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Just How Big Is China’s Property Sector, And Two Key Questions On Policy And Tail Risks

Just How Big Is China’s Property Sector, And Two Key Questions On Policy And Tail Risks

While the broader US stock market was giddily melting…

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This article was originally published by Zero Hedge

Just How Big Is China’s Property Sector, And Two Key Questions On Policy And Tail Risks

While the broader US stock market was giddily melting up in the past week, things in China were going from bad to worse with Evergrande set to officially be in default on Oct 23 when the grace period on its first nonpayment ends, and with contagion rocking the local property market – which as we explained last week just saw the most “catastrophic” property sales numbers since the global financial crisis – sending dollar-denominated Chinese junk bonds to all time high yields.

So even though it is now conventional wisdom that China’s property crisis is contained (just as its concurrent energy crisis is also somehow contained), we beg to differ, and suggest that the crisis hitting the world’s largest asset class is only just starting and is about to drag China into a “hard landing”, with the world set to follow.

And yes, with a total asset value of $62 trillion representing 62% of household wealth, the Chinese real estate sector is not only 30 times bigger than the market cap of all cryptos and also bigger than both the US bond and stock market, but is the key “asset” that backstops China’s entire financial system whose deposits at last check were more than double those of the US. In other words, if China’s property sector wobbles, the world is facing a guaranteed depression.

So given the escalating weakness in China’s property sector, which has been in focus given intense regulatory pressure on developers’ leverage and banks’ mortgage exposure, and consequent contraction in sales and construction activity, it is natural to ask how significant a hit this could pose to both China’s and the global economy. To help people get a sense of scale, below we excerpts some of the key findings from a recent note from Goldman showing just how big China’s property sector is.

  1. A wide range of estimates for the scale of China’s property sector — up to about 30% of GDP — have been reported in the media and by other analysts. Different definitions of the scope of the sector largely account for the disparity.
  2. The most important distinctions are what types of building are included (residential, nonresidential, or all construction including infrastructure), what economic activity is included (only the construction itself, or all the value-added embedded in the finished residence e.g. domestically produced materials), and whether related real estate services are also included.
  3. A narrow definition of “residential construction activity as a share of GDP” could be as low as 3.6% of GDP. Expanding this to include all related domestic activities – e.g. materials like metals, wood, and stone produced domestically and used in housing construction, as well as services like financial activities and business services used directly or indirectly by the housing sector – would account for 12.4% of GDP. Adding nonresidential building construction and its associated activity would take it to 17.7%. Finally, including real estate services—which show a high correlation with broader property trends—would take the number to 23.3%. (All these numbers are based on detailed 2018 data, and exclude infrastructure spending not directly related to residential and nonresidential buildings.)
  4. The property sector’s share of the Chinese economy has grown fairly steadily over the past decade, after surging in the stimulus-fueled recovery just after the 2008 financial crisis.

Digging into the definition of the “property sector”, there are three main questions that need to be kept in mind:

1. What types of construction? One important difference is in what types of construction activities are included. Construction broadly consists of three categories: residential housing, nonresidential buildings, and infrastructure-related construction. In China, residential construction appears to be about half of total construction—the rest is either non-residential building construction or civil engineering works, plus a small amount of installation/decoration activity. Specifically, residential and nonresidential buildings represent around 70% of total construction, and residential floor space under construction is typically about 70% of total floor space under construction.

Note that this ~50% share for residential share of total construction is not unusual in international perspective. For example, the residential share is similar in the United States—though it reached into the 60-70% range during the peak years of the housing bubble—and has been about 40-50% in South Korea for some time.

2. What types of economic activity (only construction, or everything necessary to complete the finished building)? An even more important distinction is what types of activities one counts. Strictly speaking, the construction industry itself represents about 7% of China’s GDP. This represents wages, profits, and taxes from the construction sector (regardless of what type of construction or what end users). This is the value added of the construction sector itself, or the narrowly defined activity of building things.

However, the construction industry uses a lot of output from other sectors – both materials (cement, wood, steel, etc.) and services (transportation of materials, financial services) to create finished buildings. Put another way, there are a lot of “backward linkages” from the construction sector: a home purchase requires not just the value added from construction industry, but also the value added from the “upstream” industries that provided the materials and were otherwise involved in the completion of the finished product.

To gain some intuition for this, in the chart below, Goldman shows how much of each industry’s domestic value added ultimately goes into “final demand” of the construction industry (purchases of property by consumers or investment in property by businesses). For example, about one-third of value added in “wood products” goes into construction, about one-half of basic metals value added goes into construction, and essentially all of construction’s value added goes into construction final demand. (Note that this includes direct and indirect requirements—for example, basic metal output that is sold to firms in the metal fabrication industry that then sell to the construction sector would be counted as part of final demand for construction.)

The next chart shows what fraction of the final demand for construction is provided by each sector. Roughly speaking, if we think about this as “the total domestic value added embedded in an apartment”, almost 30% of this is provided by construction activity, 8% from nonmetallic mineral products, etc.

From the perspective of total domestic value added from all industries embedded in the final demand of the construction industry, the overall construction industry’s final demand accounts for roughly one-quarter of China’s GDP. This estimate is based on China’s most recent (2018) “input-output” table—which indicates the final output of each industry, as well as how much input is used from every other.

3. Should real estate services be included. Some analysts focus on property construction only, while others add the “real estate services” sector e.g. the leasing and maintenance of buildings when estimating the impact of the housing sector of the economy. These activities contribute roughly 6-7% of GDP in China. In many countries, real estate services are somewhat less volatile than housing construction. The likely reason is that real estate services relate in part to the stock of existing buildings than the flow of new building construction. Even if there were a housing crash and building construction stopped, most real estate services could theoretically continue.  As evidence of this, in the US housing crash, construction sector GDP fell by ~30% peak to trough but real estate services never declined. That said, in China the “real estate services” sector has been significantly more volatile, almost as volatile as the construction sector itself.

Contributions by type of demand and activity

Taking these three factors into consideration, Goldman next shows estimated shares of China’s activity in the next chart, and breaks down construction into its main components while showing the share attributable to real estate services. The “sector activity” column shows the share of GDP accounted for directly by activities of that sector. In other words, companies and workers engaged in all types of construction activity accounted for 7.1% of China’s GDP in 2018. The “final demand” column shows the share of GDP accounted for by all the domestic economic activities embodied in final demand for that sector. In other words, the demand for buildings and other construction also generates demand for materials and other types of services — and adding the value added in construction and all of these “upstream” sectors together gives the numbers in the right column

Putting the above together, the size of China’s property sector therefore depends on the question we want to answer:

  • What share of Chinese economic activity do workers/companies involved in residential construction represent? Here, one should look at domestic value-added (the left column). This is 7.1% for overall construction and just 3.6% for residential construction only.
  • How much economic activity is driven by demand for residential property construction? Residential property demand drives 12.4% of GDP (right column, second row in table), because in addition to the construction activity it creates demand for all the materials and other services involved in building construction.
  • What about the impact of total demand for property construction? Including non-residental buildings as well as residential, and the total upstream requirements of both, we want to look at the “domestic value added in final demand” of construction of residential + nonresidential buildings. This is 17.7% of GDP (12.4%+5.3%).
  • How much of the economy is at risk from a property downturn? Here, we could potentially add end demand for real estate services to the above calculation. This would be another 5.6% of GDP, suggesting 23.3% of the economy—nearly a quarter—would be affected.

Finally, if one adds all construction and all real estate and all their associated activities, we get just over 30% of the economy (24.5%+5.6%), although it is worth caveating that this may be an overly broad definition for the property sector, as it includes infrastructure-related activity, which if anything is likely to be ramped up by policymakers in the event of severe property sector weakness.

* * *

Yet even a nice big, round 30% estimate for how much China’s property sector contributes to GDP, does not encompass all the potential spillovers from a construction sector downturn. There are at least three others:

  1. Second-round effects. A shock to construction (or any other sector) implies a drop in wages and company profits in that sector. This in turn implies lower income for the household and business sectors — and incrementally lower consumption and investment respectively. Such “second-round” or “multiplier” effects aren’t included in the estimates above.
  2. Fiscal spillovers. Land sales represent an important part of local government revenues in China (roughly 1/3 in gross revenue terms). Governments acquire land usage rights from rural occupants and sell them at a premium via auctions to developers. If land sales revenues fall because of a housing downturn (through some combination of fewer successful auctions and/or lower land prices), budgets will be squeezed, which could limit local governments’ spending and investment.
  3. Spillovers abroad via imports. As the world’s largest trading nation, China does not get all of its construction materials and other intermediate inputs domestically. In addition to the estimates above, which focus on domestic value-added, about 11% of the total value added embedded in China’s construction final demand is from foreign sources. (This is about 3% of China’s GDP, although it makes more sense to look at each trading partner’s exposure relative to the size of its own economy.) So, if we wanted to look at the total size of China’s construction sector in terms of driving economic activity, regardless of where that economic activity occurs (perhaps to compare China’s construction sector to other countries with different levels of import intensity) the figure in the top right cell in Exhibit 3 would be 3% larger.

Putting it all together, and China’s property sector emerges as the mother of all ticking financial time bombs.

* * *

Which brings us to what is Beijing’s latest policy action (if any) to prevent this potential financial nuke from going off, and what are any additional tail risks to be considered.

Well, as noted above, China’s property sector began the week with sharp price falls across the board, with China’s junk bonds cratering to near all time lows and with signs that the concerns are spilling over to the broader China credit market with spreads widening across the board. Some key updates:

  • Recent news suggest China property stresses are building up. A number of China property HY developers have made announcements over recent weeks regarding their upcoming bond maturities.
  • On 11 Oct, Modern Land launched a consent solicitation to extend the maturity on its USD 250mn bond due on 25 Oct by 3 months
  • Xinyuan Real Estate announced on 14 Oct that the majority of holders of its USD 229mn bond due on 15 Oct have agreed to an exchange offer. Note that Fitch considers both transactions to be distressed exchanges.
  • Furthermore, Sinic announced on 11 Oct that they are not expecting to make the principal and interest payments on its USD 250mn bond due on 18 Oct. These indicate that stresses amongst developers are building.

Meanwhile, the grace period on Evergrande’s missed coupon payments is ending soon. Evergrande missed coupon payments of USD 148MM on 11 Oct. This came after missing an earlier coupon payment on 23 Sep. The earlier missed coupon has a 30-day grace period, which ends on 23 Oct, and should that not be remedied in the coming week, the company will be in default on this bond. With Evergrande USD bonds priced at around 20, a potential default is unlikely to have large market impact, though if the company is able to remedy the earlier default, this could provide a positive surprise for the market.

Despite these mounting risks, the market staged a sharp rebound at the end of the week, with news emerging that policymakers are seeking to speed up mortgage approvals (if not followed by much more aggressive easing, this step will do nothing but delay the inevitable by a few days).

And while Goldman’s China credit strateigst Kenneth Ho writes overnight that valuation is cheap across the lower rated segments within China property HY, market direction hinges on whether they will be able to refinance and avoid defaults. In particular, he notes that with $6.2bn of China property HY bonds maturing in Jan 2022, policy direction in the coming two months will be key. And since Goldman remains in the dark as to what Beijing will do next, as it remains “difficult to foresee how policy developments will play out in the coming weeks”, Goldman prefers to wait for clearer signs of policy turn before shifting lower down the credit spectrum.

* * *

This brings us to what Goldman calls two key questions on China property – policy and tail risks, which will dictate the direction of the China property HY market.

As discussed in depth in recent days, Beijing’s tight regulatory stance is increasingly affecting a broader set of developers, as slowing activity levels are adding to worries across China property HY. For the period from early August to the first week of October, the volume of land transactions cratered by 42.5% compared with the same period last year, and for property transaction volume, this fell by 27.0%.

Difficult credit conditions and weak presales add pressure to developers’ cash flows, and these factors are what led to the pick up in defaults and stresses in China property HY. Therefore, unless there are clear signs of an easing in policy direction, Goldman warns that tail risks concerns are unlikely to subside, and these will dictate the direction of China property HY market. As noted by Goldman’s China economics team, credit supply holds the key to China’s housing outlook in the near term, emphasizing the need for policy adjustments in order to stabilize the housing market. Incidentally, the latest monthly Chinese credit creation numbers showed a modest miss to expectations, as total TSF flows came in at 2.928TN, just below the 3.050TN consensus, and up 10.1% Y/Y, lower than the 10.3% in August (the silver lining is that M2 rose 8.3%, up from 8.2% in August and above the 8.2% consensus).

That said, given the sharp slowdown in residential property activity levels over the past two months, policy stance appears to have relaxed over the past two weeks if somewhat more slowly than most had expected. The table below summarizes a number of policy announcements and news reports that suggest some easing of policies are taking place.

That said, the announcements and policymakers’ statements do not signal a large shift in overall policy direction yet. For example, the more concrete measures such as home buyer subsidies and the reduction in home loan interest rates are conducted at a city, and not national, level. And whilst Bloomberg reported that the financial regulators have informed a number of major banks to accelerate mortgage approvals, the precise details are lacking. The recent actions are therefore mostly in line with the overall policy stance. On one hand, policymakers remain focused on the medium term goal of deleveraging, and will want to avoid over-stimulating and reflating the property sector; on the other hand, policymakers have stated that they want a stable property market and to avoid systemic risks from emerging, suggesting that they would seek to avoid over-tightening. The problem is that they can’t have both, and one will eventually have to crack.

Goldman is somewhat more optimistic and writes that finding a balance will take time, adding that “given the need to balance the competing policy objectives, further measures could continue to emerge piecemeal, and visibility on the timing and the type of policy actions are limited.” Furthermore, there may need to be further downside risk towards the property sector before we see a more decisive change in direction in the policy stance. This means that tail risks concerns are unlikely to subside, despite signs that policy direction is gradually shifting.

* * *

Assuming help does not come on time, the next key question is how fat is the tail as large amounts of bonds trading at stressed levels. Currently, the China property market is pricing in elevated levels of stress. Their price distribution is shown below indicating that 38% of bonds (by notional outstanding and excluding defaulted bonds) are trading at a price below 70, and 49% of bonds are below a price of 80.

Are market prices overly bearish on tail risk, or are they accurately reflecting the stresses amongst property developers? With policymakers likely to maintain their medium term goal to delever the property sector, it is unlikely that tail risk concerns for higher levered developers will not subside. However, how “fat” the tail is will depend on the policy stance over the next two months.

A big challenge going forward is that there are sizeable bond maturities in the next year, which will heavily influence tail risk. As noted above, a number of developers have conducted or are seeking to complete distressed buybacks, and defaults rates amongst China property HY companies are soaring. As such, the policy stance in the next two months will be critical.

As shown in Exhibit 2, China property HY bond maturities are relatively light for the remainder of 2021, but pick up substantially in 2022, with USD 6.3bn of bonds maturing in January alone!

A full list of bond maturities from now to February 2022, is shown below.

It goes without saying, that should policy easing over the next two months be insufficient to ease the financial conditions amongst developers, there could potentially be a meaningful pick up in credit stresses at the start of 2022 just as the Fed launches its taper and just as a cold winter sends energy costs to unprecedented levels.

Finally, for any investors seeking some exposure to China’s HY market assuming that the worst is now over, Goldman agrees that while valuation is cheap across the lower rated segments within China property HY, the key determinant on market direction won’t be valuation, but rather hinges on whether developers will be able to refinance and avoid defaults – i.e., can the Ponzi scheme continue.

Tyler Durden
Sat, 10/16/2021 – 18:00









Author: Tyler Durden

Economics

Back into positive territory

Stock markets are off to a positive start to the week in Europe and the US, in keeping with the price action we’ve seen over the last week since the…

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Stock markets are off to a positive start to the week in Europe and the US, in keeping with the price action we’ve seen over the last week since the new variant discovery.

Reports of the Omicron symptoms being less severe are boosting risk appetite but it’s too soon to get carried away. For one, we’ve seen this repeatedly since the initial news broke a little over a week ago. Markets have been very headline-driven and this is just the latest rally on the back of some positive reports.

While this may be the first in a slew of positive data around the new variant, it could also be the anomaly and what follows could explain why world leaders and various agencies have been so anxious. Let’s hope for the former but I expect extreme caution to remain until the data gives us cause for more optimism.

Weeks like this, the economic data would always play second fiddle but as it turns out, it’s looking a little thin on that front and central banks are in the same position as the rest of us. So the rest of the week will remain very Omicron headline-driven which will likely mean plenty more volatility.

By then, we may know a lot more which means the conversation can move on to the monetary response. Unfortunately, that comes too late for the RBA and BoC tomorrow and Wednesday, respectively, and perhaps just in time for the Fed, ECB, and BoE next week. If the news isn’t good on the variant then central banks are going to find themselves in an awful position, which could rock the boat somewhat.

Bitcoin partly recovers after crash

Bitcoin has had an eventful few days, having been pummelled on Saturday before recouping much of those losses. Whatever the cause of the flash crash, it hasn’t managed to fully reverse the losses and remains below USD 50,000. That could leave it vulnerable in the near term, especially with it struggling to track other risk instruments higher on the day. Bad news on Omicron could really put it under pressure.

For a look at all of today’s economic events, check out our economic calendar: www.marketpulse.com/economic-events/




Author: Craig Erlam

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Economics

Business As Usual Despite Omicron

Investors hoping that Friday’s release of the November…

“Business As Usual” Despite Omicron?

By Jane Foley, head of FX strategy at Rabobank

Investors hoping that Friday’s release of the November US labor market would be a simple tick-box exercise for the Fed’s move towards policy normalisation were likely disappointed.  The headline non-farm payrolls report at 210K was only about half what the market had expected it to be, though the shock of this number was lessened by talk of a potentially unreliable seasonal adjustment in addition to a strong set of data from the household survey.  The latter showed a sharp drop in the unemployment rate to just 4.2% in November.  For many this will have been sufficient for the Fed to continue preparing to announce a hastening in the pace of tapering of its bond buying program at the December 14/15 FOMC meeting.  After a volatile fortnight on the back of fears of a more hawkish Fed, the Nasdaq closed down 1.92% on Friday.  While Asian stocks this morning mostly followed US stocks lower, futures are showing signs of resilience. 

Despite the confusion surrounding the economic implications from the Omicron variant, Fed Chair Powell and other FOMC members had suggested a ‘business as usual’ approach to policy last week by suggesting that a hastening in the pace of QE tapering very much remained on the cards.  The fact that the market consensus for this week’s US November CPI inflation release stands at a eye-watering 6.7% y/y will be seen by some as an endorsement of the Fed’s hawkish tone. 

That said, the IMF has warned of growth risks stemming from Omicron and other central banks seem prepared to take a more cautious approach.  The BoE’s Chief hawk Saunders, who voted for a rate hike in November, suggested on Friday that he would like more information on Omicron before deciding how to vote on policy next week.  The UK money market has backed away from fully pricing in a BoE rate hike for December, though a February move is still on the cards.  Both the BoC and the RBA are due to meet this week and steady policy is expected from both.  Omicron is likely to provide the RBA with further reason to extend its already dovish position.  That said, the strong rise in Canadian employment in November is feeding speculation that the BoC could bring forward rate hikes, with April being touted by commentators as a possible start date for policy tightening. 

There have been various headlines in recent days in a slew of countries about additional restrictions being put in place in an effort to slow the transmission of Covid.  Over the weekend police in Belgian used water cannon and tear-gas to disperse violent protests against fresh restrictions.  Germany last week announced social curbs on the unvaccinated while Greece introduced fines on the over-60s who refuse to be jabbed.

As evidenced by the protests, none of this sits comfortably in liberal democracies with some premiers, such as UK PM Johnson, likely very nervous of a backlash from any further fresh restriction.  Omicron has now been detected in seventeen EU countries and US data suggest that Omicron has spread to around one–third of US states, though Delta remains the dominant variant.  Encouraging there have been several press reports indicating that while Omicron may increase the risk of transmission, the symptoms may be milder.  This view was endorsed by US infectious disease official Fauci over the weekend who commented that “thus far it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it.”  That said, S. Africa is preparing its hospitals for more admission, though its low vaccine rollout rate will be a factor.

Bitcoin took a tumble over the weekend as profit-taking picked up momentum.  Gold found support on the fall back in longer term bond yields and oil prices picked up some support after Saudi Arabia raised prices for crude sold to Asia and the US.  No real progress appears to have been made on reviving the nuclear deal between the US and Iran.

Week ahead

President’s Biden and Putin will speak via video call on Tuesday amid mounting tensions over Ukraine.  This follows reports from US Secretary of State that there was evidence that Russia had made plans for a ‘large scale’ attack on Ukraine.  It is expected the Biden will reaffirm US support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Bloomberg news have reported that over the weekend there was a ‘testy exchange’ between US Secretary of State Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov over Ukraine with the former recapping events in 2014 when more than 100 people participating in a peaceful protests were killed.

Evergrande is back in the headlines this morning following a statement from the Chinese property developers on Friday saying that creditors had demanded USD260 million and that it could not guarantee enough funds.  Chinese government officials summoned Evergrande’s Chair and the PBoC has stepped up its criticism of the company accusing it of ‘poor management’ and pursing ‘blind expansion’.  Reports in Chinese state media that Beijing will cut banks’ reserve requirement ratio ‘in a timely way’ lent a little support to mainland Chinese blue chips overnight

A decidedly weak -6.9% m/m print for October Germany factory orders this morning is a sharp reminder of the headwinds facing the Eurozone’s largest economy.  Tomorrow, German ZEW survey data is also expected to soften.  Key UK data this week includes monthly GDP data and production numbers for October.  In addition to the November CPI inflation data, the US calendar also includes the December Michigan confidence survey.  Ahead of next weeks Fed, ECB, BoE and BoJ policy meetings little additional direction can be expected from central bankers leaving more room for investors to seek clues from this week’s BoC and RBA policy meetings. 

Tyler Durden Mon, 12/06/2021 – 09:30

Author: Tyler Durden

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Economics

Toward the Final Transition

A Book Review of Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made, by Vaclav Smil.1

Over the last two decades, Vaclav Smil has produced a series of outstanding…

  • A Book Review of Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made, by Vaclav Smil.1
Over the last two decades, Vaclav Smil has produced a series of outstanding scholarly works across a range of interconnected topics. The core interest in all cases is energy—its sources and uses—but this is embedded in a wider concern with natural resources of all kinds and the natural world and the impact of human activity on those. These, in turn, have led him to develop an interest in the nature of growth, technology, and innovation, natural and material limits, and the short- and medium-term prospects for humanity and modern civilization. He is often associated with the idea that he is particularly associated with is that of dematerialization—a change in patterns of production and consumption—and in the way these are organized—that reduces the physical impact of human beings upon the planet. His works are notable for their empiricism and foundation in factual evidence, rather than theory or fancy, and for a cautious and reserved approach to their subject—particularly when it comes to forecasts. He is very much a scientist, but his work can also be found located in the disciplines of sociology, politics and, above all, history. He has apparently remarked that he does not think he will ever own a mobile telephone—a point that is relevant to this review.

Smil’s most recent book, Grand Transitions, brings together his main concerns and interests. The subject of the book is the popular one of the nature of modernity and the modern world, the ways in which they differ from the greater part of the historic human past, and the process by which the old world of traditional society gave way to the one we now inhabit:, the modern. The work deftly combines two ways of addressing these:, by identifying and quantifying the novel or contrasting features of modernity as compared to the traditional, and by setting out and quantifying the processes that brought these into being. This also makes possible the subject matter of the final part of the book, which is an argument about what the future may hold. Revealingly, this last part is done more in terms of negatives—arguments about what will almost certainly NOT happen rather than extrapolations or forecasts of what WILL happen. The reason for this is the (correct) argument that we can be much more certain about what is impossible or highly unlikely than about what is possible. It would be easy for such an expansive survey to become ill-defined and sprawling but Smil avoids this with because of his clear conceptual framework and the argument that flows from it, something that draws upon his previous work.

“[Smil] takes the view that attempts to identify causes for observable major changes are almost always bound to fail because of methodological challenges but, above all, because of the central role of contingency and randomness in the historical human story.”

The key concept is that of a transition. This is not original to Smil, of course, but is widely employed in discussions of modernity. The way it works is to identify in a major area of human life—such as demography, politics, or economics—the dominant features of the traditional world that we can see persisting across the centuries and variations of geography and culture and compare and contrast them to the persistent and dominant features of the contemporary world. The next step is to identify and describe the way one changed into the other over the last two to three centuries (never more than that), and so to define the nature of the transition from the one to the other. What this makes possible is a quantitative approach that also examines qualitative questions. The issue that is not easily addressed—either in Smil’s work or others like it—is that of causation, of what it was that caused the transitions. Smil’s own approach is resolutely empirical, and he explicitly argues against the use of theoretical models (especially those involving advanced and complex mathematics) and elaborate abstract theory. He takes the view that attempts to identify causes for observable major changes are almost always bound to fail because of methodological challenges but, above all, because of the central role of contingency and randomness in the historical human story. The reason for this is the nature of complex systems (examples being with both human societies and natural ecosystems being examples of that) and the difficulty of directly linking outcomes to preceding states in such a system, along with the notorious problem of high dependence upon random initial conditions and strong path dependency. What one can do—and he does expertly—is to present a careful account of the shifts and processes, as accurately as possible given the limitations of evidence. This modest approach is refreshing and welcome when we contrast it to the elevated claims to insight and knowledge that we find elsewhere.

Smil identifies four key transitions—the ‘”grand transitions”’ of his title. These are: demographic, agriculture and diet, energy, and economic. For many, the most familiar for many is the demographic, the transition from a world of high birth rates and high mortality levels—particularly among children—to one of low birth rates (often below replacement level) and low death rates. The transition involves a time period when for some time the birth rate remains high while the death rate falls with a dramatic rise in population as a result until the birth rate declines. This transition has been completed in many parts of the world but is still in process in others. All the indications are that it will have happened everywhere by the middle part of this century. One aspect of this transition that is now becoming apparent is an ageing of the population, with an unprecedentedly high proportion of the population being elderly. The second—agriculture and diet—is marked by the movement from a world of subsistence where food production was often precarious, to one where a combination of economic integration and technological innovations (such as artificial fertilizers and pesticides) plus innovation in both varieties of crops and farming methods has produced a level of food supply that our ancestors would have seen as abundant. Smil emphasizes how this is not simply a matter of more food of the traditional kind being produced and consumed as there has also been a dramatic transition in diets with a move towards much greater variety and, generally, much higher intakes of fats and refined carbohydrates and meat (as opposed to grain products). This has pled to the novel situation of health problems caused by overeating rather than starvation and malnutrition.

The last two are separate in Smil’s account but reading the relevant chapters reveals that for him economic and energy transitions are so interconnected that it could make sense to see them as a single phenomenon. The economic one is the well-known path in which we have gone from a world where living standards were low for the overwhelming majority and very stable over the long term despite periodic fluctuations to one where they rise steadily. The energy transition is the movement from a world where the primary source of energy is human and animal muscle power—augmented where possible by wind and water—to one where these are enormously added to by energy derived from fossil fuels and, more recently, nuclear and renewable sources. The two transitions are connected because of the way that the great increase in productivity (and, hence, living standards) since the early nineteenth century is clearly in large part connected to the increasing employment of these new sources of energy—notably but not only in the form of electricity.

All this raises several questions. There are four transitions for Smil, but could we also argue that there are others? The obvious candidate is innovation with a transition from a world where innovation was rare, slow to be adopted and diffused, and systematically restrained and discouraged by both overt power and social institutions, to one where it is omnipresent, rapid, and generally lauded (at least officially). This clearly plays a part in all the other transitions. I suspect that the reason why Smil does not add this is because it is much more difficult to measure (given that, for various reasons, patents are for various reasons not a reliable measure and, in any case, only exist for the period since the other transitions were under way). Another question is this: the four transitions are clearly interconnected but might we argue that one is foundational and driving all the rest? The best candidate for that is the energy transition, but even there it is not clear how that can be seen to have caused the demographic one. Smil shows that the evidence does not support the common belief that it is the economic transition that drives the demographic one if anything the opposite is true. Alternatively, and more in line with Smil’s own approach, might we argue that the four transitions are so interdependent that none of them could take place singularly and that all four had to happen together or not at all?. This would emphasizse the degree to which we are dealing with a complex phenomenon that can be measured and described but which resists analysis, much less prediction.

That in turn brings us to the final part of Smil’s work, which summarizes much of his previous writings, and looks at where we are now and what is the likely future of these transitions is. One central point, —which is why he uses the term ‘”transitions”—is that, in his view, it is overwhelmingly unlikely that the processes that have produced these transitions will continue indefinitely or even for much longer. Instead of an open-ended process, what we will have is a movement from one stable state to another, a step change and hence a transition (as opposed to e.g. a ‘”take-off”’). The way this can be put mathematically is that we are not looking at exponential curves in the various indicators but logarithmic ones (S curves). The argument Smil makes—here and elsewhere—is that the transition is almost complete and that therefore we are therefore approaching the top of the logarithmic curve where it rapidly flattens out. For example, this implies for example that we are coming to the end of an era of economic growth and arriving at the steady state predicted by inter alia Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. Another implication is that population growth will fall dramatically and be succeeded by decline until there is a new steady state, while yet another is that both the impact and rate of innovation will decline. If true, aAll of this has far-reaching implications if true. So much of our political thinking, for example—in all parts of the spectrum—is built around the presumption of continued growth that it will be a radical disruption if this does stop. It will make sense, in that case, to return to the thinking—and maybe even the practice—of thinkers from earlier periods who did not have that foundational presumption, or at least to update them.

One thing Smil argues very forcibly is that we will not see either a continued growth in energy usage or a major switch to renewable energy. He reiterates the argument he has made elsewhere that this is extremely unlikely because of the fundamental problem of energy density. The great advantage of fossil fuels is that they contain large quantities of energy in lightweight and compact form, so they have a high density, which in turn means they can do a lot of work. By contrast, renewable energy sources—particularly solar power and wind power—are diffuse, which means they have much less usable energy. They are fine for producing electricity (allowing for intermittency) but it is difficult to impossible to employ them for things such as transport, or industrial heating (including processes such as steel making and cement production). The problems with all the alternatives suggested are both technical and economic—there is the common problem of technologies that are technically feasible but hopelessly uneconomic. The consequence is that we can look forward to not only a stagnation of energy usage but a significant decline, due to the declining EROEI ratio of existing sources (EROEI = Energy Return Over Energy Invested, the ratio between the amount of energy gained and the energy that has to be expended used to get it). This has very obvious and extensive implications, which most people have not started to consider.

One point that Smil spends a lot of time exploring is the question of whether the final stage of the transitions will be a move to greater “‘dematerialization”’ brought about by the combination of greater wealth and increased difficulties with energy supply. The argument is that the pattern of the economic transition is for increasing productivity in which resources are used ever more intensively to produce ever larger amounts of physical output. As with all processes, this faces diminishing marginal returns and, eventually, what is increasingly produced are not physical products that require inputs of raw material and energy but immaterial ones where the only major input is time. These are not subject to the limits that restrict the continued growth in the production of physical products and services. All of this is very similar to the speculations of J. S. Mill in his consideration of the steady state towards the end of his Political Economy and again raises all kinds of fascinating questions as to the implications for our current economic, social, and political arrangements. Smil himself is too cautious and respectful of the limits of his evidence to come to a firm answer although he clearly thinks that this route of dematerialization of economic life is probable.

For more on these topics, see the EconTalk podcast episodes Andrew McAfee on More from Less and Matt Ridley on How Innovation Works. See also Economic Growth, by Paul Romer in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

This book is a great starting point for anyone interested in exploring finding out about Smil’s work and thought for the first time—even though it is his latest work—because it is in some ways a summation of the main themes and arguments he has explored over the years. It is also a wonderful read for anyone interested in the question of what exactly the difference is between the traditional world and the modern world and how we got from one to the other, with a wealth of solidly grounded information—Smil’s work of synthesis saves much time in going to the original or, alternatively, points to where to go to look further. It is also a work of great interest for people interested in political thought, or philosophy, or cultural analysis inasmuch as it presents us with a clear challenge: if we are indeed coming to the close of a three- hundred- year period of transition from one steady state to another, how will that affect the way we live and order our affairs, and how must our thinking change?


Footnotes

[1] Vaclav Smil, Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made. Oxford University Press, 2021.


*Dr. Stephen Davies is the Head of Education at the IEA. Previously he was program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University in Virginia. He joined IHS from the UK where he was Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. A historian, he graduated from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1976 and gained his PhD from the same institution in 1984. He has authored several books, including Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991).


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