#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.

#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.

 

 

#154. An autumn nexus

A CONVERGENCE OF STRESS-LINES

If you’ve been following our discussions here for any length of time, you’ll know that the main focus now is on the need for energy transition. This is a challenge made imperative, not just by environmental considerations but, just as compellingly, by the grim outlook for an economy which continues to rely on energy sources – oil, gas and coal – whose own economics are deteriorating rapidly.

These, of course, are long-term themes (though that’s no excuse for the gulf between official and corporate rhetoric and delivery). But the short term matters, too, and an increasing number of market participants and observers have started to notice that a series of significant stress-lines are converging on the months of September and October, much as railway lines converge on Charing Cross station.

The context, as it’s understood from an energy economics perspective, is that a fracture in the financial system is inevitable (though ‘inevitable’ isn’t the same thing as ‘imminent’). Properly understood, money has no intrinsic worth, but commands value only as a claim on the output of the ‘real’ economy of goods and services. Whilst the mountain of monetary claims keeps getting bigger, the real economy itself is being undermined by adverse energy economics.

Ultimately, financial crises happen as correctives, when the gap between the financial and the ‘real’ economies becomes excessive.

This is what happened with the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), which followed a lengthy period of what I call “credit adventurism”. A sequel to 2008, known here as “GFC II”, is the seemingly inevitable consequence of the “monetary adventurism” adopted during and after 2008. This, incidentally, is where the parallels end because, whilst credit adventurism put the banking system in the eye of the storm in 2008, the subsequent adoption of monetary recklessness implies that GFC II will be a currency event.   .

An understanding of the inevitability of GFC II doesn’t tell us when it’s likely to happen. All that I’ve ventured on this so far is that a ‘window of risk’ has been open since the third quarter of 2018. Whether that window has yet opened wide enough to admit GFC II is a moot point. But the converging stresses are certainly worthy of consideration.

Chinese burns

Three of the most important lines of stress originate in China.

As we’ve seen – and with the country’s Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE) now in the climacteric range at which prosperity growth goes into reverse – there’s no doubt at all that the Chinese economy is in trouble. After all (and expressed at constant 2018 values), China has added debt of RMB 170 trillion (+288%) over a period in which reported GDP has expanded by RMB 47 tn (+114%), and no such pattern can be sustained in perpetuity.

This is complicated by Sino-American trade tensions, and, given the huge divergence between Chinese and American priorities, there seems little prospect that these can be resolved in any meaningful way.

The third and newest component of the Chinese risk cocktail is unrest in Hong Kong. Few think it likely that Beijing would be reckless enough to make a forceful intervention there, but it’s a risk whose relatively low probability is offset by the extremity of consequences if it were to happen.

In this context, it’s interesting to note that markets initially responded euphorically to Mr Trump’s delaying of new sanctions, seemingly interpreting it as some kind of ‘wobble’ on his part. It looks a lot more like a Hong Kong-related cautionary signal, seasoned with a twist of gamesmanship and soupçon of characteristic showmanship.

Whilst I’m not one of Mr Trump’s critics, it does seem undeniable that he makes too much of the (actually very tenuous) relationship between economic performance and the level of the stock market. This adds his voice to the chorus of those advocating ever cheaper money.

When the next crash does, come, of course, this chorus will rise to a crescendo, but central bankers will in any case have started pouring ever larger amounts of liquidity into the system in an effort to prop up tumbling asset prices. This, in turn, is likely to lead to a flight to perceived safe havens, one of which is likely to be the dollar, whilst other currencies come under the cosh.

But this is to look too far ahead.

“Brexit” blues

The focus in Europe, of course, is on “Brexit”. I’m neither an admirer nor a critic of Boris Johnson, any more than I’m a supporter or an opponent of “Brexit” itself (a subject on which I’ve been, and remain, studiously neutral).

This said, Mr Johnson is surely right to assert that you’ll never get anything out of negotiations if you start off by committing yourself to accept whatever the other side deigns to offer. This does indeed look like brinkmanship on his part, but it’s remarkable how often negotiations, be they political or commercial, do go “right down to the wire”, being settled only when time presses hard enough on the parties involved.

I’ve said before that the EU negotiators worry me more than their British counterparts in this process. The British side has, of course, mishandled the “Brexit” situation, but this can have come as no great surprise to anyone familiar with Britain’s idiosyncratic processes of government.

Unfortunately, British floundering has been compounded by remarkable intransigence on the EU side of the table. The attitude of the Brussels apparatchiks, all along, has been ‘take it or leave it’, and this seems to have been based on two false premises.

The first is that the British have to be ‘punished’ to deter other countries from following a similar road. This is a false position, because influencing how French, Spanish, Italian and other citizens cast their votes in domestic elections is wholly outside Brussels’ competence.

In any case, ‘punishment’ should not be part of the lexicon of any adult participant in statesmanship.

The second false premise is that Britain attends the negotiating table as a supplicant, because a chaotic “Brexit” will inflict far more economic harm on the United Kingdom than on the other EU member countries.

My model suggests that this is simply not true. The country at single greatest risk is Ireland, whose economy is far weaker than its “leprechaun economics” numbers suggest, and whose exposure, both to debt and to the financial system, is as worrying as it is extraordinary.

Ireland is followed, probably in this order, by France, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany. The French economy looks moribund, despite its relentlessly-increasing debt, and the prosperity of the average French person has been subjected to a gradual but prolonged deterioration, a process so aggravated by rising taxes that it has led to popular unrest.

Though its economy is stronger, the Netherlands is exposed, by the sheer scale of its financial sector, to anything which puts the global financial system at risk.

Germany, whose own economy is stuttering, must be wondering how quite much of the burden of cost in the wider Euro Area it might be asked to bear.

Moreover, the European Central Bank’s actions endorse the perception that the EA economy is performing poorly. The ECB has made it clear that there is no foreseeable prospect of the EA being weened off its diet of ultra-cheap liquidity.

This makes it all the more remarkable (in a macabre sort of way) that none of the governments of the most at-risk EA countries have sought to demand some pragmatism from Brussels. What we cannot know – though it remains a possibility – is whether the ever-nearer approach of ‘B-Day’ will energise at least, say, Dublin or Paris into action.

Madness, money and moods

Long before the markets took fright at the inversion of the US yield curve, the financial system (in its broadest sense) has looked bizarre.

In America, the corporate sector is engaged in the wholesale replacement of flexible equity with inflexible debt, whilst investors queue up to support “cash burners”, and buy into the IPOs of deeply loss-making debutants. The BoJ (the Japanese central bank) now owns more than half of all Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) in issue, acquired with money newly created for the purpose.

Around the world, more than $15 trillion of bonds trade at negative yields, meaning that investors are paying borrowers for the privilege of lending them money. The only logic for holding instruments this over-priced is the “greater fool” theory. This states that you can profit from buying over-priced assets by selling them on to someone even more optimistic than yourself. There’s something deeply irrational about anything whose logic is founded in folly.

The same ultra-low interest rates that have prompted escalating borrowing have blown huge holes in pension provision – and have left us in a sort of Through the Looking Glass world in which we’re trying to operate a ‘capitalist’ system without returns on capital.

Until now, markets seem to have been insouciant about the bizarre characteristics of the system, for two main reasons.

First, they seem to assume that, whatever goes wrong, central banks will come to the rescue with a monetary lifeboat. To mix metaphors, this attitude portrays the system as some kind of kiddies-fiction casino, in which winners pocket their gains, but losers are reimbursed at the door.

If, as seems increasingly likely, we’ve started a ‘race to the bottom’ in currencies, this should act as a reminder that the value of any fiat currency depends, ultimately, entirely on confidence – and central bankers, at least, ought to understand that excessive issuance can be corrosive of trust.

The markets’ second mistake is a failure to recognize the concept of “credit exhaustion”. The assumption seems to be that, just so long as debt is cheap enough, people will load up on it ad infinitum. What’s likelier to happen – and may, indeed, have started happening now – is that borrowers become frightened about how much debt they already have, and refuse to take on any more, irrespective of how cheap it may have become.

A measured way of stating the case is that, as we look ahead to autumn, we can identify an undeniable convergence of stress-lines towards a period of greatly heightened risk.

This perception is compounded by a pervading mood of complacency founded on the excessive reliance placed on the seaworthiness of the monetary lifeboat.

I’m certainly not going to predict that a dramatic fracture is going to occur within the next two or three months at the nexus of these stress lines. We simply don’t know. But it does seem a good time for tempering optimism with caution.

 

#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.

#149: The big challenges

HOW THE ECONOMICS OF ENERGY VIEWS THE AGENDA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The vital insight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitigation, not salvation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge #1 – financial shock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge #2 – breakdown of government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge #3 – an accelerating slump?

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

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

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

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

Here are just some of them:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

#147: Primed to detonate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk 01 matrix top

Risk and irresponsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

These categories are:

– Debt risk

– Credit dependency risk

– Systemic financial risk

– Acquiescence risk

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

Debt risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk 02 debt

Credit dependency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk 03 credit

Systemic exposure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk 04 systemic

Acquiescence risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk 05 acquiescence

#144: “Brexit” and the wait for Godot

WHY EU NATIONAL LEADERS SHOULD INTERVENE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Needed – Godot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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