‘internationalist’ way, based on assumptions of potential mutual benefit.

Our imaginary zero-sum prosperity government would differ radically, because its disbelief in mutual advantage would result in an instinctive preference, if not for outright protectionism, then at least for blatantly one-sided arrangements. The result would be a more aggressive stance on trade, characterised by an undisguised pursuit of national benefit, almost heedless of what the consequences for other countries might be.

This government would also want to leverage whatever benefits it might get from the relative strength of its currency. Under normal circumstances, a strong currency is bad for trade, making home-produced goods costlier than foreign alternatives. That matters a lot less, though, if you use tariffs to decide what you do and do not want to buy from overseas. For example, you might decide that a strong currency helps you purchase resources from abroad, but the strength of the currency needn’t suck in more manufactured goods because, if this starts to happen, you simply stick tariffs on them.

It need hardly be stated that the politics and the rhetoric accompanying this stance would be nationalist in tone. Moreover, this nationalist approach towards trade would be certain to show up, too, in other, non-trade aspects of foreign policy, including areas such as diplomacy and the management of alliances. Neither is it at all fanciful to assume that this nationalism would be replicated in domestic policies. Politicians often ‘wave the flag’ in pursuit of votes – the only difference about a government founded on a zero-sum prosperity assumption would be that the nationalism invoked would be the real thing.

The emphasis on nationalism described here need not, though, result in bellicosity. Indeed, it is likelier to take the form of isolationism or, at least, of a reluctance to expend “blood and treasure” in ways that do not benefit the country’s prosperity.

Thus far, we have envisaged a government determined to use trade to pursue national prosperity – and, implicitly, broader national advantage as well – on the basis of zero-sum world potential. As well as being implicitly inimical to free trade in goods and services, this argues for an equally restrictive attitude towards the movement of capital and labour.

For a start, the government we are envisaging would not want foreign investors acquiring domestic assets. At the same time, it would not want to see its businesses investing overseas rather than at home, something which they might well be inclined to do if costs elsewhere were lower, a differential that would be exaggerated by a strong currency.

Likewise, such a government would be inimical to the free movement of labour. If its preference was for businesses to invest at home – rather than moving their operations to lowest-cost locations – then it would be equally opposed to that cheap labour being imported through immigration. It would see large-scale immigration as the domestic face of a globalist calculus that it wished to disrupt.

Battle lines

What we are envisaging here is a government which – by interfering with the flow of trade, capital and labour – is challenging the most treasured objectives of the ‘globalists’.

In critical ways, some demarcations are being drawn here between our theoretical government and those who, either in principle or in pursuit of profit, work from diametrically opposite assumptions. A nationalist stance, reinforced by opposition to immigration, plays to a domestic audience often branded “populist” by its increasingly unpopulist opponents.

Essentially, then, any government operating on the premise of nationalism founded on a zero-sum prosperity calculus would face fervent opposition, both at home and abroad. Opponents would fall into two main categories – those who benefit from the globalist model, and those who are internationalist out of conviction. Those persuaded by internationalism out of conviction overlap extensively with those whose policies are self-defined as ‘liberal’.

What emerges from this is that the opponents of our theoretical government might be defined as ‘liberal globalists’. Since this essentially defines the long-established political and economic consensus of the Western world’s ruling elites, the government that we are envisaging would, of necessity, be ‘anti-establishment’, challenging both the vested interests and the conventional assumptions which favour globalism.

Donald Trump – theory into practice?

Just to recap, then, a government which became persuaded about zero-sum global prosperity could be expected to ditch huge swathes of what has been the economic consensus for more than three decades.

It would pursue policies of national advantage which would be hostile to free trade, and opposed to the free movement of capital and labour. It would abandon the substance (and, very probably, the rhetoric, too) of mutuality. It would face very stiff, often visceral opposition both from internationalist and from globalist persuasions.

So much for theory – what about practice?

The government which comes closest to our theoretical outline is the Trump administration. Mr Trump’s political platform can be described as ‘populist-nationalist’, and his opposition to globalisation is palpable. If Mr Trump has an identifiable enemy, that enemy resides, not in Beijing or in Moscow, but in Davos.

This interpretation has been influenced by a two-part essay by analyst Thierry Meyssan. His argument is that Mr Trump’s political stance, developed over the fifteen years before he entered the White House, is based on opposition to American ‘imperial’ behaviour and a renewed focus on domestic prosperity alone. As Mr Meyssan puts it, Mr Trump is “a politician who refuse[s] to engage his country in the service of transnational elites”.

It is certainly striking that, unlike his predecessors, Mr Trump shows no appetite for military interventions, in the Middle East or anywhere else. He certainly does not want America to be ‘the world’s policeman’, especially if what is being policed benefits globalist corporates a lot more than it benefits Americans

Ideologically, some of this puts Mr Trump in some positions which, at first sight, can look pretty bizarre. For example, it seems unlikely in the extreme that Lenin was ever one of the President’s favourite authors, but Thierry Meyssan is surely on to something when he cites this passage by the Soviet leader at the start of his second essay:

 

“Imperialism is capitalism which has arrived at a stage of its development where domination by monopolies and financial capital has been confirmed, where the export of capital has acquired major importance, where the sharing of the world between international trusts has begun, and where the sharing of all the territories of the globe between the greatest capitalist countries has been achieved”

 

Brought forward into the circumstances of today, references to monopolies, the dominant role of international capital and the free flow of capital between countries are indeed redolent of what Davos likes, and Mr Trump, instinctively and perhaps calculatedly, does not.

According to Mr Meyssan, the President’s election was based on a “promise to return to the earlier state of Capitalism, that of the ‘American dream’, by free market competition”. Thus interpreted, Mr Trump opposes the small number of “multinational companies [which] gave birth to a global ruling class which gathers every year to congratulate itself, as we watch, in Davos, Switzerland. These people do not serve the interests of the US population, and in fact are not necessarily United States citizens themselves, but use the means of the US Federal State to maximise their profits”.

Synthesis

Thus far, we have been examining two distinct issues.

The first is an interpretation of what a government might do, if it became persuaded that the scope for growth in global prosperity has been exhausted.

The second is Thierry Meyssan’s acute interpretation of Donald Trump as a nationalist opponent of globalisation and its attendant ideologies and policies.

What is surely very striking is how these two strands intersect. It’s doubtful if Mr Trump and his advisors are familiar with the energy-based interpretation of economics, certainly as discussed here, and modelled by SEEDS. But it’s by no means improbable that he has arrived at similar conclusions by different routes.

It certainly seems apparent that the consensus symbolised by Davos is vehemently opposed to Mr Trump’s apparent agenda. Moreover, if he has indeed picked a fight with “Davos man”, he could hardly have chosen a more formidable opponent. What we do know is that he has already thrown some big spokes into the wheel of a model which favours the global flow of goods, capital and labour on a basis geared towards the maximisation of the share of GDP which goes into corporate profits rather than labour.

If this interpretation is correct, we should anticipate efforts to break up some of the most powerful global corporations with large shares in their respective markets. Mr Trump might not have read Lenin, but he certainly seems to understand Adam Smith’s emphasis on the primary importance of competition, free, fair, and unfettered by excessive concentration. Once that is understood, trust-busting becomes logical.

Outcomes

Fascinating though the politics of all this undoubtedly are, the decisive issue is likely to be economic. Essentially, can nationalism deliver more for American voters than globalisation has achieved?

The reality is that, in pure economic terms, globalisation isn’t a hard act to follow. The essential premise of globalisation is that profits can be increased by locating production in the cheapest places, whilst continuing to sell goods and services in the (relatively) wealthy West.

There was always a huge contradiction at the heart of this philosophy – essentially, if well-paid jobs are shipped out of Western markets, how are Western wage-earners supposed to carry on with high levels of consumption? Thus far, the answer has been to make credit cheaper, and more readily accessible, than it has ever been before. This strategy has landed us with extraordinary levels of debt, unprecedentedly cheap money, and all of the risks associated with financial adventurism.

According to SEEDS, the United States has not bucked the trend towards lower prosperity in the West. Whilst not as badly affected as, say, Britain or Italy, SEEDS indicates that the average American is 7.7% ($3,380) poorer than he or she was back in 2005.

Though GDP data appears to contradict this calculation, two factors can be cited to support it. First, an overwhelming majority (93%) of all growth in American GDP in recent years has come from internally-consumed services (ICS) – such as finance, real estate and government – whilst the aggregate contribution to growth of hard-priced, globally marketable output (GMO), such as manufacturing, construction, agriculture and the extractive industries, has been zero. (The other 7% came from increased exports of services).

Second, growth in GDP has been far exceeded by an ongoing escalation in debt. Comparing 2017 with 2005, GDP has grown by $3.25tn, but debt has expanded by $14tn, a ratio of $4.30 of new debt for each $1 of reported growth. By definition – and, latterly, based on experience as well – pouring cheap credit into the system to sustain consumption in the face of deteriorating wages is not a sustainable way of running the economy.

In short, there is a compelling case to be made that Americans are significantly poorer now than they were twelve years ago – and, were this not the case, there has to be a strong possibility that Mr Trump would not have become President.

The first conclusion we can reach seems to be that, in linking prosperity with nationalism, Mr Trump has been pushing at an open door. We cannot know whether his policies can deliver more for Americans than globalisation, but it won’t be all that long before we find out. Obviously, nobody should underestimate the opposition that Mr Trump will go on encountering from those whose economic interests he threatens.

 

#132: The revenge of the spider

ECONOMIC RECKLESSNESS AND GFC II

If you’re a regular visitor to this site, you’ll know that we’ve covered a lot of themes, varying from the plight of individual economies to the madness of economic policy both before and – especially – since the 2008 global financial crisis (“GFC I”). You’ll probably know, too, that the expectation here is for “GFC II”, a far larger sequel to the events of 2008.

You might also know that the coming autumn sees the opening of a window in which this second crisis might take place (though, in their very nature, the timing of such events cannot be predicted). So the aim now, with autumn approaching, is to summarise how things stand.

Let’s start with the economy. Ever since the late 1990s there have been clear signs of deceleration in the pace at which underlying economic output has been growing. The interpretation put forward here is that this deceleration has been caused by an exponential uptrend in ECoE (the energy cost of energy). At least two other material headwinds can be identified – environmental stress, and mistaken economic policy – but a worsening in the energy equation has been the critical factor undercutting the potential for growth.

As modelled by SEEDS, these trends in energy have already put prosperity growth into reverse in the majority of Western economies, where prosperity per person generally peaked between 2000 and 2007. On this basis, the average Italian has become 12.3% poorer since 2001, the average American is 7.7% less prosperous now than he or she was back in 2005, and prosperity in the United Kingdom has fallen by 10.3% since 2003.

Where the West is concerned, the outlook is for more of the same. Mr Trump may or may not be able to “make America great again”, but neither he nor anybody else can ‘make Americans prosperous again’. Much the same, varying only in rapidity of deterioration, applies to virtually all developed economies.

In recent years, the Emerging Market economies (EMs) have become more prosperous, though sometimes at rates nowhere near claimed expansions in GDP per capita. According to SEEDS, this improvement in EM prosperity looks likely to continue, albeit at fading rates. In theory, this leaves global prosperity pretty flat, with progress in the EMs offsetting impoverishment in the West. In practice, though, EMs may not be able to carry on growing their prosperity at all in a world in which their Western trading partners are becoming poorer.

Unfortunately, policymakers have never understood the processes undermining prosperity. Worse still, any concept of coming to terms with deceleration is wholly unacceptable, not least because the financial system is predicated entirely on perpetual growth. Of course, you might think that basing anything on perpetual economic expansion in a finite world is pretty crazy – but whoever said that either politics or finance has to be limited by rationality?

A direct consequence of the collision between resource reality and a commitment to growth in perpetuity has been an attempt to ‘cheat’, using financial adventurism in an ultimately futile attempt to get around the ending of growth.

This has taken two main forms. The first, adopted in the years before GFC I, was “credit adventurism”, making credit cheaper, and easier to obtain, than ever before. Since GFC I, this has been compounded by “monetary adventurism”, which has involved pouring mind-boggling amounts of liquidity into the system.

To a certain extent, the latter was a consequence of the former. By 2008, “credit adventurism” had created debt of a magnitude that was impossible to service under “normal” monetary conditions. Barring “reset” – ruled out because of the short-term pain that it would have caused – the only way to cope with such gargantuan debts was to make them ultra-cheap both to service and to roll-over.

Just as there have been two forms of adventurism, there are two forms of crisis. “Credit adventurism” led naturally to a credit (debt) crisis, which was why banks were in the eye of the storm in 2008. “Monetary adventurism”, on the other hand, leads to a monetary crisis, which is why fiat currencies will be at risk in GFC II.

These forms of adventurism have succeeded in creating an illusion of growth, convincing enough so long as we wear blinkers where underlying fundamentals are concerned. World GDP increased by 35% in the seven years between 2000 and 2007, and by 31% in the decade between 2007 and 2017.

But the escalation in debt alone gives the lie to any claim that this “growth” has been genuine or sustainable. Between 2000 and 2007, growth of $25.5 trillion (at 2017 values) was accompanied by a $52tn increase in debt, meaning that just over $2 was borrowed for each $1 of “growth”. Since 2007, the ratio has worsened markedly, with “growth” of $29.8tn accompanied by $99tn in borrowing, a ratio of $3.30 of new debt for each growth dollar.

Escalating indebtedness has not been the only consequence of financial adventurism, of course. The crushing of returns on invested capital has created huge shortfalls against the amounts that we ought to have put aside for retirement, all but destroying the viability of pension provision for all but a wealthy minority. Monetary adventurism may not – yet, anyway – have created a spike in consumer inflation, but it has led directly to massive bubbles in asset prices.

Critically, the worsening ability of the economy to carry these excesses has been disguised by the phoney “growth” created by the simple spending of borrowed money. Everyone appreciates that an individual does not become more prosperous simply because he or she runs up an ever-bigger overdraft, and spends it. Unfortunately, observers – including policymakers – do seem to believe that economies can prosper by racking up ever bigger debts, and mortgaging the future, and then pushing the proceeds through consumption.

There are even those who believe that the inflated prices of stocks, bonds and property constitute “wealth”, even though the only people to whom such assets can be sold are the same people to whom they already belong.

If we strip away the simple spending of borrowed money, SEEDS calculates that claimed “growth” (of $55tn, or 76%) since 2000 falls to less than $21tn, with the remaining $34tn an illusion conjured out of adventurism. Meanwhile, the deterioration in trend ECoE, from 4.0% back in 2000 to almost 8% now, means that aggregate prosperity increased by just $16.4tn, or 24%, over the period as a whole.

Unfortunately, world population numbers expanded by 22% over the same period, so growth in average prosperity has been just 2.3%, over seventeen years. All and more of that increase has gone to the EMs, leaving the average Western citizen poorer.

What we are left with, then, is deteriorating Western prosperity, faltering underlying output in the world as a whole, unprecedented levels of debt, grotesquely inflated asset markets, and huge hostages to fortune, not least in the destruction of pension provision.

In simple mathematical terms, SEEDS estimates that “reset” in 2008 would have required ‘value destruction’ – a fall in the aggregate prices of assets – of the order of $84tn, equivalent to almost $100tn today. Of course, monetary adventurism was used to avoid reset in GFC I – carrying that value overhang forwards – and we’ve gone on adding to it, at steadily rising rates, ever since. SEEDS puts scope for value destruction today at over $400tn, which should be treated as a (very approximate) order of magnitude of the extent to which asset values have to fall.

This, of course, is ‘first order’ value destruction. If the prices of your shares, bonds and property fall, you still own them, and no money has actually flowed out of your bank account. The real problem is ‘second order’ value destruction, which is what happens when the value of your assets falls to a level lower than the sum you borrowed to acquire them.

Though the scale of the sums involved is almost impossible to calculate, we can conclude that the world will face vast ‘second order’ value destruction when GFC II happens.

We can be equally certain that, rather than accept the necessity of value destruction on a scale roughly four times larger than 2008, the authorities will resort again to adventurism, pouring liquidity into the economy at rates which dwarf anything experienced during and after GFC I. The strong likelihood has to be that adventurism on this scale will undermine the value of fiat currencies, destroying many whilst inflicting hyperinflation on those which survive.

The public, on the other hand, can hardly be expected to like getting ever poorer, especially whilst the distortion of the relationship between incomes and asset values seems to have made a minority wealthier whilst imposing austerity on everyone else. Whether, during GFC II, they will turn increasingly towards insurgent (“populist”) politicians, or opt instead for the collectivist offer of a Left made resurgent by popular adversity, is a second-order question. What we can anticipate, with high levels of confidence, is political and social change at least commensurate with the scale of economic and financial upheaval.

Those with long memories might remember a song for children called “there was an old lady who swallowed a fly”. After the fly, she swallowed a spider (“that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her”), the point being that she swallowed the spider in order to catch the fly. Thereafter, ever larger animals were ingested to catch the one swallowed previously – “she swallowed the bird to catch the spider”, and so on – finishing up with swallowing a horse (“she’s dead – of course”).

By this analogy, the system “swallowed a fly” in the years before 2008, then “swallowed a spider” during GFC I in an attempt to deal with it. In real life, swallowing a fly can happen to anyone, and swallowing a spider is at least feasible. Swallowing a bird, however, is not.

In this sense, GFC II is set to be the spider’s revenge.

#131: Not about “Brexit”

PROSPERITY AND RISK IN THE UNITED KINGDOM

What follows is an analysis of the British economy, from the perspectives of performance and risk.

It is not a discussion of “Brexit”.

Readers are, of course, welcome to discuss any pertinent issue, “Brexit” included. But a non-“Brexit” focus has to be stated clearly, because one of the most regrettable effects of the whole “Brexit” process has been to divert attention away from the economic fundamentals. Distractions don’t come much bigger than “Brexit”.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the British economic situation is the stark divergence between two different views. One of these is an official and consensus interpretation, founded on conventional economics, which portrays performance as no worse than lacklustre. There is, however, a raft of other indicators which paints a much less satisfactory picture.

Analysis undertaken using SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – indicates that prosperity peaked as long ago as 2003, and that the consequent strains are now becoming ever more apparent. Declining prosperity, of course, characterises most advanced Western economies. The United Kingdom stands out, though, for the rate at which prosperity is deteriorating, and for the elevated level of risk associated with this trend.

The great dichotomy

According to conventional metrics, the economy of the United Kingdom continues to grow, albeit at a less than sparkling pace. GDP is expected to increase by about 1.4% this year which, though hardly impressive, at least outpaces the 0.6% trend rate at which population numbers are expanding. People are, then, getting gradually better off, whilst unemployment remains low.

The problem with this interpretation is that it is hard – arguably, impossible – to square with a host of other indicators. First, wage growth is very subdued, barely keeping up with CPI inflation, and falling steadily further adrift of the cost of household essentials.

Second, productivity growth has fallen to virtually zero, having averaged just 0.2% since the 2008 global financial crisis (“GFC I”).

The labour market is characterised by increasing casualization and insecurity of employment, factors which contribute to depressed wage levels despite officially-low unemployment.

There is every reason to suppose that consumers’ ability to spend is in rapid retreat. Customer-facing businesses (including shops, restaurants and pubs) are going through a fire-storm of closures, failures and job losses. Consumer credit has climbed to potentially dangerous levels, with anecdotal evidence that this credit is being used, not for discretionary purchases, but simply to meet living expenses. There is also reason to suppose that big-ticket purchases are in decline. Surveys indicate that large and increasing numbers of households are struggling to make ends meet.

Government, too, seems strapped for cash, not really knowing how to provide necessary increases in funding for areas such as health, defence and care for the elderly. Local as well as central government looks resource-constrained.

Broader indicators of economic stress include homelessness, with young people, in particular, finding accommodation to be costly, often of poor quality, and hard to obtain. Seemingly-rapid rises in violent crime – including a dramatic surge in moped offences, of which there were 23,000 in London alone last year, compared with just 827 five years earlier – do not seem consistent with a prospering society.

In short, there is an abundance of evidence that, far from getting better off, the average British person is getting poorer. At first glance, this is impossible to square with any level of reported “growth” in economic output.

The SEEDS interpretation

An answer to this conundrum is supplied by SEEDS, which indicates that prosperity per person in the United Kingdom has been declining relentlessly since as long ago as 2003.

Over the period since then, reported GDP has risen by £386bn (23%), to £2.04 trillion last year from £1.65tn (at 2017 values) in 2003. Against this, however, aggregate debt increased by £2tn (62%).

This means that each £1 of reported growth has been accompanied by £5.20 in new borrowing. It also means that, against current growth expectations of about 1.4%, the UK typically borrows 5.7% of GDP each year.

The stark implication is that, like many other Western countries, Britain has been pouring cheap credit into the economy to shore up consumption. In short, most of the supposed “growth” of recent times has been nothing more substantial than the simple spending of borrowed money.

Stripped of this borrowing effect, SEEDS calculates that, within recorded growth of £386bn since 2003, only £77bn can be considered organic and sustainable. This puts ‘clean’ (borrowing-adjusted) GDP for 2017 at £1.59tn, barely ahead of the 2003 number of £1.53tn. On this basis, underlying growth has not kept up with increases in the population, so that ‘clean’ GDP per capita has decreased by 5.1% since 2003.

The compounding headwind has been a sharp rise in the energy cost of energy (ECoE). This, of course, is a worldwide problem, but has been particularly acute in the United Kingdom. Back in 2003, Britain’s ECoE (3.4%) was lower than the global average (4.5%). Today, though, ECoE is markedly higher in the UK (9.2%) than in the world as a whole (8.0%).

On a post-ECoE basis, prosperity per capita in Britain has fallen by 10.3% (£2,540), to £22,020 last year from a peak of £24,550 in 2003. Prosperity has declined in other Western countries over the same period, but Italy is the only major economy where the fall has been as rapid as in the UK.

SEEDS shows no sign of this downwards trend slackening, and projects that British prosperity will be a further 4.2% lower in 2022, at £21,090, than it was in 2017. In short, the average person is getting poorer at rates of between 0.5% and 1.0% each year.

Meanwhile, of course, his or her share of aggregate debt continues to increase.

Elevated risk

Deteriorating prosperity necessarily increases risk, because the ability to carry any given level of financial burden is a function of prosperity. Falling prosperity also impairs the ability to fund public services.

Trends in debt ratios reflect deteriorating prosperity. Aggregate debt at the end of 2017 (£5.25tn) equates to 258% of GDP but 361% of prosperity, the latter number having risen markedly since 2007 (283%).

More worryingly, the rise in debt exposure has been matched by sharp increases in proportionate financial assets, a measure of the size of the banking system. The most recent figure, for the end of 2016, puts Britain’s financial assets at 1124% of GDP, but this rises to 1547% when prosperity, rather than GDP, is used as the denominator. The SEEDS estimate of financial assets in relation to prosperity at the end of last year is 1577%, again sharply higher than the level on the eve of the financial crisis in 2007 (1285%).

Measuring debt and financial assets in relation to prosperity are two of the four risk yardsticks used by SEEDS. The UK looks high-risk on the debt measure, and extreme-risk in terms of the scale of its banking exposure.

On the third risk criterion, which is dependency on the continuing availability of credit, the British score is no worse than that of most comparable economies. The United Kingdom does, though, also depend on a continuing ability to borrow from abroad, to sell assets to overseas investors, and to attract inward flows of capital. This dependency looks risky, because the severe travails of customer-facing businesses, and the implied hardship of consumers, necessarily impair the attractiveness of Britain as a place in which to invest.

Finally, Britain has a high score on what SEEDS calls “acquiescence risk”. Put simply, the less prosperous people become, the less likely they are to back painful recovery plans should these be required in a future financial crisis. Worsening prosperity has already had a marked effect on political outcomes in America, France, Italy and elsewhere, and the same factor is likely to have tilted the balance decisively in the referendum on “Brexit”. Should it become necessary for Britain to repeat the 2008 rescue of the banks, popular acquiescence in such a measure should be no means be taken for granted.

 

SEEDS 2.15 United Kingdom 21072018

 

#130: Grand Bargains, dangerous choices?

THE SHARED CHALLENGES OF CHINA AND DONALD TRUMP

One of the most ill-informed critiques of China says that, as a one-party Communist state, the government need take no notice of public opinion. The reality is quite different. It is that a ‘grand bargain’ exists between the state and the public. For their part, citizens accept the denial of certain rights which are taken for granted in many Western countries. In return, the government delivers steady improvements in prosperity.

There’s a striking parallel to this in the United States, because the presidency of Donald Trump is founded on a very similar ‘grand bargain’. Voters disaffected with a self-serving establishment have trusted Mr Trump to restore prosperity. Just like Beijing, he has to deliver.

It’s a measure of America’s political disconnect that, right from the start of his campaign, self-styled ‘experts’ dismissed Mr Trump as a “joke candidate” with no chance whatsoever of making it to the White House. This mis-reading of Mr Trump – and the consequent shock of his victory – was more than just wishful thinking. It was based on a misunderstanding of the central issue at stake.

This issue was, and is, prosperity. Whatever conventional economic statistics may say, Americans have been getting poorer over an extended period. This, plus anger at the perceived enrichment of a tiny minority, was the driver behind the Trump victory. It helped, of course, that his opponent seemed to many symbolic of an entrenched and privileged elite. Ultimately, though, “make America great again” translates as ‘make Americans prosperous again’.

In the same box

This interpretation puts America and China in the same box. Both are regimes whose imperative is the delivery of prosperity for the average citizen. In America, SEEDS analysis indicates that Mr Trump cannot deliver (and, in fairness, neither could anybody else), because trends that have made the average American 7.5% poorer since 2005 look irreversible. For China, average prosperity has increased – by 41% over the last ten years – but continuing to deliver has already become very hard indeed, and isn’t going to get any easier.

The parallel goes at least two stages further, the operative terms being energy and debt. Chinese energy consumption has increased by 46% over a decade (and it’s far from coincidental that prosperity has expanded by a similar 41% over the same period). But sustaining this critical growth-driver is looking distinctly problematic. Whilst China will seek out every oil supply deal it can get its hands on – helped, perhaps, by the mutual hostility between Washington and Tehran –  switching towards coal seems the favoured strategy. America, too, may re-emphasise coal. In neither instance, though, is coal likely to be an effective fix.

Thus far, America has benefited enormously from the dramatic expansion in shale oil output. In this, the United States can be grateful for the irrationality of investors, who have been prepared to pour enormous quantities of capital into a sector which is, by definition, a cash-burner, never having covered its capital costs from operating cash flows even when oil prices were well above $100/b. Tolerance of cash-burning is, of course, a direct corollary of ultra-cheap money.

The fundamental problem with shales is the ultra-rapid rate at which production from individual wells declines. This puts operators on a ‘drilling treadmill’ which requires ever more drilling just to sustain output, never mind increasing it.

It helps shales, of course, that investor generosity looks almost limitless. Anyone who can ignore the mismatch between record equity values and deteriorating prosperity – and who can meanwhile buy in to the issuance of perhaps $1 trillion of debt for no better reason than stripping equity out of corporate capital structures – isn’t likely to baulk quickly at cash-burning by shale companies. Even so, there must be limits to how quite much more capital shale drillers will be allowed to burn their way through.

Fortunately or not – and from what we can judge from their actions – America’s military leaders seem more realistic, certainly where shales are concerned. Service chiefs, it seems, have never bought in to the “Saudi America” narrative of energy independence. The Navy’s carrier groups, costly assets whose main functions include both power projection and the defence of seaborne energy supplies, have not been sent to the scrap-yards. Neither has America de-emphasised the policy importance of the Middle East.

Fundamentally, both Beijing and the Trump administration need to deliver prosperity – and energy is the greatest single threat to their ability to do so. The real issue here isn’t just the maintenance of supplies, but cost. The relentless rise in ECoEs is felt first in the cost of essentials, not just energy itself but utility bills and all the other non-discretionary outlays which drive a wedge between income and prosperity. ECoE is the big problem, for Mr Trump as much as for Beijing.

Debt and self-deception

If energy is one problem facing both America and China, another is debt. More specifically, it’s dependency on a continuing process of credit creation, a dependency which lies at the heart of the “monetary adventurism” which has characterised the economic landscape since the 2008 global economic crisis (‘GFC I’).

Here, time-sequencing has differed between China and the United States. Between 2000 and 2007, America (and most other Western economies) went on a debt binge. In the US, and stated at constant 2017 values, debt grew by $12 trillion over a period in which GDP expanded by only $2.6tn. This – helped, of course, by acquiescence in increasingly dangerous practices – led straight to GFC I.

Prior to 2008, Chinese policy on debt had been fairly conservative. What we’ve witnessed since has been a truly breath-taking change. Stated at 2017 values, Chinese GDP and debt in 2007 were, respectively, RMB 37 trillion and RMB 60tn. Today, those numbers are RMB 81tn (a 120% rise in GDP) and RMB 251tn (a 320% leap in debt). Whilst GDP has expanded by RMB 44tn, debt has soared by RMB 191tn.

Even more strikingly, the rate at which China has been borrowing over the last decade has averaged RMB 19tn annually. GDP has averaged RMB 60tn over the same period. So, on average, China borrows close to 32% of GDP each year.

Nobody else comes anywhere near. America typically borrows 5.8% of GDP annually. That’s more than twice the rate of the most optimistic interpretation of growth, so it’s not sustainable, and highlights how much “growth” has been nothing more than the simple spending of borrowed money. But it’s nowhere near the 31.8% of GDP borrowed annually by China since 2007. The global equivalent is 9%, but that, of course, is heavily skewed by China.

It has been suggested that China is throttling back on its propensity to pile up debt. There’s limited truth in this, in that China borrowed “only” 30% of GDP last year, compared with 38% in 2016 and 35% in 2015. But the numbers continue to look bizarre, unsustainable, and – potentially – lethal.

The United States, meanwhile, looks increasingly likely to revert to pre-2008 borrowing patterns. The budget outlook is for much higher levels of annual borrowing by government, whilst there seems to be no end in sight to the irrationality of converting corporate capital from equity into debt, not to mention the continued willingness of investors to finance cash-burners.

(In fairness to investors, it should be recognised that ultra-cheap monetary policy has presented them with ‘no good choices’, only bad ones or worse ones).

Both public and private borrowing – and especially the latter – keep injecting yet more leverage into a system already awash with risk.

China – the why?

As we’ve seen, the sheer rate at which China borrows looks reckless in the extreme. But ‘reckless’ isn’t an adjective that many would apply to the government in Beijing. Why, then, has China seemingly turned into a debt-junkie?

The answer lies in the prosperity imperative of the ‘grand bargain’. For the average Chinese citizen, prosperity has three main meanings – employment, wages and household expenses (which include housing itself). Of these, employment predominates. What this means for the government is that employment must continue to grow. It must grow at rates which not only exceed the rate at which population numbers are expanding, but must also increase at least as quickly as workers migrate from the countryside to the cities.

In stark contrast to Western profit orientation, this makes China a volume-seeker. If employment is the overriding objective, profit matters less. For businesses heavily influenced by state objectives, expanding employment (and hence growing output volumes) is an imperative, almost irrespective of profitability. An enterprise succeeds by this criterion if it grows employment, even if this achieved at a loss.

This shows up in the figures, where business has accounted for most (68%) of all of the RMB 191tn borrowed over the last ten years. Essentially, business has borrowed for the twin purposes of financing losses and expanding capacity. The latter, of course, has the by-product of depressing margins, often pushing returns on assets to levels well below the cost of capital. China is therefore in something of a vortex, where new capacity requires borrowing whilst simultaneously undermining the ability to service existing debt. An apparent effort to convert debt into equity failed pretty spectacularly, when it came close to crashing Chinese equity markets.

In one sense, this use of debt to sustain and grow volumes has a direct corollary in the West, where “zombie” companies have been kept alive both by ultra-low interest rates and by the willingness of banks to roll over (by adding interest to capital) debts which would otherwise have had to be recognised to be non-performing.

In another way, using debt to finance capital investment may seem very different from the West’s use of credit to bolster consumption. The difference narrows, though, when it is recognised that the Chinese version, too, uses debt to underpin the incomes of working people.

Moreover, the priority placed on volumes over profits has implications for trade, where Washington, at least, isn’t prepared to accept the continued influx of products seemingly produced ‘at a loss’.

Any way out of the box?

As we’ve seen, America and China are in the same box, both having an imperative need to deliver prosperity at a time when this is becoming ever harder to achieve. In both instances, debt is simply a time-buying expedient, creating apparent prosperity in the short term, but at severe expense and risk to the collective balance sheet.

These debt-based responses are not just unsustainable but are highly risky, too. According to SEEDS, the sheer scale of indebtedness – and the truly shocking rate of ongoing credit dependency – puts China in the highest-risk category, along with Ireland, Britain and Canada. America’s level of risk isn’t quite so elevated, and it’s no coincidence at all that the energy challenge, too, is less acute for the United States (for now, anyway) than it is for China. Another big difference is that China’s ills are the product of circumstances, whereas much of the escalation in American risk is self-inflicted.

It’s interesting to speculate on quite how far the parallel risks of America and China are recognised at the level of policy. From the Chinese side, we can be very confident that the energy challenge is recognised, and we can assume, too, that Beijing is well aware of the debt problem. Here, it cannot be emphasised too strongly that the issue isn’t simply the absolute quantum of debt but the extent of dependency on the supply of credit continuing at quite extraordinary levels. (This is why SEEDS measures these two risks independently).

The combination of risk and sheer size must put China near the top of the watch-list for those monitoring the likeliest epicentre for the start of GFC II. Whilst we cannot rule out, for instance, market slumps in the United States, a property price crash in Canada, debt problems and instability in the Euro Area, and further rapid economic deterioration in Britain, the combination of energy and debt risk in China dwarfs these threats, serious though they are.

It is sometimes observed that China’s banks are, in effect, under state control, as though this makes a potential rescue a simple and painless matter. In reality, the difference between the Chinese and Western positions is far less than it appears. Western governments, no less than Beijing, would have to stand behind their banks in the event of a wave of cascading defaults. It’s pretty easy to envisage a Western government having to nationalise (by whatever name) a bank whose equity value has disappeared.

The obvious solution might appear to be for the Chinese government to simply take bank debt onto the public balance sheet. The snag is that this involves issuing RMB to the extent of the banks’ uncovered liabilities. This reminds us of the observation that, in the end, the world’s debt problem is going to turn into a currency credibility problem.

The claim that money creation through QE ‘isn’t inflationary’ rests on a narrow definition of inflation. If your definition of inflation includes only CPI, this assertion may be true. But, if it is recognised that asset price inflation matters at least as much as retail prices, QE has already been extremely inflationary. Using monetary issuance to tackle stratospheric debt levels and bloated banking systems cannot be undertaken without severe currency risk.

What we are left with is that, on a worldwide basis, we have compounded “credit adventurism” with “monetary adventurism” in trying to square the circle of deteriorating prosperity. The snag is that neither credit nor money can resolve a problem which has its roots in energy.

Ultimately, rising ECoE is making us poorer, and is doing so in ways that may not be acceptable politically, but which cannot, without grave and compounding risk, be wished or manipulated away with monetary tinkering.

= = = = =

SEEDS 2.19 China 030718

 

#129: Why, what, how?

SEEDS AND THE CHASM IN ECONOMIC UNDERSTANDING

Regular visitors will know that, since the recent completion of the development programme, SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – forms the basis of almost every subject that we discuss here. For anyone new to this site, though, what is SEEDS? What does it do, and how important might it be?

The aim in this longer-than-usual article is to explain SEEDS, starting with some of what it tells us before examining how it reaches these conclusions. The methodologies of the system are discussed here, with the exception of a small number of technical points of which detailed disclosure would be unwise.

Before we start, new visitors need to know that the divergence between SEEDS and “conventional” economics has now become so wide that it’s almost impossible to place equal faith in both. If SEEDS is right – and that’s for you to decide – then much of the conventional economics approach is simply wrong.

The question thus becomes that of which interpretation best fits what we see happening around us.

“Shocks” that are no surprise

A picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, and the following charts demonstrate quite how radically SEEDS differs from conventional economic interpretation.

These charts set prosperity (as calculated by SEEDS) against published GDP per capita for the United Kingdom and the United States. With this information, you can see that, for SEEDS, the so-called “shocks” of the “Brexit” vote, and the election of Donald Trump, were no surprise at all.

Rather, popular discontent with the political establishment is to be expected when the prosperity of the average person has been declining relentlessly, and over an extended period. In Britain, the voters’ decision to leave the European Union reflected a deterioration of 9.7% (£2,380 per person) in prosperity since 2003. In the US, the decline in prosperity began later than in the UK, but the average American was still 7.3% ($3,520) poorer in 2016 than he or she had been back in 2005.

Brexit Trumpjpg_Page1

Obviously, economic hardship wasn’t the only issue at stake in either case. But it has to be highly likely that it tipped the balance. Similarly, recent events in Italy must in large part reflect a big (12.1%, or €3,300) slump in average prosperity per person since 2001 – which, coincidentally (or not?) was the year before Italy joined the euro.

In short, the SEEDS interpretation is that the rise of so-called “populism” across much of the West reflects a deterioration in prosperity which conventional economics is wholly unable to capture.

This means that policymakers are trying to make decisions in a context quite different from the information that they have to go on.

The main purpose of SEEDS isn’t political prediction, though the system’s track-record in this field is rather impressive. Rather, the aim is to calibrate prosperity – something which conventional economics has become increasingly unable to do – and to draw economic and financial conclusions on this basis.

China – some warning signs

The next pair of charts, which look at China, display SEEDS’ interpretative capability on an issue of current importance. The first chart illustrates that, whilst GDP per capita continues to grow at rates of over 6% per annum, prosperity is increasing at a much more sedate pace, trending higher at rates of around 2% annually.

China sustainablejpg_Page1

Meanwhile, and as shown in the second chart, China is paying a huge price for growth in GDP, having added RMB 4.30 of net new debt for each RMB 1.00 of reported growth over the last ten years. Put another way, a large proportion of “growth” in recorded GDP amounts to nothing more than the simple spending of borrowed money.

This is by no means unique to China, of course. Before 2008, pouring credit into the economy, and calling the result “growth”, was a practice largely confined to the West. Since GFC I, this practice has spread to much of the emerging world.

Meanwhile, the West has moved on to new follies. To the “credit adventurism” which preceded the first crash has been added the even more dangerous “monetary adventurism” which is likely to trigger the second.

Watching this progression, you might well conclude that those deciding policy are ‘making it up as they go along’. That, of course, is about all they can do, if the interpretations on which they base their thinking have ceased to be valid.

Risk recalibrated

Where China is concerned, SEEDS puts a wholly different slant on risk exposure. The ratio of debt to prosperity has climbed from 217% back in 2007 to 613% now, and is set to reach 660% by the end of this year. These compare with debt-to-GDP ratios of 162% in 2007, and 309% now.

You don’t need to be unduly pessimistic to appreciate that this trajectory has become wholly unsustainable – and by no means just in China. Yet this scale of risk is something that the preferred conventional measure – the ratio of debt to GDP – simply fails to capture. Much the same applies to the measurement of systemic risk in banking, where comparing financial assets with prosperity shows levels of risk far higher than are indicated by ratios based on GDP.

This is a subject for a future discussion, but we can observe here that countries whose banking systems are disproportionately large are living with exposure whose severity cannot be measured realistically with established techniques.

Debt mis-measured

The explanation for the mismatch in debt ratios, by the way, is pretty simple. Much of any increase in debt finds its way into expenditure, thus pushing up apparent GDP in a way which damps down the measured implications of debt escalation. As we’ll see, where SEEDS differs is that it uses underlying or “clean” output numbers, adjusted to exclude the way in which GDP is boosted by the simple spending of borrowed money.

Given the sheer scale of worldwide borrowing in recent years, understanding how the conventional debt-to-GDP measure is flawed helps us to appreciate why the next financial crisis (“GFC II”), when it comes, will doubtless be regarded as just as much of an ‘unpredictable’ event as the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC). Though there are many ‘popular misconceptions’ in this area (including the ‘safety’ supposedly conferred on the banking system by higher reserve ratios), the debt-to-GDP ratio remains one of the most misleading of the lot.

The reality is that, far from taking us by surprise, many events and trends are eminently predictable. Looking back at the British chart, for instance, you’ll readily appreciate why customer-facing sectors such as retailing, pubs and restaurants are going through a fire-storm of failures and closures. Contrary to ‘expert’ opinion, this melt-down owes very little to “Brexit” (yet, anyway), and almost everything to the erosion of customers’ ability to spend.

Globally, SEEDS reveals levels of risk exposure that are very different from anything you can glean from conventional econometrics. Taking debt as an example, the ratio of debt to world GDP now stands at 215% of GDP, a ratio not dramatically worse than it was in 2007 (179%). For SEEDS, though, the ratio of debt to prosperity is not only much higher (327%) than the conventional measure, but has worsened very markedly since 2007 (229%).

How, then, does SEEDS arrive at these conclusions?

“Something missing”

Put simply, SEEDS fills a gaping hole in how the economy is understood. It’s become increasingly clear, over an extended period, that the ability of conventional economics to provide interpretation and guidance has been breaking down. Policy levers that once worked pretty well seem now to have lost their effectiveness. This means that individuals and businesses, no less than governments, are unable to grasp what is really going on in the economy and finance.

Since the interpretive and predictive abilities of conventional economics are failing, it’s clear that “something is missing” from accepted thinking. Equally clearly, this missing component has now assumed greater importance than it had in the past. So what we’re for looking is a gap in understanding which is more important today than it was, say, twenty years ago.

The view taken here is that the missing ‘something’ is energy. There are at least two reasons why this ought to come as no surprise at all.

First, it’s observable, throughout history, that three data series have progressed in something very close to lock-step. These series are: energy consumption; population numbers; and the economic output that supports that population. From the late 1700s, when first we accessed the huge amounts of energy tied up in fossil fuels, all three series have become exponential. This is illustrated in the next chart, which compares population and energy consumption over two millenia. (For much of the early period, energy wasn’t traded, so we can’t quantify exactly how much was used, but we do know that the numbers were extremely small).

Population and energyjpg_Page1

Second, you only have to picture an economy suddenly starved of power to appreciate quite how utterly dependent all economic, financial, social and political systems are on the continuity of energy supply. Cut off this supply in its entirety for as little as 24 hours and chaos would ensue. It’s likely that a relatively short period without energy would be enough to turn chaos into collapse.

Both observations are so obvious that the absolute primacy of energy in the economy should be clear to everyone. The idea that energy is somehow ‘just another input’ is facile in the extreme. There is literally no service or commodity than can be supplied without it. Clearly, energy is much more important than just one a part of a sub-set of materials, itself one of the five inputs to economic activity (the others being labour, capital, knowledge and management).

What has changed?

We can be confident, then, that energy is the ‘something’ that is missing from the conventional understanding of the economy. Equally, though, if it’s missing now, then it was missing in the past, too – yet its absence has become more important over time.

So it’s not just energy itself that has been left out of the equation, but something dynamic (changing) within energy itself.

A long-standing interpretation of the energy economy has been scarcity. It’s logical that reserves of fossil fuels are finite; that consumption has increased exponentially over time; and that we’ve exploited the most economically attractive resources first, leaving less profitable alternatives for later. This process is known as depletion, and is the logic informing ‘peak oil’ – a thesis that ‘cornucopians’ dispute, but which may yet turn out to have been right all along.

The critical issue – cost

SEEDS, though, isn’t based on resource exhaustion. Where the critical role of energy is concerned, the alternative (though not necessarily conflicting) interpretation is that it’s cost, rather than quantity, which is critical.

Whenever we access energy, some of that energy is always consumed in the access process, and what remains – surplus energy – is the enabler of all economic activity, other than the supply of energy itself.

This relationship is often measured as a ratio known as EROEI (the Energy Return on Energy Invested, sometimes abbreviated EROI). The scientific argument supporting EROEI is compelling, and is stated superbly here.

SEEDS uses an alternative measure, ECoE (the Energy Cost of Energy), which expresses cost as a percentage of the gross energy accessed.

Because the world economy is a closed system, ECoE is not directly analogous to ‘cost’ in the usual financial sense. Rather, it is an economic rent, limiting the choice we exercise over any given quantity of energy. If we have 100 units of energy, and the ECoE is 5%, we exercise choice (or ‘discretion’) over 95 units. If ECoE rises to 10%, we now have discretion over only 90 units, even though the gross amount remains 100.

This is loosely analogous to personal prosperity. If someone’s income remains the same, but the cost of essentials rises, that person is worse off, even though income itself hasn’t changed.

Understanding ECoE

ECoE evolves over time. In the early stages of any given resource, ECoE is driven downwards by geographic reach, and by economies of scale. Once maturity is reached, depletion takes over as the driver, pushing ECoE upwards.

In the pre-maturity phase, technology accelerates the fall in ECoE driven by reach and scale. Post-maturity, technology acts to mitigate the rise caused by depletion. But – and this is often misunderstood – the capabilities of technology are limited to the envelope of the physical characteristics of the resource.

Over time, the trend in ECoE is parabolic (see illustration). Today, renewables remain on the downwards slope, but the ECoEs of fossil fuels are now emphatically on the upwards curve.

The same is true of overall ECoE, because fossil fuels still account for nearly 90% of energy supply, whilst renewables contribute less than 4%.

Parabolajpg_Page1

Even though renewables’ share of total energy supply is rising, it’s unlikely that this will stem, let alone reverse, the upwards trend in overall ECoE. Critically, technologies such as wind and solar power remain substantially dependent on inputs sourced from ‘legacy’ energy. We have yet to demonstrate that we can build solar panels, wind turbines or their associated infrastructure without recourse to energy from oil, gas or coal.

To this extent, the outlook for ECoEs in the renewables sector remains geared to the ECoEs of fossil fuels.

A critical point here is that, once on the upwards slope of the parabola, the rise in ECoE is exponential. According to SEEDS, global ECoE has risen from 3.5% in 1998 to 5.4% in 2008 and 8.0% now, and is projected to reach 10% by 2028.

For obvious reasons, details of the ECoE calculations used by SEEDS are not disclosed. This said, separate trajectories for fossil fuels and renewables are published, as are the global ECoE curve, and its national equivalents. (The aim is to give readers the maximum information consistent with not enabling any organisation to build a SEEDS-type system).

Some pointers, however, can be provided.

First, ECoEs are calculated on a fuel-by-fuel basis over time.

Second, and reflecting the nature of the main drivers, ECoEs evolve gradually, so SEEDS always cites trend ECoEs.

Third, the ECoE for any given country at any given moment, and the way in which this number changes over time, are determined by the mix of energy sources used, and by trade effects, where the country is a net importer or exporter of energy.

Relating ECoE to output – clean GDP

With ECoE established, it might appear that all we need to do now is deduct this number from GDP to arrive at prosperity, which is the corollary of surplus energy, expressed in monetary units.

Unfortunately, things are not this simple.

As we’ve seen, the tendency over an extended period has been to boost apparent GDP though processes known here as credit and monetary adventurism. The adoption of these policies can be seen, in part at least, as a response to a deterioration in rates of growth which began to take effect in or around the late 1990s, as rising ECoEs started to bite.

Comparing 2008 with 2000, reported “growth” of $26 trillion was accompanied by a $58tn increase in debt. The ratio between the two was thus $2.20 of new debt for each $1 of reported growth, though ratios were far higher than this in most Western economies.

Between 2008 and 2017, the ratio of borrowing to growth rose to 3.26:1, with $94tn of debt added alongside growth of $29tn. Furthermore, the latter period also witnessed the emergence of enormous shortfalls in the adequacy of pension provision, which have worsened by close to $100tn since 2008. This destruction of pension value is almost wholly attributable to a policy-induced collapse in returns on investment.

It almost defies credulity that we are asked to accept “growth” of $29tn as genuine whilst ignoring $94tn of net new debt, $28tn of newly-created QE liquidity and the destruction of almost $100tn of pension value.

According to SEEDS, real growth over that period wasn’t $29tn but $9.9tn, and even this calculation might be generous when set against the scale at which the aggregate balance sheet has been trashed over that period.

This calculation also means that GDP, reported at $127tn for 2017, falls to just $90tn on a clean, ex-manipulation basis – and even this, of course, is before we allow for ECoE, whose global cost has increased by 58%, from $4.5tn in 2008 to $6.9tn last year.

The following charts illustrate this situation, expressed in PPP-converted dollars at constant 2017 values. The left-hand chart shows GDP, both as reported and as adjusted by SEEDS to exclude the impact of the simple spending of borrowed money. The second chart shows debt, both as actual numbers and as the trend that would have occurred had debt grown at the same annual rates as reported GDP.

The difference between the red and black debt lines thus corresponds to debt growth in excess of percentage increases in GDP.

GDP & clean debtjpg_Page1

When examining these charts, it’s important to note the differences in the vertical axes, meaning that we’re dealing with movements at different orders of magnitude.

Between 2000 and 2017, GDP (as reported) increased by $55tn (76%) in real terms. But debt more than doubled, growing by 126%, or $152tn, from $121tn in 2000 to $273tn in 2017.

Borrowing $152tn to achieve growth of $55tn is not only unsustainable, but surely makes it clear beyond doubt that most of the supposed “growth” in GDP is simply the effect of pouring borrowed liquidity into the economy.

Implications of credit-fuelled GDP

From this, two things follow. The first is that a cessation of debt escalation would reduce growth dramatically – if debt ratios remained at current levels, no longer increasing, then GDP might continue to expand, but probably at rates of barely 1% annually, compared to the 3% and more claimed by reported numbers. Without continued increases in indebtedness, GDP could be expected to fall in most Western economies, whilst rates of growth in the emerging economies would slow markedly.

The second is that, if the excessive borrowing of recent years were to be reversed, GDP would slump, laying bare the extent to which the “growth” recorded since 2000 has been debt-inflated. On this latter point, debt stood at 168% of GDP in 2000, and now stands at 215%. Getting back to the 168% level would require deleveraging of almost $60tn, and the consequences of this for GDP are best left to the imagination.

If you put this $60tn figure alongside the scale of QE (about $28tn) – and add the massive (perhaps $100tn) of pension adequacy impairment, too – you’ll see how far out of reach any definition of financial ‘normality’ really is.

For all practical purposes, we are stuck with negative (sub-inflation) interest rates, ultra-cheap credit and negligible returns on invested capital until this combination of forces reaches its logical conclusion.

Corroboration

The calculation of ‘clean’ – ex-borrowing – output is undertaken using an algorithm which it would be folly to disclose, because to do so would be to hand an important methodology to those who don’t have an equivalent (though, pretty obviously, they need one).

But this doesn’t mean that we’re without at least three forms of corroborative evidence.

The first is to be found in the content of the “growth” reported in recent years. Data for the United States for the period between 2006 and 2016 illustrates this point.

Over that period, the American economy grew by $2.3tn at constant values. Of this growth, increases in the net export of services contributed 7%, or $159bn. The remaining 93% ($1.97tn) came from internally-consumed services (ICS), including finance and real estate (+$628bn) and government activity (+$272bn, excluding transfer payments).

Together, the combined contribution to this growth from globally-marketable output (GMO) – that is, manufacturing, construction, agriculture and the extractive industries, all of which are traded on a worldwide basis – was zero.

In other words, virtually all growth has occurred in activities where Americans pay each other for services that cannot be marketed to foreign customers. This is the classic profile of an economy relying for growth on ramping up its debt.

This has by no means been a phenomenon limited to the United States. Rather, it’s been visible across the West. In the emerging economies, and especially in China, the pattern has been different, with borrowed funds being channelled into the creation of capacity. But this borrowing, too, inflates consumption, because these activities act as conduits which push borrowed money into the pockets of those employed building capacity.

A second way of corroborating the debt-funded nature of reported “growth” is to examine the circumstances of the average person. If GDP growth (and, therefore, its per capita equivalent) was organic and sustainable, prosperity would be rising as well. That this isn’t the case is apparent in various metrics. One of these is real wages, and another is the comparison between incomes and the cost of essentials.

Critically, debt per person has risen by much more than per capita GDP, something which isn’t consistent with the improving prosperity implied by reported GDP. Again using the United States as an example, and stating all numbers at 2017 values, GDP per capita increased by 6.5%, or $3,620, between 2007 and 2017. But debt per capita was $22,400 (18%) higher at the end of 2017 than it had been ten years earlier.

Prosperity

To get from GDP to prosperity, then, two stages are involved. The first is to arrive at a ‘clean’ GDP number by removing the distortions introduced by pouring cheap credit into consumption. The second is to deduct ECoE from this underlying number.

The results show a deterioration in prosperity across all major Western economies other than Germany. Typically, Western citizens are getting poorer at rates of between 0.5% and 1% annually.

Moreover, the share of debt – personal, business and government – that these citizens are required to support on the back of dwindling prosperity has grown markedly. Because servicing this debt at normal (above-inflation) interest rates has become impossible, we are locked into monetary policies which are themselves destructive.

Though the citizens of emerging economies continue to enjoy increasing prosperity, their debt, too, is rising. For example, the average Chinese person is 41% more prosperous than he or she was back in 2007 – but the per capita equivalent of debt has quadrupled over the same period.

Worldwide, continued growth in EM prosperity has matched the deterioration in the developed West, meaning that average prosperity has flat-lined – but the ratio of debt to world prosperity has continued to rise markedly.

So, globally, we’re not getting richer, and we’re not getting poorer – but we are getting ever further into debt, whilst pension provision is falling ever further away from where it ought to be.

In short, SEEDS concludes that a string of observations often taken for granted are simply misleading. Output per capita isn’t growing, and most Westerners are getting poorer, not richer.

Take these observations on board and a lot of things that might have seemed inexplicable – including political outcomes, rising trade conflicts and many other stresses – all of a sudden fit into a logical pattern.

And it’s a pattern that‘s looking ever less sustainable.

 

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#129 stats annex 20062018