Friday, 30 December 2011

UK stagnation turns to risk of double-dip recession

By Michael Burke

The Construction Products Association (CPA) is forecasting a ‘double-dip’ UK recession for the construction industry in 2012 and compares the latest slump to that of 10 years ago - the last Tory recession under Major when 600,000 construction industry jobs were lost. The CPA is well-placed to judge the near-term outlook as it comprises all the main suppliers to the construction industry.

For most of 2011 the majority of commentary on the British economy veered between expectations of a strong boom and, more recently projections for a double-dip recession. The reality was more prosaic - with the economy stagnating, growing by just 0.5% over the latest 12-month period.

This is because most commentators ignored the actual cause of the prior recovery and the key factor which would reverse it. SEB has previously shown how the recovery was caused by the increase in government spending, both current spending (mainly increased welfare payments but also the Labour government’s cut in VAT) and increased government investment (Building Schools for the Future, etc.).

Reversal of Government Spending

The renewed economic stagnation arises because both parts of government spending have now been cut. Welfare benefits have been cut, which is disastrous for many recipients but also undermines household consumption as does the hike in VAT. Household consumption is the biggest single category of GDP. The policies that supported household consumption added 1.2% to GDP growth during the recovery and until Labour left office. In the period since the Tories took office the decline in household consumption has reduced GDP by 0.6%. Similarly government investment increased under Labour and directly added 0.8% to GDP over the course of the recession. Government investment fell immediately the Tory-led Coalition took office and has subtracted 1.0% from GDP over that period.

Taken together the combined effects of Labour’s increased spending added 1.8% to GDP, while the policies of this government have subtracted 1.6% from GDP.

Effects of Changing Fiscal Stance

The March 2011 Budget detailed a ‘fiscal tightening’, that is tax increases (except for companies) and spending cuts amounting to £41bn. By the 3rd quarter approximately half of that tightening will have taken place as it is 6 months into the Financial Year. £41bn is approximately equivalent to 2.7% of GDP. The previous recovery saw the economy expand by 2.8% over 5 quarters. Therefore the direct effect of the fiscal tightening currently under way is to remove growth almost entirely from the economy, hence stagnation.

Unfortunately the extent of the damage does not end there. The fiscal tightening is only half-complete this year and yet there is already stagnation. This is because each sector of the economy is connected to the other. So, declining government spending in the form of firing public sector workers will lead to falling household consumption, and both will affect business investment.

Since each economic sector responds variably to a change in another sector’s activity, and often with a time lag, it is impossible to assign a precisely distributed causal effect of a change in fiscal policy. But we have noted above that Labour’s increased spending of 1.8% of GDP led to a recovery which added 2.8% to GDP. This demonstrates the way the state can lead economic activity in total. This is what Keynes called the ‘multiplier effect’ as the private sector responds to increased government spending. In this case the multiplier is 1.56 (the ratio of 2.8% to increased spending equal to 1.8% of GDP).

In reality the multiplier is probably considerably higher as there is a pronounced time lag while the business sector responds to changes in government spending. SEB has previously shown that private sector investment has consistently risen or fallen 6 months after changes in output. So, the private sector continued to invest for 6 months after the Coalition took office, and this was in response to the increased spending by the Labour government.

Therefore, without taking account of other factors such as net exports or an unwanted build-up of inventories, the direct and indirect impact of the current government’s cuts should be multiplied by 1.56. This would subtract 4.2% from GDP and almost certainly lead to renewed economic contraction. The government also plans £61bn of fiscal tightening in the next Financial Year, beginning in April.

Construction Investment

The construction sector is highly responsive to the business cycle as it relies on a high level of current investment. The CPA estimate that it is headed for a double-dip recession is therefore highly significant. This will sharpen the already acute shortage of affordable homes, either to buy or rent at a time when 300,000 construction workers have already been made unemployed. Local authorities throughout Britain are desperate for funds to build new homes, from which they could derive an income way above the cost of borrowing even with affordable rents. Instead of providing funds to them, George Osborne has provided £40bn in ‘credit easing’ to small and medium sized enterprises. They will not build homes, provide decent affordable housing and employ workers with these funds.

But the State could because it is a vastly more efficient provider of large-scale housing as well as infrastructure projects. The government and its supporters like to promote the falsehood that ‘there is no money left’. But £40bn of loans to local authorities and public bodies could go a long way to easing the housing crisis. It would also go some way to averting the likelihood of a double dip recession.

From the government’s perspective the only stumbling-block is that it would remove the main responsibility for construction from the hands of the private sector and place it in the hands of the public sector. This is of course what happened to most of the shareholder-held banking sector in Britain during the last crisis. It seems that nationalisation is only permissible when bondholders and shareholders are being rescued. But it is not allowed if it is to rescue the unemployed, those paying extortionate rents for substandard homes or even the economy as a whole.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

When British thieves and French thieves fall out - the Anglo-French governmental dispute in perspective

By Michael Burke

The French and British authorities are engaged in a war of words over which country will be first to be downgraded by the credit ratings agencies. At least the hostilities are purely verbal - these ‘heroes’ of Tripoli are prepared to use other methods when the odds are overwhelmingly in their favour.

The immediate cause of the dispute was initially the remarks of French central bank governor Noyer. In response to the threat from Standard & Poor’s (S&P), one of the credit ratings agencies, that France would be downgraded, he argued that Britain should be downgraded first because its economic fundamentals are worse than those of France.

The remarks caused predictable uproar in Britain. Even the leadership of the LibDems, the main representatives of the pro-EU business class in Britain discovered its nationalist roots and criticised the remarks. But Noyer argued that, ‘they [S&P] should start by downgrading Britain which has more deficits, as much debt, more inflation, less growth than us and where credit is slumping’. Essentially, Noyer is correct on the relative ‘fundamentals’. But this focus on the ‘fundamentals’ also demonstrates a shared and thorough misunderstanding of the nature of the crisis.

The table below shows the relative levels for each of the indicators specified by Noyer. The estimates are taken from the EU Commission Autumn forecasts.

Table 1

11 12 22 Table 1

It is clear that the Noyer observations are correct. The British government’s credit rating is also under threat as the economy weakens. Yet France’s downgrade seems likely to happen even sooner. More importantly, the French government is currently paying over one per cent more for 10 year government debt than the UK so that its effective market rating is already lower than Britain’s. This is despite the lower deficit, lower inflation and higher growth in France.

This demonstrates that Noyer is looking in the wrong place for the determinants of bond yields. Bond yields are not primarily determined by the nominal level even of important economic variables. Ultimately the price of any given financial market asset is determined by the real level of savings that are directed towards it. In countries such as Britain, the US and Japan the very high level of corporate savings must ultimately be held in some financial asset, and in the current circumstances of weak or stagnant growth government bonds have looked far more attractive than their only main alternative, which is stocks. 10 year debt yields are currently below 2% in the US and below 1% in Japan. This is true even though government debt and deficit levels are even higher in the US and Japan than either France or Britain. UK companies cannot invest in financial instruments in another currency without exposing themselves to exchange rate risk.

For investors in French government bonds the situation is different. There is an easy alternative - German government bonds also denominated in Euros. The rising premium on French yields represents the increased perceived risk of the Euro breaking up, in which case investors prefer to hold the debt of the strongest economy in the Euro Area.

The key relevant ‘fundamental’ for the Eurozone is that investors may choose between different governments’ credits. That is, there is a market mechanism for redirecting savings towards one country - and there is no fiscal mechanism to transfer savings in the opposite direction. Just as in other Eurozone economies, bond yields started to rise in France as soon as ‘austerity’ measures were introduced. Investors based in the Euro have greater prospects of being repaid if they invest in government bonds where the economy will grow, not stagnate or decline.

French and British Both Wrong

The growth outlook is sharply deteriorating in both France and Britain. In the Spring Forecast the EU Commission was projecting 2% growth for both Britain and France in 2012. In the Autumn Forecast the Commission is forecasting just 0.6% growth. Both governments are pursuing ‘austerity’ policies which are clearly not working.

They have both also invested an enormous political capital in the maintenance of the AAA rating for their government debt and argued that their policies would reduce their budget deficits. As we have seen, both governments debt ratings are likely to be downgraded in 2012. And both countries are projected to have a deficit in 2013 which, five years after the recession began, is still double the level it was in 2007, before downturn began.

The failure of their policies has led not to a re-think, but in both cases to blaming foreigners. The unwillingness to correct a failed policy is the cause of the diversionary war of words between the two governments.

The most ridiculous aspect of their policy is that both governments claim that their policy is driven by the demands of financial markets. Yet the government bond markets are sending a very clear signal. Long-term interest rates are either at the current inflation rate as in France, or below it in Britain. They are so low because businesses are saving, not investing. Businesses feel more confident lending to the government than investing on their own account. But both governments insist on cutting spending. If that leads to renewed recession the effect will be to cut further the level of savings in the economy - and bond yields may start to rise.

Corporate savings are being lent to the governments at exceptionally low interest rates. This glut of corporate savings could be used to invest for recovery. Since businesses themselves refuse to do this, only the state can end the company investment strike.

Monday, 12 December 2011

EU Summit Is Another Failure for ‘Austerity’

By Michael Burke

The outcome of the EU summit has widely been hailed in the British media as a triumph for David Cameron. It is rare that a complete rupture and isolation in multi-party negotiations is regarded as a triumph – but this is a function of the dominant and still growing xenophobia of the British press.

The EU Commission will now impose further spending cuts and rules to enforce deficit limits across the whole of the EU. David Cameron did not oppose these measures because they lead to public spending cuts- he is cutting public spending by a greater proportion of GDP than any major country which has not been in receipt of EU/IMF funds for its creditors.

Cameron’s stated objective was a defence of the interests of the City of London. There is a question mark over whether he has even be able to achieve that. Angela Knight, former Tory MP and chief spokesperson for the British Bankers Association guardedly told The Times that she hoped that City’s interests would not be harmed by Britain’s isolation.

Holding Back the Tide

‘Let all men know how empty and powerless is the power of kings’. So said King Canute in demonstrating to sycophantic courtiers the impossibility of instructing the advancing tidewaters to retreat. But it seems that the thinking of the EU Commission has retreated behind even that of Dark Age monarchs.

In response to the economic, fiscal and balance of payments crises in Europe, the EU summit in Brussels agreed to issue a series of regulations- to prevent these crises being manifest at the level of government deficits. A new rule that so-called structural deficits will not exceed 0.5% of GDP has been introduced . The EU Commission will be given prior oversight of the national Budgets. Given the impossibility of factually establishing the level of the structural deficit (which depends on extremely approximate estimates of potential output) then the combination is a recipe for complete control by the EU Commission - the economic geniuses who have led Greece and Ireland to disaster.

While it is impossible to precisely quantify the structural deficit it is practically impossible to determine the level of the government deficit simply by controlling spending. This is because the deficit reflects the gap between government spending and income. Government incomes are overwhelmingly taxation revenues and these are determined by the spending of consumers and the spending of businesses (primarily investment).

To achieve the precise control over its own income, as demanded by the new agreement, the European governments would have to determine the incomes and spending of both other main sectors of the economy, consumers and businesses. And, in a currency union it would also have to ensure that the overseas sector was not a significant net lender or borrower (through large trade or current account deficits/surpluses). Otherwise, if the other domestic sectors remained in broad balance, a large trade deficit could only result in a large government deficit.

This is show in Figure 1 below. The chart shows the sectoral balances in leading EU economies and the EU as well as the change between 2006 and 2009. The chart is taken from the Financial Times and is based on OECD data.

Figure 1

clip_image002

Simple national accounting identities mean that the increased savings of one sector of the economy must be reflected in the increased deficit of another. In all cases the balances shown below, the government balance (the public sector deficit/surplus), the private sector balances (the savings/consumption of the private sector) and the overseas sector (the current account balance) sums to zero, as they must.

Within each national economy of the EU it is impossible to legislate for the deficit of the public sector without determining the savings, consumption and investment decisions of all other sectors of the economy.

It is also entirely impossible in a single currency area for all other economies to maintain government balances if one or more key countries have large current account surpluses, as is presently the case with Germany and others. Other countries must then run current account deficits and to simultaneously maintain a government balance they are faced with two unacceptable alternatives. They must either hugely increase household savings even though incomes are declining; that is, household spending must fall even faster than incomes. Alternatively, businesses must reduce investment to well below the level of its income, which could only lead to a further reduction in competitiveness and a renewed widening of the current account deficit. This is the downward spiral that countries like Greece have already entered.

The Tory Position

David Cameron did not object to any of this because he is a champion of increased government spending, or a defender of the welfare state. Nor has his government shown any appreciation of the fact that reduced government spending will also reduce the incomes of other sectors of the economy.

Instead, his objection was to the threat to the City’s ability to siphon off funds from other businesses in Europe. He may not have been successful even in that limited aim. Ed Miliband writing in the Evening Standard argued that Cameron was ‘a prisoner of the Tory Right’ and had isolated himself and Britain from the continuing evolution of policy in Europe.

While willing the other EU national leaders to act decisively to halt the crisis, Cameron himself acted to prevent that happening. Defending the sectional interest of the City and relying on some of the most backward political forces in Britain, Cameron has finally crossed a line that even Thatcher only threatened to do. There will be no benefit to the British economy from this decision and the consequences could prove extremely negative. If, for example, overseas multinationals decide they want a base in the EU, will they choose semi-detached Britain or one of the other 26 countries who continue to have a common regulatory regime? If the British economy suffers as a result, it should be remembered this was done to benefit the City of London and to appease the Tory Eurosceptics and Union Jack-wavers.

Monday, 5 December 2011

George Osborne Shows He’s Learnt Nothing from Greece or Ireland

By Michael Burke

The Autumn Statement was widely presented as facing up to harsh realities of slower growth, but with George Osborne offering a series of cunning schemes in order to resolve the crisis .

The stagnation of the British economy is a function of government policy and plans to increase investment by increasing the credit available to smaller firms will founder because they will not invest when they don’t expect to make profits .

SEB has long argued that government needs to increase investment in a series of areas. Surely, the government’s plans to increase investment in infrastructure should be welcome? But the government’s planned increase amounts to less than £3.8bn spread over four years, or less than 0.1% of GDP in each year. In addition, most of the wish list for infrastructure and capital projects is dependent on investment in the private sector. So, George Osborne and Boris Johnson stood outside Battersea power station in London and talks of new tube lines, enterprise zones and 25,000 jobs. Just two days later the private developer central to the project collapsed into receivership.

Worse, the government’s planned increase in capital spending is paid for by taking money from the pockets of the poorest and most vulnerable in society. These will bite much harder in later years, long after the pathetically small planned increased in investment has come to an end. This is shown in the table below, from the Autumn Statement.

Table 1

11 12 05 Table 1

 

So, there are total cuts in current spending in 2012/13 of £910mn and total cuts over the next 3 years of £3.8bn, shown as a positive sign in the Treasury bookkeeping method. This is in order to pay for tax cuts (fuel duty) and a projected increase in capital spending. But in the two following years the projected cuts to current spending increase dramatically for a total of over £27bn cuts in all. Although these are mostly unspecified, the itemised cuts include child tax credits, working tax credits, real public sector pay cuts and the breaking of the promise to uphold overseas development aid at 0.7%.

This is a very damaging but much milder version of the same logic that has led Greece and Ireland to disaster - every failure to meet budgetary targets because of the impact of ‘austerity’ is met by further ‘austerity’ measures. But the deficit is and borrowing totals are likely to go higher still as the economy stagnates- or worse. It may only be a matter of time before this same logic produces comparably savage cuts in spending- with the same economic consequences.

Politically, by pre-announcing needed cuts for the next Parliament Osborne hopes to bind all parties to further ‘austerity’ measures. For the LibDems, Danny Alexander has already proved obliging, signing up to Tory cuts of £23bn in the next Parliament. The key question is whether Labour will go down the same path in accepting the need for cuts even when they have demonstrably failed to deliver economic growth or even deficit-reduction. It is the path that leads to Athens and must be resisted.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Desperate Osborne's Subsidies to Businesses Won't Work


By Michael Burke

George Osborne has told the BBC that there will be £40bn in ‘credit easing’ so that small firms can obtain both cheaper and more readily available loans. Osborne has called the scheme a ‘game-changer’. If the funds had the stated impact, of increasing investment by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), then it would certainly provide a significant lift to the economy. £40bn is equivalent to 2.8% of GDP.

The strength of this overblown rhetoric may be judged by the fact that there are widespread reports that the Office for Budget Responsibility is set to slash its growth forecasts for 2012 to just 1% from 2.5% previously.

How is it that significant funds for new investment by business will actually lead to no improvement in the outlook for growth, even on the usually over-optimistic forecasts from the OBR?

There are to be at least two, possibly three funds. The first will be guarantees to increase the availability of credit. The second will be a fund to lower the cost of that credit to SMEs. Since SEB continually argues for increased investment, surely this is a good thing?

Private Sector Failure

Even official forecasts do not assume that growth will significantly improve as a result of this policy. This highlights the fallacy that underlies all current attempts to persuade, cajole, demand or bribe private firms to increase their investment. The fallacy is that those firms are struggling under the burden of insufficient funds to invest. Of course certain individual firms may have such difficulties. But in aggregate that is not the case.

In a previous bulletin SEB showed that in 2010 the total Gross Operating Surplus of the business sector in Britain was £475bn. These are akin to profits. Yet the entire level of investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) was just £214bn in 2010. As this includes the investment by both private individuals and government, it is clear that businesses have vast resources already from which they could increase investment.

The chart below shows the decline in total Gross Fixed Capital Formation (GFCF) and corporate sector GFCF. Both these measures of investment began falling one quarter before the recession itself began. The fall in both at their low-point in the 4th quarter of 2010, of over 20%, is approximately three times as great as the fall in GDP of at 7.1%. Both chronologically and arithmetically the decline in investment, led by declining business investment, led the recession.

Figure 1
11 11 28 Chart 1

Both measures of investment have experienced a small recovery. Business investment began to rise in the 1st quarter of 2010. This was two quarters after both total investment and GDP began to rise in the 3rd quarter of 2009.

Private sector investment led the recession. But it cannot lead the recovery. This is demonstrated in the chart below, which shows corporate GFCF and GDP.

Figure 2
11 11 28 Chart 2

The recovery in business investment occurred two quarters after the economy as a whole began to recover. This is because the increase in investment did not depend on the availability of resources, as profits have exceeded investment by some distance throughout the entire crisis.

Corporate investment rises and falls in line with expected returns. The purpose of capital is the preservation or expansion of capital. If the economy is not growing a main motive will be to preserve capital. If the economy is expanding, it will be increase capital through profitable returns on investment.

This is what happened in 2009-10. GDP began to expand in mid-2009 and six months later corporate GFCF began to increase. Precisely the same time lag operated in the reverse situation. Corporate GFCF fell once more in the 1st quarter of 2011. This was six months after the modest recovery peaked n the 3rd quarter of 2009.

Public Sector Leadership

The new factor which caused the recovery was the increase in public sector investment (both by general government and the remaining public sector corporations). At its highpoint in the 4th quarter of 2009, public sector investment was over 20% higher than its pre-recession level.

This led directly to the increase in GDP which in turn eventually prompted the private sector to increase its own investment. The Tory-led Coalition immediately cut public investment on taking office, and six months afterterwards private investment began to contract once more.

Instead of subsidising the private sector to invest, the proven means of achieving that end is for government to increase its own investment. It could divert the support for borrowing costs to agents who are willing to invest, such as local authorities who want to invest in housing, infrastructure, transport and education.

Even on official forecasts the borrowing subsidy to SMEs will not work. But the recent history of the British economy shows that investment by the public sector will have the effect of restoring growth which in turns leads o a revival of corporate investment. Subsidies and bribes to businesses to invest will not work while there is no growth. Increasing, not cutting, the investment of the public sector will lead to recovery.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Latest UK GDP data even worse than it looks


By Michael Burke

The latest release for British GDP in the 3rd quarter was unrevised – but the composition of that growth was awful. GDP rose by 0.5% in the quarter and is just 0.5% higher than a year ago. But analysis of the components of growth suggests the outlook is deteriorating.

Household consumption did not grow at all in the quarter and contracted by 1.5% over the course of the year. Investment (gross fixed capital formation) fell by 0.2% in the quarter and by 1.8% from a year ago. In terms of domestic expenditure only government spending rose in the quarter, up 0.9% on the quarter and 2.9% over the year. This is testimony to the multiplication of ‘austerity’ measures: If unemployment and poverty are increasing at a faster rate even than you cut welfare benefits your total welfare bill will rise.

Taken together UK domestic expenditure rose by £3bn in real terms in the quarter. But inventories rose by £2.9bn at the same time and therefore account for almost the entirety of domestic growth in the quarter. Since GDP rose by just £1.8bn in the 3rd quarter, the rise in inventories indeed exceeds the growth in GDP as well as accounting for almost the entirety of growth in domestic spending.

Inventory Build-Up

Inventories are a cyclical and erratic component of growth. But a persistent rise in inventories over a number of quarters only occurs if businesses are receiving new orders and are restocking as they become increasingly confident about a sustained upturn. This is sometimes called a voluntary rise in inventories. But this is not at all the situation presently. Domestic demand is stagnant and exports have also fallen in the last two quarters. It seems unlikely that order-books are filling up and businesses becoming more confident about future prospects. In fact the respected Market Purchasing Managers’ Index shows that new orders have been slowing dramatically, as shown in the chart below.

Figure 1 – PMI New Orders, National & London
11 11 27 PMI
Therefore the current build-up in stocks is likely to be an involuntary. Inventories are most likely rising because sales have not met expectations. If so, businesses will tend to meet new orders by depleting those existing inventories rather than increasing output. At the very least this rise in inventories is unlikely to be repeated over several quarters. The addition to growth in the 3rd quarter arising from rising inventories is unlikely to be repeated over several quarters.

As we have seen domestic demand would have been close to zero and GDP would have contracted without rising inventories. To avoid that fate in subsequent quarters some other component(s) of growth will have to begin to grow once more. Otherwise the British economy will begin to contract once more.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Profits and Austerity In the Industrialised Economies


By Michael Burke

A previous SEB article examined the profit rate in the Irish economy which is rising even though the economy continues to contract. Yet at the same time Ireland’s level of investment is falling. Corporate incomes – profits - are rising even though total economic activity is falling. Arithmetically, this can only occur by reducing the income of labour - wages are falling both in absolute terms and as a proportion of total economic activity. It happens that the Irish Department of Finance set this out with some clarity. This is indeed is the thrust of the entire ‘austerity’ policy – a transfer of incomes from labour to capital across the industrialised economies of Europe, as well as in the US and Japan.

Who Is Paying for the Crisis?

The table below shows the Gross Value Added (GVA) of selected economies, and how this is divided between the compensation of employees and the gross operating surplus of the corporate sector. GVA is a measure of all the value created in an economy. It is the same as GDP except that it excludes the impact of taxes and subsidies. With some important qualifications the Compensation of Employees (CoE) is akin to labour’s share of that value added, while the Gross Operating Surplus (GOS) is akin to the level of profits in each economy. This provides an approximate measure of economic activity and its distribution as income: Value-Wages-Profits. In the table blow the profit rate is calculated as the share of GOS in Gross Value Added.

Table 1. GVA, Compensation of Employees, Gross Operating Surplus and the Profit Rate, €bn in 2010 (unless otherwise stated)
11 11 13 Table 1

The general tendency has been that the crisis-hit countries have the highest profit rates. This was an important factor in the build-up to the crisis. In nearly all countries the crisis was characterised by reduced investment by the corporate sector, which remains the driving force behind the economic crisis. In these higher profit countries the fall in investment had a greater impact on aggregate demand as the corporate sector takes a bigger share of GVA. In turn, the fall in investment had a bigger negative impact on household incomes, especially through rising unemployment.

Profits and deficits

The profit rates should also be seen in relation to the public sector deficits that have caused so much turmoil. In all cases the public sector deficits are a fraction of the level of profits. In Greece the 2010 deficit was €25bn, in Italy it was €70bn, in Ireland it was €19bn (excluding an extraordinary bank bailout), and so on. The deficits could easily be covered in their entirety simply by extracting a fraction of the profit level from the corporate sector in each country. The same is true of Britain, where the profit level in 2010 was £475bn compared to a deficit of £137bn. (The British profit level is depressed and consequently the profit rate is lower because of the slump in the financial sector – a factor which also applies to a lesser degree in the US and even to France).

Who can pay for the crisis?

There are effectively three destinations for profits. These are investment, which raises future prosperity, or dividends for shareholders which are not invested or huge executive compensation and bonuses, both of which do not. The table below shows the level of profits, the level of public sector borrowing and the level of gross fixed capital formation (investment). In the last column the difference is shown between the level of profits and the level of public borrowing and investment combined.

Table 2. Gross Operating Surplus, Public Sector Borrowing and Investment, €bn in 2010 (unless otherwise stated)
11 11 13 Table 2

Table 2 shows that in all cases the current level of both the public sector borrowing and the current level of investment can be funded by the level of profits in each country and in the Euro Area. In most cases there is scope to fund both the deficit and significantly increase the level of investment. But the opposite has been happening.

The struggle over distribution of national income

In most recessions capital’s share of income falls. This is not because wages rise, but because profits fall at a faster rate than the fall in output. What then usually occurs is a struggle by capital to regain its lost share of income. It does this by cutting wages and benefits, by increasing unemployment and by reducing its tax burden - financed by reducing social welfare benefits. This is the content of ‘austerity’ measures.

Figure 1 below shows how this has operated in the Euro Area as a whole. Between 2008 and 2009 GVA in the Euro Area fell by €254. Confirming the idea that profits fall at a faster rate than output, Euro Area profits (GOS) fell by €227bn. Profits fell by over 6%, twice as fast as the fall in output. Wages (CoE) fell by €17bn.

Figure 1
11 11 13 Figure 1

However, this natural tendency for profits to fall at a greater pace than the fall in output is interrupted and diverted by a series of interventions, including rising unemployment, wages and benefit cuts as itemised above. In the period 2009 to 2010 Euro Area GVA rose by €188bn. Of this increase in output €139bn went to profits and just €53bn accrued to wages.

Because of inflation the real level of both wages and profits has fallen sharply – all these data are in nominal terms and do not take account of inflation. The ‘austerity’ offensive to increase the profit share has partly been successful, but the wage share of national income has not undergone any strategic reversal.

This is contrasted with Greece. Greek nominal GVA did not fall in 2009 at all as the Greek recession was shallower than most. GVA fell in 2010 by €6bn. This is shown in chart 2. The massive offensive against Greek workers and the poor means that the natural tendency for profits to fall faster than output has not operated. The level of wages fell by €4.4bn and profits fell by just €1.8bn. The wage share of national income has suffered a reversal.

Figure 2
11 11 13 Figure 2

Readers will be interested to know where Britain stands in relation to these examples, one of them the extreme case of Greece (and previously, Ireland). In 2009 British GVA fell by £38bn, shown in Chart 3 below. This was exceeded by the fall in profits, down £43bn and wages rose by £5bn. The entirety of policy since has been to reverse those trends. GVA rose in 2010 by €40bn. (It should again be stressed that these are nominal data, in real terms output is still over 4% below its peak and real wages have fallen).
Figure 3
11 11 13 Figure 3

As a result of initial ‘austerity’ measures, £18bn of the increase in output has been claimed for profits. But it is widely understood that the real offensive in Britain only began in the new Financial Year, which began in April this year. What is being attempted is a decisive reversal of the wages’ share of national income.

Conclusion

Countries like Greece are experiencing a qualitatively sharper crisis than the European average. There is a high correlation between the likelihood of economies falling into this type of extreme crisis and their exceptionally high level of pre-crisis profits. Because the income of the corporate sector is a much greater factor in the economy, their investment strike hass a proportionately greater impact on total output and/or government finances.

Profits remain exceptionally high, so much so that they could finance the deficit while simultaneously increasing the level of investment.

Under normal working of a market economy the tendency is for profits to fall faster than output. The entire ‘austerity’ policy is to prevent this tendency from operating, and to reverse it by reducing wages even faster than the decline in output. In the Euro Area, to date this has only been achieved in Ireland and Greece.

In Britain, it’s too early to say whether a similar ‘austerity’ drive will achieve the same disastrous results. But it is clearly the aim of government policy to drive up profits even while the economy is stagnating. This can only be achieved by driving down wages.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The relation of profits and 'austerity'


By Michael Burke

In what may be an important development the Financial Times reports that, in return for accepting much larger ‘haircuts’ (imposed losses on the value of the bonds they own) bondholders are demanding that there must be a growth strategy for Greece.

In a piece headlined ‘Bondholders Demand Greek Growth Plan’ the paper quotes the Managing Director and chief negotiator for the Institute of International Finance, which represents the largest bondholders mainly the banks. The call for a growth plan is not given much substance in the article.

But there is a logic to the demand. Bondholders are most concerned about cash flow from interest payments and the final repayment of debt principal. In all the Euro Area economies where severe ‘austerity’ measures have been applied bond yields have risen - Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and now Italy. This implies that the bondholders’ risk of not receiving those cash flows and principal has risen, and that a higher interest rate is demanded to compensate. ‘Austerity’, a generalised attack on the living standards of the overwhelming majority, has failed to provide reassurance to bondholders that they will get all the bond repayments. Instead, the reduction in incomes and economic crisis that has followed has increased the risks that the governments will default. If it proves to be the case now that the bondholders are demanding not more austerity, but growth, this would reflect the accurate judgment on their part that the risk of default has increased because of massive cuts in government spending. It is a demand that the European governments provide funds to Greece to help the economy recover, not impose more cuts.

Can ‘Austerity’ Work?

Of course the bondholders, mainly the banks but also increasingly other parasites such as hedge funds and ‘vulture funds’, had no qualms about massive assaults on pay, jobs, pensions, services and welfare benefits while they thought it improved their own prospects of being repaid by EU governments. But even at an earlier stage it was clear to some that cuts in government spending would not work. This is shown in the actions of the credit ratings’ agencies – who effectively represent the interests of the bondholders – and have repeatedly campaigned for large cuts in government spending, only then to downgrade countries such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain because of the negative economic impact of those same cuts.

By now it is increasingly clear in the case of Greece that any further cuts will be equally counter-productive in restoring the growth required to service debt. But the IMF, ECB and EU Commission are holding up another example of how their impositions can be made to work - Ireland. The ‘Troika’ argue that successive Irish governments (the current coalition of the rightist Fine Gael and Irish Labour Party having replaced the populist right of Fianna Fail) have stuck to the measures agreed, that growth has resumed and that therefore the deficit is falling.

In fact, the previous government imposed cuts in 2008 and before any international agency demanded them. The current government is set to announce its own first Budget, which will also impose greater cuts than demanded by the Troika. It is also widely understood, if not by the Troika, that Irish GDP is artificially inflated by the activities of (mainly) US multinationals booking activity and profits in Ireland to avail of its ultra-low corporate taxes. This has seen GDP rise in the latest two quarters. But domestic demand fell again by 1.1% in the 2nd quarter of this year, a 3 ½ year-long slump collapse and is now 24.8% below its level at the end of 2008. According to the IMF the Dublin government’s deficit will be 10.3% of GDP this year, having been 7.3% before the cuts began to bite in 2008.

Even so, the Troika are increasingly determined that the deficit will decline and prove their case. They point to the fact that, excluding enormous bank bailouts equivalent to over 20% of GDP last year, borrowing fell from €23.5bn in 2009 to €19.3bn in 2010, an improvement of €4.2bn. Yet this is simply because the value of bonds redeemed in 2010 was €4bn lower. Otherwise there is no underlying improvement in the level of borrowing at all.

But there is an important difference with Greece. Following big tax increase Athens’ taxation revenues have fallen by 4.2%in the first 9 months of this year whereas Dublin’s tax revenues are 8.4% higher reflecting the imposition of new income taxes. The key difference is that Ireland was a much more prosperous country than Greece prior to the crisis. Per capita incomes were 50% higher, even adjusted for Purchasing Power Parities. Therefore, while the cuts have certainly had a negative impact on Irish growth, and the domestic economy continues to contract, the level of impoverishment of the entire economy is not in the same category as Greece, where even bondholders may now accept that further cuts are counter-productive. Instead, the impact of the cuts in Ireland might be said to be Greece in slow-motion.

Who Benefits?

The new caution in imposing further cuts in Greece is the worry of the loan-shark that the borrower may go bankrupt. But while there is still blood that can be squeezed in countries like Ireland cuts remain the sole policy agenda. The effect of this policy is clear from the recent publication of the sectoral accounts for the Irish economy.

This is shown in the chart below, which shows that as Gross Value Added continues to decline, profits have started to recover and therefore the profits’ share of national income has increased.
Figure 1
11 10 26 Profits 1

According to the Central Statistical Office (CSO), ‘The operating surplus or profits of non-financial corporations (NFCs) increased from €35.2bn in 2009 to €37.8bn in 2010. The other main component of value added is compensation of employees or wages and salaries which declined from €37.3bn in2009 to €34.9bn in 2010. Therefore the improved profit share relates more to a decline in payroll costs for these corporations rather than to an increase in overall value added.’
Yet this increase in the incomes of the corporate sector, wholly achieved by reducing wages, has not led to an increase in investment. It has led to the opposite, as the chart below shows.
Figure 2
11 10 26 Profits 2

In the words of the CSO, ‘Expressing gross fixed capital formation as a percentage of gross value added gives the investment rate. Gross value added is largely unchanged between 2009 and 2010 while investment fell from €7.5bn to €5.8bn in the same period resulting in a fall in the investment rate between 2009 and 2010.’

But there is also another way of expressing the investment rate - investment as a proportion of corporate incomes, or profits. On this measure, the investment rate has fallen by €1.9bn even as profits have increased by €2.9bn, by reducing wages by €4.9bn. The total investment rate has fallen on this measure from 21.3% to 15.3%.

From the point of the view of the economy as a whole, this transfer of incomes has been disastrous. The corporate sector has €32bn in unspent (uninvested) income from profits. But the household sector – which spends more than 90% of its income – has had its income reduced.

The thrust of policy is not to produce an economic recovery. It is to produce a recovery in profitability. In this, it has been a qualified success. The absolute level of profits has recovered from its low and the profit share of output has also increased to more than 50%, even if profits have not recovered their previous peak. The intention is clearly to achieve that goal at the expense of wages.

In Ireland it has become commonplace to suggest that, while all sorts of investment projects and welfare provision are desirable, ‘there is no money left’. On the contrary, the €32bn level of uninvested profits in 2010 alone is almost exactly equal to the entire reduction in GDP in the recession which began in 2008, €34bn.

This is the thrust of the entire ‘austerity’ policy across Europe, the transfer of incomes from labour to capital in order to increase profitability. In a subsequent blog SEB will examine the effective of this policy in the leading European economies, including Britain.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

GDP Data Show UK Stagnation Is Home Grown & Due to Government Policy

By Michael Burke

Publication of the latest estimate of GDP data shows that the recession was much sharper than previously thought. The revision shows that GDP contracted by 7.1% rather than the 6.4% previously estimated. The recovery which began in the 3rd quarter of 2009 was also slightly stronger than previously estimated, the economy expanding by 2.8% until the 3rd quarter of 2010. From that time onwards the economy has stagnated completely, with zero growth in the three  quarters since. The result is that the British economy is 4.4% below its peak level before the recession, which is now estimated to have begun in the 2nd quarter of 2008.

George Osborne and other Tories as well as their supporters in the media are now promoting the idea that the stagnation of the British economy is a function of the turmoil in the Eurozone economy and financial markets. The main channel for economic weakness in the Eurozone to be expressed in British economic activity is via exports. But the British economy has not grown over the last 9 months - while the first dip in exports has occurred only in the latest quarter. This is highlighted in the chart below, which shows the level of total domestic expenditure versus exports. Domestic demand began to contract as soon as the current government took office. Evidently, the stalling of British economy has not been caused by the turmoil in the Eurozone.
Chart 1
11 10 09 Dom & Foregn GDP

In fact the opposite is the case. The British economy comprises 14.5% of the entire EU economy, in OECD terms approximately $2trn of a total $13.8trn (in Purchasing Power Parities). Yet even before the latest downward revisions to GDP by the Office of National Statistics are included, the OECD data show that the entire loss in EU GDP was $355bn, of which British economic weakness is 21.4% of the total, equivalent to $76bn. As the chart below shows, the British economy has been a brake on the Eurozone economy, not vice versa.

Chart 2
11 10 09 Eurozone & UK GDP

Stagnation

Returning to the ONS release, the total loss of output since the UK recession began is £65.2bn. The total loss of investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) over the same period was £43.3bn, that is almost precisely two-thirds of the entire recession. But the latest data also represent a turning point. The total loss in household consumption during the recession was larger at £51bn, over three-quarters of the total contraction in the economy. The fall in household consumption began to outstrip decline in investment in the 1st quarter of this year.

This loss in consumption has therefore not been the catalyst of recession. The decline in investment preceded the recession by 6 months. Declining investment was the driving force of the recession. But it does indicate that there is a new and significant and pressure on household spending in the British recession. Other components of the national accounts have risen over the same period, notably government current consumption and net exports.

It is also no longer the case that the private sector fall in investment exceeds the total decline in investment. Previously, this had been the case as government investment had risen. As a result the fall in private sector investment had amounted to 80% of the total lost output through the course of the recession. Now the decline in private sector investment amounts to £36.5bn - 56% of the total decline in output.
But government investment is now falling. In total, government investment has fallen since the recession began, down £6.8bn. But this is entirely a function of the current government’s policy. Since the Tory-led government took office, government investment has fallen by £12.2bn, more than reversing the very modest rise in investment of the previous Labour government. The direct effect of the government decision to reduce investment is to cut GDP by 0.9%.

Recovery Derailed

These are only the direct effects of declining government investment. It is now commonplace to speak of a continuous recession from the 1st quarter of 2008. Cameron and Osborne routinely speak of their dire inheritance from the Labour government. The actual inheritance of the Tory dominated government was actually an economic recovery underway, which after the latest revisions is now stronger and longer than previously estimated. The economic recovery lasted 5 quarters and GDP expanded by 2.8%, whereas previously it was estimated at 4 quarters long and a recovery of 2.5%.

The Labour government did not begin to increase investment until the 4th quarter of 2008. From that time until the new government took office government investment rose by £27.2bn. But this had an indirect effect primarily by encouraging private sector investment so that the economy expanded by £38.7bn in total.
On the same ratio the current government’s decision to reduce its own investment will have led to a total decline in output of £17.4bn, or 1.3% of GDP.

Conclusion

The UK economic stagnation is a home-grown one due to the policies of the present government. It began before there were any negative effects from the Eurozone’s turmoil. It is primarily a function of the government decision to reduce its own investment. The British economy is stagnating because of policy made in Downing Street and nowhere else.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Economic downturn in the UK now twice as bad as in the Eurozone due to government deficit cutting


By John Ross

One of the more factually inaccurate pictures being spread by supporters of the policies of the present UK government - with its priority to budget deficit reduction - is that UK economic performance during the financial crisis is superior to that of the evidently crisis hit Eurozone. A typical version of this appears in an article on 3 October in the Daily Telegraph by its international business editor Ambrose Evans-Pritchard.

Evans-Pritchard states: ‘My sympathies go to the hard-working citizens of Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Ireland for being led into this impasse [the Eurozone] by foolish elites.’ Presumably Evans-Pritchard's sympathy goes to the inhabitants of the Eurozone, rather than his own country the UK, because he believes the UK has been doing better than the Eurozone.

The factual situation is the exact opposite of the impression presented by Evans-Pritchard. Judged by economic performance, the average citizen of the UK far more needs Evans-Pritchard’s sympathy than the average citizen of the Eurozone - i.e. the UK’s economic performance during the financial crisis is much worse than that of the Eurozone. This may be seen in Figure 1 – which shows UK GDP compared to that of the Eurozone since the peak of pre-financial crisis output. Comparison is straightforward as in both the Eurozone and the UK the peak of the previous business cycle was in the 1st quarter of 2008.

By the 2nd quarter of 2011, that is 14 quarters after the peak of the previous cycle, Eurozone GDP was 2.0 per cent below its previous peak level whereas UK GDP was 3.9 per cent below its previous peak - i.e. UK economic performance was almost twice as bad as that of the Eurozone.

Figure 1

11 10 03 UK & Eurozone GDP

Equally striking is the clear way in which present government’s policies made UK economic performance worse than in the Eurozone. It may be seen from Figure 1 that while the initial decline in UK GDP was greater than in the Eurozone - the greatest decline in UK GDP being 6.4 per cent registered in the 3rd quarter of 2009, compared to a maximum Eurozone drop of 5.5 per cent in the 2nd quarter of 2009 - recovery in the UK was also initially more rapid. This may be clearly seen in Figure 2, which shows year on year GDP changes.

The UK and the Eurozone reached their 1st quarter 2008 peaks with almost exactly the same economic momentum behind them – 1.9 per cent growth in the previous year in the UK and 2.0 per cent in the Eurozone. However by the 3rd quarter of 2010, the one immediately following the departure of the  previous government, UK GDP was rising at 2.5 per cent compared to 2.0 per cent in the Eurozone. Eurozone recovery subsequently slowed somewhat to 1.6 per cent by the 2nd quarter of 2011.

However UK GDP growth under the new government, which gave priority to budget deficit reduction, dropped astonishingly, by more than two thirds, from 2.5 per cent to 0.7%. Under the new government the year on year growth of UK GDP therefore fell from being higher than that of the Eurozone to being less than half that of the Eurozone!

Figure 2

11 10 03 YK & Eurozone YonY

The present author is not a supporter of the present constitution of the Euro. On the contrary I predicted the current events unfolding in Greece and other countries in advance due to fundamental weakness in the design of the Euro. Writing in 1996, i.e. fifteen years ago:’ [the Treaty of] Maastricht’s proposals are … disastrous. It proposes to create the most fundamental features of a common state — a single currency and a central bank. But it does not create any state budget which can deal with the huge regional and sectoral implications of this. The process that would unfold with the creation of a single currency by this method may be predicted with certainty. Substantial parts of the EU… will be pushed into severe recession if they join.There will be sharply deepening regional imbalances and inequalities.’There is evidently no reason to revise that analysis.
It is therefore all the more striking that UK economic performance is actually worse than in the Eurozone. And a substantial reason it is worse is clearly due to the policies of the present government with their priority to budget deficit reduction.

In any discussion of the relative economic performance of the Eurozone and the UK two fundamental facts must be held in mind against unsubstantiated myths:
  • UK economic performance during the financial crisis is substantially worse, almost twice as bad, as that of the Eurozone.
  • And the reason it is that bad is because the present government, through its priority to cutting the budget deficit, reduced the UK’s rate of economic recovery from substantially above that of the Eurozone to less than half that of the Eurozone.
This factual situation evidently has a more general economic significance than merely for the UK and the Eurozone. For reasons dealt with frequently on this blog a policy of simply running budget deficits is inadequate to deal with the consequences of the present financial crisis as it does not tackle its driving force - the decline in investment. But under conditions of private sector weakness any rapid reduction in the budget deficit will lead to rapid economic slowdown or contraction. This is sharply illustrated by the fact that the UK government, by such policies, has reduced the UK's rate of economic recovery to less than half that of the openly crisis struck Eurozone.

Other countries thinking of embarking on immediate deficit reduction policies, such as those advocated by the Republicans in the US, should look at the UK and draw the appropriate negative conclusions. Do not be totally distracted by financial fireworks: the policies of the present UK government are so bad they have produced an economic recovery which is only half that of the Eurozone!

*   *   *
This article originally appeared on Key Trends in Globalisation.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Move towards some sensible ideas from Samuel Brittan


By Michael Burke

The Financial Times’ veteran economics commentator Samuel Brittan has recently argued for the state’s holdings in the banks to be used as the basis for creating a new state bank focused on productive investment.

Echoing calls from Adam Posen, he argues that the disastrous fall in both the money supply and bank lending needs to be corrected by decisive state action. Posen is perhaps the sole member of the current Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee who understands the gravity of the current situation and is not constrained by official orthodoxy in seeking remedies l.

These are similar ideas as those outlined in the recent pamphlet, ‘A Brighter Economic Vision for Britain. Brittan says his own proposal, ‘...is to use the state-owned banks as the nucleus of Mr Posen’s proposed state lending bank for small and medium enterprises. Who knows what obstacles well-paid lawyers could think up? But in principle this could start next week. The main thing needed would be a Treasury directive to these banks to replace profit maximisation with a requirement to promote economic recovery.’

One reason for the renewed slump in the share price of leading British banks is their exposure to the sovereign debt crisis. Yet Lloyds-TSB Bank, for example has seen the price of its shares fall from 74p at the time of the government’s share-buying programme to 34p as at the close of trading on September 23. This compare to the collapse of RBS’ share price to 22p compared to the government purchase price of 52p – despite the fact that (aside from the US and Britain) Lloyds has no significant exposures to sovereign debt markets at all.

This highlights the fact that the main driver of the slump in banks’ shares is not primarily the debt crisis, severe though that it is. The share prices have collapsed because of economic weakness and the deterioration in the banks’ existing loan book, personal, business, mortgage and other loans.

Therefore it is possible to differ with Brittan’s analysis in two respects. First, the banks’ refusal to lend is driving both the fall in profits and the share price on which it rests. They are not ‘maximising profits’ but hoarding capital in order to preserve it. A government instruction to lend is the only way to break the lending and investment strike. Secondly, it is a widespread misconception that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the key to growth. In reality, outside the personal services sector they mainly provide inputs to much larger firms. Bundling up loans to SMEs will not create the investment demand for smaller firms’ output. The largest firms show no intention of increasing their own investment – which is what is required.

Instead, only government can break the log-jam by initiating investment in housing, in infrastructure, in transport and in education. The private sector would benefit. These contracts would mainly be awarded to large firms but they tend to sub-contract or purchase inputs from SMEs and individuals. It is this process which creates employment at the SMEs.

But this is a disagreement only about the nature and direction of the required policy. The basic thrust of the Brittan analysis is correct. Bank lending and money supply are collapsing along with the banks’ share prices. The banks contain the resources to correct the slump, yet refuse to do so. They are in public ownership. All that is required is a government instruction to fund the large-scale investment that is required to produce a recovery.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Eurozone rescue packages will continue to fail until they deal with the central issue in Europe's recession


By John Ross

The international financial system is passing through the agony of a new round of the Eurozone debt crisis for the simple reason that European governments, like that in the US, refuse to deal with the core of the economic recession in Europe for reasons of economic dogma.

Anyone who looks at the economic data for the Eurozone without wearing ideological blinkers can see the situation at once – it is charted in Figure 1. The Eurozone recession is due to a collapse in fixed investment. Taking OECD data, at inflation adjusted prices and fixed parity purchasing powers (PPPs), then between the last quarter before the recession, the 1st quarter of 2008, and the 2nd quarter of 2011 Eurozone GDP fell by $204bn. But private consumption declined by only $29bn while the net trade balance increased by $32bn and government consumption rose by $91bn.

However fixed investment fell by $290bn – i.e. the recession in the Eurozone was wholly due to the fixed investment decline
Figure 1
11 09 17 Eurozone GDP


Equally evidently, due to its scale, until this fall in investment is reversed it will take a prolonged period for the recession to be overcome. Therefore to restore growth, which by now is generally realised is the core to turning round the budget deficit problem, the fixed investment decline must be overcome.

Nor is there anything mysterious about how to do this – the state has entirely adequate means. To take the most decisive international case China made the core of its stimulus package direct state investment particularly aimed at infrastructure and housing – the result being that China’s economy has grown by over thirty per cent in three years.

Europe and the US clearly do not have the scale of state sector, nor the political willingness, to act on the scale China did. But US history shows that even without proceeding to a socialist scale of measures direct state intervention on investment is entirely possible.

Roosevelt expanded US state investment from 3.4% of GDP to 5.0% between 1933 and 1936 (data from US Bureau of Economic Analysis Table 1.5.5). Jason Scott Smith, in his study of New Deal public spending, summarises such investment as including 480 airports, 78,000 bridges, 572,000 miles of highway - which, in addition to its immediate effect in stimulating demand, reinforced the productive position of the US economy. Roosevelt, it is superfluous to point out, was neither a socialist nor a communist (despite claims to the contrary by the US right!).

Quarterly, up to date, data is regrettably not available on what is occurring across the Eurozone for state investment, but it is available for the US and there is no reason to suppose, with  current policies, that the situation in Europe is any better. Between the peak of the previous US business cycle, in the 4th quarter of 2007, and the 2nd quarter of 2011 US private fixed investment fell from 15.8% of GDP to 12.2% - i.e. a decline of 3.6% of GDP. Yet in the same period US state investment did not compensate but also fell marginally – from 3.3% of GDP to 3.2% of GDP. Therefore while Roosevelt expanded the weight of US state investment current US administrations have been letting it fall.

Instead of directly addressing the core issue of the investment fall European administrations are either attempting to stimulate it indirectly – which, as it is ineffective, has led to fiscal/sovereign debt crises, or are acting via expansion of the money supply – which, in a situation whereby companies and households are paying down debt, is merely the famous ‘pushing on a piece of string’.
The most favourable outcome of such a situation is that eventually the debt will be paid down, but only after several years of stagnation. The less favourable variant, of course, is that the banking system breaks under the strain and renewed recession is further propelled by fiscal cutbacks. All these problems simply arise from the fact that, under the rubric of the dogma ‘private equals good, state equals bad’, European governments refuse to use the state tools available to deal with the investment fall which is at the core of the Eurozone recession.

Some European politicians are now beginning to call for state measures to increase investment, UK Business Secretary Vince Cable being one. But the action they envisage so far is inadequate to deal with the scale of the investment fall.

China's economy, which does not have such ideological inhibitions, will continue to expand while the Eurozone remains relatively stagnant for a significant period - and as long as economic stagnation continues there will be no resolving of the Eurozone debt crisis.

Monday, 5 September 2011

A Brighter Economic Future For Britain

By Michael Burke

‘A Brighter Economic Future for Britain’ is the title of a new pamphlet co-written by the present author and Professors George Irvin and John Weeks. In the Guardian we set out the rationale for the publication:

‘The UK depression has already lasted three years, and NIESR argues that is likely to last five years or more – longer than that of 1930s.

Yet economic debate is dominated by counterproductive attempts to reduce the deficit through cuts in public spending, which are now the single most important cause of the depression.’

The full article can be read here.

In an argument that will be familiar to regular readers of SEB, the pamphlet argues that public spending cuts are counter-productive both in terms of reviving growth and in reducing the public sector deficit. This is because the deficit itself is primarily a product of the depression.

Further the underlying cause of the depression is a private sector investment decline, which by the end of the 1st quarter of 2011 accounted for 80% of the total lost output since the economy began to contract 3 years earlier – that, is £44.9bn of a total of £56.3bn.

Therefore breaking that investment strike is a pre-requisite to any sustained recovery. By investing in areas such as housing, transport, infrastructure and education, the government can lead an economic recovery that meets acute economic needs and reverses the rise in joblessness.

The pamphlet puts forward two related solutions to the crisis- the creation of a state-owned Investment Bank and using the excess capital at the state-owned banks to fund the needed investment.

Importantly, this analysis is beginning to win political support. In welcoming the attempt to turn the debate towards an investment-led recovery Jon Trickett MP argues in a foreword to the pamphlet,

‘Collapsing investment hits current growth and long-term productivity.....Working on the premise that we must tackle investment and long-term competitiveness the authors argue that one way forward which would increase demand in the economy, and raise both employment and productivity, would be to take action now to address this issue.....The pamphlet sets out one idea from the authors to tackle this collapse investment; a National Investment Bank, using the government’s majority stake in Lloyds-TSB and RBS.....There are those who would argue that this would indeed be poetic justice.’

The continued economic stagnation in Britain and some other leading economies will force a reconsideration of policy even among the architects of the current crisis and their supporters. In Britain , though, a Tory economic ‘Plan B’ is likely to include privatisation, deregulation as well as attacks on social protections such as maternity/paternity leave, pensions and an abuse of youth ‘training’ programmes to provide unpaid labour. But none of this will alter the basic problem that private firms are sitting on hoards of cash that they refuse to invest, while also leading to further impoverishment for the overwhelming majority of the population.

Likewise, since at least the ‘worse than Thatcher’ New Labour Budget of 2010 there are many now on the opposition benches who fundamentally agree with the ‘austerity’ policy. They merely advocate slower, shallower, more anguished cuts. But as the economy has already stalled under the impact of less severe cuts than they would now be implementing, the Labour supporters of cuts are also obliged to look for a ‘Plan B’. Whether they move towards Osborne, or in the direction of state investment to generate recovery remains to be seen.

In any event, as the pamphlet argues there can be no suggestion of a sustained recovery without replacing the policy of cuts with a government-led investment recovery.


Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Social Unrest and Government Policy

By Michael Burke

There’s a very good piece on LabourList titled ‘Who Didn’t Predict a Riot?’ It lists many of the bodies or leading individuals who warned that deep cuts to public spending would lead to social unrest and violence. The short piece is worth reading in full, but here is a (far from exhaustive) list of those who did predict riots and civil disturbances because of the policies of the Tory-led government:

  • Derek Barnett, president of the Police Superintendents' Association
  • The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police
  • Karen Ward, senior economist at HSBC
  • The Governor of the Bank of England
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Nick Clegg, and not least,
  • Youth workers in some of the affected areas

The latter prediction was made in response to the closure of most of the youth clubs in Haringey, but all the warnings were made in an assessment of the impact of the cuts.

The disturbances were therefore not only a predictable cause of the government’s policies, they were predicted by a broad array of specialists and commentators, many of whom are not particularly hostile to the government (and one is a leading member of it). Based on historical experience, not least the effects of Thatcher’s cuts in the early 1980s, it was inevitable that riots and other disturbances would follow as a consequence of government policy. The list is a bit long and comprehensive for the Tories to dismiss them all as excusing rioting – although doubtless that won’t stop them.

Analysis from the Guardian has shown that, while rioting and looting include many layers of society and has many motivations, the striking fact is that of those currently charged with offences, 41% live in the most deprived 10% of areas in England. This too is predictable. As bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies have pointed out, the poorest have been hardest hit by the cuts. Therefore, just as it is inevitable that deep cuts to public spending will lead to social unrest, those most harmed by the cuts, or at least some living in those communities will be at the forefront of that unrest. Latest analysis from the TUC shows that in some of the riot-affected areas there are 20 jobskeekers for every job vacancy.

Of course, even in the most deprived areas, the majority of people do not riot, still fewer engage in looting or approve of it. But opinion polls also show that while most think the police responded well to the riots (despite widespread media criticism of them) most also believe that David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson did not respond well to the riots.

Strikingly, while a majority of between 8% and 10% believe that government policies on welfare, education and law and order will make matters worse, double that level, 20% believe that government economic policies will have the same effect. A net 23% also oppose the cuts to police budgets.

Although opinion polls only ever represent a snapshot, and views expressed are often contradictory, this set of opinions reflects a fundamental truth. Government policies are not only impoverishing the majority, they have predictably led to violent social unrest. The continuation of these policies will only exacerbate those trends.

Tory policies are making the overwhelming majority worse off while also making their neighbourhoods and town centres less safe.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Economic Crisis Is Cause of Deficits, Not Vice Versa

By Michael Burke

SEB has repeatedly argued that it is the economic crisis which has caused the rise in government budget deficits, not vice versa. This view is reinforced by the recent gyrations in global financial markets. .

This issue is crucial for the debate on economic policy, as understanding the real factual situation clearly leads to promoting growth as the means to tackle the deficits. By contrast, an analysis which suggests that it is the increase in government spending which has caused the economic slowdown can simply be addressed by cutting that spending.

The latter is the policy pursued by the Tory-led Coalition. It has strong ideological support across the media, including the BBC. It is not at all based on the facts. Before the Great Recession began in 2008 the public sector deficit in the UK economy was 2.7% of GDP. It rose to nearly 4 times that level in 2010 at 10.4% of GDP. The same is true across the Euro Area as a whole, where the deficit was a negligible 0.7% of GDP in 2007, and rose to 6% last year.1 The same pattern is evident in the US where the deficit rose from 2.8% to 10% of GDP, and in Japan from 2.4% to 9.7%. The public sector deficits in all cases rose under the impact of the recession and the varied efforts of governments to offset its effects. There is a very useful dissection of the sources of the US deficit here from Professor John Weeks . In the US as elsewhere, the deficit is driven by the fall in both income and corporate tax revenues, and a rise in unemployment benefit payments as the jobless total rose.

The recent turmoil in financial markets arises because of the accumulating evidence of a renewed slowdown in economic activity, including both in the US and Europe. But this has not prevented the widespread assertion that the turmoil was caused by the European debt crisis. This is to compound the initial error, which also views the world through the wrong end of the telescope and holds that deficits are causing the slowdown.

A characteristic example of this incorrect assertion comes from the BBC’s business editor Robert Peston. On August 7 Peston wrote: ‘Although bankers say the downgrading of America’s credit rating was unwelcome, their more pressing worry is the rising price Italy has to pay to borrow - the rising price of Italian government debt’. Italy is extremely important, as it is both the third largest economy in the Euro Area and has the largest level of outstanding government debt. But the yields on Italian government debt had peaked on August 4, and as the chart below shows fell continuously through the following week.

Figure 1 Italian government debt yields

11 08 16 Italian bonds

Bond prices rose for all EU governments and their yields fell as the ECB bought €22bn in EU government debt. This is a welcome departure from the ECB, and represents a further small step in the direction of EU-wide solution to the crisis rather than further attacks on ‘peripheral’ economies. It is also likely to be insufficient given the scale of the deficits and existing debts in the Euro Area. But it is clear from the chart that the continued turmoil in stock markets is not driven by EU bond markets - they had stabilised.

At the time of writing, most major stock markets are falling once more in reaction to the weak German GDP for the 2nd quarter, up just 0.1% in the quarter. By contrast government bond prices are rising and yields falling - in the case of Germany and the US to new record lows . And bond yields for the crisis-hit European countries are now back at levels last seen a month ago, before the EU summit on Greece.

The same cannot be said for stock markets. The chart below shows the performance of leading stock markets. All the major stock indices of the US, Germany, France and Britain are nursing losses in the range of 5-10% - the exception is the Shanghai Composite Index which has recovered all the recent lost ground.

Figure 2 Major Stock Market Indices

11 08 16 Stocks

There is a clear message from the divergent paths of major financial markets in recent days. Stocks have fallen and bonds have risen because growth is weakening once more. The markets have taken fright not from public sector deficits, which remain large - yet bond yields are falling. They have taken fright from slowing economic activity. Financial markets are not clamouring for spending cuts, VAT hikes and job losses. The remedy they seek is the one that is necessary for the economy- a return to growth.

Notes

1. Eurostat, Euro Area Spring Forecasts 2011,

More than three years without full economic recovery in the developed economies - the latest GDP figures in context

By John Ross

The publication of the European Union (EU) and German 2nd quarter GDP figures, following those for the US and Japan, completes the data regarding the state of the business recovery in the main developed economies. The picture is completely clear – Figure 1:

  • By the 2nd quarter of 2011 none of the major regions among the developed economies has recovered their peak level of GDP more than three years after the high point of the previous business cycle.
  • US GDP is 0.4% below its peak level in the the 4th quarter of 2007.

  • EU GDP is 1.8% below its peak level in the 1st quarter of 2008.

  • Japan’s GDP is 6.0% below its peak level in the 1st quarter of 2008 – Japan’s data is of course affected by the earthquake and tsunami.
Overall, taking the period as a whole, this represents over three years of net negative growth in the developed economies. The key economic issue is not the possibility of a double dip recession, which the media is speculating on, but this extremely low growth rate even without one.

For comparison it may be noted that China’s economy has grown by over 30% in this same three year period.

Figure 1

11 08 16 GDP since max


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This article originally appeared on the blog Key Trends in Globalisation.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

What lies behind the renewed international economic crisis - and what policies are required to deal with it?

By John Ross

Given the onset of a renewed round of the international financial crisis it is useful to draw together its various elements in an analysis of its overall determinants, its course, and the policies necessary to deal with it. This is the aim of this article.

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For the second time in three years almost all parts of the world economy are being shaken by a renewed financial and economic crisis. The most important immediate drivers of this are not Standard and Poor's downgrading the US's credit rating, or political struggles between President Obama and Republicans in Congress, but weak US economic recovery, Europe's widening debt crises, the consequent $8 trillion loses on international share markets by 9 August with knock on effects on balance sheets and spending, the continuing decline of US house prices and a new developing crisis of the banking system.

Reasons for the open reappearance of crisis

The reason severe crisis has reappeared, and what determines its dynamic, is the failure of US and European government policies to resolve the issues which created 2008's financial collapse. The policies pursued since then, which were adapted to deal with much more minor economic events than the ones which occurred, postponed the unwinding of the crisis without removing its underlying causes. As a result the focus of the crisis changed but it was not resolved.

The immediate cause of the financial crash of 2008 was an unsustainable build-up of US private sector debt – this debt being accumulated due to the attempt to maintain the growth of the US economy and to ensure political stability by sustaining US living standards. By the 4th quarter of 2007, the peak of US economic expansion, total US household, private non-financial company, and government debt was 218 per cent of US GDP – Figure 1. That the fundamental debt build up was private, and not government, is shown by the fact that household and non-financial company debt was equivalent to 168 per cent of GDP compared to 51 per cent of GDP for government debt - i.e. private debt was more than three times as large as government debt.

Figure 1

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Interest rate increases introduced leading to 2008, in order to deal with inflation, resulted in the inability of the US private sector to finance this debt burden. The US sub-prime mortgage crisis was simply the weakest link in the overall excessive US private debt.

In 2008 the inability of the US private sector to meet its debt obligations, with consequent falls in asset values, initially in housing and then in shares and other financial instruments, destroyed US financial institutions’ balance sheets. The US financial sector overall became insolvent. Therefore a stronger and more centralized financial instrument, the US state, had to step in to rescue the private financial system - with a similar process occurring in other countries. The new crisis has broken out because of the risk that the tools available to the US and European states themselves will be insufficient to restore stability.

Transfer of private sector debt into the public sector

The debt data clearly show the process of transfer of the original excessive US private debt into the public sector – the changes in US debt since the peak of the previous business cycle are shown in Figure 2.

Following the onset of the US economic downturn in 2008, the overall US debt burden rose, reaching 247 per cent of GDP in the 3rd quarter of 2009 – these changes reflecting the decline in US GDP as well as increasing debt. Since then up to the 1st quarter of 2011, the latest available data, US debt fell only marginally to 243 per cent of US GDP - still 26 percentage points above pre-recession levels.

However the internal structure of US debt shifted. US private sector debt peaked at 180 per cent of GDP in the 2nd quarter of 2009. It then fell to 163 per cent of GDP – still 5 percentage points above its pre-recession level. But any recent decline in private sector debt has been almost entirely offset by increases in government debt created by budget deficits exceeding 10 per cent of GDP.

Figure 2

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The US therefore simply ‘nationalized’ its debt problem – replacing private with public debt. The mechanisms by which this occurred were the indirect consequences of the financial crisis, with recession increasing welfare payments and reducing tax receipts, as well as transfer of funds to the private sector in bank bailouts and similar measures.

John Mauldin and Jonathan Tepper therefore put it correctly in their book Endgame: ‘Debt is moving from consumer and household balance sheets to the government. While the debt supercycle was about the unsustainable rise of debt in the private sector, endgame is the crisis we will see in the public sector debt.’ (p25)

In short, although the US crisis may currently appear in the form of a government deficit and debt issue, the origins of the problem lay in the private sector and the government debt issue is the consequence of nationalization of private sector debt.

The European debt crisis

Europe followed a similar path to the US but with some countries, e.g. Greece and Italy, building up large public sector debts alongside the private ones in Spain and other states. Europe’s situation is structurally more potentially threatening than the US as the Federal Reserve has greater resources than the European Central Bank and the US state is able to react in a more centralized way than the decentred structure created by the different states of the European Union.

The European Central Bank simply does not have sufficient resources to be able to deal with a spread of the debt crisis into the larger EU economies such as Spain and Italy. Given the exposure of European banks to national state debt the spreading of the European sovereign state crisis to major economies therefore has the potential to bring down the European banking system. For this reason there have been rising European interbank lending rates, reflecting banks decreasing willingness to lend to each other, extremely high rates for bank insurance in a number of countries, and sharply falling bank share prices in both Europe and the US.

Kenneth Rogoff, author of the notable quantitative study of debt crises This Time is Different, and former chief economist of the IMF, accurately summarized the situation in the financial sector as follows:

‘Securitization, structured finance, and other innovations have so interwoven the financial system’s various players that it is essentially impossible to restructure one financial institution at a time. System-wide solutions are needed… the financial system remains on government respirators… in the US, UK, the euro zone, and many other countries today.

‘Most of the world’s largest banks are essentially insolvent, and depend on continuing government aid and loans to keep them afloat. Many banks have already acknowledged their open-ended losses in residential mortgages. As the recession deepens, however, bank balance sheets will be hammered further by a wave of defaults in commercial real estate, credit cards, private equity, and hedge funds. As governments try to avoid outright nationalization of banks, they will find themselves being forced to carry out second and third recapitalizations.

‘Even the extravagant bailout of financial giant Citigroup, in which the US government has poured in $45 billion of capital and backstopped losses on over $300 billion in bad loans, may ultimately prove inadequate.’

Political struggles are the symptom of the renewed crisis and not its cause

Given the scale of the debt situation none of the means used for tackling the debt problem in the US and Europe can avoid severe economic pain. The political fighting which has broken out is simply over how this pain should be shared. The political struggles which have occurred, for example between President Obama and Republicans in Congress, or between Germany’s government and other European states, are therefore not the cause of the renewed economic crisis but its result. Analysing the different responses however leads directly to the issue of the necessary policies to deal with the financial and economic crisis.

The necessity to run budget deficits

The most ideologically right wing forces - the US Tea Party and those in Europe sharing the views of the British Conservatives - advocate limiting the public debt build up by radically reducing government spending. This is linked to a theory that the state is ‘crowding out’ the private sector. This entire analysis is false. Because of its ideological blinkers it fails to see that the origin of the crisis lay in the private sector debt. It is also extremely dangerous in terms of economic policy.

The main transmission belt from excessive debt into recession is the fall in private investment. As may be seen in Figure 3 the entire decline in GDP in the G7 economies between the 1st quarter of 2008, the peak of the previous business cycle, and the 1st quarter of 2011, the latest available data, was accounted for by the decline in fixed investment. In fixed price parity purchasing powers (PPPs) the decline in G7 GDP was $381 billion and the decline in fixed investment was $591 billion – the decline in fixed investment can be greater than the decline in GDP as it is offset by increases in household and government consumption.

Figure 3

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The theory of ‘crowding out’ argues that resources used to finance the budget deficit would be used to generate economic expansion if released to the private sector – for example US financial analyst John Mauldin argues ‘increasing government debt crowds out the necessary savings for private investment, which is the real factor in increasing productivity.’ (Endgame p59)

But reducing budget deficits by cutting public spending cannot create an economic way out in present conditions. Reducing budget deficits cuts demand. But resources released to the private sector are used to pay down debt, so private spending will not increase sufficiently to compensate for the fall in public spending. Total demand will fall, increasing recessionary pressure.

In short, it is vital in the short term to maintain budget deficit spending, including by targeting maintaining or expanding consumption – state spending on investment is analysed below. Attempts to immediately reduce budget deficits must be strongly resisted. Countries facing an economic slowdown should run, or increase, budget deficits to compensate for the shortfall of private sector demand.

Richard Koo, in his important books Balance Sheet Recession and The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics, has dealt with this correctly in analysing the experience of the decades long fight against the consequences of over-indebtedness in Japan. As Koo noted:

‘What sets Japan’s Great Recession apart from the U.S. Great Depression is that Japanese GDP stayed above bubble peak levels in both nominal and real terms despite the loss of corporate demand worth 20 per cent of GDP and national wealth worth ¥1,500 trillion… The financial deficit of the government sector mounted sharply, leaving in its wake the national debt we face today. But it was precisely because of these expenditures that Japan was able to sustain GDP at above peak-bubble losses despite the drastic shifts in corporate behavior and a loss of national wealth equivalent to three years of GDP. Government spending played a critical role in supporting the economy…

‘Japan was left with a large national debt. But if the government had not responded with this kind of stimulus, GDP would have fallen to between one-half and one-third of its peak – and that is an optimistic scenario. U.S. GNP shrank by 46 per cent after falling asset prices destroyed wealth worth a year’s worth of 1929 GNP during the Great Depression, and the situation in Japan could easily have been much worse. This outcome was avoided only because the government decided early on to administer fiscal stimulus and continue it over many years…

‘In summary, the private sector felt obliged… to pay down debt… Disastrous consequences were avoided only because the government took the opposite course of action. By administering fiscal stimulus, which was also the right thing to do, the government succeeded in preventing a catastrophic decline in the nation’s standard of living despite the economic crisis.’ (The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics p22-25)

Naturally the form the budget deficit takes is itself extremely important. Government spending on those on average and low incomes, and on investment, is not only socially more just but is far more effective as a stimulus than tax cuts for the best-off – who save, rather than spend, a higher proportion of their income. Equally spending on investment is far more effective in expanding the economy that military spending – which does not add to productive capacity. But overall it is necessary to fight moves by fiscal conservatives to reduce the budget deficit in the short term. As an immediate response to the financial crisis countries facing the threat of economic downturn should run or maintain stimulus packages funded, if necessary, by budget deficits.

Budget deficit and the medium term

While budget deficits with a large component targeted at maintaining consumption are immediately vital to prevent short term economic decline they are not sufficient, faced with deep economic problems, to relaunch substantial growth because they do not deal with the most fundamental issue driving the downturn – the investment fall. This is in addition to the fact that few countries have Japan’s financial strength, which enabled it to sustain a very large budget deficit over a long period. For most countries large budget deficits can be run in the short term but are financially unsustainable in the medium term.

A policy of running large budget deficits is often inaccurately described as a 'Keynesian' one - inaccurately as Keynes own central concern was factors affecting investment and not budget deficits.1 Paul Krugman in the New York Times, for example, regularly but wrongly argues that the budget deficit is both the most central issue in economic policy and the core of Keynes views. US economist Paul Davidson similarly claims in The Keynes Solution: ‘Anything that increases spending on goods and services increases the profitability of business firms and the hiring of workers.’ (p54) But this is false - for example, an increase in spending on goods and services accompanied by cost increases may lead profits to fall.

However, even if profit did increase due to increases in demand, companies may not reverse the cuts in investment that are the core of the recession. Keynes pointed out that to generate investment a price must be paid to overcome ‘liquidity preference’ - the advantages of holding assets in cash and other liquid forms. In circumstances of high uncertainty, such as at present, the cost of overcoming liquidity preference may be prohibitive and therefore it will prevent investment taking place even if such investment would yield a positive profit.

Low interest rates necessary but not sufficient

Even more fundamental than liquidity preference in the present situation is that, given excessive indebtedness, companies use resources to repay debt, that is to build up their balance sheets, and not to invest even if demand increases. Therefore stimulating demand by budget deficits may prevent worse declines in production but does not produce significant output increases.

In such conditions low interest rates are also insufficient as an economic policy to provide a way out. Low interest rates are necessary to prevent interest payments becoming unsupportable and to remove a block to borrowing for investment. But they do not lead to investment under conditions where companies are intent on paying down debt and have no intention of borrowing for investment.

International redistribution of debt

As any solution to the present situation must involve medium term debt reduction a number of states are seeking to achieve this at the expense of other countries even without formal defaults on debt payments. In particular the US, via falls in the exchange rate of the dollar, reduces the real value of its debt at the expense of countries which hold dollar assets. Such policies however clearly only aid one country at the expense of others, effectively redistributing the debt without reducing the overall debt burden.

Inflation is not a relatively harmless solution

It is important to remove an illusion currently being suggested that inflation would be a relatively painless and non-harmful way to reduce debt. The idea behind this is that while the monetary volume of debt, its nominal value, would remain the same its real size would be reduced. Kenneth Rogoff, for example, has argued this:

‘It is time for the world’s major central banks to acknowledge that a sudden burst of moderate inflation would be extremely helpful in unwinding today’s epic debt morass…. Moderate inflation in the short run – say, 6% for two years – would not clear the books. But it would significantly ameliorate the problems, making other steps less costly and more effective. ‘

Similarly the British economist Will Hutton has argued:

‘As the IMF's chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, has suggested, if the options are public and private default, continuing bank weakness, economic stagnation (perhaps depression), or inflation, then the least bad option is to accept inflation, but to manage it within bounds.

‘Since inflation will happen anyway as governments seek the least bad way out, the choice in reality is whether to accept and manage it or not. Once debt is at a sustainable level and growth has resumed, then the world's financial system can be redesigned to avoid a repeat, and price stability restored.

‘This is the truth that cannot speak its name: as a senior financial policy official told me, even to raise it at home or abroad merely as an issue for debate is to invite universal disapproval. But truth must be faced. Britain should provide a lead – both for its own economic fortunes and to set the new international standard. As a minimum it should announce a new programme of quantitative easing, in effect printing money; insist the Bank of England uses the money it prints to buy the broadest range of private debt; and immediately replace the 2% inflation target with a target for the growth of money GDP – so getting Britain off the hook of its unpayable private debts.’2

However someone will have to suffer the loss in real resources created by the inflation. Usually this is the majority of the population as the rate of increase of incomes fall behind the rate of inflation. Politically a policy of lowering debt by inflation is therefore likely to be drastically unpopular for whoever implements it.

Furthermore economically inflation, striking at the majority of the population by reducing living standards, will actually cut consumption – which strengthens recessionary tendencies. Inflation also does not deal with the issue of increasing investment – the fall in which drove the recession. In short inflation is not a solution either politically or economically to a crisis of the depth which currently exists.

Indirect means of stimulating investment

If the way out is turned to, the necessary policies cannot be separated from the analysis of the depth of the crisis.

If the current economic crisis were of small or moderate dimensions then it could indeed be tackled by increases in budget deficits which primarily raised or maintained consumption. Such deficits would increase demand while liquidity preference, lack of profitability and debt levels would be insufficient to prevent companies responding to the increase in demand by raising investment - therefore substantial economic recovery would occur. This, however, has clearly not occurred in the crisis since 2008 despite large budget deficits being run.

Given budget deficits have been insufficient, attempts are also made to raise investment by extremely low interest rates and by seeking to reduce liquidity preference – the latter being a key goal of the talk regarding the need to ‘restore confidence’. These measures have also clearly not succeeded.

Confronted with this impasse more logical economic commentators are therefore beginning to address the need to raise investment. Such discussion currently primarily centres on advocating indirect means such as tax breaks. For example Joseph Stiglitz recently argued:

‘those worried about the shortage of policy instruments are partially correct. Bad monetary policy got us into this mess but it cannot get us out. Even if the inflation hawks at the Federal Reserve can be subdued, a third bout of quantitative easing will be even less effective than QE2. Even that probably did more to contribute to bubbles in emerging markets, while not leading to much additional lending or investment at home.

‘The Fed’s announcement that it will keep the target federal funds rate near zero for the next two years does convey its sense of despair about the economy’s plight. But, even if it succeeds in stopping, at least temporarily, the slide in equity prices, it won’t provide the basis of recovery: it is not high interest rates that have been keeping the economy down. Corporations are awash with cash, but the banks have not been lending to the small and medium-sized firms… The Fed and Treasury have failed miserably in getting this lending restarted, which would do more to rekindle growth than extending low interest rates though 2015.

‘But the real answer, at least for countries such as the US that can borrow at low rates, is simple: use the money to make high-return investments. This will both promote growth and generate tax revenues, lowering debt to gross domestic product ratios in the medium term and increasing debt sustainability. Even given the same budget situation, restructuring spending and taxes towards growth – by lowering payroll taxes, increasing taxes on the rich, as well as lowering taxes for corporations that invest and raising them on those that do not – can improve debt sustainability.'

By identifying raising investment as the key target Stiglitz does address the central dynamic of the recession. But the issue is once again quantitative and related to the depth of the crisis. Will measures such as tax breaks be sufficient to raise investment if they are added to other policies such as running budget deficits and low interest rates? If the economic crisis is not deep they will suffice. If the economic crisis, and the necessity to pay down debt, is stronger then indirect measures to target investment, such as tax breaks, will not be sufficient.

The current indications, given the scale of the economic problems and debt burden, is that indirect means to stimulate investment by policies such as tax breaks will be insufficient to relaunch substantial economic growth.

Direct means of raising investment


The most decisive way to overcome the current situation flows from the above trends. Its practical effectiveness was shown by its use by China in its successful 2008 stimulus package, which was followed by over 30 per cent GDP growth in three years. Keynes also analysed and advised it. This is that the state must overcome the reality or threat of a fall in investment by itself undertaking and organizing investment. Keynes noted this in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: ‘It seems unlikely that the influence of banking policy on the rate of interest will be sufficient by itself to determine an optimum rate of investment. I conceive, therefore, that a somewhat comprehensive socialization of investment will prove the only means of securing an approximation to full employment.’ (p378)

Such an analysis flowed from Keynes practical experience regarding the relation between the depth of economic crisis and lack of sufficient efficacy of other economic instruments: 'Only experience… can show how far management of the rate of interest is capable of continuously stimulating the appropriate volume of investment… I am now somewhat sceptical of the success of a merely monetary policy directed towards influencing the rate of interest… I expect to see the State… taking an ever greater responsibility for directly organising investment; since it seems likely that the fluctuations in the market estimation of the marginal efficiency of different types of capital… will be too great to be offset by any practicable changes in the rate of interest.' (p164) Therefore: ‘‘I conclude that the duty of ordering the current volume of investment cannot safely be left in private hands.’ (p320)

Keynes naturally did not advocate an administered economy. But he therefore explicitly argued in the General Theory that the state should have the ability to intervene sufficiently to determine overall investment levels.Keynes also noted that this 'somewhat comprehensive socialisation of investment' and 'the duty of ordering the current volume of investment' did not mean the elimination of the private sector, but socialised investment operating together with a private sector: 'This need not exclude all manner of compromises and devices by which public authority will co-operate with private initiative… apart from the necessity of central controls to bring about an adjustment between the propensity to consume and the inducement to invest there is no more need to socialise economic life than there was before…. The central controls necessary to ensure full employment will, of course, involve a large extension of the traditional functions of government.' (p378)

The country which most approximates to this economic system is China. China, of course, describes its economy in a different way and using Marxist terminology. China defines itself as passing through ‘the primary stage of socialism’ and its overall system as ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. However it is not the important question whether China’s definition of its own system should be accepted, or whether its economy should instead be regarded as conforming in important features to the system described by Keynes in the General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. What is important is understanding how such an economic system works and to note that China has been able to run the world’s largest stimulus package without an unsustainable budget deficit, and why its macroeconomic policy has come through the international financial crisis more successfully than the US and Europe – and why China’s economic system has generated, during the last thirty years, the most rapid economic growth of any major economy in the world.

China’s economy

The difference between China and the US and Europe, of course, lies in economic structure. After its 1978 economic reforms China abandoned an administered economy. But it did not abandon the ability of the state to set the overall level of investment, and it maintains a state owned banking system which is stronger in a crisis than the ones in the US and Europe and which can be instructed to expand lending in order to sustain stimulus packages. China therefore actually implements Keynes point that ‘the duty of ordering the current volume of investment cannot safely be left in private hands.’ That is, a ‘somewhat comprehensive socialization of investment’ does exist in China, not in the sense that the private sector is eliminated, on the contrary China’s private sector is large and dynamic, but in the sense that the state has sufficient levers to determine the overall level of investment. In contrast in the US and Europe the conditions outlined by Keynes do not exist, and the state sector is insufficiently large to deliver an investment-led stimulus.

As a conseuence of these differences China has come through the financial crisis far more successfully than the US or Europe

Implication of the differences

Once again the interaction of these different factors cannot be separated from analysis of the scale of economic crisis itself. China’s economic structure clearly gives it a superiority which has allowed it to avert serious downturns, as shown both in the 1997 Asian debt crisis and in the international financial crisis since 2008, and to maintain very long term rapid economic growth. But how serious the lag in the US and Europe compared to China is depends on how serious the economic crisis is.

If the economic crisis is not deep then gradually time, and greater application of the measures which are available to the US and European economies – budget deficits, low interest rates, tax breaks for investment – will overcome the investment decline. China will still grow more rapidly, but the US and Europe will also resume growth. If the crisis is deep then only adoption of full scale Chinese methods of direct state action to implement ‘the duty of ordering the current volume of investment’ would suffice. That, however, would require a huge extension of the state sector of the economy, and therefore greater application of the indirect methods available in the US and Europe will be tried first.

One clear implication, of course, is that in all these different circumstances China continue to will grow much more rapidly than the US and Europe even if the latter escape a 'double dip' recession.

Conclusion

The realistic conclusions which follow from the present renewal of the international financial crisis, in terms of both analysis and the required policy response, are therefore clear:

  • The International financial crisis has recurred because the economic policies to deal with the 2008 crash in the US and Europe did not remove its underlying cause - excessive debt build up in an attempt to sustain US economic growth and living standards. The post-2008 policies failed because they were designed to deal with much less serious economic events than the ones which unfolded.
  • The effect of the policies pursued after 2008 has been to nationalize large part of the debt that originated in the private sector. Therefore, in most cases, and in particular in the US, even if the crisis reappears around state finances the actual origins of the problem lay in the private sector debt.

  • The strategic failure to overcome the debt crisis creates strong pressure to a renewed crisis of the banking system.

  • The debt crisis transmits itself into the real economy above all though a collapse in investment – taking the G7, the entire decline in GDP is due to the fall in fixed investment.

  • In the short term it is necessary to deal with the crisis by continuing to run budget deficits, and countries that have not done so may well need to introduce budget deficit spending. China is an exception because its economic structure allows it to run large stimulus packages without budget deficits due to its ability to directly stimulate investment. Only a handful of other countries, however, have a state sector large enough to fund and run such investment programmes and therefore other economies will have to run budget deficits in the short/medium term. However while budget deficits are necessary to avoid sharp economic decline the experience of the last three years has shown that the economic crisis is too deep for budget deficits by themselves to stimulate significant growth because they do target the core of the recession, the investment decline.

  • Very low interest rates must be maintained in order to lighten the burden of interest payments on the overextended debt, and to remove an obstacle to investment. However, once again the experience of the last three years has shown that the economic crisis is too deep for low interest rates themselves to relaunch investment and substantial economic growth.

  • China possesses the advantage that it can directly stimulate investment. In other countries there is also a growing realisation that the core transmission of the economic problem lies in investment falls. But without a sufficiently large state sector most other countries do not have the means to directly launch investment. Therefore indirect methods such as tax incentives for investment and similar measures are being proposed. It remains to be seen in practice, if these are introduced, whether they are effective. Given the depth of the crisis the probability is that even if such measures are introduced they will not be enough to sufficiently overcome the low investment level. Consequently growth will continue to be very slow in the US and Europe even if a new recession can be avoided.

  • The world economy will therefore see a further period in which China’s economy will grow rapidly while the US and Europe remain at best relatively stagnant.

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This article originally appeared on Key Trends in Globalisation.

Notes

1. See Ross, J. ‘Deng Xiaoping and John Maynard Keynes’. Soundings Winter 2010.

2. The British newspaper The Observer made the same call:

‘The only alternative to default is inflation – governments printing money to get out of the corner they, their banks and their citizens are in. The question facing policymakers in the years ahead will be which of the unpalatable options they confront – economic stagnation, public and private default together with endemic bank weakness, or uncontrolled or managed inflation – they are going to choose…

‘The British government's policies are locked in the same impotent stasis as the rest of the world's – battening down the hatches, cutting public spending and borrowing, and refusing to accept realities. The government should declare independence. It should abandon the suffocating 2% inflation target and replace it with a target for the total volume of spending in the economy. It should prepare to stimulate the economy with more quantitative easing – in effect printing money – using the proceeds to lend directly to public agencies and departments prepared to lift capital spending.’