Here is the latest brilliant post by Dr. Tim Morgan, ex Global Head of Research at Tullett Prebon and author of the best financial research reports ever published from inside the finance industry, especially his last report from 2013 “Perfect Storm: Energy, Finance, and the End of Growth“.
What is Surplus Energy Economics?
Very briefly, SEE says that the economy is an energy system, not a monetary one. Prosperity is determined by surplus energy – that is, the energy available after the deduction of the energy which is always used up whenever we access energy.
Our entire history can be seen in this way. As hunter-gatherers, all the energy that people obtained from food was consumed obtaining that food, so there was no surplus, no economy and no society.
Agriculture was the “first great breakthrough” because it created the first energy surplus. Put simply, the greater efficiency of farming compared with hunter-gathering, plus the use of animal labour, enabled twenty people to be fed by the labour of nineteen, freeing the twentieth to do other things. This first energy surplus was small, and most people continued to undertake subsistence activities. But there was now an economy of sorts, and a society developed in parallel with it. People could now, for the first time, invest, sacrificing current consumption to create capital assets (such as barns, bridges, agricultural implements and rudimentary workshops) which would improve their lot in the future.
A vastly bigger energy surplus was created when we learned to tap fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas. This triggered two centuries of exponential growth, not just in economic output, but in population numbers and energy consumption as well. So sophisticated have economies become that, most notably in the West, very few people are engaged in producing food.
The end of growth?
For decades, people have speculated about the relationship between exponential growth and a finite planet. This debate rages on, but the balance is tilting, in two very obvious ways.
First, we are discovering the limitations of the earth as an ecosystem and, second, the surplus energy which has driven growth in economic output and population numbers is coming under mounting pressure.
Where fossil fuels – still well over 80% of our energy consumption – are concerned, two factors are in play. Depletion is robbing us of the gigantic, ultra-low-cost sources of energy which hitherto powered economic growth. Technology is endeavouring to offset this, both increasing the efficiency with which we access conventional fuels, and enabling us to tap energy from renewable sources.
Technology will doubtless continue to progress, but we are in danger of complacency over technological solutions. Renewables still account for barely 3% of global energy consumption, and no-one has yet worked out how to power a 747-size jet using renewables, or how to extract 1 tonne of ore from 500 tonnes of rock without using fossil fuels.
We should be optimistic about renewables, but also realistic. Renewables can supply energy more cost-effectively than fossil fuel sources discovered and brought on stream today. But my interpretation of the thermodynamic balance is that renewables are not going to take us back to an age of vast, low-cost, high-surplus energy from giant fields.
If the surplus energy interpretation of the economy is correct, growth should continue to prove elusive. But our system is so predicated on growth – a topic for another article – that we cannot accept even stagnation, let alone adjust to decline.
So we have been faking growth by borrowing. By 2008, the debt mountain had become so big that we could no longer afford to pay a normal rate of interest on it, so the authorities adopted ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) in order to prevent the economy being engulfed. But ZIRP, and other forms of monetary manipulation, cannot resolve the situation, and have their own costs. At zero- or near-zero rates, the economy cannot function normally, and it certainly cannot provide for the future, which is why huge deficits are now imperilling pension provision.
In theory, we might go on faking growth for many more years yet, and I’m pretty sure the authorities will be mightily tempted to try. But this would result in a further escalation of debt, which would also mean that raising interest rates significantly – let alone restoring them to something resembling normality – would become out of the question (which may already be the case). Comparing 2020 with 2015, and taking inflation out of the equation, the world seems likely to grow its GDP by close to $10tn, but to add at least $50tn to its $151tn non-financial debt mountain.
If (or, rather, when) debt escalation reaches crisis point, some kind of write-off might be tried, unless the authorities decide to unleash high inflation in an attempt to destroy the real value of debt. Inflation, which has been described as the “hard drug” of our economic system, can very rapidly get out of control.
So here we have some pointers to the future – debt escalation, and/or hyper-inflation, both of which would be insane choices, but neither of which are beyond the short-termism of the political class.
Ultimately, and whichever folly is chosen, faith in fiat currencies is likely to collapse, to which I will only add that there are already at least two major currencies that I, for one, would not want to hold. In the normal course of events, inflation strips money of its value, but this tends to be gradual – we have little widespread (though plenty of local) experience of what happens when a fiat currency falls apart.
People cannot be expected to accept any of the post-growth consequences described here with a resigned shrug. They are not doing so now – instead, and naturally, they are beginning to blame, and repudiate, established political leaderships, and this was the most significant trend to emerge in 2016.
If the economy – and, in the first instance, the financial system – does start to implode, governments are highly likely to resort to coercion, spouting precious claptrap about “the national interest” as they try to maintain their hold on power.