Saturday, 2 April 2011

How the Tories sabotaged the economic upturn

By Michael Burke

The latest economic data confirms the contraction in Britain’s 4th quarter GDP with only a marginal upward revision to a fall of 0.5% compared to the 0.6% previously reported. Even according to statisticians from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) the severe weather effect at the end of the year only depressed activity by 0.5% and without it the outturn would still have been zero. This follows four quarters of modest recovery with positive growth, which had seen GDP expand by 2.5%.

Therefore, while snow was responsible for the outright economic contraction at the end of last year, another factor must have been responsible for the downward shift from 2.5% to zero growth.

The Role of Investment

The slump in economic growth is dominated by the collapse in investment. In the course of the recession, GDP contracted by £88.6bn. The one year long recovery clawed back £32bn of that lost output, to leave it £56.6bn below its previous peak. The renewed contraction in the 4th quarter of 2010 of £6.2bn means that output is now £62.8bn, or still 70% of the total fall, below its peak level.The role of fixed investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation, or GFCF) has been decisive in the decline. Within the recession, the decline in GFCF accounted for £43.6bn or nearly half of the total decline in GDP. But taking the recession and recovery together the decline in GFCF accounts for £31.5bn, or 56% of the total in lost output. The decline in investment has once more led the way, accounting for over 60% of the contraction in the 4th quarter,£3.8bn of £6.2bn. For the whole period from the recession to date and including the 4th quarter contraction, the slump in investment accounts for £35.4bn of a total in lost output of £62.8bn – that is, 56% of the total decline.

The Role of Government & Private Sector

Investment has two sources, the government and the private sector. Although ONS does not present the data in this way it is possible to construct the differing effects of these two sources on the trends in investment (Table F of the ONS release).

In the course of the recession the Labour government attempted to offset its effects by increasing its own investment. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) in 2009, government investment rose by 16.9% while business investment fell by 18.9%. There was also a follow-through in 2010 as Labour was in office until May, some contracts take time to complete etc. The OBR estimated a 4.4% increase in government investment in 2010.1

Turning to the ONS data allows a more precise calculation of the role of the two sectors on investment. Here government investment indicates the general government GFCF as well as that of public corporations, while the private sector GFCF comprises business investment along with private sector investment in dwellings and existing buildings.

Government investment rose by £9.9bn during the recession. It rose further until Labour left office, to £11.2bn. Under the Tory-led coalition it has since fallen by £4.2bn.

If GFCF has been falling total and the government component has been rising, it follows that the private sector is entirely responsible for the fall in investment – and that this fall is greater than the decline in investment as a whole. In the recession, the fall in private sector investment was £52.9bn. This is 60% of the entire fall in GDP in the recession. Because private sector investment has grown even more slowly than GDP during the recovery, it has acted as a further drag on growth. From the pre-recession peak to the end of the recovery phase in the 3rd quarter of 2010 private sector investment fell by £39.7bn, or over 70% of the total decline in output. Investment fell by £3.8bn again in the 4th quarter, which is once more the bulk of the decline in total output during the quarter, which amounted to £6.2bn. Private sector investment fell by £2.1bn in the 4th quarter, so that it now stands £41.8bn below the pre-recession peak. The decline in private investment is responsible for exactly two-thirds of the total loss of output.

The dominant characteristic of the current slump is therefore a private sector ‘investment strike’, which accounts for two-thirds of lost output. The Labour government attempted to counterbalance this strike by a moderate increase in its own investment. Not only did this offset some of the worst effects of the recession, but it finally encouraged the private sector to briefly increase its own investment. In the three quarters from the end of 2009 to the 3rd quarter of 2010, private sector investment rose by £16.6bn, and was itself responsible for two-thirds of the recovery during those 3 quarters. The private sector was encouraged to increase its own investment in response to the persistent rise in government investment.

SEB has previously shown in a more detailed analysis of construction investment how the public sector led the way for the much larger increases in private sector investment. Conversely, a recent survey for the Institute for Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) shows that 45% of all firms expect their turnover to fall as a result of government spending cuts - up from 21% who already report falling turnover. The detail of the survey is set out in the Table below.

11 04 02 Table 1

While economic ideologues talk about ‘Expansionary Fiscal Contraction’ or the ‘private sector taking up the slack’, it has been left to accountants to show how the relationship between the public and private sectors actually works. It is clear that the cuts will have a negative impact on the prospects of the private sector. But the survey also shows the dynamic effect of reduced public sector inputs on the output of the different parts of the private sector, as a ‘ripple effect’ with first those firms supplying directly to government being hit first, then those firms who only indirectly supply to government (is whose own customers are direct suppliers to government), and finally but increasingly those firms who have no obvious relationship to government at all but whose business will suffer from the general economic downtrend, including consumer demand and demand for business services.

The Consequences of ‘Austerity’ Policy

The role of government has been decisive in determining the trends in the economy. In the course of the recession and subsequent recovery, total government spending, including its contribution to GFCF rose by £18.1bn, and so was directly responsible for more than half the recovery of £32bn. As already shown, it was also responsible for inducing the brief recovery in private sector investment which itself accounted for two-thirds of the recovery during its 3 quarters of expansion.

Reversing the rise in government investment has produced a renewed downturn in economic activity. But it should be pointed out that the government will find it much more difficult to reverse the upward trends in its own current spending. As governments in Athens, Lisbon and Dublin are demonstrating, cuts to welfare entitlements will not reduce welfare spending if the numbers on welfare are rising at a greater rate than entitlements are being slashed.

In relation to unemployment, the same ICAEW survey cited above shows that 47% of the private sector have already reduced the number of permanent staff because of the impact on their businesses caused by the cuts, and 36% have reduced the numbers of temporary or contract staff (which is also leading to a growing casualisation of work for those in work).

The current economic downturn was deeper than the recession under Major in the early 1990s or the Thatcher recession of the early 1980s. Output fell by 6.4% in 2008/09, while it fell by only 2.5% in 1990/91 and 4.6% in 1980/81. The recovery has also been slower now, as Figure 1 below shows.

11 04 04 Figure 1

However, the outcomes of the different recessions in terms of unemployment have been markedly different. From Table 2 below it can be seen that, although the most recent downturn was much more severe than either the Thatcher or Major recessions, the fall in employment was markedly less. This is despite the fact that, as already noted, the recovery is also weaker.


11 04 02 Table 2

One chilling statistic within these comparative data is that at Thatcher’s election in 1979 total employment in the British economy stood at 24,716,000 jobs and that level was not regained until the 1st quarter of 1998, during Labour’s first term.

These comparisons are relevant because employment is falling once more due to the coalition’s growth-damaging policies. The numbers in employment have been falling since August 2010, and this trend is likely to accelerate in both the public and private sectors under the impact of government policy.

Given the link between growth and government finances, which are highly sensitive to taxation receipts, it s no surprise that a similar pattern is evident in relation to the public sector deficit. While Labour’s increased spending was producing a moderate recovery, the public sector deficit fell. The Treasury had projected the public sector deficit as high as £178bn in the financial year (FY) about to end. However, up to January of this year the 12-month rolling total for the deficit had fallen to £141bn, and it had been falling for exactly one year on this measure. This positive trend was reversed in February this year, mirroring the renewed deterioration in the economy, with a small time lag. In February the 12-month rolling total for the deficit rose to £143.3bn. The OBR now forecasts it will be £145.9bn in the current FY.

In a damning indictment of government policy the OBR is also now forecasting significantly higher deficits in subsequent years (Table 4.27) than it did in either the June 2010 Budget or following the Comprehensive Spending Review in November. Compared to June, when the economy was undergoing a government investment-led recovery, the OBR is now forecasting cumulatively worse public sector deficits over the period to 2015/16. Of this, the overwhelming majority of the projected worse outcome is due to the lower growth the OBR is now forecasting (Table 4.25).

The failures of the Tory-led Coalition

It is mistake to view these economic changes, lower growth, lower employment and higher borrowing as anything other than the natural consequences of the policy which has been adopted. Many of the collective authors of these policies have read Keynes, some of them have even read Marx too. They are surely all aware of what happened when the same policies were pursued under the cloak of monetarism and the ‘disciplins of the Exchange Rate Mechanism’ at an overvalued exchange rate in the 1980s and 1990s.

But ‘lowering the public sector deficit’ now is no more the real goal of government policy than controlling the supply of money was under Thatcher. The deficit is rising once more, and is projected to increase compared to previous projections. A government solely committed to this end would change policy.

Nor is this an ‘ideological’ government in the sense that an adherence to a smaller state overrides all other objectives. Actual, rather than budgeted military spending is suddenly increasing as the projection of state power over the oilfields of Libya is now very important.

To grasp the dynamic of government policy it is necessary to understand what this policy is actually achieving. In a capitalist economy this means addressing what is happening to the shares of capital and to labour. Close proxies for these are provided in the ONS’s accounts by ‘the ‘Gross Operating Surplus’ (GoS) of firms and the ‘Compensation of Employees’ (CoE) – which are respectively broadly akin to profit and wages (although there are some important differences).

In recessions, profits fall faster than wages. For example a firm sells widgets for £3 million and pays £1.8m in wages. Its gross profits, before any taxes are levied, are £1.2mn. But suppose demand contracts by 5%. Total sales have declined to £2.85m. If wages are unchanged, the widget makers’ profits have fallen to £1.05mn. In this case a 5% decline in the economy has led to a 12.5% fall in profits. From this dynamic comes the push to drive up profits via lowering wages, cutting workers, removing regulations on business and lowering their taxes. Businesses have enacted the first of these two policies and the government has enacted the second two. There is also the government hope that lower wages in the public sector combined with lower benefits will push wages lower in the private sector. Mainstream economists have a name for this, the ‘demonstration effect’.

Taking only the data for the 4th quarter of 2010 compared to the previous year, the compensation of employees rose by 2.1% while the profits (GoS) of private on-financial corporations rose by 12.7%. In addition, ‘other income’, the income of the professionally self-employed and rental income on property rose by 9.9%. Only the profits of the private financial corporations fell, by 28.1%, which is why they insist they must be bailed out by taxpayers. Given that inflation rose by 2.7% in the year, this means that real wages fell 0.6% over the period, while ‘other income’ rose by 7.2% and non-financial profits rose by 10%.

This then is the real ‘achievement’ of the Tory-led coalition. Since the low-point of the recession, just 40% of the increase in value created has accrued to labour while 60% has accrued to capital. But it still leaves the renewed growth in capital below its pre-recession levels so there will be more to come.

But, so far as the Tory-led coalition is concerned, it is doing the right thing ‘sticking to Plan A’. Plan A is the restoration of profits by transferring incomes from labour to capital. However, we shall see in the immediate period ahead whether even this goal can be met. The downturn in the economy at the end of last year was the result of £9.4bn in spending cuts and tax increases. This FY that total will rise to £41bn. Unemployment and the deficit will certainly rise as a result. It is not clear that either GDP or even profits will grow.

Britain in 2011 will provide a testing ground for what is the real goal of a reactionary economic policy – to drive up profits while cutting living standards. If not then, given the character of the government, even more cuts, lower wages, lower services, lower benefits, greater deregulation and privatisations will be the policy.


1. OBR, Economic and fiscal outlook 2011, Table 1.1

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