#183. A new stark clarity



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  

#182. The castaway’s dilemma, part two


As we enter an Autumn which many of us have all along expected to be ‘fraught with interest’, one question, above all others, dominates the economic and financial debate.

Are the authorities going to try to monetize their (meaning our) way out of the extreme difficulties exacerbated and catalyzed by the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic?

Or are they going to adhere to a form of monetary rectitude that was so conspicuously abandoned during the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC)?

The central conclusion reached here is that we have exhausted the scope for short-term, ‘band-aid’ fixes for a fundamental imbalance between (1) a growth-predicated financial system and (2) an underlying economy that is tipping over into “de-growth”. We simply cannot reconcile a ‘financial’ economy of money and credit that keeps getting bigger with a ‘real’ economy of goods and services that has reached the end of growth.

This has both near-term and longer-term implications. Longer-term, we need to find ways of rebalancing the economy towards quality rather than quantity, and shrinking the financial system back to a sustainable scale.

Why ‘2008 revisited’ won’t work

More immediately, we need to recognize that the stop-gap ‘fixes’ used during the GFC won’t work this time. 

Back in 2008, it was just about possible for the authorities to bail out the financial system whilst leaving the economy to its fate, an approach lambasted by critics at the time as ‘rescuing Wall Street at the expense of Main Street’.

This time around, no such possibility exists. On the one hand, the process of financialization has advanced to the point where credit has been inserted into virtually all economic transactions. On the other, forward income streams have been incorporated into financial instruments to such an extent that the financial system could not withstand any significant and prolonged interruption to underlying economic activity. Large swathes of the financial system have become hostages to the continuity of interest, rent and earnings streams from households and from private non-financial corporations (PNFCs).

What this means is that, if it were ever really perceived that economic deterioration is going to undermine the ability of households and businesses to maintain such payment streams, the financial system would fall apart.

We cannot know, of course, whether the authorities actually understand that they can’t repeat the tactic of rescuing the financial system whilst leaving the ‘real’ economy to its fate. Some policymakers, at least, might labour under the delusion that the prices of securities, and the validity of collateral, can be shored up even if the underlying entities (businesses, borrowers, tenants) go to the wall. Delusions undoubtedly still exist at the policy level, as evidenced by the wholly fallacious faith that some still seem to place in the ability of negative interest rates to ‘stimulate’ the economy, and to ‘support’ financial valuations.

The view taken here, though, is that most policy-makers, if they don’t already understand this point, will very soon have its reality imposed upon them. This means that, even where propping up the financial system remains their first priority, they will come to recognize that the only way to do this is to support the underlying economy.

This in turn means that even those governments currently proclaiming fiscal rectitude are likely to be pushed into larger (and longer) support programmes, running ultra-large deficits whose additions to public debt will, in due course and to a very large extent, be monetized by central banks. This points to a scenario in which initial deflation (imposed by sagging economies) is likely to be followed by soaring inflation (as the authorities try to force a quart of monetary stimulus into a pint-pot of economic capability).  

Under starter’s orders   

On the question of “monetize or not?”, participants in capital markets have already placed their bets – if they thought for one moment that governments and central banks were not going to intervene, the prices of equities (and, very probably, the prices of property and of a very high proportion of bonds, too) would already have crashed.

The clear message from the markets is that, faced with a worsening economic and financial crisis, governments are going to turn to full-bore fiscal support, with the highly probable corollary that central banks will create (in an earlier idiom, ‘print’) enough new money to monetize the gargantuan debts thus created. If it’s objected that huge monetization might trigger high inflation, markets would doubtless retort that, if this were indeed to happen, investors would be better off holding almost any form of asset in preference to cash.

If the markets are right, a large proportion of everything – from wages, debt service costs and rents to the purchasing of goods and services – will be propped up by government largesse. Taking equities as an example, high prices indicate, not only that capital isn’t expected to flow out of markets, but also that most of the businesses in which capital is invested will be kept viable – after all, no amount of market liquidity can attach much value to the stock of a company which has gone bust. So market thinking is certainly consistent – governments and central banks will prop up both the financial system and the economy itself.

The contrary argument begins with the observation that some governments seem already to have committed themselves to fiscal rectitude. More fundamentally, it’s argued that monetization could not, this time around, be ‘neutralized’ within the boundaries of capital markets, but would have to happen at such a scale, and in such a way, that faith in fiat currencies would be placed at grave risk.

There’s a strong body of opinion, then, to the effect that the authorities won’t take what could be existential risks with the monetary system. There’s a seldom-made argument, too, that no amount of monetary tinkering can save businesses, or indeed whole sectors, whose viability is gone, and which could continue to exist only, if at all, on the basis of perpetual financial life-support.   

The view taken here – which is that the authorities are likely to succumb to calls for expanded fiscal support, much of which will then be monetized by central banks – is based on a reading of the fundamentals which is informed by the understanding that the economy is an energy system, and is not wholly (or even largely) a financial one.

From this perspective, how did we get ourselves into a situation in which a single crisis (admittedly a severe one, compounded by inept responses) could put the whole system at risk?

The Great Divergence

The background to the current crisis is that the ‘financial’ economy of money and credit has far out-grown the ‘real’ economy of goods and services.

The ‘claim for the defence’ in this situation is that the real economy, whilst it may lag the process of financial expansion, remains capable of pretty decent rates of “growth”.

This statement, though, is only true if you ignore the way in which we’ve been using the financial system to ‘buy’ growth, using $3 of new net debt (plus a lot of other deferred commitments) to create $1 of “growth”. Also, of course, conventional presentation ignores an escalating energy cost of energy (ECoE), and makes no effort to internalise the costs of environmental degradation.

For the purposes of this discussion, it’s going to be assumed that readers are familiar with the principles of Surplus Energy Economics (SEE), and know how this interpretation is put into practice using the SEEDS economic model.

Simply put, there are two ways in which the economy can be understood. One of these, favoured here but very much a minority view, is that the economy is an energy system, and that prosperity is a product of the economic value that we obtain from the use of energy.

The other – the established or ‘conventional’ orthodoxy – is that the economy is a financial system, a persuasion that has sometimes portrayed natural resources in general (and energy in particular) as little more than incidental contributors to economic activity.

The energy view of economics accepts – as conventional interpretation does not – that resources (which for this purpose include the environment) set limits to the scope for expansion in prosperity.

Though all of this sounds theoretical, it is in fact central to an appreciation of our current circumstances. Over time, the physical or ‘real’ economy of goods and services, and the immaterial or ‘financial’ economy of money and credit, have diverged relentlessly.

Between 1999 and 2019, the official (financial) calibration of World economic output (GDP) grew at an annual average rate of 3.6%, whereas SEEDS measurement indicates that underlying or ‘clean’ output (in SEEDS terminology, C-GDP) has grown at an annual average rate of only 1.8%. Because, of course, these are compounding rates, a huge gulf now divides GDP from C-GDP.

For practical purposes, what this means is that conventional statements, both of output (a measure of flow) and of wealth (a related measure of stock, but in reality linked to flow), are dramatically exaggerated in relation to the underlying reality of economic value.

One illustration of this is provided by the ‘values’ conventionally imputed to assets. Asset prices have come to represent not, as logic says they should, discounted forward streams of underlying income, but current and anticipated monetary conditions.

If, for instance, we multiply the average price of a house by a country’s total number of houses, we can arrive at a pretty impressive ‘valuation’ of the national housing stock. A moment’s reflection, however, tells us that this valuation could never be realised (monetized), because the only people to whom all of these houses could be sold are the same people to whom they already belong.

This process – which uses marginal transaction prices to value the aggregate of an asset category – applies just as much to stocks and bonds as to property. When we read, for instance, that billions have been “wiped off” (or added to) the value of the stock market, it’s easy to forget that all of this is purely notional, because the market as a whole couldn’t have been turned into cash at any point in this process.

What this in turn means is that we’ve become accustomed to believing in aggregate valuations which are, in fact, purely notional. Just as we couldn’t turn the whole of the national housing stock, or the entirety of the equity market, into cash, the same applies individually to large corporations, and to the housing stock of, say, a town or a city.

The distorting effects of ‘notional value’

This concept of notional valuation extends in very important ways into everyday economic activity. Here’s an example.

If interest rates are 5%, a person who can afford $10,000 a year in mortgage payments can buy a house for $200,000 but, if rates now fall to 2%, his or her affordability rises to $500,000. Because the same applies to every other potential buyer, properties in general are re-priced accordingly. Because they can be pushed out almost indefinitely into the future, capital repayment considerations play an almost negligible role in such calculations.

A real estate agent, charging an unchanged rate of commission of 2%, earns $4,000 on the first transaction, but $10,000 on the second, even though the work done, or the real value added by that work, haven’t changed.

Meanwhile, the homeowner who bought at the earlier price-point has seen a big (though a paper) increase in his or her equity, making him relaxed about borrowing to finance a holiday, or the purchase of a new car. Unless he or she intends to cash out (monetize) the supporting equity – which is possible for some by trading down, but isn’t possible for everyone – then these debts, ultimately, remain tied to the future incomes of the borrowers.

This monetary inflation of asset prices – a process excluded, by the way, from conventional statements of inflation – needs to be considered in tandem with the broader financialization of the economy, a topic on which Charles Hugh Smith is particularly perceptive.

Historically, a car would have been made by a vehicle manufacturer and its employees, and bought by a motorist using his or her savings, which are in turn the product of his or her labour. Now, though, financial institutions have routinely been inserted into this transaction in a way which, from a purist point of view, might be regarded as unnecessary. The car is bought on the basis, not on saved income from the past, but of assumed income in the future

The packaging and sale of forward payment streams (as exemplified by mortgage-backed securities, but in reality a very widespread, almost universal practice) dominates the financialized system. This has had the adverse effect of driving a wedge between risk (offloaded onto the purchaser of the security) and return (of which a significant part is retained by the initiator of the transaction). This is an example of quite how distorted the relationship between the financial and the real economies has been allowed to become.

Critically, this entire financialized process is wholly dependent on continuity, which in this sense is coterminous with growth. If the earnings of a mortgage-payer or a car-purchaser fall, he or she may not be able to keep up with committed payments, just as a business whose income deteriorates may no longer be able to afford scheduled debt payments. The same applies to rent (whether household or commercial), because the assumed forward stream of these payments is likely to have been packaged and sold on, often to somebody who, in turn, relies upon this income to service the debt that he used to finance the purchase.

Before turning to practicalities, let’s state what this means in the starkest possible terms. The real economy, and the people who comprise it, can tolerate stagnation, or a modest decline in output – but the financial economy relies absolutely on continuity and growth.

Most ordinary people, if they were unencumbered by debt, could certainly cope if their real (inflation-adjusted) incomes stopped growing, and could probably manage reasonably well if that income dropped by a relatively modest amount. By extension, if we imagined a debt-free economy, it, too, could probably adjust to, say, a 5% or a 10% fall in income, which in this context means a decrease in the quantity of goods and services that are produced. Its citizens wouldn’t like this, of course – but they could survive it.    

All of this changes when you introduce the futurity of leverage into the equation. Whether it’s a household, a business or an economy, a significant part of future income is now earmarked for debt service. In this way, financialization of the economy takes away resilience.  A person or a business with debt to service loses the ability to cope with static or declining income, primarily because the financial system discounts a future wholly predicated on the assumption of perpetual expansion.

A dangerous asymmetry

What this interpretation also tells us is that, whilst the ‘real’ and the ‘financial’ economies are interdependent, this dependency is asymmetric. The economy of goods and services, though it would be greatly disrupted, might well survive a slump in the financial economy, but the reverse proposition is not the case. For the financial system to survive at all, the real economy must carry on growing, and the absolute, irreducible minimum is that it must not contract, other than by a very small extent, and for a very limited period.

The more financialized an economy (or a household, or a business) becomes, the more its resilience is undermined.

From where we are now, the critical point is that the financial economy, though it might just about weather another modest recession, would be destroyed by “de-growth”. Moreover, the advance of financialization suggests that even something well short of de-growth – for instance, a severe and prolonged recession, well short of what was experienced in the 1930s – would bring down the financial system.

For policymakers, this means, as mentioned earlier, that a “Wall Street versus Main Street?” choice no longer exists. If they were to intervene to rescue the financial system, whilst leaving the ‘real’ economy to its own devices, the financial system would collapse anyway.

We need to be absolutely clear that the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, though it has appeared to many to be a ‘bolt from the blue’, has in reality catalysed and accelerated trends that were going to happen anyway. Since 2008 – and, arguably, for a lot longer than that – a reversal of growth has been inevitable. It has already started in the advanced economies of the West, and was always going to pose an existential threat to a financialized money and credit system wholly predicated on perpetual growth.

Let’s look at what this means at the present juncture. Long before the pandemic, people in the West were already getting poorer, and a similar climacteric was imminent for the EM (emerging market) countries. Worldwide, growth in aggregate prosperity has now fallen to levels which are lower than rates of increase in population numbers. Thus far, we’ve blinded ourselves to this by using credit to sustain consumption in excess of real value output. As well as encouraging consumers to do this, the corporate sector has added top-spin to this process by using debt to buy back stock, essentially replacing shock-absorbing equity with inflexible debt (which is another example of how financialization takes away resilience). Critically, buy-backs add debt without adding to productive capacity.

Whether we borrow as individuals to increase our consumption, or as corporations to boost stock prices through repurchases, the common result is that we mortgage the future in order to inflate apparent prosperity and value in the present. Because we’ve used debt to try to mask the trend towards deteriorating prosperity (a trend that we can neither stop nor reverse), the imbalances between the real and the financial economies have grown steadily more extreme.

Our situation has become one in which monetary manipulation has created value which only really ‘exists’ if we can carry on sustaining illusory levels of output. The only comfort that can be offered to those who’ve mishandled the coronavirus crisis is that this crunch point, if it hadn’t been precipitated now, would in due course have happened anyway – indeed, SEEDS has long identified 2020-22 as the period in which equilibrium would bite back.

At the end of gimmickry and denial

The immediate conclusion has to be that the authorities can no longer sustain a semblance of sustainability through monetary manipulation (though they are highly likely to try).

If they decide to prop up the financial system whilst leaving the economy itself to its own devices, the financial system could not escape the consequences of slumps in ‘real-world’ income streams (which would show up in bankruptcies and defaults).

If, recognizing this, they decided to prop up the real economy as well, using fiscal and monetary intervention, this, too would fail, both because the ability to ‘stimulate’ the real economy is circumscribed, and because action on the required scale would undermine monetary credibility.

This leaves us with the question of whether fundamental reform is possible. In purely practical terms, it probably is, but the likelihood of it actually happening – let alone of it happening in time – seems remote.

In the economy itself, we could adapt to the implications of worsening imbalances between energy ECoEs, labour availability and the environment, opting for what might best be termed “craft” solutions for our profligacy with energy and broader resources.

Financially, shrinking the system back into a sustainable relationship with the real economy is by no means an impossibility.

But the processes of decision-making, the myriad self-interests in play, and sheer ignorance about financial, economic and environmental realities, makes the voluntary adoption of such courses of action look depressingly unlikely.   

#181. The castaway’s dilemma, part one


Of what value are facts?

If this question arises with unparalleled force now, it’s because of the enormous, perhaps unprecedented divergence between the economy (and many other issues) as they are perceived and presented to us, and these same things as they actually are.

Starting with perception, the generally accepted narrative is that the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic is something which struck ‘out of a blue sky’, and could not have been anticipated. In due course, we’re assured, the economy will stage a ‘full recovery’, returning to pretty much its previous size, shape and direction, with monetary policy assisting this ‘return to normal’. Even the lasting damage inflicted on the economy can be made good over time. Life must go on, especially in politics, whilst most of the West’s incumbent regimes are making a pretty good fist of handling the pandemic-induced crisis.

This ‘consensus’ line on our current predicament is wrong, in almost every particular. Far from being unpredictable, the pandemic was anticipated by leading scientists whose prescient advice is, for the most part, still being ignored. Any economic ‘recovery’ from here will be largely cosmetic, the shape of the economy is going to be very different indeed, and monetary gimmickry can no more rehabilitate economic prosperity than central banks can ‘print antibodies’. Conventional, ‘business as usual’ party politics matter very little in this situation, and incumbent governments are, in general, making an unholy mess of the coronavirus crisis. When you look at what’s unfolding in, for example, Britain and America, you very literally ‘couldn’t make it up’.

A bad time for reality?

This situation – in which perception and presentation are at a premium, and factual analysis at a hefty discount – is not propitious for the subject-matter of this discussion, which outlines new developments which enable the SEEDS model to map the economy and some of its broader ramifications, the latter including the environmental harm caused by economic activity.

Part of the problem, of course, is an established insistence on the fallacy that the economy is a wholly monetary system, from which it follows that energy is ‘just another input’, and that “[t]he world can, in effect, get by without natural resources”.

Had Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, shipwrecked on his desert island, only known about classical economics, he wouldn’t have wasted his efforts finding water, food, firewood and shelter, but would instead have spent his time accumulating bits of coloured paper. Indeed, had computers existed in 1719, he wouldn’t even have needed the paper.

In challenging this absurdity, those of us who understand that the economy is an energy system, and not a financial one, can sometimes feel as isolated as Robinson Crusoe himself. Some comfort can be drawn, though, from the reflection that reality usually wins out in the end, and that pre-knowledge of the outcome has considerable value.  

The energy economy

The energy interpretation of the economy is simply stated, and need only be reiterated in brief here for the information of anyone new to the logic of Surplus Energy Economics.

First, all of the goods and services which constitute the economy are products of the application of energy. Nothing of any economic value (utility) whatsoever can be supplied without it. An economy cut off from the supply of energy would collapse within days. (If they were denied energy, conventional economists would lose the ability to publish learned papers telling us how unimportant energy really is).

Second, whenever energy is accessed for our use, some of that energy is always consumed in the access process, meaning that it’s unavailable for any other economic purpose. This ‘consumed in access’ component is known here as the Energy Cost of Energy, or ECoE, and its roles include defining the difference between output and prosperity.

Third, money has no intrinsic worth, and commands value only as a ‘claim’ on the output of the energy economy. Creating monetary claims that exceed the delivery capability of the economy itself must, therefore, result in the destruction of the supposed ‘value’ represented by those excess claims.

To be clear about this, money is a valid subject of study, so long as we never allow ourselves to be persuaded that to understand the human artefact of money is to understand the economy. Likewise, studying the lore and laws of cricket may be rewarding, but it won’t help you to understand a game of baseball.   

The importance of this very different way of understanding the economy is that it points to conclusions drastically at variance from the comforting narrative generally presented to us.

Well before the coronavirus pandemic, it was evident that prior growth in global average prosperity per person had gone into reverse, and that we were encountering limits to the ability to use financial manipulation to disguise economic deterioration in the advanced economies of the West. The narrative of an ‘economy of more’ – more “growth”, more vehicles on the world’s roads, more flights, more consumption, more profitability and more use of energy – was already well on the way to being discredited. The pandemic crisis merely accelerates trends that had been evident for quite some time.

Critically, this process invalidates a raft of assumptions and of expectations founded entirely on the false presumption of ‘growth in perpetuity’.    

Mapping the real economy

From the outset, the aims of the SEEDS model were (a) to interpret the economy from an energy perspective, and (b) to present this interpretation in the financial language in which debate is customarily conducted.

Development of SEEDS has reached the point where the reality of the energy-driven economy can be mapped. This can best be understood if it is stated as an ability to answer a string of critically-important questions, of which the following are examples.

First, how much economic value do we extract from each unit of primary energy that we consume, and where is this conversion efficiency relationship heading?

Second, from the value thus generated from the use of energy, how much ECoE must be deducted, now and in the future, to define the amount available for all other economic purposes?

Third, what can trends in ECoE tell us about the quantity and mix of energy likely to be available to us in the future? 

Fourth, how, using this knowledge, can we best maximise prosperity whilst minimizing the environmental harm caused by our use of energy?   

This list helps identify a short series of questions of which most can now be addressed as equations. These equations, together with a number of supplementary measurements, can be used mathematically to map the ‘real’ economy of energy and the environment in a way that can be pictured representationally as follows.

The equations

The following summary, though it doesn’t go too far into dry theory, is intended to provide an overview of the SEEDS mapping process.

Equation #1: measuring output

To calibrate the efficiency with which we turn energy use into economic value, we need to start by identifying a meaningful measure of economic output.

GDP cannot serve this purpose because it is subject to extreme monetary distortion. Essentially, reported “growth” is exaggerated by the use of credit and monetary activities which inflate apparent activity. The funding of anticipatory activity, and the inflation of the supposed value of asset-related transactions, are two of the ways in which this happens.

Reflecting this, reported average GDP “growth” of 3.6% between 1999 and 2019 was a direct function of net borrowing which averaged 9.8% of GDP over the same period.

Examination of the processes involved enables the calibration of this distortion, thereby identifying rates of growth in underlying or ‘clean’ output (C-GDP), which are far lower than their reported equivalents. The right-hand chart in fig. 1 illustrates how the insertion of a ‘wedge’ between debt and GDP has inserted a corresponding distortion between reported and underlying economic output.   

Fig. 1: economic output

Equation #2: calibrating economic efficiency

Measured on the basis of C-GDP, economic output per tonne of oil equivalent (toe) of energy consumed has declined steadily, from $7,400 in 1999 to $6,730 last year, reflecting the observation that C-GDP has increased by only 40% over a period in which primary energy consumption expanded by 54%.

This deterioration in conversion efficiency may seem counter-intuitive, but has several important inferences, in addition to the obvious statement that we are using energy less, rather than more, effectively over time.

Specifically, changes in the ‘mix’ of the energy slate seem to be trending towards lesser conversion efficiency, whilst technology has concentrated much more on finding additional applications for energy than on the more efficient use of energy itself.  

Fig. 2: economic efficiency

Equations #3 & 4: ECoE and volume

Trend ECoEs have been rising since a nadir that was enjoyed in the two decades or so after 1945, a period that also – although this was no coincidence at all – witnessed remarkably robust growth in world prosperity.

Latterly, though, a relentless rise in the ECoEs of fossil fuels has driven the overall trend sharply upwards. Optimists believe that the steady fall in the ECoEs of renewable sources of energy (REs) will solve this problem, but this expectation owes far more to hope and extrapolation than it does to realistic interpretation.

Though ECoEs play a critical role in the conversion of economic output into prosperity, they are relevant, too, for the quantities of energy likely to be available to the economy in the future. Hitherto, the consensus expectation has been that energy supply – including the amounts provided by fossil fuels – will continue the steady growth experienced in the past. In comparison with recent levels, this consensus sees us using 10-12% more oil, 30-32% more gas and about the same amount of coal in 2040, with total primary energy supply rising by about 20%.

The reality, though, is that a combination of two factors, both of them related to rising ECoEs, is starting to exert adverse effects on the volume outlook. First, rising costs are increasing the prices required by producers. Second, the upwards trend in ECoEs is, by undermining prosperity, reducing the amounts that consumers can afford to pay for energy.

Accordingly, SEEDS has now adopted a much more cautious scenario which projects little or no growth in aggregate energy supply, combined with a steady decrease in the availability of fossil fuels.      

You’ll appreciate at this point that, if energy volumes cease growing, and if conversion efficiency fails to recover, then real annual economic value output can only trend downwards.

Fig. 3: ECoE and energy supply

Equation #5: measuring prosperity

Properly understood, the economic output value that we derive from energy is not the same thing as prosperity, because the first call on this output is the cost component – ECoE – required for the provision of energy itself.

ECoE defines a proportion of output which, being required for energy supply, is not available for any other economic purpose. Accordingly, the deduction of ECoE from output determines prosperity, whether this is expressed as an aggregate or as a per capita amount.

At the aggregate level, rising ECoEs have inserted a widening wedge between underlying output (C-GDP) and prosperity. Since the rate of annual progression in aggregate prosperity has now fallen below the rate at which population numbers continue to increase, world prosperity per capita has now turned downwards from a lengthy plateau, with the coronavirus crisis seemingly accelerating the pace of deterioration.

Regionally, prosperity per capita in almost all Western advanced economies has already been trending downwards over an extended period, which helps explain why so many of these economies have long seemed moribund despite the increasing use of financial manipulation to present a semblance of continuing “growth”.

This might even make us feel some sympathy for politicians who feel obliged to offer voters “growth” when, on the only criterion that really matters – prosperity – growth has ceased to be feasible.

In the EM (emerging market) countries, prosperity growth was already, pre-pandemic, decelerating markedly towards an inflection point anticipated by SEEDS to occur between 2020 and 2022. This climacteric may have been brought forward by the coronavirus crisis.  

Fig. 4: ECoE and prosperity

Equation #6: economics and the environment

Though global temperature changes (and their causation) remain to a certain extent controversial, broader consideration, taking into account issues such as ecological loss and air quality, make it clear that human activity is harming the environment. By ‘activity’, of course, is meant the use of energy, and it’s surely obvious that we can only co-relate economic and environmental considerations if we place energy use in its proper place as the factor common to both.

Artificially-inflated measurement, such as recorded GDP, not only exaggerates apparent prosperity, but also supplies false comfort over environmental trends. As shown by a comparison of the period between 1999 and 2019 on a global basis, the false metric of GDP can be, and often is, used to assert that we are increasing the quantities of economic value achieved for each tonne of climate-harming CO² emitted into the atmosphere. Rebased to a C-GDP basis, however, it becomes apparent that CO² emissions have expanded by 48% whilst underlying economic output has increased by only 40%.

Moreover, rising ECoEs are worsening the relationship between prosperity and environmental harm. Critically, CO² emissions are related to gross amounts of energy used (including ECoE), whereas net amounts (excluding ECoE) determine prosperity.         

 Fig. 5: The environmental dimension

Equation #7: deviation from the real

The final mapping equation – in fact, a set of equations – cross-references the economy as it is to the version of the situation as it is presented to us.

Essentially, two components intervene between underlying prosperity and the version presented to the public as GDP. The first of these is ECoE, which conventional econometrics ignores. The second is the credit effect which arises where monetary policies are used to promote anticipatory activity, and to inflate the apparent value of asset-related transactions (as well as inflating asset values themselves).

SEEDS analysis enables us to quantify these distortions, and this, amongst other things, helps us to identify the adverse leverage in the mechanisms by which faltering prosperity is represented as expanding output.

From a purist perspective, this is something that we might ignore, concentrating our efforts on the identification of the ‘fact’ of prosperity.

In practical terms, however, this disparity is of the greatest importance, because it identifies the widening gap between semblance and substance.  

For anyone engaged in economic planning – whether in government, in business or in finance and investment – it can be argued that this is the most important equation of them all.

Fig. 6: reality and presentation