#195. The unrelenting squeeze

MONEY, CREDIT AND THE DECLINE OF DISCRETIONARY PROSPERITY 

Henry Ford may have said that “history is bunk”, but a glance backwards can sometimes help us to focus on the future. Though they are not the subject of this discussion, fiat currencies are an example of this.

The world monetary system moved on to a fiat or “command” basis back in 1971. For the following quarter-century, this worked reasonably well, and it seems likely that historians of the future will date the decline of fiat from the second half of the 1990s.

That was when we embarked on the financial excesses which culminated in the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008-09. The rest – as the saying goes, and with apologies to Mr Ford – “is history”, with the ultimate fate of fiat determined from the moment when the world’s ‘market’ economies decided to turn their backs on market forces, and to ‘make it up as we go along’.

The aim here isn’t to revisit the subjects discussed in the previous article, but it’s worth considering why a monetary system that previously had worked pretty well then turned on to a dangerous path.

What, fundamentally, changed in the 1990s?

The answer, of course, was that ECoEs – the Energy Costs of Energy – reached what was, for Western economies, the climacteric zone that lies between 3.5% and 5.0%. SEEDS dates this ECoE climacteric to the period between 1996 (a global ECoE of 3.4%) and 2005 (5.0%).

From 1997, the prosperity of the average Japanese citizen turned downwards. The same fate overtook Americans in 2000, and the British in 2004, and most other Westerners by 2008.

Well before then, baffled observers had started to wonder about the phenomenon of “secular stagnation”, something which they could identify, but could not explain.

The rest is indeed “history”, because money-based systems of economic interpretation could propose only futile financial solutions for a trend rooted, not in money, but in energy.

Why, then, did the ECoE inflexion-point in Western prosperity put “the writing on the wall” for fiat currencies? The answer seems to lie in the flexibility that is at once fiat money’s greatest virtue and its fundamental weakness.

So long as the underlying economy keeps growing, fiat money can expand at a roughly commensurate rate, and that’s its virtue.

Once the economy turns down, however, a divergence begins, because fiat systems are incapable of a corresponding contraction, and that’s the system’s inherent vice.

Unless you understand the economy as an energy system, though, you couldn’t – and still can’t – see what’s happening.

Monetary expansion in a contracting economy can only create excesses of those financial ‘claims’ that, customarily, are called “value”. From that point on, the only real question is whether the instrument of “value destruction” is going to be a series of market crashes and debt defaults, or a hyperinflationary debasement of the value of money.

Here, history again provides a pointer, suggesting that decision-makers will almost always avoid formal or ‘hard’ default if the ‘soft’ alternative of inflationary value destruction is available.

So much for history, and the rise and fall of fiat. Turning to the future, here are some charts that ought to (but, of course, won’t) act as a wake-up call for decision-makers.

Fig. 1

Though extended out to 2040, these charts will be familiar to regular readers. What they show is the SEEDS calibration of prosperity per capita, set against the cost of essentials. The latter, defined as the sum of public services and household necessities, remains a development project, but the bottom line is clear enough.

In essence, the prosperity of the average person in America, in Britain and – now – even in China is deteriorating. The cost of essentials is continuing to rise. Accordingly, the scope for discretionary (non-essential) expenditure, within the parameters of prosperity, is eroding fast.

People will still undertake discretionary spending in excess of this shrinking capability, of course, as indeed they are doing now. But they can only do this by resorting to borrowing for this purpose. Discretionary consumption within the affordability of prosperity is undergoing rapid contraction.

More worryingly still, there seems to be every likelihood that the cost of essentials will, in due course, rise above prosperity per capita. As you can see, this might not happen until some time in the 2030s, but that doesn’t mean that we can ignore it until then.

For one thing, these are average numbers, not medians. For every person whose discretionary prosperity remains comfortably positive, there’s another who’s already near, or at, the point of reliance on credit to pay for the essentials.

Here is where we’re entitled to ask some questions. Are governments aware of this situation, as they continue to plan on the basis of rising revenues, and carry on investing in sectors geared towards discretionary consumption?

Do they, and central bankers, really think we can somehow overcome these fundamental, energy-driven trends by pouring yet more cheap credit and cheaper money into the system? Do businesses selling discretionary goods and services realise that they’re becoming hostages to the fortunes of credit expansion? And do those companies and investors reliant on assumed increases in consumer income streams understand the dynamic that is squeezing consumer discretionary prosperity?

In most cases, the answer, very probably, is “no”.

Have political leaders looked ahead to the very different agendas that will concern voters once the gravy-train of cheap credit either hits the deflationary buffers or crashes off the inflationary rails?

Again, probably not.

 

#185. The objective economy, part two

ARE DISCRETIONARY PURCHASES NO LONGER AFFORDABLE?

When somebody makes a discretionary (non-essential) purchase – pays for a leisure activity, for instance, or a consumer gadget, or a holiday – the assumption is that he or she ‘can afford it’. But the World economy runs on continuous infusions of credit, which makes the world “afford” subject to increasingly severe qualification.

This discussion presents an analysis of prosperity (as opposed to credit-financed ‘consumption’), in conjunction with assessments of taxation, and of the cost of household essentials. It indicates that the average person can not now afford discretionary purchases. Moreover, his or her ability to afford liens on income – the household counterparts of the streams of income now so critically embedded in an increasingly financialized economy – has to be open to very serious question.

As we near the point where we exhaust our ability to inflate economic ‘activity’ with perpetual credit injection, we are poised to make two very disturbing discoveries. The first is that swathes of discretionary activity are no longer affordable on a sustainable basis, to the point where sectors supplying these purchases are to a large extent living on the life-support of financial manipulation.

The second is that a large proportion of asset valuations – where they involve discretionary suppliers, capitalized streams of income, and property – are hanging by a thread.  

Introduction

In the previous article, we went in some depth into the workings of the economy as an energy system, concluding that prior growth in prosperity has gone into reverse as the energy equation has deteriorated. The aim here is to explore some selected implications of the onset of “de-growth”.

This can best be done, not by looking only in a ‘top-down’ way at institutions, systems and enterprises, but by following a ‘bottom-up’ rationale which starts with the circumstances of the ‘average’ or ‘ordinary’ person.

The central realities are (a) that this ordinary person’s prosperity is shrinking, and (b) that conventional definitions of economic output and individual income greatly overstate the economic resources to which he or she has access.    

There is a sequence of hierarchy in how the ‘average’ person spends his or her income. The first calls are taxation, and the cost of household essentials. Next come various liens on income owed to the financial and corporate system – these are the household counterparts of the streams of income on which so much corporate activity and capital asset value now depend. ‘Discretionary’ (non-essential) spending – everything from leisure and travel to the purchase of durable and non-durable consumer goods – is funded out of what remains, after these various prior calls have been met. 

Putting these two facts together leads to some striking conclusions. Because discretionary consumption comes last in the pecking-order of spending – and because a large and growing slice of apparent ‘income’ is no more than a cosmetic product of financial manipulation – then it follows that the underlying and sustainable level of discretionary expenditures is far lower than is generally assumed.

In essence, discretionary sectors of the economy are now on life-support, kept in being only by the drip-feed of credit and monetary stimulus. Additionally, the ability of households to sustain the stream-of-income payments to the financial and corporate sectors is hanging by a thread.

This means, first, that, as and when credit and monetary adventurism reach their practical limits, whole sectors of the economy will contract very severely.

Second, it means that we have reasonable visibility on the processes by which asset prices will slump into a new equilibrium with much-reduced economic prosperity.

Critical path

These findings have profound implications, so much so that it’s important to understand the analytical route by which they have been reached. This discussion follows a path which starts with a top-down examination of how the ‘real’ economy of goods and services actually functions, translates this into what it means for the ‘average’ or ‘ordinary’ person, and proceeds from there to various findings relevant to business, finance and government. This analysis is informed by the proprietary SEEDS economic model, which presents energy-based analysis in the financial ‘language’ in which, by convention, debates over these issues are conducted.      

If you’re new to energy-based interpretation of the economy, the ‘big picture’ is simply stated.

Essentially, the dramatic growth in economic output (and in the numbers of people supported by that output) since the 1760s has been a function of cheap energy from coal, oil and natural gas.

More recently, three trends have undermined this dynamic. First, fossil fuel energy has ceased to be ‘cheap’, in meaningful, energy-margin terms.

Second, this cost increase is taking away our ability to maintain (let alone to further increase) the supply of fossil fuels.

Third, we have reached – or passed – the limits of environmental tolerance of an economy powered by fossil fuel energy.

This means, either that we find an economic replacement for oil, gas and coal, or that we adapt ourselves to the ending of the fossil fuel prosperity dynamic. The authorities, who are aware of the environmental but not the economic implications of this situation, are pinning their hopes on transition to renewable energy sources (REs).

The environmental case for transition to REs is undoubtedly compelling. But the belief that REs can replicate the economic impetus of fossil fuels, far from being ‘proven’, is simply an assumption, based primarily on wishful thinking, and, far from success being assured, the probability of it happening is actually very low.

Considered in ECoE terms, whilst the costs of RE supplies are falling, they are unlikely ever to be low enough to replace the fossil fuel growth dynamic. The building out of RE capacity continues to rely on inputs which only the use of fossil fuels can provide. We cannot – yet, anyway – build solar panels using only solar energy, or construct wind-turbines using wind power alone.

Moreover, we should not assume that REs can ever be a like-for-like replacement for oil, gas and coal. An economy powered by REs will not replicate the one built on fossil fuels. The push to replace internal combustion engine (ICE) transport with electric vehicles (EVs) is a case in point. Whereas the properties of petroleum favoured the development of cars, RE-provided electricity is likely to work far more effectively as a power source for public transport.

Even if (and it’s a big ‘if’) RE electricity can replace the quantity of energy used by ICE vehicles, batteries cannot replicate the characteristics of the fuel-tank.  If we try to ‘buck the physics’ on this – if we insist on clinging on to cars, rather than switching to trains and trams – then we risk, not only a costly failure, but also an environmental disaster caused by mining the materials necessary for the requisite supply of batteries.

In parenthesis, it’s only fair to note that the authorities very probably don’t anticipate like-for-like replacement of ICE cars with EVs, but they can hardly tell voters that car ownership is set to fall markedly.

Economic conditions – the personal factor

Where this top-down situation leaves our ‘average’ person is with deteriorating prosperity. It might not look that way to him or her, but this is because both macro and micro perceptions have been obscured by the use of financial ‘innovation’, which has included sub-zero real interest rates (by which people are paid to borrow), and monetary expansion (which back-stops this escalation in debt and other obligations).

Wages and other forms of income have continued to increase, but only because we have been taking on between $3 and $5 of new commitments in exchange for each dollar of apparent “growth” in GDP and, therefore, in incomes. A point will, inevitably, soon be reached at which we have to renege on some of these promises, either by walking away from them (‘hard default’) or by devaluing them through inflation (‘soft default’). The idea that this somehow ‘doesn’t matter’ is a fiction, because one person’s debt is another person’s asset, and because broader promises (such as pensions) form the real basis on which people plan their lives.       

The deterioration in prosperity has been experienced first in the Advanced Economies, and prosperity per capita has been falling in almost all Western countries since the early 2000s. The high levels of complexity in these economies carry extensive maintenance costs, meaning that prior growth in prosperity goes into reverse at comparatively low levels of ECoE (between 3.5% and 5.0%). Less complex EM (emerging market) economies enjoy greater ECoE tolerance, but they, too, have now reached the ECoE inflexion-points (between 8% and 10%) at which prior growth in their prosperity, too, goes into reverse.

This, of course, means that the average person – first in the West, latterly in the EM countries – gets poorer. So far, at least, the rate of deterioration in top-line prosperity has been pretty gradual, but its effects on the average person are leveraged by taxation; by the priority that must be given to household essentials; and by the liens on income created by the increasing financialization of the economy.

Here’s a simple illustration of this leverage effect. A person has an income of $100. Of this, $35 goes in tax, $40 must be spent on essentials, and a further $15 goes out in interest, rent and various subscriptions and stage-payments. This leaves $10 of discretionary income for the person to spend as he or she wishes.

If this representative person’s income falls by $5, from $100 to $95, it’s mathematically true to say that he or she is worse off by ‘only’ 5%. But, because of the leverage in the equation, his or her discretionary spending capability has slumped by 50%, from $10 to $5.

This person may – and, in the real world, increasingly does – counteract this ‘discretionary squeeze’ by taking on extra debt, or by stringing out (staging) payments for purchases that hitherto would have been paid for up-front.

But all that this does is to increase the future cost of debt service and other liens on income.      

Taxing times

Where fiscal issues are concerned, the prosperity problem for households is leveraged by governments’ failure to set policy based on the realities of prosperity.

In the group of sixteen Advanced Economies (AE-16) modelled by SEEDS, aggregate taxation increased by an estimated 40% in real terms between 1999 and 2019. Since recorded GDP rose by a very similar 41% over this period, the apparent incidence of taxation – measured conventionally against GDP – has been remarkably static, seldom varying much above or below 36% over the past two decades.

When we look past credit-inflated GDP to prosperity, however, the burden of tax has risen from 39% in 1999 to 49% last year.

As this pincer effect has rolled on – with taxes rising whilst prosperity erodes – relatively modest decreases in prosperity per capita have been leveraged into much more extreme falls at the level of disposable (“left in your pocket”) prosperity.

The most striking illustration of this effect is France, where prosperity per capita peaked in 2004, at €30,910. Since then, this number has declined by a comparatively modest 6.2% (€1,910) in real terms, to €29,000. But tax per capita has increased (by €3,000 per person) over that same period. Accordingly, the disposable prosperity of the average French citizen has fallen by a dramatic 34% (€4,920), from €14,700 in 2004 to just €9,570 last year. Popular anger at this state of affairs is palpable.  

In few other countries has this leverage effect been quite so extreme, but declines in disposable prosperity per person have, nevertheless, been pretty striking, falling by 28.2% in Spain since 2001, by 28.0% in Britain since 2004, and by 17.4% in the United States since 2000 (see table 1).

Table 1.

Essential pressures

The adverse leveraging effect of taxation has fiscal and political implications, of course, though what interests us here is its impact on consumers.

This impact is, moreover, compounded by the growing slice of prosperity accounted for by the cost of household essentials.

SEEDS doesn’t monitor essentials spending on a country-by-country basis, but does carry out this exercise in the single instance of the United Kingdom. Over a twenty-year period ending in December 2019, average wages in Britain increased by a nominal 77%, outstripping CPI inflation (of 49%) such that, in theory, the wage-earner was better off by nearly 10% over that period.

However, the essentials index (TMUKEPI) rose by 96%, such that wages measured against household essentials decreased by almost 10% between 1999 and 2019. It’s also noteworthy that, whilst the average cost of domestic rent rose by 8% in real terms, the real cost of mortgages fell by almost 20%.

Since a sizeable part of the cost of household essentials is linked to commodities traded globally – most obviously, to foodstuffs, materials and, above all, energy – it’s a reasonable inference that these broad patterns have been replicated elsewhere in the Advanced Economies. From this, we can deduce that non-discretionary purchases, whilst they account for perhaps 37% to 40% of household expenditures, already absorb somewhere between 50% and 55% of prosperity.

If this calculation is correct, it would mean that the combined burdens of tax and household essentials are already close to, and may in a number of instances exceed, per capita prosperity. If these costs seem to remain affordable within incomes – but not within prosperity – the explanation lies in the credit effect of inflating incomes (and aggregate GDP) by purchasing “growth” using incremental debt in a ratio of 3:1.     

In short, indicative numbers suggest that, over the past five or so years, the combined burdens of taxation and essentials have come to absorb all of the prosperity of the average person in a growing number of Western economies.  

What this in turn means is that the average household increasingly relies on credit expansion to fund all discretionary (non-essential) purchases. In this context, ‘debt’ includes the individual’s share of all government and corporate (as well as household) borrowing. Albeit at one remove, government borrowing pays for services that would otherwise have to be funded by taxation, whilst corporate borrowing helps fund the incomes of employees, and may also serve to reduce the end-user cost of purchases.   

As set out in table 2, perhaps the most extreme example of this credit effect is Ireland. Since 2004, the annual pre-tax prosperity of the average Irish citizen has decreased by €3,000 which, at 7.4% and spread over fifteen years, may seem a comparatively modest decline. Over the same period, though, his or her share of the country’s debt has soared from €82,000 to €198,000. This means that, on average, the average person’s share of debt has increased by nearly €7,700 in each of the past fifteen years.     

Table 2.

Conclusions

It’s a reasonable guess that the central conclusions of this analysis will not contradict many readers’ intuitive perceptions of what has been happening.

We know that increases in income have been more than matched by increases in debt. We know that, increasingly, households are taking on financial commitments in addition to traditional obligations such as mortgages and rent. We know that taxes on the ‘typical’ household haven’t fallen to mitigate these pressures. We know that the real cost of household essentials has risen, and it will come as no great surprise that there is a corollary between rising household credit and continuing expenditures on non-essential purchases such as leisure, travel and gadgets. We also know that many other indicators of hardship chime with these observations.

In this context, it’s necessary to be clear about what we know, and what we infer. Observation over time confirms that financial ‘innovation’, and outright increases in debt and other obligations, are being used to sustain increasingly illusory ‘growth’. Our understanding of the energy basis of all economic activity should reinforce our confidence that rising ECoEs lie at the root of what began as “secular stagnation”, but has since turned into something a great deal more serious. SEEDS monitors real-terms taxation in countries accounting for about 80% of the World economy and, if we cannot calculate the costs of household essentials on a country-by-country basis, we have data sufficient for reasonable inference on this component.

We need to be somewhat nuanced in the conclusions that we draw from a diminishing, and perhaps vanishing, aggregate capability to fund discretionary purchases without resort to spiraling credit.

For one thing, inequalities between households affect the overall situation. Whilst the ‘average’ person might not be able to make discretionary purchases without using credit, there will be some below this average who already rely on credit to pay for the essentials, whilst others are in a better position, and can still make discretionary purchases without going into debt to do so. To take just one example, the interpretation presented here doesn’t imply that air travel will ‘collapse’, but does indicate that it will contract, suggesting that providers will need to carry fewer passengers, and charge them higher fares.

This said, there can be no disguising the underlying trends, which point towards overall contraction in discretionary sectors, and also highlight the vulnerability of any activity or asset which depends on income streams derived from increasingly squeezed household prosperity. Logically, the industrial landscape can be expected to rebalance away from discretionary activities, whilst a sharp correction in asset prices is likely to be led both by decay in discretionary components and by a degradation in the scale and reliability of ‘income streams’.        

#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