Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Poland Escapes Recession By Public Investment

By Gavin Rae

Prior to being elected Poland's Prime Minister in 2007, Donald Tusk declared that he wanted to repeat the ‘Irish economic miracle’ in Poland. As Tusk comes to the end of his first term in office, he can claim that an ‘economic miracle’ of sorts has actually occurred. Poland has been the only EU country to have avoided an economic recession since the outbreak of the global financial crisis. However, this relative economic success has been made possible by carrying through policies that are diametrically opposed to those being implemented in Ireland. Furthermore this is now being threatened by attempts to carry through austerity policies similar to those currently being introduced by the Irish government.

It is not the case that Poland has not suffered an economic downturn during the international financial crisis. GDP growth slowed from 6.8% in 2007 to 1.2% in 2009, before growing by more than 4% in 2010. Unemployment has risen again above 13%, with around 25% of young people now jobless. The budget deficit has risen to nearly 8% of GDP and public debt is edging towards 55% of GDP. With social inequalities widening, inflation rising faster than wage growth and public services deteriorating, Poland is far from meeting the ideas of an island of economic stability propagated by Tusk and his Citizens’ Platform (PO) government.

Yet the fact that the Polish economy has continued to expand has lessened the negative effects of the economic crisis. Why has the Polish economy continued to grow? Poland was fortunate not to have experienced a banking crisis similar to that in many other countries and entered the crisis with a relatively low level of private debt. However, the major reason for Poland avoiding negative growth has been that it has managed to increase public investment at a time when private investment has slumped.

Socialist Economic Bulletin has consistently pointed out that the global economic crisis has primarily been driven by a collapse in fixed investment, which has accounted for around 96% of the fall in GDP in the OECD area. The economic contraction has tended to be deepest and most prolonged in those countries where fixed investment has fallen the most; and the greatest success has been achieved in countries which took measures to sustain or increase fixed investment - most notably China. Such an understanding fits the case of the Polish economy.

One result of the financial crisis was a collapse of private investment in Poland. In 2010 private investment declined by 7.4% in relation to 2009 and by 20% compared to 2008. In June 2010, the overall year-to-year fall in private investment was 17.7% - declining, for example, by 20.8% in construction and 15.6% in purchases of machines, tools and vehicles. This decline in private investment has been spurred by a sharp fall in Foreign Direct Investment.

Although Poland is less reliant on FDI than some of the smaller ‘financialised’ economies in Central-Eastern Europe (most notably the Baltic States) it has still suffered a large decline in private capital inflows. Net inflows of FDI fell in Poland from €16.7bn in 2007 to €8.4bn in 2009 and then down to €5.5bn in 2010.

While private investment has slumped in Poland, public sector investment has taken up the slack. Poland has had the good fortune to have entered the financial crisis at a time when it is eligible to receive large direct transfers from the EU. In the 2007-13 EU budget, Poland has been allocated up to €67bn in structural and cohesion funds, which is almost equal to the government’s total revenue in 2010. It has become the largest single receiver of EU funds – gaining, by February 2010, a net sum of around €21.4bn. Furthermore, over 1.4 million Polish farmers have obtained agricultural subsidies adding up to €5.3bn (in 2009 the total figure was €2.98bn, rising to more than €3bn in 2010.) The Polish government estimates that around half of the country's growth in 2009 was directly created by investments, jointly financed by the EU. A total sum of 18bn zloty was spent on building roads, bridges and sewage works in 2009, growing to around 25bn zloty in 2010.

Leaving aside the qualitative aspect of this investment – with the government spending far more on roads than railways for example – its positive impact on the Polish economy is undoubted. A recent report from the European Commission into the role of public investment in Poland underlines this. It points out how the significant increase in public investment - following Poland's accession into the EU - helped to smooth the economic downturn during the crisis and that increasing the extensive use of EU funds as a means to invest in the country's infrastructure would now help to support its recovery. The report also points out that while public investment has increased significantly over the past few years (rising from 3.5% to 4.5% of GDP between 2005 and 2008) this was from an initially very low level of capital expenditure. There had been no investment into the country's infrastructure (such as transport) throughout the ‘post-communist’ transition prior to EU accession, with funds designated to maintaining a steadily degrading infrastructure.

It is interesting to look at a graph provided in the report that shows the relationship between public investment and economic growth in Poland. As we can see, the recovery in public spending helped to pull Poland out of the recession it had entered at the beginning of the transition. Then from the late 1990s (during the term of a right-wing coalition government) public investment fell sharply helping to significantly slow the pace of economic growth. Public investment then began to grow rapidly around 2005, soaring above its pre-EU accession level. Contrary to the ideologues - that have dominated public debate in Poland - economic growth has increased when the government has invested more and slowed when its investment has reduced.

Figure 1

11 04 26 Poland

The maintenance of positive economic growth through public investment is threatened by political attempts to rein in spending. These come both domestically from the Polish government and externally from the European Union. In order for a national government to receive EU funds for any investment project, it must first provide at least 15% of its overall cost. It is therefore essential that the Polish government commits as large amount of its own funds as possible in order to gain the optimum amount of EU money available for investment from the present EU budget – which runs until 2013. However, there is increasing pressure for Poland to reduce its spending and comply with other European austerity programmes.

Written into Poland’s public finance law are a number of ‘safety thresholds’. If public debt exceeds 55% of GDP, then the government would need to reduce the debt to GDP ratio; and if it goes above 60% then according to the constitution the next year’s budget must be balanced. Also, Poland is obliged to meet the Maastricht criteria by 2012 and has - for example - committed itself to bringing down its budget deficit to below 3% of GDP by next year. It has also voluntarily signed up to the so-called ‘competitiveness pact’ proposed by the German and French governments for the eurozone. The proposed pact aims to draw up a set of commitments that are more ambitious and binding than those already agreed to by the EU member states. Amongst the pact's proposals are maintaining public debt below 60% and the budget deficit below 3% of GDP; reducing the tax burden for companies and linking the retirement age to life expectancy.

The Polish government has already laid out a series of spending cuts and regressive tax rises that it will introduce if public debt crosses 55% of GDP (presently public debt equals around 53%). A partial reform of the privatised pension system (which has been met with scorn by international financial institutions as it effectively nationalises part of the private pension scheme) has helped to ease the public finances. However, the government has also announced a series of public spending cuts, raised VAT to 23% and importantly is seeking to force local governments to decrease their spending.

From the beginning of 2011 all local governments have been compelled to balance their income and current expenditures. In this way the PO central government is attempting to pass the responsibility of cutting spending onto local governments. Local governments have been at the forefront of gaining access to EU funds, leading investment projects in the country's infrastructure and carrying through the preparations for the EURO 2012 football championships.

The longer term ability of Poland to continue its course of public investment driven growth will be largely determined by the shape of the next EU budget that comes into force in 2014 and runs till 2020. Already divisions around the shape of this budget are emerging – with David Cameron continuing his role as an advocate of austerity in Brussels. The richer EU countries are actively trying to reduce the amount that they pay into the EU’s budget, with the UK attempting at the end of 2010 to form a coalition of net-payer countries with the aim of reducing this budget from the current 1.13% of EU GDP to 0.85% - i.e. by €250bn.

After the collapse of ‘Communism’ there was a prolonged phase of de-industrialisation and de-investment in the Polish economy and its infrastructure. Simultaneously the richer Western European economies benefited by buying up and dominating large sectors of the Polish and CEE economies, having new access to expanded markets for their goods and gaining a new pool of cheap and well-skilled labour. It is only during the past few years that this has partially been reversed and some investment in the country’s infrastructure has begun. This is woefully inadequate – leaving out large areas of the country’s neglected industry and services – but has still allowed the economy to grow during a period of global recession. The greatest impediment to growth in Poland would be the curtailment of this public investment.

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