#169. At the zenith of complexity

THE ONSET OF “DE-GROWTH” AND “THE GREAT SECTOR EXTINCTION”

In the previous article, we examined the scope for tangible value destruction in the global financial system. In some future discussion, we might look at the very substantial empowerment that is being handed to environmental causes by some of the direct and indirect consequences of the Wuhan coronavirus crisis.

Here, though, the issue is the economy itself, and readers will understand that this interpretation is framed by the understanding that the economy is an energy dynamic, and not a financial one.

For those who like their conclusions up front, the single most important takeaway from what follows is that the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has triggered two fundamental changes that were, in reality, due to happen anyway.

One of these is a systemic financial crisis, and the other is the realisation that an era of increasingly-cosmetic economic “growth” has come to a decisive end.

The term which best describes what happens from here on is “de-growth”. This is a concept that some have advocated as a positive choice, but it is, in fact, being forced upon us by a relentless deterioration in the energy-driven equation which determines prosperity.

At its simplest, this means that the near-universal expectation of a future “economy of more” has been invalidated. We’re not, for example – and as so much planning has hitherto assumed – going to be driving more cars on yet more roads, and taking more flights between yet more airports. A seemingly-assured future of more consumption, more leisure, more travel, more wealth, more gadgets and more automation has, almost at a stroke, ceased to exist.  Economic considerations aside, the energy supply outlook alone has long since ceased to support any such assumptions.

More fundamentally, an economy which is shrinking is also one that will become progressively less complex. Whole sectors of activity will disappear through processes of simplification and de-layering. The pace of economic deterioration, and the rate at which the system de-complexifies, will be determined by identifiable factors which include falling utilization rates and the loss of critical mass in economic activities.

The inevitable arrives

Seen from the perspective of the energy-driven economy, the crisis is unveiling much that we already understood. Essentially, relentless increases in the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE) are the constant in an economic (and financial) narrative that has been unfolding ever since the 1990s, and which has long pointed, unequivocally, towards both falling prosperity and a “GFC II” sequel to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC).

Between 1990 and 2000, global trend ECoE rose from 2.6% to 4.1%, entering a level (between 3.5% and 5%) at which prior growth in the prosperity of the western Advanced Economies started to go into reverse. By 2008, when the world banking system was taken to the brink by the GFC, ECoE had already reached 5.6%.

The next critical point occurred during 2018-19, when trend ECoEs entered a higher band (between 8% and 10%) at which less complex, less ECoE-sensitive emerging market (EM) nations, too, start to experience a reversal of prior growth in prosperity. This latter event has confirmed that, after a remarkably long plateau, the prosperity of the world’s average person has turned down.

The financial and economic ‘high command’ has never understood this energy-based interpretation, and this incomprehension has created a parallel narrative of futile (and increasingly dangerous) financial adventurism.

This is why we can expect a GFC II-type event to coincide with a decisive downturn in the economy. Though the coronavirus crisis is acting as a trigger for these events, we should be in no doubt that both of them were due to happen anyway.

Welcome to de-growth

The term which best describes a downwards trajectory in prosperity is “de-growth”. Many have advocated de-growth as something that society ought voluntarily to adopt in its own best environmental and broader interests.

The surplus energy interpretation, though is that de-growth isn’t a choice that we might or might not make, but an economic inevitability.

Critically, de-growth doesn’t simply mean that the economy will become quantitatively smaller. It also means that much of the complexity which has developed in parallel with past economic expansion will go into reverse.

This de-complexifying process will have profound consequences. As well as determining the pace at which the economy shrinks, the retreat from complexity will impose changes on the shape, as well as the size, of the economy of the future.

Where the rate of prosperity deterioration is concerned, the interplay of two factors is going to prove critical.

One of these is the utilization effect, which describes changes in the relationship between the fixed and variable costs of the supply of goods and services. As utilization rates fall, the per-user share of fixed costs rises, and any attempt to pass such increases on to consumers is likely to accelerate the pace at which utilization rates fall.

The second operative trend is the critical mass effect. This describes the way in which supply processes are undermined by the lack of access to critical inputs. To a certain extent, suppliers of goods and services can work around this effect, by altering (and, in general, simplifying) both their products and their processes. Even so, there are limits to the ability to circumvent critical mass effects, and the likelihood is that capacity will decline, resulting in a corresponding reduction in the range of goods and services on offer to consumers.

Both the utilization and the critical mass factors introduce considerable uncertainty into the rate at which prosperity will deteriorate, but an even bigger imponderable is the combined impact of utilization and critical mass effects. It is easy to picture how these are likely to interact, with, for example, falling utilization rates removing inputs in a way that accelerates the loss of critical mass.

The end of “more”

One of the practical implications of this interpretation is that the current consensus about our economic future – a consensus which we might call ‘the economy of more’ – is becoming ever less plausible.

Until now, virtually all planning assumptions have been framed by this expectation of continuous expansion. We’re assured, for example, that by 2040, there will have been be a billion-unit (75%) rise in the world’s vehicle fleet (requiring more roads), whilst aviation passenger miles will have increased by about 90% (so we’ll need a lot more airport capacity).

These and similar projections are based on assumptions that we can consume about 28% more energy in 2040 than we do now, with petroleum and natural gas supply rising by, respectively, 10-12% and 30-32%. All of these consensus projections seem extremely unlikely to be realised, not least because of the crumbling economics of energy supply itself.

The miss-match between, on the one hand, the assumption of extrapolatory expansion in virtually all economic activities and, on the other, the improbability of the requisite growth in energy supply, seems never to have occurred to those whose plans inform the economic consensus.

What all of this means in practice is that projected rates of prosperity deterioration are conjectural, with probabilities favouring an acceleration in the pace of decline.

With this caveat understood, the base-case generated by SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System) provides a useful reference-point for discussion. The model indicates that the average person worldwide will be poorer by 9.5% in 2030, and by fully 20% by 2040, than he or she is today. It follows from this, of course, that his or her ability to carry debt and other financial burdens – and to pay taxes – will be correspondingly impaired.

Fig. 1:

#169 03 prosperity regional

Simplification and de-layering

Two further trends, both of which are of fundamental importance, can be anticipated as consequences of the de-complexifying process.

One of these is simplification, which describes a rolling contraction in the breadth of choice on offer to consumers, and a corresponding contraction in systems of supply.

The second is de-layering, meaning the removal of intermediate economic processes.

The de-layering effect can be illustrated using food supply as a comparatively simple example (though the issues involved extend right across the gamut of products and services).

The pre-industrial system for supplying food had few stages between farmer and ultimate consumer. There were, to be sure, millers, carters, coopers, green-grocers, butchers and a number of other trades operative between producer and customer, but there was nothing on the scale of today’s plethora of intervening layers, which run from fertilizer suppliers and agricultural consultants at one end of the spectrum through to packaging and marketing consultants at the other.

Looking ahead, the application of simplification and delayering to the chain of food supply suggests that, whilst product choices will narrow (ten sorts of breakfast cereal, perhaps, rather than fifty), some of the intervening layers will contract, whilst others will disappear altogether. Simpler products and simpler product ranges require fewer intermediate stages.

Extended across the economy as a whole, the implication is that we face what might be called a “great extinction” of trades, specialisations and, indeed, of whole sectors. As and when this forward trend gains recognition, it’s likely that businesses and individuals will endeavour to withdraw from activities which are at high risk of being de-layered out of existence.

Surveying new horizons

The economic processes described here are going to have far-reaching implications, most of which will be matters for subsequent discussion. First, though, it makes sense to recap the critical points of the foregoing.

The fundamental change now in prospect is that economic de-growth will set in, and will eliminate most of the expectations hitherto covered by the term “the economy of more”. The rate at which the economy shrinks (and the average person becomes less prosperous) will be influenced by a number of variables, of which critical mass and utilization effects are amongst the most important.

A reasonable working assumption, generated by SEEDS, is that people are going to get poorer at annual rates of about 1%, though there will, needless to say, be major regional and national variations around this trend.

This rate may not sound all that dramatic – though we need to bear in mind that it might worsen – but the shock effects of the onset of de-growth are likely to be profound, not just in the economic and financial spheres, but socially and politically as well.

As the economy gets smaller, it will also become less complex. Central strands here are likely to include both simplification (of products and of processes) and de-layering. The latter will involve contraction in some areas of activity, and the elimination of others.

The coronavirus crisis itself is providing us with a foretaste of some of these anticipated trends. In economic terms, the most important effect of the crisis is the hiatus in the cash flows of businesses and households. The consequent need to conserve cash (and to avoid going further into debt under circumstances of extreme uncertainty) is inducing conservatism into economic behaviour.

Companies and families alike are imposing new and tougher criteria on their expenditures, meaning that households are cutting back on “discretionary” (non-essential) spending, whilst businesses are minimising outgoings wherever they can. Companies are likely to make severe cuts in their marketing spend (because there’s not much point in advertising things that customers can’t or won’t buy), and will seek to renegotiate (meaning reduce) rents, outsourcing costs and other overhead expenses.

If – as seems very likely – this event marks (though it will not have caused) the onset of de-growth, it’s probable that newly conservative attitudes will continue. Consumers are unlikely to go back to “splashing the cash”, even when (or if) something nearer to “normality” is restored. Businesses which have, for example, downsized promotional expenditures and simplified their operations, are unlikely to revert to former spending patterns.

In short, this crisis may well have kick-started the processes of simplification and de-layering described above. Both of these processes can be expected to shrink some areas of economic activity and, in some cases, to eliminate them altogether.

Finally, these effects are highly likely to be reflected in other spheres, causing major attitudinal changes. Voters can, for example, be expected to be more supportive of essential public services, and less tolerant of perceived excesses in the private sector.

Governments themselves are likely, in due course, to recognise the risk of contraction in their tax bases and will, in any case, have gone much further into debt as a direct consequence of the crisis. Pressure for redistribution, and a generally heightened emphasis on economic issues, were pre-existing political consequences of deteriorating discretionary (“in your pocket”) prosperity.

At the same time, it is surely self-evident that governments cannot risk repeating policies which, rightly or wrongly, have been encapsulated into a popular post-GFC narrative of “rescue for the wealthiest, austerity for everyone else”.

CORONAVIRUS – THE ECONOMICS OF DE-GROWTH

#168. Polly and the sandwich-man

SCOPING FINANCIAL RISK

By their very nature, events like the Wuhan virus epidemic (or whatever the history-books end up calling it) polarise opinions, some of which become ever more extreme as the crisis unfolds.

At one end of the spectrum, those who claimed that the coronavirus was just some kind of minor variant on ‘normal’ seasonal ailments are being taught a harsh lesson in reality.

At the other extreme, though, many continue to insist that this is an ‘existential’ event, from which neither the economy nor the financial system (or anything else that we hitherto took for granted) is going to emerge, at least in any recognizable form.

If you believed either of these things, you probably wouldn’t bother trying to plan, or, as is the case here, to try to ‘scope’ the course that economic and financial trends might take.

Generally, though, extremes, whether of optimism or of pessimism, usually turn out to be wrong. Neither the Pollyanna nor the Sandwich-Board Man approach is going to help. Whistling a cheerful tune isn’t going to give us greater visibility on the post-crisis situation, but neither is walking around wearing a placard proclaiming that “The End is Nigh”.

The rational and practical response is to reason from what we do know to what we need to know. This is why, in economics and finance, we do need to try to scope this crisis.

To do this effectively, it makes sense to adopt two working principles.

One of these is that we bring new thinking to bear, so that we’re not just playing new tunes on the broken fiddle of ‘conventional’ economics.

The other is that we’re clear about the limitations imposed by the uncertainties implicit in the situation.

This is where ‘scoping’ differs from prediction. What follows doesn’t try to forecast what will happen, just to set some parameters on what might.

From troubled skies

Though the epidemic itself couldn’t have been anticipated, many of us have long recognised that trends and conditions pointing towards “GFC II” – a different and more extreme sequel to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) – were already in place.

A condensed version of this narrative is that the authorities responded to the “secular stagnation” of the late 1990s, first with ‘credit adventurism’, and latterly with ‘monetary adventurism’ as well. Where the former put the credit (banking) system at risk, the latter called into question the viability of the entire fiat monetary structure. Beyond buying some time (at a very hefty price), neither expedient has achieved anything worthwhile, but has inflicted an enormous amount of damage along the way.

It is, indeed, reasonable to conclude that we’ve spent more than two decades packing dynamite into the foundations of the financial structure.

Signs that economic reality might have started to break through had become apparent well before the current crisis erupted. Sales of everything from cars and smartphones to chips and components had already turned down, world trade in goods was already shrinking, and severe financial stresses were already emerging, particularly in China, and in some of the more irrational parts of the global ‘cheap money’ economy.

This is why, rather than having hit us out of blue skies, this crisis is really a bolt from the grey. Whether people had noticed these gathering dark clouds largely depended on whether they were looking at the situation from a point of view founded in reality, or were still persuaded by the ‘conventional’ tarradiddle that there was nothing too abnormal in the situation (or, at any rate, nothing so abnormal that it couldn’t be handled by our omnipotent, omniscient central bankers).

The energy perspective

These past exercises in ‘adventurism’ have had a shared assumption, which has resulted from a fundamental misconception about how the economy really works.

In order to believe that we can boost the performance of the economy by financial gimmickry – whether by pouring cheap credit into the system, or by flooding it with even cheaper liquidity – you’d have to start by assuming that the economy is a wholly financial system. If this assumption was correct, you could conclude that fiscal and monetary policy are the effective levers of control.

In reality, of course, these assumptions are mistaken. An economy that exists wholly in the realm of the human artefact of money – and is unrelated to the physical world in which we live – is a fiction.

As regular readers will know, my approach is based on the understanding that the economy is not a financial system, but an energy dynamic.

Briefly stated, the surplus energy interpretation of the economy has three central tenets.

The first is that nothing of any economic utility whatsoever can be produced without the use of energy.

The second is that, whenever energy is accessed for our use, some of that energy is always consumed in the access process (with the consumed-during-access component known here as the Energy Cost of Energy, or ECoE).

The third part of this “trilogy of the blindingly obvious” is that money has no intrinsic worth, and commands value only as a ‘claim’ on the output of the ‘real’ (energy) economy.

The credit connection

From this understanding, we can start with the observation that financial ‘claims’ have grown far more rapidly than the ‘real’ economy on which such claims can be honoured. Comparing data for 2018 with the numbers from 2008 reveals that each $1 of reported “growth” in the global economy over that decade was accompanied by $3 of net new borrowing.

The crucial interconnectedness in this situation is that pouring money and credit into the system doesn’t just increase the aggregate of financial claims, but also inflates the apparent size of the economy itself.

The ways in which this happens can be re-visited at a later date, but what we need to know now is that it happens.

The chart below illustrates this relationship. The vertical axis shows percentage growth in GDP during the years since the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), whilst the horizontal shows annual borrowing, as a percentage of GDP, over the same period.

The clear outlier here is China, whose annual growth has been around 7%, but whose annual rate of borrowing has been about 25% of GDP. This is why slightly more than doubling Chinese GDP (+115%) required a near-quadrupling of debt (+290%), and why borrowing has exceeded growth in the ratio 3.6:1.

The numbers for India look a lot better (though they’ve been worsening for some time), because the country has achieved strong growth without a dramatic recourse to borrowing. Both France and Japan are on the negative side of the trend-line, borrowing a lot, but getting precious little growth in return.

Fig. 1

#167 Value Destruction 01B

Individual economies aside, though, the critical observation which emerges from this is that ‘the more you borrow, the more apparent growth you can report’.

Most of the countries shown on the chart – and the world and regional aggregates, too – are at, or close to, a trend-line which connects the extent of borrowing with the quantity of GDP growth that has been reported.

What this means, as it applies to current circumstances, is that the numerator of debt (and, for that matter, of broader commitments), and the denominator of GDP, are not discrete, but are linked together.

Upwards tendencies in debt have had an inflationary effect on apparent GDP. This means that a straightforward ratio which compares debt with GDP is extremely misleading because, when you increase the one, you simultaneously increase the other.

This in turn means that debt/GDP ratios operate in ways which tend towards complacency.

The prosperity benchmark

Energy-based calibration of prosperity, as undertaken by the SEEDS model, is designed to provide a measure of economic output which, as well as taking ECoE into account, is distinct from this ‘credit pull’.

The result is to revise the interpretation of economic trends, indicating that, rather than ‘an economy of $87tn, growing at 3% annually’, we entered this crisis with ‘an economy of $53tn, that is hardly growing at all’.

Taking non-government debt as an example, let’s examine the implications of this approach.

During 2009, nominal world GDP was $60tn, whilst private debt was $85tn, for a debt/GDP ratio of 141%. Since then, both debt and GDP are supposed to have grown by just over 20% in real terms, which means that the ratio between them (shown in blue in fig. 2) seems hardly to have changed at all.

When we shift the basis of calibration from GDP to prosperity, though, the resulting calculus is both very different, and a great deal more cautionary.

Compared with a real increase of 23% in private debt, aggregate world prosperity hasn’t actually grown at all since the GFC. One reason why this is so different from the narrative of “growth” is that most of the headline increases in GDP have been the simple consequence of spending borrowed money.

The other is that ECoEs have risen relentlessly, long since passing levels at which prior growth in Western prosperity goes into reverse, and, more recently, entering a band where the same thing starts to happen to the EM (emerging market) economies as well.

This means that the ratio which expresses GDP as a percentage of prosperity (shown in red) has expanded markedly, from 183% in 2009 (and 125% back in 2000) to a current level of just over 230%.

A reasonable inference from this is that the debt-to-prosperity ratio has moved a long way out of equilibrium, leaving it poised to fall back to a prior, much lower level.

Departure from debt equilibrium is, of course, exactly what you would expect to have happened after more than a decade in which people have been paid to borrow. But quirks in the calculations which use GDP as a measure of debt exposure have served to disguise this critical trend.

Indeed, when you take this enormous process of subsidised borrowing into account, any suggestion that proportionate indebtedness hasn’t increased becomes wholly counter-intuitive.

An understanding of this principle enables us to scroll back across the years of financial excess in search of ratios which might represent a sustainable equilibrium.

This same calculation, when expressed as debt aggregates in constant dollars (as in the right-hand chart), suggests that a sharp decrease in outstanding non-government debt might have become inescapable.

Unless we’re prepared to assume that dramatic inflationary effects will destroy the real value of debt (a ‘soft default’), the implication is that we may be facing a process of extensive default, for which the term used here is a default cascade.

Fig. 2

#167 Value Destruction 05

The bigger picture

Before we move on (in future discussions) to consider what a default cascade might look like in practice, it’s important to note that formal debt doesn’t, by any means, capture the full extent of financial exposure. A better way to look at this is to reference financial assets or, more specifically, the aggregate of such assets excluding those of the central banks.

Financial asset exposure, always important, has taken on renewed significance during the uncertainties of the epidemic, and a causal link can be identified between, for example, the extremity of British financial exposure and recent sharp falls in the value of Sterling. Private financial assets stand at 1100% of British GDP, whereas the ratio for the United States is only 460%, so a fall in the value of the pound against the dollar is a wholly logical response to extreme financial uncertainty.

At the global level, financial assets data for countries accounting for about 80% of the world economy is available, and this data puts private financial assets at 450% of GDP. This a number which, like the debt/GDP ratio, hasn’t worsened since 2009.

Expressed against prosperity, however, this metric has expanded, because real financial assets have grown (by about 15%) over a decade in which prosperity hasn’t increased at all.

If, as we did with debt, we track back across the years of excess in search of the equilibrium ratios towards which a return might seem likely, the inference is that, like debt, the broader class of financial assets may face a severe retrenchment and this, again, points to various forms of default.

Clear and present danger

In what is intended as a scoping exercise, attaching numbers to these interpretations requires the caveat that our conclusions must recognise the extremity of uncertainty implicit in current conditions.

Indications from SEEDS-based analysis suggest that we should not be too surprised if debt of $60tn, and broader financial assets of an additional $100tn, are at risk.

These, as stated earlier, are scoping numbers, not forecasts.

Even so – and given the sheer scale of what we know is happening to the economy – these numbers need not seem all that surprising. The Pollyannas out there might say that little or none of this is actually going to happen, whilst the words “Told you so!” might be added to the doomsters’ sandwich-boards. The strong likelihood is that, in finance at least, the sandwich-boarders are a lot nearer the reality than the ditty-whistlers.

On the basis of this scoping exercise, we can anticipate that the global financial system could be facing a hit of $160tn, which is 185% of GDP.

That might be something from which the economy itself could recover, albeit in a battered and bruised form.

But you’d have to be a long way towards the Pollyanna end of the axis of optimism to think that the financial system could survive without either severe inflationary effects or a systemically-dangerous process of default.

CORONAVIRUS – THE SCOPE OF FINANCIAL RISK

 

#165. To catch a falling knife

AT THE END OF TWO ERAS, HOT MARKETS NEED COOL THINKING  

Unless you’ve been in a dealing-room on Wall Street or in the City of London (or, as in my own case, in both) during a market crash, it’s almost impossible to imagine quite how febrile and frenetic the atmosphere becomes. Rumours flourish and wild theories proliferate, whilst facts are scarce. Analysts are expected to provide instant answers, perhaps on the principle that even an answer which turns out to be wrong is of more immediate use than no answer at all.

It’s a sobering thought that the only financial market participants with any prior crash experience at all are those who’ve been working there for at least twelve years – and even they may have been lulled into complacency by a decade and more in which the working assumption has been that, thanks to the omnipotence and the omniscience of central bankers, ‘stock prices only ever go up’.

This complacency, a dozen years in the making, is a resilient force, and showed signs of staging a come-back in the final trading minutes of a tumultuous week. The logic, if such it can be called, is that the Federal Reserve and the other major central banks will spend the weekend concocting a solution.

For once, this rumour is almost certainly founded in reality, and my strong hunch is that the central banks will have announced co-ordinated measures before the weekend is over. These measures are likely to include further rate cuts, a resumption of the Fed’s $400bn “not QE” programme that ended in December, and statements of intent by all of the central bankers. The likelihood of something along these lines, even if it achieves nothing of substance, will have raised expectations to fever pitch by the time that the markets reopen.

We should be in no doubt that this central bank intervention will be ultra-high-risk. For starters, there are plenty of reasons why it might not work. The Fed, for instance, cannot “print antibodies”, as someone remarked on the superb Wolf Street blog, in which Wolf Richter reminded us that “if you don’t want to get on a plane in order to avoid catching the virus, you’re not going to change your mind because T-bill yields dropped 50 basis points”.

Critically, if the central bankers try something and – beyond a brief “dead cat bounce” – it doesn’t work, then their collective credibility as supporters of equity markets will be shot to pieces, which would overturn market assumptions to such an extent that a correction could turn into a full-blown crash. Their only real chance of success will rest on persuading investors that whatever happens in the real economy has no relevance whatsoever for the markets.

My own preference would be for central bankers decide to do nothing, or, as they might express it themselves, ‘conserve their limited ammunition for a more apposite moment’. This, though, is a preference based almost wholly on hope rather than expectation. We might or might not over-estimate the powers of the central bankers, but we should never underestimate their capacity for getting things wrong.

The double dénouement      

From personal experience, analysts are pulled in two directions at once in circumstances like these. Whilst one part of you wants to provide the instant answers which everyone demands, the other wants to find a physically and mentally quiet space in which to think through the fundamentals. It’s fair to say that, at times like this, it’s enormously important to step back and produce a coldly objective interpretation.

Seen from this sort of ‘top-down’ perspective, current market turmoil is symptomatic of the uncertainty caused by the simultaneous ending of two eras, not one.

The first of these ‘ending eras’ is a chapter, four-decades long, that we might label ‘neoliberal’ or ‘globalist’.

The other, which we can trace right back to the invention of the first effective heat-engine in 1760, is the long age of growth powered by the enormous amount of energy contained in fossil fuels.

Whilst environmental issues are the catalyst bringing our attention to ‘the end of growth’, the Wuhan coronavirus is acting, similarly, to crystallise an understanding that ‘the chapter of globalist neoliberalism’, too, is drawing to a close.

The best way to understand and interpret these intersecting dénouements is to start with some principles, and then apply them to the narrative of how we got to where we are.

Here, with no apology for brief reiteration, are the three core principles of surplus energy economics.

First, the energy economy principle – all economic activity is a function of energy, since literally nothing of any economic utility whatsoever can be produced without it.

Second, the ECoE principle – whenever energy is accessed for our use, some of that energy is always consumed in the access process.

Third, the claim principle – having no intrinsic worth, money commands value only as a ‘claim’ on the output of the energy economy.

Together, these principles – previously described here as “the trilogy of the blindingly obvious” – provide the essential insights required if we’re to make sense of how the economy works, how it got to where it is now, and where it’s going to go in the future.

The ECoE trap

Critically, the energy cost component (known here as the Energy Cost of Energy, or ECoE) has been rising relentlessly since its nadir in the two decades after 1945. Since surplus energy, which is the quantity remaining after the deduction of ECoE, drives all economic activity other than the supply of energy itself, rising ECoEs necessarily compress the scope for prosperity.

The way in which we handle this situation in monetary terms determines the distribution of prosperity, and informs the economic narrative that we tell ourselves, but it doesn’t  – and can’t – change the fundamentals.

Where fossil fuels are concerned (and these still account for more than four-fifths of all energy supply), the factors determining trend ECoE are geographical reach, economies of scale, the effects of depletion and the application of technology.

These can usefully be expressed graphically as a parabola (see fig. 1). As you can see, the beneficial effects of geographical reach and economies of scale have long since been exhausted, making depletion the main driver of fossil fuel ECoEs. Technology, which hitherto accelerated the downwards trend, acts now as a mitigator of the rate at which ECoEs are rising. But we need to recognise that the scope for technology is bounded by the envelope of the physical properties of the primary resource.

Fig. 1

Fig. 4 parabola

Analysis undertaken using the Surplus Energy Economics Data System (SEEDS) indicates that, where the advanced economies of the West are concerned, prior growth in prosperity goes into reverse when ECoEs reach levels between 3.5% and 5.0%. Less complex emerging market (EM) economies are more ECoE-tolerant, and don’t encounter deteriorating prosperity until ECoEs are between 8% and 10%.

With these parameters understood, we’re in a position to interpret the true nature of the global economic predicament. The inflexion band of ECoEs for the West was reached between 1997 (when world trend ECoE reached 3.5%) and 2005 (5.0%). For EM countries, the lower bound of this inflexion range was reached in 2018 (7.9%), and it’s set to reach its upper limit of 10% in 2026-27, though prosperity in most EM countries is already at (or very close to) the point of reversal.

Desirable though their greater use undoubtedly is, renewable energy (RE) alternatives offer no ‘fix’ for the ECoE trap, since the best we can expect from them is likely to be ECoEs no lower than 10%. That’s better than where fossil fuels are heading, of course, but it remains far too high to reverse the trend towards “de-growth”.  In part, the limited scope for ECoE reduction reflects the essentially derivative nature of RE technologies, whose potential ECoEs are linked to those of fossil fuels by the role of the latter in supplying the resources required for the development of the former.

The energy-economic position is illustrated in fig. 2, in which American, Chinese and worldwide prosperity trends are plotted against trend ECoEs. Whilst the average American has been getting poorer for a long time, Chinese prosperity has reached its point of reversal and, globally, the ‘long plateau’ of prosperity has ended.

Fig. 2

Fig. 6a regional & world prosperity & ECoE

Response – going for broke

As well as explaining what we might call the ‘structural’ situation – where we are at the end of 250 years of growth powered by fossil fuels – the surplus energy interpretation also frames the context for the ending of a shorter chapter, that of ‘globalist neoliberalism’.

Regular readers will know (though they might not share) my view of this, which is that the combination of ‘neoliberalism’ with ‘globalization’ (in the form in which it has been pursued) has been a disaster.

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with spreading the benefits of economic development to emerging countries, this was never the aim of the ‘globalizers’. Rather, the process hinged around driving profitability by arbitraging the low production costs of the EM nations and the continuing purchasing power of Western consumers, the clear inference being that this purchasing power could only be sustained by an ever-expanding flow of credit.

The other, ‘neoliberal’ component of this axis was based on an extreme parody which presents the orderly and regulated market thesis as some kind of justification for a caveat emptor, rules-free, “law of the jungle” system which I’ve called “junglenomics”.

From where we are now, though, what we need is analysis, not condemnation. As we’ve seen from the foregoing energy-based overview of the economy, ‘neoliberalism’ was as much an inevitable reaction to circumstances as it was a malign and mistaken theory.

Essentially, and for reasons which energy-based interpretation can alone make clear, a process of “secular stagnation” had set in by the late 1990s, as the Western economies moved ever nearer to ECoE-induced barriers to further growth. At this juncture, policymakers were compelled to do something because, just as never-ending growth is demanded by voters, the very viability of the financial system is wholly predicated on perpetual growth. The contemporary penchant for ‘globalist neoliberalism’ simply determined the form that this intervention would take.

Since our interest here is in the present and the immediate future rather than the past, we can merely observe that, after the failure of ‘credit adventurism’ culminated in the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), the subsequent adoption of ‘monetary adventurism’ simply upped the stakes in a gamble that couldn’t work. What this in turn means is that the probability of truly gargantuan value destruction is poised, like Damocles’ sword, over the financial system. If it hadn’t been the Wuhan coronavirus which acted as a catalyst, it would have been something else.

Conclusions and context

As we await the next twists in some gripping economic and financial dramas, it’s well worth reminding ourselves that stock markets, and the economy itself, are very different things. High equity indices are not hall-marks of a thriving economy, least of all at a time when market processes have been hijacked by monetary intervention.

In so far as there’s an economic case for propping up markets, that case rests on something economists call the “wealth effect”. What this means is that, whilst stock prices remain high, the accompanying optimistic psychology makes people relaxed about taking on more credit. The inverse of this is that, if prices slump, the propensity to borrow and spend can be expected to fall sharply.

The snag with this is straightforward – unless you believe that debt can expand to infinity, perpetual expansion in credit is a very dubious (and time-limited) plan on which to base economic policy. If the central banks do succeed in reversing recent market falls, the only real consequence is likely to be a deferral, to a not-much-later date, of the impact of the forces of disequilibrium which must, in due course, redress some of the enormous imbalances between asset prices, on the one hand, and, on the other, all forms of income.

Ultimately, we don’t yet know how serious and protracted the economic consequences of the coronavirus will turn out to be. My belief is that these consequences are still being under-estimated, even if, as we all hope, the virus itself falls well short of worst-case scenarios. It’s hard to see how, for example, Chinese companies can carry on paying workers, and servicing their debts, with so much of the volume-driven Chinese economy in lock-down.

Within the broader context, which includes environmental considerations in addition to the onset of “de-growth” in prosperity, we may well have reached ‘peak travel’, which alone would have profound consequences. Other parts of the financial system – most of which are far more important than equity markets – seem poised for a cascade. If it isn’t ‘Wuhan, and now’, the likelihood is that it will be ‘something else, and soon’.

#164. A bolt from the grey

WHY “BUSINESS AS USUAL” WILL NOT BE RESTORED

Where the purely biological prognosis for the Wuhan coronavirus is concerned, there’s at least a ton of speculation for every pinch of fact, and there would be no merit at all in adding to that speculation here. One of the few things that can be said about this with any confidence at all is that somehow, sometime, the epidemic will end.

The expectation then will be that, in the purely economic and financial spheres, what the economic and financial consensus likes to call “normality” will be restored.

As people and businesses go back to work, as the flow of goods and services resumes, and as ravaged supply lines are repaired, the economy will be expected to stage a full recovery. People wary of travelling will, we’ll be told, start boarding aircraft again, and even the cruise liner industry might start to shrug off the tag of “floating petri-dishes”.

Capital markets, too, will be expected to bounce back, even if takes a long time to restore them to their full pomp, hubris and folly. Investors will be expected to go back to wasting their money propping up “cash-burners” again, and queueing up to get a piece of the latest moonbeam IPO.

But the reality, from a surplus energy perspective, is that this definition of “normality” is highly unlikely to be restored. In economic terms, the relentless rise in the energy cost of energy (ECoE) had already started making people poorer, long before the name ‘Wuhan’ had any connotation beyond the geographical.

It cannot be stressed too strongly that global trade in goods had already turned down, as had sales of everything from cars and smartphones to chips and components. Financial stresses had already become severe, and investors had already started to view cash-burning and over-hyped sectors with new caution.

Nasty though it is in purely human terms, and real though its economically disruptive effects undoubtedly are, the coronavirus didn’t strike out of cloudless economic skies.

Rather, it’s been a bolt from the grey.

It’s too soon to say whether the epidemic will act as a catalyst for a full-blown financial crash but, if it does, the authorities will have tough decisions to make, and we can only hope that the disastrous mistakes made during the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) will not be repeated.

In the sound and fury of that crisis, the imbecility of ‘monetary adventurism’ was piled on top of the prior folly of ‘credit adventurism’. The blithe assumption was made that, left to its own devices – and, of course, bailed out by taxpayers from the consequences of its previous failures – ‘de-regulated’ finance could get back to driving economic progress.

Back in 2008, the ‘global’ crisis was presented as something that somehow had happened out of the blue, without human agency, and that ‘nobody could have known’ that a credit-driven bubble was going to end in a bust. The reality, though, was that we’d been using $2 of new debt to buy each $1 of highly dubious “growth”.

Since then, and whilst reported “growth” has become even more cosmetic and insubstantial, the debt cost of each dollar of it has risen to over $3. Along the way, the worsening imbalance between asset prices, on the one hand, and all forms of income, on the other, has inflicted enormous damage. This imbalance has blown huge holes in pension and other saving provision, has prevented the proper functioning of markets in pricing risk, has stripped the economy of “creative destruction” and has saddled us with far too much of the speculative and the outright exploitative.

Siren voices to the contrary, spending borrowed money has never been a cure-all for a process of “secular stagnation” driven by a structural deterioration in an economy in which the prior spurt in prosperity delivered by fossil fuels was coming to an end, and had started to go into reverse.

Nobody would envy the choices that are going to imposed on governments and central banks if – or, to be realistic about it, when – the 2008 crisis is repeated, but this time in the much larger and more menacing shape that has always been a virtual inevitability.

But the analogy that can most usefully be made here might be one which compares 1945 with 1918. After the first “war to end all wars”, the rallying-cry was “business as usual”, but no equivalent delusion could persuade the people of 1945 that there were merits in re-creating the inter-war world, be it the financial the excesses of the 1920s or the mass misery of the Great Depression.

This time, a similar catharsis might – just might – persuade us to start taking a realistic view of the economy, not as a monetary construct capable of perpetual growth through financial manipulation, but as an energy system whose prior ability to make us more prosperous has gone into reverse.

 

 

 

#163. Tales from Mount Incomprehension

THE FALSE DICHOTOMY CLINGS ON

There was more than a grain of logic in the observation by US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin that climate activist Greta Thunberg should save her advice until “[a]fter she goes and studies economics in college”. If the authorities were to consent to her demand for the immediate cessation of the use of fossil fuels, the economy would crash and, quite apart from the misery that this would inflict on millions, we would have abandoned any capability to invest in a more sustainable way of life.

This said, taking a course in economics, as it is understood and taught conventionally, would not enhance, in the slightest, her understanding of the critical issues. Conventional economics teaches that economics is ‘the study of money’, and that energy is ‘just another input’. These claims cannot be called ‘contentious’. They are simply wrong.

Worse still, her audience at Davos – the Alpine pow-wow of the world’s political and economic high command – are almost wholly persuaded by a false interpretation which states that action on climate risks carries a “cost”, meaning that doing what she asks would be costlier than carrying on as we are, with an economy powered by oil, gas and coal.

This is a folly every bit as absolute as the argument that we must immediately cease all use of the energy sources on which the economic growth of the past two centuries has been based. Continued reliance on fossil fuels might or might not destroy the environment, but it would certainly condemn the economy to collapse.

A commonality of interests

Because I have an extensive ‘to-do’ list – and in the hope that readers might appreciate some brevity on this issue – let me be absolutely clear that neither side of the debate over the economy and the environment understands how these processes really work. Worse still, it seems that neither side wants to understand this reality.

There’s a hugely damaging false dichotomy around the assumption that there’s some kind of trade-off between our environmental and our economic best interests. If “Davos man” thinks that the economy can prosper so long as we cherry-pick the profitable bits of the environmental agenda (like carbon trading, and forcing everyone to buy a new car), and pour bucket-loads of greenwash over the rest of it, he (or she) could not be more wrong

Because literally none of the goods and services which comprise the economy could be produced without energy, it should hardly be necessary to point out that the economy is an energy system. Equally, it should be obvious that, whenever energy is accessed for our use, some of that energy is always consumed in the access process. This access component is known here as the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE), and it forms a critical part of the equation which determines our prosperity.

The third part of this ‘trilogy of the blindingly obvious’ is that money has no intrinsic worth, and commands value only as a ‘claim’ on the products of energy. I make no apology for repeating that air-dropping cash (or any other form of money) to a person stranded in the desert, or cast adrift in a lifeboat, would bring him or her no assistance whatsoever.

Money is simply a medium of exchange, valid only when there is something for which it can be exchanged.

The complexity trap

The modern industrial economy is not only enormous by historic standards, but is extraordinarily complex as well. Scale and complexity make the modern economy high-maintenance in energy terms. Output grew rapidly in the period (roughly between 1945 and 1965) when trend ECoEs were at their historic nadir, but has struggled since then, as ECoEs have risen.

Analysis undertaken using SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System) indicates that prosperity in the Advanced Economies (AEs) of the West ceased to grow when ECoEs hit a range between 3.5% and 5%. Less complex Emerging Market (EM) economies have greater ECoE tolerance, but they, too, start to become less prosperous once ECoEs reach levels between 8% and 10%. Both China and India have now entered this ‘growth killing ground’.

Back in the high-growth post-War decades, ECoEs were between 1% and 2%. By 2000, though, global trend ECoE had reached 4.1%, which is why the advanced West was already encountering something which bewildered economists labelled “secular stagnation”, though they were at a loss to explain why it was happening. By 2008 – when ECoE had reached 5.6% – efforts at denial based on credit adventurism had achieved nothing other than an escalation in risk which brought the credit (banking) system perilously close to the brink.

Since then, and whilst futile exercises in denial have segued into monetary adventurism, ECoE has continued its relentless rise. Last year, world trend ECoE broke through the 8% threshold at which prior growth in EM prosperity goes into reverse. This, ultimately, explains why global trade in goods is deteriorating, and why sales of everything from cars and smartphones to chips and components are sliding.

The average person in the West has been getting poorer for more than a decade, and, increasingly, he or she knows it, whatever claims to the contrary are made by decision-makers who, for the most part, still don’t understand how the economy really works.

Something very similar now looms for EM countries and their citizens – and, when evidence of EM economic deterioration becomes irrefutable, the myth of “perpetual growth” in the world economy will be exploded once and for all.

When that happens, all of the false assumptions on which a bloated financial system relies will crumble away.

Tenacious irrationality

The irony here is that, far from avoiding economy-damaging “costs”, continued reliance on fossil fuels would be a recipe for economic oblivion. The destructive upwards ratchet in ECoEs is driven by fossil fuels, which still provide four-fifths of our energy supply, and whose costs are rising exponentially now that depletion has taken over from scale and reach as the primary driver of cost. Far from imposing “costs” that will push us towards economic impoverishment, transitioning away from fossil fuels is the best way of minimising future hardship.

This means that economic considerations, when they are properly understood, support, rather than undermine, the arguments put forward by environmentalists.

But we should be equally wary of claims that renewable energy (RE) can usher in some kind of economic nirvana. The ECoEs of REs are highly unlikely ever to fall below 10%, a point far above prosperity maintenance thresholds (of 3.5-5% in the West, and 8-10% in the EMs), let alone give us a return to the ultra-low ECoEs of the post-1945 era of high growth.

Critically, transition to REs would require vast amounts of inputs whose supply relies almost entirely on the use of FFs. The idea that we can somehow “de-couple” economic activity from the use of energy, meanwhile, is utterly asinine.

The only logical conclusion is that we should indeed transition towards REs, but should not delude ourselves that doing this can spare us from deteriorating prosperity, or from other processes (such as de-complexification and de-layering) associated with it. The one-off gift of vast surplus energy from fossil sources is fading away, which, from an environmental point of view, might be just as well. What matters now is that we manage, in a pragmatic and equitable way, the transition to lower levels of energy use and gradually eroding prosperity.

It’s a disturbing thought that our economic and environmental futures are trapped in a slanging match between green fanaticism and Davos-typified cynicism. It’s a truism, of course, that people tend to believe what they want to believe – but this is a point at which the reality of energy as the critical link between prosperity and the planet needs to force its way to the fore.

If there’s cause for optimism here, it is that reality usually triumphs over wishful thinking. The only real imponderables about this are the duration of the transition to reality, and the scale of the damage that protracted delusion will inflict.

#162. The business of de-growth

ENTERPRISE IN A DE-GROWING, DE-LAYERING ECONOMY

We start the 2020s with the political, economic, commercial and financial ‘high command’ quite remarkably detached from the economic and financial reality that should inform a huge variety of policies and decisions.

This reality is that the relentless tightening of the energy equation has already started putting prior growth in prosperity into reverse. No amount of financial gimmickry can much longer disguise, still less overcome, this fundamental trend, but efforts at denial continue to add enormously to financial risk.

This transition into uncharted economic waters has huge implications for every category of activity and every type of player. Just one example is government, for which the reversal of prior growth in prosperity means affording less, doing less, and expecting less of taxpayers (with the obvious corollary that the public should expect less of government).

Governments, though, do at least have alternatives. ‘Doing less’ could also mean ‘doing less better’ – and, if the public cannot be offered ever-greater prosperity, there are other ways in which the lot of the ‘ordinary’ person can be improved.

At first sight, no such alternatives seem to exist for business. The whole point of being in business, it can be easy to assume, is the achievement of growth. Whether it’s bigger sales, bigger profits, a higher profile, a growing market value or higher dividends for stockholders, every business objective seems tied to the pursuit of expansion.

None of this, in the aggregate at least, seems compatible with an economy in which the prosperity of customers is shrinking.

In reality, though, both de-growth and de-layering offer opportunities as well as challenges. The trick is to know which is which.

For those of us not involved in business, the critical interest here is that, driven as they are by competition, businesses are likely to be quicker than other sectors to recognise and act upon the implications of the post-growth economy.

Getting to business

How, then, are businesses likely to position themselves for the onset of de-growth? The answer begins with the recognition of two realities.

The first of these is that prosperity is deteriorating, and that there is no ‘fix’ for this situation.

The second is that ‘price isn’t value’.

As regular readers will know, prosperity in most of the Western advanced economies (AEs) has been in decline for more than a decade, and a similar climacteric is nearing for the emerging market (EM) nations.

This fundamental trend is, as yet, unrecognised, whether by ‘conventional’ economic interpretations, governments, businesses or capital markets. It is already felt, though, if not necessarily yet comprehended, by millions of ordinary people.

‘Conventional’ economics, with its fixation on the financial, fails to recognise the deterioration of prosperity because it overlooks the critical fact that all economic activity is driven by energy. There is no product or service of any economic utility which can be supplied without it. Money and credit are functions of energy because, being an artefact wholly lacking in intrinsic worth, money commands value only as a ‘claim’ on goods and services – all of which, of course, are themselves products of the use of energy.

The complicating factor in the prosperity equation is that, whenever energy is accessed for our use, some of that energy is always consumed in the access process. This consumed proportion is known here as ECoE (the Energy Cost of Energy), a concept related to previously-defined concepts such as net energy and EROI.

Critically, what remains after the deduction of ECoE is surplus energy. The aggregate of available energy thus divides into two components. One of these is ECoE, and the other is surplus energy, which drives all economic activity other than the supply of energy itself.

This makes surplus energy coterminous with prosperity.

The relentless (and unstoppable) rise in ECoEs has now squeezed aggregate prosperity to the point where the average person is getting poorer. There is nothing that can be ‘done about’ this, so the necessity now is to adapt.

SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – has been built and refined to model the economy on this basis. Its identification of deteriorating prosperity accords with numerous ‘on the ground’ observations, whether in economics, finance, politics or society.

But general recognition of this interpretation has yet to occur, and, in its absence, the economic history of recent years has been shaped by efforts to use the financial system to deny (since we cannot reverse) this process. The main by-product of this exercise in denial has been excessively elevated risk.

Conclusions come later, but an important point to be noted from the outset is that, as the economy gets less prosperous, it will also get less complex, resulting in the phenomenon of ‘de-layering’. An understanding of this and related processes will be critical to success in an economic and business landscape entering unprecedented change.

The reality of deteriorating prosperity

A necessary precondition for the formulation of effective responses is the recognition of where we really are, and there are two observations with which this needs to start.

The first is the ending and reversal of meaningful “growth” in prosperity. Any businessman or -woman who believes that economic “growth” is continuing ‘as usual’, or can somehow be restored, needs to reframe his or her interpretation radically. Indeed, it’s been well over a decade (and, in many instances, nearer two decades) since the advanced economies of the West last achieved genuine growth in economic prosperity.

For illustration, the deterioration in average personal prosperity in four Western countries, both before and after tax, is set out in the following charts. Examination of the trend in post-tax (“discretionary”) prosperity in France, in particular, does much to explain widespread popular discontent.

Worse still, from a business perspective, a similar downturn is now starting in the hitherto fast-growing EM economies, including China, India and Brazil.

#162 business 01

To be sure, the authorities have done a superficially plausible job of hiding the reality of falling prosperity, first by pumping cheap credit into the system and, latterly, by doubling down on this and turning the real cost of money negative. The only substantive products of these exercises in credit and monetary adventurism, though, have been enormous increases in financial exposure.

The cracks are now beginning to show, and in ways that should be particularly noticeable to business leaders.

Sales of a broadening number of product categories, from cars and smartphones to chips and components, have turned down. Debt continues to soar (which is hardly surprising in a situation in which people are being paid to borrow), and questions are starting to be asked about credit ratings, debt servicing capability and the possible onset of ‘credit exhaustion’ (the point at which borrowers no longer take on any more credit, however cheap it may be).

Whole sectors (such as retailing and air travel) are already being traumatised. Returns on invested capital have collapsed, and this has had knock-on effects in many areas, but nowhere more so than in the adequacy of pension provision (where the World Economic Forum has warned of a “global pensions timebomb”). Even before this pensions reality strikes home to them, ordinary people are becoming increasingly discontented, whether this is shown on the streets of Paris and other cities, or in the elections whose outcomes have included Donald Trump, “Brexit” and a rising tide of “populism” (for which the preferred term here is insurgency) and nationalism.

There are, of course, those who contend that falling sales of cars and chips ‘don’t matter very much’, because we can continue to sell each other services which, even where they are of debateable value, can still be monetised, so will continue to generate revenues. These assurances tend to come from the same schools of thought which previously told us that debt, too, ‘doesn’t matter very much”.

This wishful thinking, arguably most acute in the ‘tech’ sector, ignores the fact that, as the average consumer gets poorer, he or she is going to be become more adept, or at least more selective and demanding, in the ranking of value. In a sense, the failure to recognise this trend repeats some of the misconceptions of the dot-com bubble – and the answer is that you can only be happy about ‘virtual’ and ‘intangible’ products and sales if you’re equally relaxed about earning only virtual and intangible profits. But business is, or should be, about cash generation – nobody ever bought lunch out of notional profits.

Let’s put this in stark terms. If someone is in the business of selling holidays, he or she makes money when people actually travel to the facility, and pay to use its services. They could, of course, sell them computer-generated virtual tours of the facility as a sort of proxy-residency – but does anyone really think that that’s a substitute for the revenue that is earned when they actually visit in person?

Another way to look at this is that businesses are likely to become increasingly wary of middle-men and ‘agencies’. This reflects de-layering, an issue to which we shall return later. But the general proposition is that, in de-growth, businesses will prosper best when they capture as much of the value-chain as possible, ensuring that ‘value’ predominates over ‘chain’.

Ancillary services, and ancillary layers, are set to be refined out, and businesses are likely to become increasingly wary of others trying to monetise parts of their chain.

Understanding value

The second reality requiring recognition is that the prices of capital assets, including stocks, bonds and property, have risen to levels that are both (a) wholly unrelated to fundamental value, and (b) incapable of being sustained, under present or conceivable economic conditions.

Statements like “the Fed has your back” are illustrative of quite how irrational this situation has become. The idea that inflated asset prices can be supported indefinitely by the perpetual injection of newly-created liquidity is puerile beyond any customary definition of that word.

We may not know how long asset prices can continue to defy economic gravity, or how the eventual reset will take place, but the definition of ‘unsustainable’ is ‘cannot be sustained’.

A general point needing to be made is that is called “value” by Wall Street and its overseas equivalents is of little relevance to what the word should mean in business. The interests of business and of the capital markets are by no means coterminous, since the objectives of each are quite different. The astute business leader might listen to the opinions of those in the financial markets, but acts only on his or her own informed conclusions.

From a business perspective, the value of an asset is the current equivalent of its future earning capability. No apology is made to those who already understand this universal truism, because, though fundamental, it is all too often overlooked. This principle can be best be illustrated by looking at a simple example such as a toll bridge.

To the owner (or potential acquirer) of a toll bridge, various future factors are known, though with varying degrees of confidence. He or she should know, at high levels of confidence, appropriate rates of depreciation and costs of maintenance. He has an informed opinion, albeit at a somewhat lesser level of confidence, about what the future toll charges and numbers of users are likely to be.

This information enables him to project into the future annual levels of revenue and cost. He can, moreover, divide the cost component into cash and non-cash components, the latter including depreciation and amortisation. From this, he can create a numerical forward stream of projected cash flows and earnings.

The question which then arises is that of what value today can be ascribed most appropriately to the income stream to be realised in the future.

This process requires risk-weighting. Costs and taxes may turn out to be higher or lower than the central case assumptions, and the same is true of revenue projections. Customer numbers and unit revenues may be influenced by factors outside either the control of the owner or of his ability to anticipate. Degrees of variability can and should be factored in to the calculation of appropriate risk.

What happens now is that a compounding discount factor is created by combining risk, inflation, cost of capital and the time-value of money. Application of this factor turns future projections into numbers for discounted cash flow (DCF) as a net present value (NPV).

There is nothing at all novel about DCF-NPV calculation, and it is used routinely by those valuing individual commercial assets. It is, incidentally, far more reliable than ROI (return on investment) or ROC (return on capital) methodologies, let alone IRR (internal rate of return).

Importantly, though, this valuation procedure is applicable to all business ventures. The process becomes increasingly complex as we move from the simple asset to the diversified, multi-sector business, and increasingly conjectural where rising levels of uncertainty (over, for instance, future rates of growth) are involved.

But the principle – that the worth of a business asset is coterminous with what it will earn in the future – remains central.

The nearest that capital markets tend to get to this is to price a company on the basis of its future earnings, which is where the P/E ratio (and its various derivatives) fit into the process. A more demanding (but more useful) approach substitutes cash flow for earnings, and generates the P/CF ratio. P/FCF (price/free cash flow) is a still better approach, though all cash flow-based calculations need to ensure that a tight definition and a robust methodology are involved.

Where P/E ratios are concerned, both growth potential and risk should be (though often aren’t) reflected in multiples. When one company is priced at, say, 10x earnings whilst another is priced at 20x, it’s likely that the latter is valued more aggressively than the former because growth expectations are higher (though it is also possible that the lower-rated company is considered to be riskier).

Much of the foregoing will be well-known to any competent business leader or analyst. It is referenced here for two reasons – first, because it produces valuations which typically bear little or no resemblance to today’s hugely inflated financial market pricing of assets and, second, because an understanding of fundamental value needs to be placed at the centre of any informed response to the onset of de-growth.

Markets are driven by many factors beyond the trinity of ‘fear, greed and [sometimes] value’. Supplementary, non-fundamental market factors, whether or not they are of meaningful relevance to investors and market professionals, should not exert undue influence on the decisions made by business leaders. “What will my share price be in a year from now?” may be an interesting subject for speculation, but should play little or no part in planning.

This point is stressed here because deteriorating prosperity will invalidate almost all market assumptions. This deterioration is an extraneous factor not yet known to the market. It destroys the credibility of the ‘aggregate growth’ assumption which informs the pricing both of individual companies and of sectors. It impacts customer behaviour, and customer priorities, in ways that markets could not anticipate, even if they were aware of the generalised concept of de-growth.

This is why business strategy needs to incorporate a concept which may be called ‘de-complexifying’ or, more succinctly, de-layering.

The critical understanding – the de-layering driver

It’s useful at this point to reflect on the way in which our economic history can be defined in surplus energy terms.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had no surplus energy, because all of the energy that they derived from nutrition was expended in the obtaining of food. Agriculture, because it enabled twenty individuals or families to be fed from the labour of nineteen, created the first recognizable economy and society because of the surplus energy which enabled the twentieth person to carry out non-subsistence tasks. This economy was rudimentary, reflecting the fact that the energy surplus was a slender one. Latterly, accessing the vast energy contained in fossil fuels leveraged the surplus enormously, which meant that only a very small proportion of the population needed now to be engaged in subsistence activities, with the vast majority now doing other things.

This process made the economy very much larger, of course, but it’s more important, especially from a business perspective, to note that it also made it very much more complex. Where once, for example, we had only farmers and grocers, with very few layers in between, food supply has since become vastly more diverse, involving an almost bewildering array of trades and specialisations. The linkage between expansion and complexity holds true of all sectors.

The most pertinent connection to be made here is that, just as prior growth in prosperity has driven growth in complexity, the deterioration in prosperity is going to have the opposite effect, initiating a trend towards a reduction in complexity. One term for this is ‘simplification of the supply chain’. Another, with applications far beyond commerce, is de-layering.

This has two stark and immediate implications for businesses.

First, a business which can front-run de-layering, simplifying its operations before others do so, can gain a significant competitive advantage.

Second, if a business is one that might get de-layered, it would be a good idea to get into a different business.

First awareness

In this discussion we have established three critical understandings:

– Prosperity is deteriorating, for reasons which mainstream interpretation has yet either to recognise or to understand.

– Attempts to ‘fix’ this physical reality by means of financial gimmickry have resulted only in increases in risk, many of them associated with the over-pricing of assets.

– As prosperity decreases, the economy will de-complexify.

These points describe a situation whose reality is as yet largely unknown, but one reason for selecting business (rather than, say, government, the public sector or finance) for this first examination of the sector implications of deteriorating prosperity is that businesses are likely to discover this new reality more quickly than other organisations.

Whilst by no means free from the assumptions, conventions, ‘received wisdoms’ and internal group interests that operate elsewhere, businesses are driven by competition – and this means that, should a small number of enterprises discover and act upon the implications of de-growth, de-layering and disproportionate risk, others are likely to follow.

We cannot, of course, discuss here the many practical steps which are likely to follow from recognition of the new realities and, in some cases, it might be inappropriate to do so.

It seems obvious, though, that a business which becomes familiar with the situation as it is described here will seek to take advantage of inappropriately elevated asset prices, and to test its value-chain and its operations in the light of future de-layering. Ultimately, the aim is likely to be to front-run both de-layering and revaluation. Moreover, awareness of those countries in which prosperity deterioration is at its most acute is likely to sharpen the focus of multi-regional companies.

 

#161. A welcome initiative

MR CUMMINGS’ BOLD ENDEAVOUR

As we’ve been discussing here, Dominic Cummings, senior policy advisor to British premier Boris Johnson, has issued a clarion call for “data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos” and others to join an effort to transform the workings of government.

Here is how Mr Cummings defines his objectives:

“We want to improve performance and make me much less important — and within a year largely redundant. At the moment I have to make decisions well outside what Charlie Munger calls my ‘circle of competence’ and we do not have the sort of expertise supporting the PM and ministers that is needed. This must change fast so we can properly serve the public”.

Let me start by making two points about this initiative. The first is to commend Mr Cummings for taking it. New thinking is needed as never before in government, not just in Britain but around the World.

The second is that I think Mr Cummings has a better-than-evens chance of success. He’s not the first person in government to try to think “the unthinkable” or “outside the box”, but conditions do look propitious.

The long-running political guerrilla war over “Brexit” has had a numbing effect in numerous important areas, not just on policy but on constructive debate, so there’s a lot of catching up to do. My hunch (and it’s not much more than that) is that Mr Johnson is more open than his predecessors to genuinely new thinking. Additionally, of course, his large Parliamentary majority will help very considerably.

So, too, will the fact that his Labour opponents are in such disarray that they might even replace Mr Corbyn with somebody who still thinks that trying to stymy the voters’ decision over leaving the EU was a good idea. Labour, it should be said, has a vital part to play in the political discourse, but cannot do this effectively until it reinstalls issues of economic inequality at the top of its agenda.

Lastly, and notwithstanding the kind (and beyond-my-merits) encouragement of some contributors here, I’m not going to be sending my CV to Downing Street. This, at least, frees me to muse on what I would be saying if I were submitting an application.

First and foremost, I’d urge Mr Cummings to recognize that the economy is an energy system. This will require no explanation to regular visitors here, but I would add that this interpretation can enable us to place our thinking about economics on a scientific footing. The ‘conventional’ form of economics which portrays the economy in purely financial terms may or may not be “gloomy”, but it certainly isn’t a “science”. We’ve spent the best part of two decades finding out that ‘tried and tested’ financial paradigms range from the incomplete to the outright mistaken, and that pulling financial levers doesn’t work.

Mr Cummings won’t need me to tell him that paying people to borrow (as we’ve been doing ever since 2008), whilst penalising savers, is a very bad idea. I’m sure he will appreciate, too, that trying to run a supposedly “capitalist” system without positive returns on capital is a contradiction in terms. Moreover, those of us who believe in the proper working of markets cannot applaud a situation in which asset prices are propped up by intervention. Any country which deliberately supports over-inflated property prices ought to face tough questioning from the younger members of the electorate.

Second, I’d suggest to Mr Cummings that recognition of the energy-determined character of the economy reframes the debate about the environment. I would steer him towards sources which debunk the illogical notion that we can “de-couple” the economy from the use of energy. Economic prosperity, and the broader well-being embodied in environmental and ecological issues, share the common axis of energy.

Getting into the nitty-gritty, and being wholly candid about the situation, I would go on to contend that the energy equation, which hitherto has driven our prosperity upwards, has turned against us. That, after all, is why we’ve been trying one financial gimmick after another in an effort to convince ourselves that “growth” in our prosperity is continuing, when a huge amount of evidence surely demonstrates that it is not.

In the United Kingdom, “growth” (of 26%) between 2003 and 2018 added £430 billion to GDP, but at the cost of £2.16 trillion in net borrowing. You don’t need a degree in advanced mathematics to recognize that borrowing £5 in order to purchase “growth” of £1 isn’t a sustainable plan.

In Britain, as in most other Western countries, a very large part of the “growth” recorded in recent years has been a simple function of spending borrowed money. If we stopped borrowing (leaving debt where it is now), rates of growth would gravitate to somewhere barely above zero. Trying to reduce debt to its level at some earlier time would eliminate a lot of the “growth” recorded in the past into reverse, leaving GDP a lot lower than it is today.

Adding rising ECoEs into the equation, I would seek to demonstrate that the prosperity of the average Western citizen has been deteriorating for more than a decade. Increasing taxation, meanwhile, has been making this worse. Over a fifteen-year period in which the average British person has become £2,570 (10%) less prosperous, his or her burden of tax has increased by £2,240.

Of course, one cannot expect statistical, model-based numbers to make a wholly persuasive case, especially when the techniques involved avowedly ditch conventional notations. But I would urge Mr Cummings to look at a range of other indicators in order to triangulate some conclusions. Such indicators would include homelessness, the relentless rise of consumer credit, the dependency of the economy on credit-funded consumption, the associated symptoms of debt distress, and the millions generally recognized to be “just about managing”. He could reflect, too, on correlations that can be drawn between adverse trends in prosperity and rising public discontent, whether on the streets of Paris or in the voting booths of the United States and much of Europe.

Finally, none of this would be presented as a cause for despair. Accepting that government cannot make people richer doesn’t involve concluding that it cannot make them more contented.

The smart move at this point is to recognize what’s really happening, steal a march on those still in ignorance and denial, and work out how to improve the quality, both of people’s lives and of the society in which they live.