#183. A new stark clarity

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Introduction

Sometimes, articles can be hard to put together because one has too little information. At other times, the challenge is the opposite one, the problem being to condense an abundance of information into something shorter than War and Peace. What follows falls into the latter category.

At an earlier stage in the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, variables and possible permutations far outnumbered clear points of reference. This is no longer the case, and much of the time since the previous article has been spent refining the SEEDS economic model, and casting the multiplicity of its conclusions into a brief and logical sequence.

The first take-away here is that no amount of financial gimmickry can much extend our long-standing denial over the ending of growth in prosperity. The energy dynamic which drives the economy has passed a climacteric. The pandemic crisis may have anticipated this inflexion-point, and to some extent disguised it, but the coronavirus hasn’t changed the fundamentals of energy and the economy.

The second is that the downtrend is going to squeeze the prosperity of the average person in ways that are likely to be exacerbated by governments’ inability to understand the situation, and to adjust taxation and spending accordingly.

Third, this squeeze on household disposable prosperity is going to (a) have severely adverse effects on discretionary (non-essential) consumer spending, and (b) put at risk many of the forward income streams (mortgages, rents, credit, stage payments, subscriptions) that form the basis of far too many corporate plans, and have been capitalized into far too many traded assets.

Barring short-lived exercises in outright monetary recklessness, most discretionary sectors are set to shrink, and asset prices (including equities and properties) are poised for a sharp correction.

It is, after all, hard to sustain a high valuation on the shares of a company whose business has slumped, to buttress the market in homes whose prices far exceed impaired affordability, or to shore up the price of capitalized forward income streams that are in the process of failure.

Finally, economic concerns are set to dominate voters’ priorities, displacing non-economic issues from the top of the agenda. Calls for economic redress – including redistribution, and, in some areas, nationalization – are set to return to the foreground in ways to which a whole generation of political leaders may be unable to adapt.   

“Faith in the middle” – all bets lost

Spectator sport has been one of the more prominent victims of the coronavirus crisis, but let’s imagine that we’re listening in to a conversation between rival fans ahead of a hotly-contested fixture. Supporters of the home team are sure their heroes will inflict a massive defeat on their opponents. Followers of the visiting club are equally certain of a stunning victory.

The outcome, as often as not, is a low-scoring draw.

This is a useful analogy for our current economic and broader predicament. One side of an intensively-polarized debate pins its faith in the restoration of normality, or even of a sort of ‘super-normality’. The other is equally certain of catastrophic collapse.

What actually happens is likely to be ‘neither of the above’.  

That, certainly, is the view here, and it’s reinforced by economic modelling based on the understanding that the economy is an energy system, and is not – as established conventions so mistakenly insist – a financial one.

The conclusions of the SEEDS model form the subject of this discussion.

Where economic output is concerned, SEEDS warns that there can be no return to the rates of growth reported before the coronavirus crisis, with the proviso that a very large proportion of that pre-2020 “growth” was, in any case, illusory. After a period of ‘normalization’ that will fall a long way short of the mythical “V-shaped recovery”, rates of increase in output will fade (see fig. 1), falling below those at which population numbers are expected to carry on increasing.

Continuing rises in ECoE (the Energy Cost of Energy) will amplify these trends where prosperity itself is concerned.  

As remarked earlier, the predicament of the ‘average’ person in this deteriorating economy is likely to be made worse by governments’ failure to understand what’s happening, and to scale back their tax and spending plans accordingly. Meanwhile, we seem likely to be at or near that point of credit exhaustion after which we cannot continue to manipulate reported “growth” – or to shore up consumer discretionary expenditure – by injecting ever more debt into the system.

These trends point unequivocally towards declining discretionary (non-essential) expenditures by consumers, with businesses similarly focused on cost-control. It also implies a decay, and in some cases a failure, of many of the income streams on which so many corporate business plans, and so much capital valuation, now depend.  

Reverting to our sporting analogy, an outcome which favours neither of the extremes results in the loss of any bets placed by either side. This applies to the economy, too, where a wide range of financial and non-financial wagers – placed by governments and politicians, investors, businesses and campaigners for various causes – will be lost.

Fig. 1     

Dwindling output………..

Over the period between 1999 and 2019, World economic output – reported as GDP, and stated here at constant values on the PPP (purchasing power parity) convention – averaged 3.2%, for a total increase of 95%, or $64.5 trillion. During this same period, however, annual borrowing, expressed as a percentage of GDP, averaged 9.6%, with total debt expanding by $193tn, or 177%, between 1999 ($109tn) and 2019 ($302tn).

Another way of putting this is that each dollar of reported “growth” was accompanied by $3 of net new debt. Even this comparison understates the gravity of the situation, in that it does not include huge increases in pension and other commitments over two decades, with the overall situation worsening markedly after the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC).

You wouldn’t be too far off the mark if you concluded that, at the time that the crisis struck, each growth dollar was being ‘bought’ with at least $5 of new ‘hostages to futurity’.

What this in turn means is that most – according to SEEDS, 64% – of all “growth” in the World economy reported over that twenty-year period has been illusory. This is “growth” that would reverse if we ever tried to unwind prior expansions in debt and other financial commitments. More realistically, were we to stop all net new borrowing, growth would fall to no more than 1.5%, and to a lower level still were we also to cease adding to pension and other unfunded promises.      

Anyone surprised by this might usefully consider two questions. First, what would happen to rates of reported growth if annual net borrowing (last year, just over $13tn, or 10.3% of GDP) fell to zero?    

Second, what would happen to GDP itself, if we tried to pay down the $111tn of net debt taken on over the past decade?

The SEEDS model strips out this ‘credit effect’ to identify rates of change in underlying or ‘clean’ output, known here as C-GDP. This metric grew at annual rates averaging only 1.5% (rather than 3.2%) between 1999 and 2019 (see fig. 2). 

Moreover, as you’ll see if you refer back to fig. 1, this rate of growth has been fading, and stood at just 1.2% last year. Current SEEDS projections are that growth in C-GDP will taper off, ceasing by the early 2030s, after which it can be expected to go into reverse.

Needless to say, the immediate crisis is going to create negative growth in economic output, to be followed, according to most projections, by some kind of a recovery when (although some pessimists might say ‘if’) the pandemic is brought under control.

The consensus view, which anticipates a fall of -4.6% in GDP in 2020, and rebound of +5.1% next year, already looks far too optimistic. The SEEDS projection is that clean output (C-GDP) will decline by -7.2% this year, and grow by about +3% in 2021. Again, both of these projections may turn out to have been unduly bullish.

Here’s the big difference, though.

Where the consensus sees World GDP higher by 16% in 2025 than it was in 2019, SEEDS projections show no overall growth at all in C-GDP during that period.   

Fig. 2    

…… and rising ECoEs squeeze prosperity…..

If you’re familiar with the energy basis of the economy, you’ll know that the generation of economic value from the use of energy is only one half of the equation which determines prosperity. The other side is the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE). This is the proportion, within any quantity of energy accessed for our use, that is consumed in the access process, and therefore is not available for any other economic purpose.

Though it’s ignored by conventional interpretation, the relentless rise in trend ECoEs is the factor that has undermined, and has increasingly eliminated, the scope for growth in global prosperity. 

As ECoEs rise, economies reach an inflexion-point after which prior growth in prosperity goes into reverse. The stage at which this happens varies between countries, affecting highly-complex, high-maintenance economies first. In the United States, for example, prosperity growth went into reverse at a trend ECoE of 4.5%, with the same happening to almost all of the Western advanced economies at ECoEs of between 3.5% and 5.0%.

Less complex emerging market (EM) economies enjoy greater ECoE-resilience, and can continue to grow prosperity per capita up to ECoEs of between 8.0% and 10.0%. The coronavirus crisis is likely to have brought forward the inflexion-point in China, at an ECoE of 8.2%, but this climacteric was due to be reached in the next year or two anyway. This is why reported “growth” in China has become ever more dependent on extraordinarily high levels of net borrowing.

This is illustrated in fig. 3, which compares ECoE trends with prosperity inflexion-points for China and the United States. As you can see, the relentless rise in the ECoEs of fossil fuels have pushed the overall curve sharply upwards, and the development of renewable energy (RE) sources, though essential, is most unlikely to do more than moderate the upwards trend.

Additionally, the economy has now reached the point at which rising ECoEs affect the availability of energy itself, trapping producers between the Scylla of rising costs and the Charybdis of diminishing consumer affordability.    

Fig. 3    

…..and taxation tightens the screw

As we’ve seen, prosperity per capita has turned down because of a combination of decelerating economic output, rising ECoEs and a continuing increase in the numbers of people between whom surplus energy value is shared. A weakening in energy supply volumes can be expected to add another twist to this deteriorating equation.

Where consumers are concerned, the adverse effects of this process are likely to be exacerbated by a rise in the proportion of prosperity taken in tax. Governments’ failure to understand the energy basis of economic activity lead them to measure the affordability of taxation against GDP.

On this conventional basis, the incidence of taxation worldwide has hardly varied at all over the past twenty years, remaining at or very close to 31% between 1999 and 2019. Unfortunately, and as we ‘ve seen, GDP has become an ever less meaningful measure of the value of economic output over time.

What this in turn means is that the incidence of taxation, when measured against prosperity, has risen relentlessly, from a global average of 32% in 1999 to 49% in 2019. On current projections, this is set to rise to 56% by 2025.

This is illustrated in fig. 4, which compares the per capita averages of prosperity and tax for the United States (where taxation is comparatively low), and of more highly-taxed France, with the global equivalents.

SEEDS analysis indicates that taxation absorbed 67% of French prosperity last year, compared with 53% back in 2004. For the average French citizen, this means that a comparatively modest decline of 6.2% (€1,910) in his or her overall prosperity has been exacerbated by a €3,010 increase in taxation, leaving disposable (“left in your pocket”) prosperity 34% (€4,920) lower in 2019 than it was in 2004.  

Fig. 4   

Discretionary spending falls, income streams fail

France, of course, is something of an extreme case, but the general tendency has been for rising taxation to magnify prosperity deterioration into a markedly more severe squeeze at the level of disposable prosperity.

For planners in government and business – and, of course, for individuals – this leveraged equation is central to much that is likely to happen in the coming years.

This can best be understood if we look at things from the perspective of the average or ‘ordinary’ person or household. He or she will experience falling prosperity, an observation for which, long before the coronavirus crisis, there has been steadily accumulating corroborative evidence. People in a growing number of countries know that their material circumstances are deteriorating, and are increasingly (and rightly) ignoring official statements and statistics which try to assert the contrary point of view.

As prosperity erodes, and as the proportion taken in tax increases, our ‘ordinary’ person is likely to turn both economically cautious and politically discontented. He or she will become increasingly unwilling to take on yet more credit, almost irrespective of the cost of debt. Essential purchases must carry on, of course, but scope for discretionary (non-essential) expenditure will deteriorate sharply.

Over time, increasing numbers of households are likely to struggle to keep up with the numerous financial demands that the system now makes on them, demands which have long since gone beyond mortgages, rent and utility bills to include subscriptions, staged purchases, the leasing of things which would hitherto have been bought outright, and credit taken on for a multiplicity of purposes including vehicle purchase and education costs.

This enables us to summarise three of the more direct and immediate implications of de-growth.

First, there will be adverse consequences for any business supplying discretionary purchases. We’ve been seeing a foretaste of this since 2018, with downturns in the sales of everything from cars to smartphones. The discretionary category doesn’t just apply to goods, of course, and service sectors particularly exposed include travel, leisure and hospitality. Just as households scale back non-essential spending, businesses are likely to trim discretionary outgoings such as advertising and outsourcing.

Second, the increasing strain on household budgets is going to put income streams at risk. This is extremely important, for two main reasons. One of these is the expanded prevalence of sales techniques which cultivate streams of income in preference to outright purchases, whether by consumers or by business customers. The other is the capitalization of income streams, a process pioneered by the securitization of future mortgage payments. A significant part of the capital markets now consists of capitalized streams of income linked to everything from car purchase and higher education to the supply of gadgets and domestic appliances.

Third, the public is likely to become increasingly focused on economic issues, demanding, not just lower taxation but pro-active measures to bolster household circumstances. We should anticipate growing pressure for nationalization (notably of utilities), combined with calls for greater redistribution from ‘the rich’ to the ‘ordinary’ voter.

For government, business and investors, this poses challenges that have, in many instances, yet to appear on the ‘radar’ of forward planning.      

Governments, whilst unwilling to scale back their activities to affordable levels, will nevertheless find that their scope for expenditure falls a long way short of previous expectations.

At the same time, the priorities of the public can be expected to undergo a sea-change, swinging resolutely towards the economic. As a result, many of the cherished ambitions of policymakers will become of diminished importance to the voters, just as they become ever less affordable. 

Fig. 5