#165. To catch a falling knife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The double dénouement      

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ECoE trap

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

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

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

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

Fig. 1

Fig. 4 parabola

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

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

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

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

Fig. 2

Fig. 6a regional & world prosperity & ECoE

Response – going for broke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions and context

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

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

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

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

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

#163. Tales from Mount Incomprehension

THE FALSE DICHOTOMY CLINGS ON

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

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

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

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

A commonality of interests

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

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

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

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

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

The complexity trap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tenacious irrationality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#162. The business of de-growth

ENTERPRISE IN A DE-GROWING, DE-LAYERING ECONOMY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This makes surplus energy coterminous with prosperity.

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

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

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

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

The reality of deteriorating prosperity

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

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

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

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

#162 business 01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The critical understanding – the de-layering driver

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

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

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

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

This has two stark and immediate implications for businesses.

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

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

First awareness

In this discussion we have established three critical understandings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#161. A welcome initiative

MR CUMMINGS’ BOLD ENDEAVOUR

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

Here is how Mr Cummings defines his objectives:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#159. The perils of equilibria

‘INDICATIONS AND WARNINGS’

Putting together what might turn out to be the last article published here this year has been one of two main items on my agenda. (I’m hoping to slip a third, pre-Christmas article into the list but, should this not happen, please accept my premature good wishes for the season).

In back-to-front order, the second ‘agenda item’ is a much-updated guide to the principles of Surplus Energy Economics, and to the latest – SEEDS 20 Pro – version of the model. The Surplus Energy Economics Data System has now evolved into a very powerful analytical tool, and I plan to make even greater use of it to inform discussions here in the future.

You can download at the end of this discussion, or from the Resources, page a summarised statistical guide to selected EM economies, whose prospects are one of the issues discussed here.

Two disequilibria

The aim here is to set out two of the trends that I suspect are going to ‘go critical’ in the year ahead.

The first of the two narrative-shaping issues that I’m anticipating for 2020 is a marked slowdown in the emerging market (EM) economies.

We can say what we like about the advanced economies (AEs), where monetary adventurism seeks to disguise (since it cannot reverse) an economic stagnation that has morphed into a gradual (but perceptible) deterioration in prosperity.

But, all along, we’ve known that our trading partners in the EM countries have been “doing stuff” – churning out widgets, building infrastructure, ‘going for growth’, and doing a quite remarkable job of improving the economic lot of their citizens.

This positive trend is, in my analysis, starting to top-out and then go into reverse. Even ‘conventional’ numbers are now starting to reveal what SEEDS has been anticipating for quite some time. The cresting and impending reversal of the wave of prosperity growth in countries like China and India – and the consequent financial strains – are likely to inform much of the economic narrative going forward.

The implications of what I’ll “the EM crest” will be profound.

We will no longer be able to say that ‘the Western economies may be stagnating, but the emerging nations are driving the global economy forward’. Their less complex, less ECoE-sensitive economies now face the self-same issues that have plagued the West ever since the onset of ‘secular stagnation’ from the late 1990s.

The second critical issue is financial disequilibrium, and the ‘devil or the deep blue sea’ choice that it poses.

Here’s an example of what this ‘disequilibrium’ means. In nominal terms, the value of equities around the World increased by 139% in a decade (2008-18) in which nominal World GDP expanded by 33%. Applying inflation to both reduces the numbers, of course, but it leaves the relationship unchanged. What’s true of equities is also true, to a greater or lesser extent, of the prices of other assets, including bonds and property.

What matters here is the relationship between asset prices and incomes, with ‘incomes’ embracing everything from wages and pensions to dividends, corporate earnings and coupons from bonds.

This divergence is, of course, a direct result of monetary policy. But the effect has been to stretch the relationship to a point from which either surging inflation (by driving up nominal incomes), or a crash in asset prices, is a necessary element of a return to equilibrium.

We may have to choose between these, with inflation the price that might need to be paid to prevent a collapse in asset markets.

Our industrious friends

A critical issue in the near-term is likely to be the discrediting of the increasingly fallacious assumption that, whilst much of the “growth” (and, indeed, of the economic activity) reported in the West is cosmetic, emerging market (EM) economies really can go on, indefinitely,  producing more “stuff” each year, so a big part of the World remains genuinely more and more productive.

Westerners, the logic runs, might increasingly be making their living by using a ‘churn’ of newly-created money to sell each other ever-pricier assets and ever more low-value incremental services, but the citizens of Asia, in particular, remain diligent producers of everything from cars and smartphones to chips and components.

This, unfortunately, is a narrative whose validity is eroding rapidly. China’s pursuit of volume (driven by the imperative of providing employment to a growing urban workforce) has driven the country into a worsening financial morass, whilst a former Indian finance minister has warned of “the death of demand” in his country.

Figures amply demonstrate the development of these adverse trends, not just in China and India but in other members of the EM-14 group that is monitored by SEEDS.

On the principle that a picture is worth a thousand words, here are SEEDS charts showing that, whilst Western prosperity is already in established decline, something very similar is looming for the EM-14 economies. Of these, some – including Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey – have already started getting poorer, and many others are nearing the point of inflexion.

159 prosperity

And, as the next pair of charts shows, you don’t need SEEDS interpretation to tell you that the divergence between GDP and debt in the EM countries doesn’t augur well.

159 EM divregence

What’s starting to happen to the EM economies has profound, global implications. Perhaps most significantly, the dawning recognition that the World’s economic ‘engine’ is no longer firing on all cylinders is likely to puncture complacency about global economic “growth”.

When this happens, a chain reaction is likely to set in. With the concept of ‘perpetual growth’ discredited, what happens to the valuations of companies whose shares are supposedly priced on their own ‘growth potential’?

More important still, what does this mean for a structure of debt (and broader obligations) predicated on the assumption that “growth” will enable borrowers to meet their obligations?

In short, removing ‘perpetual assured growth’ from the financial calculus will equate to whipping out the ace of diamonds from the bottom tier of a house of cards.

Timing and equilibrium

This brings me to my second theme, which is the relationship between assets and income.

Just like ratios of debt to prosperity – and, indeed, mainly because of cheap debt – this relationship has moved dramatically out of kilter.

The market values of paper assets put this imbalance into context.

Globally, data from SIFMA shows that the combined nominal value of stocks and bonds increased by 68% between 2008 and 2018, whilst recorded GDP – itself a highly questionable benchmark, given the effects of spending borrowed money – expanded by a nominal 33%.

Equities, which were valued at 79% of American GDP in 2008 after that year’s slump, rose to 148% by the end of 2018, the equivalent global percentages being 69% and 124%.

For the United States, a ‘normal’ ratio of stock market capitalisation to GDP has, historically, been around 100% (1:1), so the current ratio (about 1.5:1) is undoubtedly extreme.

Prices of other assets, such as residential and commercial property, have similarly outstripped growth in recorded GDP.

Whilst this isn’t the place to examine the mechanisms that have been in play, it’s clear that monetary policy has pushed asset prices upwards, driving a wedge between asset values and earnings.

This equation holds true right across the system, typified by the following relationships:

– The prices of bonds have outstripped increases in the coupons paid to their owners.

– Share values have risen much more sharply either than corporate earnings or dividends paid to stockholders.

– The wages of individuals have grown very much more slowly than the values of the houses (or other assets) that they either own or aspire to own.

This in turn means that people (a) have benefited if they were fortunate enough (which often means old enough) to have owned assets before this process began, but (b) have lost out if they were either less fortunate (and, in general, were too young) when monetary adventurism came into play.

The critical point going forward is the inevitability of a return to equilibrium, meaning that the relationship between incomes and asset values must revert back towards past norms.

You see, if equilibrium isn’t restored – if incomes don’t rise, and prices don’t fall – markets cease to function. Property markets run out of ‘first-time buyers’; equity markets run out of private or institutional new participants; and bond markets run out of people wishing to park some of their surplus incomes in such instruments.

To be sure, markets might be kept elevated artifically, even in a state of stasis, without new money being put into them from the earnings of first-time buyers and new investors. But the only way to replace these new income streams would be to print enough new money to cover the gap – and doing that would destroy fiat currencies.

This means either that incomes – be they wages, bond coupons or equity dividends – must rise, or that asset prices must fall.

In a World in which growth – even as it’s reckoned officially – is both subdued and weakening, the only way in which nominal incomes can rise is if inflation takes off, doing for wages (and the cost of living) what it’s already done for asset prices.

With inflation expectations currently low, you might conclude, from this, that asset prices must succumb to a ‘correction’, which is the polite word for a crash.

But that ‘ain’t necessarily so, Joe’. It’s abundantly clear that the authorities are going to do their level best to prevent a crash from happening. It seems increasingly apparent that, as Saxo Bank has argued so persuasively, the Fed’s number one priority now is the prevention of a stock market collapse.

Additionally, of course, and for reasons which presumably make political sense (because they make no economic or social sense whatsoever), many governments around the World favour high property prices.

The linkage here is that the only way in which the authorities can prevent an asset price slump is ‘more of the same’ – the injection of ever greater amounts of new money at ever lower cost. This is highly likely to prove inflationary, for reasons which we can discuss on a later occasion.

My conclusions on this are in two parts.

First, the authorities will indeed do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop an asset price collapse (and they might reckon, too, that the ‘soft default’ implicit in very high inflation is the only route down from the pinnacle of the debt mountain).

My second conclusion is that it won’t work. Investors, uncomfortably aware that only the Fed and ‘unconventional’ monetary policy stand between them and huge losses, might run for the exits.

They know, of course, that when everyone rushes in a panic for the door labelled ‘out’, that door has a habit of getting smaller.

There’s an irony here, and a critical connection.

The irony concerns the Fed, the President and the stock market. Opinions about Mr Trump tend to be very polarised, but even his admirers have expressed a lot of scepticism about his assertion that a strong stock market somehow demonstrates the vibrancy of the American economy.

So it would indeed be ironic if the Fed – in throwing everything and the kitchen sink into stopping a market crash – found itself acting on the very same precept.

The connection, of course, is that equity markets, just like bonds and other forms of debt, are entirely predicated on a belief in perpetual growth. If, as I suspect, trends in the EM economies are set to destroy this ‘growth belief’, we may experience what happens when passengers in the bus of inflated markets find out that the engine has just expired.

EM 14 December 7th 2019

#158. An air of unreality

DE-GROWTH AND DENIAL IN THE UNITED KINGDOM

Now that a general election has become the latest twist in the saga of “Brexit” – Britain’s ‘on-off-maybe’ withdrawal from the European Union – it seems appropriate to review the situation and outlook for the United Kingdom from a Surplus Energy Economics perspective.

The aim here is to set out an appraisal of the British economy, concentrating on performance and prospects.

No attempt is made, though, to suggest future policy directions, since the likelihood of a wholesale awakening to the realities of de-growth seems remote.

Before we start, I hope I can take it that the ‘energy, not money’ interpretation of economics is familiar to readers (though, given the accelerating pace of change in the world economy, it might be desirable to publish an updated introduction to this in the near future).

The understanding that the economy is an energy system, and not a financial one, can provide insights denied to those wedded to the ‘conventional’ interpretation which states that the economy can be understood, and managed, in monetary terms alone. It is becoming clearer, almost by the day, that this simply is not true.

Long-standing visitors won’t need reminding, either, that, beyond believing that everyone should respect the democratic decision, I’m avowedly neutral on whether British voters made the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ choice in the 2016 “Brexit” referendum.

There can be no doubt, though, that “Brexit” has been a huge distraction – indeed, it’s “the excuse that keeps on giving” – and has induced something very close to complete paralysis of the decision-making process.

Policy paralysis is particularly unfortunate in the economic sphere, where “Brexit” has prevented debate over a deteriorating economy and a rising level of financial risk. Even on the basis of official data, Britain’s financial assets ratio – a measure of exposure to the financial system – stands at more than 1300% of GDP. This compares with 480% in the United States, and is a dangerous place to be as a GFC II sequel to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) becomes ever more probable.

The place to start is with the economic situation as interpreted by SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System) which, for Britain as for any other economy, lays bare the realities behind the published statistics.

Growth, output and debt – coming clean

If you were to believe official figures, British economic output increased by 11% between 2008 and 2018, adding £212bn (at 2018 values) to recorded GDP. This in itself is far from impressive and, since population numbers increased by 7% over that decade, left GDP per capita just 3.6% ahead.

Even these uninspiring figures flatter to deceive. Over a decade in which GDP has increased by £212bn, debt has risen by £890bn, meaning that each £1 of recorded “growth” has been accompanied by £4.18 in net new borrowing.

This, to be sure, is an improvement over the 2000-08 period, which witnessed a reckless, credit-driven bubble in which debt increased by £5.63 for each £1 of “growth”. But the UK economy remains excessively dependent on continuing increases in debt.

The numbers are summarised in fig. 1, which shows how far annual growth has been exceeded by net borrowing, particularly in the period of policy insanity which preceded 2008.

Fig. 1

#158 UK 01

As a result of a continuing addiction to cheap and easy credit, most (83%) of the recorded growth in British GDP since 2008 has been a function of the simple spending of borrowed money.

SEEDS calculations show that, if net new borrowing ceased as of now, trend growth would fall to between 0.1% and 0.4%, well adrift of the 0.6% rate at which population numbers are increasing.

If the United Kingdom hadn’t joined in the pan-Western (and, latterly, pan-global) debt binge in the first place, output last year would have been £1.63 trillion, 22% below the recorded £2.08tn.

Where underlying realities are concerned, SEEDS indicates that, rather than ‘output of £2.08tn, growing at 1.4% annually’, Britain has underlying, ‘clean’ GDP (C-GDP) of £1.63tn, growing by between 0.1% and (at best) 0.4% – and this is even before we turn to the critically-important energy situation. Comparisons between recorded GDP and the credit-adjusted equivalent are set out in fig. 2.

Fig. 2

#158 UK 02

Like so many others, the British economy shows all the hallmarks of “activity” created artificially by the injection of credit – high value-adding activities (like manufacturing) have stagnated at best, displaced by “growth” coming mostly from minimally value-adding sectors which are characterised by low wages and worsening insecurity of employment.

Replacing, say, £1bn of hard-priced manufacturing output with £1bn of residually-priced manicures and fast food deliveries isn’t progressive, least of all if this change has been financed with rising debt, most obviously in the household sector.

The mistaken idea, held as tenaciously in London as it is in the Élysée, that lowering wages somehow makes an economy ‘more competitive’, ignores one rather obvious fact – if low labour costs were an economic positive, Ghana would be more prosperous than Germany, and Swaziland richer than Switzerland.

The energy dimension

Because all economic activity is a function of energy, the cost of energy supply is a vital determinant of prosperity. This cost is calibrated here as ECoE – the Energy Cost of Energy – which measures, within any given quantity of energy accessed and put to use, how much of that energy is consumed in the access process.

For reference, SEEDS indicates that, for complex developed economies, prior growth in prosperity goes into reverse at ECoEs between 3.5% and 5.5%. In Britain, prosperity has been shrinking since trend ECoE hit 4.2% back in 2003. The subsequent rise in trend ECoE – to 9.5% last year – has tightened the screw relentlessly.

This goes a long way towards explaining why the average British person is 10.8% (£2,673) worse off than he or she was back in 2003 (as well as being nearly £27,000, or 49%, deeper in debt).

These calculations also do a lot to explain both popular discontent and the “productivity puzzle” which so baffles the authorities.

At 9.5%, Britain’s trend ECoE is significantly worse than the global average (7.9%) (fig. 3). This competitive disadvantage is of comparatively recent origin since, back in 2003, Britain’s ECoE (of 4.2%) was rather lower than the global average (4.6%). Whereas world trend ECoE has risen by 3.3 percentage points (+71%) since then, the British equivalent has more than doubled (+127%), increasing by 5.3 percentage points.

Fig. 3

#158 UK 03

Part of this relative slippage is due to a shrinkage in domestic energy supply – output of primary energy has declined by 56%, to 119 million tonnes of oil-equivalent last year from 272 mmtoe in 1999. Most of this decrease results from declines in output from the mature oil and gas production operations in the North Sea, though output from coal and nuclear has fallen as well. Against a 162 mmtoe decrease in fossil fuels production, supply from renewables has grown by just 23 mmtoe.

Over the same period, energy consumption, too, has fallen, by 15% or 33 mmtoe. Though often claimed as a sign of improved energy efficiency, this decline is indicative, rather, both of deteriorating prosperity and of the offshoring of energy-intensive (but important) industrial activities.

Perhaps because of complacency induced by the past largesse of North Sea oil and gas, British energy policy has seldom seemed particularly astute. Right back in the 1980s, ‘quick-buck’ thinking permitted both the export of gas and its use in the generation of cheap electricity, both of which were short-term expedients which made excessive demands on a resource which was never huge. Latterly, the authorities dithered for more than a decade over the future of nuclear before making the wrong technology choice for the wrong reasons. The current commitment to renewables, though commendable in principle, does not seem to be well-thought-out, and is likely to impose excessive costs on industry and households alike.

Whatever the local causes, ECoE is projected to rise from 10.0% this year to 12.0% by 2025 and 13.8% by 2030. These numbers indicate irreversible de-growth in the economy, and are markedly worse than those faced by significant competitors – by 2025, when British ECoE is projected to hit 12%, that of the United States is likely to be 10.8%, with France at 8.9%, resource-deficient Japan at 12.5%, and the world average at 9.6%.

Prosperity

When adverse trends in ECoE are set against essentially stagnant output as measured by C-GDP, the aggregate prosperity of the United Kingdom is actually slightly lower now (at £1.47tn) than it was back in 2003 (£1.48tn).

Over that same period, though, the population has increased by 11.4%, from 59.6 million to 66.4 million. Taken together, these figures explain why the average person is 10.8% worse off now (£22,191) than he or she was fifteen years ago (at 2018 values, £24,832).

Rises in taxes have exacerbated this deterioration, with a £2,673 fall in prosperity compounded by a £2,240 (24%) increase in taxation per person. Accordingly, discretionary (‘left in your pocket’) prosperity is £4,913 (32%) lower now (£10,432) than it was in 2003 (£15,345). This isn’t as bad as what has happened in France (-40% over the same period), but the French experience is extreme, and Britain is not far behind in the league-table of impaired prosperity.

Where pre-tax prosperity is concerned, British citizens have suffered more than most over an extended period (see fig. 4). The outlook is for further erosion of prosperity, making the average person 15% worse off by 2024 than he or she was in 2003.

This continuing deterioration in prosperity poses a huge policy problem for decision-makers and opinion-influencers, few (if any) of whom even understand what is really happening to the economy.

Fig. 4

#158 UK 04

Risk and response

If you were to put the foregoing points either to decision-makers or to practitioners of ‘conventional’ economics, the probable reactions would be denial and disbelief.

Additionally, you’d probably be told that the national balance sheet shows net assets at an all-time high of £10.4tn, which sounds impressive – until you realise that 83% of this (£8.6tn) consists of land and buildings, whose nominal values have been inflated by ultra-low interest rates, and which cannot be monetised because the only people to whom they could ever be sold are the same people to whom they already belong.

In fact, corroboration of the cautionary conclusions of the SEEDS analysis of the United Kingdom is particularly easy to find. In recent years, the British economy has been characterised by real and worsening hardship, evident in homelessness, the millions ‘just about managing’, highly elevated levels of household debt, rising recourse to food banks and a dearth of well-paid job opportunities and affordable accommodation for the young. High-profile corporate failures in the retailing and leisure sectors attest to the severe downwards pressure on consumers’ discretionary prosperity.

When calibration is switched from credit-inflated GDP to underlying prosperity, the true extent of financial risk becomes apparent. The debt ratio rises from 263% of GDP to 370% of prosperity, and even this excludes off-balance-sheet “quasi-debts” such as unfunded public sector pension commitments. Worse still, financial exposure – measured as the ratio of financial assets to income – rises from an already-dangerous 1300% of GDP to a frightening 1870% on a prosperity basis.

The sharp fall in prosperity has created significant acquiescence risk, meaning that public support for economic and financial policy initiatives can no longer be taken for granted. The decrease in discretionary prosperity over the past ten years hasn’t been as severe in Britain as in France (-29.3%), but, at -20.9% the United Kingdom ranks third out of the 30 countries modelled by SEEDS, just behind second-ranked Denmark (-23.4%), just ahead of the Netherlands (-20.7%) and Australia (-20.6%), and a long way ahead of Canada (-16.6%), Japan (-14.1%), Italy (-13.6%) and the United States (-12.9%).

This does not mean that Britain faces the imminent arrival of an equivalent of the French gilets jaunes movement, but it does help to explain both the result of the “Brexit” vote and the steadily worsening public disenchantment with the elites. It also means that any attempt to repeat the 2008 banking rescues would be likely to meet with huge popular opposition.

These considerations are set to recast the political agenda entirely, with economic and welfare issues coming to the fore, and non-economic subjects falling ever further down the public’s order of priorities. In the coming years it’s likely that popular demands for redistribution will increase to the point where any party not adopting this agenda will find scant electoral support.

Meanwhile, and despite growing. political pressure for the imposition of much higher taxes on the wealthiest, it should be assumed that the tax base will start to shrink. Tax may account for ‘only’ 37.6% of British GDP, but it already takes a 53% bite out of the prosperity of the average person, up from 44% back in 2008. Any promises based on “tax and spend” are losing credibility, which might be one reason why both major parties are now promoting policies predicated, not on higher taxation, but on sizeable increases in government debt.

The reality, though, is likely to be a growing need for the prioritising of public services, emphasising those services deemed to be essential whilst withdrawing from activities of lesser importance.

The big question from here is whether the elites recognise deteriorating prosperity and act on its implications, or try to ‘tough it out’ and wait for an economic ‘recovery’ that isn’t going to happen.

There are ways of managing a society in economic de-growth, but the first imperatives – a recognition that this is what’s happening, and a preparedness for debate on the issue – still seem as far away as ever.

 

 

#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

 

 

#152: Stuffed

WHY THE MONETARY LIFEBOAT WON’T FLOAT

The global financial system has come to rest on a single complacent assumption, one which is seldom put explicitly into words, but is remarkably implicit in actions.

This assumption is that the authorities have, and are willing to deploy, a monetary ‘fix’ for all ills.

Accordingly, the system has come to be seen as a bizarre casino, in which winning punters keep their gains, but losers are sure that they’ll be reimbursed at the exit-door.

So ingrained has this assumption become that it’s almost heresy to denounce it for the falsity that it is.

The theme of this discussion is simply stated. It is that the complacent assumption of a monetary fix is misplaced. The authorities, faced with a crash, might very well try something along these lines, and might even adopt one or more of its most outlandish variants.

But it won’t work.

The reason why no monetary expedient can provide a “get out of gaol free” card is that the economy and the financial system are quite different things.

The complacent rush in  

You can see financial manifestations of mistaken complacency wherever you look.

It emboldens those who have lent most of the $2.9 trillion that, over the last five years, American companies have ploughed into the insane elimination of flexible equity in favour of inflexible debt.

It informs those who pile into the shares of cash-burners, or queue up to buy into overpriced IPOs.

It reassures those long of JPY, despite the monetization of more than half of all outstanding JGBs by the BoJ.

It tranquilizes those who, unable to see the contradiction between gigantic financial exposure and a stumbling economy, remain long of GBP.

It blinds those to whom the Chinese economic narrative remains a miracle, not a credit-fueled bubble.

The aim here is a simple one. It is to counter this complacency by explaining why economic problems cannot be solved with monetary tools, and to warn that efforts to do so risk, instead, the undermining of the credibility of currencies.

A casino which hands back losers’ money belongs in the realm of pure myth.

The secondary status of money

Money has no intrinsic worth. Someone adrift in a lifeboat in mid-Atlantic, or stranded in the Sahara, would benefit from an air-drop of food or water, but even a gigantic amount of money descending on a parachute would do nothing more than allowing him or her to die rich.

Conventionally, money has three roles, but only one of these is relevant. Fiat money has been an atrociously bad ‘store of value’, and money is a very flawed ‘unit of account’. Money’s only relevant role is as a ‘medium of exchange’.

For this to work, there has to be something for which money can be exchanged.

This means that money has no intrinsic worth, but commands value only as a claim on the products of the economy. If you build up a structure of claims that the economy cannot honour, then that structure must – eventually, and in one way or another – collapse.

Conceptually, it’s useful to think in terms of ‘two economies’. One of these is the ‘real’ economy of goods and services, its operation characterised by the use of labour and resources, but its performance ultimately driven by energy.

The other is the ‘financial’ economy of money and credit, a parallel or shadow of the ‘real’ economy, useful for managing the real economy, but wholly lacking in stand-alone substance.

To be sure, the early monetarists oversimplified things with the assertion that inflation could be explained in wholly quantitative monetary terms. The price interface between money and the real economy isn’t determined by the simple division of the quantity of economic goods into the quantity of money.

Rather, it’s the movement or use of money that matters. The quantitative recklessness of Weimar would not have triggered hyperinflation had the excess been locked up in a vault, or in some other way not put to use. It’s not hair-splitting, but an important distinction, that Weimar’s true downfall was not that excess money was created, but that it was created and spent.

The process of exchange, which really defines the role of money, makes the interface dynamic, and, as such, introduces behavioural considerations. The creation of very large amounts of new money needn’t destabilize the price equilibrium if people hoard it, but a lesser increment can be extremely destabilizing if is spent with exceptional rapidity. This is why the simple quantitative interpretation needs to be modified by the inclusion of velocity, making Q x V a much more useful monetary determinant.

Behaviourally, velocity falls when people turn cautious – they did this during and after the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), a tendency which reduced the inflationary risk of the loose money responses deployed at that time.

Even so, claims that the monetary adventurism unleashed at that time did not trigger inflation are simply untrue, unless you accept a narrow definition of inflation. To be sure, retail prices haven’t surged since 2008, but asset prices most certainly have, the truism being that the inflationary effects of the injection of money turn up at the point at which the money is injected.

Additionally, inflation is influenced by expectations – which have been low in an era of ’austerity’ – and by the performance of the economy. An economy which is performing weakly puts downwards pressure on inflation.

What it does not do, though, is to eliminate latent inflation. Any erosion of faith in the reliability of money would cause velocity to spike, as people rush out to spend it whilst it still has value.

Fiat fallacy

One of the analytically adverse side-effects of monetary manipulation is that it inflates apparent activity. Globally, and expressed in constant 2018 PPP dollars, the $34tn increase in recorded GDP since 2008 cannot be unrelated to the $110tn escalation in debt over the same period. According to SEEDS, most (67%) of the “growth” recorded over that period was nothing more than the simple effect of spending borrowed money.

This matters, first because a cessation in credit injection would undermine supposed rates of “growth” and, second, because a reversal would put much prior “growth” into reverse.

By falsifying GDP, this ‘credit effect’ also falsifies any relationships based on it – so the ‘comfortable’ 218% global ratio of debt-to-GDP masks a real ratio which is nearer to 340%, and higher by more than 100% than it was ten years ago (236%). It also distorts the measurement of financial exposure, so lulling us into misplaced insouciance about those countries (such as Ireland and Britain) whose financial assets stand at huge multiples to the real value of their economies.

Behind the mask of ‘the credit effect’, global economic performance is at best lacklustre, growing at about 0-9-1.3% annually whilst population numbers are growing by 1.0%.

Moreover, these numbers disguise regional disparities – whilst the average Chinese or Indian citizen continues to become more prosperous (for now, anyway), the average Westerner has been getting poorer for at least a decade.

Of course, there’s a countervailing ‘wealth effect’, giving false comfort to those whose assets have soared in price – and few, if any, of them appear to wonder what would happen if there was a rush to monetize inflated values.

But the drastic distortion in the relationship between asset values and incomes has real downsides exceeding its (illusory anyway) upside. Policymakers and their advisers may remain ignorant of the deterioration in Western prosperity, but to voters it is all too real, something which has been a major contributor to those changes in voter responses which have informed “Brexit”, Mr Trump’s ascent to the White House, and the rolling repudiation of established political parties across much of Europe.

The decline of “stuff”

The weakness of the underlying picture has now started showing up unmistakeably in weakening in demand for everything from cars, domestic appliances and smartphones to chips and drive-motors. Logically, deterioration in the economy of “stuff” will extend next into commodities because, if you’re making less “stuff”, you need less minerals, less plastics and, critically, less energy with which to make it.

Whilst all of this is going on in plain view, markets and policymakers alike are failing to recognize the risks implicit in the widening gap between a stumbling economy and escalating financial exposure. As well as borrowing an additional $110tn since 2008, we’ve blown a not-dissimilar-sized hole in pension provision, because the same low cost of capital which has incentivized borrowing has also crippled the rates of return on which pension accrual depends.

Additionally, of course, the prices of equities and property have reached heights from which any descent into rationality would have devastating direct and collateral consequences.

When the next crisis (GFC II) shows up, the complacent expectation is that everything can be ‘fixed’ with even looser monetary policy. Some of the more bizarre suggestions aired in 2008 – including ‘helicopter money’, and NIRP (negative interest rate policy, with its implicit need to outlaw cash) – will doubtless come to the fore again, accompanied by a whole crop of new ‘innovations’. The authorities are likely, in the stark despair which follows protracted denial, to act on at least some of these follies.

The trouble is that it won’t work.

You might as well try to rescue an ailing pot-plant with a spanner as try to revive an ailing economy with monetary innovation.

The form that failure takes need not necessarily involve massive inflation, though this is the only non-default route down from the debt mountain. Authorities capable of believing that EVs are “zero emissions”, or that we can overcome the environmental challenge with some form of “sustainable growth” (rather than degrowth), are perfectly capable of also believing that we can fix economic problems with monetary recklessness.

If inflation doesn’t spoil the party, two other factors might. One is credit exhaustion, in which massively indebted borrowers refuse to take on yet more debt, irrespective of how cheap the offer may be.

The other factor might well be a loss of faith in money, which might also be accompanied by a ‘flight to quality’, perhaps favouring the dollar (as ‘the prettiest horse in the knackers’ yard’), whilst hanging weaker currencies out to dry.

However it pans out, though, we know that an economy whose prosperity is faltering cannot indefinitely sustain an ever-growing burden of financial promises. By definition, whatever is unsustainable eventually fails, and this is as true of monetary systems as of anything else.