THE IMBALANCE MENACING THE US ECONOMY
At a time when tens of millions of Americans are unemployed, with millions more struggling to make ends meet, it‘s been well noted that the response of the Federal Reserve has been to throw $2.9 trillion in financial subsidies, not at the economy itself, but at a tiny elite of the country’s wealthiest. Another astute observer has set out reasons why Fed intervention couldn’t – even if so intended – pull the US economy out of its severe malaise.
The discussion which follows assesses the American situation from a perspective which recognises that the economy is an energy system. It concludes that the US has responded particularly badly to the onset of de-growth, something which has been induced, not by choice, but by a deteriorating energy equation.
An insistence on using financial manipulation as a form of denial of de-growth has increased systemic risk whilst exacerbating differences between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.
De-growth has, of course, been a pan-Western trend, one which has now started to extend to the emerging market (EM) economies as well. But few if any other countries have travelled as far as the US down the road of futile and dangerous denial.
Whatever view might be taken of Fed market support policy on grounds of equity, the huge practical snag is that this approach has created a dangerously unsustainable imbalance between the prices of assets and all forms of income.
If the Fed withdraws incremental monetary support to the markets, the prices of stocks, bonds and property will crash back into equilibrium with wages, dividends and returns on savings. If, on the other hand, the Fed persists with monetary distortion of asset prices, the resulting inflation will push nominal wages and other forms of income upwards towards the re-establishment of equilibrium.
Either way, the apparent determination to sustain asset prices at inflated levels can only harm the US economy through an eventual corrective process that cannot escape being hugely disruptive.
The irony is that, whether the outcome is a market crash or an inflationary spiral, the biggest losers will include the same wealthy minority whose interests the Fed seems so determined to defend and promote.
At a crossroads
Critics have spent the best part of two centuries writing premature obituaries for the United States, and that certainly isn’t the intention here. Along the way, various candidates have been nominated as potential inheritors of America’s world economic, financial and political ascendancy, but the latest nominee, China, looks no more credible a successor than any of the others, having severe problems of her own. These lie outside the scope of this analysis, but can be considered every bit as acute as those facing the United States.
This said, it would be foolish to deny that America faces challenges arguably unprecedented in her peacetime history. The Wuhan coronavirus pandemic has struck a severe blow at an economy which was already seriously dysfunctional. Anger on the streets is a grim reminder that, 155 years on from the abolition of slavery, and half a century after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, American society continues to be blighted by racial antagonism. In the political sphere, party points-scoring continues to be prioritised over constructive action, whilst even the most inveterate opponent of Donald Trump would be hard-pressed to name any question to which “Joe Biden” is an answer.
The focus here is firmly on the economy, and addresses issues which, whilst by no means unique to the United States, are perhaps more acute there than in any other major economy. By way of illustration, the last two decades have seen each additional dollar of manufacturing output dwarfed by $11.60 of increased activity in the FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) sectors. Moreover, each dollar of reported growth has come at a cost, not just of $3.80 in new debt, but of a worsening of perhaps $3.40 in pensions provision shortfalls.
Most strikingly of all, America’s economic processes no longer conform to any reasonable definition of a market economy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in capital markets, which have been stripped of their price-discovery and risk-calibration functions by systematic manipulation by the Fed.
Another way of putting this is that America has been financialised, with the making of money now almost wholly divorced from the production of goods and services. There are historical precedents for this financialization process – and none of them has ended well.
The economy – in search of reality
What, then, is the reality of an economy which, in adding incremental GDP of $7 trillion (+51%) since 1999, has plunged itself deeper in debt to the tune of $27tn (+105%), and is likely to have blown a hole of about $25tn in its aggregate provision for retirement?
To answer this, we need to recognise that economies are energy systems. They are not – contrary to widespread assumption – monetary constructs, which can be understood and managed in financial terms.
For those not familiar with this interpretation, just three observations should suffice to make things clear.
The first is that all of the goods and services which constitute economic output are the products of energy. Nothing of any utility whatsoever can be produced without it.
The second is that, whenever energy is accessed for our use, some of that energy is always consumed in the access process (a component known here as the Energy Cost of Energy, or ECoE).
Surplus energy (the total, less the ECoE component) drives all economic activity other than the supply of energy itself. This surplus energy is, therefore, coterminous with prosperity.
The third is that, lacking intrinsic worth, money commands value only as a ‘claim’ on the output of the ‘real’ (energy) economy. Creating ‘new’ money does nothing to increase the pool of goods and services against which such claims can be exercised. If, as has been the case in the US, newly-created money is injected into capital markets, the result is the creation of unsustainable escalation in the prices of assets.
Once these processes are appreciated, the mechanics of economic prosperity become apparent, as does the futility of trying to tackle them with financial gimmickry. This understanding provides insights denied to ‘conventional’ economic thinking by its obsession with money, and its treatment of energy as ‘just another input’.
The faltering dynamic
Ever since their low-point in the two decades after 1945, worldwide trend ECoEs have been rising exponentially, a process reflecting rates of depletion of low-cost energy from oil, gas and coal. SEEDS analysis indicates that, in highly complex advanced economies, prosperity ceases to grow, and then turns downwards, at ECoEs between 3.5% and 5.0%. By virtue of their lesser complexity, emerging market (EM) countries are more ECoE-tolerant, hitting the same prosperity climacteric at ECoEs of between 8% and 10%.
These trends are illustrated in the following charts, each of which compares economies’ trend ECoEs with prosperity per capita, calibrated in thousands of dollars, pounds or renminbi at constant (2018) values.
In the United States, prosperity has been deteriorating ever since ECoE hit 4.5% back in 2000. A similar fate overtook the United Kingdom in 2003 (when ECoE was 4.2%), and – pre-crisis – was expected to impact China during 2021-22, when ECoE was projected to reach 8.8%.
Critically, there is nothing that can be done to circumvent this physical equation. Prosperity can, of course, be managed more effectively, and distributed more equitably, but it cannot be increased once the energy equation turns against us. Though their development is highly desirable, renewable energy (RE) sources are not going to restore overall ECoEs to the ultra-low levels at which then-cheap fossil fuels powered prior increases in prosperity.
Technology, such as the fracking techniques used to extract oil and gas from US shale formations, cannot overturn cost parameters set by the physical characteristics of the resource. The idea that we can somehow “de-couple” economic activity from the use of energy is a definitional absurdity, and efforts to prove otherwise have rightly been described as “a haystack without a needle”.
For these reasons, the onset of “secular stagnation” in the Western economies from the mid-1990s had a perfectly straightforward explanation, albeit one wholly lost on those who, having coined this term, were unable to understand the processes involved.
The narrative over the subsequent twenty-five years – in the United States as elsewhere – has been one of trying to manufacture “growth” where the capability for continued increases in prosperity has ceased to exist.
Struggling in a trap
The situation from the mid-1990s, then, was that theory and reality were pulling apart. Conventional thinking stated that growth could continue in perpetuity, but this thinking had never taken into account the energy basis of economic activity. Hitherto, ECoE had been small enough to pass unnoticed within normal margins of error, and only now was it starting to act as an insuperable block to expansion. In their contention that the world would never ‘run out of’ oil, opponents of the ‘peak oil’ thesis had supplied the right answer to the wrong question.
This, moreover, was a period of remarkable hubris. The collapse of Soviet communism seemed to demonstrate the final victory of the ‘liberal’ economic model over its collectivist rival, so much so that some even opined that history was now ‘over’. “De-regulation”, it was argued, could be equated with economic vibrancy and, together with enlightened monetary policy, could prolong, in perpetuity, the “great moderation” which, in a brief sweet-spot in the early 1990s, had seemingly combined robust growth with low inflation.
Those who remained critical had, in any case, another target for their invective – globalisation. This was indeed a faulted model, and was always bound to use cheap credit to fill the gap between Western production (which had been outsourced), and consumption (which had not). But globalisation remained a symptom, whilst the malaise itself, which was a deteriorating energy dynamic, went almost wholly unnoticed.
Accordingly, ‘solutions’ to the problem of “secular stagnation” were sought in monetary and regulatory policy. From the late 1990s, the Fed embarked on a process of credit adventurism, keeping rates low, and making credit easier to obtain than it had ever been in living memory.
Between 1999 and 2007, American GDP grew at rates of close to 3%, which seemed pretty satisfactory. Unfortunately, borrowing was growing a lot more quickly than recorded output. Through the period between 1999 and 2019 as a whole, when US growth averaged 2.1%, annual borrowing averaged 7.8% of GDP, whilst aggregate debt increased by $27tn to support economic growth of just $7.1tn.
Along the way, de-regulation weakened and, in many cases, severed altogether the necessary linkages between risk and return. Risk became both mis-priced and increasingly opaque, leading directly, of course, to the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008.
This presented the authorities with two alternative courses of action. One of these, which was rejected, was to accept a ‘reset’ to the conditions which preceded the debt-fuelled boom of the pre-GFC years. The other, adopted enthusiastically by the Fed and other central banks, was to compound credit adventurism with its monetary counterpart. As well as slashing policy rates to all but zero, QE was used to bid bond prices up, and thus force yields downwards. The result was ZIRP (zero interest rate policy), effectively negative (NIRP) in ex-inflation terms.
Remarkably, nobody in a position of authority seems to have thought it in any way odd that people and businesses should be paid to borrow.
The result, inevitably, has been increasing financial and economic absurdity. The necessary process of creative destruction has been stymied by the supply of credit cheap enough to keep technically defunct ‘zombie’ companies in being, whilst investors and lenders have seen merit in using ultra-cheap capital to finance ‘cash-burners’, confident that any losses will be handed back to them by a beneficent Fed.
Another, barely noticed consequence has been the emergence of huge gaps in the adequacy of pension provision. In a report appropriately dubbed the Global Pension Timebomb, the World Economic Forum calculated that the shortfall in US retirement provision stood at $28tn as of 2015, and was set to reach a mind-boggling $137tn by 2050.
Though other factors have been involved, a critical role has been played by a collapse in returns on invested capital. The WEF stated that forward real returns on American equities had slumped to 3.45% from a historic 8.6%, whilst bond returns had crashed from 3.6% to just 0.15%. On this basis, we can calculate that a person who hitherto had invested 10% of his or her income in a pension would now need to save about 27% to attain the same result at retirement, a savings ratio which, for the vast majority, is wholly impossible.
Analytically, though, by far the most important aspect of US economic mismanagement has been the manufacturing of “growth” by the injection of cheap credit and cheaper money. The direct corollary of this process has been the driving of a wedge between asset prices and all forms of income.
This process goes far beyond the simple “spending of borrowed money”, which creates activity that could not have been afforded had consumers’ expenditures been limited to their own resources. Since asset prices are, to a very large extent, an inverse function of the cost of money, revenues in all asset-related activities, most obviously in financial services such as banking, insurance and real estate, have been inflated, directly and artificially, by ultra-loose monetary policies. Even the few who have not been sucked into this borrowing binge are almost certain to have benefited from employers or customers who have.
Using the SEEDS model, the following charts illustrate how monetary manipulation has driven a wedge between reported GDP and underlying or “clean” levels of output. In the absence of this manipulation, growth between 1999 and 2019 wouldn’t have averaged 2.1%, but just 0.8%.
At the household level, this means that increases in the average American’s income have been far exceeded by an escalation in his or her liabilities. These liabilities embrace not just personal credit but the individual’s share of corporate and government indebtedness, and include the pensions gap as well.
This process helps explain why mortgage, consumer, auto and student loans have soared, and why cheap (but inflexible) debt has been used to destroy costlier (but shock-absorbing) equity in the corporate sector.
The popular notion that these increases in liabilities have been offset by rises in the values of homes and equities is wholly mistaken, because it ignores the fact that these are aggregate values calculated on the basis of marginal transactions.
An individual can sell his or her home, or unload a stock portfolio, but the entirety of the housing stock, or the whole of the equity market, cannot be monetised, because the only possible buyers are the same people to whom these assets already belong.
By applying the ECoE deduction to the ‘clean’ level of output (C-GDP), we can identify what has really happened to the prosperity of the average American over the past two decades. In 2019, prior to the current pandemic crisis, his or her annual prosperity stood at an estimated $44,385, which was $3,660 (8%) lower than it had been back in 2000. Over the same period, taxation per capita increased by $3,485, so that the average person’s discretionary (‘left in your pocket’) prosperity is lower now by more than $7,100 (22%) than it was in 2000.
Meanwhile, each person’s share of America’s household, business and government debt has risen from $94,000 to more than $160,000 (at constant values), and nobody has yet proposed a workable solution to a rapidly rising pension gap which probably stands at more than $35tn, or $107,000 per person.
This predicament, which is summarised in the final set of charts, is beyond uncomfortable – and even this, of course, preceded the economic hurricane of the coronavirus pandemic.
The lethal disequilibrium
As well as understanding what these circumstances mean in practical terms, we need to note another consequence of using financial adventurism in the face of deteriorating prosperity. This is the way in which the relationship between incomes and assets has been bent wholly out of shape.
It’s an essential prerequisite of a properly functioning economy that there is a stable and workable balance between, on the one hand, all forms of income and, on the other, the valuation of assets, including equities, bonds and property. The problem facing anyone trying to calculate this relationship is that financial adventurism has falsified some forms of income in much the same way that it has distorted GDP. This is where prosperity, calibrated using an energy-based model such as SEEDS, is particularly important.
Essentially, equity prices need to be low enough to give stockholders a satisfactory real return on their investment, with much the same applying to bonds. Meanwhile, if typical property prices become too high in relation to median earnings, the market becomes dysfunctional, because it prices out new buyers, leaving owners vulnerable to any weakening in monetary support.
When – as has happened in the United States and elsewhere – monetary manipulation distorts these relationships, one of three things must happen. First, the authorities need to carry on, indefinitely, making incremental additions to their monetary largesse. Second, and if ever they cease to do this, then asset prices must correct downwards into equilibrium with all forms of income. Third, nominal incomes must be increased to restore equilibrium, something which, with prosperity no longer increasing, can only happen through rising inflation.
For as long as a disequilibrium between asset prices and incomes continues, the effect is to benefit asset owners to the detriment of those depending on incomes (which may be wages, dividends, profits, pensions or returns on savings). Accordingly, a wealthy elite becomes the beneficiary of processes whose outcomes are negative for those with little or no ownership of assets.
Put another way, inequalities will continue to widen – even if the authorities don’t adopt policies aimed deliberately at such an outcome – until a financial pendulum effect restores equilibrium.
From the foregoing, it will be apparent that America’s current predicament is by no means wholly a function of the coronavirus pandemic, or of the latest upsurge in racial tensions. Rather, the US is at the culminating point of a series of adverse trends:
First, the energy dynamic which determines prosperity has turned down, and a failure to recognise this climacteric has driven the authorities, in the US as elsewhere, into a chain-reaction of mistaken policies.
Second, the financialization of the economy has hidden underlying fundamentals from view, whilst simultaneously creating enormous systemic risk.
Third, failed monetary policies have driven a wedge between those who own assets, and those who depend either on wages or on other forms of income.
Fourth, and most dangerously of all, policy has created a dangerous disequilibrium between asset prices and incomes. It is no exaggeration to say that this disequilibrium is poised over the US economy like the Sword of Damocles.
Along the way, America has allowed market principles to be over-ruled by financial engineering, something typified by the way in which markets have become extensions of monetary policy.
The danger implicit in the latter point, in particular, is that monetary manipulation will be relied upon to resolve issues that lie outside its competence. There are strong reasons to believe that the US has reached a point of ‘credit exhaustion’, after which households refuse to take on any more debt, however cheap and accessible it may become. That is the point at which monetary policy becomes akin to “pushing on a string”.
This futility implies that either (a) the authorities give up on monetary stimulus, at which point asset markets crash, or, and more probably, (b) they ramp up injections of liquidity to a point at which dollar credibility implodes.
This creates a very realistic possibility that deflationary pressures push the Fed into the creation of new money on such a scale that inflation accelerates.
It is particularly worrying that a combination of self-interest and the polarisation of opinions prevents the adoption of pragmatic policies which, even at this very late stage, might manage the economy back into equilibrium.