MODELLING THE CRUNCH
It became clear from a pretty early stage that the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic was going to have profoundly adverse consequences for the world economy. This discussion uses SEEDS to evaluate the immediate and lasting implications of the crisis, some of which may be explored in more detail – and perhaps at a regional or national level – in later articles.
Whilst it reinforces the view that a “V-shaped” rebound is improbable, this evaluation warns that we should beware of any purely cosmetic “recovery”, particularly where (a) unemployment remains highly elevated (there is no such thing as a “jobless recovery”), and (b) where extraordinary (and high-risk) financial manipulation is used to create purely statistical increases in headline GDP.
The bottom line is that the prosperity of the world’s average person, having turned down in 2018, is now set to deteriorate more rapidly than had previously been anticipated.
Governments, which for the most part have yet to understand this dynamic, are likely inadvertently to worsen this situation by setting unrealistic revenue expectations based on the increasingly misleading metric of GDP, resulting in a tightening squeeze on the discretionary (“left in your pocket”) prosperity of the average person.
Exacerbated by crisis effects, the average person’s share of aggregate government, household and business debt is poised to rise even more rapidly than had hitherto been the case.
These projections are summarised in the first set of charts.
The implication of this scenario for governments is that revenue and expenditure projections need to be scaled back, and priorities re-calibrated, amidst increasing popular dissatisfaction.
Businesses will need to be aware of deteriorating scope for consumer discretionary spending, and could benefit from front-running some of the tendencies (such as simplification and de-layering) which are likely to characterise “de-growth”.
The environmental focus will need to shift from ‘big ticket’ initiatives to incremental gains.
Amidst unsustainably high fiscal deficits, and the extreme use of newly-created QE money to monetise existing government debt, we need also to be aware of the risk that, in a reversal of the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) sequence, a financial crash might follow, rather than precede, a severe economic downturn.
Methodology – the three challenges
Regular readers will be familiar with the principles of the surplus energy interpretation of the economy, but anyone needing an introduction to Surplus Energy Economics and the SEEDS system can find a briefing paper at the resources page of this site. What follows reflects detailed application of the model to the conditions and trends to be expected after the coronavirus crisis.
Simply put, SEE understands the economy as an energy system, in which money, lacking intrinsic value, plays a subsidiary (though important) role as a medium of exchange. A critical factor in the calibration of prosperity is ECoE (the Energy Cost of Energy), which determines, from any given quantity of accessed energy, how much is consumed (‘lost’) in the access process, and how much (‘surplus’) energy remains to power all economic activities other than the supply of energy itself.
Critically, the depletion process has long been exerting upwards pressure on the ECoEs of fossil fuel (FF) energy, which continues to account for more than four-fifths of the energy used in the economy. The ECoEs of renewable energy (RE) alternatives have been falling, but are unlikely ever to become low enough to restore prosperity growth made possible in the past by low-cost supplies of oil, gas and coal.
Accordingly, global prosperity per capita has turned downwards, a trend which can be disguised (but cannot be countered) by various forms of financial manipulation.
This means that, long before the coronavirus pandemic, the onset of “de-growth” was one of three main problems threatening the economy and the financial system. The others are (b) the threat of environmental degradation – which will never be tackled effectively until the economy is understood as an energy system – and (c) the over-extension of the financial system which has resulted from prolonged, futile and increasingly desperate efforts to overcome the physical, material deterioration in the economy by immaterial and artificial (monetary) means.
On these latter issues, the slump in economic activity has had some beneficial impact on climate change metrics, whilst we can expect a crisis to occur in the financial system because its essential predicate – perpetual growth – has been invalidated. The global financial system has long since taken on Ponzi characteristics and, like all such schemes, is wholly dependent on a continuity that has now been lost.
With these parameters understood, the critical economic issue can be defined as the rate of deterioration in prosperity, for which the main aggregate projections from SEEDS are set out in fig. 2. Throughout this report, unless otherwise noted, all amounts are stated in constant international dollars, converted from other currencies using the PPP (purchasing power parity) convention.
During the current year, world GDP is projected to fall by 13%, recovering thereafter at rates of between 3% and 3.5%. This rebound trajectory, though, assumes extraordinary levels of credit and monetary support, reflected, in part, in an accelerated rate of increase in global debt.
Within debt projections, the greatest uncertainties are (a) the possible extent of defaults in the household and corporate sectors, and (b) the degree to which central banks will monetise new government issuance by the backdoor route of using newly-created QE money to buy up existing debt obligations.
This is a point of extreme risk in the financial system, where a cascade of defaults – and/or a slump in the credibility and purchasing power of fiat currencies – are very real possibilities, particularly if the ‘standard model’ of crisis response starts to assume permanent characteristics.
Looking behind the distorting effects of monetary intervention, it’s likely that underlying or ‘clean’ output (C-GDP) will fall by about 17% this year and, after some measure of rebound during 2021 and 2022, will revert to a rate of growth which, at barely 0.2%, is appreciably lower than the rate (of just over 1.0%) at which world population numbers continue to increase. Additionally, ECoEs can be expected to continue their upwards path, driving a widening wedge between C-GDP and prosperity.
These effects are illustrated in fig. 3, which highlights, as a pink triangular wedge, the way in which ever-looser monetary policies have inflated apparent GDP to levels far above the underlying trajectory. This is the element of claimed “growth” that would cease if credit expansion stalled, and would go into reverse in the event of deleveraging. The gap between C-GDP and prosperity, meanwhile, reflects the relentless rise of trend ECoEs. This interpretation, as set out in the left-hand chart, is contextualised by the inclusion of debt in the centre chart.
Fig. 3 also highlights, in the right-hand chart, a major problem that cannot be identified using ‘conventional’ methods of economic interpretation. Essentially, rapid increases in debt serve artificially to inflate recorded GDP, such that ratios which compare debt with GDP have an intrinsic bias to the downside during periods of rapid expansion in debt.
Rebasing the debt metric to prosperity – which is not distorted by credit expansion – indicates that the debt ratio already stands at just over 350% of economic output, compared with slightly under 220% on a conventional GDP denominator. As the authorities ramp up deficit support – and, quite conceivably, make private borrowing even easier and cheaper than it already is – the true scale of indebtedness will become progressively higher, thus measured, than it appears on conventional metrics.
Personal prosperity – a worsening trend
The per capita equivalents of these projections are set out in fig. 4, which expresses global averages in thousands of constant PPP dollars per person. After a sharp (-18%) fall anticipated during the current year, prosperity per capita is expected to recover only partially before resuming the decline pattern that has been in evidence since the ‘long plateau’ ended in 2018, and the world’s average person started getting poorer.
Meanwhile, each person’s share of the aggregate of government, household and business debt is set to rise markedly, not just in 2020 but in subsequent years. By 2025, whilst prosperity per capita is set to be 17% ($1,930) lower than it was last year, the average person’s debt is projected to have risen by nearly $17,900 (45%).
These, in short, are prosperity and debt metrics which are set to worsen very rapidly indeed. The world’s average person, currently carrying a debt share of $40,000 on annual prosperity of $11,400, is likely, within five years, to be trying to carry debt of $58,000 on prosperity of only $9,450.
This may simply be too much of a burden for the system to withstand. We face a conundrum, posed by deteriorating prosperity, in which either debt becomes excessive in relation to the carrying capability of global prosperity, and/or a resort to larger-scale monetisation undermines the credibility and purchasing power of fiat currencies.
In fig. 5 – which sets out some per capita metrics in chart form – another adverse trend becomes apparent. This is the fact that taxation per capita has continued to rise even whilst the average person’s prosperity has flattened off and, latterly, has turned down.
What this means is that the discretionary (“left in your pocket”) prosperity of the average person has become subject to a squeeze, with top-line prosperity falling whilst the burden of tax continues to increase.
This also means that, in addition to deteriorating prosperity itself, there are two leveraging processes which are accelerating the erosion of consumers’ ability to make non-essential purchases.
The first of these is the way in which taxation is absorbing an increasing proportion of household prosperity, and the second is the rising share of remaining (discretionary) prosperity that has to be allocated to essential categories of expenditure.
These are not wholly new trends – and they help explain the pre-crisis slumps in the sales of non-essentials such as cars and smartphones – but one of the clearest effects of the crisis is to increase the downwards pressure on consumers’ non-essential expenditures.
Governments – the hidden problem
This has implications for any business selling goods and services to the consumer, particularly where their product is non-essential. It also sets governments a fiscal problem of which most are, as yet, seemingly wholly unaware.
As can be seen in fig. 6, governments have, over an extended period, managed to slightly more than double tax revenues whilst maintaining the overall incidence of taxation at a remarkably consistent level of about 31% of GDP.
This has led them to conclude that the burden of taxation has not increased materially, even though their ability to fund public services has expanded at trend annual real rates of slightly over 3%. When – as has happened in France – the public expresses anger over taxation, governments seem genuinely surprised by popular discontent.
The problem, of course, is that, over time, GDP has become an ever less meaningful quantification of prosperity. When reassessed on the denominator of prosperity, the tax incidence worldwide has risen from 32% in 1999, and 39% in 2009, to 51% last year (and is higher still in some countries). On current trajectories, the tax ‘take’ from global prosperity per capita would reach almost 70% by 2030, a level which the public are unlikely to find acceptable, especially in those high-tax economies where the incidence would be even higher.
Conversely, if (as in the right-hand chart in fig. 6) taxation was to be pegged at the 51% of prosperity averaged in 2019, the resulting ‘sustainable’ path would see taxation fall from an estimated $43tn last year to $38tn (at constant values) by 2030. At -12%, this may not seem a huge fall in fiscal resources, but it is fully 27% ($14tn) lower than where, on the current trajectory, tax revenues otherwise would have been.
Politically, there seems little doubt that the widespread popular discontent witnessed in many parts of the world during the coronavirus crisis has links to deteriorating prosperity. Historically, clear connections can be drawn between social unrest and the related factors of (a) material hardship and (b) perceived inequity.
At the same time, the sharp deterioration in prosperity seems certain to exacerbate international tensions, where countries competing for dwindling prosperity may also seek confrontation as a distraction technique. These are amongst the reasons why a world that is becoming poorer is also becoming both angrier and more dangerous.