#167. Tests and correctives

VALUE AT RISK, OIL PRICES CRUSHED – A SYSTEM ON TRIAL

In any moment of crisis, it’s easy to be pulled two ways, between the immediate and the fundamental. But it helps when, as now, we can recognise that both themes meet at the same point.

In this sense, “the 2020 Wuhan crisis” (or whatever it ends up being called) has acted as a catalyst for severe risks built into the system over a protracted period of mismanagement, incomprehension, self-interest, hubris and sheer folly.

Just so that you know what’s coming, this discussion is going to concentrate on two issues.

The first of these is the scope for value destruction in the current situation. Here I believe that the use of an independent benchmarking system – based on energy economics – provides an advantage over the monocular, ‘the economy is money’, way of looking at these things.

The main theme here, though, is energy in general, and oil in particular.

On the one hand, the consensus assumption is that we’ll be doing more of every sort of activity (including driving and flying) that depends on having more energy (and more petroleum) in the future than we have now.

On the other, however – and even before the recent slump in oil markets – crude prices simply can’t support even the maintenance of oil supply, let alone the 10-12% increase seemingly required by consensus expectations.

What I aim to do here is to explore this contradiction.

Before we start, though, I’d like to apologise to anyone who, over the past two weeks or so, has wondered why their comments seem to have vanished into the ether, or why there seems to have been much less debate here than usual. What appears to have happened – for no apparent reason, and wholly outside my control – has been that most notifications of comments awaiting approval have ceased to reach me. For the time being, and as frequently as possible, I’m going to review the list of outstanding comments manually.

Short shock, long folly, value exposed

Right now, as markets and sentiment gyrate wildly, we’re watching a fascinating intersection between the immediate and the fundamental playing out before our eyes.

The system that’s being shocked by the coronavirus crisis was a system that was already in very bad shape, and we can be pretty certain that, if the catalyst hadn’t (or maybe hasn’t yet) come from Wuhan, it would have (or assuredly will) come from somewhere else.

As somebody might have said, ‘if you build a monster, don’t be surprised if it bites you’ – and as somebody once did say, “some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you, and other days you both go hungry”. I’ll leave it to you to decide what roles greed, incomprehension and sheer folly have played in the building of the financial monster.

One of the critical issues now has to be the potential for ‘value destruction’ in the current crisis. Amongst the advantages of having an alternative, non-financial (energy) approach to economics is that it provides a second basis of measurement (in this case, the SEEDS prosperity benchmark) for just this kind of contingency.

‘Value’ really falls into two categories. The first is largely ‘notional’, and covers assets such as equities and property. Since nobody could ever monetise the entirety of either asset class, these ‘values’ are functions of the changing narratives that we tell ourselves about what things are ‘worth’. No money actually leaves somebody’s bank account because of a slump in the market price of his or her property or share portfolio.

‘Real’ value, on the other hand, consists of defined commitments which may become incapable of being honoured. The obvious example now is debt, on which businesses or households may be forced to default because their sources of income have dried up.

My approach here has been to use the Surplus Energy Economics Data System (SEEDS) to scroll back through the long years of financial excess in search of reference point ratios more sustainable than those of today.

Without burdening you with too much detail on this, SEEDS-based calculations suggest that up to 60% of the world’s private debt could be at risk, with the exposure of the broader structure of other financial assets at about 70%. My calculations are that up to $70 trillion of debts, and as much as $190tn of broader financial commitments, may be exposed.

Huge though they are, it must be emphasised that these are estimates of the scope for ‘value destruction’ – and how much of this scope turns into real losses depends upon many variables, chief amongst them being the duration and severity of the virus crisis, and the policies adopted by the monetary and fiscal authorities.

Assuming that these authorities act with more wisdom than they’ve exhibited so far – and stop firing off their scant remaining rate policy ammunition before the target comes over the hill – then the outcome isn’t likely to be anywhere nearly this bad, and a full-blown cascade of defaults can be avoided. Meanwhile, it’s possible to see stock markets settling perhaps 40% below their pre-crisis levels, with property prices down by 30%.

This, of course, presupposes that decision-makers don’t resort to putting so much gas back into the balloon that it really does detonate, leaving us scattered with the fragments of exploded hubris. In essence, do we use this event to re-group, or do we insist on ‘irrationality as usual’, regardless of cost?

After all, with the levers of the system in the hands of people who actually think that over-inflated stock markets, and over-priced property markets, are both ‘good’ things, there’s almost no degree of folly that can wholly be ruled out.

Energy – cutting away the foundations

Properly considered, there are two separate market crises happening now, both of them linked to the Wuhan coronavirus event.

One of these is the wave of falls in global stock markets, which the Fed and other central banks are trying, Canute-style, to stem. It would be far better if markets were left to get on with it, with the official effort concentrated on getting businesses and households through the hiatus in their cash flows.

The other crisis – linked to the epidemic by the anticipated sharp fall in petroleum demand, though triggered by a spat between major producers – is the sharp fall in the price of crude oil.

Some observers have suggested that the fall in oil prices will offer some relief for consuming economies, whilst others point out that the oil sector itself is going to be hit by a wave of financial failures, just as much the same thing might be poised to happen across vast swathes of the rest of the economy. The real issue, though, is how much damage this is going to inflict on the oil and gas industry, and where it leaves the industry’s ability to invest.

For those of us who understand that the economy is an energy system, the link between these events takes on a fundamental significance. Oil may be “only” 34% of global primary energy consumption, but it continues to account for a lot more than 90% of all energy used in transport applications. Fossil fuels (FFs), meanwhile, still provide more than four-fifths of world energy supply, a number that has changed only fractionally over decades.

Enthusiasts and idealists might talk about a post-fossil economy, just as the airline industry tells us that it can continue to grow whilst moving towards zero net carbon emissions. But, in both of these instances, as in others, there’s a very big gap between aspiration and actuality.

In search of neutral ground, we can do worse than look at long-range energy demand projections from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and OPEC.

All three publish central case forecasts, essentially mixing consensus-based economic assumptions with the mix of policies in place around the world. In broad terms, all three are agreed that, unless there are changes to these central parameters, we’re going to be using 10-12% more oil in 2040 than we use today.

‘Please sir, can I have some more?’

If you look at these projections in greater detail, it further emerges that we’re going to be doing a lot more of the things for which oil, and energy more broadly, are pre-requisites.

We are, for example, going to be driving more, even though electrification should keep the rise in oil demand for road use pegged at single-digit percentages. By 2040, there are expected to be more than a billion (74%) more vehicles on the world’s roads than there are today. It seems to be assumed that, by then, about 40% of the global fleet will have been converted to EVs, but that will still see us using more oil on our roads – not less.

We’re also, it seems, going to be flying a lot more than we already do, requiring a lot more petroleum, despite an assumed pace of energy efficiency gains seemingly running at about 1.5% annually. My interpretation suggests that passenger-miles flown are expected to rise by about 90% over that same period, though, thanks to compounding efficiency gains, petroleum use in aviation is expected to rise by “only” about 38%.

Within the overall energy position, the expectation is that our consumption of primary energy will be about 28% greater in 2040 than it was in 2018. Within this increment (of 3,900 million tonnes of oil equivalent), about 12% (450 mmtoe) is expected to come from hydro, and 44% (1,720 mmtoe) from wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy (RE). Nuclear might chip in another 5% of the extra energy that we’re going to need.

But the remaining 39% or so of the required increase is going to have to come from expanded use of fossil fuels, some of it from oil though most of it from gas (though it’s also noteworthy that no reduction in our consumption of coal seems to be anticipated). From the above, it will hardly be a surprise (though it is certainly disturbing) that annual rates of CO2 emissions from the use of energy are expected to carry on rising.

If any of this is remotely likely, though, why are oil prices languishing around $30/b?

To be sure, we know that demand is going to be impacted by Wuhan, and that producers including Saudi and Russia are scrapping over who should absorb this downside. But oil prices were hardly robust, typically around $65/b, even before the epidemic became a significant factor.

The fact of the matter is that we simply cannot square oil prices of $30, or $60, or even $100, for that matter, with any scenario calling for increases in supply.

We all know that global oil supply has been supported by American shale production, which has in turn relied on subsidies from investors and lenders. Now, though, it’s becoming ever more apparent (as was set out in a recent official report from Finland) that even ‘conventional’ oil supply is in big economic trouble.

It’s a sobering thought that, were capital flows to dry up to the point where there was a complete cessation of new drilling, US shale liquids output would fall by about 50% within twelve months. But it’s an even more disturbing thought that, unless capital investment can be ramped up dramatically, conventional oil supply is going to erode, less spectacularly, perhaps, but relentlessly.

So here’s the question – how, under this scenario, are we supposed to find sources for an increase in oil supply going forward? More broadly, and with oil and gas generally produced by the same companies, can we really increase the supply of natural gas by more than 30% over the coming twenty years? And can we – and, for that matter, should we – be using just as much coal in 2040 as we do now?

No ‘get out of gaol free’ cards

Two suggestions tend to be offered in answer to such questions, so let’s get both of them out of the way now.

One of these is that the use of renewables – whose output is currently projected to rise from 560 mmtoe in 2018 to more than 2,280 mmtoe by 2040 – can grow even more rapidly than is currently assumed.

But the reality seems to be that meeting current assumptions – boosting hydro-electricity supply by 50%, and quadrupling power from other renewable sources – is already a tough ask. The unlikelihood of these ambitious targets being beaten is underscored in the figures.

Energy transition has been costed by IRENA at between $95 trillion and $110tn, the latter equivalent to 720x today’s equivalent of what it cost America to put a man on the Moon. This time, of course, it isn’t just rich countries that have somehow to find this level of investment, but poorer and middle-income nations, too.

Annual capital investment in REs was, in real terms, lower in 2018 than it had been back in 2011, mainly because prior subsidy regimes have tended not to be scalable in line with expansion. Yearly capacity additions, too, stalled in 2018.

The really critical snag with “big bang” transition is simple, but fundamental. RE technology has yet to prove itself truly “renewable”, because capacity creation, and the building of the related infrastructure, cannot yet be undertaken without the extensive use of fossil fuel energy in the supply of materials and components.

The second notion – which is that we can somehow “de-couple” the economy from the use of energy – is risible, even in an era in which we often seem to have “de-coupled” economic policy from reality. The EEB was surely right to liken the search for “de-coupling” to “a haystack without a needle”.

Until somebody can demonstrate how we can drive more, fly more, manufacture more goods and ship them around the world, build more capital equipment, and supply more of basics such as food and water, without using more energy, “de-coupling” will continue to look like a punch-line in search of a gag.

This is really a matter of physical limitations – and there’s no “app” for that.

Stand back………….

On the principle that “what can’t happen won’t happen”, we need to stand back and consider the strong possibility that the consensus of expectations for future energy supply is simply wrong.

Let’s assume, for working purposes, that RE supply does, as expected, expand by 2,170 mmtoe by 2040, and that hydro and nuclear, too, perform in line with consensus projections. In this scenario, supply of non-fossil fuel energy would, as specified, be higher by about 2,370 mmtoe in 2040 than it was in 2018.

At the same time, though, let’s make some rather more cautious assumptions, well supported by probabilities, about fossil fuels.

For starters, let’s assume that shale oil production doesn’t slump, and that other forms of oil production remain robust enough to keep total supplies roughly where they are now. This would mean that oil supply won’t have fallen by 2040, but neither will it have delivered the widely-assumed increase of 10-12%. Let’s further assume that gas availability rises by 15%, rather than by 30%, and that the use of coal falls by 10%.

In this illustrative scenario, fossil fuels supply remains higher in 2040 than it was in 2018, but by only about 300 mmtoe (+3%), instead of the generally-expected increase of 1,540 mmtoe (+13%). This in turn would mean that, comparing 2040 with 2018, total energy supply would be higher, not by the projected 28%, but by only about 19%.

…..and do less?

My belief is that this is a more realistic set of parameters than the ‘more of everything’ consensus about our energy future. If energy supply does grow by less than is currently assumed, growth in many of the things that we do with energy is going to fall short of expectations, too.

Let’s unpack this somewhat, to see where it might lead. First, if expectations for RE are achieved, we can carry on using more electricity, though not at past annual rates of expansion.

But less-than-expected access to oil would have some very specific consequences. With population numbers still growing, we’ll need to keep on increasing the supply of petroleum products to essential activities, such as the production, processing and distribution of food. You’ll know that my expectations for “de-growth” anticipate a lot of simplification and ‘de-layering’ of industrial processes, and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t apply to food supply. But it remains hard to see how we can supply more food from less oil.

In short, there are reasons to suppose that oil supply constraint is going to have a disproportionate and leveraged impact on the discretionary (non-essential) applications in which petroleum is used. At the same time, faltering energy supply – and a worsening trend in surplus energy, reflecting the rise in ECoEs – is likely to leave us a lot less prosperous than conventional, ‘economics is money’ projections seem to assume.

From here, it’s a logical progression to question, in particular, whether the assumption of continued rapid expansion in travel might, in reality, not happen. We could take – but, so far, haven’t taken – ameliorative actions, including limiting car engine sizes, and promoting a transition to public transport. My conclusion – which is tentative, but firming – is that we might be a lot nearer to ‘peak travel’ than anyone yet supposes.

The assumption right now seems to be that, as and when the virus crisis is behind us, we’ll go back to buying more cars and using them more often, flying more each year than we did the year before and, perhaps, rediscovering a taste for taking cruise-ship holidays.

Let’s just say that such an assumption might well prove to be a long way wide of the mark.

 

#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.

#157. Trending down

THE ANATOMY OF DEGROWTH – A SEEDS ANALYSIS

Unless you’ve been stranded on a desert island, cut off from all sources of information, you’ll know that the global economy is deteriorating markedly, whilst risk continues to increase. Even the most perennially optimistic observers now concede that the ultra-loose policies which I call ‘monetary adventurism’, introduced in response to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), haven’t worked. Popular unrest is increasing around the world, even in places hitherto generally regarded as stable, with worsening hardship a central cause.

As regular readers know, we’ve seen this coming, and have never been fobbed off by official numbers, or believed that financial gimmickry could ‘fix’ adverse fundamental trends in the economy. Ultimately, the economy isn’t, as the established interpretation would have us believe, a financial system at all. Rather, it’s an energy system, driven by the relationship between (a) the amount of energy to which we have access, and (b) the proportion of that energy, known here as ECoE (the Energy Cost of Energy), that is consumed in the access process.

Properly understood, money acts simply as a ‘claim’ on the output of the energy economy, and driving up the aggregate of monetary claims only increases the scope for their elimination in a process of value destruction.

We’ve been here before, most recently in 2008, and still haven’t learned the brutal consequences of creating financial claims far in excess of what a deteriorating economy can deliver.

The next wave of value destruction – likely to include collapses in the prices of stocks, bonds and property, and a cascade of defaults – cannot much longer be delayed.

What, though, is happening to the real, energy-driven economy? My energy-based economic model, the Surplus Energy Economics Data System (SEEDS), is showing a worsening deterioration, and now points to a huge and widening gap between where the economy really is and the narrative being told about it from the increasingly unreal perspective of conventional measurement.

The latest iteration, SEEDS 20, highlights the spread of falling prosperity, with the average person now getting poorer in 25 of the 30 countries covered by the system, and most of the others within a very few years of joining them..

To understand why this is happening, there are two fundamental points that need to be grasped.

First, the spending of borrowed money doesn’t boost underlying economic output, but simply massages reported GDP into apparent conformity with the narrative of “perpetual growth”.

Second, conventional economics ignores the all-important ECoE dimension of the energy dynamic that really drives the economy.

Overstated output – GDP and borrowing

Ireland is an interesting (if extreme) example of the way in which the spending of borrowed money, combined in this case with changes of methodology dubbed “leprechaun economics”, has driven recorded GDP to levels far above a realistic appraisal of economic output.

According to official statistics, the Irish economy has grown by an implausible 62% since 2008, adding €124bn to GDP, and, incidentally, giving the average Irish citizen a per capita GDP of €66,300, far higher than that of France (€36,360), Germany (€40,340) or the Netherlands (€45,050).

What these stats don’t tell you is that, over a period in which Irish GDP has increased by €124bn, debt has risen by €316bn. It’s an interesting reflection that, stated at constant 2018 values, Irish debt is 85% higher now (at €963bn) than it was on the eve of the GFC in 2007 (€521bn).

When confronted with this sort of mix of GDP and debt data, two questions need to be asked.

First, where would growth be if net increases in indebtedness were to cease?

Second, where would GDP have been now if the country hadn’t joined in the worldwide debt binge in the first place?

Where Ireland is concerned, the answers are that trend growth would fall to just 0.4%, and that underlying, ‘clean’ GDP (C-GDP) would be €212bn, far below the €324bn recorded last year.

In passing, it’s worth noting that this 53% overstatement of economic output has dramatic implications for risk, driving Ireland’s debt/GDP ratio up from 297% to 454%, and increasing an already-ludicrous ratio of financial assets to output up from 1900% to a mind-boggling 2890%.

These ratios are rendered even more dangerous by a sharp rise in ECoE, but we can conclude, for now, that the narrative of Irish economic rehabilitation from the traumas of 2008 is eyewash. Indeed, the risk module incorporated into SEEDS in the latest iteration rates the country as one of the riskiest on the planet.

Though few countries run Ireland close when it comes to the overstatement of economic output, China goes one further, with GDP (of RMB 88.4tn) overstating C-GDP (RMB 51.1tn) by a remarkable 73%. Comparing 2018 with 2008, Chinese growth (of RMB 47.2tn, or 115%) has happened on the back of a massive (RMB 170tn, or 290%) escalation in debt. SEEDS calculations put Chinese trend growth at 3.1% – and still falling – versus a recorded 6.6% last year, and put C-GDP at RMB 51tn, 42% below the official RMB 88.4tn. Essentially, 62% (RMB 29tn) of all Chinese “growth” (RMB 47tn) since 2008 has been the product of pouring huge sums of new liquidity into the system.

In each of the last ten years, remarkably, Chinese net borrowing has averaged almost 26% of GDP, a calculation which surely puts the country’s much-vaunted +6% rates of “growth” into a sobering context. After all, GDP can be pretty much whatever you want it to be, for as long as you can keep fuelling additional ‘activity’ with soaring credit. Even second-placed Ireland has added debt at an annual average rate of ‘only’ 13.5% of GDP over the same period, with Canada third on this risk measure at 11.5%, and just three other countries (France, Chile and South Korea) exceeding 9%. China and Ireland are the countries where cosmetic “growth” is at its most extreme.

Fig. 1 sets out a list of the ten countries in which GDP is most overstated in relation to underlying C-GDP. The table also lists, for reference, these countries’ annual average borrowing as percentages of GDP over the past decade, though it’s the relationship between this number and recorded growth which links to the cumulative disparity between GDP and C-GDP.

Fig. 1

#157 SEEDS C-GDP

Of course, C-GDP is a concept unknown to ‘conventional’ economics, to governments or to businesses, which is one reason why so much “shock” will doubtless be expressed when the tide of credit-created “growth” goes dramatically into reverse.

Those of us familiar with C-GDP are likely to be unimpressed when we hear about an “unexpected” deterioration in, and a potential reversal of, “growth” of which most was never really there in the first place.

The energy dimension – ECoE and prosperity

Whilst seeing through the use of credit to inflate apparent economic output is one part of understanding how economies really function, the other is a recognition of the role of ECoE. The Energy Cost of Energy acts as a levy on economic output, earmarking part of it for the sustenance of the supply of energy upon which all future economic activity depends.

As we have discussed elsewhere, depletion has taken over from geographic reach and  economies of scale as the main driver of the ECoEs of oil, gas and coal. Because fossil fuels continue to account for four-fifths of the total supply of energy to the economy, the relentless rise in their ECoEs dominates the overall balance of the energy equation.

Renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar power, are at an earlier, downwards point on the ECoE parabola, and their ECoEs are continuing to fall in response to the beneficial effects of reach and scale. The big difference between fossil fuels and renewables, though, is that the latter are most unlikely ever to attain ECoEs anywhere near those of fossil fuels in their prime.

Whereas the aggregated ECoEs of oil, gas and coal were less than 2% before the relentless effects of depletion kicked in, it’s most unlikely that the ECoEs of renewables can ever fall below 10%. One of the reasons for this is that constructing and managing renewables capacity continues to depend on inputs from fossil fuels. This makes renewable energy a derivative of energy sourced from oil, gas and coal. To believe otherwise is to place trust in technology to an extent which exceeds the physical capabilities of the resource envelope.

This, it must be stressed, is not intended to belittle the importance of renewables, which are our only prospect, not just of minimizing the economic impact of rising fossil fuel ECoEs, but of preventing catastrophic damage to the environment.

Rather, the error – often borne of sheer wishful thinking – lies in believing that renewables can ever be a like-for-like replacement for the economic value that has been provided by fossil fuels since we learned to harness them in the 1760s. The vast quantities of high-intensity energy contained in fossil formations gave us a one-off, albeit dramatic, economic impetus. As that impetus fades away, it would be foolhardy in the extreme to assume that the economy can, or even must, continue to behave as though that impetus can exist independently of its source.

For context, SEEDS studies show that the highly complex economies of the West become incapable of further growth in prosperity once their ECoEs enter a range between 3.5% and 5.5%.

As fig. 2 shows, the first major Western economy to experience a reversal of prior growth in prosperity per capita was Japan, whose deterioration began in 1997. This was followed by downturns in France (from 2000), the United Kingdom (2003), the United States (2005) and, finally, Germany, with the deterioration in the latter deferred to 2018, largely reflecting the benefits that Germany has derived from her membership of the Euro Area.

Fig. 2

#157 SEEDS ECoE prosp advanced

Less complex emerging economies have greater ECoE tolerance, and are able to continue to deliver growth, albeit at diminishing rates, until ECoEs are between 8% and 10%. These latter levels are now being reached, which is why prosperity deterioration now looms for these economies as well.

As fig. 3 illustrates, two major emerging economies, Mexico and Brazil, have already experienced downturns, commencing in 2008 and 2013 respectively. Growth in prosperity per person is projected to go into reverse in China from 2021, with South Korean citizens continuing to become more prosperous until 2029. The latter projected date, however, may move forward if the Korean economy is impacted by worldwide deterioration to a greater extent than is currently anticipated by SEEDS.

Fig. 3

#157 SEEDS ECoE prosp emerging

Consequences – rocking and rolling

As we’ve seen, then – and for reasons simply not comprehended by ‘conventional’ interpretations of the economy – worldwide prosperity has turned down, a process that started with the more complex Western economies before spreading to more ECoE-tolerant emerging countries.

For reasons outlined above, no amount of financial tinkering can change this fundamental dynamic.

At least three major consequences can be expected to flow from this process. Though these lie outside the scope of this analysis, their broad outlines, at least, can be sketched here.

First, we should anticipate a major financial shock, far exceeding anything experienced in 2008 (or at any other time), as a direct result of the widening divergence between soaring financial ‘claims’ and the reality of an energy-driven economy tipping into decline. SEEDS 20 has a module which provides estimates of exposure to value destruction, though its indications cannot do more than suggest orders of magnitude. Current exposure is put at $320tn, far exceeding the figure of less than $70tn (at 2018 values) on the eve of the GFC at the end of 2007. This suggests that the values of equities, bonds and property are poised to fall very sharply indeed, something of a re-run of 2008, though with the critical caveat that, this time, no subsequent recovery is to be anticipated.

Second, we should anticipate a rolling process of contraction in the real economy of goods and services. This subject requires a dedicated analysis, but we are already witnessing two significant phenomena.

Demand for “stuff” – ranging across a gamut from cars and smartphones to chips and components – has started to fall, a trend likely to be followed by falling requirements for inputs.

Meanwhile, whole sectors of industry, including retailing and leisure, have experienced severe downturns in profitability. Utilization rates and interconnectedness are amongst the factors likely to drive a de-complexifying process that is a logical concomitant of deteriorating prosperity. This in turn suggests that a widening spectrum of sectors will be driven to and beyond the threshold of viability.

Finally, the political challenge of deteriorating prosperity is utterly different from anything of which we have prior experience, and it seems evident that this is already contributing to worsening unrest, and to a challenge to established leadership cadres. This process is likely to relegate non-economic agendas to the lower leagues of debate, and has particular implications for policy on redistribution, migration, taxation and the provision of public services.

My intention now is to use SEEDS to provide ongoing insights into some of the detail on issues discussed here. If we’re right about the economic direction of travel, what lies ahead lies quite outside the scope of past experience or current anticipation.   

 

#156. Actual fantasy

OUR URGENT NEED FOR RATIONAL ECONOMICS

Everyone knows the quotation, of course, which says that “when it gets serious, you have to lie”.

Actually, when it gets even more serious, we have to face the facts.

I’m indebted to Dutch rock music genius Arjen Lucassen for the observation that the counterpart to “virtual reality” is actual fantasy – and that’s where the world economy seems to be right now.

You may think it’s imminent, or you might believe that it still lies some distance in the future, but I’m pretty sure you know that we’re heading, inescapably, for “GFC II”, the much larger (and very different) sequel to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC).

SEEDS 20 – the latest iteration of the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – has a new module which calculates the scale of exposure to “value destruction”. This exposure now stands at $320 trillion, compared with $67tn (at 2018 values) on the eve of GFC I at the end of 2007.

How this number is reached, and what it means, can be discussed later. Additionally, potential for value destruction needn’t mean that this is the quantity of value which actually will be destroyed when a crash happens. Rather, it gives us a starting order-of-magnitude.

For now, though, we can simply note that risk exposure seems now to be at least four times what it was back in 2008. Moreover, interest rates, now at or close to zero, cannot be slashed again, as they were in 2008-09. Neither can governments again put their now-stretched balance sheets behind their banking systems, even if global interconnectedness didn’t render such actions by individual countries largely ineffective.

Finally – in this litany of risk – two further points need to be borne in mind. First, global prosperity is weakening, and has been falling in most Western economies for at least a decade, so any new crash will test an already-weakened economic resilience.

Second, and relatedly, any attempt to repeat the rescues of 2008 would be unlikely to be accepted by a general public which now – and, in general, correctly – characterises those rescues as ‘bail-outs for the wealthy, and austerity for everyone else’.

The high price of ignorance

It’s tempting – looking at a world divided between struggling, often angry majorities, and tiny minorities rich beyond the dreams of avarice – to think the surreal state of the world’s financial system reflects some grand scheme, driven by greed. Alternatively, you might feel that far too many countries are run by people who simply aren’t up to the job.

Ultimately, though – and whilst greed, arrogance, incompetence and ambition have all been present in abundance – the factor driving most of what has gone wrong in recent years has been simple ignorance. For the most part, disastrous decisions have been made in good faith, because thinking has been conditioned by the false paradigm which states that ‘economics is the study of money’, and which adds, to compound folly still further, that energy is ‘just another input’.

I don’t want to labour a point familiar to most regular readers, so let’s wrap up recent history very briefly.

From the late 1990s, as “secular stagnation” kicked in (for reasons which very few actually understood, then or now), the siren voices of conventional economics argued that this could be ‘fixed’ by making it easier for people to borrow than it had ever been before. This created, not just debt escalation, but a lethal proliferation and dispersal of risk, which led directly to 2008.

In response, the same wise people, those whose insights caused the crisis in the first place, now counselled yet more bizarre gimmicks, the worst of which was that we should pay people to borrow, whilst simultaneously destroying the ability to earn returns on capital. Nobody seems to have wondered (still less explained) how we were supposed to operate a capitalist economy without returns on capital – and that, by the way, is why what we have now isn’t remotely a capitalist system based on properly-functioning markets.

When GFC II turns up, it’s as predictable as night following day that the zealots of the ‘economics is money’ fraternity will come up with yet more hare-brained follies. We already know what some of these are likely to be. There are certain to be strident calls for yet more money creation (but this time with a label saying that “it’s not QE – honest”). Some will advocate ‘helicopter money’, perhaps calling it ‘peoples’ QE’. There will be calls for negative nominal interest rates, with the necessary concomitant of the banning of cash. Ideas even more barking mad than these are likely to turn up, too.

Ultimately, what’s likely to happen is that the authorities will respond to GFC II by pouring into the system more additional money than the credibility of fiat currencies can withstand.

We know, of course, that any new gimmicks, just like the old ones, won’t ‘fix’ anything, and can be expected to make a bad situation even worse.

So the question facing everyone now – but especially decision-makers in government, business and finance, and those who influence their decisions – is whether we abandon conventional economics before, or after, the next mad turn of the roulette wheel.

Put another way, should the creators of “deregulation”, QE and ZIRP – and the facilitators of sub-prime and “cash-back” mortgages, collateralised debt obligations and the alphabet soup of “financial weapons of mass destruction” – be allowed to introduce yet more insanity into the system?

Before making this decision, there’s one further point that everyone needs to bear in mind. In 2008, financial gimmickry nearly, but not quite, destroyed the banking system. The only reason why this didn’t happen was that fiat money retained its credibility. But, whilst the follies which preceded the GFC imperilled only the credit (banking) system, those which have followed have put the credibility of money itself at risk.

This is perhaps the most powerful reason of all for not letting the practitioners of ‘conventional’ economics have another swing at the wrecking-ball.

I hope that, reflecting on this, you’ll agree with me that we can no longer afford the folly of financial economics.

Moreover, we need to say so, making fundamental points forcefully, and resisting any temptation to wander off into esoteric by-ways.

A scientific alternative?

If there can be no doubt at all that money-based interpretation of the economy has ended in abject failure, there can be very little doubt that a workable alternative is ready and waiting. That alternative is the recognition that the economy is an energy system.

This idea is by no means a new one and, though I’d prefer not to particularize, it’s been pioneered by some truly brilliant people. If those of us who base our interpretations on the energy-economics paradigm can see a long way into the future, it’s because we’re “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

Moreover, much of the work of the pioneers is rooted in solid science, meaning that, for the first time, there is the prospect of a genuine science of economics, firmly located within the laws of thermodynamics. This has to be a more rational option than continuing to rely on economic ‘laws’ which try to impute immutable patterns to the behaviour of money – something which is, after all, no more, than a human construct.

I like to think that my much more modest role in this direction of travel has been to recognize that, if energy economics is going to transition from the side-lines of the debate to its centre, it needs to tackle conventional economics on its own turf.  That means that, whilst as purists we might prefer to set out our findings in calories, BTUs and joules, we have to talk in dollars, euros and yen if we’re to secure a hearing. It also means that we need models of the economy based firmly on energy principles.

If you’re a regular visitor to this site then the basics of what I call surplus energy economics will be familiar. Even so, and with new visitors in mind, a brief summary of its main principles seems apposite.

Core principles

The first principle of surplus energy economics is that everything that constitutes the economy is a function of energy. Literally nothing – goods, services, infrastructure, travel, information – can be supplied without it. Even in the most basic aspects of our lives, everything that we need – including somewhere to live, food and water – is a product of the application of energy. The more complex a society becomes, the more energy it requires, even if this is sometimes masked when energy-intensive activities are outsourced to other countries. The idea that we can somehow “decouple” economic activity from the use of energy has been debunked comprehensively by the European Environmental Bureau as “a haystack without a needle”.

You need only picture a society even temporarily deprived of energy to see the reality of this. Without energy, food cannot be grown, processed or delivered, water fails when the pumps stop working, our homes and places of work become cold and dark, and schools and hospitals cease to function. Without continuity of energy, machinery falls silent, nothing can move from where it is to where it is needed, individuals lose the mobility that we take for granted, and, in a pretty short time, social order fails and chaos reigns.

Ironically, financial systems are amongst the first to collapse when the energy plug is pulled. People cannot even write learned papers telling us that energy is ‘just another input’ when their computer screens have just gone down.

The second principle of surplus energy economics is that, whenever energy is accessed, some of that energy is always consumed in the access process. Stated at its simplest, you cannot drill an oil or gas well, excavate a mine, or manufacture a wind turbine or a solar panel without using energy. Much of this energy goes into the provision of materials, of which just one example is copper. This is now extracted at ratios as low as one tonne of copper from five hundred tonnes of rock. Supplying copper, then, cannot be done with human or animal labour – and, of course, even if this were possible, the need for nutritional energy would keep the circular, ‘in-out’ energy linkage wholly in place.

Taken together, these principles dictate a division of available energy into two streams or components.

The first is the energy consumed in the access process, known here as the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE).

The second – constituting all available energy other than ECoE – is known as surplus energy. This powers all economic activity, other than the supply of energy itself.

This makes ECoE an extremely important component, because, the higher ECoE is, the less surplus energy remains for those activities which constitute prosperity.

Four main factors drive trends in ECoEs. Taking oil, gas and coal as examples, these energy sources benefited in their early stages from economies of scale and expanding geographic reach. Latterly, though, with these drivers exhausted – and as a consequence of the natural process of using the most attractive sources first, and leaving costlier alternatives for later – ECoEs have been driven upwards relentlessly by depletion.

A fourth factor, technology, accelerates movement along the early, downwards ECoE trajectory, and then acts to mitigate subsequent increases. Mitigation, though, is all that technology can accomplish, because the scope for technological improvement is bounded by the envelope of the physical properties of the energy resource itself.

Lastly on this, because the four factors driving ECoEs – reach, scale, depletion and technology – all act gradually, ECoEs evolve, and need to be measured as trends.

Application – the money complication

With the basic principles established, and the role of ECoE understood, it might seem that, to arrive at a measure of prosperity, all we need do now is to subtract ECoE from economic activity. That would indeed be the case – if we had a reliable data series for output.

But this is something that we simply don’t possess, least of all in reported GDP. Essentially, GDP has been manipulated for the best part of two decades, and, arguably, for even longer than that.

By manipulation, I’m not referring to tinkering at the production boundary, or understating the deflator necessary for making comparisons over time.

The kind of manipulation I have in mind is the simple matter of pillaging the future to inflate perceptions of the present.

Expressed in PPP-converted dollars at constant 2018 values, reported world GDP increased by 36% between 2000 and 2008, and has grown by a further 34% since then. During those same periods, though, world debt increased by, respectively, 50% and 58%. Each $1 of incremental GDP between 2000 and 2008 was accompanied by $2.30 of net new borrowing, a number that has increased to more than $3 in the decade since then. Sustaining annual “growth” of about 3.5% in recent years has required annual borrowing of about 9% of GDP.

In short, GDP and growth have been faked by the simple spending of borrowed money. This exercise in cannibalising the future to sustain the present would look even more extreme were we to include in the equation the creation of huge holes in pension provision.

In this context, we need to answer two questions before we can calculate a useful output metric against which ECoE can be applied.

First, what would happen now, if we stopped piling on yet more debt?

Second, where would GDP be today if we hadn’t embarked on a massive borrowing spree?

You’ll understand, I’m sure – with government, business and finance still hamstrung by the failed economic methodologies of the past – why I won’t go into details here about the SEEDS algorithms which provide answers to these questions.

What I can say, though, is that, in the absence of further net borrowing, growth in world GDP would fall from a reported level of around 3.5%, to about 1.2% now, decreasing to just 0.6% by 2030.

On the second question, setting growth since 2000 of $61tn against borrowing of $167tn over the same period puts in context quite how far reported GDP has been inflated by the spending of borrowed money – and, if this borrowing binge hadn’t happened, GDP now would be 30% below the numbers actually recorded. Instead of “GDP of $135tn PPP, growing at 3.5% annually”, we’d have “GDP of $94tn, growing at barely 1%”.

Prosperity – the ECoE connection

When we set growth in real, “clean” GDP (C-GDP) of 31% since 2000 against a global trend ECoE that has risen from 4.1% to 7.9% over the same period – and stir a 23% increase in population numbers into the pot as well – you’ll readily understand why people have started to become poorer.

This is set out in fig. 1. In the left-hand chart, the gap between reported GDP (in blue) and C-GDP (black) represents the compound rate of divergence in a period when debt of $167tn has been injected into the system, together with large amounts of ultra-cheap liquidity.

If we were now to unwind these injections, GDP would fall to (or below) the black C-GDP line, over whatever period of time the debt reduction was spread. The gap between C-GDP (black) and prosperity (red) shows the impact of rising ECoEs, and illustrates how the worsening ECoE trend is set to turn low (and faltering) growth in C-GDP into a deteriorating prosperity trend.

The middle chart adds debt, to set these trends in context. In the right-hand chart, per capita equivalents illustrate how the average person has been getting poorer, albeit – so far – pretty gradually.

Fig. 1

#1567 Global

Comparing 2000 with 2018 (in constant PPP dollars), a rise of 31% in C-GDP has been offset by an ECoE deduction that has soared from $2.7tn to $7.4tn. Aggregate prosperity has thus increased from $69tn ($71.9tn minus ECoE of $2.7tn) in 2000 to $86tn ($93.5tn minus $7.4tn) last year.

This is a rise of 26%, only slightly greater than the increase (of 23%) in world population numbers between those years. In fact, SEEDS indicates that global prosperity per capita peaked in 2007, at $11,720, and had fallen to $11,570 by last year.

On the cusp of degrowth

This, to be sure, has been a very small decrease, essentially meaning that per capita prosperity has plateaued for slightly more than a decade. Before drawing any comfort at all from this observation, though, the following points need to be noted.

First, the post-2007 plateau contrasts starkly with historic improvements in prosperity. The robust growth of the first two decades after 1945, for instance, coincided with a continuing downwards trend in overall ECoE, as the ECoEs of oil, gas and coal moved towards the lowest points on their respective parabolas.

Second, the deterioration in prosperity, though gradual, has taken place at the same time that debt has escalated. Back in 2007, and expressed at 2018 values, the prosperity of the average person was $11,720, and his or her debt was $27,000. Now, though prosperity is only $140 lower now than it was then, debt has soared to $39,000.

Third, these are aggregated numbers, combining Western economies – where prosperity has been falling over an extended period – with emerging market (EM) countries, where prosperity continues to improve. Once EM economies, too, pass the climacteric into deteriorating prosperity – and that is about to start happening – the global average will fall far more rapidly than the gradual erosion of recent years.

Fourth, as these trends unfold we can expect the rate of deterioration to accelerate, not least because our economic system is predicated on perpetual expansion, and is ill-suited to managing degrowth. In a degrowth phase, in which utilization rates slump and trade volumes fall, increasing numbers of activity-types will cease to be viable (a process that has already commenced). Additionally, of course, we ought to expect the process of degrowth to damage the financial system and this, amongst other adverse effects, will put the “wealth effect” – such as it is – into reverse.

The differences between Western and EM economies is illustrated in fig. 2, which compares the United States with China. On both charts, prosperity per person is shown in blue, and ECoE in red.

In America, prosperity turned down from 2005, when ECoE was 5.6%. In China, on the other hand, SEEDS projects a peaking of prosperity in 2021, by which time ECoE is expected to have reached 8.8%. The reason for this difference is that complex Western economies have far less ECoE-tolerance than less sophisticated EM countries.

As a rule of thumb, prosperity turns downwards in advanced economies at ECoEs of between 3.5% and 5.5%, with the United States far more resilient than weaker Western countries, most notably in Europe. The equivalent band for EM countries seems to lie between 8% and 10%, a threshold that most of these countries are set to cross within the next five or so years.

Where China is concerned, it’s noteworthy that, with ECoE now hitting 8%, there are very evident signs of economic deterioration, including debt dependency, increasing liquidity injections, and falling demand for everything from cars and smartphones to chips and components.

Fig. 2

#1567 US vs China

The energy implications

In conjunction with the SEEDS 20 iteration, the system has adopted a new energy scenario which differs significantly from those set out by institutions such as the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency.

Essentially, SEEDS broadly agrees with EIA and IEA projections showing increases, between now and 2040, of about 38% for nuclear and 58% for renewables, with the latter defined to include hydroelectricity.

Where SEEDS differs from these institutions is over the outlook for fossil fuels. Using the median expectations of the EIA and the IEA, oil consumption is set to be 11% higher in 2040 than it is now, gas consumption is projected to grow by 32%, and the use of coal is expected to be little changed.

Given the strongly upwards trajectories of the ECoEs of these energy sources, it’s becoming ever harder to see where such increases in supply are supposed to come from. With the US shale liquids sector an established cash-burner, and with most non-OPEC countries now at or beyond their production peaks, it may well be that far too much is being expected of Russia and the Middle East. The oil industry may, in the past, have ‘cried wolf’ over the kind of prices required to finance replacement capacity, but we cannot assume that this is still the case.

The implication for fossil fuels isn’t, necessarily, that worsening scarcity will cause prices to soar but, rather, that it will become increasingly difficult to set prices that are at once both high enough for producers (whose costs are rising) and low enough for consumers (whose prosperity is deteriorating). It’s becoming an increasingly plausible scenario that the supply of oil, gas and coal may cease to be activities suited to for-profit private operators, and that some form of direct subsidy may become inescapable.

Conclusions

It is to be hoped that this discussion has persuaded you of two things – the abject failure of ‘conventional’, money-based economics, and the imperative need to adopt interpretations based on a recognition of the (surely obvious) fact that the economy is an energy system.

Until and unless this happens, we’re going to carry on telling ourselves pretty lies about prosperity, and acting in ways characterised by an increasingly desperate impulse towards denial. Many governments are already taxing their citizens to an extent that, whilst it might seem reasonable in the context of overstated GDP, causes real hardship and discontent when set against the steady deterioration of prosperity.

Meanwhile, risk, as measured financially, keeps rising, and the cumulative gap between assumed GDP and underlying prosperity has reached epic proportions. Expressed in market (rather than PPP) dollars, scope for value destruction has now reached $320tn.

Only part of this is likely to take the form of debt defaults, though these could take on a compounding, domino-like progression. Just as seriously, asset valuations look set to tumble, when we are forced to realise that unleashing tides of cheap debt and cheaper money provides no genuine “fix” to an economy in degrowth, but serves only to compound the illusions on which economic assumptions and decisions are based.

 

#153. One for the sceptics

THE STRICTLY ECONOMIC CASE FOR ENERGY TRANSITION

We need to be rather careful about the term “opinion is divided”.

When English league champions Manchester City were drawn to play fourth-tier minnows Newport County in the F.A. Cup, the opinions of football-watchers over the expected outcome probably were “divided” – but only in the sense that, whilst 99% expected the giants to win, only 1% hoped (in vain, as it turned out) for a miracle.

The same caution should apply to any claim that informed opinion is “divided” over the threat to the environment. Even if you’re not convinced by the concept of climate change, or of human activity as one of its main causes, you’d struggle to dismiss species extinction, water supply exhaustion, land degradation, desertification, melting glaciers or simple pollution as figments of the imagination.

We don’t, after all, have to assume that absolutely everything ever stated by ‘the establishment’ or the mainstream media is a pack of porky-pies, even if quite a lot of it is.

There’s one point, though, which really does need to be addressed. This is the widespread assumption that environmental and economic objectives are opposed, and that tackling environmental imperatives will have an economic “cost”.

This is a wholly false dichotomy. Far from ensuring ‘business as usual’, continued reliance on fossil fuel energy would have devastating economic consequences. As is explained here, the world economy is already suffering from these effects, and these have prompted the adoption of successively riskier forms of financial manipulation in a failed effort to sustain economic ‘normality’.

If you take just one point from this discussion, it should be that a transition to sustainable forms of energy is every bit as important from an economic as from an environmental imperative.

“What if?” A contrarian hypothesis

To explain this, what follows begins from a hypothetical basis that ‘there’s no truth in the story of man-made climate damage’.

Just for the moment, I’d like you to suspend your disbelief – as, writing this, I’ve had to suspend mine – and adopt the starting position that human activity, and in particular our use of energy, isn’t threatening the planet.

If they were of this persuasion, what conclusions might be reached by decision-makers in government and business?

It’s probable that, stripped of the environmental imperative, the case for transitioning our supplies of energy, away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources such as solar and wind power, would either be dismissed altogether, or watered down to the point of irrelevance.

Even as things stand, efforts to transition to sustainable sources of energy are faltering.

Once persuaded that we could do so safely, there would be considerable support – reinforced by the human traits of self-interest, conservatism and inertia – for taking a “business as usual” approach, in which oil, gas and coal remained, as they are now, the source of fourth-fifths of the energy that we consume.

From this start-point, a great deal of inconvenience could be prevented. We wouldn’t need to change our practices, or our way of life. We could carry on travelling in gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles. Holidaying abroad would remain an activity with a future. We needn’t expend huge sums in plastering our countryside with wind turbines and solar panels. We’d be likely to abandon vastly-expensive, technically unproven plans to switch over almost entirely to EVs (electric vehicles), confining them instead to marginal urban use. By heading off the need for drastic increases in power supply, this in turn would make it easier for industry to keep on coming up with new products and processes (like drones and robotics) which call for increases in our use of electricity.

In short, in a purely hypothetical situation in which it could be proved that the environmental activists were wrong, there’d be a huge collective sigh of relief, from government, business and the general public alike. Few people, after all, really like change and disruption.

The energy reality of the economy

What has to be emphasized – indeed, it cannot be stressed too strongly – is that, even if it were environmentally safe to carry on relying on fossil fuels, doing so could be expected to cripple the economy within, at most, twenty-five years.

Indeed, the process of economic deterioration is already well under way.

That this is not generally understood results primarily from the mistaken view that the economy is ‘a financial system’.

It has long been traditional for us to think of the economy in this way. This, in part, is a legacy of the founders of economics, men like Adam Smith, David Ricardo and James Mill. They established what are called the “laws” of economics from a financial perspective. They demonstrated the way in which the pricing process determines supply and demand. Specifically, they contended that, if there’s a shortage of something, the solution is to raise its price, thereby encouraging increased supply. All of their work, then, was expressed in the notation of money.

We should be in no doubt that these founding fathers of economic interpretation have bequeathed us invaluable lessons, of which none is more important than the role of free, fair and uncluttered competition in promoting economic progress. The successors to the early pioneers have added new economic interpretations, of course, but almost all of these are money-based theories, which perpetuate the idea that the economy is a financial system.

But the founders of classical economics lived in a world totally different to that of today. Smith died in 1790, Ricardo in 1823, and Mill in 1836, and even Mill’s son, John Stuart passed away in 1873, which was 99 years before the publication of The Limits To Growth. In their era, there was little or no reason for anyone (other than the maverick Thomas Malthus) to think about physical limitations, still less of the environmental issues that have entered our consciousness over the last twenty-five years or so.

They were right to state that higher prices can stimulate the supply of shoes or beer – but no increase in price can conjure forth new, giant and low-cost oil fields where these do not exist.

There can be few, if any, other matters of twenty-first-century importance which are tackled on the basis of eighteenth-century precepts. Neither, logically considered, is there any reason for clinging on to monetary interpretations of the economy.

If, as in fig. 1, we look at the relationship between, on the one hand, global population numbers (and related economic activity), and, on the other, the use of energy, we can see an unanswerable case for linking the two. It’s no coincidence at all that the exponential upturn in the world’s population took off at the same time that, thanks to James Watt’s 1776  invention of the first effective heat-engine, we learned how to harness the vast energy potential contained in fossil fuels.

Not just the size of the world economy, but its prosperity and complexity, too, are products of the Prometheus unleashed by Watt and his fellow inventors.

Fig. 1.

Population and energy

Moreover, observation surely tells us that literally everything that constitutes the ‘real’ economy of goods and services relies entirely on energy. Without energy supplies, the economy would grind to a halt, and the society built on it would disintegrate.

After all, if you were adrift in a lifeboat in mid-Atlantic, and a passing aircraft dropped you a huge pile of banknotes, but no water or food, you’d soon realize that money has no intrinsic worth, but commands value only in terms of the things for which it can be exchanged.

Money, then, acts simply as a claim on the products of an economy which, itself, is an energy system.

The cost component

Anyone who understands the energy basis of the economy knows that the supply of energy is never cost-free, though the relevant measure of cost needs to be stated in energy rather than financial terms. Drilling a well, digging a mine, building a refinery or laying a pipeline requires the use of energy inputs, as, for that matter, does installing a wind-turbine or a solar panel, or constructing an electricity distribution grid.

This divides the aggregate of available energy into two streams – the energy which has to be consumed in providing a continuity of energy supply, and the remaining (“surplus”) energy which powers all other economic activity.

The cost component is known here as the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE). This is the critical determinant of the ability of surplus energy to drive economic activity. Low ECoEs provide a large surplus on which to build prosperity, but rising ECoEs erode this surplus, making us poorer.

Further investigation reveals that, where fossil fuels are concerned, four factors determine the level of ECoE.

One of these is geographic reach – by extending its operations from its origins in Pennsylvania to places as far afield as the Middle East and Alaska, the oil industry lowered ECoE by finding new, low-cost sources of supply.

A second is economies of scale – a plant handling 300,000 b/d (barrels per day) of oil is a lot more cost-efficient than one handling only 30,000 b/d.

Now, though, the maturity of the oil, gas and coal industries is such that the benefits of scale and reach have arrived at their limits. This is where the third factor steps in to determine ECoE – and that factor is depletion.

What depletion means is that the lowest-cost sources of any energy resource are used first, leaving costlier alternatives for later.

The crux of our current predicament is that ‘later’ has now arrived. There are no new huge, low-cost sources of oil, gas or coal waiting to be developed.

From here on, ECoEs rise.

To be sure, advances in technology can mitigate the rise in ECoEs, but technology is limited by the physical properties of the resource. Advances in techniques have reduced the cost of shale liquids extraction to levels well below the past cost of extracting those same resources, but have not turned America’s tight sands into the economic equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s al Ghawar, or other giant discoveries of the past.

Physics does tend to have the last word.

Unravelling economic trends

Once we understand the processes involved, we can see recent economic history in a wholly new way. The narrative since the late 1990s can be summarised, very briefly, as follows.

According to SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – world trend ECoE rose from 2.9% in 1990 to 4.1% in 2000. This increase was more than enough to stop Western prosperity growth in its tracks.

Unfortunately, a policy establishment accustomed to seeing all economic developments in purely financial terms was at a loss to explain this phenomenon, though it did give it a name – “secular stagnation”.

Predictably, in the absence of an understanding of the energy basis of the economy, recourse was made to financial policies in order to ‘fix’ this slowdown in growth.

The first such initiative was credit adventurism. It involved making debt easier to obtain than ever before. This approach was congenial to a contemporary mind-set which saw ‘deregulation’ as a cure for all ills.

The results, of course, were predictable enough. Expressed in PPP-converted dollars at constant 2018 values, the world economy grew by 36% between 2000 and 2008, adding $26.8 trillion to recorded GDP. Unfortunately, though, debt escalated by $61.5tn over the same period, meaning that $2.30 had been borrowed for each $1 of “growth”. At the same time, risk proliferated, and became progressively more opaque. Excessive debt and diffuse risk led directly to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC).

With depressing inevitability, the authorities once again responded financially, this time adding monetary adventurism to the credit variety that had created the GFC. In defiance of a minority who favoured letting market forces work through to their natural conclusions (and who probably were right), the authorities opted for ZIRP (zero interest rate policy). They implemented it by slashing policy rates to all-but-zero, simultaneously driving market rates down by using newly-created money to buy up the prices of bonds.

This policy bailed out reckless borrowers and rescued imprudent lenders, but did so at a horrendous price. Since 2008, we’ve been adding debt at the rate of $3.10 for each $1 of “growth”. The proper functioning of the market economy has been crippled by the distortions of monetary manipulation. The essential regenerative process of ‘creative destruction’ has been stopped in its tracks by policies which have allowed ‘zombie’ companies to stay afloat. Asset prices have soared to stratospheric levels, supported by a tide of debt which can never be repaid, and can be serviced only on the assumption of perpetual injections of negatively-priced credit. The collapse in returns on invested capital has blown a gigantic hole in pension provision. As the Federal Reserve is in the process of discovering, no route exists for a restoration of monetary normality. We are, in short, stuck with monetary adventurism until it reaches its point of termination.

The relentless rise of ECoE   

Back in the real economy, meanwhile, ECoEs keep rising. SEEDS calculates that global trend ECoE has risen from 4.1% in 2000, and 5.6% in 2008 (the year of the GFC), to 8.1% now. Critically, the upwards trajectory of ECoE has become exponential, with each incremental increase bigger than the one before.

As this trend has progressed, prosperity has turned downwards, initially in the advanced economies of the West.

To understand this process, we need first to look behind GDP figures which have been inflated by the simple spending of borrowed money. In the decade since 2008, an increase of $34tn in world GDP has been accompanied by a $106tn surge in debt. What this means is that most of the reported “growth” in GDP has been bogus. Rates of apparent “growth” would slump to, at best, 1.5% if we stopped pouring in new credit, and would go into reverse if we ever tried to deleverage the world’s balance sheet.

Once we’ve established the underlying rate of growth – as a “clean” measure of GDP which excludes the effects of credit injection – we can apply ECoE to see what’s really been happening to prosperity.

In the West, people have been getting poorer over an extended period. Prosperity per capita has fallen by 7.2% in the United States since 2005, and by 11.3% in Britain since 2003. Deterioration in most Euro Area economies has been happening for even longer. Not even resource-rich countries like Canada or Australia have been exempt. As an aside, this process of impoverishment, often exacerbated by taxation, can be linked directly to the rise of insurgent political movements sometimes labelled “populist”.

The process which links rising ECoE to falling prosperity is illustrated in figs. 2 and 3. In America, prosperity per person turned down when ECoE hit 5.5%, whereas the weaker British economy started to deteriorate at an ECoE of just 3.4%.

Fig. 2 & 3.

EcoE & prosp US UK

World average prosperity per capita has declined only marginally since 2007, essentially because deterioration in the West has been offset by continued progress in the emerging market (EM) economies. This, though, is nearing its point of inflexion, with clear evidence now showing that the Chinese economy, in particular, is in very big trouble.

As you’d expect, these trends in underlying prosperity have started showing up in ‘real world’ indicators, with trade in goods, and sales of everything from cars and smartphones to computer chips and industrial components, now turning down. As the economy of “stuff” weakens, a logical consequence is likely to be a deterioration in demand for the energy and other commodities used in the supply of “stuff”.

Simply stated, the economy has now started to shrink, and there are limits to how long we can hide this from ourselves by spending ever larger amounts of borrowed money.

Safe to continue?

Let’s revert now to our hypothetical situation in which, unconcerned about the environment, we remain resolutely committed to an economy powered by fossil fuels.

The critical question becomes that of what then happens to the economy moving forwards.

Unfortunately, the ECoEs of fossil fuels will keep rising. SEEDS puts the combined ECoE of fossil fuels today at 10.7%, a far cry from the level in 2008 (6.5%), let alone 1998 (4.2%). Projections show fossil fuel ECoEs hitting 12.5% by 2024, and 14.5% by 2030.

For context, SEEDS studies indicate that, in the advanced economies of the West, prosperity turns down once ECoEs reach a range between 3.5% and 5.5%. Because of their lesser complexity, EM countries enjoy greater ability to cope with rising ECoEs, but even they have their limits. SEEDS analysis identifies an ECoE band of between 8% and 10% within which EM prosperity turns down. Sure enough, China’s current travails coincide with an ECoE which hit 8.7% last year, and is projected to rise from 9.0% in 2019 to 10.0% by 2025. A similar climacteric looms for South Korea  (see figs. 4 & 5).

Figs. 4 & 5

EcoE & prosp CH KOR

In short, then, continued reliance on fossil fuels would condemn the world economy to levels of ECoE which would destroy prosperity.

Hidden behind increasingly desperate (and dangerous) financial manipulation, the world as a whole has been getting poorer since ECoE hit 5.5% in 2007. As more of the EM economies hit the “downturn zone” (ECoEs of 8-10%), the so-far-gradual impoverishment of the average person worldwide can be expected to accelerate.

After that, various adverse consequences start to impact the system. The financial structure cannot be expected to cope with much more of the strain induced by denial-driven manipulation. The political and geopolitical consequences of worsening prosperity, exacerbated perhaps by competition for resources, can be left to the imagination. Economic systems dependent on high rates of capacity utilization can be expected to fail.

This, then, is the grim outlook for a world continuing to rely on fossil fuels. Even if this continued reliance on oil, gas and coal won’t destroy the environment, it can be expected, with very high levels of probability, to wreck the economy.

Even as things stand today, the energy industries seem almost to have stopped trying to keep up. Capital investment in energy, stated at constant 2018 values, was 20% lower last year (at $1.59tn) than it was back in 2014 ($2tn), and is not remotely sufficient to provide continuity of supply. Even shale investment only keeps going courtesy of investors and lenders who are prepared to support “cash-burning” companies.

Critically, what this means is that the supposed conflict between environmental imperatives, on the one hand, and economic (“cost”) considerations, on the other, is a wholly false dichotomy.

For the economy, no less than for the environment, there is a compelling case for transition. But the implications of the future trend in ECoEs go a lot further than that.

As the ECoEs of fossil fuels have risen inexorably, those of renewable alternatives have fallen steadily. It is projected by SEEDS that these will intersect within the next two to three years, after which renewables will be “cheaper” (in ECoE terms) than their fossil alternatives.

At this point, it would be comforting to assume that, as the ECoEs of renewables keep falling, and the extent of their use increases, we can make a relatively painless transition.

Unfortunately, there are at least three factors which make any such assumption dangerously complacent.

First, we need to guard against the extrapolatory fallacy which says that, because the ECoE of renewables has declined by x% over y number of years, it will fall by a further x% over the next y. The problem with this is that it ignores the limits imposed by the laws of physics.

Second, renewable sources of energy remain substantially derivative of fossil fuels inputs. At present, we can only construct wind turbines, solar panels and their associated infrastructure by using energy sourced from fossil fuels.  Until and unless this can be overcome, sources termed ‘renewable’ might better be described as ‘secondary applications of primary energy from fossil fuels’.

Third, and perhaps most disturbing of all, there can be no assurance that the ECoE of a renewables-based energy system can ever be low enough to sustain prosperity. Back in the ‘golden age’ of prosperity growth (in the decades immediately following 1945), global ECoE was between 1% and 2%. With renewables, the best that we can hope for might be an ECoE stable at perhaps 8%, far above the levels at which prosperity deteriorates in the West, and ceases growing in the emerging economies.

Policy, reality and the false dichotomy

These cautions do not, it must be stressed, undermine the case for transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables. After all, once we understand the energy processes which drive the economy, we know where continued dependency on ever-costlier fossil fuels would lead.

There can, of course, be no guarantees around a successful transition to renewable forms of energy. The slogan “sustainable development” has been adopted by the policy establishment because it seems to promise the public that we can tackle environmental risk without inflicting economic hardship, or even significant inconvenience.

It is, therefore, far more a matter of assumption than of verifiable practicality.

Even within the limited scope of declared plans for “sustainable development”, efforts at transition are faltering. Here are some examples of this disturbing insufficiency of effort:

–   According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), additions of new renewable generating capacity have stalled, with 177 GW added last year, unchanged from 2017. Moreover, the IEA has stated that additions last year needed to be at least 300 GW to stay on track with objectives set out in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

–   The IEA has also said that capital investment in renewables, expressed at constant values, was lower last year (at $304bn) than it was back in 2011 ($314bn). Even allowing for reductions in unit cost, this reinforces the observation that renewables capacity simply isn’t growing rapidly enough.

–   In 2018, output of electricity generated from renewable sources increased by 314 TWH (terawatt hours), but total energy consumption grew by 938 TWH, with 457 TWH of that increase – a bigger increment than delivered by renewables – sourced from fossil fuels.

The latter observation is perhaps the most worrying of all. Far from replacing the use of fossil fuels in electricity supply, additional output from renewables is failing even to keep pace with growth in demand. Where power generation is concerned, this has worrying implications for our ability to transition road transport to EVs without having to burn a lot more oil, gas and coal in order to do so.

The deceleration in the rate at which renewables capacity and output are being added seems to be linked to decreases in subsidies. These, though affordable enough at very low rates of take-up, have been scaled back as the magnitude of the challenge has increased.

This calls for a thoroughgoing review of energy policy, and it seems bizarre that a system which can provide financial support for the banking system cannot do the same for the far more important matter of energy. Even within the fossil fuels arena, the continued growth of American shale production has relied on cheap capital, channelled into loss-making shale producers by optimistic investors and seemingly-complacent lenders.

We need to understand that, when an individual pays for electricity, or puts fuel in a car’s tank, this represents only a small fraction of what he or she spends on energy. The vast majority of energy expenditure isn’t undertaken as direct purchasing by the consumer, but is embedded in literally all of his or her outlays on goods and services. The scope for direct purchasing is determined by the scale of embedded use.

As prosperity deteriorates, then, the ability of the consumer to purchase energy is reduced. There is every likelihood that energy suppliers could find themselves trapped between the Scylla of rising costs and the Charybdis of impoverished customers.

We should, accordingly, be prepared for the failure of a system which relies almost entirely on commercial enterprise for the supply of energy. Far from prices soaring in response to tightening supplies, it’s likely that the impoverishment of consumers keeps prices below costs, resulting in a shrinkage of energy supply as part of a broader deterioration in economic activity.

As the situation develops, we may need to think outside the “comfort zone” of current policy parameters. For instance, the promise that the public can exchange their current vehicles for EVs may prove not to be capable of fulfilment, forcing us to evaluate alternatives, including electric trams and rail.

For now, though, one imperative predominates. It is that we must stop believing in the false dichotomy in which the environmental need for a transition to renewables is “moderated” by wholly false considerations of “cost”.

Simply put, we’re likely to pay a quite extraordinarily high price for a continuation of the assumption that the economy, demonstrably an energy system, is characterised by, and can be managed using, purely financial interpretation.

= = = = =

SEEDS environment report July 2019

 

 

#149: The big challenges

HOW THE ECONOMICS OF ENERGY VIEWS THE AGENDA

As regular readers will know, this site is driven by the understanding that the economy is an energy system, and not (as conventional thinking assumes) a financial one. Though we explore a wide range of related issues (such as the conclusion that energy supply is going to need monetary subsidy), it’s important that we never lose sight of the central thesis. So I hope you’ll understand the need for a periodic restatement of the essentials.

If you’re new to Surplus Energy Economics, what this site offers is a coherent interpretation of economic and financial trends from a radically different standpoint. This enables us to understand issues that increasingly baffle conventional explanations.

This perspective is a practical one – nobody conversant with the energy-based interpretation was much surprised, for instance, when Donald Trump was elected to the White House, when British voters opted for “Brexit”, or when a coalition of insurgents (aka “populists”) took power in Rome. The SEE interpretation of prosperity trends also goes a long way towards explaining the gilets jaunes protests in France, protests than can be expected in due course to be replicated in countries such as the Netherlands. We’re also unpersuaded by the exuberant consensus narrative of the Chinese economy. The proprietary SEEDS model has proved a powerful tool for the interpretation of critical trends in economics, finance and government.

The aim here, though, isn’t simply to restate the core interpretation. Rather, there are three trends to be considered, each of which is absolutely critical, and each of which is gathering momentum. The aim here is to explore these trends, and share and discuss the interpretations of them made possible by surplus energy economics.

The first such trend is the growing inevitability of a second financial crisis (GFC II), which will dwarf the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), whilst differing radically from it in nature.

The second is the progressive undermining of political incumbencies and systems, a process resulting from the widening divergence between policy assumption and economic reality.

The third is the clear danger that the current, gradual deterioration in global prosperity could accelerate into something far more damaging, disruptive and dangerous.

The vital insight

The centrality of the economy is the delivery of goods and services, literally none of which can be supplied without energy. It follows that the economy is an energy system (and not a financial one), with money acting simply as a claim on output which is itself made possible only by the availability of energy. Money has no intrinsic worth, and commands ‘value’ only in relation to the things for which it can be exchanged – and all of those things rely entirely on energy.

Critically, all economic output (other than the supply of energy itself) is the product of surplus energy – whenever energy is accessed, some energy is always consumed in the access process, and surplus energy is what remains after the energy cost of energy (ECoE) has been deducted from the total (or ‘gross’) amount that is accessed.

This makes ECoE a critical determinant of prosperity. The distinguishing feature of the world economy over the last two decades has been the relentless rise in ECoE. This process necessarily undermines prosperity, because it erodes the available quantity of surplus energy. We’re already seeing this happen – Western prosperity growth has gone into reverse, and progress in emerging market (EM) economies is petering out. Global average prosperity has already turned down.

The trend in ECoE is determined by four main factors. Historically, ECoE has been pushed downwards by broadening geographical reach and increasing economies of scale. Where oil, natural gas and coal are concerned, these positive factors have been exhausted, so the dominating driver of ECoE now is depletion, a process which occurs because we have, quite naturally, accessed the most profitable (lowest ECoE) resources first, leaving costlier alternatives for later.

The fourth driver of ECoE is technology, which accelerates downwards tendencies in ECoE, and mitigates upwards movements. Technology, though, operates within the physical properties of the resource envelope, and cannot ‘overrule’ the laws of physics. This needs to be understood as a counter to some of the more glib and misleading extrapolatory assumptions about our energy future.

The nature of the factors driving ECoE indicates that this critical factor should be interpreted as a trend. According to SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – the trend ECoE of fossil fuels has risen exponentially, from 2.6% in 1990 to 4.1% in 2000, 6.7% in 2010 and 9.9% today. Since fossil fuels continue to account for four-fifths of energy supply, the trend in overall world ECoE has followed a similarly exponential path, and has now reached 8.0%, compared with 5.9% in 2010 and 3.9% in 2000.

For fossil fuels alone, trend ECoE is projected to reach 11.8% by 2025, and 13.5% by 2030. SEEDS interpretation demonstrates that an ECoE of 5% has been enough to put prosperity growth into reverse in highly complex Western economies, whilst less complex emerging market (EM) economies hit a similar climacteric at ECoEs of about 10%. A world economy dependent on fossil fuels thus faces deteriorating prosperity and diminishing complexity, both of which pose grave managerial challenges because they lie wholly outside our prior experience.

Mitigation, not salvation

This interpretation – reinforced by climate change considerations – forces us to regard a transition towards renewables as a priority. It should not be assumed, however, that renewables offer an assured escape from the implications of rising ECoEs, still less that they offer a solution that is free either of pain or of a necessity for social adaption.

There are three main cautionary factors around the ECoE capabilities of solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy.

The first cautionary factor is “the fallacy of extrapolation”, the natural – but often mistaken – human tendency to assume that what happens in the future will be an indefinite continuation of the recent past. It’s easy to assume that, because the ECoEs of renewables have been falling over an extended period, they must carry on falling indefinitely, at a broadly similar pace. But the reality is much more likely to be that cost-reducing progress in renewables will slow when it starts to collide with the limits imposed by physics.

Second, projections for cost reduction ignore the derivative nature of renewables. Building, say, a solar panel, a wind turbine or an electrical distribution system requires inputs currently only available courtesy of the use of fossil fuels. In this specialised sense, solar and wind are not so much ‘primary renewables’ as ‘secondary applications of primary fossil input’.

We may reach the point where these technologies become ‘truly renewable’, in that their inputs (such as minerals and plastics) can be supplied without help from oil, gas or coal.

But we are certainly, at present, nowhere near such a breakthrough. Until and unless this point is reached, the danger exists that that the ECoE of renewables may start to rise, pushed back upwards by the rising ECoE of the fossil fuel sources on which so many of their inputs rely.

The third critical consideration is that, even if renewables were able to stabilise ECoE at, say, 8% or so, that would not be anywhere near low enough.

Global prosperity stopped growing before ECoE hit 6%. British prosperity has been in decline ever since ECoE reached 3.6%, and an ECoE of 5.5% has been enough to push Western prosperity growth into reverse. As recently as the 1960s, in what we might call a “golden age” of prosperity growth, ECoE was well below 2%. Even if renewables could stabilise ECoE at, say, 8% – and that’s an assumption which owes much more to hope than calculation – it wouldn’t be low enough to enable prosperity to stabilise, let alone start to grow again.

SEEDS projections are that overall world ECoE will reach 9% by 2025, 9.7% by 2030 and 11% by 2040. These projections are comparatively optimistic, in that progress with renewables is expected to blunt the rate of increase in trend ECoE. But we should labour under no illusion that the downwards tendency in prosperity can be stemmed, less still reversed. Renewables can give us time to prepare and respond, but are not going to take us back to a nirvana of low-cost energy.

This brings us to the three critical issues driven by rising ECoE and diminishing prosperity.

Challenge #1 – financial shock

An understanding of the energy basis of the economy puts us in possession of a coherent narrative of recent and continuing tendencies in economics and finance. Financially, in particular, the implications are disquieting. There is overwhelming evidence pointing towards a repetition of the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), in a different form and at a very much larger scale.

From the late 1990s, with ECoEs rising beyond 4%, growth in Western prosperity began to peter out. Though “secular stagnation” was (and remains) the nearest that conventional interpretation has approached to understanding this issue, deceleration was noticed sufficiently to prompt the response known here as “credit adventurism”.

This took the form of making credit not only progressively cheaper to service but also much easier to obtain. This policy was also, in part, aimed at boosting demand undermined by the outsourcing of highly-skilled, well-paid jobs as a by-product of ‘globalization’. “Credit adventurism” was facilitated by economic doctrines which were favourable to deregulation, and which depicted debt as being of little importance.

The results, of course, are now well known. Between 2000 and 2007, each $1 of reported growth in GDP was accompanied by $2.08 of net new borrowing, though ratios were far higher in those Western economies at the forefront of credit adventurism. The deregulatory process also facilitated a dangerous weakening of the relationship between risk and return. These trends led directly to the 2008 global financial crisis.

Responses to the GFC had the effect of hard-wiring a second, far more serious crash into the system. Though public funds were used to rescue banks, monetary policy was the primary instrument. This involved slashing policy rates to sub-inflation levels, and using newly-created money to drive bond prices up, and yields down.

This policy cocktail added “monetary adventurism” to the credit variety already being practiced. Since 2007, each dollar of reported growth has come at a cost of almost $3.30 in new debt. Practices previously confined largely to the West have now spread to most EM economies. For example, over a ten-year period in which growth has averaged 6.5%, China has typically borrowed 23% of GDP annually.

Most of the “growth” supposedly created by monetary adventurism has been statistically cosmetic, consisting of nothing more substantial than the simple spending of borrowed money. According to SEEDS, 66% of all “growth” since 2007 has fallen into this category, meaning that this growth would cease were the credit impulse to slacken, and would reverse if we ever attempted balance sheet retrenchment. As a result, policies said to have been “emergency” and “temporary” in nature have, de facto, become permanent. We can be certain that tentative efforts at restoring monetary normality would be thrown overboard at the first sign of squalls.

Advocates of ultra-loose monetary policy have argued that the creation of new money, and the subsidizing of borrowing, are not inflationary, and point at subdued consumer prices in support of this contention. However, inflation ensuing from the injection of cheap money can be expected to appear at the point at which the new liquidity is injected, which is why the years since 2008 have been characterised by rampant inflation in asset prices. Price and wage inflation have been subdued, meanwhile, by consumer caution – reflected in reduced monetary velocity – and by the deflationary pressures of deteriorating prosperity. The current situation can best be described as a combination of latent (potential) inflation and dangerously over-inflated asset prices.

All of the above points directly to a second financial crisis (GFC II), though this is likely to differ in nature, as well as in scale, from GFC I. Because “credit adventurism” was the prime cause of the 2008 crash, its effects were concentrated in the credit (banking) system. But GFC II, resulting instead from “monetary adventurism”, will this time put the monetary system at risk, hazarding the viability of fiat currencies.

In addition to mass defaults, and collapses in asset prices, we should anticipate that currency crises, accompanied by breakdowns of trust in currencies, will be at the centre of GFC II. The take-off of inflation should be considered likely, not least because no other process exists for the destruction of the real value of gargantuan levels of debt.

Finally on this topic, it should be noted that policies used in response to 2008 will not work in the context of GFC II. Monetary policy can be used to combat debt excesses, but problems of monetary credibility cannot, by definition, be countered by increasing the quantity of money. Estimates based on SEEDS suggest that GFC II will be at least four orders of magnitude larger than GFC I.

Challenge #2 – breakdown of government

Until about 2000, the failure of conventional economics to understand the energy basis of economic activity didn’t matter too much, because ECoE wasn’t large enough to introduce serious distortions into its conclusions. Put another way, the exclusion of ECoE gave results which remained within accepted margins of error.

The subsequent surge in ECoEs, however, has caused the progressive invalidation of all interpretations from which it is excluded.

What applies to conventional economics itself applies equally to organisations, and most obviously to governments, which use it as the basis of their interpretations of policy.

The consequence has been to drive a wedge between policy assumptions made by governments, and underlying reality as experienced by individuals and households. Even at the best of times – which these are not – this sort of ‘perception gap’ between governing and governed has appreciable dangers.

Recent experience in the United Kingdom illustrates this process. Between 2008 and 2018, GDP per capita increased by 4%, implying that the average person had become better off, albeit not by very much. Over the same period, however, most (85%) of the recorded “growth” in the British economy had been the cosmetic effect of credit injection, whilst ECoE had risen markedly. For the average person, then, SEEDS calculates that prosperity has fallen, by £2,220 (9%), to £22,040 last year from £24,260 ten years previously. At the same time, individual indebtedness has risen markedly.

With this understood, neither the outcome of the 2016 “Brexit” referendum nor the result of the 2017 general election was much of a surprise, since voters neither (a) reward governments which preside over deteriorating prosperity, nor (b) appreciate those which are ignorant of their plight. This was why SEEDS analysis saw a strong likelihood both of a “Leave” victory and of a hung Parliament, outcomes dismissed as highly improbable by conventional interpretation.

Simply put, if political leaders had understood the mechanics of prosperity as they are understood here, neither the 2016 referendum nor the 2017 election might have been triggered at all.

Much the same can be said of other political “shocks”. When Mr Trump was elected in 2016, the average American was already $3,450 (7%) poorer than he or she had been back in 2005. The rise to power of insurgent parties in Italy cannot be unrelated to a 7.9% deterioration in personal prosperity since 2000.

As well as reframing interpretations of prosperity, SEEDS analysis also puts taxation in a different context. Between 2008 and 2018, per capita prosperity in France deteriorated by €1,650 which, at 5.8%, isn’t a particularly severe fall by Western standards. Over the same period, however, taxation increased, by almost €2,000 per person. At the level of discretionary, ‘left-in-your-pocket’ prosperity, then, the average French person is €3,640 (32%) worse off now than he or she was back in 2008.

This makes widespread popular support for the gilets jaunes protestors’ aims extremely understandable. Though no other country has quite matched the 32% deterioration in discretionary prosperity experienced in France, the Netherlands (with a fall of 25%) comes closest, which is why SEEDS identifies Holland as one of the likeliest locales for future protests along similar lines. It is far from surprising that insurgent (aka “populist”) parties have now stripped the Dutch governing coalition of its Parliamentary majority. Britain, where discretionary prosperity has fallen by 23% since 2008, isn’t far behind the Netherlands.

These considerations complicate political calculations. To be sure, the ‘centre right’ cadres that have dominated Western governments for more than three decades are heading for oblivion. Quite apart from deteriorating prosperity – something for which incumbencies are likely to get the blame – the popular perception has become one in which “austerity” has been inflicted on “the many” as the price of rescuing a wealthy “few”. It doesn’t help that many ‘conservatives’ continue to adhere to a ‘liberal’ economic philosophy whose abject failure has become obvious to almost everyone else.

This situation ought to favour the collectivist “left”, not least because higher taxation of “the rich” has been made inescapable by deteriorating prosperity. But the “left” continues to advocate higher levels of taxation and public spending, an agenda which is being invalidated by the erosion of the tax base which is a concomitant of deteriorating prosperity.

Moreover, the “left” seems unable to adapt to a shift towards prosperity issues and, in consequence, away from ideologically “liberal” social policy. Immigration, for example, is coming to be seen by the public as a prosperity issue, because of the perceived dilutionary effects of increases in population numbers.

The overall effect is that the political “establishment”, whether of “the right” or of the “the left”, is being left behind by trends to which that establishment is blinded by faulty economic interpretation.

The discrediting of established parties is paralleled by an erosion of trust in institutions and mechanisms, because these systems cannot keep pace with the rate at which popular priorities are changing. To give just one example, politicians who better understood the why of the “Brexit” referendum result would have been better equipped to recognize the dangers implicit in being perceived as trying to thwart or divert it.

The final point to be considered under the political and governmental heading is the destruction of pension provision. One of the little-noted side effects of “monetary adventurism” has been a collapse in rates of return on invested capital. According to the World Economic Forum, forward returns on American equities have fallen to 3.45% from a historic 8.6%, whilst returns on bonds have slumped from 3.6% to just 0.15%. It is small wonder, then, that the WEF identifies a gigantic, and rapidly worsening, “global pension timebomb”. As and when this becomes known to the public – and is contrasted by them with the favourable circumstances of a tiny minority of the wealthiest – popular discontent with established politics can be expected to reach new heights.

In short, established political elites are becoming an endangered species – and, far from knowing how to replace them, we have an institutionally-dangerous inability to appreciate the factors which have already made fundamental change inevitable.

Challenge #3 – an accelerating slump?

Everything described so far has been based on an interpretation which demonstrates an essentially gradual deterioration in prosperity. That, in itself, is serious enough – it threatens both a financial system predicated on perpetual growth, and political processes unable to recognise the implications of worsening public material well-being.

For context, SEEDS concludes that the average person in Britain, having become 11.5% less prosperous since 2003, is now getting poorer at rates of between 0.5% and 1.0% each year. EM economies, including both China and India, continue to enjoy growing prosperity, though this growth is now decreasing markedly, and is likely to go into reverse in the not-too-distant future.

Is it safe to assume, though, that prosperity will continue to erode gradually – or might be experience a rapid worsening in the rate of deterioration?

For now, no conclusive answer can be supplied on this point, but risk factors are considerable.

Here are just some of them:

1. The worsening trend in fossil fuel ECoEs is following a track that is exponential, not linear – and, as we have seen, there are likely to be limits to how far this can be countered by a switch to renewables.

2. The high probability of a financial crisis, differing both in magnitude and nature from GFC I, implies risks that there may be cross contamination to the real economy of goods, services, energy and labour.

3. Deteriorating prosperity poses a clear threat to rates of utilization, an important consideration given the extent to which both businesses and public services rely on high levels of capacity usage. Simple examples are a toll bridge or an airline, both of which spread fixed costs over a large number of users. Should utilization rates fall, continued viability would require increasing charges imposed on remaining users, since this is the only way in which fixed costs can be covered – but rising charges can be expected to worsen the rate at which utilization deteriorates.

4. Uncertainty in government, discussed above, may have destabilizing effects on economic activity.

There is a great deal more that could be said about “acceleration risk”, as indeed there is about the financial and governmental challenges posed by deteriorating prosperity.

But it is hoped that this discussion provides useful framing for some of the most important challenges ahead of us.