#143: Fire and ice, part one

TRAUMA FOR THE TAX-MAN

Is 2019 the year when everything starts falling apart?

It certainly feels that way.

The analogy I’m going to use in this and subsequent discussions is ‘fire and ice’.

Ice, in the potent form of glaciers, grinds slowly, but completely, crushing everything in its path. Whole landscapes have been shaped by these icy juggernauts.

Fire, on the other hand, can cause almost instantaneous devastation, most obviously when volcanoes erupt. Back in 1815, the explosion of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) poured into the atmosphere quantities of volcanic ash on such a vast scale that, in much of the world, the sun literally ceased to shine. As a result, 1816 became known as “the year without a summer”. As low temperatures and heavy rain destroyed harvests and killed livestock, famine gripped much of Europe, Asia and North America, bringing with it soaring food prices, looting, riots, rebellions, disease and high mortality. Even art and literature seem to have been influenced by the lack of a summer.

The economic themes we’ll be exploring here have characteristics both of fire and of ice. The decline in prosperity is glacial, both in its gradual pace and its ability to grind assumptions, and systems, into the ground. Other events are likelier to behave like wild-fires or volcanoes, given to rapid and devastating outbursts, with little or no prior warning.

Fiscal issues, examined in this first instalment of ‘fire and ice’, have the characteristics of both. The scope for taxing the public is going to be subjected to gradual but crushing force, whilst the hard choices made inevitable by this process are highly likely to provoke extremely heated debate and resistance.

Let’s state the fiscal issue in the starkest terms:

– Massive credit and monetary adventurism have inflated GDP to the point where it bears little or no resemblance to the prosperity experienced by the public.

– But governments continue to set taxation as a percentage of GDP.

– As GDP and prosperity diverge, this results in taxation exacting a relentlessly rising share of prosperity.

– Governments then fail to understand the ensuing popular anger.

France illustrates this process to dramatic effect. Taxation is still at 54% of GDP, roughly where it’s been for many years. This no doubt persuades the authorities that they’ve not increased the burden of taxation. But tax now absorbs 70% of French prosperity, leading to the results that we’ve witnessed on the streets of Paris and other French towns and cities.

Few certainties

It’s been said that the two certainties in life are “death and taxes”, but ‘debt and taxes’ hold the key to fiscal challenges understood improperly – if at all – by most governments. The connection here is that debt (or rather, the process of borrowing) affects recorded GDP in ways which provide false comfort about the affordability of taxation – and therefore, of course, about the affordability of public services.

The subject of taxation, seen in terms of prosperity, leads straight to popular discontent, though that has other causes too. In order to have a clear-eyed understanding of public anger, by the way, we need to stick to what the facts tell us. I’ve never been keen on excuses like “the dog ate my homework” or “a space-man from Mars stole my wallet” – likewise, we should ignore any narrative which portrays voter dissatisfaction as wholly the product of “populism”, or of “fake news”, or even of machinations in Moscow or Beijing. All of these things might exist – but they don’t explain what’s happening to public attitudes.

The harsh reality is that, because prosperity has deteriorated right across the advanced economies of the West, we’re facing an upswell of popular resentment, at the same time as having to grapple with huge debt and monetary risk.

If you wanted to go anywhere encouraging, you wouldn’t start from here.

The public certainly has reasons enough for discontent. In the Western world, prosperity has been deteriorating for a long time, a process exacerbated by higher taxation. The economic system has been brought into disrepute, mutating from something at least resembling ‘the market economy’ into something seemingly serving only the richest. As debt has risen, working conditions, and other forms of security, have been eroded. We can count ourselves fortunate that the public doesn’t know – yet – that the pensions system has been sacrificed as a financial ‘human shield’ to prop up the debt edifice.

This at least sets an agenda, whether for 2019 or beyond. The current economic paradigm is on borrowed time, whilst public support can be expected to swing behind parties promoting redistribution, economic nationalism and curtailment of migration. Politicians who insist on clinging on to ‘globalised liberalism’ are likely to sink with it. The tax base is shrinking, requiring new priorities in public expenditure.

If you had to tackle this at all, you wouldn’t choose to do it with the “everything bubble” likely to burst, bringing in its wake both debt defaults and currency crises. But this process looks inescapable. With its modest incremental rate rises, so derided by Wall Street and the White House, the Fed may be trying to manage a gradual deflation of bubbles. If so, its intentions are worthy, but its chances of success are poor.

And, when America’s treasury chief asks banks to reassure the markets about liquidity and margin debt, you know (if you didn’t know already) that things are coming to the boil.

Tax – leveraging the pain

If it seems a little odd to start this series with fiscal affairs, please be assured that these are very far from mundane – indeed, they’re likely to shape much of the political and economic agenda going forward. The biggest single reason for upsets is simply stated – where prosperity and the ability to pay tax are concerned, policymakers haven’t a clue about what’s already happening.

Here’s an illustration of what that reality is. Expressed at constant values, personal prosperity in France decreased by €2,060, or 7.5%, between 2001 (€29,315) and 2017 (€27,250).

At first glance, you might be surprised that this has led to such extreme public anger, something not witnessed in countries where prosperity has fallen further. Over the same period, though, taxation per person in France has increased by €2,980. When we look at how much prosperity per person has been left with the individual, to spend as he or she chooses, we find that this “discretionary” prosperity has fallen from €13,210 in 2001 to just €8,230 in 2017.

That’s a huge fall, of €4,980, or 38%. Nobody else in Europe has suffered quite such a sharp slump in discretionary prosperity – and tax rises are responsible for more than half of it.

This chart shows how increases in taxation have leveraged the deterioration in personal prosperity in eight Western economies. The blue bars show the change in overall prosperity per capita between 2001 and 2017. Increases in taxation per person are shown in red.

#143 01

In the United Kingdom, for example, economic prosperity has deteriorated by 9.8% since 2001, but higher taxation has translated this into a 29.5% slump in discretionary prosperity. Interestingly, economic prosperity in Germany actually increased (by 8.2%) over the period, but higher taxes translated into a fall at the level of discretionary prosperity per person.

Prosperity and tax – Scylla and Charybdis

The next pair of charts, which use the United Kingdom to illustrate a pan-Western issue, show a problem which is already being experienced by the tax authorities, but is not understood by them.

The left-hand chart (expressed in sterling at constant 2017 values) shows a phenomenon familiar to any regular visitor to this site, but not understood within conventional economics. Essentially, GDP (in blue) and prosperity (in red) are diverging.

This is happening for two main reasons. One is the underlying uptrend in the energy cost of energy (ECoE). The second is the use of credit and monetary adventurism to create apparent “growth” in GDP in the face of secular stagnation. This, of course, helps explain why people are feeling poorer despite apparent increases in GDP per capita. Total taxation is shown in black, to illustrate the role of tax within the prosperity picture.

The right-hand chart shows taxation as percentages of GDP (in blue) and prosperity (in red). In Britain, taxation has remained at a relatively stable level in relation to GDP, staying within a 34-35% band ever since 1998, before rising to 36% in 2016 and 37% in 2017.

Measured as a percentage of prosperity, however, the tax burden has risen relentlessly, from 35% in 1998, and 44% in 2008, to 51% in 2017.

#143 02

Simply put, the authorities seem to be keeping taxation at an approximately constant level against GDP, not realising that this pushes the tax incidence upwards when measured against prosperity. The individual, however, understands this all too well, even if its causes remain obscure.

What this means, in aggregate and at the individual level, are illustrated in the next set of charts. These show the aggregate position in billions, and the per capita equivalent in thousands, of pounds sterling at 2017 values.

#143 03

As taxation rises roughly in line with GDP – but grows much more rapidly in terms of prosperity – discretionary prosperity, shown here in pink, becomes squeezed between the Scylla of falling prosperity and the Charybdis of rising taxation. The charts which follow are annotated to highlight how this ‘wedge effect’ is undermining discretionary prosperity.

#143 04

Finally, where the numbers are concerned, here’s the equivalent situation in France. As far back as 1998, tax was an appreciably larger proportion of GDP in France (51%) than in the United Kingdom (34%). By 2017, tax was absorbing 54% of GDP in France, compared with 37% in Britain.

This means that taxation in France already equates to 70% of prosperity, up from 53% in 1998. Even though the squeeze on overall prosperity (the pink triangle) has been comparatively modest so far (since 2001, a fall of 7.5%), the impact on discretionary prosperity (the blue triangle) has been extremely severe (39%). This is why so many French people are angry – and why their anger has crystallised around taxation.

#143 05

The political fall-out

When you understand taxation in relation to prosperity, you appreciate a challenge which the authorities in Western countries (and beyond) have yet to comprehend. Most of them probably think that, going forward, they can carry on pushing up taxation roughly in line with supposed “growth” in GDP. Presumably, they also assume that the public will accept this fiscal trajectory.

If they do make these assumptions, they’re in for a very rude awakening. The modest tax tinkering implemented in France, for instance, is most unlikely to quell the anger, even though it’s set to widen the deficit appreciably.

Politically, the leveraging effect of rising taxation feeds into a broader agenda which, so far, is either misinterpreted, or just not recognised at all, by the governing establishment.

Here, simply stated, are some of the issues with which governments are confronted:

Prosperity per person is continuing to deteriorate, typically at annual rates of between 0.5% and 1.1%, across the Western economies.

Rising taxation is worsening this trend, leading increasingly to popular resistance.

– The public believes (and not without reason) that immigration is exacerbating the decline in prosperity, both at the total and at the discretionary levels.

– Perceptions are that a small minority of “the rich” are getting wealthier whilst almost everyone else is getting poorer.

Politicians are seen as both heedless of the majority predicament and complicit in the enrichment of a minority.

The popular demands which follow from this are pretty clear.

Voters are going to be angered by the decline in their prosperity, and will become increasingly resistant to taxation. The greatest resentment will centre around “regressive” taxes, such as sales taxes and flat-rate levies, which hit poorest taxpayers hardest.

They’re going to demand more redistribution, meaning higher taxes on “the rich”, not just where income taxes are concerned, but also extending to taxes on wealth, capital gains and transactions.

Popular opposition to immigration is likely to intensify, as prosperity deteriorates and tax bites harder.

Finally, public anger about former ministers and administrators retiring into very lucrative employment is going to go on mounting.

A challenge – and an opportunity?

In terms of electoral politics, most established parties are singularly ill-equipped to confront these issues. Some on “the Left” do embrace the need for redistribution, but almost invariably think this is going to fund increases in public expenditures, which simply isn’t going to be possible.

Others oppose increasing taxes on the wealthiest, and fail to appreciate that fiscal mathematics, quite apart from public sentiment, are making this process inescapable.

On both sides of the conventional political divide there is, as yet, no awareness that economic trends are going to exert glacier-style downwards pressure on public spending. Nowhere within the political spectrum is there recognition of the consequent need to set new, more stringent priorities. In areas such as health and policing, declining real budgets mean that policymakers face hard choices between which activities can continue to be funded, and those which will have quietly to be dropped.

It seems almost inconceivable that established parties are going to recognise what faces them, and adapt accordingly. The “Left” is likely to cling to dreams of higher public expenditures, whilst the “Right” will try to fend off higher taxation of the wealthiest. Even insurgent (aka “populist”) parties probably have no idea about the tightening squeeze on what they can afford to offer to the voters. It’s likely that very few people in senior positions yet realise that an ultra-lucrative retirement into “consultancies” and “the lecture circuit” is set to become electorally toxic.

Politically, of course, problems for some can be opportunities for others. It wouldn’t be all that hard to craft an agenda which capitalises on these trends, promising, for example, much greater redistribution, ultra-tight limits on immigration, and capping the retirement earnings of the policy elite.

If you did promise these things, you’d probably be elected. Unfortunately, though, that’s the easy bit. The hard part is going to be grappling with the continuing decline in prosperity at the same time as fending off a financial crash.

How, having been voted into power, are you going to tell the voters that we’re all getting poorer, and that some public services are ceasing to be affordable within an ever more rigorous setting of priorities? And are they going to believe you when you tell them that the destruction of pensions is entirely the work of your predecessors? Finally, what are you going to do when one of the big endangered economies fails?

 

#142: Past, present and future

LOOKING BACK AND LOOKING FORWARD

As we near the end of a year that can certainly be called ‘interesting’, I’d like to reflect on what’s happened, what’s happening now, and what we might expect to happen going forward. I can’t be sure that this is the last article for 2018 but, in case it is, I’d like to thank everyone for their interest, their comments and their many invaluable contributions to the themes we discuss here – and, of course, to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy and successful New Year.

Where Surplus Energy Economics, this site and SEEDS are concerned, this has been a memorable year. SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – was finally completed in early 2018, and, amongst other things, this has freed up time for more thematic analysis. It’s both humbling and gratifying to know that about 44,000 people have visited the site this year, another big increase over the preceding twelve months. Most importantly – though this is for you to judge – I like to think we’ve developed a pretty persuasive narrative of how the economy works, and how things are trending.

We can take less satisfaction in what we see around us. According to SEEDS, most of the Western economies have now been getting poorer for at least a decade – and, ominously, the ability of the emerging market economies to grow enough to offset this deterioration, and keep global prosperity static, seems to have ended. World prosperity per person has been on a remarkably long plateau at around $11,000 (constant values, PPP-converted), but has now started to erode.

Deteriorating prosperity might be ‘a new fact’ in the world as a whole, but it’s an established reality in the West – with the single exception of Germany (rather a special case), no developed economy covered by SEEDS has enjoyed any improvement in prosperity at all since 2007. In most cases, the decline in personal prosperity has been happening for longer than that. But our societies seem to have learned almost nothing about what’s going on – and, until the processes are understood, crafting effective responses is impossible.

Historians of the future are likely to be bemused by our futile efforts to escape from the energy dynamic in the economy. From the turn of the millennium, we started pouring ever larger amounts of debt into the system. This led, with utter inevitability, to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC I).

Undeterred, we then compounded cheap and abundant debt with ever cheaper money, yet the inevitable consequences of this process will still, no doubt, be declared both ‘a surprise’ and ‘a shock’ when they happen. We surely should know by now that we have an “everything bubble” propped up by ultra-cheap money, and that bubbles always burst. If there’s any sense in which “this time is different”, it is that, since 2008, we’ve taken risks not just with the banking system, but with money itself.

The death of debt?

There’s one theme which, though we’ve touched on it before, really needs to be spelled out. Throughout the era of growth, we’ve come to accept the process of borrowing and lending as a natural component of our economic system. Indeed, this practice long pre-dates the industrial age, when borrowing and lending, which then was more commonly called “usury” (the lending of money for interest), began to be de-criminalised after Christian Europe had been shaken up by the Reformation.

Leaving theological and ethical issues aside, we need to be clear that the process of borrowing and lending is a product of growth, because debt can only ever be repaid (and, indeed, serviced) where the prosperity of the borrower grows over time.

For simplicity, we can divide debt into two categories. If someone borrows money to expand a successful business, it is the growth in the income of the business which alone enables interest to be paid and the capital amount, too, to be reimbursed in due course. This is termed “self-liquidating debt”.

“Non-self-liquidating debt”, on the other hand, is typified by the loans consumers take out to pay for a holiday, buy a car or replace a domestic appliance. Here, the borrower is buying something which he or she cannot afford out of current income, and the only way in which this can be repaid is if the borrower’s prosperity increases over time.

Take away the assumed growth in prosperity, however, and both forms of borrowing cease to be viable. “Self-liquidating” debt assumes that an expanded business can earn greater profits, but it’s hard to count on this when potential customers are getting poorer. As for “non-self-liquidating” debt, the all-important rise in the borrower’s means can no longer be relied upon when people generally are getting poorer.

In short, the very process of borrowing and lending is likely to be stripped of its viability as prosperity declines. This should be an extremely sobering thought in a world which is awash with debt, and where supplying cheap credit is seen as a panacea for economic stagnation.

You might well ponder at least two things about this. First, what happens to the large quantities of debt owed by those Western economies whose prosperity has already moved significantly along the downwards curve? Second, what happens to asset prices in a world where the credit impetus goes into reverse?

Reflecting on the essential linkage between debt and growth, you might also wonder why we’re not already seeing the debt edifice crumbling. There are two main answers to this. The first is that the debt structure has been buttressed by de-prioritising another form of futurity – simply put, we’ve already created huge (and burgeoning) gaps in pension provision as part of the price of preserving the edifice of debt.

The second answer is simpler still – we’ve not seen the debt edifice start to crumble yet……

Feeling the pain

People across the Western world certainly seem to know that their prosperity is eroding, and they’re far from happy about it. We can see the effects both in political choices and in rising popular discontent. If you understand deteriorating prosperity, then you understand political events in America, Britain, Italy, France and far beyond – events which, if you didn’t understand the economic process, must seem both baffling and malign.

Though understandable, anger isn’t a constructive emotion, and what we really need is coolly analytical interpretation, understanding and planning. If it’s true that we’re not getting this from government, then it’s equally true that government reflects the climate of opinion. We can hardly expect governments to understand the economic realities when opinion-formers stick resolutely to conventional interpretation. It’s more surprising that conventional methods still command adherence as outcomes continue to diverge ever further from expectations.

Making glib promises is part and parcel of politics and, in fairness, those who don’t do this can expect to lose out to those who do. What is more disturbing is the continued promotion of economic extremism. Nationalising everything in sight won’t work, and neither will dismantling the state and turning the economy into a deregulated, ‘law of the jungle’ free-for-all.

Over the years, we’ve tried both, and should know by now that the lot of the ‘ordinary person’ isn’t bettered by these extremes. At least, when prosperity was still growing, we could live with the price of ideological purity – now that prosperity (in the West, at least) has turned down, though, these consequences are something that we can no longer afford.

If you think about it, the extremes either of collectivism or of ‘laissez faire’ have always been absurdly simplistic. Have we ever really believed that benign apparatchiks can manage things better than people can do for themselves? Or that unfettered ‘capitalism’, which concentrates wealth and power just as surely as collectivism, can do things better? Perhaps most importantly, why do so many of us persist in the view that possessions, material wealth and nebulous ideas of relative ‘status’ are a definition of happiness?

Logically, deteriorating prosperity means that we concentrate on necessities and dispense with some luxuries. Amongst the luxuries that we can no longer afford are ideological extremes, and an outlook founded wholly or largely on ownership and consumerism.

The need for ideas

The good news is that we’re not going into this new era wholly lacking in knowledge. The trick is to understand what that knowledge really is. Keynes teaches us how to manage demand – or can teach us this, so long as we don’t turn him into a cheerleader for ever bigger public spending. Likewise – if we can refrain from caricaturing him as a rabid advocate of unregulated and unscrupulous greed – Adam Smith tells us that competition, freely, fairly and transparently conducted, is the great engine of innovation. More humbly, or perhaps less theoretically, but surely more pertinently, experience tells us that the “mixed economy” of optimised private and public provision works far better than any extreme.

Going forward, we should anticipate the collapse of the “everything bubble” in asset prices, and should hope that we don’t, this time, go so far into economic denial as to think we can cure this with a purely financial “fix”. I’m fond of saying that “trying to fix an energy-based economy with financial fixes is like trying to cure an ailing pot-plant with a spanner”. We should understand popular concerns, which seem to point unequivocally towards a mixed economy, extensive redistribution and an economic nationalism that needs to be channelled, not simply vilified.

Another, positive point on which to finish is that a deterioration in prosperity needn’t prevent us – indeed, should compel us – to make better use of the prosperity that we do have. There’s no situation which can’t be made worse by rash decisions, or made better by wise ones. The forces described here – economic trends, and their political and social corollaries – all contain the seeds (no pun intended…) of divisiveness. This being so, cohesion and common purpose have never been so important.

Togetherness, and concern for the welfare of others, are, and certainly should be, part of the fabric of Christmas. Seldom can these characteristics have been more important than they are now.

 

#140: Are yellow jackets the new fashion?

POPULAR UNREST IN AN AGE OF FALLING PROSPERITY

This weekend, the authorities plan to field 89,000 police officers across France in response to anticipated further mass protests by the ‘gilets jaunes’. In the capital, the Eiffel Tower will be closed and armoured cars deployed, whilst restaurateurs and shopkeepers are being urged to close their businesses at one of the most important times of their trading year.

Though the government has climbed down on the original cause célèbre – the rises in fuel taxes planned for next year – there seems to be no reduction in the worst protests experienced in the country since the 1960s. Reports suggest that as many as 70% of French citizens support the protestors, and that the movement may be spreading to Belgium and the Netherlands.

For the outside observer, the most striking features of the protests in France have been the anger clearly on display, and the rapid broadening of the campaign from fuel prices to a wider range of issues including wages, the cost of living and taxation.

The disturbances in France should be seen in a larger context. In France itself, Emmanuel Macron was elected president only after voters had repudiated all established political parties. Italians have entrusted their government to an insurgent coalition which is on a clear collision-course with the European Union over budgetary matters. The British have voted to leave the EU, and Americans have elected to the White House a man dismissed by ‘experts’ as a “joke candidate” throughout his campaign.

Obviously, something very important is going on – why?

Does economics explain popular anger?

There are, essentially, two different ways in which the events in France and beyond can be interpreted, and how you look at them depends a great deal on how you see the economic situation.

If you subscribe to the conventional and consensus interpretation, economic issues would seem to play only a supporting role in the wave of popular unrest sweeping much of the West. You would concede that the seemingly preferential treatment of a tiny minority of the very rich has angered the majority, and that some economic tendencies – amongst them, diminishing security of employment – have helped fuel popular unrest.

Beyond this, though, you would note that economies are continuing to grow, and this would force you to look for explanations outside the purely economic sphere. From this, you might conclude that ‘agitators’, from the right or left of the political spectrum, might be playing a part analogous to the role of “populist” politicians in fomenting public dissatisfaction with the status quo.

If, on the other hand, you subscribe to the surplus energy interpretation of the economy professed here, your view of the situation would concentrate firmly on economic issues.

Though GDP per capita may be continuing to improve, the same cannot be said of prosperity. According to SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System), personal prosperity in France has deteriorated by 7% since 2000, a trend starkly at variance with the growth (of 12%) in reported GDP over the same period.

Not only is the average French person poorer now than he or she was back in 2000, but each person’s share of the aggregate of household, business and government debt has increased by almost 70% since 2000. These findings are summarised in the following table, sourced from SEEDS.

France prosperity snapshot

Two main factors explain the divergence between the conventional and the surplus energy interpretations of the economy. One of these is the pouring of enormous quantities of cheap debt and cheap money into the system, a process which boosts recorded GDP without improving prosperity (for the obvious reason that you can’t become more prosperous just by spending borrowed money). The other is the exponential rise in the energy cost of energy (ECoE), a process which impacts prosperity by reducing the share of output which can be used for all purposes other than the supply of energy itself.

In France, and with all sums expressed in euros at constant 2017 values, GDP grew by 23% between 2000 and 2017. But this growth, whilst adding €433bn to GDP, was accompanied by a €3.07tn increase in aggregate debt. This means that each €1 of reported growth in the French economy has come at a cost of more than €7 in net new debt. Put another way, whilst French GDP is growing at between 1.5% and 2.0%, annual borrowing is running at about 9.5% of GDP.

Cutting to the chase here, SEEDS concludes that very little (about €100bn) of the reported €433bn rise in GDP since 2000 has been sustainable and organic, with the rest being a simple function of the spending of borrowed money. Shorn of this credit effect, underlying or clean GDP per capita is lower now (at €29,550) than it was in 2000 (€30,777).

Meanwhile, trend ECoE in France is put at 7.8%. Though by no means the worst amongst comparable economies, this nevertheless represents a relentless increase, rising from 4.6% back in 2000. At the individual or household level, rising ECoE is experienced primarily in higher costs of household essentials. In the aggregate, ECoE acts as an economic rent deduction from clean GDP.

Between 2000 and 2017, clean GDP itself increased by only 5.7%, and the rise in ECoE left French aggregate prosperity only marginally (2.2%) higher in 2017 than it was back in 2000. Over that same period, population numbers increased by 10%, meaning that prosperity per person is 7.1% lower now than it was at the millennium.

In France, as elsewhere, the use of credit and monetary adventurism in an effort to deliver “growth” has added markedly to the aggregate debt burden, which is €3.1tn (86%) higher now than it was in 2000. The per capita equivalent has climbed by 69%, making the average person €41,800 (69%) more indebted than he or she was back in 2000.

The prosperity powder-keg

To summarise, then, we can state the economic circumstances of the average French citizen as follows.

First, and despite a rise in official GDP per capita, his or her personal prosperity is 7.1% (€2,095) lower now than it was as long ago as 2000.

Second, he or she has per capita debt of €102,200, up from €60,400 back in 2000.

Third, the deterioration in prosperity has been experienced most obviously in costs of household essentials, which have outpaced both wages and headline CPI inflation over an extended period.

This is the context in which we need to place changes in the workplace, and a perceived widening in inequality.

On this latter point, part of the explanation for the anger manifested in France can be grasped from this chart, published by the Institut des Politiques Publiques.

In the current budget, policy changes hurt the disposable incomes of the poorest 10% or so (on the left of the scale), but ought to be welcomed by most of the rest – and perhaps might be, were it not for the huge handouts seemingly being given to the very wealthiest. Moreover, these benefits aren’t being conferred on a large swathe of “the rich”, but accrue only to the wealthiest percentile.

French budget 2

This is part of a pattern visible throughout much of the West. Unfortunately, perceptions of hand-outs to a tiny minority of the super-rich have arisen in tandem with a deteriorating sense of security. Security is a multi-faceted concept, which extends beyond security of employment to embrace prosperity, wages, living costs and public services.

Even in the euphoric period immediately following his election, it seemed surprising that French voters would back as president a man committed to ‘reform’ of French labour laws, a process likely to reduce workers’ security of employment. Add in further deterioration in prosperity, and an apparent favouring of the super-rich, and the ingredients for disaffection become pretty obvious.

Where next?

The interpretation set out here strongly indicates that protests are unlikely to die down just because the government has made some concessions over fuel taxes – the ‘gilet jaunes’ movement might have found its catalyst in diesel prices, but now embraces much wider sources of discontent.

Given the context of deteriorating prosperity, it’s hard to see how the government can respond effectively. Even the imposition of swingeing new taxes on the super-rich – a wildly unlikely initiative in any case – might not suffice to assuage popular anger. It seems likelier that the authorities will ramp up law enforcement efforts in a bid to portray the demonstrators as extremists. The scale of apparent support for the movement – if not for some of its wilder excesses – suggests that such an approach is unlikely to succeed.

Of course, it cannot be stressed too strongly that the French predicament is by no means unique. Deteriorating prosperity, a sense of reduced security and resentment about the perceived favouring of the super-rich are pan-European trends.

In the longer term, trends both in prosperity and in politics suggest that the West’s incumbent elites are fighting a rear-guard action. The credibility of their market economics mantra suffered severe damage in 2008, when market forces were not allowed to run to their logical conclusions, the result being a widespread perception that the authorities responded to the global financial crisis with rescues for “the rich” and “austerity” for everyone else.

This problem is exacerbated by the quirks of the euro system. In times past, a country like Italy would have responded to hardship by devaluation, which would have protected employment at the cost of gradual increases in the cost of living. Denied this option, weaker Euro Area countries – meaning most of them – have been forced into a process of internal devaluation, which in practice means reducing costs (and, principally, wages) in a way popularly labelled “austerity”. The combination of a single monetary policy with a multiplicity of sovereign budget processes was always an exercise in economic illiteracy, and the lack of automatic stabilisers within the euro system is a further grave disadvantage.

Finally, the challenge posed by deteriorating prosperity is made much worse by governments’ lack of understanding of what is really happening to the economy. If you were to believe that rising GDP per capita equates to improving prosperity – and if you further believed that ultra-low rates mean that elevated debt is nothing to worry about – you might really fail to understand what millions of ordinary people are so upset about.

After all, as somebody might once have said, they can always eat brioche.

= = = = = = =Pop per capita #141 5

#139: The surplus energy economy

HOW THE SYSTEM REALLY WORKS

According to conventional interpretation, the world economy faces no problems more serious than sluggish growth and rising tensions over trade. Though debt is high and asset prices are inflated, these issues are manageable within a monetary context that remains “accommodative” (meaning cheap).

Surplus Energy Economics offers a radically different and far more disturbing interpretation. Fundamentally, it states that global prosperity per person is now declining. This is a game-changer in terms not just of economics and finance but of politics and government, too. Deteriorating prosperity means that current debt levels are wholly unsustainable, and makes an asset market crash inescapable, even if the authorities persist with policies of ultra-cheap money.

This take on the economy could hardly be more starkly at odds with the consensus position. With due apologies to those regular readers for whom much of this is familiar fare, what follows is a synopsis of how the economic system is understood here. In stark contrast to conventional interpretations which portray the economy as a financial system, this article explains how, in reality, all economic activity is a function of energy.

As you will see, this simple observation turns the key in the door to an understanding of  how the economy has evolved in recent times, and where it is likely to go next.

Ever since the millennium, we have been engaged in trying to apply futile financial fixes to a deteriorating secular trend in energy-based prosperity. That’s akin to trying to fix an ailing pot-plant with a spanner. These efforts have bought us some time, but have caused serious economic, political and social harm without in any way changing the economic fundamentals.

Where planning and policy are concerned, we are in a truly peculiar situation. Those of us who understand prosperity know that the ongoing downturn is going to have profound consequences – but, as societies, we cannot even start crafting responses whilst consensus interpretation remains in a state of profound denial.

The energy economy

Surplus Energy Economics is a radically different interpretation which recognises that the economy is driven by energy, not by money. Energy is required for the supply of literally all of the goods and services that constitute the economy. Money, on the other hand, acts simply as an exchangeable claim on the products of the energy-based system.

Unfortunately, long habituation to economic expansion has led us into the false assumption that growth is a perpetual phenomenon on which the physical limitations of our planet have no bearing. The harder reality is that the characteristics of the earth as a resource package are the envelope which imposes boundaries on the scope for growth.

Human activity has always been an energy system, starting with the simple balancing of the inputs of nutritional energy with the outputs of labour energy required to obtain this nutrition. This equation was leveraged in our favour by the greater efficiencies introduced by agriculture, though the vast majority of labour remained dedicated to the supply of food. Only when the heat-engine enabled us to harness the vast energy potential of fossil fuels did we create conditions in which the securing of nutrients and other essentials became a minority activity.

The equation governing the value obtained from exogenous (non-human) forms of energy has two components.

The first is the total or gross quantity of energy to which we have access.

The second is the proportion of that total energy which is consumed in the process of accessing it, and therefore is not available for other purposes. The quantity consumed in the access process is described in Surplus Energy Economics as the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE).

The difference between the gross energy quantity and ECoE is surplus energy. Because this is the source of all goods and services other than the supply of energy itself, this surplus determines prosperity.

We can, of course, deploy this surplus with greater or lesser efficiency. But we cannot escape from the prosperity parameters imposed by the surplus energy dynamic.

The energy cost equation

The quantity of surplus energy-based prosperity available to us is determined by the relationship between energy resources and the technology we apply to them.

At the gross level, the limits to potential are determined, not by the resources available, but by the quantities which can be accessed in ways where ECoE is less than the total energy value obtained. This means that the concept of “running out of” oil, gas or coal is not meaningful. Rationally, reserves of oil, gas or coal whose ECoE exceeds their gross energy value are not worth accessing, so will remain in the ground.

Where fossil fuels are concerned (though the principle is universal), four factors determine ECoE. Over an extended period, ECoE was driven downwards by geographical reach and economies of scale. Once these processes had been maximised, however, the new governing factor became depletion, a consequence of having accessed lowest-cost resources first, and leaving costlier alternatives for later.

The fourth determinant, technology, operates within the physical envelope of resource characteristics. During the phase where reach and scale dominated, technology accelerated the downwards trend in ECoE. Now that depletion has become the primary factor, technology acts to mitigate the rate at which ECoE is rising.

It must clearly be understood, however, that technology cannot breach the resource envelope determined by physical characteristics. For example, new techniques have made shale oil cheaper to extract now than that same resource would have been at an earlier time. But what technology has not done is to imbue shale reservoirs with the same characteristics as a simple, giant oil field like Saudi Arabia’s Al Ghawar. Technology works within the laws of physics, but it cannot change those laws.

It is mathematically demonstrable that, like any type of linear progression, the ECoE curve is exponential. Population numbers illustrate the exponential function. If a population of 1,000,000 people increases by 5% in any given period, the addition in that period is 50,000. Once the base number rises to 10,000,000, however, the increment is 500,000, even though the rate of change remains 5%. When charted, exponential progressions appear as ‘j-curve’ or ‘hockey-stick’ patterns, their apparent shapes determined only by the scale of the quantity axis.

The ECoE trap

Energy sources such as oil, gas and coal have matured to the point where the maximum benefits of reach and scale have been attained, and depletion has become the dominating driver. Fossil fuel ECoEs reached the low point of their parabola in the two decades after 1945, and have since been rising exponentially.

According to the SEEDS model, the fossil fuel ECoE progression has been as follows:

  • 1980: 1.7%
  • 1990: 2.6%
  • 2000: 4.1%
  • 2010: 6.7%
  • 2020E: 10.5%
  • 2030E: 13.5%

Renewable energy sources remain at an immature stage at which ECoEs are falling. Taken together, the ECoE progression for renewables is stated by SEEDS at:

  • 1980: 16.7%
  • 1990: 14.2%
  • 2000: 13.3%
  • 2010: 12.1%
  • 2020E: 11.1%
  • 2030E: 10.2%

In pure calorific terms, the ECoEs of renewables are likely to become lower than those of fossil fuels at some point within the early 2020s.

This does not, however, mean that transitioning to renewables will enable us to escape from the fossil fuel “ECoE trap”. There are three main factors which make this unlikely.

First, renewables account for just 3.6% of all primary energy consumption, with fossil fuels continuing to contribute 85% (and the remaining 11% coming from nuclear and hydroelectric power).

Second, renewables remain to a large extent derivates of the fossil fuel economy, requiring inputs which can be supplied only with the use of energy from oil, gas or coal. This imposes a linkage between the ECoEs of renewables and those of fossil fuels.

Third, and relatedly, it is unlikely that the ECoEs of renewables can fall far enough to restore the efficiencies enjoyed in the early stages of fossil fuel abundance. The overall ECoE of renewables is projected by SEEDS to fall to 10.2% by 2030, but this remains drastically higher than the ECoE of fossil fuels as recently as 2000 (4.1%), let alone back in 1980 (1.7%).

The world ECoE trend for all form of primary energy is as follows:

  • 1980: 1.7%
  • 1990: 2.6%
  • 2000: 3.9%
  • 2010: 5.9%
  • 2020E: 8.3%
  • 2030E: 9.8%

 

Economic implications

With the economy understood as a surplus energy equation, the history of economic development fits a logical pattern.

Throughout the period from 1760 to 1965 – roughly speaking, from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the post-1945 low-point of the ECoE parabola – the world economy was characterised by rapid growth in aggregate prosperity. This translated into steady improvement in personal prosperity despite the huge growth in population numbers over that period.

This era was characterised by (i) expansion in the gross amounts of energy consumed, and (ii) reductions in ECoE caused by reach, scale and technology. Surplus energy per person was thus on a strongly rising trajectory, growing at rates faster than the expansion in aggregate energy supply. The world became accustomed to growth, which came to be regarded as a natural phenomenon, even though some economists have conceded that our understanding of what makes growth happen is imperfect.

After about 1965, though the bottom of the cost parabola had been passed, ECoEs remained very low, rising from about 1.0% in the mid-1960s to 1.7% in 1980. This rise was modest enough not to impair the trajectories of growth in energy use, economic output, aggregate prosperity and population numbers.

Latterly, however, as the upwards trend in ECoE has become exponential, the scope for further expansion in prosperity has been undermined. It is probable that the rise in trend ECoE between about 1990 (2.6%) and 2000 (3.9%) marked a significant turning-point after which growth became ever harder to attain.

Because the 1990s had been regarded as a propitious period in economic terms – with expansion robust and inflation low – the onset of deteriorating growth was improperly understood. Indeed, this misunderstanding was inevitable given the absence of the ECoE factor from mainstream economic interpretation.

Responses to secular deceleration were required, for two main reasons. First, the public has long regarded growing prosperity as both a norm and an entitlement. Second, the world financial system is entirely predicated on perpetual expansion in the economy. Debt can only ever be repaid if the prosperity of the borrower increases over time.

With the consensus firmly established that the economy was a financial system, it was inevitable that financial solutions would be sought to address secular deceleration. This process began with making credit ever easier to obtain, a process furthered both by deregulation and by reducing real interest rates.

For some years, this expedient appeared to have been successful, as reported economic output boomed between 2000 and 2007. It transpired, of course, that this was a credit-induced boom, a familiar phenomenon, though one in which, this time, inflation was concentrated in asset markets rather than in consumer prices.

When this process led, inevitably, to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), the response once again was a financial one. In fairness to decision-makers, this response was largely forced upon them by the rapid expansion of debt – the only way in which a debt default crash could be prevented was by making debt ultra-cheap, both to service and to roll over.

Accordingly, policy rates were slashed to sub-inflation levels, whilst huge amounts of newly-created QE money were used to force up the prices of bonds, thus driving yields to extremely low levels.

It was always predictable – and is now becoming evident – that the monetary expedients adopted after the GFC would be no more effective than the ones which caused that crisis. Debt has continued to expand, asset prices have continued to inflate, and a series of adverse economic consequences have emerged as side-effects of the process.

In short, just as the process of credit adventurism operative between 2000 and 2007 led directly to the GFC, the subsequent policy of monetary adventurism must lead inevitably to a second financial crisis (“GFC II”).

Because the mechanism leading to GFC II has been different from the mechanism operative before the 2008 crisis, GFC II is likely to differ in important respects from its predecessor, with money, rather than just the banking (credit) system, at the eye of the storm. GFC II is likely, also, to be much larger than GFC I, with SEEDS indicating that exposure now is roughly four times the size of exposure in 2007.

The financial dimension

One of the most important lessons of recent economic history is that it is impossible to alter the course of an energy-determined economy using purely financial tools.

The reason for this mismatch is quite straightforward. Having no intrinsic worth, money commands value only as a claim on the goods and services supplied by a physical economy driven by energy. Though financial claims can be created at will, the creation of additional claims does not expand the quantities of goods and services for which these claims can be exchanged.

Inflation has long been understood as a monetary phenomenon, in which prices are forced upwards where the supply of money (“claims”) expands at rates faster than the pace of growth in economic output. Two significant qualifications are required to this statement. The first is that the velocity of money (the speed at which it changes hands) is as important as the stock of money in circulation. The second is that inflation may occur in a variety of locations, including asset prices as well as consumer prices. With these caveats stated, inflation is indeed “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”.

The relationship between two quantities – (i) the output of the physical economy, and (ii) the quantum of claims exercisable against that output – plays a critical role in determining financial conditions.

The economic experience since 2000 has been one in which claims have been created at levels far in excess of the rate of expansion in output. This statement has profound economic and financial implications.

Initially, excess claims were created primarily in the form of debt. Latterly, this process has been compounded by the creation of excessive monetary amounts. Stated in PPP-converted US dollars at constant 2017 values (the convention used throughout this discussion), aggregate debt expanded by $53 trillion between 2000 and 2007, and by $99tn between 2007 and 2017.

The increase in debt since 2007 has been accompanied by a rise of similar magnitude in the deficiency of pension provision, a process driven by the collapse of returns on investment which has itself been a function of ultra-cheap money. According to a study published by the World Economic Forum, real returns on US bond holdings have slumped to just 0.15% from a historic norm of 3.6%, whilst returns on equities have fallen from a historic 8.6% to only 3.45%.

This has more than doubled the rate of savings required to achieve any given level of pension provision at retirement. For the vast majority, levels of saving required to deliver pension adequacy have become unaffordable. The pension gap “timebomb” is likely, in due course, to become a hugely important economic and political issue.

These developments, most obviously the escalation in debt levels, have created huge increases in the prices of assets such as bonds, stocks and property. Put simply, bond prices are the inverse of the market yield requirement established by the cost of money, whilst equity pricing is driven by considerations similarly linked to interest rates. Property prices, too, are largely determined by the equation of inverse interest rates applied as a multiple to the median payment capabilities of purchasers.

That bubble conditions prevail across asset markets seems beyond dispute. But the mere existence of a bubble does not on its own imply an imminent crisis. The scale of risk associated with a bubble depends primarily on two issues, not one.

The first of these is the monetary context going forward (a bubble may be sustainable, and may indeed continue to inflate, so long as credit remains both cheap and easy to access). The second is the prosperity of borrowers. The latter, ultimately, is a function of the energy-based economy.

Another way to look at this is that, if monetary conditions tighten, asset prices are likely to fall, perhaps rapidly. Meanwhile, if the prosperity of borrowers diminishes, so does their ability both to service existing debts and to take on additional indebtedness, even if credit remains cheap. Under these conditions, supportive monetary policy is not guaranteed to prevent asset price falls

What this means is that forecasting the future cost of money is not a sufficient way of anticipating crashes in asset prices. In addition, we have to understand trends in borrower prosperity – but this metric is not provided by conventional econometrics.

Calibrating the energy economy

During the period between 2000 and 2007, aggregate debt expanded by $53tn whilst world GDP rose by $25tn. Between 2007 and 2017, growth in GDP was $29.7tn whereas debt increased by $99tn. In the earlier period, therefore, $2.08 was borrowed for each $1 of recorded growth, whilst the ratio in the latter period was $3.33 of borrowing for each growth dollar.

Over the last decade, credit has expanded at the rate of 9% of GDP, roughly three times the pace at which GDP has increased.

Conventional interpretation of the relationship between debt and GDP omits a critical connection between the two. Within any given amount of money borrowed, a significant proportion necessarily finds its way into economic activity. An economy which takes on substantial additional debt will, therefore, experience apparent “growth” in GDP, created by the spending of that borrowed money.

This credit effect is artificial, in the sense that (i) the apparent rate of growth would not continue in the absence of continued increases in debt, and (ii) growth would be put into reverse if the incremental debt was paid down.

This interpretation is reinforced by observation of the type of “growth” supposedly enjoyed. The experience of the United States in the decade between 2007 and 2017 illustrates this point.

Over that period, reported GDP expanded by $2.5tn, to $19.4tn in 2017 from $16.9tn (at 2017 values) in 2007. The combined output of manufacturing, construction, agriculture and the extractive industries contributed just 1.9% of that growth ($48bn). A further 7% came from increased net exports of services. But the vast majority – 91% – of all growth came from services that Americans can sell only to each other.

We need to be clear about what this means. The products of manufacturing, farming and extraction are traded globally and are priced by world market competition, so these activities can be grouped together as GMO (globally marketable output). But internally consumed services (ICS) are priced locally, so are residuals of consumer spending capability.

In short, what was happening during this decade was that American GMO was stagnant, not even increasing in line with population numbers. But ICS activities – residuals which Americans sell only to each other – increased markedly. This is wholly consistent with the fact that, during this period in which GDP increased by $2.5tn, debt expanded by $10.2tn. Money pushed into the economy by cheap borrowing shows up almost entirely in residual ICS activities.

The credit effect is so important that, in order to measure prosperity, it is necessary to arrive at a ‘clean’ measure of output from which this effect has been excluded. The ultra-loose credit conditions of recent years have created a large and widening gap between ‘clean’ (or financially sustainable) output, and recorded GDP numbers inflated by the credit effect.

For instance, within global growth of $25.3tn between 2000 and 2007, the SEEDS algorithms identify clean growth of $10.3tn and a credit effect of $15tn. The $29.7tn of growth recorded between 2007 and 2017 comprised a credit effect of $19.4tn and clean growth of $10.3tn. Therefore, the credit effect accounted for 59% of all reported growth in the earlier period, and 65% in the latter.

Once clean GDP has been identified by the exclusion of the credit effect, what results is a measure of sustainable output, something which equates to the aggregate of financial resources available for deployment. But the first call on these resources is the cost of energy supply because, if this economic rent is not paid, energy supply dries up, and activity grinds to a halt.

Therefore, prosperity is identified by deducting trend ECoE from clean GDP. This calibration is the primary purpose of SEEDS, the Surplus Energy Economics Data System.

Principal findings

Aggregate prosperity furnishes us with personal prosperity data, and also provides a critical denominator against which all other financial metrics can be measured. Here are some of the most important conclusions emerging from this process.

First, prosperity is already in marked decline in almost all Western economies, typically having peaked between 2000 and 2007. The only significant exception to this pattern is Germany, largely because of the benefits conferred on the Germany economy by the euro system.

Deteriorating prosperity, in conjunction with monetary manipulation adopted in failed efforts to counter it, have built huge risk into the financial system. The Western economies where risk is most acute are Ireland, the United Kingdom and Italy.

Most emerging market (EM) economies are at an earlier stage in the prosperity curve, and continue to enjoy increasing personal prosperity. But progress is now slowing markedly, not least because of the impoverishment of Western trading partners. China has grown its debt at a particularly dramatic pace in order to sustain activity and employment, and must be regarded as extremely risky.

Prosperity deterioration is already having a palpable effect on political sentiment in most Western countries. Popular dissatisfaction is eroding support for the ‘globalist liberal’ elites which have been in government for most of the last thirty years, and insurgent (sometimes called “populist”) movements have been the main beneficiaries of this process. At the same time, the decline in prosperity has started to erode the tax base.

Future domestic policy directions are likely to focus on (i) redistribution and (ii) opposition to immigration. We should assume that voters will turn increasingly to parties committed to these policies. We should also anticipate growing opposition to globalisation.

These, of course, are just some of the more important consequences of the downturn in prosperity. Critically, an understanding of the energy basis of the economy explains issues which necessarily baffle conventional interpretation which remains predicated on purely financial assumptions.

 

#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.

 

#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.

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SEEDS 2.19 China 030718

 

#125: Quantum of risk, part two

IRAN, OIL & THE CURRENCY DIMENSION

At first sight, it might appear a reasonable inference that the greatest significance of Mr Trump’s decision about the deal with Iran will be felt in oil markets. The reality, though, may be rather different. Oil may not be hugely affected, and the Iran decision might not do all that much to hasten the next supply squeeze.

The line explored here is that the greatest ramifications of President’s decision may show up in two other areas.

One of these is a widening in the nascent schism between Europe and America over what “capitalism” really means. This is a topic that we’ve explored here before, and needn’t revisit now. This said, the Iran situation could prompt Europe (and others) to accelerate their retreat from the “Anglo-American economic model”.

The other consequence, of far greater immediate practical importance, is what this development might mean for fiat currencies.

Three critical issues, #1 – the petro-prop

To put this in context, we need to remind ourselves of three critical points.

The first is that the US dollar relies massively on the “petro-prop”. Because oil (and other commodities, too) are traded in USD, anyone wanting to buy these commodities needs first to purchase dollars. This guarantees buyer support for the USD, and this in turn gives the dollar a big valuation premium.

If you convert other currencies into dollars on the basis of the prices of comparable goods and services, what results is a PPP (purchasing power parity) rate of exchange. If you then compare this with market averages, you can only conclude that the markets price the dollar at a premium to the fundamentals.

And that premium is massive. Through 2017 as a whole, for example, the market priced the dollar at a premium calculated by SEEDS at 78% above its purely economic (PPP) value. This isn’t new, of course, and premia have certainly been the norm since America ended gold convertibility way back in 1971.

But it’s the dollar’s “petro-prop” premium which alone enables the United States to issue massive amounts of debt – and seldom this can have been more significant than it is now, given America’s bizarre budgetary outlook.

It’s also at least arguable that only the “petro-prop” has allowed the Fed to run huge QE programmes, without either (a) risking severe currency depreciation, or (b) having to maintain interest rates at appreciably higher levels.

So, if you think that QE and ZIRP have underpinned the global financial system in a beneficial way since GFC I, then you have the “petro-prop” to thank for this outcome.

If, conversely, you share the view that “monetary adventurism” has been a new exercise in recklessness, then the “petro-prop” should carry much of the blame.

Either way, the “petro-prop” is a critical feature of the monetary landscape.

Any weakening of it could usher in hugely disruptive change. The one thing, above all, that the United States really doesn’t need right now is for countries buying and selling oil to start doing so in currencies other than USD.

Three critical issues, #2 – fiats in the firing-line

The second point we need to note is that, whereas GFC I, as a consequence of “credit adventurism”, put the banking system at risk, GFC II could extend the risk to the world’s fiat currencies, because the folly-of-choice since GFC I has been “monetary adventurism”.

Fissures in the monetary system are already showing up, initially in the plunging values of a string of EM (emerging market) currencies.

The consensus assumption seems to be that this is happening because of a strengthening USD.

This interpretation, however, is probably far, far too simplistic. The reality might be that investors are becoming more risk-averse, prompting a flight of capital out of EM economies.

This sort of risk aversion, albeit concentrated then on banks rather than national economies, happened in 2007, with the “credit crunch”.

If we call that the “banking credit crunch”, and regard it as the precursor to GFC I, then it’s reasonable to view current trends in EM currencies as a “currency credit crunch”, setting the scene for GFC II.

Three critical issues, #3 – an ignorance of risk

The third in our triumvirate of foundation factors is that fiat currencies, and the financial system more generally, already stand at unparalleled levels of risk – but anyone who assesses these issues along conventional lines is not in a position to appreciate this risk.

Essentially, stock numbers (such as debt), and flow data (typified by reported GDP), are insufficiently connected by conventional interpretation. Imagine that a given economy’s debt rises but, at the same time, its GDP increases, too, restraining the expansion in the ratio. This would be a mathematically valid equation if changes in stock don’t impact measured flow – but they do.

The GDPs of advanced economies (in particular) are dominated by household consumption, which typically accounts for between 60% and 70% of activity measured as GDP. But pushing credit into the system boosts this consumption, thereby invalidating much of the apparent debt ratio comfort derived from apparent increases in GDP. In short, a cessation of credit expansion can expose masked debt risk by undercutting debt-financed expenditures.

That such an event looks increasingly likely is underscored by Nomi Prins’ recent observation that the next threat to the system may be bottom-up, not top-down.

Authorities and observers are accustomed to appraising top-down risk, assessing – for example – the scale to which banks’ assets might be vulnerable.

What happens next, though, could very well be bottom-up. What this means is that hard-pressed borrowers might stumble off a treadmill in which debt servicing has become an increasingly onerous burden within the context of flat-lining incomes and rising household expenses.

What are the risks?

The SEEDS answer to the risk issue is to use calibration based, not on credit-inflated GDP, but on prosperity. The aim is to strip out the component of growth which derives from the simple spending of incremental borrowed money. At the same time, SEEDS factors in trends in the energy cost of energy (ECoE).

An ongoing SEEDS study of the Big Four fiat currencies suggests that risk exposures may be very, very much greater than conventional (GDP-based) calibration indicates. Debt, for example, equates to ‘only’ about 250% of GDP in the United States, but rises to 340% when measured against prosperity.

Other Big Four debt ratios, translated to prosperity calibration, rise to 349% (compared with 250% of GDP) for the UK, 305% (rather than about 240%) for the Euro Area, and 456% (versus 360%) for Japan.

The corresponding impacts on financial assets exposure are even more pronounced. Britain’s financial assets rise from about 1140% of GDP to 1578% of prosperity. For the others (with the GDP-based equivalent in brackets), the levels now stand at 768% (rather than 595%) for the Euro Area, 927% (733%) for Japan, and 660% (490%) for the United States.

All of these ratios – both for debt and for financial assets, measured against prosperity – are far higher now than they were ten years ago, on the eve of GFC I – which isn’t what you’d conclude if you settled for measuring both against credit-inflated GDP.

This leads us to two immediate and very sobering conclusions, neither of which should really come as any great surprise. Indeed, both are pretty obvious, properly considered.

First, if a country spends a decade gaming its currency, it masks the attendant risks, just as it is increasing those risks.

Second, any course of action tending towards a weakening of the dollar’s “petro-prop” could have unexpected consequences. Of course, we don’t yet know what Mr Trump’s Iran move really means, and we don’t know how Russia, China and – critically – European countries are going to respond.

One thing, though, seems certain. Whilst it proved impossible for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to shift oil trade away from dollars,  there is no reason why really big players shouldn’t do exactly this. If major oil importers such as China, India and even the Euro Area develop new bilateral terms of petroleum trade with Iran, there is no reason whatsoever why these deals should be conducted in dollars.

In the proverbial nutshell, when your need for debt capital is being pushed up by budgetary irresponsibility, it makes no sense at all to undermine demand for your currency.

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