#160. New Year’s Revolutions?

THE SURPLUS ENERGY ECONOMY – CONTEXT AND CHOICE

One of the things that used to puzzle me, as a very small boy, was why the day after Christmas was called “Boxing Day”.

Did people in the classic “Dickensian Christmas” – in the era evoked by traditional festive icons like snow, holly and robins – really set aside a day for pugilism? It seemed even less likely that a day of fist-fighting contests formed any part of the first Christmas.

All became clear, of course, when it was explained to the very young me that this was the day on which Christmas “boxes” (gifts) were exchanged. In those times, people drew a distinction between the Christian celebration, on 25th December, and the giving and receiving of presents, on the following day.

This distinction is even more pronounced here in Spain, where the exchange of gifts is deferred to the “Night of the Kings”, two weeks after Christmas itself. The festive season is thus more protracted here than in, say, Britain or America, but it’s also markedly less frenetic, and culminates, in most towns and cities, with a thoroughly enjoyable Night of the Kings carnival.

Depending on where you are and how you look at it, the Christmas holidays end, and something like “normality” resumes, at some point between the 2nd and the 7th of January. My view is that the word “normal”, whose definition has, in economic and broader terms, already been stretched a very long way indeed, might soon lose any realistic meaning. A situation in which the Fed is in the process of injecting at least $1 trillion of newly-created money into the system typifies the extent to which abnormality has already become the norm.

In these circumstances, my immediate aim is to produce a guide, comprehensive but succinct, to the surplus energy interpretation of the economy.

This will cover the energy basis of all economic activity, the critical role played by ECoE (the Energy Cost of Energy), and the true nature of money and credit as an aggregate claim on the output of the ‘real’ (energy) economy.

It will move on to discuss how SEEDS models, interprets and anticipates economic trends, and to set out an overview of where we are in energy-interpreted terms. It might also – if space permits – touch on what this tells us about the false dichotomy between environmental challenges and the customarily-misstated concept of “growth”.

What I aim to do here is to close out the year with some observations about where we are as we head into the 2020s.

The best place to start is with the deterioration in prosperity, and the simultaneous increase in debt, that have already destroyed the credibility of any ‘business as usual’ narrative in the Advanced Economies (AEs).

Starting with Japan back in 1997, and finally reaching Germany in 2018, the prosperity of the average Western person has hit a peak and turned downwards, not in a temporary way, but as part of a secular process which conventional economics cannot recognise, much less explain.

This process is now spreading to the emerging market (EM) economies, most of which can expect to see prior growth in prosperity per person go into reverse within the next three years. The signs of deceleration are already becoming apparent in big EM countries such as China and India.

Thus far, global average prosperity has been on a long plateau, with continuing progress in the EM economies largely offsetting deterioration in the West. Once decline starts in the EM group, though, the pace at which the average person Worldwide becomes poorer can be expected to accelerate.

If deteriorating prosperity is the first point worthy of emphasis, the second is that a relentlessly increasing Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE) is the fundamental cause of this impoverishment process. ECoE reflects that fact that, within any given quantity of energy accessed for use, a proportion is always consumed in the access process.

ECoE is a direct deduction from the aggregate quantity of energy available, which means that surplus (ex-ECoE) energy is the source of all economic activity other than the supply of energy itself.

In other words, prosperity is a function of surplus energy.

In the past, widening geographic reach, economies of scale and technological advance drove ECoEs downwards, to a low-point (of between 1% and 2%) in the immediate post-1945 decades. The subsequent rise in trend ECoEs has been driven by the fact that, with the benefits of reach and scale exhausted, depletion has now become the primary driver of ECoEs in the mature fossil fuels industries which continue to provide four-fifths of global energy supply. The role of technology has been re-cast as a process which can do no more than blunt the rate at which ECoEs are rising.

By 2000, when World trend ECoE had reached 4.5%, Advanced Economies were already starting to face an insurmountable obstacle to further growth. Prosperity turned down in Japan from 1997 (when ECoE there was 4.4%), and has been declining in America since 2000 (4.5%).

SEEDS studies demonstrate that prosperity in advanced Western countries turns down once ECoE enters a band between 3.5% and 5%. EM economies, by virtue of their lesser complexity, are less ECoE-sensitive, with prosperity going into reverse once ECoEs enter a range between 8% and 10%. Ominously, ECoE has now reached 8.2% in China, 10.0% in India and 8.1% in the EM countries as a group.

The key point about rising ECoEs is that there is nothing we can do about it. This in turn means that global prosperity has entered de-growth. The idea that we can somehow “decouple” economic activity from the use of energy is utter wishful thinking – not surprisingly, because the economy, after all, is an energy system.

This presents us with a clear choice between obfuscation and denial, on the one hand, and acceptance and accommodation, on the other. Our present position is one of ‘denial by default’, in that the decision-making process continues to be based on the false paradigm that ‘the economy is money’, and that energy is “just another input”.

This leads us to the third salient point, which is financial unsustainability.

Properly understood, money functions as a claim on the output of the ‘real’, energy-driven economy. Creating more monetary claims, without a corresponding increase in the goods and services against which these claims can be exercised, creates a gap which, in SEEDS terminology, is called “excess claims”.

Since these “excess” claims cannot, by definition, be honoured, then they must be destroyed. There are various ways in which this “claims destruction” can happen, but these mechanisms can loosely be divided into “hard” default (the repudiation of claims) or “soft” default (where claims are met, but in greatly devalued money).

These processes mean that “value destruction” has become an inevitability. This may involve waves of asset market crashes and defaults, or the creation (through reckless monetary behaviour) of hyperinflation.

The likelihood is that it’s going to involve a combination of both.

These issues take us to the fourth critical point, which is the threat to the environment. Let’s be clear that this threat extends far beyond the issue of climate change, into many other areas, which range from pollution and ecological damage to the dwindling availability of essentials such as water and food.

Conversion to renewable energy (RE) isn’t the solution to these problems, if by “solution” we mean “an alternative which can sustain our current level of prosperity”. RE, despite its many merits, isn’t going to replace the surplus energy that we’ve derived hitherto from fossil fuels. RE might well be part of the solution, but only if we take on board the inevitability of degrowth.

This brings me to my final point, which is choice. For well over two centuries we’ve been accustomed to an energy context which has been so favourable that it has given us the ability both to improve personal prosperity and to extend those benefits across a rapidly increasing population.

With this favourable context fading into the past, we have to find answers to questions that we’ve never had to ask ourselves until now.

The faculty of choice requires knowledge of the options, and this we cannot have whilst we persist in the delusion that “the economy is a financial system”. It isn’t, it never has been, and it never can be – but our ignorance about this fundamental point has been one of the many luxuries afforded to us by the largesse of fossil fuels.

This seems pretty depressing fare to put before readers at the start of the festive season. The compensating thought has to be that the connection between prosperity and happiness has always been a falsehood.

A lack of sufficiency can, and does, cause misery – but an excess of it has never been a guarantee of contentment.

In the coming days, Christians will recall with renewed force that Jesus was born in a humble stable. He went on to throw the money-changers out of the Temple, and to instruct people to lay up their treasure, not on Earth, but in Heaven. I hope it will be taken in the right spirit if I add that He never earned an MBA, or ran a hedge fund.

The single most important challenge that we face isn’t deteriorating prosperity, or the looming probability of a financial catastrophe. Rather, the great challenge is that of how to jettison the false notion that material wealth and happiness are coterminous.

‘Value’ may indeed be heading for mass destruction.

But values are indestructible.

#155. The art of dark sky thinking

ECONOMICS, THE ENVIRONMENT AND THE PROBABILITY OF ‘DE-GROWTH’

One of the clichés much loved by business leaders and others is “blue sky thinking”. An implication of this term, it seems to me, is that there’s an infinity of possibility. Although the mainstream press has, in the past, dubbed me “Dr Gloom” and “Terrifying Tim”, I don’t discount the concept of infinite possibility. I’m an incurable optimist – when I’m not looking at the economic outlook, anyway.

However positive you are, though, if you set out on a lengthy expedition, it’s as well to take some wet weather clothing with you, because blue skies can turn dark grey pretty quickly. ‘Hoping for the best but preparing for the worst’ seems a pretty prudent way to think.

Before we address some of the financial, economic and broader issues which might darken our skies, I’d like to draw your attention to an important distinction, which is that ‘situations’ and ‘outcomes’ are different things. ‘Situations’ are circumstances calling for decisions, but, in themselves, they generally contain a multiplicity of possible results. ‘Outcomes’ are determined by the responses made to any particular set of ‘situations’.

This is important, because a lot of what I’m going to discuss here concerns ‘situations’. Many of these look pretty daunting, but the point about a multiplicity of possible ‘outcomes’ remains critical. Bad decisions turn difficult situations into malign outcomes, but wise choices can, at the very least, preclude the worst, and can even produce good outcomes from unpromising situations.

The gloomy non-science

Economics has been called “the gloomy science”. In fact, economics – as currently practised – may or may not be “gloomy”, but it isn’t a “science”. The fundamental flaw with conventional economics is that it assumes that the economy is a financial system, to be measured in dollars, pounds, euros and yen.

This, in reality, is a huge misconception. Throughout history, systems of money have come and gone. A collector might well buy a Roman coin from you, but you couldn’t use it in a café or a shop.  Money is simply a human artefact, often of temporary duration, which we can create or destroy at will.

The purpose of money is the facilitation of exchange, something more convenient than barter. Its other often-claimed functions (as “a store of value” and a “unit of account”) are flawed at best. The “store of value” concept is particularly unconvincing. If somebody in a Western country dug up some banknotes buried in the garden by his or her great-grandmother, their purchasing power would be dramatically lower than when the biscuit-tin containing them was interred between the cabbages and the carrots. Measured using the broad-basis GDP deflator, the US dollar has lost 62% of its purchasing power since 1980 alone, and the pound has shed 71% of its value. Moreover, many countries change their notes and coins at frequent intervals, invalidating older versions.

Money does have important characteristics – which we’ll come to – but it’s not in any sense coterminous with a ‘real’ economy that consists of goods and services. All of these are products of the use of energy. Once you grasp this fundamental point, a ‘science’ of economics becomes a possibility, but as a branch of the laws of thermodynamics, and not, as now, as ‘the study of money’.

The energy fundamentals

As regular readers will know, whenever energy is accessed, some of that energy is always consumed in the access process. This divides the totality of energy supply into two streams – the consumed component is known here as ECoE (the Energy Cost of Energy), and the remainder is surplus energy. Because this surplus energy powers all forms of economic activity other than the supply of energy itself, it is the determinant of prosperity.

The SEEDS model calculates that, over the last twenty years, global trend ECoE has more than doubled, from 3.6% in 1998 to 7.9% last year. That’s already taken a huge bite out of our ability to grow our prosperity, and there’s no likelihood of ECoE levelling out in the foreseeable future, let alone turning back downwards.

The ECoEs of renewables are falling, just as those of fossil fuels are rising exponentially. This is a topic that we’ve discussed before, and will undoubtedly return to in the future, but it seems unlikely that a full transition to renewables, utterly vital though it is, is going to stabilise overall ECoE at much below about 10%. For context, back in the 1960s, when real economic growth was robust (and when petroleum consumption was growing by as much as 8% annually, whilst car ownership was expanding rapidly), world trend ECoE was less than 2%.

There are two reasons – one obvious, one perhaps less so – why an understanding of ECoE is critical to the environmental debate.

Obviously, if we continue to tie our economic fortunes to fossil fuels, the relentless rise in their ECoEs is going to carry on making us poorer, so there’s a compelling economic (as well as environmental) case for transition to renewables.

Less obviously, whilst prosperity is a function of surplus (aggregate less-ECoE) energy, climate-harming emissions are tied to total (surplus plus ECoE) energy. Essentially, we need to reduce our emissions from fossil fuels at a rate which at least matches the rate at which their ECoEs are rising if we’re to stand any chance at all of overcoming climate risk.

It’s a dispiriting thought that, whilst energy-based economics could make a powerful contribution to the case for environmental action, conventional, money-fixated economics can only interact negatively, by telling us how much it’s going to “cost”. Unfortunately, mainstream economics can’t really tell us the cost of not transitioning.

These “costs”, to be sure, are dauntingly large numbers. IRENA – the International Renewable Energy Agency – has costed transition at between $95 trillion and $110tn. These equate to between 619 and 721 Apollo programmes at the current-equivalent cost ($153bn) of putting a man on the Moon.

Moreover, the Americans of the 1960s had a choice about whether or not to fund a space programme. In economic as well as in environmental terms, there is no choice at all about our imperative need to transition.

The invalidation of futurity

The gigantic costs that energy transition involve bring us back to money, where we need to note something that couldn’t really be done with barter, but is well facilitated by money. That concept is futurity.

Time itself has always formed part of economic transactions, and this was the case even before the invention of the first efficient heat-engine enabled us to tap the energy wealth of fossil fuels. When someone bought, say, a table, he or she was paying for the labour (which, of course, is energy) that had gone into making it. Hiring someone to plough a field was a payment for labour in the present, and engaging someone to build a barn was payment for labour in the future.

But futurity is something different. When someone invests, he or she is looking to the future, hoping that income from the investment, or its future saleable value, will exceed the initial outlay. When an insurance policy is agreed, both parties have in mind the likelihood, and possible cost, of some future eventuality. Perhaps most importantly of all, loan transactions make a lot of assumptions about the future in which the loan, and interest, are to be repaid. Very much the same applies to saving for a pension.

All of these transactions can make a positive contribution to the effective functioning of the economy. Vitally, though, they require making assumptions about conditions at some future date. To a large extent, these assumptions – which, collectively, form a consensus – are based on prior experience. To this extent, decisions taken about futurity are only as good as the consensus on which they are based.

Imagine that you’re an insurer, issuing a policy on a car. Historically, this type of car, and this category of driver, is likely to be involved in an accident once in ten years, so the policy is priced accordingly, remembering that competitor insurance companies are likely to be working on a very similar basis of calculation. Then, though, these cars start crashing, not once every ten years, but once in every three. You’ll lose money, because your futurity assumption has been invalidated.

This is a simple example, with corollaries in any transaction involving futurity. The danger arises when prior experience ceases to be a valid guide to the future.

A good real-world example involves the provision of pensions. Prior to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), historic long-run returns on American bonds and equities averaged 3.6% and 8.6%, respectively. Now, though, forward calculations need to be based, according to the World Economic Forum, on returns of only 3.45% for equities, and just 0.15% for bonds. Critically, this doesn’t just apply to funds invested after the fall in rates – it also cripples forward returns on capital accumulated before rates of return collapsed.

This, says the WEF, has helped created shortfalls so large that they amount to a “global pension timebomb”. Since, according to my calculations, a person investing 10% of his or her income in a pension fund before the GFC now needs to raise that to about 27% to get the same outcome – a percentage not remotely affordable for most people – we can almost say that private pension provision worldwide has been rendered inoperable by post-2008 monetary policy.

If my energy-based interpretation of the outlook for prosperity is correct – and I’d contend, simply, that its logic keeps getting more and more corroboration from events – then the entire basis of ‘consensus futurity’ has been invalidated. SEEDS shows prosperity growth petering out, not in the future, but now, and over a period which began roughly twenty years ago.

This invalidated the futurity consensus used during the massive issuance of debt before 2008, and, equally, destroys the assumptions on which subsequent monetary adventurism has been based.

Slow or negative growth – something which invalidates any projection based on pre-2000 experience – means that “secular stagnation” (or whatever euphemism you care to use) isn’t something that the economy will “grow out of”, much as youngsters grow out of childhood ailments. It’s the ‘new normal’, though it’s not the kind of thing that anyone is going to recognize as ‘normal’.

This, sooner or later, can be expected to cause a financial crash on a scale much larger than 2008, and this event (‘GFC II’) is going to hit, not just the banks, as in GFC I, but the financial system, and the very validity of fiat currencies.

Put another way, the ‘real’ and the ‘financial’ economies have moved so far apart that the latter is destined to topple over into the gap.

And this, remember, is the same financial system that needs to find the equivalent of more than 700 Apollo space programmes to finance energy transition.

I hope I’m wrong about financial crash risk, but I can see only one possible way out of the gigantic commitments – debt, pensions and much more – that we have made to a future that isn’t going to be what we thought it was going to be. The theme tune for this could be a song by the late, great Mickey Newbury – “The future’s not what it used to be”.

That only possible way out is the deliberate triggering of inflation. This would allow borrowers to ‘soft default’ their way out of unaffordable debt, ‘repaying’ lenders but in greatly devalued money. But it’s a medicine whose economic side-effects are at least as bad as the disease. High inflation has killed more currencies than any other cause.

‘De-coupling’ fiction and ‘de-growth’ fact

Rather than going into the implications of a financial crisis dwarfing that of 2008, my aim here is to look at the broader economic and environmental issues both before and after GFC II. Optimistically, one consequence of that event could be a general reappraisal of our situation – and this, of course, is where the logic of choices determining the ‘outcomes’ of ‘situations’ becomes all-important.

One set of possible choices is to try to recreate the status quo ante, but a more positive interpretation is that we will finally be forced to face a reality that, hitherto, few have understood, and fewer still have been prepared to confront.

Already, though, here have been some encouraging exceptions. In Britain, for example, chief environmental scientist Professor Sir Ian Boyd, has said recently that environmental objectives can be achieved only if people can be persuaded to move away from consumption.

This followed a report from a committee of legislators which concluded that, “[I]n the long-term, widespread personal vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation”. The committee said that the government should “aim to reduce the number of vehicles required”, promoting public transport and making it cheaper than car ownership. (In passing, it’s regrettable that the committee also advocated the inclusion of hybrids in the future ban on the sale of petrol- and diesel-powered cars, when it could instead have called for a near-term all-hybrids policy, and a limit on engine sizes).

The situation to be faced can be summarised as follows. Our obsession with “growth” has led us into behaviours which are destructive, not just of our environment and ecology, but in ways that we might term ‘social’, ‘political’ and ‘behavioural’. Now, though, energy-based interpretation suggests that the scope for further growth has ceased to exist. This compels us to change our thinking about the economy.

Of course, I don’t doubt that, even in extremis, a consensus based on conventional financial interpretation of the economy will express outright denial over this, and will come up with yet more hare-brained schemes to follow on from failed credit and monetary adventurism. These may well be attempted but, of course, they won’t work.

The fundamentals are that the surplus energy from fossil fuels which, hitherto, has driven economic growth is being squeezed, from two directions. Whilst the trend ECoE of fossil fuels is rising, our ability to try to counter this by increasing aggregate (pre-ECoE) supply is nearing its limits. The petroleum industry may indeed be guilty of having “cried wolf” in the past over the sorts of prices it needs to overcome depletion, but the reality of ECoE – especially where oil is concerned – suggests that the economics of the industry in many parts of the world really are in trouble. We can anticipate higher production from at least two OPEC countries – Iraq and Iran – and might extend this hope to Russia, though the costs of Russian production are far from encouraging. But US shale production alone is barely economic (if that), and has required, from the outset, subsidy, from optimistic investors and very insouciant lenders.

Whether ‘peak oil’ is brought about by cost-based supply constraint, or by the diminishing ability of customers to purchase petroleum, is something of a secondary consideration. But we do need to note that about 97% of all transport is powered by oil, with electric railways the only sizeable exception.

At the same time, we should dismiss the idea that we can somehow “decouple” the economy from energy. Fortunately, a quite superb recent report from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) has debunked the concept of “decoupling” so comprehensively that we can defer detailed consideration to a later discussion.

“Our finding is clear”, the EEB report concludes – “the decoupling literature is a haystack without a needle”.

There – political leaders please note – goes your cherished ambition to deliver “sustainable growth”. ‘Sustainable’ is something to which we can and must aspire. But “growth” is not.

Transition is vital – but at what scale?

This, of course, takes us back to transition. I’ve aimed to leave nobody in any doubt about my belief in the imperative need to make this transition. I share the experts’ concern about climate change, and am horrified by many broader issues, such as the loss of habitats and species.

All of these consequences are a price far too high to pay for an obsession, rooted in quite recent history, with ‘growth at all costs’.

But I do question, very seriously indeed, whether we can wholly replace today’s use of fossil fuels with renewables, let alone use them to increase the aggregate supply of primary energy to the economy.

Financially, a capital requirement of $95tn to $110tn, even spread over thirty years, suggests that we need to be investing an average of about $3,400bn annually, against which actual spending (last year, $304bn) simply doesn’t cut it. Unit costs will continue to decrease. But so too – in a world with diminishing prosperity, and with a near-manic prioritization of immediate consumption over long-term investment – will our capacity for investment.

Then there’s the sheer volumetric scale of what needs to be done. In 2018, the world consumed more than 11,740 million tonnes of oil equivalent (mmtoe) of oil, gas and coal. Replacing that, again over thirty years, requires annual additions of output from renewables averaging 390 mmtoe, from a current base of 561 mmtoe. Last year’s actual increase was only 71 mmtoe, and the rate of capacity expansion has stalled. Even the 390 mmtoe number assumes no further increases in energy supply.

The third consideration, in addition to capital requirements and volumetric scale, is resources. Transition to full like-for-like replacement of fossil fuels would require vast material inputs, most obviously steel, copper and plastics. Ironically, the supply of these inputs currently relies very heavily indeed on the use of fossil fuels.

Back in the 1960s, the television series Thunderbirds looked ahead to a near future in which nearly everything – from cars and trucks to aeroplanes, ships, space rockets and, perhaps, even the humble lawnmower – was going to be nuclear-powered. Some of today’s portrayals of the future as a bigger, cleaner, glossier version of today look like similar techno-dreaming.

The idea that we’ll be driving just as many (or more) cars as we do today (except that they’ll be electric), and that we’ll be taking just as many flights (but in aeroplanes powered by batteries) seems pretty implausible.

Both economic and environmental reality suggest a need to embrace the concept of de-growth. The trick will be so to manage it that an economy that is smaller in size is also more in tune with human needs.

#137: Malice in Wonderland

A SHARP LESSON IN ENERGY ECONOMICS

“Show me a man who can join in a laugh at his own expense,” says a character in Nicolas Blake’s 1940 novel Malice in Wonderland “and [you] show me one of nature’s gentlemen”. Blake’s writing often hits the spot – not surprisingly, perhaps, since ‘Nicholas Blake’ was the pseudonym of poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis – and I hope that my experiences over the last week or so pass this particular test. Laughing, as the saying goes, was the only alternative to tears.

Though few articles here are composed in the first person, what follows necessarily runs from the personal to the general. Whilst the “wonderland” of the title refers to the island where I live, the “malice” has no human agency, referring instead to the workings of the weather, and of inanimate objects.

This story begins with an inanimate object – recognition that my computer, which gets extremely heavy use, was in the process of falling to bits. Its replacement having arrived, I set aside last Saturday for installation, only to discover that the new machine was faulty, and required return and replacement.

So far, so bad, but much worse was to come. On Sunday, the temperature here dropped from a balmy 25°C to an unseasonal 11°, accompanied both by torrential rain and by winds which, over the coming week, were seldom to fall below gale force. Midway through that morning, a tornado took out a key part of the electricity distribution system, leaving most of the island without power. By Tuesday, the authorities had installed generators in some of the main conurbations, though even this was hardly trouble-free, with several of the generators reportedly bursting into flames, apparently under stress of excessive demand.

Obviously enough, this event denied me, not just light and power, but music, hot water, computing and hobbies. Things didn’t end there, though. Water supplies failed through lack of pumping, and even the front gates remained shut until I could figure out how to open them manually. First task after that was to find out which, if any, shops (one) and restaurants (none) had backup power supplies. The presence of mind of one bar-owner enabled locals to revel in Barcelona’s 5-1 annihilation of Real Madrid, though this generator didn’t extend to hot drinks, let alone meals. Fuel in cars had to be used sparingly, because lack of power shut down the filling stations.

Put simply, normal life ground to an almost complete halt. Almost all business and official premises remained shut, depriving the public of postal, banking and most other services. Loss of internet connection deprived me of contact with the outside world. I didn’t miss television (since I never watch it), but I did miss my music, my DVDs, my books, and working on my latest project (a 1/72nd exact scale model of a Type 12 frigate). All that one could really do was to eat snacks, fight an impending cold with soluble vitamin C, sit around in the cold darkness – and think.

Since I’ve contended for very many years that the economy is an energy system with an artificial financial adjunct, I should have been less surprised than most at the near cessation of all normal activity by the simple interruption to the supply of electricity. Even so, the lesson taught by this event was the sheer totality, and the rapidity, too, with which the absence of energy brings normal life to a halt.

Let’s, then, summarise the predicament of the population of the island during the power hiatus. The immediate effects were loss of domestic electricity supply (and, with it, light, power, cooking facilities, refrigeration, water supply and communications). In the business sector, activities in almost all categories ceased, most obviously including financial services, retailing, distribution and the supply of energy. Most aspects of government, including administration, revenue raising, defence, policing, health care and social services, seem to have kept going, but only by courtesy of generators.

The nearest generator to me had to be refuelled at intervals of between five and six hours. This particular generator was kept supplied with fuel by tankers small enough to negotiate some very narrow streets, and generators sited in broader thoroughfares might have been serviced by larger vehicles, extending the resupply interval somewhat. Presumably, the generating capacity itself was supplied, by sea, either from the mainland or from a much larger neighbouring island, neither of which was affected by the outage.

Ultimately, three factors made the situation survivable. First, the community here has particularly strong social cohesion. Second, the loss of power was always known to be temporary, and unlikely to extend for as much as a week. Third, and critically, outside help was available, because the power loss was strictly localised to most of one small island.

It doesn’t take much imagination, though, to picture what might have ensued if none of these favourable conditions had prevailed. Even with outside support, the duration over which anything approximating to normality would prove sustainable is strictly limited – and this brief and incomplete sustenance of normality could not have happened had the rest of the country been affected simultaneously. It takes little imagination, either, to envisage the erosion of social cohesion had neither limited duration nor nearby support characterised the outage.

Let’s be quite clear about this. If energy supply is cut off, and is cut off in way that is of unknowable duration, and for which there is no outside help, economic and other normal life ceases to be possible.

Could money solve this problem? Well, if you will, imagine that, whilst unable to offer physical succour, Madrid or Barcelona had been able to supply the island with money – you might even picture airdrops of bank notes by the air force, or the delivery of millions of euros by naval auxiliaries. You will appreciate that this purely financial support would have had absolutely no positive effect on the situation. All that it might, conceivably, have achieved would have been to trigger massive inflation, with more money chasing an extremely small supply of goods and services.

Let’s be clear that weather-related outages like the one experienced here are not going to deprive even a sizeable national economy of energy, and neither are we, in any meaningful sense, going to “run out of” energy. There are, though, two very real threats which we should consider.

The first of these is a simple inability to purchase energy, even if global supplies remain generally accessible. This is what happens to an economy if the value of its currency collapses. Picture, if you will, a country relying on imported energy (or, for that matter, imported food, itself an energy product), and imagine that the country’s currency experiences a sudden 75% fall in its international value. What this means is that the local cost of energy has quadrupled. A variation on this theme is a situation in which the country’s currency ceases to be acceptable to foreign suppliers, who perhaps see reason to question its viability. Both scenarios are distinctly possible, given the sheer scale of credit and monetary risk adopted, as a sequential matter of policy, over the period since the late 1990s.

The second (and likelier) scenario involves an erosion of surplus energy, a situation which arises when, within any given quantity of accessible energy, the amount available for all purposes other than energy supply itself becomes squeezed by a rise in ECoE (the energy cost of energy). We don’t have to imagine this scenario, because it’s already happening – according to SEEDS, world ECoE has now risen to the point where global average prosperity per person is in decline.

Thus far, we’ve done a pretty good job of collective and official denial over this reality. We have poured huge amounts of debt – and, latterly, of cheap money as well – into the system in order to retain a misleading semblance of economic normality. We’ve told ourselves, along the lines of a bedtime story for frightened children, that renewables will rescue us from the economic and environmental follies of burning up fossil fuels at the maximum rate possible, heedless of the future.

In short, what happened here this week may, in itself, have been a freak occurrence – but it is no less unreal than the stories we tell ourselves about infinite growth on a finite planet.

 

 

#136: The challenge for government

THE POLITICS OF DECLINING PROSPERITY

The underpinning assumption of continuous growth has framed the entirety of the economic debate in politics since long before current systems of Western governance came into being.

Now, with the economies of the West characterised by an ongoing deterioration in prosperity, wholly new rules apply. Whilst sharing out the benefits of growth has seldom been easy, allocating hardship is going to be a very much harder call. As things stand, the incumbent elites have no answer to a question that they do not even know they need to ask – how do we govern societies that are getting poorer?

This puts us in a strange situation in which the general public knows more than the political elites. The official line is that people are continuing to enjoy growing prosperity, but people themselves recognise increasingly that this isn’t the case. The elites believe that traditional parties, and established ideologies and methods of conducting government, remain valid, but the public is well advanced in the process of repudiating all of them. Where elections are conducted proportionately, insurgent parties are making huge inroads – but where, most obviously in America and Britain, the system is structured in ways which entrench established parties, those parties are becoming the target for capture from within

Two humdrum issues in fiscal policy illustrate quite how dramatic the economic change is going to be. For a start, there’s no point in anyone proposing to increase public spending, because this is ceasing to be affordable. Likewise, there’s no point in asking whether or not governments should “tax the rich” more than they do now, because doing so is becoming unavoidable.

This change invalidates much of the economic thinking of the respective ‘conservative’ and ‘Left’ political persuasions. Additionally, the conservative side is now about to discover the price of two disastrous mistakes made within the last decade, whilst the Left is losing the ability to present a viable alternative to “austerity”.

Politics and government – the children of growth   

Although the American Constitution dates from 1787, most forms of government operating around the world today are of much more recent origin – and, even in the United States, governance has undergone huge changes since the Founding Fathers put quill to paper.

What this means is that virtually all Western systems of government and politics are products of an age of growth, and this history frames the policy debate, in economics and in much else. The Industrial Revolution is generally dated from about 1760 and, though it took a long time to spread around what we now call ‘the West’, it’s fair to say that no system of government in the advanced economies pre-dates the start of growth.

This is not to assert that there has been an uninterrupted continuity of growth because, of course, there have been periodic downturns, some of them deep and protracted. However, even in the midst of the best-known slump – the Great Depression of the 1930s – the assumption of expansion remained, stated in a consensus faith in the eventual restoration of growth.

The dominance of distribution

If, for now, we ignore the purely ideological dimension, economic management in an era of expansion becomes fundamentally a question of distribution. This poses one basic question: ‘if economic output is going to grow by X over the coming Y number of years, how are we going to share out this growth?’

Generally speaking, those on what we might term the ‘conservative’ side have tended to favour letting the fruits of growth fall where they may, which is to say in an unequal and somewhat haphazard fashion, not unrelated to the ‘lottery of life’. Those on the ‘Left’, on the other hand, have favoured skewing the distribution to favour those at the lower end of the prosperity spectrum. For the Left, this then poses a subsidiary question. Should redistribution mean taking from the better off and handing it to the less prosperous, much as Robin Hood is said to have done? Or are the resources to be redistributed better bestowed in kind (in the form of public services) rather than as a simple financial transfer?

It’s in the nature of popular discourse that both sides have endeavoured to construct a moral case buttressing their persuasions. For the Left, allowing extreme wealth for some in the midst of grinding poverty for others is morally unacceptable. For conservatives, taking money from the energetic, successful or simply lucky and handing it to those who may lack ability, or may be feckless, or are just plain unfortunate, encroaches unacceptably into private preference.

The aim here is to avoid this moral stand-off, not because it doesn’t matter, but because it’s largely insoluble. If someone feels that it’s morally wrong for the state to take his money and give it to others – or, conversely, if he finds it offensive that some people own multiple palatial dwellings whilst home for others is a cardboard box under a railway bridge – it is unlikely that he or she is persuadable to the other point of view.

Moreover, it’s of diminishing relevance if, as is argued here, ‘sharing out growth’ has ceased to be the decisive political issue in politics.

With growth come choices – but de-growth replaces them with imperatives.

The game-changer

As you’ll know if you’re a regular visitor to this site, a central finding of Surplus Energy Economics is that two centuries and more of increasing prosperity are in the process of going into reverse. The main reason why this is happening is that the energy-based economy is being undercut by an upwards trend in ECoE (the Energy Cost of Energy). To observe how this is taking place, it’s necessary to see past financial gimmicks which are designed, if not to affect, then at least to disguise what is going on.

This, it must be stressed, is an interpretation, not a prediction, at least as far as almost all Western economies are concerned. According to SEEDS, prosperity has already declined markedly in most advanced economies, having peaked at various points between 2000 and 2007. Italian prosperity, for example, has declined by 13% since 2001, British people are typically 11% poorer now than they were in 2003, and Americans have become 7.5% less prosperous since 2005.

America, the United Kingdom and Italy are used as exemplars here because of circumstances specific to each. In Britain, where prosperity is deteriorating particularly rapidly, voters have decided to defy the establishment and pull their country out of the European Union. Nationalism has certainly come to the fore in the United States, where it’s plausible that the Trump administration is the first government to understand that prosperity is becoming a zero-sum game. Italy’s new insurgent coalition clearly plans to challenge EU strictures on spending and deficits.

Trends in prosperity and GDP per capita for these economies are illustrated in the first set of charts. In each case, the official line is that GDP is growing, but, in each instance, this perception has been sustained only by the spending of huge amounts of borrowed money. People in all three countries are getting poorer, and, politically, this is exerting mounting pressure for change.

Critically, this downturn isn’t temporary, so there’s no point in waiting for prosperity growth to resume.

#136 prosperity & governmentjpg_Page1

The authorities in these and other countries have tried to circumvent the deterioration in prosperity using credit and monetary adventurism. But all that this has done has been to create a first global financial crisis in 2008 (GFC I) and, now, to set in motion a process that will bring about a second and much larger crash (GFC II) in the near future.

Where politics is concerned, the ending and reversal of the upwards trend in prosperity is a game-changer – instead of debating the sharing out of growth, politics is now becoming the much tougher matter of allocating hardship.

The establishment’s existential errors

The ending of prosperity growth is something that the existing structure of politics will struggle to address, even when the reality of shrinking prosperity becomes so obvious that it can no longer be denied or ignored. The problem for incumbent regimes is exacerbated because, during and after GFC I, the establishment managed to shoot itself in both feet.

First, the powers-that-be underestimated the popular anger that would be triggered when they combined the necessary rescue of the banks with the arguably unnecessary rescue of the bankers. Second, they introduced monetary policies which handed huge gains to those who already owned assets in 2008, and made asset accumulation very much harder for those – a majority – not in that fortunate position.

Both problems were compounded by supplementary errors. Where inflating asset values was concerned, no measures were introduced to even try to capture at least some of the winners’ upside in order to compensate the losers. Since the winners tended to come from an older demographic than the losers, this gaffe set in motion a process of change that is corroding away popular support for the established system.

The compounding problem with rescuing the bankers was that this was done by governments whose default position is opposition to intervention, which is why they find reasons not to act whenever the idea of rescuing, say, steel-workers or retail employees is proposed. Bankers, apparently, are worthier of rescue than manual or clerical workers. This is a view for which there is little or no popular support.

Put simply, then, the authorities made two existentially bad calls in 2008. If these mistakes are added to a deterioration in prosperity – denied by the authorities, but experienced by ‘ordinary’ voters – it becomes very easy indeed to see why insurgent or “populist” parties are enjoying steadily growing support. Part, at least, of the explanation for this shift lies in the establishment’s spectacular failure to recognise the consequences of making itself unpopulist.

How bad?

As we’ve seen, prosperity is declining markedly in Britain, America, Italy and most other Western economies. By 2025, people are likely to be a further 6.0% poorer than they are now in Britain, 5.4% poorer in America and 3.1% poorer in Italy.

This necessarily impinges on the ability to pay tax. Though taxes tend to be levied on incomes, consumption and returns on investment, the only thing that can really be taxed is prosperity.

To understand why, picture somebody whose income is £30,000, but whose prosperity is only £22,000. (In SEEDS terms, two components explain the difference between these numbers. One is the proportion of income financed by financial adventurism, and the other is the trend cost of ECoE, experienced by the individual primarily through the cost of household essentials).

If the state imposes taxes totalling 40% of this person’s income, the resulting £12,000 tax represents 55% of his or her prosperity. Now, move this on to a point where income has increased to £35,000, but prosperity has deteriorated to £20,000. If tax is still being levied at 40% of income, the proportion of prosperity now going in tax has climbed to 70%.

The starting figures are not dissimilar to the actual situation in Britain. In 2017, government primary expenditures (which exclude interest on debt) totalled 37% of GDP, but this was already more than half (52%) of aggregate prosperity. If the government is, in 2025, still spending 37% of GDP, it will need to tax 60% of prosperity to finance it. The numbers for Italy are similar, and, whilst America has rather more fiscal elbow-room, the trend towards the government seeking an ever-growing share of national prosperity is just as firmly in place there.

Another way to look at this is that, taking the UK as an example, tax equated to 51.8% of national aggregate prosperity in 2017. If that ratio is maintained, the tax take (at constant values) in 2025 is likely to be about £736bn, rather less than the £760bn likely to be raised this year.

These points are illustrated by the next charts, which illustrate government primary expenditures as percentages both of GDP and of prosperity.

#136 prosperity & government 2jpg_Page1

Less room for choice

A clear implication of SEEDS analysis is that no government, irrespective of its political colour, is going to be able to increase public spending to any material extent – and, in the longer term, is going to have to push expenditures down, not up – unless it wants to appropriate an unacceptably large proportion of national prosperity. Yet both the Left and much of the insurgent sides of politics predicate their policies on higher state spending, whilst the only parties favouring restraint seem already to be heading towards political irrelevance.

Before conservatives draw any comfort from the conclusion that public spending cannot realistically be pushed upwards as prosperity falls, they need to recognise that their own resistance to higher taxes on “the rich” is becoming equally untenable.

The reason for this is that, whilst the deterioration in prosperity is a generalised phenomenon, its effects are felt from the bottom up. This observation is already writ large in the visible widening of hardship, not so much amongst those in absolute poverty but amongst the large and growing numbers variously described as “just about managing” and “struggling to keep their heads above water”. As the number struggling increases, the ability to collect taxes from these people declines. Before very long, only those described in varying degrees as “rich” will be able to pay much in the way of tax.

Lastly, there is a nasty budgetary sting in the tail contained within the ECoE process and the consequent deterioration in prosperity. Ultimately, these processes mean that each pound, dollar or euro delivers a declining quantity of discretionary spending capability over time, as the cost of essentials absorbs a growing proportion of income.

But this doesn’t just affect households – it affects government as well. Accordingly, the amount of activity that public services can deliver from any given budget is on a decreasing trend.

Conclusions

If SEEDS is correct in identifying diminishing prosperity, the implication is a total game-changer in politics and government. Increasing government spending is ceasing to be a viable option, whilst “the rich” are going to have to pay much more in tax, however just, or unjust, one happens to think this is.

No existing party is equipped to handle this new reality, and neither, for that matter, are the insurgent movements sometimes dubbed “populist”. Political conservatives cannot hope to preserve the economic status quo, whilst the Left’s dreams of bigger state spending are becoming ever less realistic.

If “populism” means anything, it means giving the voters what they want – but this, too, in hard economic terms, is ceasing to be plausible. The spread of insurgent politics is likely to put a growing emphasis on “taxing the rich”, which, apart from being something that government can do, is going to become inevitable in the future. Conversely, though, insurgent promises to counter “austerity” by increases in public spending are rapidly ceasing to dwell in the realms of the possible.

This in turn suggests that insurgent, “populist” politicians are likely to put greater emphasis, not just on “taxing the rich”, but on non-fiscal issues including nationalism and immigration. As both the ‘Left’ and the ‘conservative’ persuasions struggle to come to terms with new realities, the insurgents can be expected to move in new and more radical directions.

 

#132: The revenge of the spider

ECONOMIC RECKLESSNESS AND GFC II

If you’re a regular visitor to this site, you’ll know that we’ve covered a lot of themes, varying from the plight of individual economies to the madness of economic policy both before and – especially – since the 2008 global financial crisis (“GFC I”). You’ll probably know, too, that the expectation here is for “GFC II”, a far larger sequel to the events of 2008.

You might also know that the coming autumn sees the opening of a window in which this second crisis might take place (though, in their very nature, the timing of such events cannot be predicted). So the aim now, with autumn approaching, is to summarise how things stand.

Let’s start with the economy. Ever since the late 1990s there have been clear signs of deceleration in the pace at which underlying economic output has been growing. The interpretation put forward here is that this deceleration has been caused by an exponential uptrend in ECoE (the energy cost of energy). At least two other material headwinds can be identified – environmental stress, and mistaken economic policy – but a worsening in the energy equation has been the critical factor undercutting the potential for growth.

As modelled by SEEDS, these trends in energy have already put prosperity growth into reverse in the majority of Western economies, where prosperity per person generally peaked between 2000 and 2007. On this basis, the average Italian has become 12.3% poorer since 2001, the average American is 7.7% less prosperous now than he or she was back in 2005, and prosperity in the United Kingdom has fallen by 10.3% since 2003.

Where the West is concerned, the outlook is for more of the same. Mr Trump may or may not be able to “make America great again”, but neither he nor anybody else can ‘make Americans prosperous again’. Much the same, varying only in rapidity of deterioration, applies to virtually all developed economies.

In recent years, the Emerging Market economies (EMs) have become more prosperous, though sometimes at rates nowhere near claimed expansions in GDP per capita. According to SEEDS, this improvement in EM prosperity looks likely to continue, albeit at fading rates. In theory, this leaves global prosperity pretty flat, with progress in the EMs offsetting impoverishment in the West. In practice, though, EMs may not be able to carry on growing their prosperity at all in a world in which their Western trading partners are becoming poorer.

Unfortunately, policymakers have never understood the processes undermining prosperity. Worse still, any concept of coming to terms with deceleration is wholly unacceptable, not least because the financial system is predicated entirely on perpetual growth. Of course, you might think that basing anything on perpetual economic expansion in a finite world is pretty crazy – but whoever said that either politics or finance has to be limited by rationality?

A direct consequence of the collision between resource reality and a commitment to growth in perpetuity has been an attempt to ‘cheat’, using financial adventurism in an ultimately futile attempt to get around the ending of growth.

This has taken two main forms. The first, adopted in the years before GFC I, was “credit adventurism”, making credit cheaper, and easier to obtain, than ever before. Since GFC I, this has been compounded by “monetary adventurism”, which has involved pouring mind-boggling amounts of liquidity into the system.

To a certain extent, the latter was a consequence of the former. By 2008, “credit adventurism” had created debt of a magnitude that was impossible to service under “normal” monetary conditions. Barring “reset” – ruled out because of the short-term pain that it would have caused – the only way to cope with such gargantuan debts was to make them ultra-cheap both to service and to roll-over.

Just as there have been two forms of adventurism, there are two forms of crisis. “Credit adventurism” led naturally to a credit (debt) crisis, which was why banks were in the eye of the storm in 2008. “Monetary adventurism”, on the other hand, leads to a monetary crisis, which is why fiat currencies will be at risk in GFC II.

These forms of adventurism have succeeded in creating an illusion of growth, convincing enough so long as we wear blinkers where underlying fundamentals are concerned. World GDP increased by 35% in the seven years between 2000 and 2007, and by 31% in the decade between 2007 and 2017.

But the escalation in debt alone gives the lie to any claim that this “growth” has been genuine or sustainable. Between 2000 and 2007, growth of $25.5 trillion (at 2017 values) was accompanied by a $52tn increase in debt, meaning that just over $2 was borrowed for each $1 of “growth”. Since 2007, the ratio has worsened markedly, with “growth” of $29.8tn accompanied by $99tn in borrowing, a ratio of $3.30 of new debt for each growth dollar.

Escalating indebtedness has not been the only consequence of financial adventurism, of course. The crushing of returns on invested capital has created huge shortfalls against the amounts that we ought to have put aside for retirement, all but destroying the viability of pension provision for all but a wealthy minority. Monetary adventurism may not – yet, anyway – have created a spike in consumer inflation, but it has led directly to massive bubbles in asset prices.

Critically, the worsening ability of the economy to carry these excesses has been disguised by the phoney “growth” created by the simple spending of borrowed money. Everyone appreciates that an individual does not become more prosperous simply because he or she runs up an ever-bigger overdraft, and spends it. Unfortunately, observers – including policymakers – do seem to believe that economies can prosper by racking up ever bigger debts, and mortgaging the future, and then pushing the proceeds through consumption.

There are even those who believe that the inflated prices of stocks, bonds and property constitute “wealth”, even though the only people to whom such assets can be sold are the same people to whom they already belong.

If we strip away the simple spending of borrowed money, SEEDS calculates that claimed “growth” (of $55tn, or 76%) since 2000 falls to less than $21tn, with the remaining $34tn an illusion conjured out of adventurism. Meanwhile, the deterioration in trend ECoE, from 4.0% back in 2000 to almost 8% now, means that aggregate prosperity increased by just $16.4tn, or 24%, over the period as a whole.

Unfortunately, world population numbers expanded by 22% over the same period, so growth in average prosperity has been just 2.3%, over seventeen years. All and more of that increase has gone to the EMs, leaving the average Western citizen poorer.

What we are left with, then, is deteriorating Western prosperity, faltering underlying output in the world as a whole, unprecedented levels of debt, grotesquely inflated asset markets, and huge hostages to fortune, not least in the destruction of pension provision.

In simple mathematical terms, SEEDS estimates that “reset” in 2008 would have required ‘value destruction’ – a fall in the aggregate prices of assets – of the order of $84tn, equivalent to almost $100tn today. Of course, monetary adventurism was used to avoid reset in GFC I – carrying that value overhang forwards – and we’ve gone on adding to it, at steadily rising rates, ever since. SEEDS puts scope for value destruction today at over $400tn, which should be treated as a (very approximate) order of magnitude of the extent to which asset values have to fall.

This, of course, is ‘first order’ value destruction. If the prices of your shares, bonds and property fall, you still own them, and no money has actually flowed out of your bank account. The real problem is ‘second order’ value destruction, which is what happens when the value of your assets falls to a level lower than the sum you borrowed to acquire them.

Though the scale of the sums involved is almost impossible to calculate, we can conclude that the world will face vast ‘second order’ value destruction when GFC II happens.

We can be equally certain that, rather than accept the necessity of value destruction on a scale roughly four times larger than 2008, the authorities will resort again to adventurism, pouring liquidity into the economy at rates which dwarf anything experienced during and after GFC I. The strong likelihood has to be that adventurism on this scale will undermine the value of fiat currencies, destroying many whilst inflicting hyperinflation on those which survive.

The public, on the other hand, can hardly be expected to like getting ever poorer, especially whilst the distortion of the relationship between incomes and asset values seems to have made a minority wealthier whilst imposing austerity on everyone else. Whether, during GFC II, they will turn increasingly towards insurgent (“populist”) politicians, or opt instead for the collectivist offer of a Left made resurgent by popular adversity, is a second-order question. What we can anticipate, with high levels of confidence, is political and social change at least commensurate with the scale of economic and financial upheaval.

Those with long memories might remember a song for children called “there was an old lady who swallowed a fly”. After the fly, she swallowed a spider (“that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her”), the point being that she swallowed the spider in order to catch the fly. Thereafter, ever larger animals were ingested to catch the one swallowed previously – “she swallowed the bird to catch the spider”, and so on – finishing up with swallowing a horse (“she’s dead – of course”).

By this analogy, the system “swallowed a fly” in the years before 2008, then “swallowed a spider” during GFC I in an attempt to deal with it. In real life, swallowing a fly can happen to anyone, and swallowing a spider is at least feasible. Swallowing a bird, however, is not.

In this sense, GFC II is set to be the spider’s revenge.

#127: Quantum of risk, part three

THE ITALIAN GAMBIT

Here’s a test of the imagination. First, picture someone asking you to write off a debt of €100,000 that he owes you. Next, picture this same man, with his next breath, asking if you will also act as guarantor of his next overdraft. Oh, and he would like to rewrite all the rules governing the financial relationship between you, too.

Though this stretches the imaginative faculty, it’s pretty much what the incoming Italian government is asking of the European Central Bank (ECB). As well as agreeing to write off €250bn of Italian public debt, the ECB is expected to watch benignly as Italy then embarks on a new fund-raising exercise, implicitly guaranteed by the ECB.

The chances of the ECB agreeing to this must be close to zero, not least because of the precedent that it would set for other Euro Area (EA) borrowers.

Yet it seems equally unlikely that the new coalition in Rome will back down over ambitious plans seemingly endorsed in large numbers by the electorate.

In short, what we have here are the makings of a full-blown EA financial (and political) crisis, yet the markets have seemed neither stirred nor shaken by it. Right now, the apparent softening of the Trump line on trade with China seems to be the only game in town. It may be a characteristic of markets that they can focus on only one issue at a time, and this might help explain seemingly relaxed reactions to events in Italy.

It doesn’t help that a media focus on “populism” is obscuring what is really happening as a new coalition prepares to take office in Rome.

The aim here is to investigate what might be called ‘the Italian gambit’. The main conclusion is that this situation is a direct result of systemic weaknesses within the Euro.

SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – is used here in two main ways.

First, SEEDS tracks the long-running erosion in prosperity which has led Italy to this juncture, discrediting the political establishment and paving the way for radicalism.

Second, SEEDS is also deployed to calibrate the degree of financial risk posed by Italy.

All change in Rome

Even if the fundamentals are improperly understood, what ought to be influencing bond markets now is a dawning recognition that genuine political change is on the cards. The sparring is over, and Italians really are about to get a radical new government, formed by a coalition of two parties, the Lega and the Five Star Movement (5S).

Both are often labelled “populist”, but the term preferred here is the more neutral ‘insurgent’, meaning ‘challengers to the established order’.

The new government certainly seems set to merit the ‘insurgent’ label, if what we know so far is anything to go by. Apparent plans to deport as many as 500,000 undocumented immigrants are likely to prove highly controversial, as are proposals for rolling back sanctions against Russia. The new administration may be hoping that its migrants plan might push its EU partners into taking a larger share of immigrants for whom Italy has been the primary point of entry. Relaxing or even scrapping sanctions on Russia, on the other hand, amounts to a direct challenge, not just to the EU but, implicitly at least, to the uneasily-shared stance of Europe and the United States.

But the real meat in the policy sandwich is economic and fiscal. What the new government appears to want is a major house-cleaning exercise, intended as the basis for radical reform of taxation, public expenditures and debt.

Essentially, the Lega and 5S are planning a repudiation of the Euro Area doctrine of austerity. Just one of the many snags with this is that Italy is already one of the most indebted governments in the EA.

On the revenue side, the coalition proposes a flat tax, levied at 15% and 20%, and offset by a flat €3,000 tax deduction. Planned increases in excise and sales taxes are to be scrapped, which alone will cost about €12.5bn (within current revenues of €800bn). A key spending plan is to introduce what looks a lot like a universal basic income (UBI) of €780 per month for poor families. The coalition is also likely to rescind the intention to start raising pension ages.

All of this is likely to push the fiscal deficit sharply higher, which is why the government will seek a relaxation of EA rules which restrict budget deficits to 3% of GDP. But this proposal is just the thin end of a wedge of challenges to the EA system.

Most strikingly, the coalition partners have called on the ECB to “forgive” (meaning write off) €250bn of Italian government bonds. They also plan to start issuing short-term credit notes (sometimes labelled ‘mini-bots’), which means that Italy will be adding to its public debt at the same time as asking a big creditor to let it off the hook.

How did things get to this impasse?

The Euro – faults in the system

We should be in no doubt that the challenge to the architecture of the Euro system being posed by the incoming Italian government needs to be taken extremely seriously.

Fundamentally, this situation is a direct consequence of weaknesses in the Euro system. From the outset, a model which combines a single monetary system with a multiplicity of sovereign budgets has always been an exercise in economic illiteracy, and a clear case of political ambition trumping economic realism. Putting politics ahead of economic reason usually comes at a price – and, for the Euro system, Italy is about to present the bill.

Here’s how the faults in the Euro have led Italy to where she is now. Over a very extended period, Italian competitiveness has eroded. Before Italy joined the Euro in 2002, gradual devaluation acted as a cushion, shielding Italians from the worst effects of diminishing competitiveness. With each successive decline in the value of the lira, living standards decreased slightly (which is a stealthy sort of “austerity”), in line with rises in the cost of imports. But this very modest (and, incrementally, barely-noticeable) inflationary impact on prosperity was more than countered by falls in the relative prices of Italian goods and services, supporting jobs and activity in the Italian economy.

Abruptly, however, joining the Euro took away this long-standing cushion of stealthy devaluation. Critically, loss of the ability to devalue was not countered by the automatic stabilisers customarily provided by the combination of monetary and fiscal systems.

These stabilisers work like this. If, for example, the economy of northern England were to deteriorate, whilst that of the south was prospering, southerners would pay more tax and receive less benefits, whilst the reverse would happen in the north. This process creates transfers between prospering and struggling regions which help to counter imbalances created by divergences in competitiveness. Most importantly, this process happens automatically in any properly-functioning monetary area, and does not require decisions by government.

No such automatic process exists in the Euro area. Denied the ability to devalue, and without the cushion of automatic stabilisers, the only way that a country like Italy can defend its competitiveness is through a process of internal devaluation, whereby the costs of production (essentially, wages) are reduced. This process has become synonymous with “austerity”, and the unmistakable lesson of recent political events is that Italians want no more of it.

Prosperity and risk – the SEEDS reading

SEEDS analysis underscores an interpretation based on dwindling prosperity within the straitjacket of monetary inflexibility.

According to SEEDS, average prosperity in Italy peaked in 2001 (on the eve of Euro membership), and Italians have been getting poorer ever since the country joined the Euro. Prosperity in 2017 is put at €24,130 per person (compared with GDP per capita of €28,300), and the average Italian is now €2,680 worse off than he or she was ten years ago. The trend decline in average prosperity is 0.4%. Though not drastically out of line with what is happening in some comparable countries, this is certainly bad enough to sustain popular discontent.

From this, you can see why developments in Italy are likely to become a direct challenge to the Euro, even though the incoming administration in Rome hasn’t – quite – committed itself to debating Euro membership. Assuming that neither the ECB nor the new Italian government gives way, what may very well result is a rethink of Italy’s membership of the single currency.

Nothing encompassed by this confrontation can possibly stop at the Italian border, making this a challenge which far exceeds the implications of “Brexit” for the EU.

SEEDS and the quantification of risk

As well as underlining the decline in prosperity which has pushed Italy to this impasse, SEEDS can also calibrate the level of risk involved. Interestingly, Italy doesn’t come out too badly on some of the risk metrics applied by SEEDS. But the last of the four metrics contradicts this finding in very serious ways.

For starters, Italy does not score too badly on financial exposure tests. With aggregate prosperity of €1.46 trillion – 15% below reported GDP – debt, at 245% of GDP, equates to 288% of prosperity, a number that is not particularly high compared with similar economies.

Likewise, financial assets (a measure of the size of the banking system) are estimated at 465% of prosperity (and just under 400% of GDP). This, again, is not a worrying outlier.

Third, and despite its reputation as a highly indebted economy, Italy’s credit dependency is comparatively modest, with annual borrowing averaging 1.9% of GDP over the last ten years. Other countries would suffer a lot more than Italy from any interruption to the continuity of credit.

Italy doesn’t score too badly, then, on three of the four main benchmarks used by SEEDS for risk assessment:

  • Debt/prosperity (Italy 288% versus an EA average estimated at 300%)
  • Financial assets/prosperity (465% for Italy, against an EA average close to 600%, which reflects very large exposure in countries such as Ireland and the Netherlands)
  • Credit dependency – measured in relation either to GDP or prosperity, this calibrates exposure to disruptions in credit flow, a metric on which Italy isn’t badly exposed.

There are, though, two very major flies in this ointment.

First, Italy scores badly on the fourth SEEDS risk metric, which is “acquiescence risk”. What this means is the willingness of the public to support measures which might be both necessary and unpalatable.

Even if it were not already clear (from election results) that Italians have lost patience with anything which sounds like austerity, a decline in prosperity of 12% since a peak as long ago as 2001 can only have eroded voters’ preparedness to go along with the sort of painful proposals which might emerge from conventional politics. On “acquiescence risk”, then, SEEDS puts Italy in a pretty high-risk category.

As well as “acquiescence risk”, the second snag lies in the quality (rather than the scale) of the Italian banking system, where anecdotal evidence suggests a very high level of potential toxicity.

What happens now?

As we have seen, Italy’s central problem is an inability to address competitiveness through conventional devaluation, forcing the country into the painful process of internal devaluation known as “austerity” instead.

Just as monetary rigidity has been a major cause of these problems, it also complicates any search for a solution. Were Italy monetarily sovereign, the issues would at least have the merit of clarity. Bonds yields would soar and the currency would weaken, effects which might very well be enough, in themselves, to deter the new government from pushing ahead with its plans.

As a member of the EA, however, the stresses shift from the bond and FX markets to the arena of politics. It has hard to see how the ECB and the EA authorities can possibly give ground over the apparent demands of the incoming government in Rome, not least because whatever might be conceded to Italy could prove almost impossible to deny to others such as Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain.

Seen, as it must be, as a test case, the likelihood has to be that, far from helping Italy to restore la dolce vita, the EA might have to take a tough line on Italians continuing to accept la vita dura represented by “austerity”.

The next move will then be up to Rome, with the new government having to decide whether to succumb to EA diktats, or ask voters to support unilateral action.

This story will run, then, and the stakes – for the Euro, as well as for Italy – could hardly be higher.

 

Please note: the latest SEEDS dataset for Italy has been placed on the resources page.

 

 

#126: What’s next for SEEDS?

THOUGHTS ON FUTURE USE

With SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System) now fully operational, it seems logical to wonder about the uses to which it can or should be put. If this discussion doesn’t provide answers, it can, at least, set out some thoughts which might be of interest. As ever, readers’ comments will be very welcome.

For starters, SEEDS wasn’t built with any commercial end in view, still less from any wish to influence policy. Rather, the aim of the project was “to see if it could be done” – could the principles of an economy determined by energy (and not, fundamentally, by money) form the basis of a new way of interpreting events, and forecasting outcomes?

Accomplishing this turned out to be even more difficult than had seemed likely at the outset.

I was prepared for the ‘linguistic’ challenge of expressing energy-based concepts in the financial language customarily used in economics.

But what I had not anticipated was the extent to which, even within the purely financial sphere, it would be necessary to reimagine much that is taken for granted within conventional approaches to the economy.

Outcome

Whether SEEDS has succeeded is a matter for others to judge, and the real ‘verdict’ on the effectiveness of the system is likely, in any case, to be delivered by events. But there do seem to be sound reasons for cautious optimism.

If conventional economic interpretation is correct, what we should have been seeing, long before now, ought to have been a combination of steadily improving prosperity and progressively diminishing risk.

The SEEDS interpretation, in stark contrast to this, is that prosperity has plateaued on a global basis – and has gone into reverse in most advanced economies – whilst risk continues to increase.

Moreover, SEEDS differs starkly from the consensus in pointing unmistakeably to a sequel (here called “GFC II”) to the global financial crisis (GFC I) of 2008.

It isn’t going to be all that long before we find out which interpretation is the right one.

Prosperity examined

What can be done, here and now, is to give you a single example of SEEDS interpretation which you can compare with the consensus or conventional view.

The British economy serves as well as any for illustrative purposes.

Comparing 2017 with 2007 – and with all numbers expressed at constant 2017 values – the GDP of the United Kingdom has increased by 11%. Population numbers have also risen over that period (by nearly 8%), but GDP per capita remained modestly (3.3%) higher in 2017 than it had been back in 2007.

If conventional interpretation has any validity at all, this rise in GDP per capita should mean that the average person in Britain must be more prosperous now than he or she was ten years earlier. Average prosperity certainly shouldn’t have deteriorated over a period in which GDP per capita has risen.

The SEEDS interpretation could hardly be more different from this conclusion.

SEEDS starts by noting that, whilst growth of 11% has added £206bn to British GDP since 2007, this has been accompanied by a £1.23 trillion increase in aggregate debt.

One way of expressing this is that each £1 of growth has come at a cost of £5.45 in net new debt. Another is to note that annual borrowing averaged 6.0% of GDP over a period in which annual “growth” was barely 1.4%.

This necessarily prompts a number of questions.

First, has growth since 2007 been ‘genuine’ and organic, or has it really amounted to nothing more than a cosmetic process of ‘spending borrowed money’?

Second, is taking on £5,450 of new debt in return for a £1,000 rise in income a rational choice, favourable to prosperity?

Third, can this can kind of equation ever be sustainable, or does the rise in indebtedness turn, of necessity, into instability?

Before we can answer these questions, we need to take the energy issue into account. According to SEEDS, 9% of the economic output of the UK in 2017 should be allocated to the provision of energy (in its broadest sense, as the foundation of all economic activity). This is a higher number than that for 2007 (4.8%), a change which exerts a further adverse influence on prosperity.

Altogether, according to SEEDS, the average person was 9.2% worse off in 2017 than he or she had been in 2007. SEEDS can put a number on this deterioration in prosperity (£2,230 per person), enabling comparison with the increase in average per capita indebtedness (of £12,400) over the same period.

Finally, shifting from GDP to prosperity enables us to recalibrate risk exposure. In the British instance, debt at the end of 2017 is likely to have been 250% of GDP, but 349% of prosperity. Likewise, total financial assets (which measure the scale of the banking sector) rise from about 1135% of GDP to about 1580% of prosperity. Both of these risk ratios, measured on the basis of prosperity as analysed by SEEDS, are appreciably higher now than they were on the eve of GFC I back in 2007.

Very different interpretations

These numbers – which, it must be emphasised, are replicated, to a greater or lesser extent, across most other Western economies – supply an interpretation of the national or global economy which could hardly be in starker contrast to a consensus line based on “synchronised growth” and controllable risk. It need hardly be added that these very different conclusions about prosperity can be assumed to be of considerable significance, too, in the political arena.

If SEEDS is – or even simply might be – right about this, then this is information that people need. It further implies that conventional interpretation is failing those who rely on it. This, in turn, seems to require at least some consideration of the uses to which SEEDS should be put.

These possible uses seem to fall into three main categories.

First, there seems a lot to be said in favour of continuing to pursue this approach, and making its findings available to those members of the public who are interested in it.

Other possible applications are less straightforward. Logically, SEEDS interpretation ought to be of use to the policy process, but it is highly unlikely that any government is going to ask for it.

I am not in any sense a ‘zealot’, and I’m certainly not set on convincing anybody of anything. So I’m not going to be promoting SEEDS as a tool that government ‘ought to be’ using. I’m not even sure that I would want to co-operate with government, even in the extremely implausible event of being invited to do so.

This leaves us with the potential for commercial use of SEEDS. I’m not opposed to this in principle, but I do have a set of parameters which, I think, can act as useful guidelines.

The first is that any co-operation with business could extend only to output from the system, and would never involve disclosing matters of process. The second is that SEEDS interpretations must remain available to the public, much as they are now.

In practical terms, this means that SEEDS datasets will be placed on the open access resources page of this site whenever they are relevant to a topic under discussion.

On the other hand, anyone wanting more comprehensive data (for instance, the numbers for all 27 countries covered by SEEDS, in their latest form), or requiring any kind of greater detail or tailored output, cannot expect this material to be made freely available. Much the same would apply to any licensed use of SEEDS output, again within the guidelines of (a) no disclosure of process, and (b) continued public access.

These are simply thoughts on what might be done with SEEDS, now that the system has been completed, and seems to be delivering useful results. Any comments on these ideas will be most welcome.