#147: Primed to detonate

THE “WHAT?” AND “WHERE?” OF GLOBAL RISK

After more than a decade of worsening economic and financial folly, it can come as no surprise that we’re living with extraordinarily elevated levels of risk.

But what form does that risk take, and where is it most acute?

According to SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – the riskiest countries on the planet are Ireland, France, the Netherlands, China, Canada and the United Kingdom.

The risks vary between economies. Some simply have debts which are excessive. Some have become dangerously addicted to continuing infusions of cheap credit. Some have financial systems vastly out of proportion to the host economy. Some have infuriated the general public to the point where a repetition of the 2008 “rescue” would inflame huge anger. Many have combinations of all four sorts of risk.

Here’s the “top six” from the SEEDS Risk Matrix. Of course, the global risk represented by each country depends on proportionate size, so China (ranked #4 in the Matrix) is far more of a threat to the world economy and financial system than Ireland, the riskiest individual economy. It’s noteworthy, though, that the three highest-risk countries are all members of the Euro Area. It’s also noteworthy that, amongst the emerging market (EM) economies, only China and South Korea (ranked #9) make the top ten.

Risk 01 matrix top

Risk and irresponsibility

Before we get into methodologies and detailed numbers, it’s worth reflecting on why risk is quite so elevated. As regular readers will know, the narrative of recent years is that prosperity has been coming under increasing pressure ever since the late 1990s, mainly because trend ECoE (the energy cost of energy) has been rising, squeezing the surplus energy which is the source of all economic output and prosperity.

This is a trend which the authorities haven’t understood, recognizing only a vague “secular stagnation” whose actual root causes elude them.

Even “secular stagnation” has been unacceptable to economic and financial systems wholly predicated on “growth”. Simply put, there‘s been too much at stake for any form of stagnation, let alone deterioration, to be acceptable. The very idea that growth might be anything less than perpetual, despite the finite nature of the planet, has been treated as anathema.

If there isn’t any genuine growth to be enjoyed, the logic goes, then we’d better fake it. Essentially, nobody in authority has been willing to allow a little thing like reality to spoil the party, even if enjoyment of the party is now confined to quite a small minority.

Accordingly, increasingly futile (and dangerous) financial expedients, known here as adventurism, have been tried as “solutions” to the problem of low “growth”. In essence, these have had in common a characteristic of financial manipulation, most obvious in the fields of credit expansion and monetary dilution.

These process are the causes of the risk that we are measuring here, but risk comes in more than one guise. Accordingly, each of the four components of the SEEDS Risk Matrix addresses a different type of exposure.

These categories are:

– Debt risk

– Credit dependency risk

– Systemic financial risk

– Acquiescence risk

One final point – before we get into the detail – is that no attempt is made here to measure political risk in its broader sense. Through acquiescence risk, we can work out which populations have most to complain about in terms of worsening prosperity. But no purely economic calculation can determine exactly when and why a population decides to eject the governing incumbency, or when governments might be tempted into the time-dishonoured diversionary tactic of overseas belligerence. We can but hope that international affairs remain orderly, and that democracy is the preferred form of regime-change.

Debt risk

This is the easiest of the four to describe, and comes closest to the flawed, false-comfort measures used in ‘conventional’ appraisal. The SEEDS measure, though, compares debt, not with GDP but with prosperity, a very different concept.

Ireland, markedly the riskiest economy on this criterion, can be used to illustrate the process. At the end of 2018, aggregate private and public debt in Ireland is estimated at €963bn, a ratio of 312% to GDP (of €309 bn). Expressed at constant 2018 values, the equivalent numbers for 2007 (on the eve of the 2008 global financial crisis, which hit Ireland particularly badly) were debt of €493bn, GDP of €198bn and a debt/GDP ratio of 249%.

In essence, then, debt may be almost twice as big (+95%) now as it was in 2007, but the debt ratio has increased by ‘only’ 25% (to 312%, from 249%), because reported GDP has expanded by 56%.

Unfortunately, this type of calculation treats GDP and debt as discrete items, with the former unaffected by changes in the latter. The reality, though, is very different. Whilst GDP has increased by €111bn since 2007, debt has expanded by €470bn. Critically, much of this newly-borrowed money has flowed into expenditures, which serves to drive up the activity measured as GDP.

According to SEEDS, growth without this simple spending of borrowed money would have been only €13bn, not €111bn. Put another way, 89% of all “growth” reported in Ireland since 2007 has been nothing more substantial than the effect of pouring cheap credit into the system, helped, too, by the “leprechaun economics” recalibration of GDP which took place in 2015.

Of course, the practice of spending borrowed money and calling the result “growth” didn’t begin after the 2008 crash. Back in 2007, adjusted (“clean”) GDP in Ireland (of €172bn) was already markedly (13%) lower than headline GDP (€198bn), and the gap is even wider today, with “clean” GDP (of €184bn) now 40% lower than the reported number.

Even “clean” GDP isn’t a complete measure of prosperity, though, because it excludes ECoE – that proportion of output that isn’t available for other purposes, because it’s required to fund the supply of energy itself.

Where ECoE is concerned, Ireland is a disadvantaged economy whose circumstances have worsened steadily in recent years. Back in 2007, Ireland’s ECoE (of 6.7%) was already markedly worse than the global average (5.4%). By 2018, the gap had widened from 1.3% to 3.2%, with Ireland’s ECoE now 11.2% (and the world average 8.0%). An ECoE this high necessarily kills growth, which is why aggregate prosperity in Ireland now is only fractionally (2%) higher than it was in 2007, even though population numbers have grown by 10%.

The results of this process, where Ireland is concerned, have been that personal prosperity has declined by 7% since 2007, whilst debt per person has risen by 78%. The conclusion for Ireland is that debt now equates to 589% of prosperity (compared with 308% in 2007), and it’s hard to see what the country can do about it. If – or rather, when – the GFC II sequel to 2008 turns up, Ireland is going to be in very, very big trouble.

These are, of course, compelling reasons for the Irish authorities to bend every effort to ensure that Britain’s “Brexit” departure from the European Union happens as smoothly as possible. If the Irish government really understood the issues at stake, ministers would be exerting every possible pressure on Brussels to step back from its macho posturing and give Mrs May something that she can sell to Parliament and the voters.

There’s a grim precedent for Dublin not understanding this, though – in the heady “Celtic tiger” years before 2008, nobody seems to have batted an eyelid at the increasingly reckless expansion of the Irish banking system.

Risk 02 debt

Credit dependency

As we’ve seen, adding €111bn to Irish GDP since 2007 has required adding €470bn to debt. This means that each €1 of “growth” came at a cost of €4.24 in net new borrowing. It also means that annual net borrowing averaged 14% of GDP during that period. This represents very severe credit dependency risk – in short, the Irish economy would suffer very serious damage in the event even of a reduction, let alone a cessation, in the supply of new credit to the economy.

Remarkably, though, there is one country whose credit dependency problem is far worse than that of Ireland – and that country is China.

The Chinese economy famously delivers growth of at least 6.5% each year, and reported GDP has more than doubled since 2008, increasing by RMB 51 trillion, from RMB37.7tn to an estimated RMB89tn last year.

Less noticed by China’s army of admirers has been a quadrupling of debt over the same period, from RMB53tn (at 2018 values) in 2008 to RMB219tn now. There also seem to be plausible grounds for thinking that China’s debts might be even bigger than indicated by published numbers.

This means that, over the last ten years, annual borrowing has averaged an astonishing 23% of GDP. No other economy comes even close to this, with Ireland (14.1%) placed second, followed by Canada (9.5%) in third, and South Korea (8.6%) a distant fourth. To put this in context, the ratios for France (8.1%) and Australia (7.5%) are quite bad enough – the Chinese ratio is as frightening as it is astonishing.

The inference to be drawn from this is that China is a ‘ponzi economy’ like no other. The country’s credit dependency ratio represents, not just extreme exposure to credit tightening or interruption, but an outright warning of impending implosion.

There are signs that the implosion may now be nearing. As well as slumping sales of everything from cars to smartphones, there are disturbing signs that industrial purchases, of components ranging from chips to electric motors, are turning downwards. Worryingly, companies have started defaulting on debts supposedly covered very substantially by cash holdings, the inference being that this “cash” was imaginary. Worse still, the long-standing assumption that the country could and would stand behind the debts of all state-owned entities (SOEs) is proving not to be the case. In disturbing echoes of the American experience in 2008, there are reasons to question why domestic agencies accord investment grade ratings to such a large proportion of Chinese corporate bonds.

How has this happened? The answer seems to be that the Chinese authorities have placed single-minded concentration on maintaining and growing levels of employment, prioritizing this (and its associated emphasis on volume) far above profitability. Put another way, China seems quite prepared to sell products at a loss, so long as volumes and employment are maintained. This has resulted in returns on invested capital falling below the cost of servicing debt capital – and an attempt to convert corporate bonds into equity was a spectacular failure, coming close to crashing the Chinese equity market.

Risk 03 credit

Systemic exposure

Debt exposure and credit dependency are relatively narrow measures, in that both concentrate on indebtedness. Critical though these are, there is a broader category of exposure termed here systemic risk, and this is particularly important in terms of the danger of contagion between economies.

The countries most at risk here are Ireland (again), the Netherlands and Britain. All three have financial sectors which are bloated even when compared with GDP. But the true lethality of systemic risk exposure only becomes fully apparent when prosperity is used as the benchmark.

At the most recent published date (2016), Dutch financial assets were stated at $10.96tn (€10.4tn), or 1470% of GDP. The SEEDS model assumes that the ratio to GDP now is somewhat lower (1360%), which implies financial assets unchanged at €10.4tn.

As we’ve seen with Ireland, measurement based on GDP produces false comfort, because GDP is inflated by the spending of borrowed money, and ignores ECoE. In the Netherlands, growth in GDP of €82bn (12%) between 2007 and 2018 needs to be seen in the context of a €600bn (32%) escalation in debt over the same period. This means that each €1 of reported “growth” has required net new borrowing of €7.40. Without this effect, SEEDS calculates that organic growth would have been just €8bn (not €82bn), and that ‘clean’ GDP in 2018 was €619bn, not €767bn.

The further deduction of ECoE (in 2018, 10.5%) reduces prosperity to €554bn. This is lower than the equivalent number for 2007 (€574bn), and further indicates that the prosperity of the average Dutch person declined by 8% over that period.

Though aggregate prosperity is slightly (3.5%) lower now than it was in 2007, financial assets have expanded by almost 40%, to €10.4tn now from €7.47tn (at 2018 values) back in 2007. This means that financial assets have grown from 1303% of prosperity on the eve of GFC I to 1881% today.

As the next table shows, this puts Holland second on this risk metric, below Ireland (3026%) but above the United Kingdom (1591%). Japan (924%) and China (884%) are third and fourth on this list.

Needless to say, the Irish number looks lethal but, since Ireland is a small economy, equates to financial assets (of €4.9tn) that are a lot smaller than those of the Netherlands (€10.4tn). Likewise, British financial assets are put at £23.3tn, a truly disturbing number when compared with GDP of £2tn, let alone prosperity of £1.47tn.

The conclusion on this category of risk has to be that Ireland, Holland and Britain look like accidents waiting to happen. Something not dissimilar might be said, too, of Japan and China. Japan’s gung-ho use of QE has resulted in half of all JGBs (government bonds) being owned by the BoJ (the central bank), whilst huge financial assets (estimated at RMB417tn) underscore the risk perception already identified by China’s dependency on extraordinary rates of credit creation.

Risk 04 systemic

Acquiescence risk

The fourth category of risk measured by SEEDS concentrates on public attitudes rather than macroeconomic exposure. Simply put, we can assume that, when the GFC II sequel to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC I) hits, governments are likely to try to repeat the “rescue” strategies which bought time (albeit at huge expense) last time around. But will the public accept these policies? Or will there be a huge popular backlash, something which could prevent such policies from being implemented?

It’s not difficult to envisage how this happens. If we can picture some politicians announcing, say, a rescue of the banks, we can equally picture some of their opponents pledging to scrap the rescue at the earliest opportunity, and take the banks into public ownership, pointing out that stockholder compensation will not be necessary because, in the absence of  a taxpayer bail-out, the worst-affected banks have zero equity value anyway. Simply put, this time around there could be more votes in the infliction of austerity on “the wealthy” than there will be in bailing them out. It’s equally easy to picture, at the very least, public demonstrations opposing such a rescue.

Even at the time, and more so as time has gone on, the general public has nurtured suspicions, later hardening into something much nearer to certainties, that the authorities played the 2008 crisis with loaded dice. One obvious source of grievance has been the management of the banking crash. The public may understand why banks were rescued, but cannot understand why the rescue included the bankers as well, whose prior irresponsibility is assumed by many to have been the cause of the crisis – especially given the unwillingness of governments to rescue those in other occupations, such as manufacturing, retail and hospitality.

The 2008 crisis was followed by a fashion for “austerity”, in which the public was expected to accept lean times as part of a rehabilitation of national finances after debts and deficits had soared during GFC I. Unfortunately, the imposition of “austerity” has looked extremely one-sided. Whilst public services budgets have been cut, the authorities have operated policies which have induced extraordinary inflation in asset prices. These benefits, for the most part enjoyed by a small minority, haven’t even been accompanied by fiscal changes designed to capture at least some of the gains for the taxpayer.

The word ‘hypocrisy’ has been woven like a thread into the tapestry of post-2008 trends, which are widely perceived as having inflicted austerity on the many as the price of rescuing the few. It hardly helps when advocates of “austerity” seem not to practice it themselves. Policies since 2008 have been extraordinarily divisive, not just between “the rich” and the majority, but also between the old (who tend to own assets) and the young (who don’t).

In short, the events of 2008 have created huge mistrust between governing and governed. This might not have mattered quite so much had the prosperity of the average person continued to grow, but, in almost all Western countries, this has not been the case. Whatever might be claimed about GDP, individuals sense – rightly – that they’re getting poorer. We’ve already seen the results of this estrangement, in the election of Donald Trump, the “Brexit” vote in Britain and the rise of insurgent (aka “populist”) parties in many European countries. Latterly, France has witnessed the eruption of popular anger in the gilets jaunes movement, something which might well be replicated in other countries.

For reasons which vary between countries – but which have in common a complete failure to understand deteriorating prosperity – established policymakers have seemed blinded to political reality by “the juggernaut effect”.

Where, though, is acquiescence risk most acute? The answer to this seems to lie less in the absolute deterioration in average prosperity than in the relentless squeeze in discretionary (“left in your pocket”) prosperity – simply put, how much money does a person have left at the end of the week or month, after taxes have been paid, and essential expenses have been met?

This discretionary effect helps to explain why the popular backlash has been so acute in France. At the overall level, the decline in French prosperity per person since 2007 has been a fairly modest 6.3%, less severe than the experiences of a number of other countries such as Italy (-11.6%), Britain (-10.3%), Norway (-8.4%) and Greece (-8..0%). Canadians (-8.1%) and Australians (-9.0%), too, have fared worse than the French.

Take taxation into account, though, and France comes top of the league. Back in 2007, prosperity per person in France was €28,950, which after tax (of €17,350) left the average person with €11,600 in his or her pocket. Since then, however, whilst prosperity has declined by €1,840 per person, tax has increased (by €1,970), leaving the individual with only €7,790, a 33% fall since 2007.

In no other country has this rapidity of deterioration been matched, though discretionary prosperity has fallen by 28% in the Netherlands, by 24% in Britain, by 23% in Australia and by 18% in Italy. If this interpretation makes sense of the popularity of the gilets jaunes (and makes absolutely no sense of the French authorities’ responses), it also suggests that the Hague, London and perhaps Canberra ought to be preparing themselves for the appearance of yellow waistcoats on their streets.

Risk 05 acquiescence

#144: “Brexit” and the wait for Godot

WHY EU NATIONAL LEADERS SHOULD INTERVENE

It is perhaps appropriate that Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot was written in French, and premiered in Paris in January 1953, not appearing in English until its London debut in 1955.

As you’ll know, Godot himself never appears, which some might say is the real point of the narrative. Certainly, his non-arrival has no serious consequences.

This is where drama and reality part company. Like Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s play, both sides of the “Brexit” impasse have been waiting for more than two years now, and are waiting still, for the political equivalent of Godot to turn up. This time, it’s going to be very serious indeed if the major character (or characters) fail to put in an appearance.

If you’re a regular visitor to this site, you’ll know that I steer well clear of taking sides over the outcome of the “Brexit” referendum. This said, those of us who understand the surplus energy basis of the economy had solid reasons for expecting the vote to turn out as it did.

Though GDP per person was slightly (4%) higher in 2016 than it had been in 2006, personal prosperity in Britain deteriorated by almost 9% over that decade. When the public went to the polls, the average person was £2,150 worse off than he or she had been ten years previously, and was, moreover, significantly deeper in debt.

These are not conditions in which the governing can expect the enthusiastic backing of the governed. There were other factors in play, of course – including widening inequality, and the lack of a national debate over immigration – but the “leave” vote was founded on popular dissatisfaction with an “establishment” seemingly unconcerned about deteriorating prosperity.

The authorities’ fundamental inability to understand the prosperity issue was by no means unique to the United Kingdom, and neither were its consequences confined to the 2016 referendum. Had the deterioration in prosperity been understood in the corridors of power, it’s highly unlikely, for instance, that premier Theresa May would have called the 2017 general election which robbed her of her Parliamentary majority.

Calling an early election – intended to “guarantee security for the years ahead” – was just one of many mistakes made by the British authorities before, during and after the referendum on withdrawal from the European Union. The vote itself  seems to have been called in the confident assumption that the “remain” side would win comfortably. The governing Conservatives then elected as their leader an opponent of the “Brexit” process. Perhaps worst of all, the British side negotiated as supplicants, accepting, seemingly without question, Brussels’ highly dubious assertion that the EU held all the high cards.

But it would be wrong to pin all (or even most) of the blame for the “Brexit” negotiations fiasco on the British side. Whatever mistakes Mrs May and her colleagues might have made, they at least have a democratic mandate for what they have been trying to do. Beset on one side by hard-line “Brexiteers”, and on the other by those opposed to carrying out what the public actually voted for, Mrs May had problems enough, even before her Brussels counterparts set out to play politics with the process.

Under these conditions, it’s hardly surprising that the British parliament seems to have reached an impasse, where the main alternatives to a flawed deal appear to involve either (a) leaving the EU without any agreement at all, or (b) disregarding the wishes of the voters, and perhaps inviting those voters to have another go, presumably in the hope that the electorate will ‘get it right this time’.

Needed – Godot

In considering what ought to happen next, we need to be absolutely clear that the stance adopted by the bureaucrats in Brussels has all along made it impossible for Mrs May to secure an agreement acceptable either to parliament or the voters.

Put bluntly, the point has long since been reached where the adults – meaning the elected governments of EU member nations, led by France and Ireland – should step in, forcing Brussels to offer terms which are both (a) mutually advantageous, and (b) acceptable to the United Kingdom. This really means that Paris and Dublin need to mount an eleventh-hour rescue, not just (or even mainly) of the British economy, but of the EU economy as well.

From the outset, Brussels has made three dangerously false assumptions.

The first is that, in terms of economics, a mishandled “Brexit” will hurt Britain far more than it would hurt other EU member states.

The second, flowing from this but extending well beyond economics, was that the EU side holds all the high cards – essentially, that Mrs May should expect nothing more than scraps from a bounteous continental table.

Third, Brussels assumed the role of punishing British voters in order to deter Italians (and others) from following a similar path out of the EU.

This third point is the easiest to counter. The role of Brussels, which in many other areas is carried out commendably, is to better the circumstances of EU citizens.

It is not to influence how those citizens cast their votes.

The economic point, though critical, is a bit more complicated, but needs to be outlined to explain why Ireland and France, in particular, ought now to be intervening to break the impasse.

Where Ireland is concerned, the assumption in Brussels that a mishandled “Brexit” would more dangerous for the British than for anyone else is gravely mistaken. Although Britain is a major trading partner for Ireland, the main problem for the Republic is a broader one. Essentially, Ireland is in no condition to withstand any major shock to the system – and a bungled “Brexit” would certainly be exactly that.

We’ve examined the Irish predicament before, so a brief summary should suffice here. Following statistical changes (dubbed “leprechaun economics”) introduced in 2015, reported GDP has become an even less meaningful measure of economic conditions. GDP grew by 49% between 2007 and 2017 (including a one-off 25% hike in 2015), adding €97bn (at constant 2018 values) to recorded output – but this occurred courtesy of a near-doubling in debt, such that each €1 of “growth” was bought with €4.85 of net new borrowing. Meanwhile, the all-important energy cost of energy (ECoE) now exceeds 11% in Ireland, at level at which growth is almost bound to go into reverse.

Fundamentally, reported GDP (of an estimated €309bn last year) grossly overstates real activity (adjusted for borrowed spending, €184bn), let alone prosperity (€164bn, or €33,550 per person).

Critically, over-stated GDP gives dangerously false comfort about financial exposure. Aggregate debt, for instance, might be “only” about 320% of GDP, but equates to well over 600% of prosperity.

Worse still, Ireland’s financial sector is grossly over-large in relation even to GDP, let alone prosperity. The most recent available numbers (for the end of 2016) put financial assets at 1750% of GDP, but this equates now to a frightening 3200% or so of prosperity.

Far from deleveraging after the disaster of 2007-08, both debt and financial assets are a lot bigger now than they were on the eve of the global financial crisis (GFC I) – in inflation-adjusted terms, debt has virtually doubled (+95%) since 2007, and financial assets have expanded by about 60%.

Moreover, the markets might know about the “leprechaun” factor in Irish GDP, but seem not – yet – to have applied the logic of that knowledge to the critical measures of national financial risk. On the assumption that the authorities in Dublin do know quite how dangerous Irish financial exposure really is, they have every incentive to strive for a form of “Brexit” which minimises economic and financial damage.

France has different, but equally compelling, reasons for intervening, and would have a lot more negotiating clout to bring to the table. As we’ve seen, there has been widespread unrest in France, unrest whose causes can be traced to deteriorating prosperity. Though personal prosperity as a whole is only about €1,650 (5.8%) lower now than it was ten years ago, the slump in discretionary (‘left-in-your-pocket’) prosperity has been leveraged to 32% by a near-€2,000 increase in the burden of taxation per person.

This has put Mr Macron’s government in an unenviable position. Neither the fiscal carrots offered by the president, nor the law enforcement sticks planned by his government, can address the fundamental issue, which is that a substantial majority of the population supports the grievances (if not necessarily the methods) of the ‘gilets jaunes’.

This seems to mean that Mr Macron can forget about his cherished labour market “reforms”, and further suggests that, unless something pretty dramatic happens, he can probably forget about re-election as well. The last thing his government needs right now is the economic harm likely to be inflicted on France by a bungled “Brexit”. It would be far, far better for the president to act in a conspicuously statesmanlike way to break the impasse.

In this situation, it’s unrealistic to expect Britain to resolve this issue unaided by Europe. If, as most observers believe, Mrs May’s deal is going to be shot down by parliament, neither of the remaining options looks palatable. Both those who support a “no deal” exit, and those who’d like to ignore (or re-run) the “Brexit” vote, are playing with fire. But neither can we expect the Brussels side of the talks to have a last minute conversion either to humility or to pragmatism.

In short, there are compelling reasons for European governments – led by France and Ireland – to enforce a rationality seemingly absent, on this issue, in Brussels.

#143: Fire and ice, part one

TRAUMA FOR THE TAX-MAN

Is 2019 the year when everything starts falling apart?

It certainly feels that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Governments then fail to understand the ensuing popular anger.

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

Few certainties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tax – leveraging the pain

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

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

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

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

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

#143 01

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

Prosperity and tax – Scylla and Charybdis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The political fall-out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The popular demands which follow from this are pretty clear.

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

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

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

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

A challenge – and an opportunity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#140: Are yellow jackets the new fashion?

POPULAR UNREST IN AN AGE OF FALLING PROSPERITY

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

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

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

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

Obviously, something very important is going on – why?

Does economics explain popular anger?

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

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

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

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

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

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

France prosperity snapshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

The prosperity powder-keg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

French budget 2

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

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

Where next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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